Sunday, 17 June 2012

Brazen irony, theatrical excesses and pleasure in satire

As always, we at Dolores Delargo Towers are delighted to discover a new diva, of any gender!

Paulo Poli, a drag queen and a pioneering out-gay man when such things were unheard of in a Catholic state, pioneer of the avant garde in austere post-war Italy, and reminiscent of Quentin Crisp in his defiance of the "norm" (and of gay rights campaigners' desire to embrace such "normality"). As this gem of an article encapsulates...

The unconventional man of 20th-century drama
Umberto Cecchi, Firenze Made in Tuscany, January 2008

There is a sentence often repeated by Paolo Poli which adds a hint of sadness to his sharp and ironic wit. “On stage we all are cardboard creatures”. And it is with this statement that he thinks back over his uninhibited youthful years which made him the nonconformist artist of twentieth-century drama. One wild and somehow bigoted century (conventional even in its violence) swiftly and totally changed by Poli even before the 1968 protest movement.

He brought back on the stage the fashion of male artists playing woman’s roles as it was in ancient Greece and in Europe in later centuries. Paolo Poli (being a self-professed homosexual in years when the rest of the gay world was still in the closet) was, after all, well at ease in a woman’s clothes. On stage he was a woman and free at last. The nights of his restless youth were often marked out by his search for occasional company at Florence’s railway station or by looking for working men on the streets but not on the stage! Poli’s pleasure on stage, if pleasure was to be, was playing the exquisite role of St. Rita of Cascia. It was the year 1967, at the time of Berkeley’s students unrest headed by Mario Savio, when the clamour began for gender equality, sexual freedom, free drugs and a free lifestyle. However, being Italian society and Italian laws still unprepared for such an upheaval, one eventful night the police stormed in the theatre and put an end to Poli’s extraordinary rendering of his St. Rita’s beautiful play. And that was that.

Years later, Paolo Poli used to laugh about such an occurrence: “What a farce! When I was playing Santa Rita, dressed as a nun, all were shocked. Then I played such a tearjerker like “La Nemica” by Dario Nicodemi: a story set in Italy during World War One. And when I, playing the role of the mother, was declaring “Yes, I hate you...I hate I won’t have to love you”, people were laughing their head off instead of crying”. The world is upside down!

I clearly remember the evening when Poli was playing Nicodemi. He started fishing, all of a sudden, and with a long fishing rod, among the audience and singing like a goblin out of a fairy-tale “come to me my precious tiddler, come to me..”, an extraordinary theatrical coup full of ironic wit at a time when all European stages were inundated with Sartre and Brecht’s existential plays.

Paolo Poli is indeed a genius of twentieth-century theatre. He is clever and irreverent, ironic and cutting as only a true Florentine blessed with greatness can be. He is not cowed by challenge and dares to be innovative at all times. He is a rebel in his life as on stage. And has always been since those times, in Rome, with Laura Betti when mere survival was ensured by whisky and peanuts makeshift meals. “I was a beauty, fair-haired and dressed in light blue!”. He was, then, in Genoa and had started, in a small theatre, at Via XX Settembre, called La borsa d’Arlecchino together with a small group of friends, a new approach to a brilliant and brazen kind of dramaturgy. The same brilliant and provocative style of today’s playing, richer in titles and themes, some of which I am remembering by heart: L’asino d’oro, Caterina de’ Medici, La Nemica and today’s works such as Sei Brillanti where, with his own sharp irony, and at the age of 78, he exposes to ridicule many of our society’s shortcomings, dressed as a cardinal or a cabaret singer.

Poli’s is a “countermelody”: when bigoted people make a fuss about an issue, he must surely play it down; when gay people clamour for the right to marry, he disowns them candidly: “It’s true that we “girls” do not understand about politics, but why should homosexuals be in need of an official acknowledgement?”. And he is quick to add that “gay pride” events make him sad, just like Viareggio’s carnival. He who, as a child, was in love with King Kong, the big ape, and had already a marked preference for hairy men and huge sailors to whom he might recite The Divine Comedy making them run away, he who knew since the age of seven about his being “different”, is today puzzled and vexed by the extremism of uncontrollable homosexuals made so restless by Zapatero’s proposals. “The need of parading, hand in hand, like two contented fags, calls for a shrink”, he tells Aldo Cazzullo during an interview.

Equally inexplicable to him is a theatre without the Italian Commedia dell’Arte’s rhythm and verve like Costantini, Gherardi and Bianchelli’s theatre whose last representative undoubtedly is Poli, blessed with the same creativity, the same wish to astonish with his brazen irony, his theatrical excesses and pleasure in satire. The same satire which cost “les italiens” of the Sun King’s Paris their expulsion from the Hotel de Bourgogne and cost Poli a charge for his supposed destruction of myths and harsh moral reprimands. However no critics can limit the lengthy applause bestowed upon him when on stage nor make him hold his tongue, sharp and loving at the same time. Laura Betti? "A wonderful, unrestrainable virago. We loved each other deeply because we rarely met”.

There! Paolo Poli, an extraordinary cardboard creature on stage and a great man in life states that love needs mutual independence, a healthy distance and sporadic meetings. His only exception, a Dutch love which lasted ten years: “but only because we were travelling much and each of us on his own”.
Paulo Poli (born 23rd May 1929)


  1. A magnificent post, my friend! Bravo! Or, Brava!!!

    1. Praise, indeed, from another "nonconformist artist of twentieth-century drama". Grazie mille! Jx

  2. Remarkable post. I did not know of him. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, sweetie! Wouldn't we all love to have been described as an "extraordinary cardboard creature on stage and a great man in life"?


Please leave a message - I value your comments!