Moor Harlequin’s 22 Misfortunes
Moor Harlequin’s 22 Misfortunes
by Marco Martinelli
THE LITERARY WORK
A play in three acts set in Milan in the late twentieth century; published in Italian (as, I ventidue infortuni di Mor Arlecchino) in 1993, In English in 1997.
The play updates an eighteenth-century scenario by Carlo Goldoni, transforming his familiar Harlequin character into an African immigrant who undergoes a series of mishaps while trying to return home to Senegal.
One of the most innovative contemporary Italian playwrights, Marco Martinelli is quickly changing the face of Italian theater. Born August 14, 1956, in Reggio Emilia, Martinelli has been involved in theater since 1977 as actor, director, and playwright. In 1983 Martinelli founded Teatro delle Albe, now known as Ravenna Teatro, along with his wife Ermanna Montanari, Luigi Dadina, and Marcella Nonni. Eight years later Martinelli became Artistic Di-rector, a position he still holds today. He has written close to 20 plays, all produced and performed by Ravenna Teatro. One of twenty Italian theater companies the Italian government considers nationally important, the Ravenna Theater is an interethnic community-based theater committed to cross-cultural performance, a commitment best expressed in Martinelli’s oft-quoted “manifesto”: “Give me a theater that is tall and short, philosophy and laughs, tradition and the off-beat, feminine and masculine, white and black and yellow and red and even light blue” (Martinelli,“Prologo alle Albe”). Identified as “Afro-Romagnolo,” the company is uniquely composed of artists from Romagna (the eastern half of the Italian region known as Emilia-Romagna) and Senegal (such as Mandiaye N’Diaye and Mor Awa Niang). Consistent with this makeup, Ravenna Teatro is particularly interested in the dialogue between the Senegalese and Romagnolo cultures. Martinelli locates his theatrical pieces in multicultural Italy, and specifically in an Italy that must confront the change in its society as a result of migration from countries Italy and other European countries once ruled as colonies. According to Martinelli, the new multicultural Italy is grounds for celebration, not resistance. Most of Martinelli’s works take up this political and historical project. His repertoire includes early plays like Ruh. Romagna ù Africa uguale (1988; Ruh: Romagna Plus Africa Equals); Siamo asini o pedanti? (1989; Are We Asses or Pedantics?); Lunga vita all’albero (1990; Long Live the Tree) as well as later ones like Salmagundi (2004). Martinelli is also well known for updating drama classics. His All’inferno! (1996; To Hell!) is based on Aristophanes’ comedies; his Sogno di una notte di mezza estate (2002) reinterprets Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this vein, Moor Harlequin’s 22 Misfortunes mixes various forms of drama to explore migration, racism, and cross-cultural encounters in contemporary Italian society.
Immigration and multiculturalism in late-twentieth-century Italy
While Italy has long been a country of emigration, in the last 25 years that status has quickly changed to one of immigration. In 1991, about when Martinelli’s play was written, there were 700,000-800,000 immigrants in Italy. Twelve years later with 2.6 million immigrants currently living in the country, Italy is experiencing the fastest increase in migration in all of Europe (Ginsborg, p. 62; Caritas, p. 2). Why this sudden mass immigration to Italy? There are a few main reasons: delayed immigration from African nations, political developments in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and a dramatic improvement in the Italian economy. Whereas in the past hungry Italians had to leave their country to find enough work, now Italy attracts workers from abroad.
In the past few decades, immigrants to Italy have come increasingly from the “Global South”—that is, from Africa (Senegal, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia), Asia (Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines), and parts of South America. There are also sizable numbers of immigrants from Eastern countries (Romania, Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Poland, Russia, the Ukraine, and China). The overwhelming majority of immigrants in Italy in the past 20 years have come from non-European Union and non-North American countries (approximately 50 percent in 1991, and 85 percent in 2003). Many of these new immigrants came to Italy not directly from Africa but by way of Great Britain and France, countries that began turning away immigrants in the late 1980s. Others came from the recently dissolved Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Immigrants from such areas form the new majority of newcomers to Italy. Both legally and informally, this new majority is commonly referred to as extracomunitari, or from “outside the European Common Market,” a term that has taken on negative connotations. Since they have no right to live in Italy long-term without the coveted permesso di soggiorno (legal permission to stay), many are undocumented, or dandestini (clandestine). In 1991 it was estimated that Italy had roughly 400,000 undocumented immigrants, while that number is now estimated to have doubled (Ginsborg, p. 62).
Factors that “pushed” the immigrants to leave their native country are overcrowding and extreme poverty without hope of employment. Other reasons include war on home soil, as in Eritrea and Somalia. Of course, one of the largest reasons has been the dissolution of European colonies in Africa. When they were finally liberated, the locals, often Westernized during the colonial period, struggled to recover from decades of outside rule and exploitation. In such dire circumstances, migration to the country of a wealthier former colonizer (France, England, Italy), whose languages the Africans had at least some familiarity with, was an attractive option. In view of the fact that Britain and France have closed their borders, Italy receives not only from its own ex-colonies (Somalia, Eritrea, Libya, and Ethiopia), but from the ex-colonies of other European countries too.
In contemporary Italy, a climate of fear, and even panic, has taken hold of Italian society on account of all this sudden mass immigration; residents fear the loss of their jobs and the increase in crime in their neighborhoods. One example of this anxiety is a 1997 cartoon in Il Giornale, a conservative national Italian newspaper, showing “a white woman held tight by a big black man and facing another man with a fez, who was threatening her” (Riccio, p. 195). The next day ll Manifesto, another major paper, ran a similarly racist image of a black man raping a white woman. Yet, scholars protest that such anxiety on the part of the Italian public is not reflective of reality, but rather due to an image perpetuated by the Italian media and by the fact that the new immigrants from Africa and other parts of the Global South are immensely “visible” in a white, Catholic society. In 1992 immigrants were said to make up 15.4 percent of those held in police custody (Commissioni per le Politiche di Integrazione degli Immigrati). While certainly not small, this figure shows that immigrants are by no means responsible for the majority of the crimes in Italy.
Statistics show that these new immigrants are often themselves the victims of violence by Italian citizens. In 1997, a study by the University of Rome reported there were 374 total acts of violence against immigrants (one each day), 111 of which were fatal. One of the most sensational fatalities—prompting a moment of national reevaluation—was that of Jerry Essan Mazlo in 1991. A political refugee from South Africa and a temporary worker in the tomato fields in southern Italy, Mazlo was killed by local youths during a night raid on the immigrant camp where he was living. As one historian reports, his murder is typical of the anti-immigrant violence of the late 1980s and 1990s: “Immigrants’ caravans were set alight in Florence, raids were organized on immigrant camps all round the country, countless beatings took place of foreign workers picked upon at random. Only the most serious cases reached the press, while a whole history of discrimination went by unchecked and un-recorded” (Ginsborg, p. 65).
Some say that the rise of xenophobia or “cultural anxiety” in Italy is due to the fact that im-migration is occurring so rapidly while Italy is still not quite settled into a firm national identity. Unified only in 1861, Italy is a new country still very much divided by regional differences. This regional character is key to appreciating just how difficult it is for an immigrant from Senegal or Algeria to become part of a local Italian culture. Due to large differences in dialect and culture, it is already difficult for someone from one Italian region to be integrated in another region—how much more so then for an African to do the same? The emphasis on local culture in Italy in many ways privileges cultural “authenticity” and “purity.” For example, many Italians pride themselves on being “one-hundred percent Venetian” or “pure Milanese.” This sense of cultural, even local, purity is violently disrupted by the mass im-migration. The result is a racism tied to the attachment to cultural purity, as shown, for ex-ample, by the policies of the ultra right political group Lega Nord. The party has adopted a racist stance not only with respect to non-European Union immigrants, but also to Italian southerners, defining itself as a completely separate culture, even a separate “race” (Foot, p. 221).
Still others argue that the current racism and cultural anxiety derives from the fact that Italy was simply unprepared for the arrival of peoples so different from themselves. Before this wave of immigration, Italy was “extraordinarily homogenous—in color of skin, religion, even increasingly in language” (Ginsborg, p. 64). Suddenly the nation must contend with racism in its midst as it attempts to deal with its new multicultural society.
The fate of Italy’s new immigrants
How, in such an environment, has the immigrant from Africa or Pakistan or the Philippines fared? On one hand, some immigrants have managed to integrate them-selves, become legalized, find work, and begin new lives in Italy. On the other hand, many endure isolation, powerlessness, marginalization, and exploitation. Generally extracomunitari immigrants live in almost total social segregation in Italy. Most reside on the outskirts of the city, and even those who work and are active in society, complain of the strict social barriers that exist between the extracomunitaro employee and the Italian employer.
Studies have shown that these new immigrants fare best—in terms of legal rights, job opportunities, and social acceptance—in the North in cities like Bologna and Milan. Such cities typically offer work in factories, whereas the South has consistently offered more casual piecework, such as picking tomatoes. A study of Senegalese immigration in Italy reports these immigrants’ sense of being exploited because of their racial difference. “Blacks here,” says one of these immigrants, “can only find work that breaks your back and mine is already broken, and other kinds of job like in service you are refused or under-paid” (Riccio, Toubab, p. 194). Other immigrants describe feeling forced to perform undocumented work or work they would never do at home (prostitution, street selling, or degrading manual labor). They likely live in immigrant camps, abandoned buildings, or overcrowded apartments. Adequate housing and food is a problem for many, as is the struggle to obtain legal status. While there were a few key years (1982; 1987-89; 1990-92) when the government granted undocumented immigrants permission to stay, obtaining the proper document (permesso di soggiorno) is still for many the major obstacle to finding work, or getting health care.
Solitude is another difficulty. Many of the immigrants, who are mostly men, come to Italy alone (in 1999, some 90 percent of Senegalese immigrants were men [Riccio in Grillo and Pratt, p. 180]). Leaving behind families, they plan to earn money, then return to their original homes. A number of immigrants manage to fulfill this dream, but most do not. Only 10 percent ever leave Italy, and many of them go not to their home country but elsewhere (Caritas, p. 3).
In Italy, though they may live alongside new-comers of similar background, the immigrants often complain of emotional hardships: intense nostalgia; racism due to their visibly different skin, hair, or clothing; the trauma of being anonymous or ignored members of society. The sense of in-visibility and loneliness is perhaps best expressed by poet Gezim Hajdari from Albania: “I am a bell in a sea of silence and voices / a hermit closed in a Temple, no God hears my sounds, … When will this punishment end?” (Hajdari, p. 29).
The new “migration Literature” in Italy
The recent immigration explosion and multicultural composition of Italy has given birth to a new form of literature in Italian. Since 1990, immigrants to Italy from countries outside the United States and Western Europe have been writing a growing number of literary works in Italian. Examples are the 1990 novels Immigrato (Immigrant) by Salah Methnani and Io, venditore degli elefanti (I Am an Elephant Salesman) by Pap Khouma. Another is the 1995 dramatic monologue Ana de Jesús by Cristiana Caldas Brito.
While some of the first works by immigrants were written with an Italian co-author for linguistic reasons, most authors now work alone and write directly in Italian. The early works tend to be autobiographical (even taking the form of diaries, like Khouma’s work) and to focus mainly on major immigration issues like legal documentation, poverty, and housing problems. Fanning outward, more recent works have begun to experiment more with form, genre, and language and to venture into a wider range of themes. Also more women have joined the ranks of these new writers, reflecting the increase in female immigrants in Italy. Examples of these more recent works include Rosana Crispim da Costa’s (Brazil) II mio corpo traduce molte lingue (1998; My Body Translates Many Languages) and Gezim Hajdari’s (Albania) Antologia della pioggia (2000; Anthology of the Rain). The question of how (or, for some, even if) all these works fit into the larger scheme of Italian literature is still hotly debated.
In the eyes of many, since these works are frequently written by the immigrant from an ex-Italian or ex-European colony and deal with race and nation, they fall into the tradition of post-colonial Italian literature. For example, Ribka Sibhatu’s mulitgenre work Auló: Canto-poesia dalI’Eritrea (1993; Aulo: Song-Poetry from Eritrea) writes about her experience as an immigrant in the context of Eritrea’s colonial history. Yet post-colonial literature is not reserved to the locals of ex-colonies, nor to authors of color. One well-known postcolonial novelist, Erminia Dell’Oro (L’abbandono, 1991; The Abandoning), although born and raised in Eritrea, is the granddaughter of an early Italian settler. In addition to authors from ex-colonies, the category widens to include postcolonial Italian authors born and living in Italy today, writers like Marco Martinelli, whose works explore issues derived from colonial his-tory, such as racism and nationalism.
The first act takes place just out-side Milan. It begins at Scapino’s motel, introducing Lelio along with Angelica and Spinetta, his valet. All three are trying to get home to Milan, but have run out of money. Apparently Lelio was supposed to have gone to Venice to find his sister, Sapienza, whom he has never seen. She was sent at a young age by their father, Pantaloon, to live in Venice with her uncle, a wealthy widower. Now that the uncle has died, Sapienza has inherited his money, and Pantaloon has decided to bring her home to reap the economic rewards. But before reaching Venice to find his sister, Lelio becomes sidetracked; he meets and marries Angelica, a bar maid at Scapino’s motel. Lelio must now face the problem of bringing home to his upper-class father the lower-class Angelica instead of his newly wealthy sister. He has a plan: he will pass off Angelica as Sapienza.
Meanwhile, in the background appears Moor Harlequin, an African immigrant on his way home to Senegal. He enters the motel after following the sound of music coming from inside. He finds an African musician, whom he greets in the Wolof language of Senegal, and begins to dance animatedly. He then is surprised to find that the hotel owner, Scapino, is a fellow Senegalese. He tells Scapino of his plans to return home to Senegal as Scapino takes in all five of his suitcases, loaded with presents for people there. Yet, when Harlequin tells him that he has no money, having spent it all on the gifts, Scapino, despite being his compatriot, throws him and his suitcases out of the motel. The truth is revealed later that Moor is really saving his money in order to impress those at home with the “fortune” he earned in Italy. Scapino’s inhospitality marks the first of Moor’s “22 misfortunes” on his way home (hence the play’s title). In the course of the play, they will range from beatings and arrests to being set on fire (twice) and robbed. Angelica confesses to the valet Spinetta that she is nervous to meet her new father-in-law, Pantaloon. As she does so, Moor is mugged by a group of racist thieves who order him to “go back to Africa!” and proceed to steal all his suitcases (Martinelli, Moor Harlequin’s 22 Misfortunes, p. 32). Lelio, taking pity on Moor, gives him his business card, promising that if Moor ever comes to Lelio’s “big, red palazzo” in Milan, he will help him out (Moor Harlequin’s 22 Misfortunes, p. 33). Scapino gets a hold of the card and makes plans to visit the Pantaloon family’s palace to collect the money Lelio owes him for his motel bill.
Act 2 finds Lelio and Angelica back in Pantaloon’s decadent palace in the center of the city. With overwhelming enthusiasm, Pantaloon wel-comes Angelica, whom he believes to be Sapienza, the daughter he has not seen for so long. The play takes a surprising turn when to Lelio’s horror in a symbolic scene Pantaloon eats Angelica / Sapienza’s hand. Moor arrives to the bloody scene and asks Lelio for money for the plane ride home to Senegal. Distraught after the tragedy, Lelio considers going with Moor back to Senegal. Yet, just in that moment the police arrive and arrest Moor, whom they take to be a thief in Pantaloon’s home. We then learn that Pantaloon has promised Sapienza in marriage to Horatio, the son of a doctor, who promptly arrives with his father. At this point Angelica’s true identity is revealed. Moor returns, having missed the plane after being detained by police. In the meantime, Lelio challenges Horatio to a duel for Angelica (a.k.a. Sapienza). As a last resort, Moor attempts to mug Horatio for money for the plane ticket, but is interrupted by Horatio’s father, who violently flings Moor to the ground. Knocked un-conscious, Moor misses his flight again. Moor gains consciousness and decides to hide in the fireplace from Horatio’s father and Pantaloon. The act ends on a hilarious—if disturbing—note when Spinetta lights the fireplace and Moor comes out burnt and screaming.
Act 3 also takes place at the palace, but out-side. It turns out that Pantaloon has decided to pay for Moor’s ticket home in order to rid him-self of his “troublesome” presence. Yet, after all this chaos and confusion, now Scapino also wants to go home to Senegal, despite his initial attachment to Italy. Finally, to everyone’s surprise, the legitimate daughter, Sapienza, returns, and offers to marry the Doctor instead of Horatio. As she orders Moor to work at her wedding, his trip risks being canceled once again; he finally faints out of desperation as African drums beat in the background. The play ends just after the wedding takes place between Sapienza and the Doctor, and it is discovered to everyone’s horror that once again Pantaloon has eaten his own kin—this time Sapienza!
The problems of home in postcolonial Italy
The struggle to define one’s “home”—to comedic and even grotesque ends—is what binds the play’s otherwise motley cast of characters. This struggle is at once responsible for the paranoia, anxiety, hysteria, confusion, misfortune, and even violence that dominate the meaningfully outrageous plot. Mainly, Moor Harlequin desperately attempts to return home to Senegal—despite the numerous misfortunes that he must undergo be-fore doing so. The causes of his misfortunes are due not only to his own fixation on getting home whatever the obstacle, but even more to the set-backs presented by other characters.
These setbacks are intimately tied to the issues of migration, nationality, and racism in presentday Italy. As an immigrant from Senegal, Moor represents one of the many extracomunitari —immigrants from nations that are not part of the European Union—who have arrived in the last two decades. Yet, he is not from an ex-Italian colony, as one might expect, but from an ex-French colony. In the play he speaks French and Italian as well as Wolof, the language of Senegal. The question of where home is, if one judges by language, is clearly complex.
SUITCASES BULGING WITH MEANING
Moor packs some mammoth suitcases to carry back to Senegal. An extended metaphor of the absurd difficulty with which many immigrants must move between two homes, the suitcases symbolize the postcolonial migration experience. He aims to haul back just about all of Italy in his suitcases—”a camera, a VCR. a refrigerator, a washing machine, and a sewing machine” (Moor Harlequin’s 22 Misfortunes, p. 28). The image of Moor and the stuffed suitcases evokes the stereotype of the vu’ cumprh, a derogatory term for undocumented African immigrants in Italy, particularly Senegalese immigrants who earn a living as vendors of all types of products, from clothes, watches, and handbags, to tissues and lighters. The phrase vu’ cumpra) (“You want buy?”) imitates the vendors’ mix of broken Italian and French. The vu’ cumpra often carry their wares in suitcases packed to the limit—hence Moor and his many suitcases. Mostly the vendors sell their wares in large cities and in the shore town Rimini, in Emilia Romagna, where the city of Ravenna (site of the Ravenna Teatro) is also located. The actor who first played Moor, Mor Awa Niang, worked as an undocumented vendor on the beaches of Rimini before joining Ravenna Teatro.
While Moor’s homelessness points to his powerlessness, Pantaloon’s grand palace, tellingly located near City Hall in “King’s Court,” suggests the “absolute power that he maintains over his family’s and servants” (Nasi in Martinelli, p. 95). Fiercely attached to his home (the actual structure as well as its symbolic value as an indication of his status), Pantaloon (as a kind of metaphor of the postcolonial Italian nation) makes desperate, even hysterical attempts to maintain social di-visions. In one scene, disgusted to discover that “a moor” with a “burnt face” has been in his home, Pantaloon complains that if it were up to his son, “this house would be opened up to dogs and pigs” (Moor Harlequin’s 22Mis-fortunes, p. 47). It is suggested that the attitude is a pervasive one, characteristic of other classes too. In the play, Spinetta, Pantaloon’s driver, remarks, “That black man is such a pain! But I would have to say that black people in general….” Spinetta goes so far as to call Moor an “animal” (Moor Harlequin’s 22Mis-fortunes, pp. 25, 33). To Spinetta, the African immigrant is not just alien; he’s subhuman. Even Moor himself makes racist assumptions. He is perplexed to discover that Scapino, a fellow African, owns the motel.
HARLEQUIN AND PANTALOON IN ITALIAN DRAMA
Harlequin and Pantaloon are two of many stock characters of the commedia dell’arte tradition, which enjoyed widespread popularity in Italy from the 1500s to the early 1700s. Acrobatic and dressed in a colorful mismatched costume, the traditional Harlequin of the commedia drll’arte is usually a jester, as well as a servant figure (sometimes a servant to Pantaloon) from Bergamo. While often clever and even knavish, Harlequin is usually the butt of his own and others’ jokes. Moor’s African-Italian costume and energetic dance scenes vividly recall the traditional Harlequin. Also, as in the commedia dell’arte, Martinelli’s comedy takes place at Moor’s expense. Pantaloon, on the other hand, is in traditional Italian comic theater an old, powerful, and wealthy shopkeeper or merchant. Business always comes before family for him. A figure of high status, he usually speaks with a pure Venetian accent. While Martinelli’s Pantaloon is a lawyer from Milan, he echoes the power, wealth, and stress on local origins of the traditional Pantaloon.
Ironically it is Scapino who expresses most clearly the economic fears that go hand-in-hand with much of the racism in the play (and, by implication, in real life): “here among thieves, gypsies and immigrants, you just can’t live anymore. Taxes go up and respectable people have to pay for everyone” (Moor Harlequin’s 22 Misfortunes, p. 35). The action only underscores the economic fears. Some policemen arrest Moor, believing him to be a thief simply because he is an African in a white man’s house. They operate on the strength of the general misconception that African immigrants are somehow “naturally” criminal, without consideration for the notion that someone may feel forced into desperate measures by dire economic straits. Moor finally does mug Horatio, and by doing so conforms to a role expected of the immigrant—that of criminal; he, however, has been forced into this role, suggests the play, by the injustices others have imposed on him.
One’s home is related to one’s identity in the play. A comical series of mistaken identities unfold as the plot progresses. Scapino is mistaken for a customer, not the owner of his hotel bar. Angelica is mistaken for Pantaloon’s daughter. Ironically Pantaloon, who so strictly divides family’s from strangers, does not even recognize his own daughter. His devotion to home furthermore turns self-destructive, indicated quite liter-ally in cannibalism. So bent is he on protecting it (and his social identity, which is tied to it) that he becomes “all-devouring,” consuming even his own kin (Moor Harlequin’s 22 Misfortunes, p. 39).
The inability to ascertain a person’s identity counteracts the sense of belonging evoked by the idea of home. When Sapienza returns to meet her father, she presents legal proof of her identity. These legal documents point to the difficulties of ascertaining one’s identity in the society of the play, as well as to the likelihood of Moor’s own problems of legality as an extracomunitario. Lelio’s identity is also unstable. At one point, he babbles in French, something he tends to do when he “gets confused” (Moor Harlequin’s 22 Misfortunes, p. 32). Lelio grew up in France, so for him home is difficult to locate; periodically he even plays with his origins. In another case of mistaken identity, he at one point is identified as a leader of thieves, and he ponders the possibility: “Yes I could be he! … Why not? Another life … maybe born in another place … another father” (Moor Harlequin’s 22 Misfortunes, p. 32). Later he jumps at the chance to leave Italy to go to Senegal with Moor. In both scenes he lightheartedly asks himself,“Why not?” Home, his reaction suggests, is not an absolute. It does not determine us; we determine it. In contrast, Moor Harlequin—much like Pantaloon—remains fiercely committed to one, absolute “home”; Moor tries at all costs to return to Senegal despite all the obstacles he faces. In sum, home, a source of anxiety in this play, is not the stable place many believe it to be. It is this anxiety that drives the comedy. Playfully it scrambles origins and evokes sheer mayhem regarding “home,” a concept that is shown to be guarded to hysterical
SEPARATED BY TWO CENTURIES, JOINED BY “MIGRATION”
|Goldoni’s Characters||Martineili’s Characters|
|Harlequin, drifter from Bergamo||Moor Harlequin, immigrant from Senega!|
|Pantaloon, wealthy father||Pantaloon, wealthy father and lawyer|
|Lelio, Pantaloon’s son||Lelio, Pantaloon’s son|
|Angelique, Venetian lady||Angelica, motel maid|
|Flaminia, Pantaloon’s naive daughter||Sapienza, Pantaloon’s clever daughter|
|Scapin, the valel (servant)||Spinetta, a female valel (driver)|
|George, innkeeper||Scapino, Senegalese motel owner|
proportions and often to destructive and violent ends.
The primary inspiration for Martinelli’s work is Goldoni’s eighteenth-century scenario Les vingt deux infortunes de Arlequin (1763; The 22 Misfortunes of Harlequin). Consisting of approximately 14 pages of rough notes about dialogue, setting, plot, and action, the scenario first existed in Italian in 1738 under the name Le trentadue disgrazie di Arlecchino (The Thirty-two Mishaps of Harlequin). The scenario tells the 22 tragic-comic travails of Harlequin, a wandering, poor foreigner from Bergamo on his way to Milan. His misfor-tunes are the result of some hilarious—if not disastrous—interactions with Pantaloon and his family’s. At an inn outside Milan, Harlequin meets Pantaloon’s son, Lelio, on his way back from Venice, where he went to retrieve his sister. Instead he leaves her there and takes a new wife, Angelique. Back in Milan, he tries to pass her off as his sister and poor Harlequin attempts to get enough money to finally go home.
Martinelli describes his initial encounter with Goldoni’s forgotten scenario: “When I ran into these seven or eight pages written by Goldoni I was struck by their contemporariness. As for the Harlequin, you just had to change the color of his skin and passport to transform him from eighteenth-century citizen of Bergamo [in Italy’s Lombardy region] to an African at the end of the millennium” (Martinelli, Moor Harlequin’s 22 Mis-fortunes, pp. 2-3). In an essay written with co-producer Michele Sambin of TamTeatromusica, Martinelli explains the similar economic situation of the two characters: “A hungry stranger like his predecessors; they [the Bergamesque harlequins] fled to Venice from the valleys of Bergamo searching for food and work. In rich Venice, the old Bergamesque servants toil as servants and porters. Today’s Harlequins flee from the deserts of the South, and Venice is the rich Western world” (Martinelli and Sambin in Holm, p. 129). In Martinelli’s piece, the eighteenth-century harlequin is transformed from a “foreigner” from Bergamo to a late-twentieth-century immigrant from another nation (Senegal), which is actually comparable, since in Goldoni’s day, before the unification of Italy, the country was a patchwork of separate kingdoms and states that made Bergamo and Milan foreign to each other. Martinelli’s piece reflects the transformation of Italy into a land where strong regionalism is sometimes over-shadowed by a strong sense of nationalism that has been recently triggered by immigration. Goldoni’s and Martinelli’s characters are both wanderers, both laden with baggage, both miserably poor. The entrance of the main character in the earlier play resounds in the later one:
Harlequin enters, dressed as a traveler and laden with baggage. He tells the audience that he’s traveled the world round, serving one master, now another, but that it hasn’t done him any good, since—despite his efforts—he was and still is so poor that his entire wealth consists of six ecus [about 18 days’ wages].
(Goldoni, p. 76)
From the back of the stage, illuminated by the passing cars, enter [s] Moor Harlequin. Loaded down with suitcases. He is hitchhiking. No one stops.
(Moor Harlequin’s 22 Misfortunes, p. 26)
The difference is that the travel is transnational, even transcontinental in the later play, and that Goldoni’s social conflict—between “master” and “servant”—is reframed in Martinelli’s day as a racial conflict.
The play retains some eighteenth-century elements, for example, Vivaldi’s background tune “Nisi Dominus” and traditional costumes, including Venetian masks and capes. But it mixes these with modern-day African and Italian elements—jazz music and Senegalese percussion. Also the later play abandons Goldoni’s happy ending (his Harlequin marries Pantaloon’s maidservant as compensation for all his troubles). Martinelli’s Moor Harlequin instead meets with a final mis-fortune.
Martinelli’s work belongs to the tradition of postcolonial and/or intercultural theatrical pieces increasingly being produced all over Italy today. The theater companies that produce them include the Afro-Italian “Mascherenere” (Blackmasks) of Milan, “Palcoscenico dAfrica” (Africa’s Stage) of Rome, and “La Cooperativa Teatro Laboratorio” (Theater Laboratory Cooperative) of Brescia. Martinelli and these theater groups are unique among postcolonial Italian authors in their use of comedy to draw attention to the tragic circumstances of migration. His sources of inspiration include the commedia dell’arte, the Italian improvisational drama popular from the 1500s through early 1700s. In fact, the commedia dell’arte was also the main source of Goldoni’s scenario. In Martinelli’s work are slapstick elements like “lazzi [physical jests and acrobatics], surprises, beatings with a stick” as well as the comique de repetition, or “comedy of repetition,” as well as stock characters from the old tradition (Fido in Martinelli, p. 93). Using the same method as Goldoni, Martinelli—who believes in a “group theater” rather than one of single authors—wrote the play with specific actors in mind. Martinelli’s play is also very much in the tradition of Italian political theater of the 1970s, though perhaps more physical than the political theater. It has been suggested that the work is indebted to that of Italian playwright Dario Fo, which sometimes mixes political satire with elements of the commedia dell’arte, the absurd, and surrealism. Martinelli’s piece is almost certainly working in the tradition of the “theater of the absurd,” shaped by playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, as demonstrated by the scenes of cannibalism in which Pantaloon eats first Angelica, then Sapienza. Martinelli himself has cited the general influence on his theater of another Italian writer, Pier Paolo Pasolini; comparing himself to Pasolini, Martinelli explains, “in my theater [too] the laughter is black” (Martinelli in Holm, p. 125).
Martinelli’s play furthermore draws on post-colonial and postmodern notions in which home can be multiply located. It also belongs to the tradition in postcolonial drama of updating colonial issues in literary classics; another example is Aime Césaire’s A Tempest (published in French in 1969; 1985 in English), a restaging of Shake speare’s The Tempest. Finally, the play moves out-side Europe altogether as it incorporates elements of the Senegalese griot tradition of oral and migrant storytelling. Just as in griot, music and dance are central elements of Martinelli’s play rather than minor accompaniments. Especially in keeping with the tradition is the use of Senegalese drums in the play. Also, Moor’s story recalls the wandering nature of ancient griots. The actor who first played Moor, Mor Awa Niang, is in fact from a family’s of Senegalese griots.
Technically Martinelli is well-known for his emphasis on innovation, including experimentation with language. His theatrical pieces daringly mix Wolof with Italian and with the Romagnolo dialect, as well as with other languages. In fact, the term “play” does not quite capture his work given the way it fuses elements of traditional drama with music, dance, and methods such as non-verbal performance.
Performance and reception
The production of Moor Harlequin’s 22 Misfortunes was a collaboration between Ravenna Teatro and TAM Teatromusica, an experimental theater founded in 1980 by Michele Sambin, Laurent Dupont, and Pierangela Allegro. Performed January 28, 1993, in Teatro Rasi, the home base of Ravenna Teatro, the original cast included two Senegalese actors (Mor Awa Niang as Mor Arlecchino and Mandiaye N’Diaye), two Italian / French actors (Luigi Dadina and Laurent Dupont), and two Italian actresses (Ermanna Montanari and Pierangela Allegro), in addition to Italian and Senegalese musicians.
Martinelli has received various awards for his work, including the prestigious Italian and European drama awards Premio Drammaturgia In/finita (1995; In/finita Playwriting Award); Premio Ubu (1996-97); Premio Hystrio for direction (1999), and the Golden Laurel at the International Theater Festival MESS in Sarajevo (2003). Declared “an adventurous voyage rich in surprises,” Moor Harlequin’s 22 Misfortunes was met at its debut with enthusiastic praise for its historical and political timeliness and artistic innovation (Libero, p. 12). In 1993 the piece was honored with the invitation to participate in the Bicentario Goldiano, the 200th anniversary of Goldoni’s death. Critics agree that Moor Harlequin’s 22 Misfortunes ranks as a major contribution to Italian theater. The play is considered a refreshing showcase of contemporary issues too often oversimplified or swept under the table in polite Italian society. Counted a success on multiple levels, the work has been heartily applauded as “a tale capable of capturing not only the heart but the mind” (Guermandi, p. 21).
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