Monday, May 15, 2017


The shortest play I have ever read is titled Connecting Vessels (I vasi comunicanti) written in 1916 by Italian playwright Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), the leader of the Futurist movement (1909-1944). The English translation I read is by Jane House and it is in 20th Century Italian Drama: An Anthology:The First Fifty Years.
Tommaso Marinetti
Futurist member of the Lombard Battalion of Volunteer Cyclists and Motorists, 1915
Connecting Vessels contains eleven sentences of dialogue. The remaining two-thirds of this one page play contains stage directions. Not only is it the shortest play I have read, but it is also the first non-antiwar play I have written about on this blog.

Central to understanding the intent of this play is a very basic knowledge of Futurism. Marinetti wrote the Manifesto of Futurism in 1909 and published it immediately. This document supports the glorification of war, the beauty of speed, the love of danger, the excitement of labor, the fight against moralism and the excitement of rebellion. Since Marinetti was pro-war, he joined the Italian military as soon as Italy became involved in World War One. He saw combat during the Fall of 1915 in a cyclist unit that was fighting along the Italian-Austrian border. Eventually his unit was disbanded since cycles were inappropriate for use in the mountains. 
When Marinetti was not involved in combat he supported the war effort with speeches, articles and very short theatre pieces he named sintesi, which means synthesis.  Marinetti strived to apply new methods of expressing ideas in the theatre. The new medium of the motion picture was exciting to Marinetti and he believed theatre needed to be reinvented. Thus he wanted the sintesi to be very brief and to compress many situations, ideas, feelings and symbols into a few minutes. He worked to covey in a few short scenes the essential elements of the traditional five-act play.  Marinetti also desired to draw his audiences into the scene thereby eliminating the feeling of observing the action through the safe vantage point of the fourth wall. The playwright’s goal was to glorify daily heroism; to endow the Italian people with a spirit for hopefulness and to promote within them the spirit to achieve victory. Connecting Vessels is an excellent sample of Marinetti’s vision for Futuristic theatre.

The stage for Connecting Vessels is divided into three sections: 1. Left is a room with a bier and a coffin surrounded by priests, weeping relatives and lighted candles. 2. Center stage is a street in front of a tavern door with a table and a bench where a woman is seated. 3. Right of center is the countryside with trenches. The play begins on the left with priests praying and relatives grieving. Suddenly someone cries “Thief!” The Thief runs from the funeral scene towards the audience and into the street scene. He sits next to the Woman on the bench and talks to her. A group of soldiers appear and walk towards the Thief. They ask him to join them as a soldier.  He agrees and declares he is willing “To die for my country!”  The soldiers and Thief move into the trenches. They fire their weapons and gain ground. They come out of the trenches and run through the street scene area where they claim to have outflanked the enemy. The soldiers burst into the funeral scene and cause disarray. When the soldiers reach the extreme left side of the stage, they are shot dead. They fall down backwards, all in a row.

My account of this entire play illustrates the characters movement patterns and the manner in which the stage areas are utilized. The Futurists called this type of stage design “simultaneous setting”.  These set pieces replaced the usual painted backdrops used in Italian theatres during this period. The simultaneous setting for Connecting Vessels was necessary to ensure the intrinsic flow of the plot. This type of setting also allows the play to move with ease like a film, from one location to another.

Marinetti wrote numerous sintesi between 1915 and 1916.  Two other playwrights who developed the futuristic theatre ideas with Marinetti are Bruno Corra (1892-1976) and Emilio Settimelli (1891-1954). The brief plays of these three dramatists were produced by several theatre companies that traveled to various cities such as Venice, Bologna, Padua, Ancona, Naples, Genoa, San Remo, Savona and Verona. The program of several sintesi, eight to eleven, were played once in each city. Marinetti reported to his colleagues that the performances were attended by hundreds of enthusiastic young persons. These performances also included works by futurist poets, composers and painters as well as theater pieces. In order to cover their expenses and make a profit, the touring companies also presented a conventional play on the previous evening.

There were several touring companies that presented this type of program, but two of them are better documented. The initial touring company to present the sintesi was Zoncada-Masi-Capodaglia headed by Luigi Zoncada, actor. Another touring company was headed by Ettore Petrolini (1884-1936) an actor renowned for his parodies of well-known nineteenth century actors, opera divas and popular variety entertainment acts. The touring companies undoubtedly had to curtail their activities when Italy became more engaged in the war during late 1916 and throughout 1917. Also Marinetti had returned to active military duty during this period. 
Connecting Vessels was initially published in an issue of Teatro fururista sintetico dated April 2-9, 1916.  The English translation in 20th Century Italian Drama was published in 1995 by Columbia University Press.

Photo from Italian Futurism and the First World War by Selena Daly. University of Toronto Press, 2016.

No comments:

Post a Comment