Simma is a tragedy written in 1935 by Fascist playwright and poet Francesco Pastonchi. It celebrates the achievements of the Fascist regime through the narration of the tragic events surrounding the construction of a temple in Pontia, a new town founded by the regime, built by architect Pietro Brea on the model of the ‘new city’ designed by futurist architect Antonio Sant’Elia. It was performed for the first time on 27th January 1936 at Teatro Lirico, in Milan, by Compagnia dei Grandi Spettacoli d’Arte, created ad hoc for the occasion. Marta Abba, one of the most successful actresses of the time, played the female protagonist role.
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
Following the consolidation of the regime in the 1920s and the adoption of a more active and effective cultural policy, theatre, among other artistic forms, became the focus of the Fascist leadership, convinced that the values of the regime should be celebrated and conveyed also in this prominent artistic field, through plays and performances. The prevalent cultural eclecticism of the dictatorship, and their support of different artists, style and movements, meant that the interest of the regime was not in defining the contours of a Fascist aesthetics – in the case of theatre, a Fascist dramatic mode or style. The regime was rather interested in the ideological and moral content of the plays, which should convey the values and myths that sustained Fascist life, as a powerful instrument for the education of Fascist citizens, the modernization of the nation, and the formation of a national spirit.
In this perspective, Pastonchi’s tragedy Simma, conceived as a great allegory of the Fascist ethics, appears as one of the most significant attempts. Following Mussolini’s 1933 speech on the crisis of theatre and his exhortation to produce plays that would ‘stir up great collective passions’ and ‘stage what really matters in the spiritual life and the quests of men’, Pastonchi resolved that he could make his constructive contribution towards this goal, and become a playwright of the regime, communicating through a fascinating religious-lyrical spirit. Pastonchi’s poetics was inspired by Carducci and D’Annunzio and grounded in a cult of the form and of linguistic and metric sophistication; it was, therefore, removed from the developments of 20th century poetry and theatre. Simma has five acts and was written in verse, drawing inspiration from Greek tragedians.
The play, however, unfolds in an imaginary utopic future, centred around the construction of the Temple of San Michele in Pontia. This monumental building symbolizes human yearning towards the divine, and with its rational structure and dominating position over the city, embodies the values of authority and limit, which constitute the foundations of the new social, political, and moral order. The architect Brea has entrusted the completion of the works to his disciples, excluding Simma, the most skilful and gifted. The titanic clash between individual freedom and pride represented by Simma, who opposes his master, and the rule of law results in tragedy, with the destruction of the temple, the death of the architect, and the ruin of Simma, who goes insane. However, a new temple will be built by Aeli, Brea’s youngest and most loyal disciple, an enlightened artist who will be able to combine tradition and modernism, innovating but also valuing the memory of the past. Simma thus proclaims the existence and the importance of rules that must govern humanity and society, and the immanence of the notion of limit in life and in the arts, a defining trait of Latin and Western culture, which Fascist ideology has inherited and adopted.
The staging of Simma entailed a significant financial and organizational effort, because it involved the use of several background actors, as well as the participation of choirs and dancers. Despite Mussolini’s financial support and approval – he was so keen that he even provided literary and dramaturgical advice – the performance was a fiasco and was not staged again. The play was criticized for its rhetorical grandiloquence, for its abstract symbolism, and ultimately because its message was unclear, failing to establish a connection with the audience.
Berghaus, Günter (ed.). 1996. Fascism and Theatre. Comparative Studies on the Aesthetics and Politics of Performance in Europe, 1925-1945. Providence: Berghahn Books.
Carena, Carlo, Franco Contorbia, and Marziano Guglielminetti (eds). 1997. Ricordo di Francesco Pastonchi (1874-1953), Atti del Convegno S. Maria Maggiore, 13 settembre 1997. Novara: Interlinea edizioni.
Scarpellini, Emanuela. 1989. Organizzazione teatrale e politica del teatro nell’Italia fascista. Florence: La Nuova Italia.