Review: Las Divinas Palabras
The first thing that strikes you is the mud. The second, the devil. These are the features that the playgoer immediately notices during Damiano Michieletto’s interpretation of Ramón María del Valle-Inclán’s theatrical piece Las Divinas Palabras. The play, which is being proposed by the Piccolo Teatro Studio Melato in Milan, from 25 March to 30 April, is a hair raising experience. Translated to ‘Divine Words’, the two-plus hour play explores thematic notions of human decadence, immorality and depravity.
The plot opens with the pious but ultimately fallible and sinful Pedro Gailo as he attempts to lay a safe and clean path over the muddied stage. However, as Gailo seeks to complete his path, he is visited by Séptimio Miau, a vagabond. Throughout the play, Miau successfully tempts Gailo to abandon his piety, all the while destroying the latter’s bridge over the filthy mud. Subsequently, a female beggar enters on stage trailing a stroller in which an infant rests. At the beggar’s death, Pedro’s wife Mari quarrels with other village members over custody of the orphan.
The child is considered a valuable financial asset whom can be used to increase revenue made through begging. With the conclusion of the second act, Mari settles the dispute with Marica, her sister-in-law, by agreeing upon joint custody of the infant. Inclán develops the theme of innocence and sin by considering one of the lowest and most despicable acts, that of the exploitation of a newborn’s innocence for financial profit.
After Mari elopes with Miau, the infant is discarded and subsequently devoured by hogs. The characters’ moral depravity is truly manifested as they once again quarrel over the lost source of income with careless disregard for the life they have taken. The child’s tragic fate serves as a pivotal event as the play reaches its climax.
The play culminates as the villagers force Pedro against a large corrugated metal sheet. As he defiantly gazes upon the crowd, he challenges them with the following ‘divine’ words: qui sine peccato est vestrum, primus in ilam lapidem mittat, the famous ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ In a true sign of hypocrisy and naivity the villagers unflinchingly lapidate Pedro with the mud in which they had, just moments ago, wallowed.
It is this moment that Inclán’s perceived necessity for divine words is strongest. Inclán uses the Latin phrase to address a lack of spirituality and morality in modern culture. The Spanish playwright speaks to humanity’s inherent need for a greater entity in order to deliver them from the mundane squalor, absurdity and horror of daily existence.
At first I felt that Inclán’s message was outdated. It seemed a clear, tired repetition of the belief that humans could only find salvation through faith in divine intervention and an organized religious body acting on behalf of a supranatural entity.
However, I think that this interpretation is too restrictive and ignores the very real necessity to constantly consider and judge the effects of human action. It is here perhaps that the greatest hypocrisy and paradox becomes evident though. The tragedy is that humans believe they are objectively and definitely capable of passing good, just moral judgement. However, they are simply too engrossed with mundane happenings to truly see the need for divine words. In which case, how are individuals meant to realize this need if they are part of this superficial and materialistic immersive world?
While Inclán’s call for divine intervention is valid, I think reason and rationality could conduce to ‘salvation’. If the villagers had simply thought about the consequences of their actions and not been governed by individualistic and egoistic impulses, perhaps the play’s outcome would have been different. But then again, this is where Inclán’s foresight surfaces. He forces ‘the rational thinker’ to understand that all humans are ultimately, to some extent, predestined to act in blind self-interest. These beautifully elaborate paradoxes and themes only increase the play’s overall mood of desperation and anxiety.
Michieletto’s theatrical interpretation of Inclán’s Divinas Palabras is thematically and theatrically avant-garde, complex and visually stunning. The Piccolo Teatro demonstrated taste and managerial expertise in supporting Michieletto and his fantastic cast of actors. The intensity of the performance perfectly accentuated the powerful themes of human depravity, immorality and salvation (or the lack thereof) present throughout the play. In the end, I found myself wondering whether death was a more merciful punishment than life in such a deranged, twisted and cruel world lacking of divine words.