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The Introduction’s Prologue “Mussolini as Actor” reconstructs a tendency – alive in both popular and scholarly discourse – to castigate Italian dictator Benito Mussolini as an uncultured buffoon, a histrionic personality more interested in putting on a show than in governing his country. Teasing out the ways in which such an image resides within broader narratives that dismiss fascism itself as spectacle, Gaborik makes the case for a new approach to fascist studies that uses the theatre not as a metaphor but as a key object of investigation. The second part of the introduction, “From Theatre History to Fascist Historiography,” lays out how the study of performance and theatrical institutions in Mussolini's Italy can offer new perspectives not just on the dictator’s cultural proclivities (and appreciation for the performing arts) but on fascism itself: the centrality of arts and culture to its domestic and foreign policy goals, the surprisingly complex relationship of Italy’s intellectuals with il Duce and his regime, and the very totalitarian nature of the fascist State.
“Mussolini the Critic” explores the dictator’s engagement with his preferred contemporary dramatists: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Luigi Pirandello, and George Bernard Shaw. Moving from a recounting of il Duce’s personal acquaintance with the writers into a discussion of how he interpreted their works (drawing on his writings and interviews and various third-party testimonies), the chapter identifies the theatrical traditions that inspired the dictator and shaped his thinking, and works through the philosophical elements that united the authors and drew Mussolini to them: Nietzschean exaltations of the will to power; the command of word and ritual in moving the modern masses; the celebration of intuitive action; and, most surprisingly, a fascination for heroic, rebellious women. The chapter concludes with reflections on fascism’s reputed “aesthetic pluralism,” suggesting that the ideological affinities in such apparently different authors counters the reigning postulate that this perceived pluralism is the result of an ideological vacuity in fascist thought.
Chapter 4, “Mussolini the Censor,” discusses his role in the theatrical censorship process, which he centralized in 1931 and presided over, directly and indirectly, for the decade that followed. It gives ample space to previously unexplored archival documents, including scripts as sent to and then modified by the censor, Leopoldo Zurlo, and to this official’s 1952 memoir. Reconstructing the management of hot-button themes and authors both native and foreign, unknown and famous (like Bernard Shaw, Pirandello, and the then emerging Vitaliano Brancati), the analysis covers the rules and their exceptions, censorship as it was stipulated on paper and what it looked like in actual practice. Juxtaposing these stories and analyses with statistical evidence, the chapter provides a comprehensive picture of the dictatorship’s theatre censorship that enables comparison – of fascism to the periods that came before and after, and of Italy to the world beyond its borders. The emerging image is of a process less unique and draconian but perhaps more unsettling than often imagined.
In “Mussolini the Dramatist,” the reader will follow the dictator’s collaboration with Giovacchino Forzano – one of Italy’s most despised men of the theatre – on the writing of three historical dramas: Campo di Maggio (about Napoleon’s last hundred days), Villafranca (about Statesman Camillo Cavour and the Italian Unification), and Cesare (about that famed Roman dictator). Probing Mussolini's long-standing belief in history’s ability to educate and inspire the national community, his constant recourse to historical analogy to tell fascism’s story and his own, and the importance that he and his hierarchs placed on cultural authority in the consolidation of fascism’s power at home and abroad, the chapter tells the sometimes entertaining story of the smashing success of three mediocre plays. A final section on this success in the territories of Nazi Germany, where more than 400 performances of the plays were staged, describes the deployment of il Duce’s image and authority in fascist strategies for building soft power.
“Mussolini the Impresario, I: Fascism and the Art Theatre” retraces Mussolini's first incursions into the world of theatrical sponsorship with two Roman playhouses: Luigi Pirandello’s Teatro d’Arte di Roma and Anton Giulio Bragaglia’s Teatro Sperimentale degli Indipendenti. Casting these early endeavors as exploratory missions to determine what kinds of artistic partnerships – and what kinds of plays – could benefit the fascist “revolution,” Gaborik uses performance analysis, official and private correspondence, and journalistic reporting to reconstruct developments in the regime’s patronage schemes and Mussolini's collaboration strategies. These case studies reveal complex negotiations, agreements between intellectual courtiers and their king, rather than a simplistic wielding of the authoritarian’s carrot or stick. Further, through a focus on Pirandello’s and Bragaglia’s revolutionary methods, particularly their championing of the theatre director (a figure then unfamiliar in Italy), the chapter highlights il Duce’s desire for innovation and his optimism that high art could help achieve his political ends.
From the time Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, it was at war; there in East Africa, behind Franco in Spain, conquering Albania, and finally allied with Hitler in the twentieth century’s greatest calamity. If the imperial conquests pleased and even rallied Italians to the fascist – or at least the Nation’s – cause, the alliance with the Nazis, the repercussions of ongoing warfare, and the perception that Italy might not come out victorious meant that the Duce’s star had begun to fade.
The culminating chapter, “Mussolini the Impresario, II: Fascism and the Theatre for Masses,” provides a panoramic look at the numerous regime-sponsored theatrical endeavors developed mainly in the 1930s. Breaking with the tendency to read these as a rupture with the more liberal, vanguard proposals of the 1920s, the author draws several lines of continuity between fascism’s two decades and across a variety of performance-related initiatives – including the Carri di Tespi mobile theatres, the Theatrical Saturday for urban laborers, the Fascist University Groups’ Experimental Playhouse Network, the National Institute for Ancient Drama, and the foundation of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts – and considers them as single elements of a comprehensive plan that sought to meet the dictator’s explicit call for a production system that would simultaneously provide access, pedagogy, and innovation. The chapter offers a new concept for understanding the regime’s theatrical politics: neither the so-called aestheticization of politics nor the politicization of aesthetics, Mussolini's method was that of a strategic aestheticism, which would nevertheless satisfy the needs of art and of politics at one and the same time.
Benito Mussolini has persistently been described as an 'actor' – and also as a master of illusions. In her vividly narrated account of the Italian dictator's relationship with the theatre, Patricia Gaborik discards any metaphorical notions of Il Duce as a performer and instead tells the story of his life as literal spectator, critic, impresario, dramatist and censor of the stage. Discussing the ways in which the autarch's personal tastes and convictions shaped, in fascist Italy, theatrical programming, she explores Mussolini's most significant dramatic influences, his association with important figures such as Luigi Pirandello, Gabriele D'Annunzio and George Bernard Shaw, his oversight of stage censorship, and his forays into playwriting. By focusing on its subject's manoeuvres in the theatre, and manipulation of theatrical ideas, this consistently illuminating book transforms our understandings of fascism as a whole. It will have strong appeal to readers in both theatre studies and modern Italian history.