Palermo puppet theater
I was told that somewhere in Palermo there was a puppet theater. But it seemed elusive, hard to track down. I thought I could ask at the corner bar near the pensione. The owner knew me by now – a blue-eyed man with thinning wispy hair, sort of tired looking as Sicilians were apt to be. The day’s growth of beard seemed to add to this impression. Unconcernedly they went about their business with a stubbly beard, be it selling, running a bar, or teaching mathematics. One could not judge them too harshly for the water was often too cold even to lather soap in.
He shook his head as he set the cup of coffee before me. “Yes, there is a Teatro dei Pupi several blocks down the street, but it is no place for a girl. You would be the only woman in the audience, and my father even forbade me to go when I was small. It is a rough crowd, and the place is usually not very clean. If you like I will talk to the owner and perhaps you can see them by yourself during the day.” Good advice, perhaps, but I also wanted the atmosphere of the crowd. A young man-boy, half a head shorter than I was, dressed in a good tweed coat, said he would accompany me. So off we went. The owner poked his head out the door in answer to our knock and assured me it was a clean, very civilized audience and that the show started at seven. After which he closed the door.
While waiting we decided to look for the Sicilian painted carts. The scenes on their sides were the same as the stories enacted by the marionettes – legendary tales of Orlando, and Rinaldo and the Paladini – knights of France, battles with magicians, rescuing of fair ladies. It was an epic which took weeks or months to complete. The people knew the story by heart and watched with the same sort of love and participation as a child listening to a fairy tale time and time again. There was a famous story of a workman who rose one morning and said that he would not go to work that day. It was a day of mourning, for the hero was to be killed.
Search as we could, there seemed to be no carts around. It was Sunday, and they were also evidently having their day of rest. Finally it was almost seven. A small room led into the large theater space. Panels representing some of the most important scenes were hung on the walls. Little boys crowded the wooden benches up front, at the back was a curious mixture of old men, and men in their prime, all of them from the lower working classes. It was almost a full house.The show started on time. Which even the opera in Naples didn’t do. A wicked magician had spirited the Princess Cleopatra to his castle. Rinaldo, with the aid of his cousin, who was a good magician, rescued her and restored her to her father. Rinaldo and his whole group were however Crusaders, and the princess happened to be Muslim, so the wicked father imprisoned the hero and called forth the wild beasts. Through magic means the good cousin learned of this and arrived in the nick of time with a band of little devils who fought the beasts and killed the wicked king. This scene was magnificent, with little horse- or goat-flanked devils fighting weird looking crocodiles and lions. Flashes of lightning illuminated the courtyard where poor Rinaldo, chained to a wall and naked but for a loin cloth and a blindfold, writhed and wept. Generally the audience was quiet, but here they participated. Their remarks were all in dialect. It was difficult enough to try and follow the voices of the puppets – the growling voice of the wicked king, the lighter but still hardly feminine voice of the daughter. The violent motions of their arms at times were the only hint of who was talking. A truly Italian puppet theater where the hands played a major role in the conversation.
The dolls themselves were quite beautiful. The knights’ armor was marvelously fashioned, the faces handsome in a doll-like way. A king had to have a big moustache and a bony head. It startled me a few days later to see the same head on a man in the railroad station. For a moment I wondered why he looked so familiar, and then I recognized him as the wicked king, complete with drooping moustache. These puppets were quite modest in size, perhaps two or three feet tall, although I knew that sometimes they could be almost as large as a man, not balanced lightly on strings, but held on rods with at least one arm manipulated by another rod. At first, subtlety seemed lacking, but after 15 minutes or so a kind of reality took over and the awkwardness of movement became insignificant under the force of the mythical personality. With trampling of feet and noises of thunder, devils appeared and vanished. The scenes changed with amazing swiftness from a painted landscape with sunset to the alabaster interior of a palace. In between the scenes, the music-box piano played and tinkled, beginning and ending with the Blue Danube. The whole performance lasted an hour and a half. Tomorrow there would be another abduction, rescue and battle. History marches on.
The air was cold as I sat in my room.. A Vespa roared by. Two men talked. Even with the light turned off the room was bright from the streetlamp silhouetting the bars on the windows. The almond blossoms were scattering their petals on the chipped enamel of the bed stand. Yes, it was time to leave Palermo. Andrea had said he would be in Agrigento, so if he was still there, fine and good. At least it would be someone familiar. And he did seem to be an interesting person who knew a lot about Italian culture. But I did have to say goodbye to my Monreale friends before leaving.
Even so I was a bit hesitant, for I realized one couldn’t accept the hospitality of two families at the same time. They shrink back into their shells with the same rapidity with which their hearts opened. Pirandello in describing one of his characters dressed in mourning says that everything about him was ‘meridionalmente’ exaggerated. Sicily is Italia Meridionale. Much of it is just that – an overstatement.
To be continued . . .