Beginning October 10, 2013, La Comedie Italienne, the sole Italian theater in France, began its 40th season of continuing the centuries-old tradition of Italian players and scripts appearing there on stage, especially in Paris. On Christmas Day, the troupe's founder and artistic director, Attillio Maggiulli, was arrested for protesting a devastating cut in national subvention of the theater by attempting to drive his car into an Elysee Palace gate. The most recent news I've learned is that Maggiulli was sent to Police Headquarters and then for psychiatric evaluation. That will determine if he is to be arrested and subsequently jailed.

According to such media as Le Monde, the Arts Journal Newsletter, and the Global Post, Maggiulli first attempted to get a hearing by President Francois Hollande by approaching the Elysee a day earlier. Denied entrance, Maggiulli threw out leaflets on the street describing his theater's financial difficulties. Before a brief arrest, he burned a Harlequin doll in effigy. The next day, it was reported, he carried out the threat “Give My Theater Its Funding or I'll Drive My Car into the Presidential Palace.” In fact, he rammed the iron gate of the Coq (Rooster) entrance. The Global Post reported the act “was seen largely as symbolic since...[he] only succeeded in lightly hitting the grills at slow speed.”

The Christmas charges included damage to a public utility, endangering of lives, use of a car as a weapon to endanger a public servant and, thus, armed assault. Pictures of the car “in captivity” are posted on YouTube.

This was not Maggiulli's first protest concerning finances. In 1999 he went on a hunger strike over a tax bill that treated his theater as a for-profit business. It was then given a non-profit status and the tax bill withdrawn. He has regularly received subvention from city and country, but both amounts have been continually reduced in recent years. During France's last few years of economic difficulties, he also lost business sponsors. When my late husband and I attended La Comedie Italienne in November of 2011, a major contributor had withdrawn support due to business-related difficulties.

Last November in Paris, when I returned to review the show Noblesse and Bourgeoisie for, I was in one of the smallest (if most appreciative) audiences I have ever seen at La Comedie. Maggiulli seemed distraught and asked if I had encountered any transportation problems. Nothing but slowness – due, I conjectured, to large metro crowds. I wished I'd had a more comforting report. It's possible that a number of new shows opening was a factor, but La Comedie's feature hadn't been around that long, and there was a modicum of attention in weekly entertainment guides to the theater's anniversary.

Attillio Maggiulli, a French citizen born 1946 in Bari, Italy, studied under and became assistant to Giorgio Strehler, leading European 20th century director, at Piccolo Teatro de Milano. Maggiulli moved to Paris to attend the Ecole de Jacques Lecocq, king of Mime teachers. He then worked at the Theatre du Soleil with the famous French director Ariane Mnouchkine. But his passion was the commedia dell'arte.

With his actress wife Helene Lestrade, Maggiulli founded La Comedie Italienne in a building that now houses the Guichet Montparnasse on rue du Maine. He moved his theater in 1980 to its current spot at #17 on the rue de la Gaite. It was a former police station and jail. A small handwritten sign inside noted Modigliani and Max Ernst as among the artists who'd been detained there.

Maggiulli took it upon himself to champion theater as an alternative to the burgeoning sex shops on the street. He was able to buy out one next door and extend La Comedie Italienne to #19. That gave him additional seats but also a lobby, where he displays costumes and accessories — many lent by Giorgio Strehler, Federico Fellini, etc. -- along with posters and names of beneficiaries (among them, Robert De Niro). Most importantly, Maggiulli added an inside box office.

Maggiulli once staged a protest about subsidies by posting arguments and endorsements on the front of his theater. Seeing these prompted me to request an interview with him, and from then on, James Kilker and I frequented his theater and exchanged information whenever we were in Paris. We quoted Maggiulli in response to a controversy that involved Maurice Druon in 1973 when, as Minister of Culture, he reproached theater people who protested his lack of support when they were controversial. (He told them not to come to him with a beggar's bowl in one hand and a Molotov cocktail in the other. It enraged the entire theatrical community, leading to a funeral cortege for free speech marching across Paris.) Our story appeared the next year as the cover and major story in Theatre Journal.

When my husband and I led a group from the American Theatre Critics Association to Paris for an acquaintance with its theater in 1999, our first visit was to La Comedie Italienne. On a Monday without performance, Maggiulli gave an interview (with James Kilker translating) on the work of the theater and on the history and challenges of presenting commedia as well as the Italian plays that were influenced by or succeeded that movement and genre. Critics were treated to a song by Helene Lestrade, a champagne reception, and half-price tickets for a subsequent performance.

In 2003, Maggiulli staged a satire he improvised called George W. Bush ou le Triste Cow-Boy de Dieu (“The Sad Cow-Boy of God”) which was against Bush, Tony Blair and others involved in the Iraq war. On Sunday, May 4, he was dragged from the box office by thugs and severely beaten. (See my Periodica story called “No Laughing Matter” on this website.) He was urged to continue the run by Ariane Mnouchkine who brought actors to guard the cast and the theater and protect the right to free speech.

Maggiulli's theater is known for its posters and colorful exterior, which is changed to fit each play performed yearly. The exterior is often featured in travel literature and distinguishes the company's web site. He is considered a major influence in having the Gaiete known as the “rue des theatres” because he championed the opening or extensions of legitimate theaters to replace sex shops in the area.


Key Subjects: 
Attillio Maggiulli, Comedie Italienne, subsidies
Marie J. Kilker
January 2014
Attillio Maggiulli's Latest Symbolic Gesture