GIOVANNI VERGA (1840-1922)

This article was originally published in The Contemporary Drama of Italy. Lander McClintock. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1920. pp. 67-76.

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Giovanni Verga (1840-1922) may be said to have made a faithful literary chronicle of the inner and intimate life of Southern Italy and of his native Sicily; and this to such good effect that a few years ago his European fame rivaled that of D'Annunzio. This reputation has, however, waned with the decline of the vogue of the realistic novel; although now with [some historic] perspective to stabilize our judgment we may safely place him as the chief of the Verists, the most eminent writer of local novels and plays. His plays of the fisherfolk, the shepherds, and the smalltown people of Sicily are unsurpassed and inimitable. He did not confine himself to the country or to Sicily, but wrote several novels and at least two plays whose interests and events lay outside his native locality; but it is undoubtedly true that he is at his best when his feet are firmly planted on the soil, when his inspiration is drawn from his own people. The peasant of his own country is to Verga an open book; his sympathetic knowledge of his countrymen is so profound, his fidelity to fact so scrupulous, that his plays may well rank as trustworthy documents in the social history of unhappy Sicily.

Giovanni Verga, born at Catania in 1840, started his career as an ultra-romantic romancer in the taste of his times. But between 1874 and 1881 he executed a complete artistic turn-over, for in the latter year he published The Malavoglia Family (I Malavoglia) (1881). With this book, his masterpiece and indeed one of the greatest novels of the age, did Verga thus abruptly establish the technique and tone of the veristic novel. With photographic detail and scrupulous truthfulness he paints the life of the Sicilian fisherfolk of the type to be seen in the coast villages. The Malavoglia Family was planned as the first of a vast series after the model, doubtless, of Zola's Rougon-Macquart system, to be called The Vanquished (I Vinti), in which would be depicted the experience of those miserable ones who are beaten in the race, conquered in the battle of life.

Verga wrote only one other book in the series, Maestro Don Gesualdo. In 1884 appeared a volume of short stories of peasant life, among them Rustic Chivalry (Cavalleria Rusticana), which he later dramatized. From this time on he wrote in this manner, recording as realistically as possible aspects of Sicilian peasant life. The few excursions he made into another, more romantic manner, such as the plays, In the Porter's Lodge (In Portineria) and The Fox-hunt (La Caccia alla Volpe) have little worth and less significance. Luckily Verga had his impulse to Romanticism early and exhausted it in his novels, so that by the time he began to write for the theatre he had quite established himself in the manner which was his natural expression.

He never used the old sure-fire situations and plots; he cared not a jot for scenic effects; he never bothered himself about the poetry. Of course, it would be most misleading to say that he had no regard for style, for his choice of words, his turns of speech, his balance of sentence were almost meticulously calculated to give an atmosphere of actuality to the dialogue. Like the De Goncourts, whose name must keep recurring in any discussion of naturalism, he had his notebook constantly in hand, jotting down the details that he incorporated into his plays. It was a hobby of Verga's to collect homely and popular proverbs, believing as he did that they conferred a distinctive flavor of the country. The plays are full of country maxims and epigrams gathered from the lips of the peasants.

Unlike the great Frenchmen, however, Verga exercised careful selection as to what details he should use, incorporating only those which had essentially constructive value. It is not, however, inconsistent to say that Flaubert's doctrine of the impassibility of the artist is also an essential part of Verga's artistic creed. The artist, he asserts, must stand aside and watch the "determinism of facts"; the human soul must be studied (to use Flaubert's phrase which might well be Verga's) "avec l'impartialité qu'on met dans les sciences physiques." the observer must refrain from sympathy or judgment. The preface to I Malavoglia might, indeed, have been written by Flaubert.

But Verga does not live up to his own Spartan theory; he is too human, too sympathetic with those who suffer; his irony is quite often the outburst of a heart whose sympathy lies too deep for tears. "The vanquished" have all his love; they may be low and squalid and even loathsome, but as he sees them these things are their misfortune, not their fault. He shows men ignorant, superstitious, violent. Life is in his world a pitiless struggle for existence; survival is achieved only by war to the knife. His wretched peasant, continually face to face with starvation, must take whatever means of self-preservation he can; he becomes the wolf, as in The Wolf Hunt, as in The She-Wolf.

Since Verga chose to view life under this aspect, since he can see only "the hog in nature", his plays lack certain finer qualities of dramatic art, -- inspiration and emotional exaltation. But bathed as they are in a crude, raw, unsparing light of reality, they are powerful, convincing, majestic in their unshrinking truth to life. He is not in any degree a doctrinaire. Verism is not a mere fashion with him but the natural form into which his material flows.

Verga's first play was his dramatization of his short story, Rustic Chivalry, which with the accompaniment of Mascagni's music has made the tour of the world. A drama of singular intensity and concentration, he has packed into the one act of nine scenes a whole three-acts' worth of passion. In other hands it might easily have become merely a drama of situation; Paolo Ferrari or Giacosa might have dwelt on the scenes of sentiment; not so Verga, who moves inexorably on, nor pauses to write any "good parts" in which an actor might display his virtuosity.

The action passes in a tiny village near Catania in Sicily. Turiddu, conscripted, having served in the army for two years, returns to find that his promised wife, Lola, has forgotten him and, expert in coquetry, has married the carter, Alfio. Out of spite, he woos an orphan girl in the village, Santuzza, and betrays her. Lola, jealous, receives him again as her lover and he deserts Santuzza. She, about to give birth to a child, begs him to marry her, for she still adores her betrayer, when he scorns her and goes off again with Lola. The girl, mad with jealousy, hastens to tell the carter of the relation his wife has with Turiddu; a barbarous duel with knives follows, and Turiddu is killed.

Those who know the Rustic Chivalry only as an opera where it is burdened and tamed by Mascagni's music can scarcely imagine the reality and the brutality of the drama itself. This Lola and Santuzza, this Turiddu and Alfio, are the men and women of the fierce Sicilian countryside, wearing the clothes, speaking the language of rude peasants, torn by their passions, hungry with their cravings, blind with their superstitions. In this crude and mighty play Verga is at his strongest.

In the Porter's Lodge (In Porteneria) (1885) shifts the scene from Catania to a quarter of the city of Milan occupied by the lowest class of town dwellers. Malia, a virtuous young girl, is madly in love with Carlino, a printer's apprentice: according to what might be called a naturalistic tradition, Malia is afflicted with consumption, which is aggravated by her unhappy passion. Carlino, although he knows that the proper wife for him would be Malia, is himself perversely taken with her sister, Gilda, a prostitute. The wretched Malia finally dies of her moral suffering, which brings on an acute stage of her malady, and in the last terrific scene Carlino, over the bed where she lies dying, makes violent love to the dishonored sister. This is a scene worthy of Henri Becque, full of bitter irony, unrelieved by humor or sympathy. The considerable success of In the Porter's Lodge did not, luckily, prevent Verga from returning to his proper field. In interval of ten years separates this from the next play, one of his best, The She-Wolf (La Lupa) (1896). Pina, the She-Wolf, is a village Messalina, a depraved creature, who in her lust for a young farmer, Nanni, sacrifices to him her daughter and her property, and finally, having maddened him beyond endurance by her machinations, dies at his hands. The She-Wolf was followed by the Bozetti Scenici, The Wolf Hunt (La Caccia al Lupo) (1902), and The Fox Hunt (La Caccia alla Volpe) (1902). The former is another abstract from Sicilian life. A husband, knowing that his wife receives a lover, returns suddenly to catch the man, but he is too well concealed. Unable to find anything, the husband goes out again, locking the door behind him. Then the lover appears, crazy with fear, thinking only of saving his own skin, caring not one whit for his mistress, seeking only his own escape. But the woman, furious at his cowardice and his abandonment of her, screams for help as though he were assaulting her. Her husband returns gun in hand and calls to his comrades outside, "Come on in here! The wolf we were looking for is caught in my trap." The other play, The Fox Hunt, is Verga's one excursion into the society drama, fortunately an unsuccessful one. His last play is another dramatization, -- of his own novel, Dal tuo al mio (1905).

The main criticism to be offered on the plays of Giovanni Verga is on the score of their violence. They all seem to have need of a "fait divers" to hold them together. Every one is reeking with lust, crime and murder; adultery, suicide, and homicide seemed to be his stock in trade. He has missed all the poetry, the sunny good humor, the native courtesy and piety of Sicilian life. E. Boutet, usually a keen critic, maintains that this very violence of Verga's vitiates to a large degree the impression of reality one might derive from the plays. Verga, he says, pretends that his people are real, but he is, as a matter of fact, all the while playing to the gallery, showing not the real Sicilians but those stock characteristics which foreigners attribute conventionally to them; characteristics enhanced by the heated imagination of one who may well be classed as a neurotic. But Boutet fails to see or chooses to ignore the fact that Verga views only one aspect of his subject, the piteous and the disagreeable. To every artist must be accorded the right to choose his subject-matter, and the angle from which he will view it; if by choice or by temperament he sees evil and disaster alone, his work is only less complete, not less true. Verga's limitations are partly the limitations of his mind and partly those of his method, they are inherent in the appeal and the program of the earlier naturalism. If he did not see life whole, he saw very clearly such sections of life as he chose to observe. If he handled only the horrible and the painful, he handled them with tremendous power.

The portrayal of character is Verga's forte. His keen eye, his unfaltering decision, his trained and trenchant pen project upon the lurid background of his plays unforgettable dark and menacing figures scorched into our consciousness, -- Rembrandtesque figures touched with sparse high lights, darkening into dense shadows.

The creator of these persons has entered into their lives, has adopted their speech, thought their thoughts, been harrowed by their superstitions, has become, for the nonce, the person he is presenting. That is Verga's psycho-imaginative grasp on his characters. But he was not a psychological thinker like Giacosa; there is no mental development in the case of any of his persons, they are static and we leave them at the same point emotionally and intellectually at which we found them -- one of the reasons why Verga is best in short plays.

Truth was his motto and his watchword, and he felt with Sainte-Beuve that if the True were present then the Good and the Beautiful might come off as best they could; so he cared not for inspiration or for homiletics. He studied and presented only the disagreeable side of nature, but that is largely because he possessed so deep a sense of the tragedy of the humble. "He has the sense of the love that kills with its intensity, of fatality, of death. These dull-witted peasants are in the grasp of a power greater than themselves, they are but pawns in the terrible game of life, condemned by destiny to unhappiness, controlled by their desires and lusts, the submerged, The Vanquished."

These words of Monello, making only a slight reservation, may be taken as placing Verga in his proper niche in the gallery of literary history: "Verga did not open the sea like Moses to allow a whole people to pass; he opened a road bathed in brilliant sunlight through the Italian theatre, and sent over it only a few living people. But after Rustic Chivalry, it will not be possible to close that road again. The contemporary drama must from now on traverse it." So far as it pays tribute to Verga as a "road-breaking" influence and as the never-to-be neglected exponent of reality, Monello's verdict is authoritative. But Monello did not foresee D'Annunzio and Sem Benelli.

Purchase Plays by Giovanni Verga


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