Oratory and the Public Sphere

Num°02 ITALY

The stage is sparse. The lighting scheme is uncomplicated and often colorless. There is one person who tells a story. Her costume is unremarkable. There is no music, or if there is, it is minimal. More recently, there are occasional live musicians on stage with the narrator. In the past, the artists might have projected slides at varying intervals. Today, there is sometimes a screen upstage with images at interludes. Narrative theater is not a spectacular experience in the way that entertainment connotes. It is neither visually stimulating like many theatrical endeavors are, nor is there much of an effort at auditory design. Why would someone see a theater performance such as this instead of a flashy blithe musical? Even more curiously, why would someone choose to watch a recording of such a performance on television when changing the channel could bring a visually gripping thriller? My essay explores what this widely popular performance practice says about the Italian mass public.

Inspired by the recent scandals in the Berlusconi empire surrounding an underage ecdysiast from Morocco, The New York Times ran a special debate in January 2011 inviting seven scholars and journalists, including Professors Alexander Stille and Chiara Volpato as well as La Stampa’s Maurizio Molinari, to comment on what the tolerance of Berlusconi’s behavior might say about Italians. While each respondent focused on slightly different hypotheses, they all touched on one common thread: media. As Stille points out, the crux of the problem is that Berlusconi reigns over a nearly 90 percent market share in the television industry in a country where 70 to 80 percent of the public gets its news from television. As prime minister, he oversees the three state-run channels, and his company Mediaset privately owns another three of the seven main networks. Regarding Italians’ tolerance of their leader, the authors suggest that to some extent Italians are simply unaware of and isolated from ongoing international debates because this single player so dominates the flow of information. By contrast, through its alternative engagement and depiction of Italians, narrative theater or teatro di narrazione poses a counter-balance to the conservative media of Berlusconi. Without sacrificing its focused erudition, this performance practice, which almost exclusively researches issues of national interest, has proven its appeal across class boundaries and invites a reconsideration of the mass public in Italy.

Oratory and the Public Sphere

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