Ugo Betti’s Summertime

Ugo Betti (1892 – 1953) was the son of a doctor who was the director of the hospital in Parma, and is widely considered to have been the second most important Italian playwright of the modern era after Pirandello. In 1955 three of his plays were to be seen on the London stage, though he seems to have been largely forgotten today.

He was a jurist by profession and worked as a judge throughout the Fascist era, though he was accused by the Fascists of being an opponent. After the war, he was accused by the anti-Fascists of having been a fascist but was cleared of all charges.

His outlook was largely pessimistic and he tackled such questions as that of collective, or societal, guilt, for example in his play, Landslide. First performed in 1932, it portrays an investigation into the causes of an industrial catastrophe that reveals moral failings at every level of society. It has something in common with J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, first performed thirteen years later.

A doctor is one of the principal characters in Summertime, first performed in Italy in 1937, and in England in 1955 with Dirk Bogarde as Alberto.

Alberto is a charming but worthless, frivolous and not very intelligent young man who cannot make up his mind between two women, Francesca who was his childhood playmate and Noemi who is the sister of the director of the bank in which he hopes to be given a good post.

The doctor, aged 30, is also courting Francesca after his fashion, which is a very dull one. He is so aware of his professional status that throughout he allows nothing but clichés and platitudes to escape from his mouth, and possibly to enter his mind. He treats the world as if it were one large bedside. At the climax of the play, when finally asking for Francesca’s hand (having first cleared it with her maiden aunt), he tries to entice her by offering her his mackintosh because it is damp outside. That is the nearest he can come to a romantic flight of imagination.

He cannot break his habit of pompous and platitudinous solemnity even when, at the last minute, Francesca chooses Alberto rather than him. When she points to Alberto, who coughs nervously, she asks the doctor whether the cough could be anything serious. His is the final speech before the curtain comes down:

As a general rule, such coughs are of but little moment. Nonetheless and unfortunately, one can occasionally begin by having a slight cough… and that slight cough can quickly lead to the grave.

He courteously lifts his hat to Francesca and then concludes:

And should that happen in this case, Miss Francesca, if you would like me to… then I will, all patiently, wait.

I am reminded of the uncle of a friend of mine whose conversation was so dull (for example, on seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time he would immediately wonder out loud how it was kept clean) that at home his wife turned up the volume of the wireless to drown out the sound of what he was saying.

Are doctors, because of their need to be so frequently on their best behaviour, more prone than others to utter oracular banalities? The doctor comments on the weather as if it were his patient with a doubtful diagnosis of some severity:

The wind has changed. We can no longer exclude the possibility of a storm, I fear.

Or is the doctor only Ugo Betti’s father?

Copyright 2013 Anthony Daniels

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