This trilogy of historical tragedies was the outcome of the collaboration between playwright Giovacchino Forzano and Benito Mussolini over a decade. The three plays were performed for the first time, respectively, on 20th December 1930 at Teatro Argentina, in Rome; on 27th March 1932 also at Teatro Argentina, and on 24th April 1939 at Verona’s arena. Campo di Maggio takes as its subject the ‘hundred days’ of Napoleon, staging the Battle of Waterloo and the following downfall of the emperor, ending at Malmaison castle, where Napoleon has to abandon his hopes and ambitions to regain power. Villafranca stages the events leading to the end of the second Italian War of Independence, from the encounters between the King Vittorio Emanuele II and Cavour, to the armistice of Villafranca. Cesare stages some key episodes in the life of Julius Caesar, including the crossing of the Rubicon, the Battle of the Nile, and his murder.
The Sacralisation of the New Man’s Total Politics through the Arts
Shaping the New Man’s Reality by Fashioning National Myths
Monumentalism: Visualising Subjectivity and Objectivity
This trilogy of historical tragedies constitutes one of the most significant examples of Fascist theatre, as their conception entailed the collaboration of the Duce himself. Mussolini not only commissioned the plays from Forzano, but suggested the sources that Forzano should use for writing the plays; carefully followed the conception of the works; made corrections and addictions; and drafted dialogues and sections of scenes. The personal involvement of Mussolini in the writing and realization of the plays is evidence not only of his utmost interest in the arts and in their employment in the creation of a Fascist mythology, but also of his conviction that theatre was a privileged medium of communication and popular education, therefore of modernization.
All three plays are marked by clear propaganda purposes and, in particular, they celebrate the figure of the Duce, to whom each of the protagonists’ stories are related. Mussolini himself, through his collaboration with Forzano, aimed at casting himself as the spiritual heir of these historical heroic figures. In Campo di Maggio the hero is Napoleon, seen not in his glorious days of great victories and conquests, but in the final phase of his trajectory. A powerful ideal underlying the play is anti-parliamentarism. Napoleon’s downfall begins when he attempts to establish a constitutional form of sovereignty, sanctioned by the ceremony of ‘Champs de Mai’. Implicitly, the play upholds the legitimacy of a dictatorship and of a totalitarian rule of the state, showing how for a leader, even the partial ceding of power is a political suicide.
In Villafranca the main character is Italian statesman Cavour, who pursues the ideal of a unified Italy. The goal here is to present Mussolini and the Fascist regime as the spiritual heirs of the Risorgimento. Like the Italian people had reacted to the failure of the independence war and continued on their path towards unification after the armistice of Villafranca, Italians had risen again after the disappointment of the 1919 Paris Peace conference, and united in the name of Fascist ideology. The third tragedy, Cesare, is the most openly celebratory: a powerful parallel is established between Julius Caesar and Mussolini for their heroic deeds, and for having founded, the former, and restored, the latter, the Roman empire.
An important theme that runs through all three plays is that of betrayal: Napoleon was betrayed by Fouché and abandoned by his former comrades; Cavour suffered the consequences of the volte-face of Napoleone III; and Caesar was famously murdered in a conspiracy in which his supporters took part. The theme of betrayal allowed Mussolini to emphasize and convey through the plays a Fascist ethics based on loyalty and obedience; it has also been suggested that betrayal was for him a sort of obsession, even in the period in which he enjoyed great popularity.
The trilogy was a great success with the public, but was attacked by critics, including some Fascist ones. Some hardliners, possibly jealous of Forzano for his close friendship with Mussolini, accused him of being a sham Fascist and only being interested in pocketing public money. The three tragedies were all meant to be adapted for film, but only two were actually turned into films, also under the supervision of the Duce: Villafranca in 1934 and Campo di maggio in 1935. Campo di maggio also had a French version, entitled Les cent jours, and a German one, entitled Hundert Tage. The play Villafranca was translated into German with the title Benito Mussolini und Giovacchino Forzano: Cavour (Villafranca), and successfully performed in Berlin in 1940, celebrating the alliance between Italy and Germany.
Sterpos, Marco. 2015. Scrivere teatro nel regime: Giovacchio Forzano e la collaborazione con Mussolini. Modena: Mucchi.