The great Italian actor, songwriter, clown, philanthropist, animal lover and poet, Totò (1898-1967) is not a household name in the Anglophone world. This is a great pity as watching Totò’s films can give greater insight into the Italian character, thought- process and sense of humour than any anthropological treatise ever could.
Born in a poor district of Naples, disowned by his father and meant for the priesthood by his mother, Totò first took to the stage in a vaudeville act in 1915, met famous artists like Peppino de Filippo and showed himself very much the heir to the commedia dell’arte tradition.
Totò’s first film came out in 1939 and he appeared in a hundred subsequent ones, several of which have become real classics like Totò a colori (the first Italian colour
film) and Pasolini’s Uccellacci e uccellini. Totò worked a lot with Mario Monicelli,
the director who introduced the world to Italian comedy, and who died as recently as 2010 (by throwing himself from the window of his hospital ward where he was being treated for cancer).
Totò’s trademarks of an asymmetrical face, a Buster-Keatonesque stone-expression in hopeless situations, a string-puppet-like disarticulation and the character of a down-at-heel, vain, lascivious, cunning, opportunist, pleasure-seeking, manipulative but essentially generous-hearted person have all entered into Italian social mythology and to a large extent can help understand difficult-to-comprehend ideas and behavioural traits in this country, especially in the political and bureaucratic field (!).
It was, therefore, a particular pleasure to attend the “Commedia Totò” show, part of the Bagni di Lucca ArtFestival at the town’s Teatro Accademico last night.
A theatre workshop directed by internationally renowned Ira Seidenstein (who is also a clown in the “Cirque du Soleil”), assisted by Caspar Schjelbred and Elena Michelin, took place in the first week of September with pupils coming from countries as diverse as Belgium, Denmark and Mozambique. Language barriers between the actors themselves and the audience were skilfully broken down by the use of mime, gesticulations and “translation” and the result of all the hard work was the “Commedia Totò” based on Totò’s clown personality and Pirandello’s theatre of the absurd.
It would be pointless to outline the “plot” which largely consisted of an avanspettacolo, or pre-show, (very much in the way that Totò started out his career) introduced by the leading actor, interrupted by a crazy spectator, a prima-donna tennis player, a flashily-raincoated carabiniere, a de-frosted shorts-with-braces pipe-smoking academic, an acrobatic pierrot, a bolshie and gangling Totò clown himself. Actors, in fact, in search of a part!
Eventually the show, which consisted of a dramatic recitation of a macabre poem by Totò himself, took off and was beautifully concluded with the unaccompanied and
moving singing by Bagni di Lucca’s own tenor, Claudio Sassetti, of a haunting Neapolitan song, again by Totò.
Incidentally, if you doubt that Totò was his real name you’re right. That was just his stage title. The great comedian’s full name was Prince Antonio Focas Flavio Angelo Ducas Comneno De Curtis di Bisanzio Gagliardi!