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Female Voice in Dacia Maraini’s Norma ‘44


This essay provides an introduction to and interpretation of the play Norma ’44 by the Italian feminist writer Dacia Maraini (1986), translated here for the first time into English. Maraini’s play focuses on the story of two Jewish Italian women imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War Two. Starting with the title itself, the play incorporates references to the famous bel canto opera Norma by composer Vincenzo Bellini and librettist Felice Romani (1831). The plot of Norma ’44 clearly parallels the plot of the opera, but Maraini’s play additionally engages with the predecessor text through a layering that is meta- and inter-textual, historical, and mythical. The characters of the play; Karl, Sara, and Lidia, directly mirror and echo the protagonists of the opera; Pollione, Norma, and Adalgisa. Not only do they interact in the present time of the play in ways that unconsciously imitate the plot of the opera, they also concurrently rehearse and stage the very same scenes from the opera. This produces an uncanny mirror-like and echo-like effect of which Maraini’s protagonists become conscious of only once it is too late to change the course of the dramatic action. While the opera can be seen as the structuring device that informs the tragic action of the play, it serves as much more than just a plot device. Specifically, the opera functions in the play as a musical and cultural subtext that evokes the distinct power of the female voice and the strength of female solidarity and friendship. Although the principal events of Maraini’s drama echo to some extent those of Bellini’s tragic opera, Norma ’44 is not merely a modern adaptation of the opera as much as a feminist take on some of its key themes. With its powerful female protagonist and matriarchal milieu, the opera by Bellini and Romani has an arguably proto-feminist orientation rare for its time, providing a compelling foundation for Maraini’s contemporary work.

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