Mind the Gap

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


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.


Live Performance Critical Attention Linguistic Sign Existential Loneliness Stage Direction 
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  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
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    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
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    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
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    See Lina Insana’s Arduous Tasks: Primo Levi, Translation, and the Transmission of Holocaust Testimony (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).Google Scholar
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    See Carole Angier, The Double Bond: Primo Levi, a Biography (London: Viking, 2002), 558–64.Google Scholar
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    See Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Shadow of Auschwitz (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007). esp. 13–20.Google Scholar
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    See Primo Levi, Opere, ed. Marco Belpoliti, intro. by Daniele Del Giudice (Turin: Einaudi, 1997), 2:1531–32.Google Scholar
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  29. 32.
    John Reeves, “If This is a Man,” CBC Times, January 23–29, 1965.Google Scholar
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    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
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    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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