Internationally renowned legit director Giorgio Strehler, whose innovative reinterpretations of classics by Brecht, Goldoni, Pirandello, Shakespeare and Chekov made him by far the most influential figure in postwar Italian theater, died Dec. 25 of a heart attack at his home in Lugano, Switzerland. He was 76.
Strehler’s name is indelibly associated with Milan’s Piccolo Teatro, which he co-founded with Paolo Grassi in 1947, establishing a new cultural model that took classical theater beyond the boundaries of elitist entertainment for the privileged few, making it accessible to a much wider public and creating a home for a thriving community of artists.
“Strehler was one of the revolutionaries of the modern stage,” said France’s former Minister for Culture Jack Lang, who took over as director of the Piccolo Teatro following Strehler’s resignation last year. “The Piccolo represents an intellectual and human adventure that is unique in all the world: a theater of art but also an eminently civic theater.”
Born in the northern town of Trieste, Strehler relocated at a young age and adopted Milan as his home. He in turn was adopted by its citizens as the personifi-cation of the city’s image of refinement, democracy and progress. But his relationship with the town and its administration was a stormy love-hate affair that continued right up to his death.
Paradoxically, the director’s death comes at a time when his 20-year political and bureaucratic battles to obtain due acknowledgment for the importance of the Piccolo as a national cultural institution and his efforts to secure a suitable new home for the theater company had come close to achieving their goal.
Strehler in recent weeks had been rehearsing a production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” that will open the Piccolo’s 1998 season in its new location Jan. 26. This was to be followed by a new staging of Goldoni’s “Memoires.” The two productions were considered the beginning of a new era for the theater after two very troubled decades.
Strehler’s career began after graduating from the Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1940, when he teamed with Grassi in the Palcoscenico Company for his first forays into experimental theater. He debuted as director in 1943 with three one-act plays by Pirandello, later staging plays by Camus, T.S. Eliot and Thornton Wilder in Switzerland.
After serving in the army during World War II, Strehler worked as a theater critic for Milano-Sera before turning heads with his first professional production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra.” The 25-year-old director established an overnight reputation as a groundbreaking new talent with boldly inventive productions of works by Zola, Gorky and Shelley, among others.
Strehler’s occasional appearances as an actor in his own productions became increasingly rare as his work as a director grew more prolific. At the Piccolo and as an independent director he staged more than 250 productions; work under his tutelage came to represent the most illustrious training ground from which an Italian actor could emerge.
From 1983-90 Strehler was director of the Teatre de l’Europe in Paris and was widely acknowledged throughout Europe as a maestro of contemporary theater. His work in the U.S. included a spectacular production of “The Tempest,” which he brought in 1984 to Summerfare in Purchase, N.Y., and Pirandello’s unfinished play “The Mountain Giants,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1995.
Strehler was active in politics, as a member of the European parliament and the Italian Senate. His published writings include the 1974 essay collection “Per un Teatro Umano” (For a Human Theater), a title that sums up the humanist focus of his work.
“Theater for me has been a way to exorcise the idea of death,” Strehler said in a 1978 interview. “I’ve organized hundreds of murders, watched ferocious killings and sweet strangulations, doing everything I can to defeat it. When death comes, I think I will already have faced it in many dress rehearsals.”
An estimated 5,000 mourners turned out to pay their respects Dec. 26 at the Piccolo, where Strehler’s coffin was displayed onstage. His funeral Dec. 27 was attended by many of the major names of Italian theater, culture and politics.
Strehler is survived by his wife, actress Andrea Jonasson.
— David Rooney