L’Oro dei Napoli: Sicilian Puppet Theater Today

By Jo Ann Cavallo

Columbia University

Sicilian puppet theater today is largely viewed as a relic of the past, a folkloristic re-evocation of an irretrievable, pre-technological age. It was, in fact, in the 1950’s that the traditional working-class public began to abandon the opera dei pupi which for over a century had dramatized stories drawn from medieval and Renaissance romance epic. Sadly, the days in which pupari performed over three hundred episodes of the storia dei paladini di Francia during consecutive evenings throughout the year slipped away before the movie camera, which was partially responsible for the opera dei pupi’s demise, could film and document the entire cycle of performances.

The puppeteers practicing today, almost all “figli” or “nipoti d’arte”, have held out (or, in many cases, begun anew) against all odds, obstinate in their belief in the worth of their art form. Pupari who perform regularly for today’s two principal audiences — tourists and school children — have found it necessary, however, to reduce the plot and dialogue on the one hand, and extend the battle scenes on the other. A few others carry on the family tradition by performing on specific occasions, while securing their livelihood through other means. Summertime performances in the piazza gives these part- time pupari the occasion to elaborate plot and dialogue, even retaining the farcical characters who speak in dialect. Even so, the repertory is drastically reduced to a few select pieces believed to be most suited to hold the attention of a public unfamiliar with the larger context of chivalric narrative. This past summer, I found four companies performing the battle of Orlando and Rinaldo for Angelica from Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato (Palermo and western Sicily), and three others performing the death of Orlando at Roncisvalle from the Chanson de Roland (Acireale and eastern Sicily). It is telling that in most cases the title of the piece is not announced ahead of time since it is understood that the public is going to see a puppet play rather than a particular episode of interest to them. A few companies offer a more varied repertory with titles announced in advance, but they nevertheless have difficulty carrying out traditional puppet theater year after year in the absence of institutional support. 

 Acknowledging the demise of the traditional opera dei pupi and at the same time seeking to validate its presence in contemporary theater in 1989, the puppeteer and cuntista Mimmo Cuticchio began creatively combining puppets and actors (initially himself and his son) in the same performance. Cuticchio’s experimental puppet theater for a contemporary cultured public has received critical acclaim and international recognition. Neverthless, he performs abroad more than in Sicily, a fact that prevents one from espousing a facile optimism with regards to the future of this art form.

In Catania, which once had a parallel tradition rivalling that of Palermo, the only remaining family of pupari are the Napoli. Descendents of Don Gaetano Napoli who opened his first puppet theater in 1921, the family has innovated their theater in various ways since the crisis of the 1950’s, including the performance of plays that combine actors and puppets since 1994.

Their new play, L’Oro dei Napoli, was born of a conversation about the family’s history between Fiorenzo Napoli and the writer, Salvatore Zinna, who subsequently developed a script based on Fiorenzo’s recollections. Performing under the direction of Elio Gimbo, members of the Napoli family act out moments of their history and also perform as puppeteers: operatori, parlatori, assistants. The “cast” is comprised of nine family members: Italia Chiesa, widow of the famous puppeteer Natale Napoli, her sons Fiorenzo, Giuseppe, and Salvatore; Fiorenzo’s wife Agnese Torrisi, their sons Marco, Dario, and Davide, and their nephew Alessandro. Family members portray themselves, with two brothers performing the roles of their father Natale and uncle Pippo.

From the outset, the play establishes a correspondence between the Napoli family history and the chivalric fiction of the puppet theater, opposing the sense of crisis and death with the determination to begin anew. The family initially arrives on stage via a wooden apparatus on wheels as the spoken verses of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso describe a terrible storm at sea.  Although six stanzas foretell shipwreck and inevitabil morte, the family “lands” safely, and after descending from their “boat” they announce to each other the need to begin (“Cominciamo!”). In the puppet performance which immediately follows, the African King Agramante, having fled by sea to the island of Lampedusa, grieves over the destruction of his capital Biserta in the distance as now the former “boat” becomes the image of a city set on fire. Agramante originally plans to kill himself in despair, but Sobrino and Gradasso  encourage him to present a final challenge to Charlemagne.

During this opening puppet performance, Agramante tells a common soldier to sail to Biserta to find out who set fire to his homeland. Yet when the soldier subsequently addresses the public (he is the only puppet to do so), he acts as a witness not so much to the destruction of Agramante’s Biserta as to the demise of Sicilian puppet theater. Lamenting the death of the puppet as a heroic stage actor and his reinvention as a commercialized folkloristic image, he proclaims: “Avrei preferito un’ultima morte sul campo di battaglia piuttosto dell’agogna di essere stampato in serie a colori sulle scatole di pasta di mandorla”. Tellingly, it is not a great Christian knight or king who serves as testimone, but a simple Saracen soldier (suddateddu d’incolpo, or “little soldier who dies at the first hit”), conscious of his belonging to the lower working-class. This Saracen messenger will return at intervals throughout the play, asserting his role as racconteur (“sono il vostro Omero, colui a cui è affidato il dovere del racconto”) and collapsing the distance between Agramante’s fictional Biserta and the historical Catania of the 1950’s. Later speaking of the destruction of his city, he adds “non Catania, Biserta, mi pare chiaro”, thus reinforcing the identification between the cities in the very act of negating it. 

At the conclusion of this opening sequence, the family members step forward across the length of the central performance space and speak directly to the audience, announcing their intention to narrate the heroic gestures of a man , Natale Napoli. Like the Saracen messsenger, the Napoli family assumes the role of testimone to bear witness to the history of their family and of traditional puppet theater.

The performance space is comprised of four sections: 1) a movable wooden apparatus that takes on various functions, including that of a puppet stage for the comic puppet Peppininu; 2) a puppet stage on the (public’s) right side for the traditional Catanese pupi grandi (of 1,30 meters weighing 15 to 35 kilograms), used only for the opening puppet scene of Agramante, Sobrino, and Gradasso, and for the appearances of the Saracen messenger; 3) a central puppet stage for scenes using 85 cm. size puppets (the Napoli family began using these smaller puppets in 1972-73); and 4) the expanse of the piazza itself used by the actors.

Throughout the play, fragments of family history are interwoven with corresponding episodes from the opera dei pupi repertory. Although various scenes are performed with puppets, the imminent battle of Lampedusa provides a constant point of reference. Each segment of this sequence is introduced by the question in Italian “da dove cominciamo?” and the invariable reply in Sicilian “da duoco” (“from that point”), creating the impression of a continuously interrupted narrative as when the cycle was performed in serial form. This short dialogue also highlights the thematic thread established from the opening scene: death and loss countered by the resolve to continue and/or to begin anew. Agramante’s attempt to prevent the destruction of his African kingdom parallels Natale Napoli’s attempt to forestall the demise of the opera dei pupi. Following the destruction of Biserta, Agramante is persuaded by Sobrino and Gradasso to challenge Charlemagne’s three greatest champions on the island of Lampedusa in the hope of winning back his kingdom. With the disappearance of the traditional public of appassionati and the closing of the family theater in Catania in 1952, Natale persuades Pippo to take their puppet shows to the provincial town of Misterbianco where they can still encounter an eager public.

Correspondences between puppet characters and puppeteers are developed on various levels before reaching the climactic battle of “three against three.” Fiorenzo Napoli directly states his identification with the characters that the puppets portray as he recalls a moment of his youth: “io ero Buovo d’Antona, io ero Rizieri, io ero Cladinoro, io ero Ricciardetto....” The identification with heroes of puppet theater extends to the public as well. After Alessandro Napoli notes that the traditional working-class public identified with Rinaldo as a fellow victim of injustice, the ensuing puppet scene represents Rinaldo’s unjust exile by Charlemagne at the instigation of the treacherous Gano.

During the puppet scenes, the parlatori, in full view of the public, use not only voice but also facial expression and bodily gesture to convey emotion, thus functioning as a double of the puppets who are manuevered by the operatori onstage. A connection between the puppeteers and the puppet figures themselves is suggested through metaphor: the Saracen soldier remembers that he left for Biserta “sorretto da una ferratura che mi attraversava l’anima” while Fiorenzo speaks of the “ferro che attraversava l’anima” when he left home at the age of sixteen in the wake of a conflict between his father and uncle. In one scene, humans take on the nature of puppets first visually and then symbolically. Fiorenzo’s description of the “pupi grandi” introduces a scene in which his son Davide marches forward and describes a battle with the rigid movements of a puppet. His account ends with the declaration “per me, italiano, morire è sempre gloria” , repeated first by each member of the family and then again by a soldier in the ensuing puppet scene. Thus, as the pupi are infused with human emotions, so human soldiers going off to die in war are reduced to the “puppets” of their political state.

The interaction of pupi and pupari takes a new form as the puppet Peppininu walks onto the family’s performance space, the piazza, and interrupts their plans to pick up the story of Agramante. As the family gathers around, the wooden apparatus that first brought them to the piazza becomes itself a puppet stage as Peppeninu sits on its edge, framed by two of Fiorenzo’s sons who sit on the ground. This comic puppet, representing the figure of the servant in the Catanese tradition, laments the demise of popular culture in the wake of a modern technological society. Speaking in dialect and ungrammatical Italian, Peppininu cites “Fasolino” (Pasolini) on the disappearance of the fireflies and argues that the opera dei pupi was extinguished at the same time, another victim of “industrializzazione”, a word he tellingly cannot pronounce. He lectures Fiorenzo’s two sons on the uniqueness and value of the individual (human, puppet, object) before mass production rendered artisan skills obsolete and money replaced love as the motivating force behind human actions. Although both of Fiorenzo’s sons are representatives of the modern world (they provide the correct naming of Pasolini and pronunciation of industrialization), their body gestures indicate the two opposing attitudes that a contemporary audience could have to Peppininu’s discourse, with Dario’s interest in marked contrast to Marco’s annoyed impatience.

The sense of impending death that opened the play is thus further developed through references to the extinction of popular culture, the purported disappearance of fireflies, the demise of puppet theater, the crisis of the Napoli family as puppeteers, and the destruction of Biserta/Catania. Even the attempt to begin anew could be seen as the forestalling of an inevitable defeat. Although Natale Napoli resisted the demise of puppet theater by moving from the city to the smaller provincial towns, continuously seeking new performance spaces, his effort to keep the traditional puppet theater alive became increasingly difficult as the provincial towns themselves modernized. Agramante, reduced from a mighty king ruling over Africa to a castaway on a small island off the coast of Sicily, was already destined to suffer defeat since Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato (Book 2, canto 1).

Death finally comes to the forefront in a reenactment of “the battle of three against three at Lampedusa” that the Napoli family actually performed on the island in 1978. This historical coincidence of the site of the famous fictional battle from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and the very real island just off the coast of Sicily not only lends a greater immediacy to the account, but sets up the merging of puppet story and family history in the play’s climactic scene.

This decisive battle leads to the defeat of the Saracens, but it is a bitter-sweet victory for the Christians since Brandimarte is treacherously slain from behind by Sobrino (by Gradasso in the original). In Ariosto’s poem, Brandimarte’s friend Orlando offers an elegiac lament at the occasion of the funeral, and his grieving spouse Fiordiligi entombs herself alongside her husband. The play reinterprets these scenes as it switches back and forth between the fates of Brandimarte and Natale Napoli. Following the scene of Orlando’s lament over Brandimarte’s untimely death, Italia Chiesa recounts that while in Lampedusa her husband felt chest pains, but rather than seek medical attention, bound himself with an elastic bandage so that he could perform for one last time, despite the pain, with the large Catanese puppets.

The Saracen soldier intervenes to relate Rinaldo’s sea voyage from Rome to Lampedusa upon hearing news of the battle. As in Ariosto’s text, he arrives too late, but now we are told that as he approaches the island of Lampedusa, “he saw passing before him like a slow procession on that sea the boat of Natale” . Italia Chiesa immediately picks up the narrative to explain that after the performance was completed, they headed from Lampedusa to Porto Empedocle (the port of Agrigento). This trajectory is the same one followed in Ariosto’s poem as the Christian knights take Brandimarte’s corpse to Agrigento for burial. One of Natale’s sons then carries the Brandimarte puppet to Italia Chiesa, seated at the far right of the stage. As she looks down at the puppet laid across her lap — visual image that evokes the Pietà — Fiorenzo and Salvatore recount their father’s last years and death. Italia Chiesa thus represents both the character Fiordiligi mourning for Brandimarte and herself mourning for Natale. As she rises and carries Brandimarte across the stage in the company of other members of the Napoli family, some holding the puppets Orlando and Peppininu, the metaphorical procession that Rinaldo is said to have witnessed off the island of Lampedusa is transformed into Brandimarte’s funeral procession. Death — a white skeleton covered in a black hood and cape and holding a sickle — enters the scene and dancingly accompanies the family to the left side of the stage. There is a sense that human effort cannot hold out indefinitely in the face of death, the ultimate and uncontested victor over all human undertakings. 

And yet, despite the centrality of death in this final scene, the play ends not with a tragic or even elegiac tone, but with the acceptance that death, the inevitable ending of all things, is what gives meaning to life. As the Napoli family heads back to their “boat” and offstage, Fiorenzo, in a hoarse voice that finishes almost in a whisper, reflects on the necessity of death, which transforms a present that is “infinito”, instabile e incerto” into a past that is “chiaro . . . stabile . . . certo.”

In the end, the only figure remaining on stage is the Saracen soldier, no longer in his customary space in the far right puppet stage, but seated on the chair at front center that family members had used during the performance. Without any of them to give him voice and gestures, this testimone of puppet theater’s demise now sits facing the public in immobile silence.

L’Oro dei Napoli tells a story that can only take place after the death of the puppet theater — indeed, the demise of the opera dei pupi is a substantial part of its subject matter. The brief scenes of puppet performances are inserted into a drama acted out by a family of puppeteers whose primary role in the play is that of actors. At the same time, L’Oro dei Napoli represents a puppeteer family’s deeply moving effort not simply to memorialize the puppet theater of the past, but to create new venues for puppet theater in the present. The play is scheduled to debut in Catania on November 30, 2002, in the recently inaugurated Scenario Pubblico, the Napoli’s first stable theater in the city since 1952. I would like to thank the Napoli family for allowing me to film a preview of the play that took place in Militello di Catania on August 30, 2002.

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