Image: A ‘New’ Woman in Verga and Pirandello: From Page to Stage (2018) by Enza De Francisci.
What happens in performance, above all to the characters, when an actor transforms them from their fictional existence on the page to their physical enactment on the stage?
Two nineteenth-century Sicilian authors, Verga and Pirandello, both chose to adapt their prose narratives for the stage. Of Verga’s eight published plays, four were based on his novelle, while Pirandello published forty-three plays, twenty-nine of which are adapted from his short stories. While critics and scholars have considered several aspects of their transformation from prose to plays, most take a comprehensive view of the modifications made to the dramatic adaptations, prioritising what changes have been made over how and why such alterations might have been introduced.
As soon as Verga and Pirandello shift their tales from the narrative genre to the theatrical (a genre which predominantly relies on speech), more emphasis is placed on characters’ ability to articulate their thoughts. As a result, their individual voices (taken to mean here not simply the ability to speak, but the right to express an opinion) get ‘louder’.
I wanted to compare their literary techniques: for what intrigued me most of all about the way in which both authors translated their narratives for the stage is what happened to the women characters. As soon as Verga and Pirandello shift their tales from the narrative genre to the theatrical (a genre which predominantly relies on speech), more emphasis is placed on characters’ ability to articulate their thoughts. As a result, their individual voices (taken to mean here not simply the ability to speak, but the right to express an opinion) get ‘louder’. Whereas in the novelle the narrator can speak on behalf of the characters, in the dramatic adaptations the characters are forced to speak for themselves.
However, what was significant about this shift in emphasis is how, while the men in their works had been typically associated with words (logic and reason) and women with silence (nature and emotion), the additional use of dialogue introduced in the theatrical adaptations enables the female protagonists to break away from their traditional identification as the antithesis of logocentrism and become ‘new’ women on stage. This is the subject of my book. I trace the fascinating process Verga’s narratives and plays underwent coincident with the emergent ‘new women’ debates epitomised by the heroines in Ibsen’s ouevre, especially A Doll’s House (1879). Early actresses who performed Verga’s ‘new’ female stage roles, above all the grande attrice Eleonora Duse, specifically chose to perform unconventional roles like Ibsen’s Nora at a time when women were beginning to gain a political voice of their own. My book suggests how this wider cultural context which saw the rise of a ‘new’ type of female stage role might have influenced the development of Verga’s and (later Pirandello’s) theatre – and vice versa.
Who knows how Verga’s (and later Pirandello’s) newly vocalised female figures would have developed had it not been for theatre translation, and the emergence of Nora’s radical voice?
But it also draws attention to the ‘real’ women who were instrumental in this passage from page to stage. The presence of leading actresses, above all Duse, had an impact on how early characters like Nora were able to make their voices heard in auditoriums around the world. Who knows how Verga’s (and later Pirandello’s) newly vocalised female figures would have developed had it not been for theatre translation, and the emergence of Nora’s radical voice?
So just as feminist critical literature seeks to make women visible, find their voice, and create new ways to read a play (to use the words of Sue-Elle Case), my book seeks to uncover the visibility and audibility of the female voices women that take centre stage as soon as these two authors shift their narratives to the dramatic genre – in the process tracing the delicate symbiosis – whenever something is restaged, adapted or translated – between deliberate and accidental effects.
Dr Enza De Francisci is a Lecturer in Translation Students at the University of Glasgow.