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Review: “Body of State: The Moro Affair, A Nation Divided by Marco Baliani and Trilogy of Resistance by Antonio Negri”

Body of State: The Moro Affair, A Nation Divided by Marco Baliani and Trilogy of Resistance by Antonio Negri” appeared in the fall 2013 issue of TDR: The Drama Review. As the book review deals in diverse ways with Italian terrorism, it might be an interesting companion piece to the recently published second edition of The Revolutionary Mystique and Terrorism in Contemporary Italy.

Body of State: The Moro Affair, A Nation Divided. By Marco Baliani. Translated by Nicoletta Marini-Maio, Ellen Nerenberg, and Thomas Simpson. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010; xii + 157 pp. $65.00 cloth, e-book available.

Trilogy of Resistance. Antonio Negri. Translated by Timothy S. Murphy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011; xxxvii + 126 pp. $75.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.

On 12 December 1969, a bank explosion in Milan’s Piazza Fontana killed 17 people and wounded 90. Thus began an era of political violence in Italy that became known as the “Years of Lead.” It lasted for nearly two decades. During this period, neo-fascist and communist extremists murdered and maimed hundreds of victims, making Italy the most terror-ridden country in the industrialized world. The problem thereafter subsided, but then resurfaced sporadically on the radical left from the late 1990s to the present. Italy’s dire economic woes and social crises today have the country’s authorities worried over the prospect of a return to the Years of Lead or to something like it.

Working in the politically engaged theatrical tradition of Italy’s Nobel Prize-winning playwright Dario Fo, Marco Baliani presents in Body of State testimony about his own involvement in the “Movement,” the radical left-wing culture from whose most extreme elements such terrorist groups as the Red Brigades emerged. As a young man in his 20s and just starting out in the theatre, he took an empathic view of the Red Brigades, admiring their revolutionary aims, if not all their methods. Even when in 1978 they kidnapped Aldo Moro, Italy’s leading political figure, and killed his five-man security guard, Baliani felt a thrill of revolutionary solidarity with the terrorists. Moro’s murder nearly two months later, however, brought about a crisis of conscience in Baliani, as it did in many other erstwhile sympathizers of the Red Brigades. Filmed for television in 1998, Body of State serves as a vehicle for his personal impressions of the Moro tragedy and the Years of Lead generally.

The play certainly deserves to be recognized as an invaluable historical document for the light it sheds on the Movement’s ideological complicity with the Red Brigades. Baliani says of the Red Brigades that they spoke his language. It was the language of revolution, which the by then thoroughly reformist Communist Party no longer spoke. The Red Brigades had emerged in 1970 as the Movement’s most ideologically consistent element. Baliani concedes that he, along with everyone else actively engaged in the Movement, had played the same game. At political meetings, “everyone there believed more or less the same thing, that the revolution was nigh and the world was about to change, from one day to the next” (35).

About the still-controversial conspiracy theories in the Moro murder case, and chiefly the claims that the government did not want to find Moro, Baliani limits himself to saying, “we feel and know that not everything has been said, that the truth is still far off, and that what is hidden is more troubling than what is visible” (27). The relevant footnote in the text cites the work of Sergio Flamigni, a leading proponent of conspiracy theories surrounding the case. Unmentioned are the rebuttals to Flamigni, chiefly in Italy by Agostino Giovagnoli, Il caso Moro: Una tragedia italiana (2005), and Vladimiro Satta, Odissea nel caso Moro: Viaggio controcorrente attraverso la documentazione della Commissione Stragi (2003) and Il caso Moro e i suoi falsi misteri (2006). Though explicitly wanting to stay clear of the debate over conspiracy theories, Baliani expresses himself on this contentious point in a way that reveals where he stands. No less indicative of his predilection for conspiracy theories about the Moro case is the unchallenged Flamigni reference in the footnotes.

In the fascinating diary that follows the text of the one-man play, Baliani recounts key epi- sodes in his career as an actor and director. For students of theatre especially, Baliani’s diary will make for fascinating reading. Describing his method as both an actor and a playwright, Baliani observes that in Body of State he subjected himself to an interior excavation by “per- forming myself of twenty years before” (62). H also comments on some of the literary sources that inspired him, above all Between Hell and Reason: Essays from the Resistance Newspaper Combat, 1944–1947 by Albert Camus (1991). On the eve of the 1998 television production in the Roman Forum, he grows apprehensive about the technology involved. On the set, the equipment and swarming technicians unnerve him as he worries about the interaction between his monologue and the images to be flashed on a screen: “maybe that is why my theater has gradually become so Franciscan, just words and bodies, one or two objects and nothing more” (65).

In a 19 April 2009 interview that is also included in the book, Baliani elaborates on his affinities with Pablo Picasso and Bertolt Brecht in thinking about the responsibility of the artist “to pull an element, a subject, a small fragment, out of a confused tangle of history, and put it into relief artistically, with a particular language” (71). Although Baliani’s “biographical theater” has many precursors, he claims a unique distinction for Body of State, with the narrator performing himself and divested of the actor’s mask. Such a dispossession he thinks unreal and even unnatural: “I wouldn’t set it as a model” (71). Yet for this particular play about the Moro tragedy, he claims, no other form could work. No traditional character could have performed the narrator’s role, which, for its effectiveness, depended absolutely on the “authority of someone who had lived the experience and could relate credibly to the audience as a historical witness” (71).

In 2009, Baliani brought Body of State to the United States. He toured several university campuses on the East Coast and in the Midwest. The challenge in these places for him concerned the different level of historical awareness that he likely would encounter with American audiences. Whereas every Italian theatregoer would know the Moro story to the last detail, American audiences could not be counted on to have any familiarity with it at all. An appendix contains some American reviews of Body of State and student responses to it, testifying to the power of Baliani’s performance wherever he took the play.

Antonio Negri’s Trilogy of Resistance also belongs to the literature of remembrance for Italy’s Years of Lead. A charismatic political science professor at the University of Padua during the period, Negri thrilled a generation of students with his Marxist lecture-dramas. He did not rest content with lecturing, however. An activist in the city’s radical left-wing politics, he soon acquired national and international fame as the country’s leading theorist of revolution. The Negri message, as elucidated in such notorious tracts as Il dominio e il sabotaggio: sul metodo marxista della trasformazione sociale (1978), sanctioned a violent response against the vampire capitalist status quo, grown monstrous on the flesh and blood of the underlying classes.

Then came Negri’s arrest on 7 April 1979 for subversive activity, including, it was charged, involvement in the kidnapping of Moro. About his guilt or innocence a fierce debate erupted that has never died out: on the one side, was he the cattivo maestro (evil master thinker) behind the terrorists or, worse, one of the terrorist kingpins himself; on the other, was he innocent of such charges and a victim of the establishment vendetta against all seriously critical thinkers in consumer capitalist society? His election to Parliament as a Radical Party candidate freed him from prison, and he soon fled to France where he taught and wrote for the next 14 years. This Paris period became a time of philosophical recalibration for him. In close association with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Negri abandoned his Marxist-Leninist ideas and vocabulary in favor of a postmodernist approach to revolution. Returning to Italy in the hope of becoming politically active in a renascent anticapitalist movement and in promoting the cause of amnesty for his fellow political exiles, he served several more years of his prison sentence, which had been reduced through a plea-bargain.

While still in prison, Negri cowrote Empire (2000) with Michael Hardt, a Duke University literature professor. A neo-Marxist critique, in the postmodernist manner, of global capitalism, the book became an international bestseller. Two more books rounded out their trilogy of pro- test against capitalist globalization: Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004) and Commonwealth (2009). In the helpful translator’s introduction to The Trilogy of Resistance, Timothy Murphy draws the reader’s attention to the connections between Negri the philosopher and Negri the dramatist: “if Empire and Multitude produce political philosophy poetically, the plays do so dramatically” (xv). Negri himself leaves us in no doubt regarding the political purpose of the plays: “Above all, I wanted to take up the communist tradition of the epic theater again and try to restore its image for the postmodern era” (3). He further describes them as “three rough drafts of a program for a resisting and desiring life.” Bertolt Brecht would appear to be Negri’s politically engaged exemplar as a playwright, and behind him certainly stands the towering figure of the young Marx of the “Theses on Feuerbach,” specifically the 11th thesis: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” ([1845] 1976:8).

Trilogy of Resistance consists of plays that premiered in France from 2004 to 2007. All three are meditations on the evils of capitalist power and the duty to resist it. The first of them, Swarm: Didactics of the Militant, unfolds as a dialogue between a Man and a Chorus, moving from a poignant lamentation about the indignities, suffering, and slaughter of capitalism’s victims to an aggressive demand for revenge against the morally and politically bankrupt status quo. The dominion of money must end, for man to be liberated from the wage slavery that under globalization has become increasingly precarious and more exploitative than ever.

The Bent Man: Didactics of the Rebel takes place in Fascist Italy. Yet at the outset of the play Negri has the Chorus address the timelessness of his theme: “war, fascism, and the vulgar violence of the bosses are always there” (38). Just before carrying out a suicide bombing, the central character reflects, “the true resistance is singular resistance, it’s bending in order not to break, it’s the rustling of the leaf in the forest, it’s permanent sabotage, it’s a school of intelligent desertion, an exercise in exodus […] We must rebel in this world by constructing another, a new one, within it” (70). In the Elegy at the end of the play, the Chorus returns to sum up the meaning of his sacrifice: “we will no longer need to bend in order not to be broken, and we will all learn to be free” (74).

Cithaeron: Didactics of Exodus, inspired by Euripides’s Bacchae and the final play in the trilogy, also illustrates Negri’s ideas about the eternal duty of man to resist oppression, an obligation that only can be carried out through revolutionary violence. Even in ancient Thebes the bosses opposed freedom and justice. Their counterparts in every age, called to cruelty and exploitation by nature, batten on human misery. All attempts to reform them simply prolong their domina- tion. Throughout human history, there really have been only two types of human beings: those who yearn to be free and those who crave only power. Between them the war never stops.

Negri presents all of his revolutionary characters in the Trilogy of Resistance as heroic figures standing against the forces of greed and imperialism. For him the Cause is real and eternal. Baliani, by comparison, expresses in Body of State far greater tentativeness and uncertainty about the revolutionary actions that he supported during the Years of Lead. He sees it as a confused period of history and still has not sorted through all of the contradictions that it produced. His confessional play gains from the dramatic tension of the conflict between the noble ideals of the Movement and its terrible outcomes in violence and defeat.

Negri instead has shown no concern at all, much less remorse, over the reign of terror in Padua during the 1970s, to which his Autonomia Operaia group contributed. As a consequence, his message plays, which ring with the passion of a true believer, do not gather any kind of dramatic momentum. They lack the artistic energy that in political theatre can only be produced from a conflict between evenly opposed forces, if only on the level of acting and eloquence. He gives his villains absolutely nothing. They never say a memorable thing nor, in their actions, rise above the communist clichés of capitalist villainy. Philosopher and political thinker Negri rests content in his plays to advance the revolution by means devoid of aesthetic power.

— Richard Drake 


Marx, Karl. (1845) 1976. “Theses on Feuerbach.” In Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 5, 6–10. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Richard Drake teaches European history at University of Montana. He specializes in modern Italy and modern European cultural and intellectual history. His published work includes The Aldo Moro Murder Case and Apostles and Agitators: Italy’s Marxist Revolutionary Tradition (Harvard University Press, 1995 and 2003). His new book, The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and United States Expansion, is forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press. [email protected]

TDR: The Drama Review 57:3 (T219) Fall 2013. ©2013
New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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