unisa ITA  unisa ENG

Manlio Santanelli - Testi on-line

Manlio Santanelli

a cura di Barbara Barone


Beati i senza tetto perché vedranno il cielo.

M. Santanelli

Introduction by Jane House

On Reading, Translating and Playing
Manlio Santanelli's Emergency Exit

In the course of working with Anthony Molino on the translation of Manlio Santanelli's Emergency Exit, I came to admire a playwright, little known in English, whose remarkable talent as a writer of comedy has earned him the respect of theatergoers and professionals throughout Europe. Indeed, Santanelli is a master craftsman. He knows how to create comic situations that result in big laughs. Except for several lengthy monologues, his language is pithy. He understands that "brevity is the soul of wit" and that much depends on the histrionic art. His play gives two actors the opportunity to show off the full range of their talents as performers of comedy. The translators hope they have been faithful to the words and spirit of Santanelli's original, and that the translation reproduces its clarity and concision. I will talk briefly about the problems of translating this comic jewel into an American idiom and then, at the risk of saying too much, present some ideas that I hope will help American readers to enjoy the play.
Translation from one culture to another is never easy. It was made particularly difficult in the case of Emergency Exit because one character speaks what is recognized as standard Italian and the other a mixture of standard Italian and the colorful Neapolitan dialect. It may come as a surprise to many that Neapolitan has its own florid vocabulary, often without equivalents in the normative, media-homogenized language that governs life in most of Italy. In fact, were the play entirely in Neapolitan, people native to the North of Italy would hardly be able to understand it. I remember once being in a hotel on Lake Garda when Eduardo De Filippo's Napoli milionaria (Naples the Millionaire) was playing on television. The hotel was owned by a husband and wife; while the man was laughing uproariously, his wife just shrugged her shoulders and told me that she could not understand a word. William Weaver informed me once that when Eduardo took his plays on tour in Italy, the actors adjusted their speech as they moved farther north in order to accommodate to audiences that did not understand the Neapolitan of the original scripts.
In Emergency Exit, the two characters - Martino and Angelo - are both Neapolitans by birth, but Martino is very literate. He has learned, through schooling and the ambiance of his work, to speak a sophisticated form of standard Italian; he lapses only occasionally into Neapolitan, usually when he loses control of his emotions. Angelo is not well educated. He speaks Neapolitan most of the time, with a smattering of Biblical vocabulary and Latin phrases picked up in the course of long years spent as a church sexton. This situation poses peculiar problems for translators. In addition to having to deal with two dialects, Anthony Molino and I had to work around self-imposed constraints: we wanted to retain the Italian, indeed the Neapolitan, nature of the characters and did not want to displace them altogether from their "native" environment and background. We also wanted to avoid having the characters speak English with Italian accents. Given these restrictions, how were we to translate the play into an acceptable and hopefully convincing form of American idiom suitable for the theater?
We finally found what we hope is a satisfactory solution. On the one hand, we rendered Martino's sophisticated brand of Italian into educated English; on the other, we turned Angelo's Neapolitan into a colorful English containing errors in grammar, syntax and pronunciation typical of first-generation Italian immigrants to the United States with little practice in speaking the language. (Martino's lapses into Neapolitan also mimic this latter way of talking.) Martino has either no accent or one barely noticeable and very refined. Angelo's accent is very noticeable. We hope that this solution to the problem of translation helps the play to retain its Italian flavor while making the transfer to an American setting.
There is a fair amount of cursing in the play. Whether a character swears and how he swears reveal something about his nature. Martino, who claims to believe in reason and to abhor religion, is rather sparing in his use of maledictions; unlike Angelo, who otherwise professes a devotion to Catholicism. The translators have been faithful to the original in respect to these curses, and when religious terminology is used we have chosen very often to leave the words as they appear in the Italian text. As for references to the mother figure, who has a primal influence on these men, distinction is made between mamma (stress on the first syllable), which is the generic "mother," and Mammà, which refers to the personal "Ma" or "Mummy." Here too, we have often chosen to have Angelo and Martino utter the words in Italian.
In reading or interpreting the characters of Martino and Angelo, one should remember that they do not in the least resemble the underworld types that one tires of seeing in Hollywood movies and on commercial television. Nor, supposing they still have hair, does it need to be black or dark brown! After all, not only have parts of Italy been besieged by invaders from the north (Lombards, Austrians, Germans, French) up to and through the nineteenth century, but European and American armies also fought there in the twentieth century. Which brings me to my next subject: the theatrical heritage of Emergency Exit.
Although Santanelli undeniably speaks in a unique voice, no writer emerges from nothingness; behind him lies a deep awareness, conscious or unconscious, of both Greek and Roman drama and the tradition of the Commedia dell'Arte, a form of improvised theater that originated in Italy. Indeed, the commedia is a genre that Santanelli knows exceedingly well. His most widely produced play, Pulcinella, tells the story of the Neapolitan servant of the title who was a prominent commedia character.
The Commedia dell'Arte flourished in Italy from 1550 to 1750, but has continued to exert its influence up to the present day. The commedia featured a number of stock characters: the Lovers, the aging father or husband Pantalone, the loquacious Doctor, the swaggering Captain, the witty maid Columbine and the male zanni such as Brighella, Pulcinella and Arlecchino. The latter were often servant types, but they could also appear in other guises such as a barber, porter, jailer, gardener, painter, or peasant. The commedia actors were skilled at improvising the script from scenarios and at devising comic turns or lazzi. It becomes clear that this tradition is at work in Emergency Exit when one considers the nature of our protagonists and the many comic turns that stimulate laughter and delight.
Early in the play, for instance, we learn of Angelo's sympathy for camels because they "were born with the misfortune of a bump." This suggests a connection with Pulcinella, who was hunchbacked. Angelo has other qualities in common with Pulcinella: a vulgar tongue, a thieving and lying nature, a failure to appreciate the finer emotions, a streak of meanness and an ability to survive the unfortunate circumstances in which he finds himself. Martino is a devoted servant of the stage whose superior book-learning has failed to teach him how to get along well in life. Martino and Angelo are, as we learn early on in the play, old acquaintances. Their relationship is a rocky one; their interaction can range from good-humored teasing to outright antagonism and trickery; essentially they distrust one another. Each plays on the other's insecurity and makes jokes at the other's expense. During the course of the play, they seem to edge closer to an understanding, but also, as the reader shall see, come closer to blows.
The reader must not forget that a play is more than mere words. As one reads this particular comedy, which bristles with witty exchanges, one must allow the imagination to act out the spoken part: the physical movement, comic timing, emotional and physical expression of the actors and particularly their comic turns which carry us from start to finish, like waves of the ocean. Some of these lazzi can be simple: grimaces, obscene and mocking gestures, farting, burping, or pie-in-the-face slapstick. Some can be complicated: Martino's huffing-and-puffing return from his "trip" outside to find Angelo dressed as a woman; Angelo's return from his own daring trip to find things turned topsy-turvy. Some can turn into lengthy "numbers" or interludes: moving the beds, trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night, searching for lost objects.
In this play, even dreams draw on commedia material. The content of Martino's first dream about Angelo's pregnancy comes directly from a commedia scenario: Arlecchino does not feel well, so the Doctor gives him an enema using a large syringe. However, it turns out that Arlecchino is pregnant, not sick, and the enema stimulates his giving birth. In Martino's dream, the scenario is reversed: Angelo's illness is something of a false pregnancy; sticking him with a syringe only releases a whirlwind of empty air. Martino's second dream reflects the irrepressible spirit of the Pulcinella character, for Pulcinella, whatever his problems, never dies. In the dream, Angelo rises from the dead in the middle of a funeral march to the church, and the whole city joins him in a lively procession to the cemetery!
Emergency Exit has been judged by some as derivative of Samuel Beckett's existential masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, but this is a superficial judgement. Since the protagonists in both plays are hobos and since the action in both plays is circular and repetitive, it is natural for readers to be reminded of Godot. However, the differences between the two plays are greater than the similarities. Waiting for Godot is set in a mysterious metaphysical landscape where a mythic dimension predominates. Existential anxiety hangs like a black cloud over the stage space despite the efforts of Vladimir and Estragon to amuse themselves. This is the agon of man without a god but thirsting for one. By contrast, in Emergency Exit there are many references to the real world (the real-life dramas of baptism, marriage, cuckolding and death); to historical personages (Garibaldi) and events (the French Revolution); to high culture (operas like La Traviata, artists like Michelangelo and Paganini); and to people one encounters in everyday life (the landlord, mailman, grocer, delivery boy and priest). Angelo and Martino sleep in real beds, in mattresses with real lumps.
The enormous gap between Beckett's and Santanelli's visions is dramatically depicted in their treatment of suicide. In Beckett's story, Vladimir and Estragon find life too difficult to bear and try to commit joint suicide in both Act I and Act II. That the rope breaks and prevents them from accomplishing their aim does not brighten the darkness of their intent, and if their failure provokes laughter, the laughter is grim. In contrast, Martino and Angelo never seriously attempt such a final solution to their problems, and it is unthinkable that they would. These two misfits desperately want to live, despite everything. They do not suffer from existential despair.
These differences produce a peculiar relationship between the two plays. Emergency Exit differs from Waiting for Godot much as a Greek satyr play differs from a Greek tragedy. The satyr play often took the same characters and themes found in the tragic trilogy and presented them in a highly comic - or satiric - manner. Beckett's hobos Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for a mysterious character called Godot, but Santanelli's hobos Angelo and Martino are waiting for a notice from the housing authority. (For the following remarks I rely heavily on Richard Lattimore's essay Introduction to Cyclops, in Euripides II, David Grene and Richard Lattimore, eds. - Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956)
Emergency Exit likewise has elements in common with the Greek form. The satyr play was named after its own special chorus of ribald creatures who were half-horse, half-man. In Emergency Exit, there is an animal chorus too, one that terrifies our protagonists and increases their fear of venturing outside: a chorus of yowling, hungry, wild cats! We only hear them, but Santanelli lists them in the cast of characters. Martino's second dream, while celebrating the irrepressible character of Pulcinella, also recalls the satyr play's celebration of the risen god. We should note that Act II, scene 1, takes place on Good Friday of Holy Week, the night Christ died on the cross. Angelo's "resurrection" in Martino's dream in the following scene can be interpreted as a satiric version of the sacred Easter ritual. It is especially irreverent because the "risen" Angelo is a petty thief and a liar.
There is yet another parallel to the satyr play, but to spell it out would spoil one of the most outrageous scenes in Emergency Exit. Suffice it to say that Euripides' Cyclops includes a mocking celebration of the sacred marriage rite: the sexually aroused and drunken Cyclops drags the fat, wine-loving and protesting Silenus off to his cave. Emergency Exit has something similar, which comes toward the end of the play. Immediately afterwards, an ironic telephone call parallels the laughter-provoking coda common to the satyr play.
In short, it seems clear to me that Emergency Exit is very much informed by the spirit of the Italian Commedia dell'Arte and the Greek satyr play. This is not to deny it the realistic influences of recent Neapolitan playwrights, such as Raffaele Viviani and Eduardo De Filippo, themselves heirs to the classic tradition of Italian comedy. My colleague Anthony Molino takes up this theme in the Afterword.
In the last analysis, while Emergency Exit does not emerge from a vacuum, neither is it trapped in the past. It is a delightfully amusing and engaging work that stands on its own four feet, or lies down on its own two bumpy mattresses. It is my hope that this collection of notes will give readers some insight into its origins and help them to enter into the high spirits and comic dynamism of this play's first English translation.

Jane House