Monday, March 7, 2016

Tweet-length tragedies



In Francesco Cangiullo’s one act-play Detonation (1915), the curtain rises to reveal a deserted road at night. A shot rings out. The curtain falls. Another play of his from the same year, called Decision, is fifty-eight acts long but the stage instructions indicate that the first fifty-seven are redundant. The fifty-eighth consists of a single line: ‘This thing must come to an end forthwith’. The curtain falls.


These may be the closest precursors to Achille Campanile’s ‘two-line tragedies’, many of which were clearly not meant – or downright impossible – to perform (although in recent years some have tried). Like in that other Cangiullo play, There’s no-one about, whose only character is listed as ‘A man who isn’t there’, to which Campanile responded, decades before Beckett, with his ‘Non-Existent Tragedy’.

NON-EXISTENT TRAGEDY

Characters:
NOBODY
The scene takes place nowhere.

NOBODY
Doesn’t talk.

Unlike futurists like Cangiullo and other avant-garde authors, who framed their works as high-minded provocations and found publishing and performing vehicles suitable to this function, Campanile distributed his short plays largely as comedic filler in commercial magazines and newspapers, beginning in 1924. He called them tragedies for no other reason, I suspect, than to compound the confounding of expectations which is a hallmark of all of these texts (for they are all jokes). The two-line moniker isn’t literal either: most of the tragedies consist in fact of less or more than two lines. Some are vignettes. Some are painfully long-winded set-ups to fantastically elaborate puns, the longest of which is the following stage instruction

Eva, l’ava, leva la lava, lava l’avo e alleva l’Iva con l’ova e l’uva.

(Eva, the grandmother, removes the lava, washes the grandfather and feeds little Iva with grapes and eggs)

Most, like the above, are at the service of lamentably untranslatable jokes, as in the masterpiece ‘Drama at the haberdasher's’, or ‘Si conoscevano appena e già si davano del tulle’(‘they barely knew each other yet they already exchanged tulle’). Others could be translated but haven’t aged so well. There are more cheating-wife scenarios than a contemporary audience might tolerate.

SURPRISE

Characters:
THE HUSBAND
THE WIFE
THE WIFE’S LOVER who doesn’t speak

In a bedroom, in the present day.

THE HUSBAND
arriving suddenly, finds THE WIFE in bed with a stranger: Ah, traitor, the anonymous letter I received an hour ago was telling the truth: you have a lover!

THE WIFE
So what, you believe anonymous letters now? Come on!
(curtain)

The balance, however, are well worth sharing. Like this one.

A BAD HAND

Characters:
TIME
YOUTH
LOVE
LIFE

As the curtain rises, TIME, YOUTH, LOVE and LIFE are playing contract bridge. The cards have been dealt.

TIME
I pass.

YOUTH
I pass.

LOVE
I pass.

LIFE
I pass.

(curtain)

'A Bad Hand' was quite popular between the two wars and Campanile found that it had been plagiarised, along with others, by newspapers in South America and elsewhere – a rather impressive discovery to make before the internet. The mode in which these proto-tweets were disseminated could in fact be an interesting subject of study in itself. I say proto-tweets also because some of them are very reminiscent (in reverse) of some of the current fashions for comedy. ‘Overheard’, for instance, nowadays has its own sub-genre on social media.

OVERHEARD

Characters:
SOMEBODY
SOMEBODY ELSE

When the curtain rises, SOMEBODY has said something which SOMEBODY ELSE approves of, albeit with some reservations.

SOMEBODY ELSE
Yes, yes; no, no.

SOMEBODY
Yes, or no?

SOMEBODY ELSE
Yes and no.

SOMEBODY
No?

SOMEBODY ELSE
Yes.

SOMEBODY
Yes?

SOMEBODY ELSE
Yes.

(curtain)

While some tragedies are positively garylarsonesque.

CRUEL FATE

Characters:
THE MICROBE
THE MICROBE’S DAD

THE MICROBE
Dad, when I’m big, will you buy me a watch?

THE MICROBE’S DAD
Silly, you’ll never be big.

(curtain)

ANOTHER PAINFUL MISUNDERSTANDING

Characters:
A FLY
OTHER FLIES who don’t speak

The scene is a sheet of flypaper

THE FLY
Rushing cheerfully towards the flypaper crowded with flies, having misread the situation: Is there room for me? Lands.

(curtain)

ASTRONOMY

Characters:
THE PLANET SATURN
THE ASTRONOMER GIOVANNI SCHIAPARELLI who doesn’t speak

THE PLANET SATURN
while toileting, talking to THE ASTRONOMER GIOVANNI SCHIAPARELLI who is looking through a telescope: Giovanni, have you seen my rings?
(curtain)

Campanile had a solid line in deadpan humour.

A BARGAIN

Characters:
FIRST MAN
SECOND MAN

The scene is two men talking.

FIRST MAN
Nice piece of material.

SECOND MAN
It was a real bargain.

FIRST MAN
Did you pay a special price?

SECOND MAN
No, I saw it in a shop and I bought it.

FIRST MAN
In what way was it a bargain then?

SECOND MAN
Now that you mention it, it wasn’t a bargain as such.

(curtain)

Quickly followed by

THAT SWINDLER!

Characters:
ANOTHER MAN
ANOTHER OTHER MAN

THE OTHER MAN
referring to a shop-keeper: That swindler! There was this hat in his window. It was marked 35 liras. I asked for it. I said: ‘That hat over there. The one in the window.’ He gave it to me. I paid with a hundred-lira note. He gave me 65 liras change.

THE OTHER OTHER MAN
How was it a swindle then?

THE OTHER MAN
Now that you mention it, it wasn’t a swindle as such. But you can never be too careful.

(curtain)

Nor was he afraid to restage the classics.

OEDIPUS IN COLONUS

Characters:
A SENTINEL
A MESSENGER

Outside the fortified walls of Thebes. The great bronze doors are shut. Behind, on the ramparts, the SENTINEL walks back and forth. The MESSENGER, having just arrived, knocks on the doors.

THE MESSENGER
Is Oedipus there?

THE SENTINEL
No, he’s in Colonus.

(curtain)

Back to the meta-horseplay of the futurists, and especially reminiscent of Marinetti’s Le basi (‘the foundations’), a play whose staging instruction was that the curtain should only be raised enough to show the performers’ feet, is ‘Tragedy during the staging of a comedy’.

TRAGEDY DURING THE STAGING OF A COMEDY

Characters:
THE LEAD ACTOR
THE LEAD ACTRESS
THE OTHER ACTORS AND ACTRESS OF THE COMPANY, EXTRAS, STAGE-HANDS, ELECTRICIANS, THE CARETAKER, FIREMEN, PROPMEN, ETC.

The scene is the stage of a theatre during the performance of a comedy in three acts. The actors and actresses act, come, go, move in perfect synchrony, until finally, near the conclusion of the final act, the FIRST ACTOR suddenly halts his brilliant performance , grabs his wig with both hands and looks around in shock.

LEAD ACTOR
Stop! Stop!

The action stops. All the actors abandon their parts and crowd around THE LEAD ACTOR, who looks utterly depressed.

LEAD ACTRESS
speaking to the LEAD ACTOR, with dismay: What’s happening, for heaven’s sake?

LEAD ACTOR
We reached the end of the third act, and we forgot to raise the curtain!

ACTORS, STAGE-HANDS, ETC.
Uh! 
They flee, howling lugubriously

There are many more examples of this carry-on. Linking the futurists and Pirandello with the likes of Ionesco, Beckett and Pinter, Campanile found absurdity in theatre itself and its conventions, therefore in the set-up for his own jokes.

A TRAGEDY AVOIDED IN THE NICK OF TIME

Characters:
CARLO, a friend of FRANCESCO’s

The scene is a deserted town square; in the background, an arch surmounted by a brightly lit clock; to the right, a café with some tables outside, and the pharmacy; to the left, a barber’s, an inn with a sign depicting a rooster, and Francesco’s house.

CARLO
Enters stage left and rings the bell of Francesco’s house. Seeing as nobody opens the door, he rings again several times; he beats on the door with his knuckles, then with his fists, finally with his walking stick; he kicks the door, but gets no reply; CARLO understands that Francesco is not home and exits, leaving the stage empty. The two-line tragedy cannot take place. Therefore, among the clamour of the audience, the curtain falls rapidly.

But what makes the tragedies modern is their surreal and episodic nature, coupled with Campanile’s ability to quickly set and dismantle the scene. Try this favourite of mine:

TAKING ADVANTAGE OF MODERN CONVENIENCES
Characters:
THE HUSBAND
THE WIFE 

THE HUSBAND
Coming home with a large parcel I brought the gas masks. 

THE WIFE
Great. Tonight we can go to sleep with the gas on.

(curtain)

Or this existential, definitive number, which offers an appropriate close.

THE CREATION OF THE WORLD

Characters:
A FORGOTTEN ANIMAL

The scene takes place right after the world has been created.

THE FORGOTTEN ANIMAL
Shucks! Everyone’s been created except me.

(curtain)




Achille Campanile. Tragedie in due battute. Milan: Rizzoli, 1978. The excerpts in this post are translated by me.

The new issue of SPORT is out this week and my essay on Elena Ferrante and badly written men is online (as is this great story by Pip Adam) but you should buy the print edition anyway.


4 comments:

Philip said...

Sounds very much like the Green Goose Theatre of Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński (who got his degree in English classics at Warsaw University with a dissertation on a poet he made up for the occasion).

From memory, and probably translated by Daniel Gerould:

The Seven Sleeping Brothers

First Brother: Snores.
Second Brother: Snores.
Third Brother: Snores.
Fourth Brother: Snores.
Fifth Brother: Snores.
Sixth Brother: Snores.
Seventh Brother: Snores horribly.

Curtain.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Oh thank you friend. I'm always on the look out for more of these, I'll try to source it somehow. Are you familiar with Karl Valentin's work? It's also in that general area.

Philip said...

I'm sure I've got some Gałczyński in print; I'll try and dig them out.

francesca said...

Quando hai finito con Karl Valentin, magari potrà interessarti Angelo Cecchelin, posto che non l'abbia già esplorato. Sono accomunati dall'uso del Witz e dei giochi di parole. "Beati quei che ga sede de giustizia, perché i sarà giustiziai", diceva il secondo. Oppure, nell'ambito di un interrogatorio svolto da un giudice, alla domanda:
"Nato?"
"Sì", rispondeva.
Aggiungerei poi Ringelnatz, forse il mio preferito.

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