The Theater of Carlo Terron: Two Plays: The Trial of the Innocents and Arsenic, Tonight!

by Robert Cardullo


The theater of Carlo Terron (1910–1991) is perhaps the most varied of his generation. His works range from the grotesque to the tragic, from psychological drama to allegorical farce. Whether it takes the form of comedy or serious drama, Terron’s oeuvre is essentially concerned with an investigation of the roots of guilt, and as such it reflects the moral climate of post-World War II Italy. In this respect, Terron’s plays may be compared to those of his contemporaries, Ugo Betti and Diego Fabbri, which focus on similar moral issues and sometimes also employ the trial format. In most of his plays, Terron used his training as a psychiatrist to provide the intellectual framework for a world view in which the motives for action are seen as being so intertwined with the complex nature of life that it is almost impossible to fix individual moral responsibility. If Terron’s protagonists reject judgment by others, however, they are very quick to accuse, judge, and even punish themselves.

In its exploration of the complexity and even inscrutability of human behavior, Terron’s drama also has something in common with Luigi Pirandello’s “theater of the grotesque.” For such a theater not only investigates the gap or disjuncture between appearance and reality, it also questions—like Terron—whether a more reliable truth can indeed be found after life’s masks are stripped away. Personality thus becomes the rigid (yet comic) mask we place over our features in order to placate the busybody’s hunger to define and classify, while character itself is the suffering (and tragic) face: spontaneous, evanescent, finally unknowable. Thus realistic personae, dialogue, and detail or design are the tools of grotesque drama but not its material. With these tools, writers like Pirandello and later Terron shaped a new dramatic world in which realism is only the play’s surface, just as appearance is life’s surface.

The Theater of Carlo Terron will for the first time introduce this compelling dramatist to the English-speaking world. Included are not only chronologies of Terron’s life and work, but, most importantly, two of his best and most representative works: The Trial of the Innocents (1950) and Arsenic, Tonight! (1967). In the earlier drama, written in three acts, a “respectable” woman’s grown children discover that she has a young lover; they then begin to investigate her dubious past. By the time the “trial” is over, accusers and accused find themselves inescapably linked by the fatefulness of the human condition, which forces contradiction and uncertainty upon everyone. In Arsenic, Tonight!, billed by Terron as a “comedy” in two acts, an apparently happy couple are living in a Strindbergian hell: she is at once a workaholic and a nymphomaniac who operates her own funeral home, while he is an introspective bookworm who, though he has become sexually impotent due to his wife’s persistent attacks, manages nonetheless to play an active role in the running of her business. Together they remain prisoners of a love-hate relationship in which each member simultaneously attempts to destroy the other and to rediscover the passion that originally brought the two of them together.

“In this world,” Terron has one of his dramatic characters say, “there are no guilty ones, but only victims.” Some of those victims are brilliantly on display in The Trial of the Innocents and Arsenic, Tonight!, each of which is composed in a Shavian style that diabolically mixes lucidity and intelligence with irony, allusion, and even subversiveness. These two plays are preceded by a long, contextualizing introduction in which Cardullo analyzes the state of postwar Italian drama and examines in detail Terron’s place in it.

This is an important book for collections in drama, theater, and Italian studies.


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