The remains of the actor: the gestures and the archives


About the Orlando Furioso by Edoardo Sanguineti and Luca Ronconi [Spoleto 1968 – New York City 1970]

What I am presenting today are the first findings in an ongoing research study within the ERC project titled InCommon. Performing Arts in Italy from 1959 to 1979, directed by Annalisa Sacchi and currently underway at the IUAV University in Venice. The first of the case studies I am examining is the theatrical event Orlando Furioso by Edoardo Sanguineti and Luca Ronconi. Let me start with the title: what I mean is that what remains, on the one hand, are the gestures of the actors since the debut in Spoleto or the genesis of the play by Sanguineti and Ronconi (4 July 1969), and on the other hand the archive, which in this case is the documentation in New York of the final performances in the Orlando‘s international tour (November 1970). In the middle, the original sin of betrayal, in the television version that rewrote the popular understanding of Ariosto’s poem, and not just in aesthetic terms.

The company at the JFK airport, 1970. Courtesy of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The performance in Spoleto, as we all know, broke radically with the way a play is traditionally seen from the audience seating. The idea of abandoning a passive approach was well served by the staging of the Furioso that, it should be remembered, is a story of madness found and cured by opening up new worlds (the play ends with Astolfo’s departure for the moon), but not by conquest, rather by demanding the liberation of imagination:

“While the techniques [of contemporary theatre] continue to be founded on contemplation, on something that can be watched, we believe it is important to leave the theatre’s current situation behind us, and move ahead to experience” – LUCA RONCONI

Ronconi’s words, which give direct experience priority over contemplation, based on the lessons he learned from Eugène Minkowski, also outline the concepts of a new idea of common which in this work, perhaps for the very first time, Ronconi’s theatre seems to embody.

A little-known photograph of the European tour shows a banner, probably at the entrance, announcing the title and the names of the authors of this complex performance. I like to think that this banner, which probably greeted the public as if to enhance the sense of piazza, of open-air, of festival, of ritual or even narration, though unbridled and plural, announced the boundaries of a singular theatrical experience fully worked out in all its details.  In the same way, we could try to read Uberto Bertacca’s preliminary sketch of the stage set for Sanguineti and Ronconi’s Orlando furioso in Spoleto, as a map of an original common experience: the sketch for the set, which still shows the stepped seating for the audience that would never be built, is also the graphic representation of a space, of its mobility and the idea of the world it contains, like a drawing that highlights informal economies and fleeting systems of relations, daily habits, more or less shared memories, small bits of knowledge, ways of illustrating the scene and the movement that elude other strategies of experimentation. Learning from the lesson of the Atlante delle emozioni (2002) written by Giuliana Bruno, and her psyco-geographic approach to mobility studies, in this case Bertacca’s map is an early description of the emotional journey through the work that it contains. In the same way that the plan of the space in New York created expressly to host the Orlando event in Mid-Manhattan in 1970, with the H zone of the enormous Vinyl Air Supported Structure set up in Bryant Park, aptly communicates the difficult utopia of building new worlds, the geographical displacement of the imagination.

I believe this freedom to be exemplary, especially in Sanguineti’s preparation of his text from Ariosto: he never appropriates the poetic Furioso (by perhaps overlaying or adding elements foreign to it) but makes the dramaturgical practice that began in Spoleto something inappropriable, maintains its purity in a certain measure, and personally maturing his own work in theatre in the transition from a practice of reduction to his later experiences in playwriting, described as “travestimento”, or disguise. Sanguineti speaks of an “alienation of the familiar” achieved by the “openness of montage”: I wonder today whether this might be an ecological way of understanding our relationship with the classics of literature, and of extending their validity into the present time.

It is therefore important to talk about the false myth that was created around the double response to Sanguineti and Ronconi’s Furioso, and we must be very clear here: my theory is that the second version, for television, was a deconstruction of the first, for the theatre. A deconstruction, but not in affirmative terms.

In Sanguineti’s process of reduction/transformation/disguise, a key factor is the transition from a perfective tense (in Ariosto’s epic poem) to a continuing present tense (the time of the theatre performance): the systematic description of the action to the audience or to the other actors on the stage speaks directly to placing the action in common, or better yet restoring it to its dynamic and ever-present, ongoing, nature. It is the process of placing-in-common, as a “behavioural practice that can constitute a bond among those who intend to be part of it and recognize it as such” (E.Pitozzi).

To return to what I call false myth, I will document the response that followed the theatre event. It includes a film version, commissioned by RAI television in 1971 and completed in 1974: the film was made in the suggestive surroundings of Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola, with cinematography by Vincenzo Storaro and Arturo Zavattini, sets and costumes by Pierluigi Pizzi, music by Giancarlo Chiaramello and editing by Pipo Giomini. It was followed by the television version broadcast in 1975, in five episodes starting on February 16th, in black-and-white in prime time on Sunday (with 9 million viewers and a rather modest approval rating: 36 out of 100).

The proposal to broadcast the episodes simultaneously on both Rai channels, which was promptly rejected, and Sanguineti’s definitive decision to bow out and end his participation in the production, while leaving his name which, in the opening credits, is tied definitively to Ronconi’s in the practice of screenwriting, brought the original simultaneity of the action to a dramatic end. When it came time to recognize the plurality of authorship, in relation to the television screenplay, the missing element was precisely the inappropriability exercised at the very beginning: it was not a text that the director appropriated but an idea of poetry of the common, of the outside, of the open the potential of which Sanguineti had consistently guaranteed to that point. In terms of theatre, the consequences were necessarily substantial, and in my opinion revealing, in and of themselves, of an opposite idea, not of theatre or theatrical celebration, but of a community-building event, and need to be explored: an event – to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s expression – capable of “being-with”.

In the version for the theatre, the measure of the acting was established at the moment, depending on the ever-variable and changing number of spectators. The hors-texte, i.e. everything that lies beyond the limits of the text, that exceeds the inside/outside at the limits of the invisible, that immaterial part of the text that no longer follows the logic of the text, but that of the body, the articulations, that hors-texte was destined to prevail from the very debut in Spoleto.

In the television version however, the articulatory gesture had to become text: it had to become a casing, a gesture defined in the dialectic between inside and outside, between organs and orifices, following the traditional logic of the dichotomy between body and soul, because there was no proximity to the audience, the narration had become linear and an aura of non-repeatability was introduced as it was filmed, recorded, and archived.

The Mayor of New York John V. Lindsay at the performance, November 18th, 1970

Thanks to Dick Feldman, the president of the Orlando Theatrical Company Inc. which was responsible for the production of the American performances (starting November 4th, 1970), there is a complete and largely-unpublished documentation which I was able to consult at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at the Lincoln Center.

It is rather curious that the Orlando was originally to have been performed at Pier 86, in the Chelsea area, as part of then-Mayor Lindsay’s plans to bring cultural activities to the soon-to-be-abandoned riverfront. But picketing by the International Longshoremen’s Association, who preferred to bring shipping back to the piers to revitalize the port rather than accept the new plans, caused the Orlando event to be moved to Bryant Park (between 5th and 6th Streets, in the centre of Manhattan, near the central New York Public Library), where it was held under a bubble tent built for the occasion. And here I believe there are two opposite ideas of common and boundaries for what can or cannot be used and therefore appropriated, and at least theoretically, neutralized in terms of cultural revolution: ideas that I promise to research and investigate thoroughly as soon as possible.

The first negative reviews did not help the event, but they largely stemmed from the Orlando operation being assimilated to Mayor Lindsay’s aggressive cultural policies, which the New York intellighentsia opposed. Mel Gussow wrote in the “New York Times” on November 5th: “In an open plaza in Italy, this may have a different impact, but in a bubble in the middle of Manhattan it is merely foolish”. Richard Watts, in the “New York Post” the day after the debut, noted the hierarchies between the actors and polemicized openly with the city’s Mayor:

“All the actors, and there are said to be 62 of them, are energetic, and, so far as I can tell, they are excellent. But I’d rather applaud those humble men, obviously self-abnegating devotees of the theater, who conceal themselves beneath the platforms and push them along. They are the unsung heroes of the company. Incidentally, it may be a coincidence but I note that Mayor Lindsay, who helped bring it to town, took off for London the morning before ‘Orlando’ opened” – RICHARD WATTS

A bad review on «Daily News», November 5th, 1970.

For James Davis, of the “Daily News”, the debut was a total disappointment: “Somehow it seems terribly confused and almost childlike in the big, bare, totally untheatrical theater called a bubble. To me, it was a disappointment”. For theatre critic William Glover, the abyss between it and the Italian text, the simultaneity of the actions and the opacity of the characterizations, was as unbridgeable as the cultural prejudices of his vision:

“Atop the mobile platforms, on approximate aluminium models of horses, key performers in the charade waved unpainted toy swords and ferociously declaimed with total incomprehensibility. They could, indeed may, have been selling pizzas. (…) Nothing that happened necessarily related to anything else that had happened before or at the same time, for those lucky enough to grab a translated synopsis learned that four or more plots were simultaneously rotting. Everybody was a French Paladin, Saracen, magician or princess. Somewhere in there was Chalemagne of our school days. To list the names of the players would be reckless advertisement. The event is being presented with the city parks and cultural affairs administration. When longshoremen protested plans to stage it on an abandoned Hudson River pier, Mayor John V. Lindsay arranged for the Bryant Park site and for erection of the air-supported structure. A few hours before the premier, Lindsay went to London on business. He certainly knows when to get out of town.” (‘ORLANDO FURIOSO,’ A BORE, «ASBURY PARK EVENING PRESS», NOVEMBER 5th, 1970)

Finally, William A. Raidy, the Broadway and off-Broadway theatre critic, ironically claimed that his vision was impaired, and insisted that certain uncautious lady viewers had suffered nightmares as a result:

“The platforms whirl at you with fury and force. They are perhaps 10 feet tall and propelled from underneath by men dragging and pushing them with fantastic speed. I personally felt I was at a Roman chariot race. Right in the middle of it with the horses galloping straight at me. Many frightened women have departed the “bubble” in a matter of ten minutes. One of my acquaintance insisted she had a minor mental breakdown and suffered nightmares for days afterward. (…) Meanwhile, as the older critics groan that “Orlando Furioso” is nothing more than the subway at the rush hour, the younger generation is rushing to the “bubble” to be right in the middle of the melee. Some, I hear, even “light up” during the performance. They insist it’s quite a “Trip”… and I assure you it is.” (MENACE , MADNESS TO ‘ORLANDO FURIOSO’, «THE LONG ISLAND PRESS», 22 NOVEMBER 1970, p. 71)

From Spoleto to New York, in this performance that engages the spectator’s emotional level, the bodies, the structure that describes it and the archives that document it are not an appropriation of public space but a resolution of a debt, a new open approach to a common body, to a body that is common because it is open to the outside: for the very reason, at least it would seem so in this case, that every effort is aimed at tracing a territory, a new boundary through the public use of self, with the aim not to occupy it but to open, to liberate, to reappropriate humanity and to reorganize its knowledge in/through/thanks to the performance of the space.


Paper presented at the international conference “Pensare l’attore. Tra la scena e lo schermo”, 29-31 May 2017, organized by Roberto De Gaetano, Bruno Roberti and Daniele Vianello, Università della Calabria, Cosenza.