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Mind the Gap

Performance and Semiosis in Primo Levi
  • Ellen Nerenberg
Chapter
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Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)

Abstract

Although much has been said of Primo Levi’s use of language, its epistemological and ethical bases, and its negotiation of that which is unspeakable, his attempts at a performative mode have not enjoyed the same critical attention.1 My chapter focuses on performance and its place in and its relation to Levi’s work. The motif of performance in Levi’s prose narrative has received some critical attention and the performances of Levi’s works adapted for the stage have also enjoyed some critical consideration. Performances of Levi’s work in other media, however, and especially for the radio, are as yet under-studied. In this chapter, I bring into proximity these varied types of live performance (as opposed to cinematic adaptation) to interrogate the shifts that these generic differences impose on linguistic codes and contexts. After investigating some key examples of theatrical performance in Levi’s prose narrative, I focus principally on performances of his work that took place during his lifetime, and primarily on performances of Se questo è un uomo (Survival at Auschwitz).2 I will have occasion, toward my conclusion, to briefly discuss Sir Antony Sher’s 2004–2005 performances of his dramatic one-man show, Primo.

Keywords

Live Performance Critical Attention Linguistic Sign Existential Loneliness Stage Direction 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    For Levi’s language, see Marco Belpoliti and Robert S. C. Gordon, “Primo Levi’s Holocaust Vocabularies,”, The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi ed. Robert S. C. Gordon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 51–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Cesare Cases, “L’ordine delle cose e l’ordine delle parole,”, Primo Levi: Un’antologia della critica (Turin: Einaudi, 1997) 5–33.Google Scholar
  3. Sander Gilman, “The Special Language of the Camps and After,”, Reason and Light, ed. Susan Tar-row (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1990), 59–81.Google Scholar
  4. Lawrence Schehr, ‘Primo Levi’s Strenuous Clarity,’, Italica 66, 4 (1989): 429–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 3.
    Primo Levi, Other’s People’s Trades, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (London: Michael Joseph, 1989), 174 (emphasis added).Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    See Primo Levi’s, The Black Hole of Auschwitz, ed. Marco Belpoliti and trans. Sharon Wood (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2005), 37–38.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Tadeusz Kowzan, “The Sign in the Theater: An Introduction to the Semiology of the Art of the Spectacle,” trans. Simon Pleasance, Diogène 61 (1968): 57.Google Scholar
  8. 09.
    See Lina Insana’s Arduous Tasks: Primo Levi, Translation, and the Transmission of Holocaust Testimony (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    See Carole Angier, The Double Bond: Primo Levi, a Biography (London: Viking, 2002), 558–64.Google Scholar
  10. Ian Thomson, Primo Levi: A Life (London: Hutchinson, 2002), 315–19.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Levi’s own thoughts about the production are found in “Note to the Theater Version of If This is a Man,” in Levi’s The Black Hole of Auschwitz, 23–27. On Holocaust drama in general, see Claude Schumacher, ed., Staging the Holocaust: The Shoah in Drama and Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  12. Christian Rogowski, “Teaching the Drama of the Holocaust,”, Teaching the Representation of the Holocaust, ed. Marianne Hirsch and Irene Kacandes (New York: MLA Press, 2004).Google Scholar
  13. Lina Insana, “In Levi’s Wake: Adaptation, Simulacrum, Postmemory,” Italica 86, no. 2 (2009): 212–38.Google Scholar
  14. 12.
    Peppino Ortoleva, “A Geography of the Media Since 1945,”, Italian Cultural Studies, ed. David Forgacs and Robert Lumley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 185–98.Google Scholar
  15. Peppino Ortoleva, “A Geography of the Media Since 1945,”, Italian Cultural Studies, ed. David Forgacs and Robert Lumley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 185–98, and E. Menduini, La radio nell’era della televisione (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1994).Google Scholar
  16. 13.
    See Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Shadow of Auschwitz (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007). esp. 13–20.Google Scholar
  17. Fabio Girelli-Carasi, “Italian-Jewish Memoirs and the Discourse of Identity,”, The Most Ancient of Minorities, ed. Stanislao Pugliese (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 191–99.Google Scholar
  18. 16.
    Levi’s materials in the Einaudi archives include a typescript of Il sesto giorno [The Sixth Day], the creation story in play form, published in 1966. The manuscript is dated 1957 but is believed to have been written a decade earlier, making dramatic dialogue part of Levi’s earliest genres. For a complete assessment of the variants and editions of Se questo è un uomo, see Giovanni Tesio, “Su alcune giunte e varianti di Se questo è un uomo” in Studi piemontesi 6 (1977): 270–78.Google Scholar
  19. 17.
    This passage comes from the British translation of Se questo è un uomo: Primo Levi, If this is a Man, trans. Stuart Woolf (London: Orion, 1960) 150.Google Scholar
  20. 18.
    In addition to Puppa, see also Robert Gordon, Primo Levi’s Ordinary Virtues. From Testimony to Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 284, for a consonant reading of the importance of these moments in The Reawakening.Google Scholar
  21. 22.
    Cf. Amy Hungerford, “Teaching Fiction, Teaching the Holocaust,”, Teaching the Representation of the Holocaust, eds. Marianne Hirsch and Irene Kacandes (New York: MLA, 2004), 182.Google Scholar
  22. 23.
    Much of the tension concerning cinematic representation of the Holocaust has centered on Roberto Benigni’s 1997 La vita è bella [Life is Beautiful], which closely adheres to a sense of theatrical decorum handed down since the Renaissance: gross atrocities are not witnessed by the audience but, rather, are declaimed and described by the actors: they are oscena, ob-scena meaning destined for representation off-stage. See also Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Shadow of Auschwitz, esp. 77–78; Sander Gilman, “Is Life Beautiful? Can the Shoah Be Funny? Some Thoughts on Recent and Older Films,” Critical Inquiry 26 (Winter 2000): esp. 291–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Maurizio Viano, “Life is Beautiful: Reception, Allegory, and Holocaust Laughter,” Annali d’Italianistica 17 (1999): 155–72. See also Levi’s thoughts on the mini-series Holocaust in The Black Hole of Auschwitz, 59–66.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    For the kinesthetic sign as illustrated by the actor’s body see, among others, Jean Alter, A Sociosemiotic Theory of Theater (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  25. Elaine Aston and George Savona, Theater as a Sign System: A Semiotics of Text and Performance (London: Routledge, 1991).Google Scholar
  26. Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Semiotics of Theater, trans. Jeremy Gaines and Doris Jones (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  27. 25.
    See Primo Levi, Opere, ed. Marco Belpoliti, intro. by Daniele Del Giudice (Turin: Einaudi, 1997), 2:1531–32.Google Scholar
  28. 27.
    Samuel Weber, Theatricality as Medium (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 32.
    John Reeves, “If This is a Man,” CBC Times, January 23–29, 1965.Google Scholar
  30. 42.
    See Guido Davico Bonino, “Primo Levi, come per caso, a teatro,”, Primo Levi: Il presente del passato, ed. Alberto Cavaglion (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1991), 141–46.Google Scholar
  31. 53.
    Robert Brustein, “Primo Levi: The Staged and the Damned,”, Millennial Stages. Essays and Reviews 2001–2005 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 245–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 54.
    See also Millicent Marcus, “Primo Levi: The Biographer’s Challenge and the Reader’s Double Bind,” Italica, 80, no. 1 (2003): 67–72.Google Scholar
  33. 56.
    Susan Melrose, “Theater and Language,”, A Semiotics of the Dramatic Text (New York: St. Martin’s, 1994), 51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Risa Sodi and Millicent Marcus 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ellen Nerenberg
    • 1
  1. 1.Wesleyan UniversityUSA

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