The Italian playwright Ugo Betti (1892-1953) was one of the major figures of Italian theater in the 20th century. In his plays the question of guilt, justice, and redemption is of central concern.
Ugo Betti was born on Feb. 4, 1892, in Camerino. He was educated in Parma, where his family had moved. During World War I he fought as a volunteer artillery officer. After the war he took a degree in law and was a judge in the court of Parma until 1930, when he was transferred to Rome. In 1941 Betti received the Italian Academy's theater award. Following World War II he took a position at the library of the Ministry of Justice in Rome, which allowed him to devote more time to his writing. In 1949 he won the award of the Istituto Nazionale del Dramma, and in 1950 he received the Premio Roma. In the same year he became counselor of the court of appeal in Rome. Betti died in Rome on June 9, 1953.
Although Betti wrote poetry and fiction, his special interest lay in drama. A conspicuous part of his dramatic production is concerned with the psychology of the sexes and the study of psychological situations. Although some of these plays have naturalistic settings, there is almost throughout an attempt at symbolic rendition. This is noticeable in his first play La padrona (The Proprietress), given in 1927 at Rome's Teatro Odescalchi, and is stressed more in later plays of this type (La casa sull'acqua, 1928, The House on the Water), although there is an occasional return to realism (Un albergo sul porto, 1930, Harbor Hotel; Marito e moglie, 1942, Husband and Wife). Plays which, in a fablelike setting, attempt to prove timeless higher truths form another part of his drama: L'isola meravigliosa (1929, Wonderful Island) and Irene innocente (1946, Innocent Irene). The surrealist farce Diluvio (1931, Flood) satirizes middleclass values, a theme taken up again in a later trilogy: Una bella domenica di settembre (1935, A Beautiful Sunday in September), I nostri sogni (1936, Our People's Dreams), and II paese delle vacanze (1937, Vacation Land).
Betti's main concern, the question of justice, of guilt and its atonement, appears as the central issue for the first time in Frana allo scalo Nord (1932, Landslide). During a court inquiry into an accident which caused the death of some laborers and a girl, the circle of those responsible becomes wider and wider. In the end it is humanity itself that is on trial, and Betti's judgment is that all men are guilty. This concept of a collective guilt, of corruption in the soul of every man, and of justice conceived as a transcendental force appears again and again (Notte in casa del ricco, 1938, Night in the Rich Man's House; Ispezione, 1942, Inspection). Corruzione al palazzo di giustizia (1944, Corruption in the Palace of Justice), perhaps the best of Betti's plays, carries his obsession with the theme to the ultimate: corruption has entered the very halls of justice, and an investigator investigates those that usually sit in judgment. Although in the end the truly guilty person confesses, again by implication all of humanity is involved, and the condemnation therefore is of all.
Biographical and critical material on Betti is available in two volumes of his plays: Two Plays: Frana allo scalo Nord, L'aiuola bruciata, edited and with an introduction by G.H. McWilliam (1965), and Three Plays on Justice: Landslide, Struggle till Dawn, The Fugitive, translated and with an introduction by G.H. McWilliam (1964). See also Lander MacClintock, The Age of Pirandello (1951). □