Review: Watching the Moon and Other Plays by Massimo Bontempelli
By: Thomas Sanfilip
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 is a poet and writer whose work has appeared in the Shore Poetry Anthology, Thalassa, Ivory Tower, Nit & Wit, Tomorrow, Ginosko Literary Journal, Maudlin House, Feile-Festa, and Per Contra. Five collections of poetry have been published — By the Hours and the Years (Branden Press, 1974), Myth/A Poem (Iliad Press, 2002), The Art of Anguish (2004), Last Poems (2007), Figures of the Muse (2012), in addition to a collection of short fiction, The Killing Sun (2006). Poetry in the Age of Impurity, a collection of published and unpublished essays, was published in 2013 by Bigio Morato. Presently he lives in the Chicago area and has written for a variety of other publications, including Rattle, The Literary Yard, Book Page, Rain Taxi, Letter Ex, Filmfax, Film Quarterly, Film Score Monthly, The Journal of Popular Film and Television, and the Walt Whitman Encyclopedia.