Originally performed in 2006, Clare Azzopardi's L-Interdett Taħt Is-Sodda remains an important text for Malta's historical consciousness, says Marco Galea.
It’s been fifty years since the trouble between Archbishop Gonzi and Labour leader Dom Mintoff grew out of proportion and culminated in the country being torn apart. For a number of years, every Maltese person was asked to take sides, to proclaim publicly whether they stood with the Catholic hierarchy – which in real terms meant to be considered a Catholic – or with the leaders of the Labour Party, which meant you were ostracised from the Church.
Five decades have not been long enough for people who had to make difficult choices at the time to forgive or forget. Some politicians, and fewer clerics, have told of their involvement in the story but this has usually been either strictly official or strictly anecdotal. Historians have generally shied away from discussing the period. Five decades have also not been long enough for our culture industry to come to terms with these events. As far as I know, until recently there was only Lino Spiteri’s short novel Rivoluzzjoni in do minore which tried to deal with that difficult period. Later on this season, the Manoel Theatre will be showing Mario Philip Azzopardi’s Xbihat ta’ xi Wħud li huma Kattoliċi, an accusatory play which tries to analyse the dilemmas activists within the Labour Party faced at the time. An extraordinary short poem by Henry Holland more or less completes the picture.
Clare Azzopardi’s play, first performed at the St James Cavalier Theatre is 2006 by Teatrutramm is a very important contribution to this discussion. Structured as three monologues spoken by two characters, a young woman who is buried in the unconsecrated part of the cemetery and a grave digger working there decades later, the play is very simple. It does not attempt to analyse all the nuances of the politico-religious question. In fact it is only through Mimì’s voice (speaking from the grave) that we come into the discussion of the effect that political wrangling had on people’s lives. There are no politicians or prelates in this play, or the ones who turn up do so as obscure voices from the past. It is left therefore for the common people to tell their side of the story.
Mimì is a young Labour activist who had the misfortune of not only dying prematurely but worse still while the politico-religious question was raging. And what is interesting about the play is that it tackles both misfortunes. The dead girl first of all laments all the dreams denied to her: marriage, children, growing old with her family. All this is expressed economically, without unnecessary melodrama, but the pathos is still felt. Particularly touching is the reference to the boyfriend staring emptily at the anonymous graves.
The latter part of the story concerns the dishonour brought on the girl and her mother on her death. In a society where practically everyone was at least nominally Catholic, being refused a Catholic burial was probably the worst punishment anyone could get, not only because of the public shame this brought with it, but mainly because 50 years ago, more than is the case today, there was no alternative to the Catholic life. Not being a Catholic meant not being anything at all. In a separate monologue, amongst other things, a gravedigger recounts the undignified burial of a destitute person. Yet even that burial is better than the one Mimì had. At least there is a priest, a blessing, a cross, and if you’re ignored, at least you’re not shunned like Mimì.
A writer’s life is made up of choices. Azzopardi has made the brave choice of discussing a subject most other writers have shied away from, and doing it in a sensitive way. Perhaps the most original and unexpected choice in the play is the intersecting of Mimì’s monologue with that of the gravedigger. While Mimì’s speech is full of pathos, the gravedigger’s insensitivity to death (although not to social class) creates a sharp contrast. His irony and dry humour set the tone for the dramatic conclusion of the play, with the girl playing out her sense of loss in absolute solitude.
Less conspicuous is the choice to make the protagonist of this play a female. Historically, only one woman (in contrast to several men) was actually buried on unconsecrated ground as a result of Church sanctions. Yet, her punishment must have been much more meaningful than any of the others. Women in Malta have always been expected to uphold traditional values, especially religious ones. For a woman to appear to be publicly going against these values and accepting the consequences was almost equivalent to being condemned of witchcraft.
L-Interdett taħt is-Sodda is an honest attempt at coming to terms with events the author did not live through. This is the main difference from the three works mentioned above, all written by authors who lived through the period under analysis, even if as young children, as in Henry Holland’s case.
What Azzopardi brings into the discussion is a detached point of view that goes a long way to help us understand a complex series of events. However, its strength lies in not trying too hard to make sense of things that will never make sense, no matter how hard you try, and instead focusing on the predicaments of real human beings destroyed by these events. It is characters, and not ideas, which make theatre interesting, and in this play Azzopardi has created two characters who grab our attention and keep us glued to the page or hooked to our seats.