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The Burnt Flower-Bed

At Tufts Arena Theatre through Saturday

By John E. Mcnees

L'Aiuola Bruciata, the work receiving its first American performance this week at the Tufts Arena Theater as The Burnt Flower-Bed, was written in 1952, near the end of the last great creative burst of its author, Ugo Betti. It is a play that states the problem of modern nihilism with uncompromising starkness and attempts to press beyond in the reaffirmation of human responsibility. Even a cursory reading of Betti's play in Henry Reed's excellent English translation makes it clear why Betti is being hailed on the continent as an even greater dramatist than Pirandello.

L'Aiuola moves on three different levels, the philosophic, the political, and the intimately personal; yet all three are perfectly fused. It observes the classic unities of time and place and occurs against a magnificent backdrop of mountains (which the set of the current production has denied us). The theme must owe something to Betti's lifelong career as a magistrate: it tells of the final human hunger to make sense of things--political catastrophies, the death of those we love--by restoring the concepts of guilt and innocence, punishment and choice, in all their dreadful nobility. Only by forcing the wedge of moral responsibility into our lives and consenting to suffer its risks and pains, can the world be dislodged at all from its absolute "absurdity"; only by acknowledging the gap thereby created between what is and what ought to be, can man still find hope and purpose, be saved from the epidemic in the world ... the look in the eyes of oxen on the country roads." The play gains disturbing relevance of the most immediate sort by taking place among the power elite of one vast political system the night before its confrontation with those of the other side--on the frontier, "the point of attrition between two huge wheels. One half of the world against the other." One fears that it was only a sense of the most literal realism that led Betti to choose this milieu as the setting in which the gospel of irresponsibility is preached in its baldest form: "We are all excused from having to act. We are only spectators: we shall do no more than watch. And naturally, we shall also submit. ... We see hands move: and they're not ours. The gestures of a dream." The reverberations of Betti's grand debate resound from Professor Morgenthau's reflections on foreign policy to the amoral facade of the Beat Generation.

On opening night last Tuesday, most of the Tufts players seemed bent more on obscuring Betti's genius than on revealing it. Much of the trouble must no doubt be attributed to the inevitable pressures of summer stock on a small, young, and inexperienced company; the relentless demand for an entire new production each week cannot help but produce some shaky premieres, with cues missed and whole speeches being dropped right and left. One had the sense of watching a late rehearsal rather than an actual performance, in fact, and it is therefore particularly difficult to pass judgment.

For the sake of the record, however, I'd like to say that the central character seemed to me to be fundamentally misconceived: Alvin Cohen's Giovanni was not the retired demagogue with the brains and scruples of a philosopher that the play presents, but a diminutive figure of ineffectual gestures who methods his way through one purely visceral crisis after another. Where we should have Trotsky in exile, we get something like Governor Long. Indeed, the major flaw of this production throughout was a submerging of the intellectual tensions in an unrelieved broiling bathos of emotionality. Betti's classic balance of philosophic dialogue and human drama was tipped over by an exclusive concentration on the latter. Lines were used as a histrionic medium in which the actors could palpitate rather than ever being allowed simply to mean, to communicate, to convey their propositional sense: it is the theatre's immemorial sin against the writer. As a result, not only was the audience deprived of the exciting display of Betti's dialectical fireworks, but the emotional climaxes which are in the script largely failed to come off because the air was already so thickly clogged with gratuitous passion.

Beulah Goren did Giovanni's wife, Luisa, somewhat nuttier than necessary, it seemed to me; one should be able to identify strongly with Luisa as a woman whose horror at the senselessness of her son's death has driven her near the brink of insanity--Miss Goren seemed to have tottered over long ago, however, and was therefore merely grotesque. John Kennedy's Tomaso needs to come alive, Carroll Britch's Nicola to die down.

Marilyn Rawlins gave the first night's most finished performance in the pivotal role of Rosa; she needs only a bit more "weight" and presence to fore-shadow the grandeur of her deed at the climax. Why anyone saw fit to dye Miss Rawlin's honest red hair to black, however, as well as fitting her out in a costume and coiffure that belong to the Vassar cocktail hour rather than an innocent Italian peasant girl--is quite beyond me; one hopes that it will be soon corrected.

By late in the week, all of the actors are sure to have their lines and cues down pat, the pace of the performance will accelerate and acquire structure, and in all probability the Tufts production will have become more than adequate. I choose to look on the bright side because the American premiere of Ugo Betti's masterpiece is not an event to be missed. For later productions will fully certify its claim to be one of the great plays of the twentieth century--as timely as the latest headline from Geneva, as timeless as the struggle of man's will with fate.

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