Themes of this post: Luigi Lo Cascio, language and Italian.
The other day, tired with our paltry selection of gym-suitable music, we decided to better ourselves intellectually and downloaded a bunch of audio interviews, lectures and podcasts. One of these was an MP3 interview with Luigi Lo Cascio regarding his recent prize-winning work on stage: La Caccia (The Hunt), a modern adaptation of Euripides' The Bacchae. La Caccia is essentially a multimedia monologue starring, written and directed by Lo Cascio. The mythological story on which it's based is that of Pentheus, a young king of Thebes, who, after some disagreements with Dionysus, god of wine and madness, is lured into spying on the frenzied Bacchic devotions of Dionysus' screaming female fans. Once Pentheus is inevitably caught, the ladies - including Pentheus' mom and sister - mistake him for a wild animal and tear him limb from limb. Moral of the story: don't mess with Dionysus, fool!
Pentheus getting ripped apart for his troubles.
After listening to the interview, we were properly impressed. First, we were impressed by the play - which sounds fantastic. Postmodern adaptation of Greco-Roman classic? Yes, plz! Second, we were impressed by Lo Cascio - who was smart (gosh, he was moving so fast, we could barely keep up with him!) and articulate in a way that we had forgotten, articulate in a particularly Italian way. This got us thinking about language, and, as S.I. Hayakawa said in his brilliant book, how it affects our thoughts. An important aspect of the theory of general semantics is about revealing that causal loop between what we think, what we say and what we think. Not many people realize that the language we speak can subtly guide and influence our perception of reality. It's not just how we express ourselves, but it's how we express the world to ourselves.
Take a few examples. German is famous for having very long words which express specific emotions - emotions which, in English, would require a couple sentences just to get down to it. Would you feel those emotions if you didn't speak German? Probably, but would you be aware of those feelings? Of course, every language has this - some languages don't have a word for romantic love! others have several different words for it! - and recently we were noticing that our psychological reactions and social cues are different when we speak English versus when we speak Italian. It's like we become a different person, with a different sense of humor! As we've studied Hindi, we've learned with fascination all the various shades of use just for accha. And how do you explain arre to someone? Literally, it's supposed to mean "hey". But surely it's a more Fonz-like "heeeey"? But that's not quite right, either. Italian also has a few words which don't correspond to any English ones: magari, ormai, anzi...
Pentheus being crazy.
Professor Kenneth Bartlett, in his course on Italians Before Italy, mentioned the cultural significance of language in Italy. This doesn't just mean the historical significance of, for example, adopting the Tuscan dialect as the "official" language of Italy, but also the importance of language in everyday mentality. To put it simply, how articulate you are is important. We've always interpreted this as another expression of the bella figura philosophy: you have to sound good - and sounding good can sometimes become more important than the content of what you're saying. American English doesn't have this same stress on everyday eloquence, so when a stylish speaker does pop up, he can have quite an impact (Obama, for example). (And we're referring to a particular type of standard everyday American English, since we assume language might have a stronger role in other English-speaking cultures. For example, it would be interesting to explore language's importance in, for example, the culture of Baptist preaching, or Irish pub storytelling, or standup comedy.)
Of course, sounding good and having great content is doubly intoxicating. But sometimes it can be hard to distinguish the two. After listening to Lo Cascio's interview, we were left bewildered and excited about the play: "That sounds excellent! Gosh, he sounds excellent!" we thought. "But... what did he just say?" Such is the dilemma we often have when listening to Italian philosophical or artistic talk - we get so caught up in the sound of it, we don't think critically. When we're wearing "Italian ears", it just sounds great! So is La Caccia awesome because of the language used to describe it? Or the language used in it? We read (and love) the classics in English - what would they be like in Italian? A tangential example: Shakespeare in Italian loses a lot - he sounds blunt and dull. Is that how Mirza Ghalib sounds in English? So they say.
Anyway, the best thing we can do is use an example. Here's a translation, as faithful as we could make it, of a review of La Caccia by critic Elina Minissale. It will probably sound purple to non-Italian readers, but we think this is actually quite a standard example of the sometimes Baroque, obsessively aesthetic bent Italian can take. Or is this the same sort of adjective-heavy writing style any critic might be accused of using? Are we exoticizing? Hmm.
"It would be simplifying to describe and constrain in these lines The Hunt by Luigi Lo Cascio. Apart from the admirable and essential teamwork which brought this play to the stage (the particularly good supporting actor, Pietro Rosa; art direction Alice Mangano; design by Nicola Console; sound effects and audio by Desideria Rayner; original music by Andrea Rocca; light design Stefano Mazzanti; background score Mauro Forte), apart from the immortal work from which The Hunt springs (The Bacchae by Euripides), the most powerful thing is the passion, culture, brilliant intelligence and scrupulous and enlightened madness which characterizes the character and the man, Luigi Lo Cascio: [describing it] wouldn’t explain why all those people were present on 26 February at the ex-Monastery of the Benedettini in Catania, the completely full theatre and especially why so many young people are interested in this author, actor and intellectual of such charisma.
Thin, somewhat short and dressed in black in the university’s auditorium, he almost seems like he doesn’t want to attract any attention; yet as soon as he appears on stage, he transforms and fills the scene with arrogance and skill: he completely personifies the character, with all his fears and most unmentionable thoughts; Lo Cascio unleashes all the physical and mental energies that a human body can contain.
The spectacle is the man’s mind, his madness. This is a less oppressive portrayal compared to his previous work, In The Lair, adapted from a story by Kafka, yet the same obsessive and anguished themes can be found in The Hunt: ghosts of the soul, fear, doubt, delirium, madness, the predator and prey who are often and willingly confounded, following each other, fighting each other, relying on each other.
The story is notable and summarizing it would debase the psychic anguish of the protagonist and the play itself (rich in surprising desecrations of the tragedy) and, above all, it would omit that small particular which is the key to theatre’s magic: that sense of the play existing, not existing, the play which lets itself be caught, escapes, and plays with the spectator in a vortex of sensations which remain in us even after having left the theatre.
The fundamental, irreversibly tragic point is the capsizing of the character’s condition from butcher to victim: defeated by a powerful and cruel god, the man is transformed and perishes. An exceptional work, an inimitable and superb performance which left its mark as it did In The Lair, from a few years ago. I’ll only criticize one thing, Luigi: a microphone! The magic of theatre, especially Greek theatre, is enclosed in a perfected and much studied acoustic which constantly reminds us how real and vivid the play before us is."
-Elena Minissale, review of La Caccia from Lo Schiaffo (The Slap)
Good, na?! But what does it mean?! We don't know what we like better - the idea of the play, or the reviews of it. All we can say is, Mr. Lo Cascio, per favore, record some of this stuff!