THE literature of Italy of the nineteenth century, like that of all literary countries of the same period, exhibits the two strains of realism, -- one the attempt to produce the effect of actual life, the other the attempt to reproduce that actuality of life itself, sometimes distinguished as realism and naturalism.
As in France the realism of Balzac, of Dumas fils, of Augier, gave place to the naturalism of Flaubert, of Becque, and the dramatists of the Théâtre Libre, so in Italy, Ferrari and Torelli gave place to Verga and Capuana.
Realism did not by any means begin its life as a bantling flung naked on the rocks; as a matter of fact it inherited a rather comfortable property from its predecessor, the Romanticism which took its rise about 1825, and which went through its several phases within the fifty years following that date. Some of the items of that legacy are: rebellion against classical or other traditional authority; the doctrine of the popularization of literature, the appeal to the common people, the use of common people and their affairs as literary material, -- a result of revolutionary thinking everywhere; the recognition of the moral and practical function of the novel and drama, -- for example, to teach national loyalty; a vision of historical verity and truth to local and temporal atmosphere which on the whole informed the large mass of plays based by the Romanticists on the national past and on the Middle Ages; some skill in psychological analysis, in the identification of motives and of passion, and in the handling of subjective material.
Realism rejected the heroics and the sentimentality of the Romanticists. It vastly expanded the range of practical affairs and social problems treated in drama; it became more convinced and more scientific in local and temporal color, and in the study of inner motives and subjective states. But it is not unfair to say that realism existed in the new Romanticism as a germ, that it becomes a bud in Ferrari and Torelli, blossoms in Giacosa, and comes to fruition in the naturalism of Verga. Italian Verism leaned rather toward naturalism than realism, tending to reproduce life on the stage rather than to give the effect of life.
The drama in France had its realists in those great artists who must be mentioned so many times in any account of modern literature -- Augier, Dumas fils, and Pailleron with their followers who comprise the large body of dramatists of that time, but the other camp, the naturalists, besides Zola, counted Henri Becque and the artists of the Théâtre Libre. In England and in Germany the same two schools or groups arose, and in Italy too, although the realists were in a large majority, there was a naturalistic school who called themselves Verists and who nourished their artistic youth upon the dicta of Emile Zola.
It is interesting and remarkable that in the Italian theatre the success of the Verists was achieved without serious difficulty, -- remarkable in view of the fact that in other European countries their work was hailed with a storm of disapproval. In Germany, France, and England the two decades, the 1880s and 1890s, were a period of intense struggle, when the moderns and the radicals were battling with the conservatives for the right of free expression in the theatre. The battle between the naturalists who were the modern party demanding freedom and the right of a hearing, and the conservatives of all sorts, whether genuinely idealists, ordinary mossbacks, or mere politicians, centered about three institutions founded and maintained by the new dramatists and their backers, -- the "Théâtre Libre" of André Antoine in Paris, the "Freie Bühne" in Germany, modeled after its French prototype, and the "Independent Theatre" in London, sponsored by Shaw, by William Archer, and by most dramatic writers who made a name in London in the years that followed. It is curious that in Italy there is nothing to correspond to these significant institutions and experiments. There was, to be sure, much criticism of the "crudity" of the new school, much exclaiming that its product was not art, but there was no organized or even unanimous opposition. The plays of Giacosa, Verga, and Capuana, the three capital representatives of the theatre of Verism, had no difficulty in establishing themselves.
The fact that there was no call in Italy for a free theatre may be accounted for by these considerations: in the first place, the Italian is artistically the most hospitable person in the world; he has always been ready to accept anything that he adjudged well done. In the second place, he is not easily offended on the score of morality, he has a long tradition of questionable theatricals, beginning with Machiavelli and Aretino and continuing unbroken to our time. Furthermore, in Italy the Church is supreme in the guardianship of morals and the lay public is not concerned as it is in England and in France with the formation of a respectable public opinion. In the third place, the battle between literary radicals and conservatives was fought out in Italy not in the theatre but in the fields of lyric poetry and the novel. And in the fourth place, foreign, particularly ultra-montane influence was very powerful, and what had won for itself acceptance in France was likely to be accepted without question in Italy.
The quarrel between the "Idealists" and the Verists had burst into flame in 1877-1878 apropos of the volume of lyrics by a poet who called himself Lorenzo Stecchetti, Postuma. In 1878 appeared another volume by the same man, Nuova Polemica, with a long preface which was in a sense the manifesto of the Verists. They were at this time a group of young and ardent spirits who had rallied to the defense of Postuma, literary revolutionists who affected an independent realism both in form and content. They voiced the inevitable revolt, a demand for greater liberty on the part of the new generation, cramped within the narrow limits and arbitrary boundaries of the "Idealists", who had made a literary fetish of Manzoni, and whose main champion at this time was Cavalotti. The reaction against Manzoni-ism took two forms in poetry, that of Carducci, who went to Greece and Rome for inspiration, and that of Stecchetti, who turned to the life around him. The theory of art which guided them is a familiar one. "Art should reproduce life. It is neither moral nor immoral but simply good or bad as art. They who accuse the new school of obscenity or irreligion confound criticism of thesis with criticism of form, the true distinction being between authors who write well and those who write ill. Life must be portrayed whole, in its deformity as well as in its beauty, and Art . . . must not be torn away from nastiness." To exemplify his theory of art, Lorenzo Stecchetti wrote successive volumes of poetry which "out-Baudelaired" Baudelaire in super-refinement verging on perversion, and were more meticulous in detail than those of Leconte de Lisle. His tradition in verse was later taken up, immeasurably expanded, and sublimated by Gabriele D'Annunzio, "ce terrible homme, ce Baudelaire effréré." Giovanni Pascoli, too, followed closely in Stecchetti's footsteps, and what Stecchetti did for lyric poetry Giovanni Verga did ten years later for the novel. Indeed Verga continued and so expanded Stecchetti's work that it is he who actually stands as the supreme representative of the school. His series The Vanquished holds the same place in Italian naturalism as Zola's Rougon-Macquart series does in French. For a time there was keen opposition to the new writers, but when the smoke cleared away the Verists were found to be established on firm standing-ground; they had most evidently come to stay and there was no need of fighting their battle again in the theatre.
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