This year there has been quite a battle for spring to emerge triumphant from the long-lasting wintery weather. In ancient times propitiatory dramatic rites were performed to ensure the defeat of the cold, dark months and restore abundant fertility to the earth. These rites are the foundation of classical Greek theatre and all that followed it. In the United Kingdom the Mummers’ plays, traditionally performed on “Plough Monday” (the first Monday after Epiphany and the start of the agricultural year), are sometimes regarded as descendants of fecundity ceremonies.
In Italy the conflict between good and evil became transformed into a battle between Christians and infidels and drew heavily on chivalric romances and local legends. This form of drama, known as” Il Maggio”, was once characteristic of large parts of the country until it declined through post-war economic development when farming no longer was Italy’s prime occupation. However, “Il Maggio” has been kept alive by several devoted theatrical and folklore groups who draw on the traditions of their forefathers and the Lucchese is one of the few areas where one can witness this fascinating custom performed in unadulterated form.
The “Canto del Maggio” is sung, rather like an operatic recitative, to the accompaniment of violin and guitar. It is enacted with colourful costumes and highly-stylized gestures, and performed, open-air, mainly in the cool green glades of the upper Apennines between Tuscany and Emilia during summer. No matter what story is represented, the costumes remain their flamboyant selves, full of ribbons, plumes and shining helmets. On the greensward two tables on opposite sides represent the combatants’ court. The audience, gathered round the sylvan stage and amply provided with vino and panini for their picnics, are most discerning and appear to know exactly when to clap at some particularly clever combination of rhyme and meaning or some well-thought out debacle in the story. For all that is sung is in rhyming extempore quatrains and the actors are praised as much for their improvisational poetical skills as for their acting abilities. A depiction we attended at Magnano, near Corfino,in 2005 included a lion, a damsel in distress, a serpent, an infidel, a sorcerer and an armour-clad hero.
We were reminded that Ariosto (the author of “Orlando Furioso”, first published in Ferrara in 1516, which describes the campaigns of Charlemagne and Orlando against the Saracens) was (rather unwilling) governor in the fortress of nearby Castelnuovo Garfagnana in the fifteenth century. (If you like going to the Thursday market in Garfagnana’s capital you will recognize the two recently-erected statues illustrating characters from this classic epic of love and war).
One might ask how a “Maggio” play can be enjoyed if one does not know either the language or the conventions. I reply that I have been to a “No” play without knowing a word of Japanese and a Balinese shadow puppet show without knowing a word of Indonesian. In all cases, since the audience is so involved in the performance, one can draw enjoyment from experiencing their interaction with the players, the sumptuous costumes and the Arcadian setting where it all takes place.
Last year performances happened at such varied places as Partigliano, Nozzano Castello and Borgo a Mozzano so the chances are that there could be a Maggio occurring near you. For information about where performances will take place this summer do go to the web site at http://cantodelmaggio.info which will also give you an English translation of one of the tales performed and lots more insight into this fascinating folk-art.