Monday, July 6, 2015

Zanni's hunger

At this point Zanni has not yet become the shrewd servant of a merchant from Venice or Padua. He’s still the impoverished farmer of his origins, forced to flee to the city by the cyclical crises of the agrarian economy and finding no jobs for him there, nor land on which to at least subsist. His small plot, if he ever owned it, would had long been swallowed up by the neonate banking system.

Francesco del Cossa, Farmers at work dressed in the manner of Zanni

This is Italy in the sixteenth century, and Commedia dell’Arte has just been invented. At this time Zanni – a regional variation of Gianni, short for Giovanni – is the generic name for a male farmer in the lower Po region, in the same way that John has been a universal designation of various groups of unidentified males at various times in English language use. This Zanni becomes one of the earliest, archetypal masks: the precursor to the likes of Brighella, Harlequin and Punch.

Zanni is primarily a comic buffoon (whence the English word zany), but his historical origins are marked by poverty and displacement which are frequently carried over into the sketches. Playwright Dario Fo recovered (or possible reinvented) and staged one such sketch, to which this is an attempt at a brief introduction so you can enjoy the video at the bottom of the post.

‘La fame dello Zanni’ (Zanni’s hunger) is possibly my favourite piece of theatre. In theory I could offer it to you as is, without subtitles, given that it’s not in Italian or any other language, but rather in the so-called Grammelot, a made-up, highly improvised tongue designed to mimic the pattern and rhythms of actual speech. However in practice the Grammelot used by Fo is intelligible to speakers of northern Italian dialects – or Romance languages generally – to a much greater degree than, say, Adriano Celentano’s wonderful mock-English song Prisencolinensinainciusol to speakers of English.

To help you appreciate ‘Zanni’s hunger’, then, I really need to at least tell you what happens, and let you pick up what you can of the rest. But first, a couple of words about Mistero buffo, the play it comes from. The title literally means ‘comic mystery’, although what is meant here by mystery is the medieval passion play. The first version of Mistero buffo premiered in 1969 and contained, beside ‘Zanni’ and other monologues on the birth of the Commedia, pieces on a religious theme, primarily from apocryphal gospels. These later earned the play the appellation of ‘most blasphemous show in the history of television’ from the Vatican. But it still made a star of Fo, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in no small measure because of it.

The version of the sketch I chose among those available on YouTube comes from the 1977 RAI broadcast, featuring Fo and the late, great Franca Rame. Here it’s Fo only, at the peak of his powers.

The monologue begins with Zanni lamenting the pains of a hunger so profound and desperate he wishes he could eat his own body: the eyes, first, which he would suck like eggs, followed by the ears and the guts: and then foot, knee, cock, shoulder, torso, head, until all that is left is a mouth in the act of chewing. Zanni is so angry he could eat a donkey roasted by a single one of his powerful farts. He could eat the audience members, one by one, then climb up to to heavens and eat God Himself, with a side dish of cherubs. The deicide consumed, Zanni proceeds to hallucinate in great detail the preparation of a pantagruelic meal, pausing only to anticipate the taste of each succulent ingredient. But then, inevitably, just as he sits down to eat, the daydream ends and the banquet disappears. I’ll leave unspoiled the wonderful comic resolution, which needs no explanation as the words are entirely superfluous.

My country has known hunger at several times in its history. When most people think of Italian emigration, they picture Sicilians and other southern Italians leaving for North America or Australia. However an earlier, even larger migration, at the turn of the twentieth century, came from the North-East – the land of Zanni, but also of the most virulent forms of contemporary Italian xenophobia – towards South America. It accounts among other things for the fact that a full third of the population of Argentina is of Italian origin. They, too, were hungry, to the point of starvation. That was not very long ago, in the heart of Europe.

Watch this, it’s worth eight minutes of your time.