The Social Network: Power Relations, the Body, and the Struggle for Freedom
This paper was originally written for a graduate class at Columbia titled Pirandello and Modern Italian Theatre. The assignment for the final paper was open ended, but I was particularly interested in the overlooked Teatro Grottesco, which was quickly overshadowed by Pirandello and other more “avant-garde” modernists. My paper analyzes Luigi Chiarelli’s play La maschera e il volto through the lens of modern cultural theory in order to better understand Chiarelli’s positioning of his characters’ desires against the imposing and oppressive expectations of Italian society. By utilizing theories posited by Foucault, Butler, Althusser, and Gramsci, my paper investigates the effect of societal constraints (considered public) on the individual body (considered private) over which the characters assume they have control. The latter part of the paper examines Chiarelli’s proposed solutions to what he identifies as a loss of control over one’s own existence when tied into a series of social expectations as re-injecting emotionality into a social institutions—i.e., marriage, law— that have become increasingly sterile and cerebral. At the heart of the paper is positioning Chiarelli as far more theoretically radical than he is normally given credit for, as he tries to navigate the definitions of “identity” as similarity and sameness versus “identity” as unrepeatable uniqueness.
Luigi Chiarelli’s play La maschera e il volto opens with the protagonist, Paolo, confidently asserting that he would kill his wife without question if she ever were to cheat. The bourgeois family and the conventions that govern its existence are turned upside down once Paolo’s wife Savina actually does commit adultery with his lawyer and friend Luciano. It is through this plot’s lens that Chiarelli, the World War I era playwright, creates teatro grottesco, a new genre that utilizes the structure of the well-made play to satirize psychological dramas and reveal social conventions as empty, imposing, and limiting. Because La maschera e il volto “[deals] with the discrepancy between the attitudes imposed on people by societal codes and their true feelings” (Marrone 459), Chiarelli is able to write far beyond his era, delving deeply into the effects that larger systems have on the bodies of the play’s individuals. As Paolo struggles to shirk his anxieties about adhering to societal expectations, he also struggles to return to a passionate relationship with his still-alive wife Savina. In his portrayal of the policing function of marriage, the law, and interpellated roles, Chiarelli forces the audience to question how the hegemonic systems with which they engage are both constitutive and constituting, permeating even the most minute aspects of everyday life and creating a web of seemingly innocuous relations that bind them to the conventions they so desperately try to escape.
La maschera e il volto as purposely avoids the psychological terrain Pirandello later masters, revealing Chiarelli’s preoccupations to be less concentrated on singular bodies but rather with bodies as they relate to one another. He was far more concerned with the interactions between individuals and the society at large, questioning how people fit into the larger network of rules and regulations. The central question at the heart of La maschera e il volto seems to ask who or what wears la maschera at any given moment. By exposing on stage a potentially inescapable system of power relations to which individuals often submit without proper awareness or critique, Chiarelli forces his audiences to reflect on their own relationships with societal conventions. In La maschera e il volto, Paolo, the protagonist the audience roots for recognizes the theatricality of his existence, going so far as to say, “you would think they’re waiting for the door of a theatre to open” (Vena 78), revealing the play as a metacritique, blurring the boundaries between the stage and the audience. Chiarelli’s attempt to reveal the inner workings of a system relies on difficulties that are twofold: first, the difficulty of representing an amorphous network of intangibles that constitute any “system.” The second difficulty, then, becomes defining exactly what this “system” is: that is, what constitutes it and what it constitutes in turn.
Superficially, Chiarelli draws attention to the shortcomings of marriage and its trappings. Most critics focus on marriage as the societal imposition that the play’s characters struggle with most: “Chiarelli’s polemical reform aimed at subverting all aspects of bourgeois comedy…using the traditional triangle of husband-wife-lover” archetypal of teatro borghese (Marrone 459). Chiarelli presents marriage as an institution that people question rarely, if ever. His characters obsess over shaping themselves to fit the preexisting model instead of vice versa: “It’s just a question of getting used to it” (Vena 59). Chiarelli throws a wrench in this model when his characters take lovers and even re-marry, disrupting the narrative of marriage as a monumental institution. By complicating these supposedly sacred, often religious, bonds of companionship, he demonstrates that these relationships at the very base of a solid bourgeois are not as stable as they seem.
Chiarelli draws attention to the problems of marriage as institution by injecting the sub-narrative of the American husband-wife-lover triangle that opens the play and sets the plot in motion. The song of the Americans haunts the stage, as it is “heard rising from the lake…[and lasts] until the end of the act” (Vena 68), always serving as a soundtrack to the play’s unfolding plot. The characters discuss the American story as a Chekhovian gun, placed expertly as a what-if scenario that foreshadows the Paolo-Savina-Luciano love triangle. The American woman took a lover in an effort to find passionate love she was not finding in her marriage. While the women—Elisa and Wanda—look upon the couple whimsically, sighing “Dear things!” and “Is she beautiful?” Paolo takes this opportunity to make the bold statement that for “a forgiving husband…nothing is left but suicide” (Vena 51), entrapping himself in an a statement that will no doubt be challenged as the play progresses.
To presume that Chiarelli’s takes issue only with marriage as an institution, as scholars often do when fixating on bourgeois love triangles, seems superficial in the face of his equally fervent fixation on the law as another restrictive force. As soon as Paolo mentions, “marriage is a pact for life” (Vena 60), the audience is forced to abandon perceptions of marriage as strictly a religious institution and remember that it is also a legally binding contract. In fact, Chiarelli’s characters refer to marriage using language of rights, duties, and obligations. When Paolo asserts that he would not hesitate to murder Savina if she were ever to commit adultery, he says, “a man is always within his rights” (Vena 51), indicating that there is inherent logic to the institution of marriage as something that, if transgressed, must be met with appropriate punishment. When Marco says, “no harm, you see, when things are done correctly” (Vena 71), the audience again sees that there is supposedly a clearly delineated “correct” way of doing things and a way that could result in justifiable harm. In his treatment of these externally imposed obligations Chiarelli reveals the pitfalls of adhering to such rigid restrictions, as Paolo is made a fool in the face of his own blind obedience: “You lack the strength, the courage to overcome the terror of ridicule” (Vena 75).
Paolo is the character that most seeks validation from the law. For the characters, the law seems to act as a disembodied conscience that acts on them externally, as they struggle to calibrate what they feel internally with what this exterior conscience tells them to feel: “But men, in the grandeur of their court of law, have legalized your actions. Therefore, make peace with your conscience, just as you are at peace with the rest of society” (Vena 70). So long as there exists this disconnect between what is expected and what actually is, the characters continue to thrive on courts’ “stoning you with blows of enthusiasm” (Vena 74). So long as the characters view the law as the authoritative gatekeeper that permits acceptable actions and judges unfavorably those actions it deems uncouth, they seek validation. Yet they also seem self-aware enough to note that the jury, the judge, and the people repeated the story to Paolo so that “maybe [he could] convince [himself]” (Vena 75). Here, Chiarelli draws attention to self-critique and self-satisfaction as a saving grace that Paolo has not yet achieved.
This disconnect between external expectations and individual feelings of self-worth also ensures the characters will always feel the burden of potential transgression between the “normal” and “abnormal,” a condition that French social theorist Michel Foucault describes in his 1975 work Discipline and Punish in his chapter titled “Panopticism.” Delineating these spaces of “normal” and “abnormal” permits and preserves ubiquitous and potentially oppressive power structures. He asserts that disciplining occurs via “the existence of a whole set of techniques and institutions for measuring, supervising, and correcting the abnormal” (Foucault 199). In fact, he claims that these dichotomies that Chiarelli’s characters experience—right versus wrong, internal desire and belief versus external validation—exist to test this normalcy: “all authorities exercising individual control function according to a double mode: that of binary division and branding (mad / sane; dangerous / harmless; normal /abnormal” (Foucault 199). He also describes that the disciplining becomes further reinforced, as it is embedded in a network where all others also feel the burden of these dichotomies. Cirillo stating, “when there are so many of us in the same boat, we feel normal!” (Vena 60), indicates the consolation characters feel in external validation from their peers. In La maschera e il volto, Cirillo declares, “in life, there’s nothing to show because everything is evident” (Vena 75), indicating that so many people are tied into this web of externally imposed consciousness that they are placated into a state of not questioning the seeming naturalness of this web.
Chiarelli exposes this legal system as a regulatory force by allowing the law to penetrate social and familial relations, even inserting itself into the fabric of the text in its driest jargon. The audience cannot help but cringe at Marco reciting penal code and foundational legal language on stage, as he refers to “perjury,” “article 279,” “suicide,” “homicide,” and “article 211 of the Penal Code” (Vena 95). What is most striking about this recitation of jargon is Marco’s nonchalance in its delivery. It is as if Marco expects Paolo to either be familiar with these laws or have internalized them completely. Marco here is directly addressing Paolo’s identity as a citizen, as he casually recalls the statute regarding “another person’s identity or status, etc., etc” (Vena 95). However, the audience—and presumably Paolo—is left to wonder exactly what other categories are included in those “etceteras” and what happens to characters like Paolo who have not fully internalized the law enough to be able to fill in those blanks. Perhaps it is precisely this failure to internalize legal jargon that condemns Paolo to a life of permanent transgression and judgment, as he is unable to align his internal monologue with society’s legal values.
The law is further portrayed as an oppressive and corrupt force “screwing” the characters over, as Luciano, the lawyer and “representative of the law” (Vena 98) to this particular social group, is literally the guy “screwing” Paolo’s wife. Luciano is thus the strongest arm of the law, as he has the power to literally penetrate the boundary between his public and private roles while still managing to escape relatively unscathed. However, that being said, even though Luciano is a man of the law, he also demonstrates how easily the law unravels in its own rigidity, as Savina rejoices, “I destroyed him with his own words, those of the defense” (Vena 94). With this action, Chiarelli seems to suggest that only actively engaging with the intrusive and normalizing system can begin to adequately address and challenge it.
Yet Chiarelli also seems to suggest that marriage and law are just two institutions of many that comprise a far larger web of power relations that structure Paolo and Savina’s experiences on the ground. Chiarelli gives the audience an indication that the system is totalizing when Paolo says, “Oh, here I am, caught in my own net” (Vena 85), forcing the audience to question not only what type of net he refers to but how far it reaches. The opening stage directions also point to the “card table” (Vena 49). Once Paolo expounds his plan of action, the game begins (Vena 53), as if the verbal articulation of his in-case-of-adultery contingency plan animates the plot and the “game” they play. Yet, the stage directions and dialogue never indicate that the game ends. They are always deeply ensconced in the game and no one is ever winning, revealing the tautological nature of being stuck in a “net” of expectations and rules that dominate an existence where “it is because it is” since, as Cirillo says, “everything is evident” (Vena 75).
Chiarelli slowly builds to a removed bird’s eye view, as he continually zooms out, allowing the audience to see a more complete picture of the system in all its complexity, as he works to expose even the minutest relations it commands. In this summer home on Lake Como, it seems that the only connections with the outside world arrive via newspapers, letters, telegrams, and the occasional foreign tourist that seem to invade what is supposed to be a removed space. The newspapers and letters seem to reflect a system of watching, surveillance, and external validation, as Paolo notices “a newspaper in Luciano’s hands” (Vena 76), where Luciano reads about the off-stage trial he won on Paolo’s behalf even though they are now technically free from the court’s intervention. Savina even goes so far as to use the newspaper synopsis of the proceedings as an arm of the law against Luciano, “she takes a newspaper, unfolds it, begins to read in a cold and ironic voice a passage from the harangue that Luciano had delivered in court” (Vena 93). However, it is the eroticized letters of female admirers longing for the passionate love that would drive a husband to kill that reveal to Paolo the twisted logic and inverted moralism of a system that encourages and reinforces this behavior. These written statements constitute a type of cultural production Renate Holub notes Antonio Gramsci expanded upon in his Prison Notebooks when observing the reading material of fellow inmates: “everything which influences of is able to influence public opinion, directly or indirectly” (Holub 104). That is, these pieces of culturally produced text represent but also help reify cultural norms.
The absence of a court scene in a physical legal space in a play that centers on the interaction between the Law in the abstract and the citizens in its jurisdiction suggests that judgment must happen elsewhere. Whereas a physical courtroom would indicate a centralized and concentrated space for the law to come down on the characters, Chiarelli suggests that trial-by-peers and other societal institutions from which people seek validation serve the same function and diffuse power. There is no distinction between the lawmaking institution and the Lake Como summer home. Here, spatiality is indistinctive as the outside breaches the inside along with the public and the private. The moving back and forth across the physical threshold (“have you opened the veranda door?” (Vena 54)) lets the physical exterior move inside and vice versa. Chiarelli seems to emphasize the claustrophobia of the house, as Marta mentions the physically monumental space: “And always there within those four walls” (Vena 78) just before Paolo and Savina plan to break free forever. Chiarelli forces his audience to consider how a “space for freedom” would look as Savina exclaims, “I want so much to go about freely in my, our house” (Vena 90). The audience is left to wonder whether the private home is the more oppressive space or whether it is more restrictive to exist mostly in the outside world of authoritative publicness. For Chiarelli, no space is safe. Even the seemingly defined corporeal boundaries delineated by living bodies are challenged, as “[Luciano] is a man who has seen a corpse revived” (Vena 93). Witnessing a resurrection indicates the complete breakdown of the boundaries that results from transgression, where “the crime was only a point of departure” (Vena 76), merely something that pulled the loose string that eventually helped to unravel the tightly wound web and collapsed these boundaries.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault elaborates on Jeremy Bentham’s prison panopticon, expanding its reach to a wider network of micro power relations, as “a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men” (205). The Foucauldian panopticon “is a type of location of bodies in space, of distribution of individuals in relation to one another, of hierarchical organization and channels and powers…of modes of intervention of power” (Foucault 205) where men can exert physical power on one another (Foucault 225). That is to say, it is not a singular power but is far more dispersed through social relations, giving it a ubiquity since “it is a way of making power relations function in a function, and of making function power through these power relations” (Foucault 207). Foucault describes the way in which this type of power dispersion becomes totalizing since it exists in a “continuous hierarchical figure…without division” (197), engaging every being as regulated and regulating. Everyone takes on a policing function, as” inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere” (Foucault 195). Thus, in the Foucauldian model, since people both act and are acted upon, there exists an “automatic functioning of power” (201). In La maschera e il volto, the characters constantly judge each other, creating an awareness of the social gaze that governs their actions. Paolo, for example, has no intention of killing Savina but feels obligated to assert his dominance as both a man and a husband because “there is nothing worse than ridicule” (Vena 51). Insofar as they are all pressured into shotgun marriages and judging their peers, they, the “inmates,” become “caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers” (Foucault 201). There is an even hierarchy and dispersion of power, as there are so many characters with such indistinctive personalities and characteristics that they become mostly interchangeable.
Revealing how embedded this social group is in the larger lattice of power relations also reveals this type of power as a pacifying force. Paolo finds the contrarian task daunting, shouting, “I don’t want to know anything” (Vena 74), exposing this system as one that pacifies and pass-ifies insofar as it removes the characters from agency. Thus, in Gramscian terms, one can say that this system exudes a certain hegemonic function. According to Williams, who wrote an explanation of Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony in his work Marxism and Literature, “hegemony…is a whole body of practices and expectations…It is a lived system of meanings and values—constitutive and constituting—which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming” (110). Moreover, Renate Holub, also seeking to explore Gramsci’s literary relevance in her Antonio Gramsci: Beyond Marxism and Postmodernism, elaborates further, describing hegemony as a dominant force that “can coerce, via its institutions of law, police army, and persons, the various strata of society into consenting to the status quo” (6). The more dastardly component of hegemony is the public’s complicity in its perpetuation via “spontaneous consent” that ensures domination “precisely because domination consists not only institutions, traditions, coerced ideas, beliefs, and ideologies, but of practices that involve the most minute operations and expectations of everyday life” (Holub 104). As Holub describes it, hegemony ensures a vicious cycle of subjectivity, reification, and alienation (16).
For as superficially foregrounded as the plethora of characters are by simply existing on stage, Chiarelli evokes this sensation of alienation by also ensuring that they remain indistinguishable from one another in their physicality and their speech, keeping them as a somewhat invisible and blurry mass of generic people. The stage directions indicate, “the guests are conversing, but so softly that one can only hear subdued and indistinct voices” and describes this conversation later as “murmured” (Vena 87), constructing the characters as nothing more than an embodied peanut gallery. Further, Chiarelli captures the difficulty of the internal translation process when moving from thoughts to articulated words. It seems impossible to say anything in this text, as Chiarelli employs ellipsis after ellipsis, climaxing in exclamation marks as the most frequent form of punctuation. Their struggle speak culminates in these excited final animations of their words. Chiarelli seems to problematize the use of language as a mechanism to sustain hegemonic processes in its production of meaning, as described by Gramsci. Even at the end, when Savina and Paolo have supposedly broken out of the system, they still speak in circles: “I love you because you love me! / You love me?! Ah!” (Vena 92), forcing the audience to question how far removed from this cycle when their language still has the potential to bind them to it.
Foucault and Gramsci, though referring to different concepts, would both agree that the real strength in these structures is their ability to force people to internalize and then perpetuate their power, guaranteeing Foucault’s inmate-bearer conversion. The system can work better—more efficiently and also with more reach and force—if every body is helping to reify it. Holub quotes Williams describing Gramscian hegemony as “not simply an ideology, [but] a sense of reality beyond which it is, for most people, difficult to move, a lived dominance and subordination, internalized” (Holub 104). Chiarelli, however, seeks to challenge this penetrating force, drawing attention most urgently to the idea that his characters have not been self-critical, as Cirillo, the seeming voice of Chiarelli as objective conscience, asserts about Paolo, “he had almost forced the crime upon himself!…we have deceived ourselves in judging our feelings and ideas” (Vena 88). The call to action is instead to “be spectators of our own lives” (Vena 96).
So long as the characters remain passive and do not engage in an active spectatorship of their own lives, they are alienated from their own physicality and cannot engage in the type of passionate love they all crave. Whereas the Foucauldian body is separate from the power relations that act upon it, power relations create the very body Judith Butler addresses. In Bodies That Matter, she describes the body as existing in its social signification and not in its physical embodiment. “Sex” is “forcibly materialized through time” and then, in turn, this “sex” functions as “part of a regulatory practice that produces the bodies it governs…whose regulatory force is made clear as a kind of productive power…the power to produce the bodies it controls” (Butler 1). Thus, the materiality of the body is an effect of power and it is power’s “most productive” effect and most powerful weapon (Butler 2). The body is presented as a blank canvas (Butler 4) that is natural and divorced from the social meanings that it takes on as its real function (Butler 5), which consolidates norms in its naturalizing process (Butler 10). The prime example is the interpellation of the girl at birth, the so-called “’girling’ of the girl” (Butler 7), which “shifts an infant from an ‘it’ to a ‘she’ or a ‘he,’ and in that naming, the girl is ‘girled,’ brought into the domain of language and kinship through the interpellation of gender” (Butler 7). “’Girling’ the girl” acts as the first in a series of consolidations and reproductions of this state of materiality divorced from the body qua physical body.
The American counternarrative seems to foreground the importance of the Butlerian body lost in its noticeable absence from Paolo and Savina’s marriage. The American lovers sing (Vena 50), assigning them an acoustic presence. Their kissing and canoodling provides a physical presence. Cirillo even notes the theatricality of their extensive use of “props: Lake Como, the moonlight, a sentimental song” (Vena 50). But their story becomes most significant as soon as Wanda notices, “She [the American girl] isn’t here!” (Vena 51). The body disappears and, later, the body reemerges, floating in the water. Though falsely identified as Savina’s, the loving, passionate body cannot remain fully submerged, its physicality too radical for the oppressiveness of the conventions that govern the guests’ society.
In La maschera e il volto, Chiarelli calls attention to the deleterious consequences of the roles of characters, where the status identifiers—e.g., man, woman, husband, lawyer—do not individuate so much as embed them further in the hegemonic structure. The force of the system on the body is felt even in subtle inversions. As Marco questions, “and you suppose they will let you make a mockery of the law?” (Vena 95), his question resonates most with its potential inversion of the law as the force that mocks the bodies it controls. Their roles are legally demanded and reinforced: ”I’ll face the court…to hear a judge tell me which article of the code authorizes a husband to be ridiculous” (Vena 62), making Paolo’s need for external legal validation more sinister. Butler describes performativity of roles as reiteration that then “conceals or dissimulates the convention of which it is a repetition” (12). Every time the characters say what they are—a husband or a man, for example—they conceal the physical body since “construction…it itself a temporal process which operates through the reiteration of norms” (Butler 10). The roles are thus created and reinforced every time a body buys into the pre-established role, revealing these roles as constitutive and constituting.
The characters seem to be hyper aware of their names and roles, as Paolo exclaims, “that I take another name?!…” (Vena 65), as though this would change the substance of the body bearing that name. All characters are referred to with epithets: “my friends” (Vena 65), “dear” (Vena 65), “signor” and “signora” (Vena 57), “fiancé” (Vena 57), “lover” (Vena 97), “best friend” (Vena 78), each with its own connoted characteristics and expectations. Luciano claims there is some “rhetorical necessity” (Vena 77)—that is, the need to articulate through words—but titling reveals language as producing meaning, thus complicating more than it elucidates.
The most constraining titles force the characters into relationships with others that carry certain expectations. Chiarelli asks the audience exactly what it means to be married, as Marta squeals, “You’re acting as if we were already married” (Vena 55). The same applies to the title “husband” since Paolo, in his very first line of the play states, “any self respecting husband wouldn’t let his wife run off with her lover” (Vena 50). Paolo addresses head on the criteria of eliciting respect as a “husband” in contrast with a certain type of wife who would take a lover or the implications on manhood of a husband who does not kill that wife. Through this precise naming, Chiarelli reveals a Butlerian system where the societal names are imposed on the individual bodies, where there exists a model for a “woman of integrity” (Vena 71). The characters struggle with trying to reconcile these externally imposed identities. As Luciano describes to Paolo the day he slept with Savina, he describes identity dissociation: “The day on which I was overpowered…it seemed that the most beloved friend…and the husband…had become two separate people“ (Vena 84). We cannot help but wonder whether these roles as they are strictly categorized as separate can be reconciled.
The epithets also embed the characters of the larger group of others who also identify with those titles. In the character list at the beginning of the play, Chiarelli lists the guests’ occupations—lawyers, bankers, judges, sculptors—not only identifying the characters by their professions, but also entering them into the larger middle class as representatives of a bourgeois reality that itself bears certain connotations. Representing the characters as part of a larger collective reduces their claims to individuality and uniqueness. They seem as interchangeable as their marriages. When Paolo asks, “Who? Teresa? You’ve married Teresa?” (Vena 69), we assume that these marriages and remarriages happen often, tying them into a pattern of living that has become normalized, as “the situation is always the same” (85). Identifying with a label outside of oneself perpetuates the alienation of the subject, permitting a character like Savina to exclaim, “I am in there dead. I have been dead for such a long time!” (Vena 83).
French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, whose explanation of the ideological state apparatus in his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses politicized the cultural implications of Gramsci’s hegemony, describes the process by which naming creates a subject in his explanation of interpellation. According to Althusser, people believe they are individuals, utilizing the rhetoric of unique “identities:” “You and I are already subjects, and as such constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition, which guarantee[s]…that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable, and irreplaceable subjects” (18). This recognition happens everywhere each time people call each other by their names: “the fact of knowing…that you ‘have’ a name of your own, which means that you are recognized as a unique subject” (Althusser 18). Recognition here constitutes a re-affirmation of self by others that we see in Paolo’s need for external validation from the court.
Yet Althusser complicates this neo-Hegelian notion of recognition as one that does not individuate but instead constitutes one as a subject embedded in a network of oppressive relations through interpellation. The classic example can be imagined on an everyday level. Walking on the street a policeman hails, “Hey, you there!” and “one individual, nine times out of ten is it the right one) turns round, believing / suspecting / knowing that it is for him, i.e., recognizing that ‘it really is he’ who is meant by the hailing” (Althusser 18). Even though this happens in the street, a space that seems like it would be “free,” this scene reveals the pervasive effects of Althusser’s conceptions of ideology or, for Chiarelli’s purposes, a larger hegemonic system that knows no bounds. The moment the individual answers to “hey” establishes the individual as a citizen-subject embedded in relations of power where the police officer, in this instant, is the stronger.
The roles in La maschera e il volto reinforce this structure because they create subjects. In the recognition scene where Paolo identifies Savina and metaphorically resurrects her, the scene reads, “The head of a woman appears wrapped with a very thick veil…Who are you? Lady?…It is Savina. Paolo recognizes her and for an instant remains speechless” (Vena 82). Paolo struggles to identify her, first interpellating her as a “lady” more generically before naming her “Savina” and then as “mine” eventually, as she is his “absolute possession” (Vena 92). It is the veil that “[protects her] from inquisitive looks” (Vena 83) that makes it so difficult for Paolo to identify her, indicating it is, in fact, the gaze of the other—the interpellator—that establishes these roles. The veil resonates with the “maschera” here as Cirillo, ever the voice of reason, declares, “you’re beginning to see all the absurdity that lies in our conventions” (Vena 76) just before her unveiling, finally getting to the heart of the societal conventions that wear the most seamless mask insofar as the conventions mask and reproduce masks in the citizens they construct.
According to Holub, Gramsci argued that entering people into semi-professional roles does the most to perpetuate a hegemonic system since “the semi professional strata mediate between the masses of the people and the predominant class” (Holub 25). In La maschera e il volto the guests’ are identified as distinctly bourgeois from the occupational list at the beginning. Because they occupy the middle class, they act as the arms of power, “as pharmacists, lawyers, teachers, priests and doctors, as scientists….do not produce forms of knowledge, but disseminate information or withhold information in the service of disciplining the body and mind for the powers that be” (Holub 165). This class guarantees hegemony because they “elicit the ‘spontaneous consent’ of the masses of the people to the status quo” since nobody challenges their authority, cementing their position as middle class and as perpetuators (Holub 165). They are also the most unknowingly complicit, as they strive to maintain their middle class statuses—with their perfect bourgeois families and comfortable summer homes on Lake Como—while perpetuating a system that petrifies these roles.
At the heart of La maschera e il volto is the Butlerian notion that the pain of the body is that which desires something not socially significant. The alienation of the self from the physical body is transmitted through the supposed rationality of bourgeois hegemony (Holub 111). Yet Holub reports that Gramsci firmly believed that humans are always hopeful, always striving for freedom. Here, Chiarelli argues for freedom through a return to sensuality, emotionality, and a restored connection with the physical body in a type of relation we, before the play’s end, only see in the American lovers. The characters’ alienation from the body is presented most prominently in the scene where they identify Savina’s body. They exclaim, “it is she!” (Vena 81) yet they have falsely mistaken her body for some other woman’s, indicating a perceived disconnect between Savina and her flesh. Savina notes exactly how bizarre the false-recognition is, asking, “my?!…my corpse?!” (Vena 82), verbally solidifying this distance while also acknowledging its strangeness. Chiarelli suggests that it is precisely the process by which “they almost forced me to identify you” (Vena 83) where a outside observer identifies someone else’s physical presence instead of that identification being self-generated that ensures this corporeal self-alienation. As the play moves toward its close, the audience hopes that the characters can successfully regain touch with their individuality and corporeality. We see glimmers of hope once Elisa looks into a small mirror and declares, “it seems that only today am I really beginning to live!” (Vena 89) in the moment she and Cirillo are truly honest with themselves and one another.
When Marta exclaims her “desire for sun, for movement, for life!” (Vena 79), the audience cannot help but hear the rhythmic absence of an additional word: freedom. Savina and Paolo, in their desire to escape everyday conventions, strive to re-inject passionate sensuality into their relationship to the end of achieving some sort of freedom. The play reads logical and ordered, mirroring the bourgeois rationalism that organizes it. Paolo, the character who buys into social conventions the most when the play starts is also the farthest removed from his emotions at the beginning, not displaying an inkling of feeling until a stage direction indicates he is “disgusted and nervous” (Vena 61). In delaying this emotion, Chiarelli draws attention to a society that leaves no room for emotional interaction, where the law and its rigid roles must be obeyed.
Savina and Paolo’s attempts to reconnect with their emotions in an attempt to rebuild their relationship suggests that being emotional allows them to question an order that normally prohibits emoting: “What do all these people matter to you?…Why do you still think you have to subordinate your feelings, your life, your happiness to them?” (Vena 90). Despite the fact that the entire plot revolves around the characters complicated web of sneaky sexual relationships, there is little, if any, eroticism in the text until the end when Paolo allows himself to exclaim, “when I had you in my arms again!…when I felt again the ardent throbbing of your flesh!” (Vena 91). It is not until this point that the audience recognizes the truly alienating and deleterious effects of Paolo’s mask. He not only wore it to deflect judgment from others but also internalized that mask to self-censor his emotions. In their attempt to slowly rebuild their relationship, Paolo and Savina cherish a return to a more “natural” and instinctive state where Savina is proud that Paolo “wept like a child last night!” (Vena 91), harking back to a time before conventions were built, where human beings acted less adult-like and more childlike, emotional in their passionate impulsiveness.
In fact, Paolo, Savina, and the rest of the characters long for passionate interpersonal relationships, even if that means relations of violence. They want to feel something, anything: “Ah here is how I love you. He grabs her by the throat and squeezes” (Vena 64). This passion stands in stark contrast with the drab and clinical reason the law espouses. It almost does not matter how they express their passion, so long as they do since there is a certain “beauty” (Vena 88) in passionate violence, as Paolo and Savina exchange “I hate you!” followed by “You love me!” (Vena 86), revealing two sides of the same coin. Duty removes the possibility for these crimes of passion—for the break ups and make ups—as Andrea states, “if [Savina] had done her duty, all this would not have happened” (Vena 68). Yet Chiarelli seems to question what freedom looks like, as Paolo states, “it would have been a liberation” and Savina can only respond, “how so a liberation? If you love me!” (Vena 85), indicating that the passionate love they so desperately seek can be both freeing and fettering. Chiarelli drives this point home by metaphorically resurrecting an emotionally dead Paolo, writing that he is “coming to life” (Vena 97) in the final scene where love gives life back to the physical body.
Though it seems obvious to counter rationality with emotionality, Chiarelli presents a far more nuanced view of how this passion must be re-obtained. When Savina begs Paolo to “take off this mask of crime, be sincere with yourself, look into your heart, and don’t be a slave to your words and conventional attitudes!” (Vena 64), the audience cannot help but think that this is too straightforward and too final to be taken at face-value, especially since it appears near the beginning of the play. In fact, soon after, the audience must come to terms with the idea that perhaps it is not just that one must once again become in touch with one’s emotions but that there must be some intention to commit “crime” or transgression in order to get to the play’s end. Emotions without transgression still tie these emotions to the law that regulates them since, even in a courtroom, even with a jury, Luciano notes, “one must appeal to emotions” (Vena 77). As Savina taunts Paolo, “Take it; here’s your revolver” (Vena 64), we see that it is only here, with adrenaline pumping and tensions high, that Paolo can fully return to his emotions and recognize his love for Savina in a way that invites the possibility for liberation.
Still, Chiarelli complicates this model even further once Paolo and Savina decide to run and reach the “exported love” (Vena 50) they envied in the American lovers’ story. The audience is left wondering what happens after the play’s end and what boundaries they are actually able to transgress and whether transgressing spatial boundaries will actually prove fruitful. The house in this play is prisonlike. Though it is superficially “spacious” with sizable “terraces” (Vena 49), the events of several months take place inside the walls of this prototypical bourgeois villa, evoking intense claustrophobia in contrast with Savina and Paolo’s longing for freedom. Even though the house is geographically removed from the hustle and bustle of the Italian city since it is situated on Lake Como, the force of social conventions is so heavily felt in this space and perhaps amplified by its remoteness, reinforcing Foucault’s assertion that panoptic power relations “[make] it possible to bring the effects of power to the most minute and distant elements” (Foucault 216).
Gramsci offers a bleak vision on the possibility of Paolo and Savina escaping the sterility of societal conventions once they leave Italy’s borders. According to Holub, hegemony is a process of the modern era that then composes “a background or the structure of a life-world” (Holub 10) in an era where technology and information, and thus the conventions that govern those knowledge dispersers, have greater reach. Gramsci’s complex modern reality acknowledges the “production and control of needs and desires designed for consumption of specific cultural and ideological goods” (Holub 9). Paolo wants to separate himself from the wider hegemonic network in which he and Savina have embedded their lives: “I don’t want to account to anyone ever again in my life—not to society, friends, the law, nothing” (Vena 98). They plan to live like “outlaws” (Vena 97) and “scoundrels” (Vena 98), placing themselves outside of the laws in a state of permanent boundary crossing.
Insofar as “society, friends, [and] the law” helped to form their bodies, this state of being an “outlaw” seems paradoxical. By including the American sub narrative and interjecting foreign music, Chiarelli highlights exactly how global conventions are, suggesting that they may be different elsewhere and result in different outcomes, but there is no way to escape them. In the very first stage direction, the audience hears foreign music: “as the curtain rises, Marta is playing an Argentine tango” (Vena 50). The physical organization of two bodies moving across the dance floor seems to approximate the asymptotic quality of Paolo and Savina constantly striving for the perfect passionate love free of societal constraints but the possibility of never quite getting there. Sound again draws attention to this vision, as they hear “a man’s voice modulated in the slow rhythm of an American song” (Vena 50), not only introducing the American subnarrative that foregrounds the absence—and therefore necessity—of physicality, but also demonstrating that even a foreigner’s individual voice is swallowed by the voice of the larger societal construct. Here, the “man” is subsumed by his affiliation to “America” and his role as an “American,” intimating that just because Savina and Paolo shirk their “Italian” identities, they will no doubt be a part of a new set of nested identities and have new roles to fill.
As Paolo notes, “It’s some mechanism!…God only knows where it will end” (Vena 82), one cannot help but wonder how free Paolo and Savina are at the play’s end when “the notes of the funeral march die away” (Vena 98). Perhaps they mourn together a life left behind and begin their resurrected and revived life anew. In this ending, Chiarelli problematizes what constitutes life in a world where Foucauldian power relations reinforce the status quo and alienate oneself from his or her body. Leaving behind the easy critique of the bourgeois family qua structure and diverting his attention from the body as a contained unit with a certain psychology, Chiarelli puts on stage a world where his interchangeable characters struggle against the definition of “identities” that mark their similarity and fight for an alternative definition of an individuating “identity” that can make their interpersonal relationships worthwhile and freeing.
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation.” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. London: Monthley Review, 1971. Print.
Butler, Judith P. Bodies That Matter on the Discursive Limits of “sex. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982. Print.
Holub, Renate. Antonio Gramsci: beyond Marxism and Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.
Marrone, Gaetana, Paolo Puppa, and Luca Somigli. “Luigi Chiarelli (1880-1947).” Encyclopedia of Italian Literary Studies. New York, N.Y. [etc.: Routledge, 2007. 458-62. Print.
Vena, Michael, Luigi Chiarelli, Luigi Antonelli, and Enrico Cavacchioli. Italian Grotesque Theater. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001. Print.
Williams, Raymond. “Hegemony.” Marxism and Literature. Oxford [etc.: Oxford UP, 1986. 108-14. Print.
Elyssa is a senior at Columbia University majoring in Comparative Literature
and Society with studies in Spanish and Italian and minoring in
Anthropology. Her interests lie primarily in analyzing cultural
output—literature, theatre, film, food, music—to see how people, in
their everyday lives, navigate their public identities and their private
identities and whether those two can ever align, especially in the age
of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. She also has a penchant for pop
culture, food writing, and a far more obsessive interest in New York.