“A reality of pure echoes”: symbol and communion in Pirandello, chi? by Amelio Memè Perlini

Pirandello, chi? by Memè Perlini (1973). Published in G. Bartolucci, D. Rimoldi, Immagine-Immaginario, Torino: Studio Forma, p. 25

The direction of theatre of the 1970s, as Valentina Valentini writes, characterized New Theatre in Italy with its tendency to expand beyond geographic and disciplinary borders and, at the same time, with its tension towards a common core (body, gesture, movement) to “find shelter in the place of theatre like in the productions of Teatro-Immagine (as defined by Bartolucci) by Mario Ricci, Memè Perlini, Giancarlo Nanni, Giuliano Vasilicò”.1 Taking shape behind the large number of productions of those years, though in a “contradictory and disjointed way […] was what had always been missing nationally in this sector: a cultural context unencumbered by an elite idealism, but committed to the vivacious materiality of the performing practice”.2 This is the complex heterogeneous context that emerged behind the remarkably distinct artistic individualities, like a common stratified “river bed” along the broken embankments between art and other theoretical fields. And so it was obvious that Pirandello chi? by Memè Perlini should be “hosted” at the Beat ’72 in Rome: a “place of expressive potential”3 where the issues alluded to above found a fundamental meeting ground. A space for research in theatre in which the experimentation of new expressive models connected (and permeated) the social fabric with the practice of theatre.

Memè Perlini’s work on Pirandello’s play was in fact a process of permeation, in the Latin sense of per- “through” and meare “transit”. Six Characters in Search of an Author represented a double enlightenment for him: one that could be termed public, concerning his way of understanding the stage, the other inherent to a personal and collective unhappiness that “filled his days and nights”4 and which he wove into the writing of Pirandello chi?, staged for the first time in 1973, as mentioned above, at Beat ’72 in Rome. Perlini transposed the fragmentary nature typical of society at that time into what he defined as fragment-images, aimed at reducing the body of the actor on stage into sections of light and darkness, in the idiosyncratic drive to “parcel, shatter theatrical objects (fear of the body) but also a clear attempt to reconstruct them (desire to represent)”.5 His intent was to elicit the same process in the “reactive quality” of the viewer that was triggered during the preparations, i.e. an elaboration of dreams-action, in which neither the description nor the poetic complexity are the terms that define his first “swollen and voracious” opera, but on the contrary, a spatial vision that uses Pirandello’s structure to bring a neurotic quality to his “personal jumble” of experiences as a comic artist and illustrator, the influence of film, the suspicion of the body, from a desire to find the essence through the contours by which it is delineated.6 Giuseppe Bartolucci’s description of the performance reads:

The stage will always be dark, lit only by small light sources that will be maneuvered as required by the director and by the actors. The tendency will be to an analytical object that will highlight the internal multiplicity of this use, including the sound aspect. There will be no characterization of the role (the father will also be the head comedian, and mother at the same time) there will be no direct relationships between the different characters. The dimension of the performance will tend to create the fantastic images that will tend towards the atmosphere of dreams and unconscious images, the voice will always be exasperated, it will stutter, suffocated, speedy, with its sounds transformed as far as possible into musical elements.7

In Pirandello, chi? – considered by many critics to be influenced by Bob Wilson’s passage through Europe in the 1970s – “the light isolates parts of images, sections bodies, brings hands, arms, legs out of the dark, like a repertory of anatomy”, a close-up focusing on “the deep psychic, individual and collective structures that bring to light fears and anxieties and liberate them “.8 Perlini uses the light sources to draw the vision of the spectator into a film frame that drives the action on stage in a syncopated rhythm supported by the music of Philip Glass. He perceives slowness in fact as deceleration and “indigestion”:

Pirandello, chi? by Memè Perlini (1973). Published in G. Bartolucci, D. Rimoldi, Immagine-Immaginario, Torino: Studio Forma, p. 25

“slowing down” is food for the refined, I refer to people who are hungry, for themselves, for what they see and feel at the same time.9

Pirandello, chi? by Memè Perlini (1973). Published in G. Bartolucci, D. Rimoldi, Immagine-Immaginario, Torino: Studio Forma, p. 27

As Cristina Grazioli writes:

The result is a visual picture in fluid metamorphosis (a canvas becomes a cart pushed by Pierrot, an actor-puppet emerges from the cart, the cart becomes a white bride, the figures disappear into the darkness). An example is the opening scene of the production: in total darkness, except for a ray of light that “comes out of the hands of an actor” and projects towards the back a rectangle of light, inside which appear the made-up faces of five actors together with a dove in flight. When the “picture” (the light projection) disappears, a general appears hanging from a trapeze that seems to turn upside down thanks to a play of light. In this alternation of appearances and disappearances a sequence of figures appears, objects, details of images, brought back to life like oneiric fragments of light directed by beam shapers, backlighting and shadow effects (in the darkness of the stage the actors or the director direct the projectors they hold in their hands, personally enabling the processes of metamorphosis).10

Perlini makes “cinema without cameras”11 which uses neither film clips or slide shows, but instruments specific to the stage (substantially the lights of the projectors, objects, costumes and masks), thereby obeying a double code: theatre and film.12 In an interview with Franco Quadri, Perlini asserts that it all began with a spot of color, then:

when we accepted the black of the Beat we began to think of white as a reaction; and then the actors […] you have to deal with the bodies, with the movements, with the colours, with the forms of those, objects and people, with whom you are working to shape the image.13

While the bodies of the actors are sectioned by the light alternating with the darkness, the dialogues are minimal. All that remains of the text and the allusions to Pirandello’s lines are “tatters, sporadic lines that when torn asunder in this way (for example the “pale blue envelope”) become chillingly resounding”.14 The characters seem to emerge from the amusement parks of Perlini’s childhood: a general hanging on a trapeze, the dove, an actor sitting with his back to the audience, a ballerina filled with foam rubber, an actress dressed in red mimicking the gestures of someone being violently slapped on the face, a little girl’s costume, an actor-puppet, Pierrot, an actress wearing a 1940s dress with her buttocks exposed, and others still, up to the solitary image of Madama Pace, the maitresse in Pirandello’s play. The figures fill and clear the scene in a dizzying sequence of oneiric scenes that, at the end of the performance, slip away into the darkness encumbered only by the noise of the objects with which the actors saturate the space. The woman with the 1940s dress returns holding candles, she hangs them on a thread that burns until they fall, taking the performance back to its point of departure: steeped in darkness. Several years later, Perlini wrote:

I love fragments more than anything. […] I love the object as a means to defer to the imagination. […] The only friendly presence is the light from which fragments emerge as impossible means of escape and voices […] that erase the paths and create a reality of pure echoes.15

Pirandello, chi? by Memè Perlini (1973). Published in G. Bartolucci, D. Rimoldi, Immagine-Immaginario, Torino: Studio Forma, p. 22

His “image-theatre” thus achieves a reality of pure echoes. He engages in a process of abstracting the contents and the material limits of the stage, going through the torture of the process, the bodies, the “humours” of the actors and splintering the Pirandello source. As Franco Quadri wrote in Pirandello chi?, the movement of a light through absolute darkness teaches us that the only thing that exists on stage is what we see, not the actor or the character, but the sole fragment of the actor occasionally brushed by a source of light that can suddenly switch off or change direction.16

The imaginal world of Pirandello chi? like every imaginal world relies on a community-based ideal.17 The image-theatre rises above the exclusivity relegated into personal poetics. The performance described so far does not merely amount to a collection of images added to an avant-garde body of work, on the contrary it leads to the establishment of a network in which meaning resides in relationships. The process of theatre always ends in polysemy: the direction is “released “into the collective on stage in which even the props are reactive elements, and where there is full awareness, for example that the actors are “live material” that transforms, disperses, distorts:

But it takes people to do theatre, physically I mean, and you can’t invent it at the table. I had lots of notes, drawings, which I forgot, or better yet, discovered exactly as they were on stage, whereas it is important to rely on the bodies, the movements, the colours, the shapes of those, objects or people, whom you are working with to develop the image. I actually wish these young people lived with me […].18

Perlini draws a contrast between “living eating and breathing politics” – which characterized the generation between the end of the 1960s and the 1970s – and the social use of reality. He releases the work into the collective process, inside the Beat ’72 “container” in which the relationship between the arts was explored in programmes that fostered experimentation beyond genres.19 This intermingling in Pirandello chi? is “visual therapy”, individual and generational liberation through images, that reveals what was highlighted by Valentina Valentini in regards to the above-mentioned “direction of the 1970s”:

childhood, play, dramatization, workshop and experimental theatre […] coexist through the material contribution of collective work at the level of research into relationships”, interdisciplinarity and teamwork, workshop, collective writing-action, scientific description-designing; all antidotes in the struggle against “disintegrated didacticism” and “the worst aestheticism”.20

This is the composition of the vertices in the relationship between the avant-garde and the process of breaking with the “traditional” theatre of the time, between Perlini’s highly personal poetics and the relationship with the spectator whose “heart must be pierced and blood made to boil”: a founding and essential action that gives its dramaturgical images a reason. Interrelations are the essential basis for the symbolic activity triggered by Pirandello chi?. As Mauss and Durkeim have shown, there is symbol because there is communion, and communion is a bond that can give the illusion of reality. Perlini’s “unreal reality” may therefore be understood as the symbolic legacy that channels forces and affections that on stage veer from individual to the collective imagination. This, in the 1970s, guaranteed New Theatre in Ital the freedom it needed to “explore places that were then unknown without having the certainty of reaching a destination”.21



Pirandello, chi?

by Memè Perlini
directed by Memè Perlini
cast Franco Bullo, Ivan Galì, Johna Mancini, Ornella Minetti, Rossella Or, Franco Piacentini, Edmondo Zanolini
debut performance Rome, Beat 72, 3 January 1973
new version Rome, Teatro La Piramide, February 1986
cast Franco Piacentini, Rossella Or, Lidia Montanari, Alessandro Genesi, Roberto Pagliari, Giuseppe Barbizi
set design Antonello Agliotti
music Philip Glass