Saints on Stage: Popular Hagiography in Post-WWII Italy
2. Hagiography and Educational Theatre
3. The Salesian teatrino: A School of Sanctity
4. Saints and Mass Media in Post-WWII Italy
5. The St Agnes Plays Published in Teatro delle giovani
GETULIA—How can an evil sinner like Procopio sentence you to death, you who are as beautiful as the morning star and purer than the sun?AGNES—(gently) How? Because this is Satan’s hour, the hour in which the Church was crucified, as in that holy Friday Jesus was crucified… […] But then the Master triumphantly rose, and the Church will rise again. She will emerge in the light; she will triumph through the centuries, her roots firmly anchored in Christ’s blood and in our blood.
AFRA: if you don’t relent by tomorrow, what you fear more than death, what happened to you the day before yesterday, will happen to you again. And it’ll destroy your illusions for ever.AGNES: Just like the other day, I’ll never fear anything, because the whole of me, body and soul, belongs to Christ. But rest assured: An angel has been watching over me. He’ll save the bride of the Lord.29
6. The Domenico Savio Plays Published in Teatro dei giovani
SUPERVISOR: To each his own ideas. In my opinion, the workers’ heaven is here and not up in the clouds. A good job, a good salary, that’s all we ask.FOX: And when you die?SUPERVISOR: Then heaven will be finished for us but will start for our children, if we are able to defend our rights against the lies of capitalism.FOX: Yes, but where will you go, after you die?SUPERVISOR: What? You don’t know where dead people go after a funeral? Under ground.FOX: Yes, the body. But the soul goes to heaven or hell!SUPERVISOR: That’s what priests say. They want to keep us quiet—with the lies of capitalists. Women and children might still believe that but we… we’re not fools. We don’t take that bait.
7. Conclusions: The Voice of the Saints in Salesian Theatre
Conflicts of Interest
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St Rosalia and St Agata, for example, protected the Sicilian cities of Palermo and Catania from the plague and the eruptions from Mt Etna. St Rosalia has more recently also been invoked for protection against Covid-19 (Tondo 2020). For lost objects one prays to St Anthony, while Blaise is the saint who may help a sore throat.
Giovanni Bosco (1815–1888) founded the Society of St Francis de Sales, commonly known as the Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB), for the education of boys and young men, especially from underprivileged classes. Together with Maria Domenica Mazzarello, he also founded the order of Figlie di Maria Ausiliatrice [Daughters of Mary Helper of Christians] (FMA) for the education of girls and young women. Don Bosco was canonized in 1934; Maria Mazzarello in 1951.
All translations from the Italian into English are mine.
The then Archibishop of Milan Dionigi Tettamanzi modified the last part of this famous quote as “always strive to do good to others” (Tettamanzi 2004).
Cervera (1976) reports an undocumented oral anecdote that refers to Don Bosco’s attendance at a school staging of a classical play in which young men had dressed up to play the female roles. Don Bosco, according to this story, realised the risks of continuing such a practice and recommended single-gender or gender-neutral plays.
In the inter-war years, staged plays included the lives of more recent martyrs. For example, a work which would have served to both celebrate Salesian martyrdom and strengthen the anti-Bolshevik sentiment of the time is Fiori di martiri ossia fede intrepida [Flowers of martyrs or fearless faith] by Sr. Maria Emma Acchiappati (1888–1970), see Acchiappati (1939). The protagonists of the play, set in Barcelona in July 1936, are Salesian-educated young women who witness the destruction of their school, and hear about the death of Salesian sisters Sr Moreno and Sr Amparo. Later in the play, they themselves will refuse to denounce their faith and will be martyred offstage. The play ends not with the young women’s death, but rather a vision of Maria Mazzarello, surrounded by the two Salesian martyrs and the three young women, with angels among the clouds.
Theatre is conspicuously absent from this list. A memorable Rappresentazione di Santa Uliva, directed by Jacques Copeau, with music by Ildebrando Pizzetti, was staged in Florence in 1933 but remained a quite unique theatrical event. A few saints appear as comic characters in 1950s comedies such as Eduardo de Filippo’s De Pretore Vincenzo (1957), and Giovanni Gigliozzi’s Santi in soffitta (1959).
An example is the life of St. Francis Xavier in cartoon form, entitled Il pirata di Dio [God’s pirate] (Gorla 2008, p. 97).
FMA sister (1878–1910), declared venerable in 1982.
FMA sister (1847–1908), declared blessed in 1994.
Salesian educated teenager (1891–1904), beatified in 1988.
While at the time the handbook containing these prayers was written (1910), it would have made perfect sense to choose saint Agnes, one may wonder why during the 1950s and ’60s the Salesians did not make more use of Laura Vicuña or Maria Goretti as more contemporary symbols of female purity. My guess is that in both cases the lives of those saintly young women would have needed reference to their attempted rape, and so would have gone against the tenet of Salesian theatre to avoid or even suggest any form of violence on stage. In the one play based on the life of Salesian-educated Laura Vicuña published in the post-war years, Caterina Pesci’s Per te, mamma! [For you, mom!] (Pesci 1961), emphasis is given to Laura’s sacrifice to save her mother’s soul rather than on her experience of abuse. See Cavallaro (2011, pp. 34–36) for an analysis of the play.
In a short dialogue published immediately after this play, Pesci herself makes fun of the difference between the ideal costumes and scenes her historical plays require and the reality of educational theatre. In Per la festa di S. Agnese [For S. Agnes’ day] (1954b), the four girl protagonists search in vain for a long white tunic, pink cape, palm tree branch and a little lamb to be able to have St Agnes appear on stage on her feast day. But all they can come up with is a long white nightdress, a pink bed cover, a branch of a Christmas tree—St Agnes day is January 21, so not long after the end of Christmas celebrations – and a small white rug to represent a lamb. By the end of the dialogue, the protagonists will decide to focus their performance on the Virgin Mary instead, 1954 being a Marian year, having on stage a bunch of flowers with inspirational messages in front of a statue of Mary. St Agnes, they say, “will be very happy to give her place to the Queen of virgins and martyrs. In fact, she would probably feel confused if we dared ask her to come down from Heaven in this Marian year…” (Pesci 1954b, p. 41).
If the young man is compared to the devil, the jealous friend Macrina is compared to a snake (Pesci 1954a, pp. 25, 28).
F. M. A. are the initials of the order, Figlie di Maria Ausiliatrice. It was not uncommon at the time for Salesian sisters to have their plays published anonymously or with a pseudonym.
The novel was made even more popular in Italy by the 1949 homonymous film directed by Alessandro Blasetti which, however, does not include St Agnes as a character.
For this scene, Wiseman’s novel had the character of Fulvius directly proposing to Agnes. The Salesian play has a character named Fulvia talking about the prefect’s son’s interest in Agnes.
In the novel, it was Fulvius himself who came to the jail to offer Agnes freedom if she married him. In the play, it is the avid African slave Afra, the same one who turned Agnes in for being a Christian, who makes the same offer on behalf of the prefect’s son.
These words are taken almost literally from chapter XXIX of Wiseman’s Fabiola, which also explains that it will not describe her tortures in detail: “Over the first part of the martyr’s trials we cast a veil of silence, though ancient Fathers, and the Church in her offices, dwell upon it, as doubling her crown. Suffice it to say, that her angel protected her from harm; and that the purity of her presence converted a den of infamy into a holy and lovely sanctuary” (Wiseman 1885, chapter XXIX).
Maura, introduced in the list of characters only as “black woman” (Toselli 1959, p. 40) is used as both plot device (she needs to be the one who acts as go-between for Procopio, but not the one who betrays Agnes, as she is well treated by the family and has no reason to) and comic relief. She shows both the characteristics of the ‘country maid’ who looks at everything in awe and admiration, of the ‘magpie’ who appreciates anything shiny and sweet, and at the same time of the ignorant, exotic, pagan African, who speaks without conjugating verbs and needs to be taught about the Christian faith as if she were a very young child. Her characterization would cause unease in our time for being quite racist.
This is in fact the only time that her belt, which has so much prominence in the title, is mentioned in the play. The verse in Jeremiah 2:32 which in English is translated as “Does a young woman forget her jewellery, a bride her wedding ornaments?” refers in Italian to the bride’s belt, which, like a priest’s fascia or cincture, is a traditional symbol of purity. The vesting prayer used by priests when putting on such vestment says: “Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me” (“These vesting prayers before Mass remind priests of their unique vocation” 2018).
At this point Agnes is worried that she may not die, as she wishes for martyrdom, as only through martyrdom will she “get to see and possess the God that I love and that I yearn for”. The angel reassures her that her wish will be granted, as she will be decapitated (Toselli 1959, p. 47).
FMA sister (1888–1977). See (Cavallaro 2017, p. 225) for a short biographical note on Duranti.
Il processo di sant’Agnese ends as the curtains closes on the judge asking St Agnes for a blessing; in an alternative ending, a young woman dressed as the saint steps on a pedestal and the five characters kneel before her.
See also (Bosco 1878, chapter XXVII): “Friendly reader, as you were kind enough to read about this virtuous young man, I wish you would join me in coming to a conclusion that may be of great usefulness to me, to you and to all those who may happen to read this little book: that we resolve to try to imitate young Savio in those virtues that are compatible with our situations”.
Stella (2005, p. 11) reports that even the future popes Pius X and Benedict XV read it as adolescents. In a later article, Stella notes that the biography does not include the presence of women, not even Savio’s little sisters or the mother and sister of don Bosco who surely did have an important presence in the oratory’s daily life. Such removal of female characters, asserts Stella, is an indication that the biography was aimed at those who attended all-male schools, oratories or seminaries (Stella 2009, p. 165). A large image of Domenico Savio appears on the wall of the Catholic school attended by the protagonist of Federico Fellini’s film 8 ½ (1963).
But Savio’s biography also went beyond Italy. Famous American film critic Roger Ebert recounts that he was “inflamed” by a biography of Savio and took his name as a confirmation name (Ebert 2010). North American scholars Donald L. Boisvert and Dominic Wetzel have shared their memories of having Domenico Savio presented as a role model of purity while they were growing up in Catholic environments. “St. Dominic Savio walked through the city with his eyes turned towards heaven, to avoid looking at girls, to prevent impure thoughts. St. Dominic Savio slept with his hands crossed over his chest so as not to be ‘tempted’ at night”, Wetzel was often told (Wetzel 2014, p. 67). Domenico Savio was a “kind of superhero for me. He was brave, and strong, and good, and kind”, Boisvert states (Boisvert 2018, p. 257); but it was his purity that was mostly extolled among the youth: “His statue and image looked down serenely from Salesian walls, overseeing the preservation of manly Salesian virtues, especially that of youthful purity. This purity was his prized treasure, his true mark of greatness, his lasting legacy” (Boisvert 2015, p. 188).
Don Bosco is often mentioned in this play but does not appear in it.
A further play on Domenico Savio, Traguardo a quindici anni [Hitting the target at 15] by A. Garnier (1955), published in Teatro dei giovani in 1955, goes beyond the scope of this article, being a translation from a French work. The episodes of his life chosen for this play are mostly those already present in the other plays, plus some more wondrous ones (such as when he receives a premonition of a dying person needing a priest, or when he has a vision about England). The interest in this play consists mainly in its metatheatrical style, but also the presence of the devil—called Retro—on stage.
As Umberto Eco (2014) has remarked, the image of Domenico Savio that appears in holy cards, books and more recently websites has changed drastically throughout the decades. In the early 1940s a new portrait of the young man was commissioned to the painter and Salesian alumnus Mario Caffaro-Rore. Both Sangiorgio’s and Uguccioni’s plays most probably refer to that image. See Piola (2020) for a discussion of the different portraits of Domenico Savio.
An image of Domenico Savio is visible also in the wallet of one of his employees.
Rufillo Uguccioni SDB (1891–1966) authored dozens of novels and plays for youth, as well as the script for a film on don Bosco.
See Cavallaro (2017, pp. 78–85) for other examples of anticommunism in educational plays. It seems also quite likely that those “enemies who would like to separate us from Christ” (Duranti 1963, p. 79) and the corrupting speeches mentioned in Il processo di santa Agnese refer to the Communist threat against young Christian souls.
The title refers to a well-known saying by Don Bosco, “Un pezzo di paradiso aggiusta tutto” [A bit of heaven will put everything right] (Le Massime di Don Bosco 1999, p. 95).
Marco Bongioanni SDB (1920–1990) authored a great number of plays and books on the use of theatre and cinema within Salesian education. Beginning in 1951 he also edited of both Teatro dei giovani and Teatro delle giovani.
The play premiered on the evening of 13 April 1965 in the square of the Basilica of Our Lady Helper of Christians in Turin. The actors were students of Salesian schools from Algeria, Belgium, France, and Switzerland (Mouillard and Bongioanni 1965, p. 15).
In …4 … 4 …4: pezzi di paradiso, the threats to young people’s souls are not so much inappropriate readings, as in earlier plays, but rather the risks of the automatization of modern life. At the very end, in line with the times and the fear of wars, a pacifist message is also included. The young voices proclaim that the world will not make of them “robots” or “cannon fodder” (Mouillard and Bongioanni 1965, p. 26).
Members of the audience familiar with Italian theatre would recognize similarities between the character of the stage technician and that of the Director in Luigi Pirandello’s Six characters in search of an author (1921).
Mariangel was a penname which Pesci frequently used (Ossi 1990, vol. 1, p. 233).
For example, one famous episode in the biography of Domenico Savio was his refusal to swim with his mates. The episode is introduced by the narrating voice (Don Bosco’s) who explains that the gathering of many – unclothed – youth in rivers, brooks or lakes is dangerous for their bodies but even more so for their souls: “How many boys bemoan the loss of their innocence identifying the origin in going swimming with their mates in those wretched places!”. Savio, in fact, refused the invitation saying that by swimming “there is risk of drowning or offending the Lord”. Don Bosco concludes that by not going swimming, Savio “avoided a great danger, in which […] he would possibly have lost the invaluable treasure of his innocence” (Bosco 1878, chapter IV). None of the plays on Savio I have discussed stage that episode, which would have been a symbol of his desire to remain pure, without being exposed to the naked bodies of his mates or showing his own. It is possible that the plays avoided the episode in order to not even suggest the possibility of impure thoughts. In any case, as a result they concentrate on Savio’s mission to help others rather than on his own wish for “death, but not sin” (Bosco 1878, chapter III).
Lenti’s words here refer to the biography, not the plays.
Italian musicals on Don Bosco include Andiamo ragazzi! by Paola Pignatelli and Raffaele Lo Buono (2008); C’è da non crederci by Ivo Valoppi (2012); Fino all’ ultimo mio respiro by Alessio Allegretti (2013); and Don Bosco: il musical by Piero Castellacci with Renato Biagioli (2016).
Io ci sto! by Giuseppe Lapergola and Simone Calvano (2011).
Sei con noi by Matteo Pantani (2014).
Il principe della Patagonia by Tommaso Sbardella (2020).
Italian musicals on Domenico Savio include Storie per vivere (on Savio, Michele Magone and Laura Vicuña) by Giuseppina Costa, Armando Bellocchi and Giuseppina Bellocchi (1999); A.A.A. Buona Stoffa Cercasi by Matteo Milanese and Cristian Siso (2000); Minot davvero speciale (2001) by Cesare Orfini, Alberto Piastrellini, Claudia Morichetti; and Accadde per strada by Silvana Papandrea (2015).
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Cavallaro, D. Saints on Stage: Popular Hagiography in Post-WWII Italy. Religions 2021, 12, 216. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12030216
Cavallaro D. Saints on Stage: Popular Hagiography in Post-WWII Italy. Religions. 2021; 12(3):216. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12030216Chicago/Turabian Style
Cavallaro, Daniela. 2021. "Saints on Stage: Popular Hagiography in Post-WWII Italy" Religions 12, no. 3: 216. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12030216