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Giorgio Strehlers Visual Passage through


Donald McManus

Giorgio Strehler was one of the most influential Italian directors of the twentieth century
and his productions at the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, as well as in France and Germany,
helped define post-war European style, especially in classical repertoire. As his career
developed, he used intertextuality more and more frequently, quoting his own work
through repeated visual motifs and casting choices. Strehler saw his role as the standard
bearer for Italian theatreits physical embodiment, moral conscience and eventual
patron saint. The last phase of his career, typified by his production of Faust, was a
presentation of Italian theatre history distilled as personal memoir.

No production better attests to the self-referential nature of Strehlers career than his
stagings of Goethes Faust, initially presented as Frammenti Parte Prima in 1989 at the
Piccolo Teatro, and played with its second part in 199192. In a long note to his design
team, Strehler acknowledged an uncharacteristic fear and self-doubt: Although we are
only staging fragments they nevertheless are enough to comprise the most difficult
production of my life.1 Christopher Balme placed the Piccolo Faust in a late-twentieth-
century trend of intellectual mega-productions, arguing that its fascination lay in its
incompleteness rather than the brilliance of its mise en scne.2 Rosette C. Lamont, who
described the mise en scne in some detail, called Strehlers Faust one of the sublime
stage works of our time.3Strehler himself referred to the project as the ideal end point of
all my work for the theatre.4 His personal stake in the project was immense. He played
the title role, worked on the Italian translation with dramaturge Gilberto Tofano, and
collaborated with the legendary Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda (1920-2002) on the
set and lighting. Svoboda had worked at the Piccolo Teatro before, but Faust proved to be
the first and last time that Strehler and Svoboda worked together. Both these major
figures of post-war European theatre were to die within ten years of the Faust project.

Strehlers Faust was the ultimate self-referential production, while it also represented a
treatise on the history of Italian theatre. Indeed, it was the meta-theatrical aspect of
Goethes giant poem that initially attracted Strehler to the Faust Project. More than a play,
Strehler called Goethes Faust an impossible venture, which he interpreted as an
astonishing amalgam of dramaturgical styles.5Goethes Faust has been interpreted as a
philosophical treatise, a historical metaphor, a veiled biography of its creator and much
more, but Strehler chose to believe that Faust was about theatrical illusion.6To match
this modernist, or perhaps post-modern, interpretation of Goethes impossible tragedy,
Strehler and Svoboda created a polyvalent visual style that is impossible to describe or
photograph accurately. Like all great theatre, it had to be experienced in three
dimensions, and even then the experience was subtly different for every viewer. The
production was a happy collaboration of two European masters that combined career-
spanning experiments with light and dark, flat composition and plastic elements, baroque
elegance and Brechtian confrontation, the complexity of the natural world and the
controlled, perfectible universe of a finely-tuned theatrical environment.

One of the features of Strehlers style throughout his career was the close rein he kept on
all visual aspects of his projects. He served as lighting designer for the majority of his
productions and was an aggressive partner in the design process even when working
with a figure of Svobodas stature. Sometimes, when two dynamic personalities meet, a
battle of temperament can interfere with the work, but it seems that this was not the case
between Svoboda and Strehler. Svoboda recounted the experience in an interview in

He is professional through and through. The level of his philosophical thinking is remarkable,
he has great artistic, literary and musical feeling. In addition, he is a wonderful actor; after all,
he played Faust in the production which involved exacting performances from a directing and
stage-designing point of view. With a partner like that it is possible to communicate with few
words. We understood each other perfectly. I discovered a lot of things from him. 7

There can be no question about the contribution Svoboda made to Faust, but as the
above quotation implies, Strehler was the controlling influence on all aspects of the
production including design. The Faust project developed into a self-conscious reflection
of Strehlers career at the Piccolo Teatro, and even if it hadnt featured him in the unusual
role of star performer, its visual panache had more to do with Giorgio Strehler than with
the genius behind Pragues Laterna Majika. Svoboda reiterated his admiration for Strehler
in his memoirs, arguing that a visionary artistic director is a vital necessity for every major
theatre: In every theatre that truly functions productively, you will invariably find one
person who really makes it runits impelling spirit or soul. 8 And yet some critics felt that
Strehler had sold his soul to Goethe with his Faust project. 9 The Strehler style, which
David Hirst described as lyrical realism, seemed to have been abandoned for a strange
new historical fascination with spectacle.10 Much of the negative press focused on
Strehlers performance and the audacity of the director stepping into the performers
shoes, but Paolo Paganini defended Strehlers acting, arguing that he had always been a
director/actor who played all the roles in rehearsal.11

I was lucky enough to have witnessed both parts of Faust. I traveled to Milan to
see Frammenti Parte Prima in 1990 and returned to Milan a year later to see Frammenti
Parte Seconda. In hindsight, the experience of viewing the two parts with a years pause
in between may have been preferable to experiencing the whole event, because I had an
entire year to contemplate the goals of the first part before being confronted with a new
set of images. I also had the opportunity to see Strehler perform in camera at the
University of Toronto, where he was a guest of the Italian Institute of Toronto in 1989.
This was the very same year that he attempted his first production of Faust. He gave
readings from Dante and Shakespeare, with veteran Canadian actor Donald Davis
providing English readings of Shakespeares lines after Strehlers recitation of the Italian
version.12 In those informal University of Toronto readings, Strehler was exploring the
central thematic concept for the Strehler/Svoboda Faust. This concept was embedded in
poetry, but conjured a powerful visual idea. He read from Inferno V: 88-142, which

Poi mi rivolsi a loro e parla io,

e cominciai: Francesca, i tuoi martiri
a lacrimar mi fanno tristo e pio.
Ma dimmi: al tempo de dolci sospiri,
a che e come concedette amore
che conoscereste i dubbiosi disiri?
E quella a me: Nessun maggior dolore
che ricordarsi del tempo felice
nella miseria, e ci sa l tuo dottore;
ma sa conoscer la prima radice
del nostro amor tu hai cotanto affetto,
dir come colui che piange e dice. (ll. 115-123)

And then I turned to them: Thy dreadful fate

Francesca, makes me weep, it so inspires
Pity, Said I, and grief compassionate.
Tell mein that time of sighing-sweet desires,
How, and by what, did love his power disclose
And grant you knowledge of your hidden fires?
Then she to me: The bitterest woe of woes
Is to remember in our wretchedness
Old happy times; and this thy Doctor knows.
Yet, if so dear desire thy heart possess
To know that root of love which wrought our fall,
Ill be as those who weep and who confess.13

Strehler, the master director famous for giving line readings to the greatest actors in
Europe, read these lines in an intoned, poetically self-conscious way, which seemed to
entirely miss the point of the verses. Rather than read this section of the Inferno as a
dialogue, differentiating the voices of Dante and Francesca, he immersed the entire text
in a generalized character. The character was that of an aging man who didnt want to
give up on life, women, mystery. At the time I was puzzled by his choice and found his
readings of Italian translations of Shakespeare more compelling than his approach to
Dante. The character he presented was more interested in a dialogue with himself than
with a tangible female other. Initially, I assumed that he was essentially playing himself,
but after seeing Faust I realized that he was exploring how Faust and Strehler could find
common imagistic ground through Dante. He used the staged reading strategy as a
recurring, static, yet daringly simple device between scenes of spectacle in his staging
of Faust.

In Frammenti Parte Prima, Strehler made the extraordinary decision to have two
actresses play Gretchen. Giulia Lazzarini, the same actress who had played Ariel for
Strehler when he presented The Tempest in 1978, was given the responsibility of
performing Gretchens big scenes (made bigger in his version because he turned them
into monologues). But a younger actress, Gaia De Laurentis, played the young Gretchen,
whom Strehler/Faust meets and seduces. Strehler rationalized these apparently radical
choices as attempts to follow Goethes own instructions for production. Goethe left notes
to the effect that he wanted doubles for all his main characters: Faust, Mephistopheles,
Helen, Gretchen, and that each character would be heard speaking but also
singing.14 Strehler had used this dramaturgical strategy earlier in his career when he cast
the same actress, Ottavia Piccolo, as Cordelia and the Fool in his version of King Lear in
1972, and justified it on the grounds that research suggested that Robert Armin (c. 1568-
1611) had played both roles in the original production.15

Giulia Lazzarini as Margherita and Strehler and De Laurentis as Faust and Margherita By permission of the Piccolo Teatro. 16

Svoboda indicated his approval of Strehlers double casting idea, suggesting that it was
the kind of brilliant solution that Strehler consistently made to capture in a concrete,
graphic way, the plays transformational quality: Only an older actress could fulfill the role
of the preceding scene and this young woman suddenly brings onto the stage an
authenticity of youth and inexperience. Brilliant.17Designer and director were preoccupied
with the concept of transformation in their approach to what Strehler himself called an
impossible venture.18 Every aspect of the production was imbued with the
transformational spirit. Mephistopheles never entered the same way twice. He initially
appeared, as if naked, swimming in the primordial ooze, and after hatching from this
frightening image, remained an unstable shape shifter throughout both parts of Faust.
First entrance of Mephistopheles, swimming in primordial ooze. By permission of the Piccolo Teatro. 19

I asked Franco Graziosi, who played Mephistopheles, about the difficulty of maintaining a
consistent character and he answered: Mefistofole non un personaggio, unentit
[Mephistopheles is not a character, he is an entity].

Even more remarkable than Strehlers decision to double cast Gretchens character was
his appropriation of Gretchens role for himself. He read the dialogue between Gretchen
and Faust at a lectern entirely by himself. Lamont has suggested that this decision
succeeded in stripping this episode of its sentimental character.20 There is undeniably
some truth to this interpretation, but turning a dialogue between a man and a woman into
a monologue by a man transforms a mimetically conceived theatrical scene into a
psychomachia poem in the style of Dantes Inferno. The seed of this idea was clearly
derived from Dantes dialogue with Francesca that I had witnessed Strehler read in such
a perversely univocal style earlier that same year. It became clear in Faust that it was
important to Strehler to embody the feminine in performance.

There are several more compelling reasons why Strehlers reading of Dantes Inferno was
relevant to his production of Faust. On the one hand it was an opportunity for Strehler the
actor/translator to practice reciting great poetry. By engaging with great Italian poetry,
Strehler hoped to find the appropriate Italian equivalent for his adaptation of Goethes
German verses. But there is also a direct connection between the visual concept
for Faust and the implied space of Dantes La Divina Commedia. Dantes description of
hell as a series of rings was most famously represented by Sandro Botticelli (c.1445-
1510) in a series of illustrations for a publication of La Divina Commedia.The critic
Jonathan Jones reacted to the theatrical nature of Botticellis renderings when he
reviewed the first complete collection of the sketches: Botticelli's overwhelming concern
is to make the space of Dante's other world real, he wrote. His first drawing is a map of
Dante's hell, visualizing it as a hollow cone with tiersthe circles of hellgetting
narrower as they descend.21Botticellis rendering of the circular, or more precisely spiral
vision of hell was a novel approach and has had a lasting impact on the imagination. 22

Botticellis spiral image was concretized and made actual in Strehlers Faust, drawing a
direct connection between the themes, imagery, and even the action of Dante and
Goethe. Beatrice leads Dante out of hell in a physical way, winding back through the
path, which Dante cannot navigate. Goethes Faust also escapes ultimate damnation by
means of a woman. Christopher Balme has argued that Strehler stressed the climactic
triumph of the feminine in his reading with lunar, female light ultimately outshining the
Apollonian sun.23

Svobodas central scenographic image, a spiral of Japanese silk hung over the main
acting area, was an even more subtle idea than Strehlers notion of reading sections of
the text directly from lecterns to the audience. He wrote:

The integrated acting area is dominated by a huge fabric spiral made from Japanese silk,
three metres wide and several hundreds of metres long. I had already considered the value of
the spiral in connection with the sets for Odysseus presented by the Laterna magika. I
imagined that the boat should have the form of a spiral, it was an attractive option, a whole
universe with black holes was encoded into it At that time we didnt have a proper rehearsal
studio in order to try out the idea.
Giorgio liked my idea of the universe and galaxy along with the metaphorical character
and the ability of this image to metamorphose fascinated us, especially since this was, in fact,
an ordinary rolled up drop, an extremely theatrical element. Between the floor and this galaxy
sits the audience and the play is acted out among them. 24
Svobodas silken spiral agitated with cloud projections and Svobodas sketch for the spiral. By permission of the Piccolo

The spiral of silk was the simplest of devices. For much of the performance the audience
put it out of their minds because it hung above their heads while the focus was directed
on the playing area in front of them. Because of its light color, it made an ideal screen for
projections, but many audience members probably missed the projections depending on
where they were seated and how clearly their focus was directed toward the spiral. The
spiral had a remarkably active quality, transforming through both light and projections, but
also due to its ability to drop from the ceiling and entirely change its shape for specific
moments. The spiral was periodically agitated by fans, adding texture to projected images
of fire and/or clouds and wind, thereby emphasizing its elemental, physical, and plastic
qualities. The program notes refer directly to the extraordinary nature of the spiral:

La scenografia da un lato rimanda alla storia, sia del Faust che della cultura europea, e
dallaltroimmerge la ricerca sul Faust in un conteso contemporaneo. Cos, la muta, misteriosa
spirale di Svoboda, che sovrasta parte dello spazio scenico, allude alla visione tolemaica del
[On the one hand, the design refers to history, both of Faust and of European culture, but the
research on Faust is submerged in a contemporary context. So Svobodas mute, mysterious
spiral, which hung above the scenic space, alluded to the Ptolemaic vision of the world. 27]

Representing the cosmos, heaven, earth and hell in the Teatro Piccolo was a visual way
of drawing a link between a German masterpiece and one of the fundamental texts of
Italian culture, Dantes Commedia, merging cultures across time and descending to
encroach on the present.

The spiral also provided Strehler with an ideal canvas for exploring Goethes
theories of light. Goethes notions about light and human perception of light were heavily
influenced by a dialectical rhetoric that had a neat match with Strehlers interpretation of
Brechtian Gestus. Although critics widely interpreted Faust as a formal breaking away
from Piccolo-style epic theatre, Strehler read the aesthetics from Goethe to Brecht as part
of the same set of questions.28 Goethe equated his investigations in color perception with
epistemological questions. His conception of optical perception, based on the opposition
of light and dark, yellow and blue (he recognized only two primary colors) implied a
contrast between two equal powers, which he called the primordial phenomenon,
immediately behind which one believes that the presence of the Deity can be felt. 29In an
effort to drive home to the audience the dramaturgical connection between
Goethes Faust and Dantes Inferno, the Piccolo Teatro program included a spiralshaped
synopsis of scenes labeled la spirale del viaggio faustiano and color coded to indicate
which steps of Fausts journey were included in the spectacle. 30 The map of Fausts
journey directly evokes Goethes color wheel, mimicking even the subdued tones of the
watercolor image. The first sentence of Strehlers program note to Parte Seconda used
the phrase il Progetto Faust giunto alla met del suo cammino, an oblique reference
to the opening line of La Divina Commedia which begins Nel Mezzo del cammin di
nostra vita Every moderately educated Italian knows these lines, so the connection
between Dante and Goethe would be picked up by most audience members, if not in the
theatre then in the caf afterward, when they were reading the program and meditating
on the significance of the performance.

Insert for the program to Faust Frammenti Parte Seconda indicating Fausts spiral journey.By permission of the Piccolo
Reproduction of Goethes color wheel, matching Goethes original painted color tones. 32
Strehlers Faust managed to integrate one spectacular coup de thtre after
another with the simplest theatrical means possible. Indeed, the scene described above,
in which he chose to read whole sections of the text from lecterns and follow an extremely
static element with the transformation of Gretchen into a young person, is an excellent
example of the counterpoint he developed between barest elements and flamboyant

Strehlers overall goal in drawing a connection between Goethe and Dantes

mythology was to lay a foundation for the Faust project in Italian cultural history.
Strehlers Faust wasnt about Dante. Dante was just the beginning, as if to suggest that
the cultural identity of Italy begins with Dante and perhaps leads to the Piccolo. The
production as a whole worked as a visual and sensual tour of Italian theatre and culture
from the Renaissance onward. The Piccolo Theatre itself and, more specifically,
Strehlers career as a master director, was the unifying theme around which all other
references to Italian theatre, history and culture revolved.

The Piccolo Teatro Studio was a brand new theatre when Faust Parte Prima was
presented in 1989. It is hard to imagine the production being presented in the companys
original theatre (still in use and renamed for Paolo Grassi). Indeed, Strehlers productions
of The Tempest, King Lear and The Cherry Orchard stretched the scenic potential of the
old Piccolo to the limit. The Studio theatre is an extraordinary space, built specifically to
address the scenic limitations of the old Piccolo. It evokes the idealized wooden O of
Shakespeares Globe, but is such an all-encompassing circle that it feels like an
appropriate space for Greek tragedy as well. Much more than a thrust stage, it is almost
equivalent to an arena. At the same time a deep and wide proscenium space, allows
traditional, baroque renderings and hearkens back to the Italian Renaissance
experiments in theatre. Five galleries stacked one on top of the other evoke the great
opera houses of Italy and Germany. It is a space designed to represent all things to all
theatre-goers, yet has a remarkably warm and cohesive quality unlike generic, multi-
purpose houses that feel utilitarian rather than exceptional.

As a self-referential production, Faust was full of quotations from earlier Piccolo

productions and thereby evoked Strehlers collaborations with past designers, most
notably Luciano Damiani and Ezio Frigerio. Strehlers own design for his production of Il
Gioco dei Potenti [Power Games] (1964), an extravaganza based on
Shakespeares Henry VI history plays, was a turning point in his relationship with physical
space in theatre. His collaborations with designers are markedly different after this
production, as if he had to take on the primary design function himself to grapple with
the mise en scne he wanted, before he could communicate his expanded vision of stage
space to a collaborator.

Looking at the development of Strehlers visual style over his long career, the shape
of the studio theatre and the production of Faust that baptized that space seem to create
an inevitable coda to thirty years of meta-theatrical experiments with space. A
monotonous series of flat compositions throughout the nineteen-forties and fifties finally
gave way to a plethora of different attempts to break out of the static old Piccolo
audience-performer relationship. For the breakthrough production of Il Gioco dei
Potenti in 1964, Strehler redefined the Piccolo stage as an octagonal-shaped, wooden
platform stripped completely bare. The sides of the constructed supra stage were
exposed so that the wooden construction was visible. If this production is compared to
Strehlers much praised Coriolano of 1957/8, designed by Damiani, Coriolano appears as
a generic attempt to imply ancient Rome on a proscenium stage, while Il Gioco dei
Potenti is a clear effort to change the familiar Piccolo stage and create an alternative
space that draws attention to itself as a new and different vision insinuating itself on the
given theatrical space.

Coriolano, 1957, and Il Gioco dei Potenti, 1964. By permission of the Piccolo Teatro.33

The 1957 Coriolano reflects Strehlers mentor-protg relationship with the German
playwright, theorist, and director Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956). But by 1964 Strehler had
moved beyond Brechts dialectic-inspired epic theatre, reflected in his production
of Coriolano, and evolved his own, idiosyncratic meta-theatre in Il Gioco dei
Potenti34. Similarly, Strehlers various productions of Brechts own plays reflect his
evolving autonomy from the master. Strehlers first production of Brechts Good Woman
of Setzuan in 1957 was very much in the tradition of a Brecht/Berliner ensemble
production, but his two later versions in the mid-eighties and nineties broke with Brechts
approach, at least as far as scenic ideas were concerned. The visual ideas of Il Gioco are
still evident in Damianis conception of Strehlers Lear in 1972.
Lear 1972. By permission of the Piccolo Teatro.35

Strehler developed away from political didacticism, although he maintained a strong

social commentary and political metaphor in his work. It isnt that he broke with Brechts
theatrical philosophy self consciously, but his productions became more visual and
increasingly explored issues of personal morality thematically, and classical modernism
aesthetically. With each decade his productions were more clearly driven by formal
considerations. Whereas such productions as Coriolano and Three Penny Opera were
visually tied to the Brecht/Berliner theory and the aesthetic program that went with
it, Lear, The Tempest andultimately Faust were about the relationship of human bodies to
space, light, and form as much as they were about human beings caught in the class
struggle or the march of history.36

Strehlers design for Il Gioco dei Potenti made the floor itself the primary scenic
element. This idea was elaborated on by Damiani in the Strehler/Damiani production
of King Lear 1972/73, and subsequently reflected in Svobodas obsessive attention to the
floor of the Piccolo Teatro Studio for Faust. As Svoboda described it,

The floor was a set design in itself. I joined the stage and the auditorium with it, it gave the
effect of an undulating summer field around Cslav, it could split or be tilted as required. It
was made out of wonderful two-inch pieces of wood, rubbed with sand so it looked as if it
were three hundred years old. However the greatest beauty of it was that it functioned with
absolutely no noise. We were very proud of that.37
View of the texture of the floor with scrim separating thrust and proscenium but maintaining depth for lunar projection. By
permission of the Piccolo Teatro.38

The subtle beauty of the floor, of which Svoboda was so proud, is almost impossible to
capture in stills of the production. It is tempting to think that Svoboda was purposely
trying to contradict a basic tenet of scenography. As Harry Feiner put it: The more the
audience sees of the floor, the less capable a composition is of dominating in the vertical
realm.39 Feiner is of course right, but as is often the case exceptional minds break basic
rules. Svoboda had a remarkably dynamic vertical component in the spiral, yet the floor
was ablaze with projected images that seem to have suggested an earth bound, wooden
projection screen in competition with the ethereal beauty of the silken spiral.
Strehler as Faust with projections on floor behind him. By permission of the Piccolo Teatro. 40

Stage floor seen from gallery with curtain cutting off proscenium aperture. By permission of the Piccolo teatro.41

The floor was an earthy, wooden counterpart to the silky spiral above, but when the
projections filled the theatre the heavens (spiral) and earth (floor) became a seamless
screen. The projections were a unifying physical device and also relevant to Strehlers
overall reading of Goethes play as one that was about theatrical style. Projections of
rococo and Renaissance paintings blurred the separation between earth and heaven,
stalls and proscenium and, more importantly, they blurred the distance between old
artistic craftsmanship and new technology. The images that were projected tended
always to be of old masters or evocative of theatrical ideas from the past, but the means
of presenting them were aggressively contemporary. In this way, the production reflected
Strehlers attitude about Italys place in European culture not from a nostalgic point of
view, but rather contextualized it from a contemporary point of view.

Strehlers obsessive attention to the floor and the extraordinary spiral above were
part of a continuing fascination with altering the playing space, and thus expanding the
audiences expectations of where action and visual excitement might come from. His
earlier production of The Tempest was preoccupied with the same idea. Giulia Lazzarini
played Ariel in both Faust and The Tempest and Strehler quoted his earlier concept
directly in the later incarnation.42
Giulia Lazzarini as Ariel with Strehler as Faust (left) and with Tino Carraro as Prospero in La Tempesta (right). By permission
of the Piccolo Teatro.

Prosperos island was a stark patch of boarded stage with a trap door out of which a
pseudo-African Caliban appeared in the same way that Mephistopheles comes from the
ooze in Faust. Even more significantly, Ariels entrances defy gravity and define the area
between floor and heaven as a theatrical playing space.
If Strehlers Faust was a scenographic exploration of the Italian theatrical heritage as well
as a messianic identification of Strehler the Maestro as personification of this heritage,
this was not always part of the Strehler/Piccolo rhetoric. Strehlers attitude about the
history of Italian theatre was very idiosyncratic and he only came to have the vision of
Italys place in the overall history of arts late in his career. Not so long before, in an
interview published in The Drama Review in 1964, Strehler and fellow Piccolo founder
Paolo Grassi freely gave their own version of the state of Italian theatre before the
foundation of the Piccolo. In this interview, Strehler and Grassi went to great lengths to
separate themselves from the Italian cultural tradition, because the stain of historical
events had tainted so much of it. Because of this uneasiness with their own cultural
milieu, Strehler and Grassi suggested that the renovation of Italian theatre must begin as
if no past existed. They made several hyperbolic statements about the poor state of
Italian theatre in the twentieth century, affirming that there was no real tradition of
dramatic literature in Italy, and pointed to assumedly political and social reasons as well
external factors to account for this cultural demise. In addition, they also referred to a
national tendency to keep away from theatre. Although it is not true that Italians act, they
argued, their lives are theatrical and even the Italian cities have a theatrical quality, and
this feature could explain why Italians go rarely to the theatre.43 Moreover, according to
Strehler, the Italian city and weather conspire against theatre because Italians would
rather be in the piazza than inside a playhouse. The fact that Italy was home to
the commedia dellarte and a vibrant written theatrical tradition from the Renaissance to
the establishment of the united, modern Italy is given slight reference by the Piccolos
founders. Clearly, for Strehler and Grassi the opening of the Piccolo in 1947 seems to
have been year one in the history of modern Italian theatre and reading this interview
today one is reminded of the profound trauma that the Fascist experience had on the
cultural psyche of the nation. Thus, the ultimate enemy of the Piccolo aesthetic was
apparently the bourgeois theatre which, so Grassi and Strehler claimed, was promoted
by the Fascist regime. Marinetti, Duse, Pirandello, Boito and DAnnunzio were all tainted
by the Fascist era, either by naivet, complicity or necessity. Nevertheless, no matter how
the relationship of these artists to the Fascist era is interpreted, they were not bourgeois
followers of French boulevard fashion. Marinetti was indeed one of the most
wholehearted supporters of Mussolinis regime but he was also the avant-garde
antithesis of bourgeois theatre. Reading this interview today, one is reminded of the
profound trauma that the Fascist experience had on the cultural psyche of the nation.
Clearly, for Strehler and Grassi the opening of the Piccolo in 1947 seems to have been
year one in the history of modern Italian theatre.

The instability of political labels and artistic programs was brought home to Strehler
in 1966. It was the period of student unrest in Italy and most of Western Europe. The
contestazione, was a student-driven movement that protested against everything from
the college entrance exams to cultural exclusivity and Strehler was suddenly accused of
being the bourgeois manager he had earlier deplored. The contestazione taught me a
terrible lesson: one wakes up one morning and discovers that one is right wing,
considered conservative by everyone, while the night before you felt that you were left
wing and one of the avant-garde, he wrote.44
The style that Strehler became famous for and that he referred to in visual
quotations in Faust, was not developed until the mid-sixties and perfected in the
seventies, while the maturity of his approach to text and presentation, at least in visual
terms, came after the shock he had at discovering that he was part of the establishment
after all. After a six-year hiatus from the theatre, Strehler returned to the Piccolo with a
visual palette that was broader than ever. Faust, more than any other single production,
was the performed memoir of a single director, but it was also a thesis play that placed
the Italian theatrical tradition within the context of European history, complete with guilt,
sin, sensuality, and visual panache.

Strehler as Faust cowering before the image of God in Faust.By permission of the Piccolo Theatre.45

1. Nonostante si tratti solo di frammenti essi per bastano per costituire lo
spettacolo pi difficile della mia vita. Lettera allo scenografo del Faust

2. Christopher Balme Giorgio Strehlers Faust Project: Signification and Reception

Strategies, New Theatre Quarterly (1993) 9: 211-224.[back]

3. Rosette C. Lamont, Giorgio Strehlers Faust II, Western European Stages 3, no.
2(Fall 1991): 5.[back]

4. Interview with Ugo Ronfani, Il Giorno, June 21, 1988, quoted by Christopher
Balme in Giorgio Strehlers Faust Project: Signification and Reception
Strategies, New Theatre Quarterly 9 (1993): 212.[back]

5. See Rosette C. Lamont, Conversation with Giorgio Strehler, Western European

Stages 3, no. 2(Fall 1991): 66.[back]

6. Lamont, Conversation with Giorgio Strehler, 66.[back]

7. Even a Disciplined Stage Designer Has His Dreams: An Interview, Theatre

Czech & Slovak (December 1992): 55.[back]

8. The Secret of Theatrical Space: The Memoirs of Josef Svoboda, ed. and trans.
J.M. Burian (New York: Applause, 1993), 102.[back]

9. The cover of Sipario (June 1991), announced Strehler Vende Lanima a


10. David L. Hirst, Giorgio Strehler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993),
25. [back]

11. Paolo A. Paganini, "Questioni pi o meno opinabili" Corriere del Ticino, March 30,
1989, 33.[back]

12. Also included in the program were sonnets by Petrarch and poems by
Michelangelo Buonnarotti, Eugenio Montale and others.[back]

13. Translation by Istituto Italiano di Cultura, in Incontro. Giorgio Strehler (Toronto:

Istituto Italiano di Cultura, 1989), 7.[back]

14. Lamont Conversation with Giorgio Strehler, 10.[back]

15. Giorgio Strehler, Appunti per la Regia, in Re Lear di Shakespeare (Verona:

Bertani, 1973), 31.[back]
16. Images are copyright protected and used by permission of the Piccolo Teatro
archive at[back]

17. Even a Disciplined Stage Designer Has His Dreams, 55.[back]

18. Lamont Conversation with Giorgio Strehler, 66.[back]

19. Images are copyright protected and used by permission of the Piccolo Teatro
archive at[back]

20. Lamont, Giorgio Strehlers Faust, Western European Stages Volume 1, no. 1
(Fall 1989), 8.[back]

21. Jonathan Jones, One hell of combination The Guardian (February 10, 2001)
Review Section, 5.[back]

22. For an image of the spiral and an extended discussion of Botticellis narrative

23. Balme, Giorgio Strehlers Faust Project, 218219.[back]

24. Even a Disciplined Stage Designer Has His Dreams, 55.[back]

25. Images are copyright protected and used by permission of the Piccolo Teatro
archive at[back]

26. Flavia Foradini, Faust sulle scene: unepisodica fortuna, in Program Notes to
Faust frammenti parte prima e seconda, March,

27. My translation.[back]

28. See Enrico Groppali Grandioso teatro-saggio questo Faust, Sipario (June
1991), 10.[back]

29. Robert A. Crone, A History of Color: The Evolution of Theories of Lights and
Color (Boston: Kluwar Academic Publishers, 1999), 116.[back]

30. These Dante-inspired inserts were clearly very important to Strehler because they
were given to all ticket buyers, not only the people who purchased the glossy,
souvenir programs. [back]
31. Image is copyright protected and used by permission of the Piccolo Teatro
archive at[back]

32. See[back]

33. Images are copyright protected and used by permission of the Piccolo Teatro
archive at[back]

34. See discussion in Hirst, Giorgio Strehler, 6389.[back]

35. Images are copyright protected and used by permission of the Piccolo Teatro
archive at[back]

36. For Strehlers productions of Shakespeare see Donald C. McManus,

Giorgio Strehler,The Routledge Companion to Director's
Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown (London: Routledge, 2008),
441456. For a detailed discussion of Strehlers Tempest see Arthur
Horowitz, Prosperos True Preservers (Newark: University of Delaware Press,
2004), 22243.[back]

37. Even a Disciplined Stage Designer Has His Dreams, 55.[back]

38. Images are copyright protected and used by permission of the Piccolo Teatro
archive at

39. Harry Feiner, Ideational Conflict and Resolution in the Design Process, Theatre
Arts Journal: Studies in Scenography and Performance 1, issue 1 (Fall

40. Images are copyright protected and used by permission of the Piccolo Teatro
archive at[back]

41. Images are copyright protected and used by permission of the Piccolo Teatro
archive at[back]

42. Compare the images of Ariel from La Tempesta and from Faust:[back]


44. Sixteen Years of the Piccolo Teatro, Tulane Drama Review 8, no. 3 (Spring,
1964), 29.[back]

45. Giorgio Strehler, Per un teatro umano (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1974), 51. My
46. Images are copyright protected and used by permission of the Piccolo Teatro
archive at[back]

Donald McManus is Associate Professor of Theatre Studies at Emory University

and resident artist at Theater Emory in Atlanta. He has worked professionally as an
actor, director, dramaturg, musician, and clown in Canada, the United States, Asia
and Europe. Mc Manus is the author of Emmett Kelly: The Greatest Clown on
Earth (2014) and No Kidding! Clown as Protagonist in Twentieth-Century
Theater (2003) that was an American Library Association Choice Award winning
Outstanding Academic Title in 2004.