It’s strange how two of the greatest children’s’ books ever written, Carlo Collodi’s “Pinocchio “and Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” met less than favourable reviews when they were first published in each other’s respective countries. “Alice nel paese delle meraviglie” only became popular as a result of Walt Disney’s cartoon film in Italy, and a similar fate awaited Pinocchio with his Walt Disney version in the UK. This is a little sad as, no matter how virtuosistic and imaginative the Walt Disney takes are, they are quite different in atmosphere from the original books on which they are based.
Both books however scored a hit among younger readers because of their unemphatic moral message. Most Victorian-age children’s books had hard-pressed ethical themes emphasising the importance of obedience to parents, of obligation to go to school, of their need to pray devoutedly, of not to telling fibs, of accepting their lot in life and avoiding being duped and led astray.
Of course, all these themes are subtly present in both Alice and Pinocchio but the message is surely more emphasised in Collodi’s book. This is because it was written shortly after Italy had become a unified country and when the government was adamant about imposing an Italian national character among its new citizens. Furthermore, in a country where well over half the inhabitants were illiterate it was particularly important to emphasise the benefits of knowing one’s ABC.
The production at Bagni di Lucca’s teatro academico last Sunday added a subtle twist to the story in that Pinocchio, although “born” a wooden puppet, became a flesh-and-blood boy well before the end of the story. However, when he did lose the straight and narrow – for example, when he was robbed by the lame fox and blind, cat or when he realised he’d grown ass’s ears Pinocchio returned to being a puppet.
Isn’t this the fate not just of children but of us all? Don’t we become puppets in the hands of malleable people just to please them, perhaps even in a futile attempt to advance ourselves and then don’t we realise that we have lost our own identity and understand that we are indeed individuals. Alice’s questionings with the Queen of hearts and the other dreamlike creatures in her story debate the same thing – how true can we be to our real selves?
We live in an age of stereotypes. Children’s fashions, especially, while supposedly affirming their “individuality” succeed in making them, if not actually looking the same, yearn for the same brand names; the same “look,” as if exterior appearances are enough to help one to achieve that desperate aim to be accepted into one’s peer group.
Alice’s and Pinocchio’s adventures need to be read anew in the context of our even more gullible age. Like all great literature, whether written for children or adults (the greatest can be read by both, of course) they will enable us all to re-establish our own uniqueness, increase our self-esteem and bring us closer to a social universe where tolerance, mutual assistance and self-help are re-affirmed for their full worth.
For once Bagni di Lucca’s theatre was packed last Sunday. How could it not have been with such an immortal story on stage? All the actors in the Ribalta Company pulled their weight and twelve-year old Jacopo Lucchesi as Pinocchio, both as puppet and as real boy, was just right. The script with the title E un pezzo di legno parlò (Pinocchio) by Luigi Comencini was faithful to the original and the lengthy applause at the end of the performance was truly deserved.
In short, it was a great little season and one in which I was so glad to have gone to every performance and learnt so much from each show.