Ettore Petrolini, Gastone (1924)


Gastone is a musical comedy performed for the first time in 1924 at Arena del Sole, in Bologna. Gastone is a comedian whose career is declining. He meets Lucia, a beautiful villager with a musical talent, and decides to make her debut as the protagonist of a play. He cobbles together a theatre company, with the help of producer Vito Boschetti. At the premiere Lucia is singled out and engaged by a prestigious company and abandons Gastone.

Main Principles

  1. The Legitimization of the Artist/Intellectual's Participation in the Public Sphere

  2. The Role of Cosmopolitanism in the Modernization of the Italian Artistic Field

  3. Citizen’s Media Manipulation: Entertainment, Escapism and Consensus


Ettore Petrolini was one of the actors/authors who most contributed to the renewal of comedy and comic theatre in the early 20th century, until 1930. He is still well-known, also thanks to later reinterpretations of his plays and his characters (particularly renowned are those of Alberto Sordi and Gigi Proietti). His original contribution can be found in particular in his earliest creations as a comedian of teatro di varietà (variety show), as well as in the genre of macchietta, consisting of a brief caricatural monologue accompanied by a musical piece, through which he created some immortal characters like Fortunello, Il bell’Arturo, L’antico romano, and Gastone.

His plays and characters are marked by satirical and demystifying purposes, and from this point of view they have some similarities with futurist theatre. His parodies target socio-cultural stereotypes like the bon viveur, the divo, the fashionable actor, but also more down-to-earth characters like Giggi er bullo (a local bully). Gastone is a satire of the 1920s’ theatrical industries and in particular of the figure of the histrionic actor of low-quality teatro di varietà, penniless and self-indulgent, trying to be a womanizer, but ultimately sad and lonely.

As an antibourgeois actor, Petrolini managed to take advantage of the ambiguities of the relationship between Fascism and theatre, and won the favour of the Fascist elites. The actor was already a celebrity when Fascism seized power, but he felt the need to gain further acknowledgments and the support of the dictatorhsip. He was close to such central figures of the regime as Galeazzo Ciano, Giuseppe Bottai and Italo Balbo. On the other hand, the regime, in turn, could not miss the chance of ingratiating itself with Petrolini’s countless followers. Some prominent intellectuals also appreciated him: Bontempelli (who called him ‘the greatest Italian artist’) and Marinetti, for instance.

The privileged mode of Petrolini’s satire, and the cornerstone of his modernity as an actor and an author, was a process of desemantization which altered meanings and created those chains of nonsense which constitute the basis of his plays. Nonsense and surreal humour soon became an end in themselves, anticipating the comedy of the absurd, which will become predominant in the second half of the 20th century. Petrolini defined this humour and this type of comedy idiozia sublime (sublime foolishness’), and considered it a means of escape from a world in which logic and rationality are no longer able to provide answers.


Calò, Annamaria. 1989. Ettore Petrolini. Scandicci: La Nuova Italia.

Gundle, Stephen. 2015. ‘Laughter under Fascism: Humour and Ridicule in Italy, 1922-43.’ History Workshop Journal 79 (1): 215-232.

Longman, Stanley Vincent. 1975. ‘The Modern “Maschere” of Ettore Petrolini.’ Educational Theatre Journal 27 (3): 377-386.

Soriani, Simone. 2010. ‘Logica antilogica e relativismo dal varietà alle commedie.’ Forum Italicum 44 (2): 301-342.

Laura Pennacchietti