Watching the Moon
and Other Plays

by Massimo Bontempelli

Translation and Introduction
by Patricia Gaborik

Forum Italicum

Forum Italicum 48.3 (2015): 645–48

While a few plays, novels, and short stories by Massimo Bontempelli (1878–1960) have been translated over the last 20 years, Bontempelli’s oeuvre remains largely inaccessible to the English-speaking world. For scholars of Italian modernism this is indeed a serious gap, since Bontempelli was a prolific and influential writer who was not just responsible for introducing and developing the concept of magic realism in an Italian context, but was quite present and well known in the intellectual scene of the 1920s and 1930s, and tied by friendship and elective affinities to other major literary and artistic figures such as Giorgio De Chirico, Alberto Savinio, and Luigi Pirandello. Therefore this volume, which features the translation of three of Bontempelli’s plays (Watching the Moon, Stormcloud, and Cinderella) and an extensive introduction by translator and theater historian Patricia Gaborik, serves as a timely sample of what Bontempelli’s eclectic genius has to offer.

For readers not acquainted with Bontempelli’s works but interested in Futurism and the avant-garde, or even for readers fascinated with Latin-American magic realism and curious to explore its connections with its European antecedent, Gaborik’s 54-page introduction could not be more exhaustive. Starting from a rarely mentioned aspect of Bontempelli’s biography — his passion for modern transportation, most likely derived from his father’s work as a railroad engineer — Gaborik meticulously lays out the tiles that will serve to shape the complex mosaic of Bontempelli’s personality: his experimentation with Futurism, which he later rejected along with several works he had penned in the course of several years; his controversial involvement with fascism; and the provocative speech he delivered commemorating Italian writer and fascist enthusiast Gabriele D’Annunzio, a speech that has often been cited as the mark of Bontempelli’s break with the fascist regime but that, according to Gaborik, may not have been intended to sound so critical nor may it have immediately caused his fall from grace with Mussolini. Two additional elements discussed by Gaborik are Bontempelli’s attempt to create “new myths for the modern age” (p. xv) by means of what has been called a “secret gaze” which allows the writer to recognize and portray magic in ordinary events; and Bontempelli’s relationship with Luigi Pirandello, a relationship that has too often been simplified as a one-way influence but which, as Gaborik shows, was mutually enriching as both writers shared a peculiar trait that made its way into their writings: candore. Gaborik explains that:

In candore, sincerity is the natural result of an innocence or naivety, which, while they may contain an ounce of gullibility, don’t at all imply a dullness or stupidity. On the contrary, as Bontempelli would describe, the person with candore possessed an elementary intelligence, where we should understand elementary as elemental, even primordial. (p. lii)

Even readers already familiar with Bontempelli and some of his works cannot fail to be impressed by the wealth of information — not just about Bontempelli but about the various facets of the Italian avant-garde — presented in the introduction. Gaborik appears to anticipate and address many of the questions that might be raised by such readers: what was the extent of Bontempelli’s involvement with fascism, and just when and how did he break away from it? Why did he become dissatisfied with Futurism? And how is his magic realism different from the one(s) that developed in Latin America? Gaborik succeeds in adding interesting nuances even to some of the statements that tend to become cliches when talking about Bontempelli, for example his “moderate” position in contrast to the extremism of the Futurists. Gaborik argues that:

Held up to the most radical pieces, much futurist production would be considered as “moderate” as Bontempelli’s. More importantly, Bontempelli-critic — the Bontempelli of the “manifesto” — was anything but mild or non-combative. He wrote that art needed to move toward “virile ugliness,” literati were “pseudo-men,” fascism had taught that sometimes “the only good thing to do is use the cudgel.” (pp. xxxii–xxxiii)

Not every argument made in the introduction is entirely convincing: for instance, despite the doubts raised by Gaborik, it is hard to interpret Bontempelli’s depiction of a time of transition (“dal vanitoso individualismo a una smania di obbedienza militaresca, dalla pace creduta inalterabile alla guerra sempre pronta,” which Gaborik translates, somewhat more mildly, as “[from] vain individualism to a hankering for military obedience, from a presumed inalterable peace to war ever­ready,” p. xxiii) as anything but a criticism of the fascist regime. Moreover, the plethora of footnotes risks overwhelming even the most dedicated reader, especially since it is unlikely that anyone who picks up this volume will be so clueless with regards to Italian literature as to need explanatory references regarding writers as prominent as Italo Calvino and Luigi Pirandello. Instead, perhaps a more thorough discussion of the three plays featured in the volume would have been more welcome, particularly given the potential for comparison offered by the three women protagonists: Maria, Regina, and Cinderella. To be fair, Gaborik does compare them on the basis of their candore. However, despite Bontempelli’s intentions, the primordial simplicity of his candidi characters, with their seeming fragility and childlike way of speaking does not always come off as entirely convincing, even in Italian:

CENERENTOLA: Quando è venuta la gente mi sono molto molto spaventata, e anche quando mi ha parlato lui avevo gran paura, ma ero anche molto contenta dentro perché non m’ha riconosciuta in questo modo, e lo so che rispondevo male, un po’ per davvero ma un po’ anche per finta.

[When the people came I was really, really scared, and when he talked to me, too, I was very afraid, but I was also very happy inside because he didn’t recognize me like this. And I know I responded badly, but it was a little bit for real and a little bit pretending.] (p. 113)

Therefore, although not every play that features women protagonists necessarily demands a feminist reading, an interpretation that highlights more clearly the strengths of these characters would perhaps have been appropriate. Still, there is an intrinsic value in allowing readers a direct encounter with the text without forcing one’s perspective on it.

Overall, the three plays selected are quite intriguing and their translation almost always accurate. Admittedly, certain foreignizing choices produce awkward effects and occasionally remind the audience that they are in the presence of a translation: in Watching the Moon, for instance, Maria says: “It’s years and years that I’ve been traveling to find a place” (p. 20), oddly mirroring the original “Sono anni e anni che viaggio.” In Stormcloud, the tone of gentle disapproval expressed by “Ma, no” is translated literally, though not with an equivalent effect, as “But, no,” and the repetition of the affirmative or negative particles “Sì, sì” and “No, no” — very common in Italian but not in English — is also consistently reproduced verbatim. While in “A Note on the Translations” Gaborik prepares the audience for translations that “at times read more ‘smoothly’ than the originals do” and “in this demonstrate an attention to ‘speakability’ analogous to Bontempelli’s” (p. lxv), such choices and many others suggest that the opposite may also be true. Nevertheless, there is no benefit in systematically picking apart a translation, since any translation is made up of countless decisions that need to be considered as a whole rather than separately. And, as a whole, each of these translations does convey the complexity of Bontempelli’s theater, including some utterly lyrical moments, such as the translation of the Chorus of the Earth in Cinderella:

Life, another day /extinguished, another night / comes to light. /One by one the stars come. / One missing still. / That star / forever will be missing, / until the last of nights. / When that star appears / alone in the sky it will dwell. / The entire sky will be that single star. (pp. 70-71).

Or the philosophical musings of the Innkeeper in Watching the Moon, in a scene that Bontempelli considered quite problematic but that fortunately he decided to keep and that Gaborik translates masterfully

Jupiter savior! In thirty years of dwelling in this corner of the atom, everyone has taken me for an innkeeper. You are the first passer-by in these turbid places who realizes that I am the sediment of a philosopher, who understands this animal species. When I was still a man, and I was living far away from here, everyone mistook me for a philosopher, and no one had realized that the base of my destiny was to be an innkeeper. (p. 17)

Or, in Stormcloud, the highly evocative translation of “nascere o morire e la stessa cosa” as “passing into life or passing on to death is the same thing” (p. 54).

More than anything else, what stands out in this volume is Bontempelli’s ability to concoct situations (such as that of a woman who engages in a deadly struggle against a cruel moonlight, or that of a cloud that kills children) which, while they break through the confines of the “real,” still retain the power to move us deeply. And, as Gaborik maintains, these plays do “contain exciting performance possibilities,” as expressed also by the excellent choice to include archival material (stage designs and scenarios). This volume is sure to spark interest not only among Bontempelli and Futurism enthusiasts, but among theater artists as well.

Marella Feltrin-Morris,
Ithaca College, USA September 12, 2015

Some time ago I visited the ruins of the ancient Greek city, Selinous, destroyed by the Carthaginians in a ten-day siege that left 16,000 dead, the city in flames, and a handful of survivors who managed to escape to nearby Agrigentum. A number of temples lay in ruins, but archaeologists reconstructed one, the Temple of Hera, without its pediments, impressive as you approach and step under its arches and walk its perimeter in slow, meditative homage. Everything is gone, but the memories of the Greeks, their gods, their world. I walked the empty plain that was the city toward the blue line of the Mediterranean stretching over the edge of the earthworks that must have held up the walls facing the sea. The city was overwhelmed and destroyed, never recovering after its near total destruction. Along a path between tall growing weeds, I stumbled on two half-buried, charred pottery handles. Somehow these small fragments left a deep impression, something tangible and bright, something shining through the mist of the past.

These were my first thoughts reading this first English translation of three pivotal plays by the Italian writer and dramatist, Massimo Bontempelli. All three contain remarkable mythic elements rendered in Bontempelli’s unique modernist style, magical realism, which evolved out of involvement with Futurism early on in his career. His dramas lend themselves to a surrealist treatment of reality, but what is different about Bontempelli’s dramatic constructs are their ultimate turn or return to what I would call a modernist reinvention of Ovid’s Metamorphosis in the classic sense of the term.

Though translator Patricia Gaborik acknowledges mythic elementality to his plays, she chooses not to address this aspect of his work directly in her introduction. Instead, she offers a more political explanation to Bontempelli modus operandi, justifying his theoretical use of Futurism for what he hoped would be the natural expressive platform of a beneficent fascist state, a highly unrealistic conclusion as Bontempelli was to find out later after Mussolini took power. But for Bontempelli reality is something else entirely, not the result of overt political forces affecting human perception, but something palpable, mystical at its core. The characters he portray ”see” reality in the same way the ancients, revisiting psychic ground long lost to the modern age. He takes altered states of mind, the insanity of grief and despair most particularly, and transforms them into the logic of foresight and intuition.

Gaborik’s translations endeavor to show these lines of demarcation without stiltedness of language. Her renderings of his prose strive to retain his unique style and the dramatic pacing of his plays, giving them a remarkably satisfying literary read. She takes great care in providing a visual coordinate for the reader, carefully replicating the author’s stagings. A full stage production of any of the three plays would be easily inspired by Gaborik’s deft handling of Bontempelli’s dialogue and the blend of real and expressionist elements.

Bontempelli’s earliest play presented, Watching the Moon, written in 1916, captures the pain and disconnect to the ancient past and all its primal elements, the moon in particular. Everything that characterizes the main character Maria’s distraught search for her dead baby at the outset of the play, reminiscent of Persephone/Antigone seeking justice, is artfully dramatized by Bontempelli to show the anguished struggle for contact again with the feminine psyche at its most high-pitched expression of mystical power. To this extent, Bontempelli’s plays, at least the three translated in this collection, seem to constitute a different aspect of this struggle for the realization of the feminine psyche wherein it provides a direct link with the hidden forces of the world.

In Watching the Moon, the seeming illogic of Maria’s quest to find the moon and her dead baby is more logical than anyone gives credence, even Gaborik who sees her behavior as simply “nutty determination.” However, I think Bontempelli attempts to show that what appears illogical contains a logic that ultimately reveals so-called “logic” as actually bogus and false at its root. Maria’s appeal to the moon for justice, and the chthonic elements bringing her reality down to earth, are juxtaposed. Trying to reconstruct a metaphysical connection to the elements lost over time is I believe Bontempelli’s intention, that is, to show just how extensive intuitive femininity has been ravaged in the modern age.

This is no better illustrated than when Maria as lost Pythian oracle is mocked by prostitutes selling themselves on a street named Moon Alley and where they live in what is called “The House of the Moon.” Human society has gone so wayward and lost sight of the human heart that it has no more influence to guide. The moon’s power has become inverted, and Maria’s search for her dead baby is Bontempelli’s effort to show what has been permanently lost or dying in a world left spiritually barren and disconnected from the natural world. The police authority that Maria seeks out to help her find her baby only plays along with her seeming insane pleading about her loss and where and how her infant child was lost to her. Bontempelli reconstructs the psyche of the ancients’ religio/mythic sensibilities so artfully that one is instinctively convinced that no matter how irrational Maria may sound, there is a profound logic and intuitive understanding that in its fragmented form actually is the logical underpinning of her psyche. This is where Bontempelli’s strength as a dramatist shines through. Gaborik’s efforts to bring his language and the delicate ambiance of this scene to sensitive dramatic effect are exceptional. She keeps the subtle tension of longing and anguish continually playing below the surface.

Bontempelli’s second play, Stormcloud, written in 1935, uses the death of children as a gateway to further illustrate what has been lost, not of the future, but of the past. When one of the play’s characters says, “Death is the highest form of life,” it is clearly a statement showing how far human kind has fallen in spiritual depth.

Though lamenting parents of the children who die and disappear mysteriously grieve, one mother admits, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” All the reasons are offered to explain death, but Bontempelli shows that death’s significance is beyond reason, that without some mythic component to understand it, reality is more dead than death itself. This sounds contradictory, but Bontempelli’s plays endeavor in their own way to resurrect mythic consciousness, corrupted and decayed through reason and a one-dimensional perspective reality.

In contrast to Maria in Watching the Moon, Regina, the main character, in Stormcloud dances with children to maintain childlike innocence as a road to knowing life’s fulfillment. Though seemingly perceived as irrational, she too eventually wins the day at the end, for she comes back to life after the storm cloud disappears. This is certainly Bontempelli’s attempt to resurrect and fuse the Eurydice/Persephone myths of death and renewal. He shows how ignorance and blindness to the hidden forcers behind reality instigates a form of collective madness. For Bontempelli, this divorce from the world of myth ultimately affects a demonization of the natural world.

Bontempelli’s last play included here written in 1942, a reworking of the Cinderella fairy tale, reconfigures the story to paint a different picture of modern culture’s pervasive psychic dilemma. Cinderella’s step-sisters are presented as false illusions of beauty disconnected from earth’s primal soul. They are facsimiles of real women. They are primped for a ball by their Maestro, a fashion stylist, who ascribes to them a false myth as women. “Here the metaphysical,” he gushes, “there the picturesque, there a vortex, here a straining to heaven.” He goes on floridly to say they are even the very “life and substance of things.” But they are, in fact, false goddesses given over to acting and contriving female authenticity. It’s clear the Maestro represents everything artificial and contrived, the whole world’s philosophy based on pretense and superficial impressions. “The history of the world is a fable, and the rest doesn’t count, until another party.”

In Bontempelli’s version of Cinderella, the same mythic reversal is exercised by a fairy godmother who has refound her magical powers and reinvests Cinderella by transforming her appearance for one night. No doubt Cinderella’s meeting with a musician named Icarus that night shows Bontempelli’s efforts to link together two mythic stories together to affect a magic transformation of reality.

One would be naïve to believe, at least as evidenced in these three plays, that Bontempelli did not perceive a modern crisis of the female oracular power as the crux around which any new myth could be born. I think this sidesteps or ignores the evidence of a strictly objective reading of these three fascinating plays. Bontempelli’s concern I think is less with, as Gaborik puts it, the author’s “aesthetization of fascism,” but dramatizing the crisis of women in particular whose oracular voice has been lost and discounted as a crucial force behind society’s ultimate cohesion. I think any future critical work on Bontempelli would benefit from taking a less linear approach in order to understand the deeper metaphysical implications of his style and thematic concerns. To this extent, any socio/political interpretation obscures the true imaginative context of Bontempelli’s goals and accomplishments as a writer and dramatist.

Lastly, I think new readers of Bontempelli would benefit from going directly to the plays in this groundbreaking translation and forestall a reading of the introduction. As well-researched and analytically all-encompassing in its probing of the complex critical, historical and literary milieu that impacted Bontempelli as a writer, I think it more advantageous to read Bontempelli’s three plays without laboring through Gaborik’s intense exploration of every background nuances that may have impacted his work. Her introduction is, in fact, a brilliant work of literary scholarship, but as an introduction prevents a more unimpeded reading of the plays. Her notes on the translations I think provide enough context.

To publish a work in translation, given cultural barriers preventing a full appreciation of an author’s work in their original language, is a difficult decision not impossible to make, but certainly a challenge bridging the natural gap between the translated author and a new reading public. This first translation of three pivotal plays by one of Italy’s most important writers of the 20th century is just such a gamble. Massimo Bontempelli, who weathered through the early 20th century’s avant garde influences of symbolism, futurism and surrealism, created a new literary vernacular long before it became a standard of fictional experiment. Although little known in the West, Bontempelli’s work both as a dramatist and fictional writer should generate more interest with the publication of three of his best plays. His artistic facility and thematic depth shows a prescient awareness of reality’s continual shifting aspects that bring into focus the forever ongoing question of how and where the subjective and objective worlds may often interconnect or even collide.

— Thomas Sanfilip

Back to Top

Copyright © 2016