Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 5. 1967.
I'm more than a little hesitant about expressing opinions on Mario Fratti's play, The Cage, now playing at Downstage. Although the programme contains the information that 16 of his plays have been translated into English, the University Library doesn't possess any of them, and those experts on Italian literature that I know, don't know Fratti. This meant that I couldn't, as I wished, get hold of a text of the play to read and thus test the impressions gained in performance. What follows is therefore, of necessity, tentative.
Christiano, a young man, lives with his mother, his younger sister, his brother Pietro and Pietro's wife, Chiara. He spends his time reading Chekhov, whose Stories he knows by heart. He has also, for the last three years, lived inside a cage, constructed round his bed, from which he never comes out. Its bars jut out as a visual embodiment of the terrible fear and disgust he feels towards the world. He shuts himself away from the outside world. He shuts it out, but he also shuts himself in.
The play opens impressively. Two grotesque artisans, one an amateur weightlifter, bait the recalcitrant Christiano. In this opening, and in the ensuing early action, the temptation inherent in "philsophical" drama, to write abstractly and without real dramatic grounding, is resisted. A grotesque and provocative situation is set, and as the first act ends, the play appears profound and capable of major development.
But soon after the beginning of the second act (the beginning of this act is very effective: a real sense of sour early morning— the industrial siren about to go, tangled bedclothes, the fraying fabric of a marriage) — the play seems to me to collapse seriously.
Briefly the line of action that follows is that Chiara, who is unhappy in her marriage to Pietro, makes advances to Christiano. He eventually responds and they embrace through the bars of the cage. The mother comes back, is horrified, and refuses to give him the keys to the cage when he asks for them. Pietro later returns and mistreats Chiara in front of Christiano, telling him that she is a whore. She pushes Pietro on to the bars of the cage and Christiano strangles him. She then says that she is free. Christiano expects her to release him into a new life, but she only says that he is mad and will escape severe punishment for the killing. As she exits shouting "murderer," Christiano collapses on the bars of his prison.
The degeneration from the interesting and arresting first act is due, I think, to two factors of symbolic development in a way closely related to the theatre of the absurd; he seems (I can only Judge from this play) a realist manque. As the play progresses it falls more and more into sweaty verismo—a long scene where a haunching Chiara swabs her thighs in front of the sister's fiance, and late scenes of sexual assault and violence— which remind one as much as anything of those groiny Italian war epics where peasant women are raped by brutal soldiery. To say the least, the action in the last two acts is unsubtle.
The other major flaw is that the psychology of the woman Chiara becomes (whether intentionally or unintentionally, I don't know) an important factor in the play, drawing attention away from the central character, Christiano, Instead of being directed towards him and his cage the watcher is forced into asking questions such as, did she actually plan the whole thing, leading him on deliberately to commit the act, step by step, or was her action less deliberate—the panicking seizure of a moment? Is she a calculating bitch, or not?
These questions—in less naive form than their brief statement here—are what the latter part of the play directs one to, and they seem to me basically irrelevant to the central situation. They force attention away from what is most important, Christiano in his cage. The shock of Chiara's action after the killing is important to the play—it dramatises the solipsism (if the paradox can be excused) of each human being—but the fact that her motives are left unclear means that instead of attending to Tim Eliot as Christiano collapsing, trapped within the bars of his cage, as the play ended, I was worrying about Chiara's ambiguous psychology. Symbolism and verismo seem anti? pathetic.
As the play appears to fall apart from the impressive first act, so the performance of the actors falls away a little. The two facts may well be connected. The crude melodrama that the play falls into at times is not conducive to good performance. However, Tim Eliot as Christiano and other members of the cast, do a lot of good things as well, especially at the beginning of the play. In case I have given a more negative impression than I mean to I would say that, despite what I feel are very serious flaws in the play, it might well be seen, if only for the first act, which is one of the better performances (or part-performances) I have seen at Downstage.