Critical and biographical information on Henry Reed, World War II British poet, critic, translator, and radio dramatist — author of "Naming of Parts"
Henry Reed, poet and radio dramatist
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Reed, Henry. Foreword to Three Plays by Ugo Betti. New York: Grove Press, 1958. 5-8.


Three Plays Betti was born on February the 4th 1892 at Camerino, in the Italian Marches, in a street which is now named after him. He was the son of a doctor who in 1900 moved to Parma, to take up the directorship of the hospital in that city. Here Betti was educated in classics. A brief biographical note in a recent edition of his three posthumous plays says that his early youth was mainly devoted to sport. Maybe; but he somehow found time to translate Catullus's "Marriage of Thetis and Peleus", which was published in Camerino in 1910, when he was still only eighteen. He graduated in law at Parma, but his career was interrupted by the first world war. He was commissioned in the artillery, was decorated, and in 1917 was taken prisoner and sent to Germany. Here he began to write the verses which were to be included in 1922 in his first volume of original work, The Thoughtful King. He resumed his practice of law at Parma after the war, eventually becoming a pretore and later a judge. In 1930 he was moved to Rome, where until a few years before his death he was a magistrate in the High Court. He died on June the 9th 1953.

During his later years Betti had become accepted as the leading dramatist in Italy in the generation that followed Pirandello. It is probable that most critics in Italy to-day regard him as a greater dramatic artist than Pirandello. This is not to disparage Pirandello, the splendour of whose finest theatrical work is not in doubt. Nevertheless I think that the view is a right one which


sees Pirandello's best achievement in his brilliant and voluminous prose fiction. It is quite otherwise with Betti. Pirandello worked his way into the drama by dramatising his own short stories. But Betti's dedication to the drama began early enough for us to assume that it was his original and main intention. His three volumes of lyric poetry, his three collections of short stories, and his single short novel have a distinction of their own; but they can fairly be regarded as the marginalia to the succession of twenty-five dramatic works which they accompanied, and whose thought and preoccupation they echo, underline and occasionally anticipate.

It may be of use to English readers to have some brief non-critical account of Betti's progress through his quarter-century of playwriting. Apart from a handful of comedies, his plays are tragic in cast, and often violent, frightening or bizarre. They are also—increasingly so in the later plays—austerely Christian in implication. His subject is wickedness; perhaps his life as a judge showed him more curious varieties of it than most of us come upon; at all events he studies its preposterous growths with an habituated candour. His first play, La Padrona, written in 1926, was awarded the first prize in a dramatic competition in Rome. It is a short three-act play, harsh, concentrated and astonishingly competent technically; its subject, put baldly, is the contest between Marina, representing life, and Anna, representing death, for the anguished, dilapidated soul of Pietro; Marina is his second wife, Anna his daughter by his first marriage. Life does in fact win the contest, but one has no sense of a happy ending. In it, Betti seems to have


deliberately set himself the task of not giving in to the side of himself expressed in his early fairy-tale lyrics. He makes similar self-corrective gestures elsewhere in the course of his work. Here the result is as if Maeterlinck had been disciplined to the manner of Verga.

In only a few of Betti's plays is precise locality indicated. The scene of La Padrona is simply a "poor home". In the plays that immediately follow there is a sense of Northern Europe, though the characters in general have Italian names. The sudden fusing of this remote atmospheric feeling with Betti's own intimate knowledge of the courts of justice precipitates his first masterpiece, Landslide at the North Station (1932) where an investigation into the responsibility for an industrial disaster is found gradually to involve a whole society. It is in this play that one of Betti's major themes emerges: man's wish for judgment upon his actions. It was this play—the fifth of Betti's plays to be staged—that first persuaded a large body of critics that a considerable dramatic talent had appeared and could no longer be ignored; it could, however, still be called "literary", and was: the word being pejorative in intent. It was perhaps a determination to show that his methods and manner were a choice and not an involuntary eccentric compulsion—and perhaps also a simple wish for commercial success—that persuaded Betti to write the comedies that occupied him during the late 'thirties. It is to this group that Land of Holidays (known to the English stage as Summertime, and included in this volume) belongs. This at least won public favour, and Betti presumably felt that, his point made, he might return to his own interests.


The series of thirteen plays which Betti produced between 1941 and his death in 1953 must be among the greatest creative outbursts in dramatic literature. In none of these is there what we are used to in England as "religious drama"; yet they are all concerned with one aspect or another of men's fatal disregard or defiance of God. The Queen and the Rebels and The Burnt Flower-bed come towards the end of the group. They are the only plays dealing with political material in the whole of Betti's work; and the essential theme is scarcely political, even in these. Most of the other plays are concerned with the more desperate relationships of man and woman. I have no wish to pre-judge them for audiences to whom they arc not yet available; but there may be no harm in suggesting that they confront us with a dramatist whose unusual maturity of vision gives us pity and terror, where we normally find only their modern substitutes, pathos and hysteria. In a play such as Crime on Goat Island, where passionate sexual feeling is at its densest and most degraded, there is still a sense of classical tragedy. It is not simply a question of dramatic structure. The sense persists in plays like The Gambler, Woman in Flight, and Irene Innocente, where the structure is far from being classical.

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These translations were originally commissioned by the Third Programme of the B.B.C., and produced by Mr. Donald MacWhinnie. They were considerably revised for their stage productions, and have been further revised for publication.




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