I feel tears pooling my eyes before he even utters his final lines:
Ditemi voi signori se i quattrini di Buoso potevan finire meglio di così.
Per questa bizzarria m’han cacciato all’inferno, e così sia.
Ma con licenza del grande padre Dante,
Se stasera vi siete divertiti, concedetemi voi [he gives a little clap] l’attenuante.
(You tell me, ladies and gentlemen, if you think Buoso’s money could be put to better use.
Because of this bizarre event, I have been sent to hell – and so be it.
Still, with all due respect to the great Dante,
If you have enjoyed yourselves this evening, then why don’t you plead [he gives a little clap] mitigating circumstances on my behalf?)
By now my eyes are brimming over. I have no idea why the words of the protagonist in Puccini’s only comic opera always stir something deep inside me.
Loosely based on real-life character, Gianni Schicchi – a 13th-century Florentine nouveau riche – is reluctantly called upon by the snobbish, upper-class Donati family to get them out of a very inconvenient situation. Old Buoso Donati has just given up the ghost and, after a frantic search for his will, the outraged relatives discover that he has left his entire fortune to the local monastery. Young Rinuccio Donati, who is in love with Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta, and whose hopes of marrying her (albeit against his family’s wishes) are now thwarted by the unexpected lack of an inheritance, sends for the nouveau riche wheeler-dealer. If anyone can think of a way out of this impasse, then it’s shrewd Gianni Schicchi. And so he does. After ascertaining that nobody outside the room knows of Buoso’s demise yet, he puts on the dead man’s clothes and nightcap, wraps a scarf around his face and takes his place in bed. The notary is sent for so that a new will may be dictated: one that will not increase the roundness of the monks’ bellies and, instead, keep the Donatis in luxury. But as Gianni Schicchi itemises the list of Buoso’s possessions, it is to himself that he bequeathes the choice morsels. Seething with anger but unable to speak out for fear of having their hands cut off and being exiled for aiding and abetting impersonation and fraud, the Donatis listen, powerless, as Schicchi goes as far as bequeathing himself the family’s palazzo before unceremoniously booting them out of it, as the now lawful owner. Once they have all gone, he sees Rinuccio and Lauretta embracing, happy than they can now marry. Moved by this scene of young love, Gianni Schicchi addresses the audience in his short concluding speech. This act of his made Dante consign him to his Inferno, but if we have enjoyed the show, then perhaps our applause will serve as mitigating circumstances. And thunderous applause he gets as the curtain falls.
I have always had a soft spot for theatrical and literary tricksters. Scapin, Figaro, Harlequin, Truffaldino. Gianni Schicchi. Ever since I was a child, I have admired characters with the cunning to circumvent unfair rules or to give authoritarian bullies their comeuppance, not with any kind of violence or self-righteousness but the elegance and grace of their wits.
In the Russian fairy tales my grandmother would tell me when I was a child, my favourite animal was the vixen for her invariably imaginative ruses against stronger, larger animals. As well as foxes, I now like cats and crows. Intelligent and self-possessed, they find creative solutions to further their pursuits without losing any of their natural grace (cats especially). From what I have seen of them, foxes, cats and crows are patient observers. They watch, plan, calculate, then act. I get a sense of inner negotiation, of weighing pros and cons, and, above all, of a thought process that is “outside the box”. They see things they way they see things and not according to the popular trend. One could call cats, foxes and crows “original” thinkers.
My favourite literary heroine of all time, Sheherazade, is no innocent, man-dependent maiden. She knows precisely what she is doing. She uses her cunning to hold the king’s attention until he has grown to love and respect her so deeply that he cannot bear to kill her. Not only that but he also becomes a just ruler beloved of his subjects. Sheherazade has immense courage, yes, but it is her intelligence and cunning that transforms a predatory, bloodthirsty misogynist into a truly good man. She does not opt for the dagger-in-the-heart-while-he’s-sleeping-off-sex solution. She thinks outside the box and that’s what makes her a role model.
The first fairy tale I wrote, when I was about eleven, features a princess who delivers her father’s kingdom from an evil witch by dressing up as a boy, entering the witch’s service, gaining her trust and watching her every move until she discovers the weak link in the castle’s defence. In the process, she also frees the knights her father sent, who are locked up in the witch’s dungeon. Impressed with her courage, the king allows his daughter to chose a husband from among his most valiant knights. At this point, the princess weeps at the sudden realisation that she will never marry. For she can only be the wife of a man she looks up to and there is no such man among all those who did not think to put away their swords and shields and fight by cunning instead. And so the princess eventually becomes a much-respected, much-loved and very lonely queen.
I was severely bullied at school. I couldn’t fight back on the same terms. I simply didn’t have the resources. So, when I was about twelve, I bet the class that I could stop the English language test from taking place that afternoon. Nobody believed me, of course. I walked into the classroom more slowly than usual, wearing my most anxious expression. I glanced at the teacher. He looked at me quizzically. I frowned, made to open my mouth, then shook my head, went to my desk and sat down, still frowning, knowing the teacher was still looking at me, wondering. I was top of my class in English, so I knew he would never think my anxiety was in any way connected to the scheduled test. I looked up at him again, then repeated the slight head shake. “Are you all right, Katherine?” the teacher asked.
“Yes, yes, sorry. Well, no, I mean – no, it’s all right.”
“What’s the matter? Tell me.”
I gave him a hesitant look. “Well, if you insist, sir… It’s just that I’ve been wondering… Who was the first king of England?”
The teacher froze and the classroom fell silent.
“I’m afraid there’s no straight answer,” he replied. “You see, it’s rather complicated. There’s Offa and Egbert, then Alfred…”
He stood up by the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk and began tracing names, arrows and dates. He spoke for about twenty minutes. Then he dropped the chalk back into the tray and looked at his watch. “A bit late for the test now,” he said, “but don’t you all get too comfy because tomorrow straight after recess…”
In case you are now thinking that I am a natural cheat, please let me assure you that I am not. I am not a liar, either. The tricks and tricksters I enjoy cause no harm or real disruption. What appeals to me about them is not the dishonesty or manipulation element. It’s their courage, their daring to imagine a different possibility to the one dictated by narrow-minded authority or lazy, unquestioned custom. After all, isn’t “thinking outside the box” a way of honouring life’s hidden yet available resources and possibilities? Isn’t thinking outside the box the resounding YES to life against the self-limiting NO?
Perhaps it’s the reminder of all these wonderful possibilities and resources, suppressed or forgotten, that brings tears to my eyes when I hear Gianni’s Schicchi’s apology.
And, Ladies and Gentlemen, if in any way my views have offended, then I ask you to forgive me. But if anything in this post has made you smile or nod or even suggested further thought, then, pray, leave me a comment.