TV-Addicted Italians Turn On to Theater

Associated Press

After years of TV addiction, Italians are finding their way out of the house and rediscovering the pleasures of theatergoing.

Internationally known actors are turning down movie scripts in favor of the stage, and spectators are responding by forming ticket lines at dawn to get into the hottest shows.

Marcello Mastroianni has tackled Russian drama. Swedish film star Ingrid Thulin--the sensuous woman in Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1957 film “Wild Strawberries"--plays a domineering mother in a tragedy by the Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca.

Actress Monica Vitti is being peppered with offers to bring her hilarious performance as a brash reporter in Ben Hecht’s “The Front Page” back to the United States.

“After more than a decade-long love affair with television, Italians are once more thirsty for their roots of great comedy and tragedy,” says University of Rome sociology professor Alberto Abruzzese.


“They want to be moved by real-life sounds and be tickled by the comedians they saw on the screen.”

Last year, movie attendance in Italy dropped by 18%. While movie houses have been closing throughout the country, new theaters have opened in Naples, Florence and smaller cities to bring the total to 1,700 nationwide.

Thulin, one of Bergman’s favorite actresses, has returned to the stage after a 20-year absence in Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba” which is presently on tour in Italy.

Bergman himself will come to Italy this year to direct an Italian version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

Mastroianni’s performance in Nikita Michailov’s “Mechanical Pianola” produced a nightly traffic jam in Rome’s central Piazza Argentina. The play is adapted from a short story by Chekhov. Mastroianni told interviewers that he hadn’t felt so thrilled since he won an Oscar nomination for his role in “Dark Eyes” 3 years ago.

Comedian Ugo Tognazzi riled a few government ministers and triggered controversy by improvising lines about corruption in high places during his stage version of Moliere’s classic “The Miser.”

Italians spent $118 million on theater tickets in 1987--a 23% increase from 1986, and 1988 figures point to another 20% jump. During that period, the average price of an orchestra seat increased only about 16%, from $18 to $21.

Government statistics show that one out of five Italians attended some sort of theater performance in 1988.

Just as in Roman times when the government organized theater events for its people, today’s network of 14 state-subsidized theaters offer stage variety that ranges from translations of Broadway hits to Greek tragedy to Italian classics.

Post avant-garde performances and experimental groups at 500 private theaters and four drama schools also get a share of the $42 million, which the Italian government annually allocates to encourage the theater industry.

Italy’s ancient theater tradition has its roots in the classics of Greek theater--tragedy, comedy and satire. In medieval times, religious themes were popular.

During the Renaissance a new form based on classic theater was shaped by Machiavelli and others. It gave way to the commedia dell’arte, which dominated Italy and most of Europe until the end of the 1700s.

Luigi Pirandello, master of Italy’s 20th-Century theater, focused on the condition of the modern man.

While the classics are still popular, they have competition from Broadway-style productions.

Vitti, who starred in an all-woman version of Neil Simon’s “Odd Couple” last year, has been touring Italy in “Front Page.”

“The success has been incredible,” she said. “Spectators have stood on line all night in Turin and Lucca. Police have had to intervene to stop punch-ups over tickets, and we’re still going strong after 4 months on tour.”