Carri di Tespi
The Carri di Tespi (Thespian Cars) were travelling theatres that derived their names and features from the experience of Greek tragedian Thespis, who travelled in the Attican countryside to perform his tragedies. Open-air theatrical performances were not new in Italy, and had been carried out for centuries in the context of the Commedia dell’Arte. The regime adopted this pre-existing model and in 1929 developed the project of the new Carri di Tespi, assigned to futurist set designer Antonio Valente and to fascist playwright Giovacchino Forzano, who was in charge of supervising the programme. The same year, four gigantic structures (three for plays and one for opera) started travelling the peninsula staging about 200 works every year, in spring and summer tours. Each car had a company with up to four hundred actors, dancers, musicians.
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The Fascist project of Carri di Tespi was based on the idea of a mass theatre that would provide high-quality performances from the high Italian artistic tradition, for segments of the Italian population that were normally excluded from such events, especially outside of the urban centres. This cultural initiative constituted a great effort of the Fascist regime to reach a new, expanded audience and create a national mass public, in the context of rethinking the role of the arts in mass society and specifically in a totalitarian regime. The audience could reach one million people every season, many of whom in provincial and underprivileged contexts. The Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro was in charge of the schedule and organisation, as part of the framework of cultural activities that the O.N.D. carried out to mobilize the masses and reach consensus. The O.N.D. destined a fifth of its budget to the innovative project of Carri di Tespi, which testifies to its significance within the regime’s cultural politics.
The cars could be placed wherever there was enough space, normally in the town squares or in open spaces just outside the city walls. They were modern and featured state-of-the-art technology in lighting and stage design; for instance, they had rotating stage platforms that allowed for rapid change of settings. The gigantic structures were rapidly assembled and disassembled by teams of technicians who fascinated the audiences with their skilfulness and organisational efficiency, even before the performances started. The arrival of the trucks was an important event in the life of small provincial towns=, advertised by the O.N.D., which organised transportation for rural workers to attend the event. The performances were normally very well-attended and the audiences, not used to such marvellous displays of technology and especially to being the target of cultural events, often responded enthusiastically. The cars represented the physical presence of the regime as a modernizing force even in the more remote parts of the Italian nation, their commitment to providing for all Italian citizens, and integrating the masses in the life of the state.
The repertory was designed to facilitate the encounter of provincial audiences with the high Italian theatrical tradition. Therefore, it included classics like Goldoni and Alfieri, alongside prominent contemporary authors like D’Annunzio, Pirandello, Rosso di San Secondo, and Chiarelli. The regime acknowledged the remarkable success achieved by the Carri di Tespi initiative and was stimulated to come up with new projects to reach popular audiences with theatrical performances, and introduce them to high Italian culture. One such project was the ‘Theatrical Saturdays’ initiative, a programme of reduced-rate performances held in small cities.
Gaborik, Patricia. 2012. ‘Lo spettacolo del fascismo’. In Atlante della letteratura italiana, vol. 3, edited by Sergio Luzzatto and Gabriele Pedullà, 589-613. Turin: Einaudi.
Girolami, Patrizia. 1990. ‘Il Carro di Tespi: teatro e fascismo’. In Cultura e fascismo. Letteratura arti e spettacolo di un Ventennio, edited by Mario Biondi and Alessandro Borsotti, 265-290. Firenze: Ponte alle Grazie.
Scarpellini, Emanuela. 1989. Organizzazione teatrale e politica del teatro nell’Italia fascista. Firenze: La Nuova Italia. See in particular: ‘Appendice I: Repertorio dei Carri di Tespi di prosa’, 365-367, and ‘Appendice II: Repertorio del Carro di Tespi lirico’, 367-368.
Schnapp, Jeffrey T. 1993. ‘18 BL: Fascist Mass Spectacle.’ Representations 43: 89-125.
Schnapp, Jeffrey T. 1996. Staging Fascism: 18BL and the Theatre of Masses for Masses. Stanford: Stanford University Press.