Mussolini’s Cesare

Propaganda, Pedagogy and the Dramatization of History

In: Fascism
Patricia Gaborik Accademia Nazionale d’Arte Drammatica ‘Silvio d’Amico’ Rome Italy

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This article discusses the collaboration between Benito Mussolini and Giovacchino Forzano in the writing of three historical dramas, focusing on the third text of their collaboration, Cesare, which dates to 1939. Placing this partnership within the context of Fascism’s broader theatrical programming, the essay discusses the play as a model of Fascist theater, for its imparting of Fascist ideological tenets, propagandistic messages, and pedagogical aims. It focuses in particular on the ways in which the play uses the analogy between ancient Rome and Fascist Italy, and between Julius Caesar and Mussolini, embodying fascism’s poetics of history, contributing to the anthropological revolution, and overall demonstrating the ‘new fascist man’ through the character of Caesar/Mussolini.

In a 1923 speech to Italy’s artistic associations, Prime Minister and head of the Partito Nazionale Fascista (PNF) Benito Mussolini declared that the nation’s

artistic institutions, from the theater to the museum, from the gallery to the academies, should be considered schools, that is to say, spaces designed not just for culture and for the expression of curiosity, but prepared to educate taste and sensibility, to nourish the imagination, to keep wonder alive, to refine all of the highest and most powerful qualities of the soul.1

Throughout the twenty years that followed, he, the hierarchs in charge of cultural matters, and scores of willing collaborators would seek to reform the theater accordingly.

Their mission, in other words, was a pedagogic one. Arts institutions were to be schools in Mussolini’s State because culture was conceived as, ‘Means, not end. Arms, not adornment’,2 he wrote to his friend Emilio Bodrero. They were instruments in a revolution that was to be not only political but, as Emilio Gentile has termed it, anthropological.3 It goes without saying that the Fascist regime sought to exploit the stage’s propagandistic potential, but this was not necessarily a primary concern. In the Fascist state, pedagogy had a double valence that referred both to the sort of ideological steering that propaganda could do but, no less importantly, to cultural formation. A general ‘cultivation’ of the Italian populace was inextricably bound to the larger goal of fascistizing the nation—and this was the case for all social strata, although to a certain extent it meant something different for each.4 Thus, when Fascists spoke of the theater’s educational scope, they could refer to ideological tenets on one hand, and a more general cultural refinement on the other, without a real need to specify which one they meant.5

The regime’s theatrical reform began with various ad-hoc measures—like in 1923–1925, the cooptation of what would then be called the Istituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico [INDA; National Institute of Ancient Drama] in Siracusa, or subventions to Luigi Pirandello’s experimental playhouse—and then expanded into a comprehensive system of support and regulation, unprecedented in a nation whose previous liberal government had not considered arts’ sponsorship within its purview. The regime’s theatrical project entailed a vast array of initiatives, for both public performance and theater education. These included performances from a vast range of time periods, nationalities, genres, styles and in numerous venues. Alongside government-sponsored enterprises, the commercial stage was lively as ever but increasingly controlled, in terms of company makeup and repertoire and through censorship (centralized only in 1931), but also through monetary support, often merit-based.6

It is against this backdrop that a curious phenomenon emerged: Benito Mussolini’s collaboration with librettist and playwright Giovacchino Forzano on the writing of three historical dramas: Campo di Maggio (1930), about Napoleon Bonaparte’s Hundred Days; Villafranca (1931), which takes its audience through the trials of Count Camillo Benso di Cavour in the quest for Italian unity; and Cesare (1939), an epic (and episodic) highlighting of key events in the Roman dictator’s rise and fall. It is the third of these plays that interests us here, but how it fits into the triptych is both ideologically and dramatically significant. All three works stage the dashing of their protagonists’ loftiest ambitions; all three of the great leaders’ defeats are brought about by the betrayal of lesser, uncomprehending men; all three heroes—Napoleon, Cavour, and Caesar—are clear proxies for Mussolini himself. All three pieces, as noted, are historical plays, and in them history is employed analogically to speak of the present.

As I hope to demonstrate,7 Cesare—which is allegedly more overtly propagandistic than the other two plays—almost seamlessly blended dramatic art, propaganda, and pedagogy, and in this tells us something about one potential ideal for what fascist drama could be—although in some contemporary estimations as well as my own it underachieved from an artistic point of view.8 The play is a window onto manifestations of the Fascist ideology of romanità, although this is perhaps not where an analysis of it is most informative. However, with its wielding of that cult as essential backdrop, one does gain further insight into Fascism’s poetics of history, and how Mussolini perceived the propagandistic-pedagogic appeal and utility of both drama and history, especially when they were conjoined. As shall be seen, Julius Caesar as represented in the play serves as Mussolini’s dramatic ideal, and through this portrait it is possible to ascertain what the latter found compelling about the former as historical figure and as a behavioral model for the audiences who would see the play.

Mussolini’s Caesar

When Mussolini summoned Forzano in the summer of 1929 to talk about writing Campo di Maggio, he had selected a professional with a distinct profile: a respected name in the opera world—Forzano had been Toscanini’s director of staging at La Scala and wrote the libretto for Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi—who had now also made his mark in the prose theater and was strongly disliked for it.9 Government officials were irked that ‘when it comes to spending the State’s money, [Forzano] has shown himself to be far from the most elementary sense of measure and correctness’,10 and the intellectual set was annoyed by his climb up the ladder, for he had already written several successful plays in various genres and, recommended by D’Annunzio to Mussolini, had been given charge both of the National Institute for the Representation of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Plays, and the Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro’s [OND; the Fascist afterwork club] massive Carri di Tespi [Thespian Trucks] mobile theater program.

Few denied that Forzano was a competent dramatist: his plots were tightly structured and rarely banal; his characters were not especially profound but they were great vehicles for star actors; and the language, though often too rhetorical, revealed his talent for word play. Still, for the more intellectual theater folk, his work was too ‘easy’, too popular. Future Nobel Laureate Luigi Pirandello despised him. Minister of Education Giuseppe Bottai declared that audiences’ penchant for him was proof that a reform of public taste was in order. And chief theater critic of the period, Silvio d’Amico, would sum up the motives for their collective distaste when he commented that the author ‘communicates easily and in simple terms with [the audience] because he sees things as they do’; he pleased them so well ‘not so much out of crafty purpose as for natural, irresistible inclination’.11

Nevertheless, and despite his own appreciation of a more intellectually challenging fare, Mussolini shared with Forzano a sensibility shaped by opera and popular theater, and in the late nineteenth-century conventions of his upbringing patriotic plays were common. In his imagining historical dramas about great figures of the Italian past, one also sees the traces of his admiration for Weimar Classicism and in particular Friedrich Schiller, for whom nation-building impulses were linked to other spiritually pedagogic ones. Schiller had indeed theorized the stage as ‘the handmaid of religion and philosophy’ and ‘a great influence on the national temper’.12 If critics like Adriano Tilgher could wickedly describe how a Forzano piece gave an actor ‘quite the occasion to bend himself over, throw his head back, to stretch his arms wide and hold his palms open, to act in falsetto with abandon and with constant emission of pitiable ahs, ohs, and ehs’,13 the dictator understood the appeal that the statesmen’s stories could have when effectively told. Thus, he wrote to Forzano: ‘I thought them up, but only you can write them, because only you have the great intelligence that the theater requires: that which makes the characters move, makes them speak, makes things happen’.14

Whereas hierarchs like Bottai thought the Forzano model was passé, as far as commercial theater was concerned, the Duce evidently saw it as an improvement upon the ‘infamous triangle’ of the French bourgeois drama, as he would phrase it in an oft-cited 1933 speech, that superficial (better) and mildly salacious (worse) fare that usually brought audiences out for an evening. There were different kinds of stories out there that deserved to be told, he urged; these could ‘stir the collective passions’ if only playwrights would write them, overcoming the dramaturgical impasse that among other problems made so many professionals at the time speak of the stage’s definitive crisis.15 Mussolini saw in historical subject matter the potential to do that stirring.

The dramatization of history was in fact something that the Duce had thought about since he was a schoolboy, when he had even written about teaching history. Back then he urged his instructors to use history as a ‘didactic talisman’ that would

arouse and ennoble feeling. The teacher should not strictly follow the text; rather, his lessons should appear spontaneous, his tone of voice should be beautiful and conquering, his movement graceful, his gesture appropriate. He must know how to recreate the historical scene in front of the pupils’ eyes, and if some passages get away from him that the students don’t understand, the damage is minimal, as long as he manages to move, to admire, to fascinate.16

Campo di Maggio, Villafranca, and Cesare emerged decades later as experiments in this sort of pedagogical dramatization—not to be conducted in the classroom but, instead, on the stage.

Although Julius Caesar was an easily co-opted figure in a variety of contexts, even outside of Italy, he had especially captured the imaginations of revolutionary Italian politicians of the twentieth century, whether on the left or the right.17 When the socialist Mussolini espoused the interventionist cause and converted to nationalism, he gradually adopted the cult of ancient Rome as well. From a nationalist point of view, parallels between Republican Rome and a contemporary Italy ready for the capture of power by the people became a rhetorically efficacious way of casting the distant past in an epoch of broader political enfranchisement, and over time the legacy of ancient Rome gained importance. The palingenetic basis of Fascism itself resided in that very history, and constant references to it, such as the establishment of a veritable cult of romanità, served not just to bolster a sense of national identity and pride but also to justify the expansionist aims of the present. Within this context, Caesar Augustus (whose 2000th birthday was celebrated in 1937) loomed large in the Fascist imaginary, but Julius Caesar’s presence had not dissipated, and use of him as a parallel reference to the Duce was particularly insistent and effective.18

When it comes to the drama, however, it is also significant that it was Julius, not his nephew-son, who had emerged as the great literary and theatrical figure, thanks largely but not only to Shakespeare’s 1599 tragedy. Viewing the Forzano-Mussolini Cesare in light of its predecessors clarifies some of the work that the play seeks to do, painting its own unique portrait of who Caesar was, in turn who Mussolini was and, finally, who the spectators were supposed to be.

Recourse to Shakespeare—sort of—in the crafting of Caesar’s modern profile slightly predated Fascism. A version of the Bard’s play, carefully abridged and edited to sideline references to the dictator’s imperfections, was mandatory reading in Italian middle schools already from 1921 and through 1934. There were several new translations of the play in the 1920s and about forty new editions published throughout the ventennio. Shakespeare’s views, described by Fascists as ‘wisely anti-democratic and absolutist,’ were a frequent subject of scholarly inquiry and popular dissemination.19 Still, in a Fascist context, Shakespeare’s work was tricky, with Brutus’ potent speech and the on-stage assassination, and thus it is perhaps not surprising that only one production of it was done under Mussolini’s watch—a grand 1935 show mounted in the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum, organized by the Dopolavoro.

Until the Forzano text came along, the chief native alternative to Shakespeare was Enrico Corradini’s 1902 Giulio Cesare. Mussolini considered the nationalist politician a friend and great influence, and he readily allocated funds for a lavish production of the tragedy’s revised 1926 version in the Greek theater at Taormina in 1928. In that new edition, Corradini put forth the notion of Caesar as a ‘democratic dictator’, centering a forty-eight page opening act on the soldiers’ indecision over whether to follow Caesar across the Rubicon, a conflict that is positively resolved upon his convincing them that Pompey and the Senate are ‘the enemies of the people and of the freedom I’ve been defending for twenty years’.20 The Mussolini-Forzano drama is reminiscent of Corradini’s in its focus on the warrior’s triumphs instead of on his murder and its aftermath—something that distanced them both from Shakespeare and revealed their authors’ predilection for heroic Nietzschean supermen.21

In 1936, Shakespeare’s play was excised from school textbooks, and it may not be coincidence that it was at this time that Mussolini gave a definitive go-ahead to Forzano for the Cesare they had discussed years earlier but that had stalled for various reasons.22 The librettist acknowledged the importance, and challenge, of differentiating the new play from Shakespeare’s,23 but Mussolini’s outline for it helped: it employed a much earlier point of attack, beginning during Caesar’s competition with Pompey for solo power, taking him to Egypt, and concluding with his assassination. The stabbing happens offstage, in Greek—and very un-Shakespearian—tragic fashion. The play is structured episodically (with geographical movements reminiscent of Antony and Cleopatra), and its third act has the kind of crowd scenes that Forzano was known for skillfully choreographing. This organization of dramatic content is efficacious in presenting Caesar as the hero to be rooted for, and the action builds nicely to stoke excitement for his victories, so that, when he is killed, the news is shocking even if wholly unsurprising. That said, it must be acknowledged that the text has undeniable weaknesses. The personae are caricatures—little more than background noise from which the magnificent Caesar is to ring out. One well-disposed critic, Cesare Vico Lodovici, argued that the play became a populist choral piece precisely because the others, ‘more than autonomous characters’, were ‘projections of Caesar’s thoughts, either in agreement with or contrast to him’.24 Lodovici’s observation underscores the relative unimportance of dramatic or political-historical complexity, which is sacrificed to a focus on Caesar’s perspective and the tragedy of his experience. This approach is the exact opposite from that of Shakespeare’s, of course: Forzano’s play is really about Caesar, whereas, in the end, the Bard’s is not. One suspects, therefore, that the goal—Mussolini’s, if not Forzano’s—was not just to step out from under Shakespeare’s shadow but to provide Fascist Italy with a new model for telling the Roman dictator’s story.

In their approach, indeed, several Fascist exigencies converge. On the most basic level, the play makes for compelling drama because what is at stake is a great man’s quest (and indeed his very life), rather than abstract principles about power or forms of government. At that same time, those principles—supremacy of State, devotion to the leader, the greatness of Caesar and Rome—are woven into the fabric of the text, and thus the play is ideologically aligned with Fascism on several points without being dogmatic about them.

Similar pedagogic-propagandistic objectives are met by the drama’s stark melodramatic features, in which it is clear who the audience is supposed to root for and, more importantly, emulate. Indeed, behavioral modeling is an issue that Mussolini thought about and that has been identified in other cultural production. When it came to his own public appearances, for instance, the Duce noted the importance of standing still and not using too many gestures, for the stereotyped Italian who gesticulated too much risked confirming ideas that they were not serious, hard-working people.25 He was just as detailed in his considerations on actual theater, once suggesting to playwright Francesco Pastonchi that the camicie nere in his propaganda play Simma ought to speak more tersely, less poetically.26 Such modeling, of course, also addressed profounder concerns. The idea that the stage could (and should) serve as moral compass was a time-honored one, at least since Molière had argued that comedy was supposed to correct human vices. But the instructive impetus became especially prominent in the Fascist program, as was reflected in the methods of the censorship office, where chief official Leopoldo Zurlo kept an eye out for unsavory Italian characters who might set bad examples.27

Let us view just who the Mussolini-Forzano Caesar is, then. First, he is not just a skilled general, but a self-sacrificing and vulnerable leader of courage and intelligence, one who possesses both power and authority—without a doubt, Mussolini’s aspiration. While there are plenty of opportunities to laud Caesar, given the challenges he faces and his ultimate demise, alongside his virile heroism we see his humility and vulnerability and come to better understand the ‘tragic greatness of his enterprises’, as Mussolini once referred to the exploits of the Nietzschean hero.28 Caesar is, indeed, recognizable in a line of these superman-ish men that appealed to the Duce in the works of contemporary dramatists like Bernard Shaw and D’Annunzio, where heroes fall from the heights of hope and struggle to the furthest depths of solitude in defeat. It is to their lot to struggle, even when the odds are against them; and because they are surrounded by mediocre, uncomprehending peers, they will often fail, inevitably living a life of solitude—an experience Mussolini himself admitted to suffer from.29

In conversation with biographer Emil Ludwig, Mussolini discussed the need to ‘always stake one’s all’.30 Ludwig heard in these ruminations echoes of Nietzsche and Goethe, but they also recall Machiavelli and Schiller, who had professed that ‘the stage also teaches men to bear the strokes of fortune. Chance and design have equal sway over life. We must bow to the former, but we control the latter’.31 Who exemplifies such an ethos better than Caesar, who dismisses the warnings that would save him in an audacious adhering to the ‘necessary to win, more necessary to fight’ Fascist ethos? Caesar has this in common with the other two stars of the Forzano plays: the parts of their stories to hit the boards are those in which the leaders push forward in pursuit of their goals, but when their superior—History-Destiny—requires it of them, they submit.32 Rejecting Calpurnia’s pleadings, Caesar goes to his death because this is what History required of him; part of his greatness lies in his acceptance of this pact. And here is the curious blending of personal courage and heroism with the tenet of all-for-the-State that the Fascist regime needed to inculcate in the next generation.

Above all, Mussolini admired Caesar’s mind. In the text he wrote to appear in the closing frames of a potential film (Forzano was initially undecided whether to craft a play or movie, and Mussolini left it up to him), he described the Roman general as ‘genius of war and politics’ and his assassins the vilest of all who Dante rightly sent to eternal hellfire.33 This point of view comes through clearly in the play’s finale, which shows the mob ready to get their revenge on the conspirators. But Mussolini also spoke of his hero with biographer Emil Ludwig, confessing that he found his experience inspiring and instructive. ‘I love Caesar’, he said: ‘He was unique in that he combined the will of the warrior with the genius of the sage. At heart he was a philosopher who saw everything sub specie eternitatis [from the viewpoint of eternity]. It is true that he had a passion for fame, but his ambition did not cut him off from humankind’.34

It is precisely this blend of warrior will, genius, and humanity that defines this Caesar. The audience watches him strategize his way through some of the greatest challenges of his career and deliver nuggets of Caesarian wisdom as he does so. The Duce’s notes for Forzano suggested what to highlight: flashing back to his days as first Consul, the piece was to mark Caesar as the genius savior of Rome and demonstrate that his humanity and appreciation for the adversary were truly noble.35 For Mussolini, Caesar was ‘the greatest man that ever lived. They wanted to bring him the head of his enemy Pompey, but Caesar gave Pompey an imposing funeral’.36 This episode is presented in the play: learning that Pompey has been assassinated after his defeat at Pharsalus, Caesar cries. Under his breath, he murmurs words of sadness for Pompey’s wife and softly prays. He orders all memories of Pharsalus dispersed—he will never count the battle amongst his victories—and orders a grand ceremony in celebration of his fallen rival, the ‘great captain of Rome’.37

Already in Villafranca, Cavour is depicted—contrary to the historical record—as a cultural heavyweight; here, too, the Roman general is presented as a sort of philosopher-king. The recurrence of such an image perfectly matches one of Fascism’s slogans, a guiding principle for the youths growing up under the regime’s tutelage: ‘Libro e moschetto, fascista perfetto’ [Book and rifle make the perfect Fascist]. Despite fascism’s rhetorical privileging of action over reflection, efforts to educate across disciplines were serious, and the slogan perfectly summarized the logic: in the new Fascist man, brains and brawn would go together. Throughout the play, therefore, Caesar discusses the arts: music (he knows how good instruments are made), architecture (he is planning to have an amphitheater built), and especially theater. He notes that his life in Alexandria was like Antigone’s interspersed with grotesque scenes from Aristophanes, and then refers to the play he has written, an Oedipus Rex. In a Hamlet redux, some players arrive, and Caesar plans the evening with them. The Actor says he is following Caesar’s wishes, and they will play Afranius instead of Plautus or Terence. They discuss playing the second act of Thais (which in real life existed but is not extant), but Caesar prefers the Egyptian part, when Thais seduces Ptolemy, ancestor of Cleopatra and her brother (of the same name). But then the Actor asks instead if they might perform Caesar’s Oedipus, which they have successfully presented before, and notes that his daughter likewise wins acclaim when she recites verses from his Odes to Hercules.38 Caesar, the man of many talents—one might say, the ancient Renaissance man.

Fascist Drama and Historical Poetics

Forzano explicitly asked Mussolini’s permission to use the Caesar-playwright scene just described.39 In an Italy where the Duce’s masterful writing was praised—and in a playhouse where everyone knew that the dictator was also dramatist—this metatheatrical analogy of Caesar to Mussolini was crystal clear, fitting, moreover, into a tradition during the ventennio. The entire collaboration with Forzano, indeed, stands as testament to how the dictator’s privileging of history as an educational tool would evolve over the years and increasingly zero in on the ways in which the Italian past—dramatic, moving, and inspiring—could be employed to speak through analogy of the nation’s present and future, of its fate and that of its leader.

One way to bolster the cult of romanità was just that—to suggest there was a transhistorical correspondence between the two leaders. Mussolini capitalized on the precedent of Rome, and several of his actions can be seen as mimicry of his forebear: the symbolism of the March on Rome itself ‘was obvious. Mussolini, a new Caesar, crossed his Rubicon and marched on the capital with the intent of restoring its original glory’.40 Mussolini in fact used the title Il Duce (as well as Dux, its Latin version) and fasces, and created a new calendar.41 These and similar parallels come back in the play, sometimes so explicitly and exactly as to make them a bit laughable: in the Act I prelude to the crossing of the Rubicon, the March on Rome echoes loudly, then Caesar’s calendar changes are discussed, as are his plans to drain the Pontine Marshes—an enormous public works project carried out by Mussolini in the mid-thirties.42 In press on the play, references to its contemporary relevance consistently emerged, and while Mussolini’s Minister of Popular Culture son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano found it embarrassing, the play’s enormous success seems to suggest that the excitement about living a supposedly grand historic moment with the greatest of leaders was so high that audiences responded indulgently.43

More generally speaking, though, the Duce referred often to figures like Napoleon and Caesar in his writings and speeches; the plays, in other words, lived amongst other examples of a constant and recurrent use of history that served to orient perception of Fascism itself.44 In this context the pieces become ideally pedagogical dramatizations and an intriguing extension of the regime’s ambition to create its own poetics of history.45 Rewriting the Roman past as a projection of the future, precisely through the analogy of the ancient dictator to the contemporary one, Cesare exists as one instance of what Roger Griffin identifies as the fascists’ search to ‘enact ancient values in the modern world and forge a direct and unmediated link between the past, present, and future’.46 Indeed, the play’s clumsily hagiographic use of Caesar as a Mussolini avatar lands it squarely amid fascism’s ‘anchoring a new future in the mythic remembrance of things past’,47 and I would suggest that one of the things that makes it mythic is the teleological interpretation that sees Caesar’s story conclude in Mussolini’s.

It has been observed that all three pieces of the Forzano trilogy speak of the past and present at the same time, something wholly consistent with the viewpoint of the Duce, who claimed that Napoleon, Cavour, and Caesar were omni- and eternally present in the national consciousness. Italians felt a ‘simultaneity of life’ more than others did, he thought: ‘Garibaldi is still alive and Julius Caesar just died yesterday’, he once told Bottai, in keeping with the idealist strain of historical philosophy which held that ‘history belongs to the present’.48 With this is mind, it is easy to recognize the trilogy as an experiment in the ways performances could ‘commemorate as examples for future generations the names of the captains who enlarged its territory and of the men of genius who won it glory’, to cite the ambitions stated by Mussolini and Gentile in their 1932 Encyclopedia definition of Fascism.49 The connections drawn between past leaders and the present suggest that the first person to honor the legacy of the former was Mussolini himself, who emulates them.

Such an idea is expressed in the aforementioned depiction of Caesar as philosopher-king. His deployment of cultural weapons becomes a theme in the play, potentially a suggestion that Mussolini had learned from Caesar to express his wisdom—and enable others to know his mind—through his writings. Ever since Campo di Maggio had premiered, the gossips hashed out this point: Mussolini had chosen Forzano to communicate his ideas (why him?, many balked), and even abroad the plays were interpreted in this light, that is to say, as revelations of the dictator’s thought and even as a sort of self-help manual for less-expert leaders.50 This potential reading of the dictator’s communication method is explicitly put forth in the play itself, in the scene of Caesar’s first encounter with young Cleopatra, who (as in the historical recounting) is smuggled into his palace rolled up in a carpet. True to Plutarch, Caesar is charmed by her; indeed, their easy rapport is more reminiscent of Bernard Shaw’s depiction of the couple in his 1898 Caesar and Cleopatra than of Shakespeare’s. She explains that she knew she would be safe ‘because I remember a little ode you wrote’, which mourned the passing of a young child. ‘If the victor of the world has in his heart this kind of dew, he will not have killed or given over to his soldiers the young queen who has yet to rule’.51

The play also intimates, however, that the similarities extend beyond the character of the two men, having also to do with their accomplishments and legacy, or potential legacy; this is, of course, where the play unmasks its propagandistic aims. Perhaps the most blatant connection is the most topical one. In Act Three, scene 1, a group of painters is preparing a huge map of the world—all of it to be conquered by Caesar. One of his men ticks off the victor’s ‘military history’, and after declaring ‘Venni, vidi, e vinsi’ boasts, ‘Now in Rome they’ve figured out that he always always wins and we wait to hear in what part of the world they haven’t learned yet, to go and win there, too’. As he declaims, the painters raise the map, which covers the entire upstage drop, revealing the once and future Empire and, conspicuously, ‘Mare nostrum’—a Roman and a Fascist phrase, representing the latter’s notion that the Mediterranean was ‘our sea’, one supposed justification for the colonial exploits of the 1930s.52 All the characters on stage shout out in admiration.

In terms of the poetics of history that draw a continuum between past and present, the play does something interesting: it suggests that Caesar’s conquests will live beyond his death and finally culminate in a posthumous victory—won by Mussolini. In this, the scene and the play speak not just of the past and present, but also of the future (the Duce’s future Empire). Because this is a history play, the past’s future is provided not by some invisible hand but by a real past, and everybody knows how things work out even before the finale is reached, or even when the plays do not cover the end of the true story. Like the audiences of the ancient tragedies Mussolini read with passion in his youth, Italians in the 1930s already knew how the story would come to a close; the trick to keeping them engaged lay not in the overall arc of the story, but in the particularities of action and structure, character, ideas, language, and mise en scene. The choice made for Cesare was to focus on the eponymous character. But the historical analogy brings his story into the present and thus offers new ways of thinking about it, and about Caesar’s potential legacy.53

There are, in other words, crucial lessons to be learned from history. The ‘Mare nostrum’ scene is perhaps the play’s propagandistic climax, setting up the final message to be delivered. Cesare suggests that the leader’s destiny is that of the nation, too: ‘Mare nostrum’ can be won if Caesar is allowed to go. Concluding not with a resolution like Shakespeare’s, which dubs Brutus ‘the noblest Roman of them all’ for having assassinated Caesar with the good of Rome in mind and Octavius ordering proper burial rites for him, the Forzano-Mussolini text concludes instead with the appearance of an infuriated crowd in Ostia, incredulous when the news comes that Romans have killed Caesar. The mob sets out to retake the city and get revenge on the cowardly conspirators, protected by gladiators and holed up in the Campidoglio in a Rome that now ‘seems extinguished’.54 It is another March on Rome, a sort of punitive expedition by the people who will punish the assassins for violating, in Fascist language, the core principle of ‘Everything in the State, nothing against the State, nothing outside the State’. Wrapped up within a moving story that encourages sympathy for the misunderstood demigod, a message of faithful obedience to him is explicit. This is not, however, imparted as dogma. Instead, it is offered as a warning against making the very tragic mistake of not recognizing the leader’s genius and righteousness; as Mussolini had expressed it in his interviews with Emil Ludwig, Caesar’s assassination was ‘a misfortune for mankind’.55 It may at first seem paradoxical to use Caesar, an assassinated tyrant, to speak of Mussolini; but the dissonance vanishes if one reads the play as an admonition to not let history repeat itself, for Caesar fell, but the Duce could still succeed.


The Mussolini-Forzano trilogy occupied a peculiar yet illustrative position in Fascism’s theatrical landscape. None of the three plays could be classified as what Mussolini (disapprovingly) called ‘Fascist chronicles’ works that addressed life in the ventennio directly.56 And yet, their propagandistic function was identifiable—indeed, clearly identified—even if working indirectly through analogy. Cesare goes much further in this direction than either Campo di Maggio or Villafranca did, and this greater explicitness (as well as its unmeasured tone) may be mostly in the timing; although little information about the Duce’s response to the play exists, we do know that a general intensification of the ‘cultural offensive’ accompanied the expansionist and military drive of the late thirties and the war years, and by this time Mussolini had noted with displeasure that the theater still seemed to harbor some anti-Fascism, unlike in Germany, where Hitler had expected orthodoxy from the very start.57 By the early 1940s, the Ministry of Popular Culture would begin exploring avenues for the production of more propaganda theater, and Cesare seems to foreshadow that development. The play was not what Forzano claimed it to be—‘better than Shakespeare’58—but its popular success (judging by its countless sold-out performances, if nothing else) indicates that the Duce was not all wrong in thinking that ancient Rome and fascist Italy, Caesar and Mussolini, were the right spoons with which to stir the collective passions of the ventennio.


From a 1923 speech to the Artistic Associations. Eduardo and Duilio Susmel, eds., Opera Omnia di Benito Mussolini, vol. 20 (Florence: La Fenice, 1956), 276.


Cit. in Renzo De Felice, Mussolini il duce, vol. 1: Gli anni del consenso, 1929–1939 (Turin: Einaudi, 1974), 29.


See Emilio Gentile, Fascismo: Storia e interpretazioni (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 2002), especially Chapter 10.


As Victoria de Grazia pointed out in her seminal study of the Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro, efforts to bring cultural goods like theater and cinema ‘to a new wider audience became, from the late twenties on, a central focus of fascist policy’ to close social and economic divides that still characterized Italian life in the period, expanding access to culture and bettering the quality of life for the lower classes and inhabitants of small towns and the countryside. Victoria de Grazia, The Culture of Consent: Mass Organisation of Leisure in Fascist Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 159.


There was little consensus about overtly propagandistic theater. Mussolini, as is well known, avoided proscribing style and generally discouraged propaganda production. On one hand, he doubted its efficacy, on the other, he argued (and hoped) that proper tutelage of artistic souls would enable them to spontaneously create works in line with the ‘spirit’ of the times. The logic was the same one that his admired intellectual, Massimo Bontempelli, expressed: ‘If this epoch is truly fascist to the core, all that is of lasting value and is accomplished during its course will bear the visible imprint of fascism’ all the same. Massimo Bontempelli, ‘Arte fascista,’ Critica fascista, November 15, 1926, 416.


For general history and statistics, see: Emanuela Scarpellini, Organizzazione teatrale e politica del teatro nell’Italia fascista (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1989) and Gianfranco Pedullà, Il teatro italiano nel tempo del fascismo (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1994). For an overview and analysis of the mass theater initiatives, see also Patricia Gaborik, ‘Lo spettacolo del fascismo,’ in Atlante della letteratura italiana, vol. 3, eds. Sergio Luzzatto and Gabriele Pedullà (Turin: Einaudi, 2012), 589–613.


Much of the argument here—not just about Cesare but about the grander workings of the theater under Mussolini—is adapted from my monograph Mussolini’s Theatre: Fascist Experiments in Art and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).


Cesare has many fine elements, but its rhetoric in praising Caesar—and through him Mussolini—is so overblown that it detracts from the rest. This judgement aside, however, it is the piece’s functioning rather than its quality per se that offers useful analysis, as this enables us to read it as an exemplar of an ideal type, regardless of any flaws the script may have.


One can view this partnership as a sort of commissioning of Forzano by the Head of Government. By his own admission, Mussolini wrote very little of the play texts, though he did provide outlines, write some exchanges, and in the case of Cesare a sort of scenario for a film or play. While the Duce allowed his name to appear on the plays when they toured abroad, at home they were billed as Forzano’s alone, although it was rather common knowledge that they were working together, partly because the writer bragged about it to anyone who would listen. The collaborators met several times over the years, and there are some indications that their discussion of the works were rather detailed. In addition to the chapter in Gaborik, Mussolini’s Theatre, on Forzano’s theatrical opus see C.E.J. Griffiths, The Theatrical Works of Giovacchino Forzano: Drama for Mussolini’s Italy (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2000) and, more specifically focused on career context, Marco Sterpos, Scrivere teatro nel regime: Giovacchino Forzano e la collaborazione con Mussolini (Modena: Mucchi, 2015). Sandro Antonini dedicates a chapter to the complications—and surveillance—of the dramatist’s dealings with the regime in his Un palco per l’Ovra: Cultura, spettacolo e polizia politica fascista (Genova: De Ferrari: 2014).


Archivio Centrale dello Stato, Segreteria Particolare del Duce, Carteggio riservato 85, October 3, 1933.


Silvio d’Amico, review dated March 18, 1932, in Cronache, 1914–1955, ed. Alessandro d’Amico, et al., vol. 3, part 3 (Palermo: Novecento, 2000), 615. See also Luigi Pirandello, Lettere a Marta Abba, ed. Benito Ortolani (Milan: Mondadori, 1995), entry February 6, 1932.


Friedrich Schiller, ‘The Stage as a Moral Institution (1784),’ in Theatre/Theory/Theatre: The Major Critical Texts from Aristotle and Zeami to Soyinka and Havel, ed. Daniel C. Gerould (New York: Applause, 2000), 253–254.


Adriano Tilgher, Il problema centrale: Cronache teatrali 1914–1926 (Genova: Edizione del Teatro Stabile, 1973), 142.


Giovacchino Forzano, Come li ho conosciuti (Turin: Edizioni Radio Italiano, 1957), 164. Marco Sterpos rightly argues that Forzano was in effect the most logical choice for a commission of the kind. See Scrivere teatro nel regime: Giovacchino Forzano e la collaborazione con Mussolini (Modena: Mucchi, 2015), 206.


In a speech to the SIAE [Italian Society of Authors and Editors], April 28, 1933. Eduardo and Duilio Susmel, eds., Opera Omnia di Benito Mussolini, vol. 26 (Florence: La Fenice, 1958), 50. For Mussolini’s opinions on French drama, see Gaborik, Mussolini’s Theatre, 158–167; Zurlo, Memorie Inutili, 56–59.


Eduardo and Duilio Susmel, eds., Opera Omnia di Benito Mussolini, vol. 1 (Florence: La Fenice, 1951), 226.


Guido Avezzù, ‘Waiting for Caesar,’ in Shakespeare and Crisis: One Hundred Years of Italian Narratives, ed. Silvia Bigliazzi (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2020), 51–94.


Nancy Isenberg, ‘ “Caesar’s word against the world”: Cesarism and the Discourses of Empire,’ in Shakespeare and the Second World War, eds. Irena R. Makaryk and Marissa Mchugh (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2012), 83–105.


Michele De Benedictis, ‘Crossing the Rubicon in Fascist Italy: Mussolini and Theatrical Cesarism from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”,’ in Shakespeare and Tyranny: Regimes of Reading in Europe and Beyond, ed. Keith Gregor (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2014), 105–126.


Enrico Corradini, Giulio Cesare: Dramma in cinque atti (Milan: Mondadori, 1926), 51.


Riccardo Gatteschi, Un uomo contro: Enrico Corradini, letterato e politico (Florence: Lcd, 2003); Paola S. Salvatori, Mussolini e la storia: Dal socialismo al fascismo (1900–1922) (Rome: Viella, 2013), 50–57. Mussolini spoke much of Corradini with Yvon De Begnac, see Taccuini Mussoliniani, ed. Francesco Perfetti (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1990, especially 243–244); see also Roberto Vivarelli, Storia delle origini: L’Italia dalla grande guerra alla marcia su Roma, vol. I (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1991), chapter 5.


For a full discussion of the collaboration on Cesare, see Paola S. Salvatori, ‘Il Duce, Giovacchino Forzano e il teatro storico,’ in Il fascismo e la storia, ed. Paola S. Salvatori (Pisa: Edizioni della Normale, 2021), 235–258.


‘Il Cesare di G. Forzano al Teatro Argentina,’ Il Dramma 305, May 1, 1939, 29.


Cesare Vico Lodovici, ‘I drammi corali della storia “Cesare” di Forzano,’ Scenario 8, no. 5 (1939): 200.


Clara Petacci, Mussolini segreto: Diari 1932–1938, ed. Mauro Suttora (Milan: Rizzoli, 2010), 190.


Mussolini wrote a lengthy letter to Pastonchi about the piece, cited in its entirety in Renzo De Felice, Mussolini il Duce, 28–29.


See the discussion in Chapter 4 of Gaborik, Mussolini’s Theatre; more generally, on the pedagogic function of censorship, see Patrizia Ferrara, introduction to Censura teatrale e fascismo (1931–1944): La storia, l’archivio, l’inventario (Rome: Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali, 2004). Zurlo’s Memorie inutili also convey quite strongly the extent to which the censor himself viewed his task as one of ‘elevation’ of taste and even dramaturgical quality.


Benito Mussolini, ‘La filosofia della forza,’ in Opera Omnia di Benito Mussolini, vol. 1, 174–181.


See, for example, his letter to D’Annunzio, in Carteggio D’Annunzio Mussolini 1919/1938, eds. Renzo De Felice and Emilio Mariano (Milan: Mondadori, 1971); Yvon De Begnac, Taccuini mussoliniani (Bologna: Il Mulino), 6; Margherita Sarfatti, Dux (Milan: Mondadori, 1926), 309. The eponymous character in one of Mussolini’s favorite playwrights, George Bernard Shaw’s, Caesar and Cleopatra (1898) makes for an interesting comparative counterpoint here. Shaw was well-loved on Italian stages and no one, including the Fascists, had failed to recognize the recurrence of supermen in the aforementioned play and many others. See Gaborik, Mussolini’s Theatre, 69–70 and corresponding notes.


Emil Ludwig, Talks with Mussolini (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1933), 228.


Schiller, ‘The Stage as a Moral Institution,’ 252. (For Machiavelli, book XXV of The Prince).


Regarding film, Ruth Ben-Ghiat has argued that ‘Mussolini was the model’ for the men who ‘bore the burden of Fascism’s ideological tensions: he had to be daring and aggressive yet ready to submit to his superior and unafraid of personal sacrifice’. See Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), 10. When we consider the parallels the play draws between Caesar and Mussolini (as I do below), here we have a pedagogical chain in which the audience sees the Caesar who Mussolini is understood to have emulated standing as a proxy for the Mussolini whose example is to be followed by the play’s spectators.


Giovacchino Forzano, Mussolini autore drammatico: Campo di Maggio, Villafranca, Cesare (Florence: Barbèra, 1954), documents 8–10.


Ludwig, Talks, 61–62.


Forzano, Mussolini autore drammatico, document 10; see also Sterpos, Scrivere, 299.


Ludwig, Talks, 215–216.


Forzano, Cesare, in Mussolini autore drammatico, Act II, Scene iii, 434–437.


Ibid., Act I, Scene iii, 384–386.


Archivio Centrale dello Stato, Segreteria Particolare del Duce, Carteggio riservato 85/3, December 22, 1938.


Joshua Arthurs, Excavating Modernity: The Roman Past in Fascist Italy (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2012), 27.


On the regime’s use of the fasces, see Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), 95–99.


Forzano, Cesare, in Mussolini autore drammatico, Act I, Scene i, 337; Ibid., Act II, Scene 4, 445; Ibid., Act III, Scene i, 485. At least one biography at the time highlighted these correspondences. Jane Dunnett, ‘The Rhetoric of Romanità: Representations of Caesar in Fascist Theatre,’ in Julius Caesar in Western Culture, ed. Maria Wyke (Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell, 2006), 244–265.


Ciano wrote of the premiere in his diary, saying that the play was ‘frankly, bad: without talent and without technique. It’s not interesting and it’s not entertaining. And then, adulation, too, is an art that must be practiced with moderation. Forzano, instead, completely forgot the moderation, and the results were counterproductive’. Galeazzo Ciano, Diario, 1937–1943, ed. Giordano Bruno Guerri (Milan: Rizzoli, 1982), entry April 24, 1939. On hierarch’s distaste for propaganda and supposition that it would often be counterproductive, see also the memoirs of the theater censor: Leopoldo Zurlo, Memorie inutile: La censura nel ventennio (Rome: Ateneo, 1952).


Salvatori, Mussolini e la storia, 16.


The subject of Claudio Fogu’s The Historic Imaginary: Politics of History in Fascist Italy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003).


Roger Griffin, Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler (London: Palgrave, 2007), 222–223.


Griffin, Modernism and Fascism, 222–223.


Giuseppe Bottai, Diario 1944–1948 (Milan: Rizzoli, 1999), entry April 25, 1942. On Gentile’s ‘Politics and Philosophy’, see Fogu, Historic Imaginary, chapter 1. Philosopher Benedetto Croce, Hegelian like Gentile but on the other side of the political aisle, dedicated several works to conceptions of history and historiography, in Storia come pensiero e come azione (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1938) working through the notion that even distant history has reverberations in the present and that, indeed, the writing of history always departs from practical needs on the present.


Archivio Centrale dello Stato, Ministero degli Interni, Polizia Politica 521-Forzano, November 5, 1931.


Further reports in Forzan’s police file attest to such responses. See also Gaborik, Mussolini’s Theatre, 146–152.


Forzano, Cesare, in Mussolini autore drammatico, Act II, Scene iv, 458–459.


For further discussion of such aspects of fascist classicism, see Salvatori, Mussolini e la storia, chapter one; Luciano Canfora, Ideologie del classicismo (Turin: Einaudi, 1980); Joshua Arthurs, Excavating Modernity.


All three plays of the trilogy essentially explore the same thing: the tribulations of great men caught in the snares of the Grand Mechanism of history, if one reads them in the terms Jan Kott used in his exploration of Shakespeare’s kings, particularly those of the history plays: Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (New York: Norton, 1974 [1964]), 6.


Forzano, Cesare, in Mussolini autore drammatico, Act III, Scene iii, 510–512.


Ludwig, Talks, 61–62.


cit. in Scarpellini, Organizzazione teatrale, 272.


See, example, Ciano’s recording of a conversation about it in his May 21, 1938 diary entry: in Diario, 139. The timing of the cultural intensification corresponds to that which De Felice identified as a period of increasing totalitarianisation as well. See Mussolini il Duce, vol. 2: Lo stato totalitario, 1936–1940 (Turin: Einaudi, 1981), chapter 1.


Archivio Centrale dello Stato, Segreteria Particolare del Duce, Carteggio riservato 85, February 15, 1932.


I completed this essay, substantially revised from the related symposium presentation, while in residence as the George F. Kennan Member in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. My heartfelt thanks go to that institution and especially to Professor Francesca Trivellato and the members of the EME+ seminar, whose stimulating and constructive feedback on an early draft helped me to shape the final version.

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