Sem Benelli, Eroi (1931)


Eroi is a brief one-act war drama performed for the first time at Teatro Olympia, Milan, in 1931. It is set in a ridotta (small fort) on the Italian frontline during WW1, and produces a snapshot of the life of Italian soldiers on the front, feverishly preparing for the next battle, burying their fallen comrades, praying, and thinking nostalgically about their house and families. The protagonist, private Bonacchi, a peasant, dies in the last battle, which leads to victory. He sacrifices for his homeland, representing all the silent and unknown ‘heroes’ of the war, who died doing their duty for the country.

Main Principles

  1. The Sacralisation of the New Man’s Total Politics through the Arts

  2. Shaping the New Man’s Reality by Fashioning National Myths

  3. Monumentalism: Visualising Subjectivity and Objectivity


Sem Benelli had an interesting trajectory within the Fascist regime. He fought as a military volunteer in WW1 and received military decorations for his contribution. He initially supported the regime, but his attitude changed during the 1920s, also as a result of the Matteotti killing. He distanced himself from Fascism and in 1925 signed the Manifesto degli intellettuali antifascisti dtafted by Benedetto Croce. He then took part in the Ethiopian war as a military volunteer again, out of nationalistic beliefs. After his dissociation from Fascism, he became the target of harsh attacks of hard-line fascists, and many of his plays were censored and manipulated. Despite this, his works continued being performed in important Italian theatres and achieved great success.

Eroi addressed a theme that was not only very popular with the public, but could be appreciated by the regime, for its nationalistic implications and its glorification of the past, turned into a national myth. Benelli indeed tried to ingratiate himself to Mussolini, and in 1933 wrote him a letter to inform him that after the first performance of Eroi in Milan, he had received a telegram from the local Associazione Combattenti (Soldiers’ Association), congratulating him.

The drama aimed to show and acknowledge ‘authentic’ Italian war heroes in action on the battlefields during WW1, thus assuming the tones of militant theatre. It celebrated the simple and natural heroism of peasant-soldiers, and therefore of traditional values such as ruralism, the nation, and the family, which were foundational to fascist ideology. It also portrayed the war as a unifying national effort, contributing to the mission of national unification, beyond class and regional differences, to which the regime was committed. This aspect of the play emerged in particular from the scene preceding the battle, when infantry reinforcements arrive. These are soldiers of different origins, age, and social standing (although with a remarkable presence of peasants), but they are united, fighting for a common cause and ready to sacrifice for their country.


Antonini, Sandro. 2007. Sam Benelli. Vita di un potea: dai trionfi internazionali alla persecuzione fascista. Genoa: Edizioni De Ferrari.

Benelli, Sem. 1931. Eroi. Milan: Mondadori.

Palmieri, Eugenio Ferdinando. 1950. ‘Il teatro di Sem Benelli.’ Sipario 5: 45.

Scarpellini, Emanuela. 1989. Organizzazione teatrale e politica del teatro nell’Italia fascista. Florence: La Nuova Italia.

Simoni, Renato (ed.). 1955. Trent’anni di cronaca drammatica, vol. III, 1927-32. Turin: Industria Libraria Tipografica Editrice.

Tragella Monaro, Jole. 1953. Sem Benelli, l’uomo e il poeta. Milan: La Prora.

Laura Pennacchietti