Saturday, January 24, 2015

All is death on this side - Alfieri's Saul - a marmoreal atmosphere of tragic gloom

The plays of Vittorio Alfieri have not been brought into English effectively.  I say this on the basis of reading one of them – Saul (1784) – twice, meaning I do not know what I am talking about.  Some supporting quotations from Ford Madox Ford, who would have read Alfieri in Italian:

His plays can hardly be considered literature at all.  (655)

… there is hardly a word of poetry in the whole tragedy.

In their baldness – and they are as bald as the plays of Ibsen at their most commonplace – they achieve a sort of marmoreal atmosphere of tragic gloom.  The reader need hardly give time to reading them, but he should certainly not miss any opportunity to see them played, for he will get from them something of the sensation produced by the great Greeks, with an added agitation caused by the lightning flashes of the exclamations.  (all from p. 656, all from The March of Literature)

Yet Ford also quotes an Italian critic who ranks Alfieri with Aeschylus:  “Tragedy, born sublime, terrible, vigorous, heroic.”

To my knowledge there is really just one English translation of Alfieri, the 1876 E. A. Bowring revision of the 1815 Charles Lloyd of Alfieri’s tragedies.  I have just read the revised one.  I doubt they are so different.  Maybe they are.  Lloyd moved Alfieri into a choppy, energetic blank verse that makes him sound like simpler, watery Shakespeare.

For example, see this speech near the end of Saul, where the king is being tormented by ghosts of the prophet Samuel and by another priest he has ordered killed:

SAUL: Incensed, tremendous shade, ah, go thy way!
Leave, leave me ! . . . See: before thy feet I kneel . . .
Where can I fly ? . . . — where can I hide myself?
O fierce, vindictive spectre, be appeased . . .
But to my supplications it is deaf;
And does it spurn me ? . . . Burst asunder, earth,
Swallow me up alive . . .   (Act V, Sc 3, all ellipses in original)

This speech is witnessed by his grieving daughter (and David’s wife) Micah, making Saul resemble King Lear even more, although the Cassandra-like who Saul has rejected figure is David.

The Biblical subject helps, but few English readers will not hear King Lear.  Ford Ford does just what I did – I am ripping him off – with a scene from Alfieri’s Agamemnon that sounds like a rejected speech of Lady Macbeth.

Going by his Memoirs, Alfieri was not imitating Shakespeare at all, but rather modeled himself after Seneca (also a model for Shakespeare)  and Latin translation of Classical Greek tragedies.  He also had a negative model: he rejected the static drama of Racine and Corneille, with their gigantic protagonists declaiming long, intense monologues. My own experience with Saul in translation, though, is that it is most effective when poor, mad King Saul, doomed by his resentment of David and his sense that he has been abandoned by God, takes the stage alone and reveals his fears and humanity:

SAUL: But no; on this side a prodigious stream
Of blood restrains my steps. Atrocious sight!
On both its shores in mountains are up-piled
Great heaps of recent corpses: all is death
On this side: thitherward I then will fly . . .   (same scene, still seeing visions)

Alfieri’s psychology and imagery can rise to a high point in these “exclamations” whatever trouble the English might have.

The ideal translation would involve Percy Shelley not dying, losing his energy for original poems, and turning his attention to translating Italian literature.  His version of Alfieri would have been something to read.


  1. Well, you pulled one out of obscurity this time. I have a degree-and-a-half in theater (B.A. and ABT M.A.), and I never heard of either the playwright or the play. I wonder if any producer/director/company would be bold enough to present the play (i.e., jeopardizing their box-office receipts). Ah, you're a braver and more inquisitive man than I am if you are taking time out of your schedule for Alfieri and Saul. Do you think the play would "play" well enough on the stage, or should it remain tucked away on a dusty shelf instead?

  2. Time has not been fair to Alfieri. During the 19th. Century he towered above almost every other dramatist. One little example. When the founding fathers of the Dominican Republic decided to do some agit-prop to energize the resistance against the occupying forces, they created a theater company: The Dramatics. The very first play they staged? Bruto Primo by Alfieri. (I owe this anecdote to a Dominican friend, I'll save a rather good anecdote about him for later).

    Alfieri was a master at creating dramatic scenes rather than poetic phrases. In one of his dramas, Octavia, the emperor Nero has decided to kill his wife Octavia, who's adored by the Roman people a la Lady Di or Evita, in order to be free to marry his latest lover, Poppea. In order to justify Octavia's execution, Poppea and Nero plot to accuse her of cheating on Nero and use Nero's and Octavia's teacher, the philosopher Seneca, to spread the accusations among the public. Octavia defends herself in front of Seneca, Nero and Poppea:


    If someone tried to convince me of my guilt
    of this shameful crime with shameless lies,
    it's only you, Poppea, I'd want to be my judge.
    You know what it is like everyday to have a new love,
    and you know also what rewards deserve those who
    commit such crimes. But I know that I am innocent
    even to your judging eyes. Why, if not so, wouldn't
    you, who are so proud of your virtue, dare to face me?


    What did you say? Respect thy master's future wife,
    tremble in fear...


    Let her talk; she has chosen wisely
    her judge; where would she find anyone more forgiving
    than me? And what kinder punishment could I inflict on
    her who betrayed the love of my Nero, than losing Nero's love?
    Could there be by any chance a lighter, fairer sentence?
    As soon as I've proven the existence of your sordid love,
    that in vain you try to hide, I will make public your crime;
    You, self-righteous lover of the lowly slave Eucero,
    I'll make you his rightful, lowly wife...

  3. Would Saul play well? Yes. The production should commission a new translation, though.

    And they will need a patient audience, one willing to wait for the big scenes Cleanthess describes, Ford's lightning bolts.

    Alfieri in Hispaniola - that is a great story. I knew he was a giant in Italy ("Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, Tasso, Alfieri," a list that appear again and again) but had no sense of what anyone else made of him.

    Frankly, 19th century drama has not fared so well in English - Hugo, Musset, Vigny - even Schiller has had problems. And as far as dramas originally written in English, please.

  4. Carlyle has a memorable comparison of Schiller and Alfieri: "The mind of the one is like the ocean, beautiful in its strength, smiling in the radiance of summer, and washing luxuriant and romantic shores: that of the other is like some black unfathomable lake placed far amid the melancholy mountains; bleak, solitary, desolate; but girdled with grim sky-piercing cliffs, overshadowed with storms, and illuminated only by the red glare of the lightning. Schiller is magnificent in his expansion, Alfieri is overpowering in his condensed energy; the first inspires us with greater admiration, the last with greater awe."

    As part of my project to read all the major Don Carlos variants, I plan to read Alfieri's Filippo. Nice to get a foretaste of what that will be like here. Though hopefully it reads more naturally in Italian than in English, or it will be a slog!

  5. Ha ha ha, that's terrific. "Alfieri's Filippo is perhaps the most wicked man that human imagination has conceived." Maybe I should plan to read Filippo - how can that not be worth it.

    Two huge helps with the slogging: first, the stuttery choppiness - Alfieri is bumpy but moves along; second, his plays are short, shorter than Schiller, I think.