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Obituary: Giorgio Strehler

Giorgio Strehler, theatre director: born Barcola, Trieste, Italy 14 August 1921; died Lugano, Switzerland 25 December 1997.

Little it was indeed, the Piccolo Teatro in the Via Rovello in Milan. It had only 500 seats and a stage of very modest dimensions. The great theatre director Giorgio Strehler had founded it in 1947, with the help of the publisher Paolo Grassi, transforming an old fleapit of a cinema, where the fascist military police had tortured their victims during the war, into the leading theatre of Europe, and indeed of the world.

How on earth did Strehler do it? The secret is that he was a European through and through. He was one of those lucky mortals to be born into a multilingual family: his father was Austrian, his mother Italian, his grandparents Slav, Viennese and French. They conversed in four languages.

Moreover, he was a child of Trieste, and the Triestine dialect, beloved of the novelist Italo Svevo and the poet/bookseller Umberto Saba, was his fifth language. "Dialect is fundamental," he was to declare, "in the Europe of today. European Union does not mean the extermination but the exaltation of particularities, in language and in custom as well as in cheese and wine. Standardisation by the gentlemen of Strasbourg will be the death of life." He always expressed his ideas with typical Triestine dramatic volubility.

Giorgio Strehler studied dramatic art at the Accademia dei Filodrammatici in Milan and the Geneva Conservatory. He graduated in 1940, and at once started an acting and directing career in various travelling companies like the Gruppo Palcoscenico with which he produced works by Pirandello. A committed socialist, he was active in the Italian Resistance before going into exile in Switzerland.

From as early as 1942 he had begun publishing polemical writings that had made him a target for Mussolini's secret police. He wrote about "the responsibilities of the stage director" and the dramatic sterility of state-run theatre.

In Geneva, he produced his own company, La Compagnie des Masques, in Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral (1944). In his book "A Theatre for Life" (Per un teatro umano, 1947) he calls this his "first real stage production". He followed it in 1945 with Camus' Caligula.

Back in Milan in 1947 he founded the Piccolo Teatro, the first teatro stabile a gestione pubblica in Italy. From that date until 1955, Strehler gradually gave up acting and devoted himself to direction, putting on as many as ten productions a year, with a revolutionary eclectic repertoire and relying on a team of actors without "stars" devoted to performing in a fresh contemporary style.

Strehler had already had a first success in Milan in 1945, when for the Benassi company he directed Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra. At the Piccolo Teatro too he was to impose upon a new public a string of successes including Gorky's Lower Depths, which Bertold Brecht later invited him to perform in Berlin; in the first season they performed the first of the plays by Goldoni, Harlequin Servant of Two Masters, which in its six versions dominated the repertoire for 40 years, and is acknowledged to be the most representative of all Strehler's works.

In 1955, the Piccolo Teatro began tending towards more realistic and epic works, and Strehler spent longer medi- tating on the nature of his productions. They again included his favourite, Goldoni's Villeggiatura (which I saw him stage at the Comedie Francaise in the 1978-79 season) and Brecht's The Threepenny Opera. He also directed Ibsen's A Doll's House, Chekhov's The Seagull and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. During his first 20 years in Milan, Strehler directed 115 productions. One of his greatest successes was another Brecht epic, The Life of Galileo, in 1963.

Nineteen-sixty-eight was the year of European student agitation. Leaving Grassi to direct the Piccolo Teatro, Strehler mounted a theatre co-operative, the Gruppo Teatro e Azione. When criticised for giving way to student pressure, Strehler replied: "That was not the reason. I had long become aware of the contradictions that existed between the idea of a popular theatre I had defended since 1945 and a society that had gradually transformed itself beyond recognition." His public was no longer one anaesthetised by a quarter of a century of Italian censorship. This interval was to be a turning-point in the maestro's career.

On returning to the Piccolo Teatro in 1973, Strehler staged King Lear, and reprised his Goldoni. He mounted one of his most beautiful operatic spectacles, The Marriage of Figaro, at the Paris Opera, to which he was subsequently invited frequently by the French government. Almost every year he brought a production to the Festival d'automne at the Odeon in Paris: Goldini's Il Campiello (given again in 1993 at the Odeon, 20 years after its first creation) and his miraculously poised Cherry Orchard by Chekhov.

The Piccolo Teatro had now renounced its civic vocation as "a theatre for the workers at the lowest possible prices" and proclaimed itself an "art theatre". Shakespeare shared the repertory with the two new Brecht productions, The Threepenny Opera and The Good Woman of Sechuan (1981) while Strehler produced Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, Macbeth and Falstaff at the Scala. In 1983, he directed the Theatre de l'Europe at the Odeon, with Corneille's Illusion comique, and the then Minister of Culture, an inspired Jack Lang, appointed him as permanent director.

But in Milan the by now legendary maestro had to face serious charges for possession of cocaine and for alleged misappropriation of European funds, charges he strongly denied. Moreover, he was weary of waiting for his new theatre to be completed, one with 1,000 seats, and in disgust with Italy Strehler went again into exile in Switzerland.

His friend Jack Lang came to his aid by accepting in 1997 the direction of the Piccolo Teatro, and succeeded in bringing Strehler back to stage Cosi fan tutte and to work on his next great project, dear to his heart, the Memoirs of Goldoni in 1998. But it was not to be. Giorgio Strehler's Goldoni will grace, in 1998, the stage of the Paris Odeon, whose flags flew at half mast on the news of the maestro's death.