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Sandro Veronesi: New Yorkers are Today’s Romans

An interview with the Italian author who, on May 2nd, will stage his monologue “Non Dirlo” at the Cherry Lane Theatre

intervista a sandro veronesi autore di non dirlo
Adapted from Sandro Veronesi’s book, the show "Non Dirlo", coming to New York this week, offers a new interpretation of the “Gospel According to Mark.” The author defines it as an action story and explains: “Mark has the hardest task, that is to talk to a population that is not spiritual at all, like the Romans.”

Whether you agree with message of the Gospels or not, the communicative efficiency of those literary texts is undeniable. The story of Christ’s gesture, that was told to the world by the apostles, was able to change the fate of that world. And, according to the writer Sandro Veronesi, the Gospel of Mark, which was written in Rome for the Romans, was a key in the success of the quest. From those pages, Veronesi drew “Non Dirlo” (BIopiani, 2015) – “Don’t Tell” – that was then adapted to a show with the same title. The monologue will be the first show on the stage on the fifth edition of the InScena! Italian Theater Festival NY. “Don’t Tell” will take place at the Cherry Lane Theatre on May 2nd. While waiting to see him perform on stage, we called the writer on the phone to understand how the idea of taking Christ’s story to the theater was born.

In the first few pages on you book, you confess you are not religious. As a non-believer, what is your interest in the Gospel of Mark and in this story?

non dirlo di sandro veronesi

Sandro Veronesi’s book “Non Dirlo” – Don’t Tell.

I am a writer and a reader, and writing and narrative are at the foundation of the Gospels. When we are asked to believe in God and Jesus, we are asked to believe in a story. The evangelists are storytellers. It’s through the story that the evangelists managed to spread Christianity. When Jesus was alive, the mercy of faith could touch you only if you met him, you touched his robe, made eye contact with him. But then, after he had been buried, the task was given to the texts. And the story Mark writes is a special kind of story; it’s quite compelling and even not so spiritual under certain aspects.

In the book, you say it’s an action story. In what sense?

What I am arguing is that Mark builds the story up especially for the Romans. He writes in Rome and knows really well that he needs to act in a certain way in order to penetrate the Roman imaginary. So, he invents a modern style that is closer to the Roman culture and imaginary, which was much more modern than the rest of the world. And this modernity shines through the action that characterized the entire text, even at the expenses of the words. The message is sacrificed, because his audience wouldn’t have been able to appreciate the Word.

You wrote that the Gospel of Mark is a conversion machine. Do you believe that Christianity and, maybe, the history of the world would have been different if this story would have been written in a different way?

I believe it would have, because, if the it would have failed in Rome, Catholicism would have been just a variation of Judaism or it would have created only few peripheral churches. Even if Paul managed to spread the religion to many other territories thanks to his preaching, writing and travelling skills, I believe this philosophy would have been reabsorbed by the power of Judaism. If a new religion was born, it’s because Christianity made it in Rome. It’s because it persisted for three centuries and a half in Rome under the persecutions until Constantine: when “Romanicism” and Christianity end up being the same. That’s where history was changed. It changed in Rome.

Today, this would be called storytelling. Is Mark the first speaker that understands that the way a message is presented is just as important as the message itself and that a story’s style need to be adjusted to the audience?

I think that even the other evangelists understood it too, because Matthew tells the story to Jews and he tells it as it should be told to the Jews. Luca told the story to the Christians that converted already and he tells it as it should be told to someone who already has faith. Mark had the hardest task of all, and what shocks so much is that he was able to succeed. Even if they put Christ to death, it was easier to talk to the Jews because the two religions had the Old Testament in common. But speaking to the Romans, who could barely figure out where those far-away lands were and who thought that Christians and Jewish were the same thing, was a narrative operation with a pretty high difficult factory. It wasn’t a matter of being appreciated, it was a matter of life or death: if this quest hadn’t managed to make Romans spiritual – and they had never been before – Christendom would have disappeared.

Since you say you are not religious, I imagine you take those stories told in the Gospels, and specially this one, with the benefit of the doubt. What do you think is the relationship between the historical truth and the truth of a communication that, as we said, had a specific objective?

I didn’t care about the historical truth. If you look for it, you’ll lose what’s fundamental. Mark clearly writes some historical lies. The portray he draws of Pilatus is obviously false: he was much worse than that. But he’s talking about a Roman to the Romans and he doesn’t want to portray Pilatus as the worse character in his story. There are a few far-fetched moments, but it’s just a representation. Mark didn’t care about the truth, he basically cared about impressing them. It’s a tendentious story. There’s no need of fact checking my approach since literature itself gives truth to the things that have been said. Not believing excludes me from the real child of faith which is prayer, the depth of Christ’s experience, but it doesn’t force me to go around and prove passages of the Gospels wrong in the name of secularity and science.

Why a text like this needs the theater?

sandro veronesi

Sandro Veronesi.

Because of the way it was written. It was written for presence, it’s a corporal experience, it’s physics in contact with people. I felt that the work wouldn’t have been complete without this contact. So, I risked and did something I had never done before and probably I’ll never do again. It wasn’t something I could have just entrust and actor with: I was the one who needed to finish the job by taking it on me. And that’s the theater in it: a relationship between a body and an audience through a text. It’s a new experience just as the Gospel was then. In fact, until the Second Vatican Council, in the middle of the last century, when the reading of the Gospels wasn’t forbidden, it wasn’t encouraged at all. You were either a master or you needed to read the Gospel in the master’s presence. While protestants put bibles and Gospels even in Motel rooms’ drawers, the Roman Catholic Church advised against reading them. Then, they opened up. I started to read the Gospel of Mark because the Pope sent it to me.

In fact, in the premise of your book you say it: for the Jubilee in Rome, the Pope sent to the Romans copies of the Gospel of Mark to bring back to city to its spirituality. As a non-believer, did it bother you? Did you see in it a proselytizing attempt?

This universal fixation is a problem for all the people who don’t believe in Christianism. Judaism, for instance, doesn’t try to convert you. Quite the opposite; it almost keeps you out scornfully, because they have the Word and don’t have proselytism. Instead, Christianity was born with this idea of making the Christian Church a universal church; an idea that comes from Christ himself. In my formation years, which were very secular, it seemed to me that a real dialogue with the Catholic world wasn’t possible, because in the same moment you took away the opportunity of conversion, it would lose interest in you. However, it seems like things have changed and that today the Church has a maintenance problem more than a conquest one. Today, the global Christian population is wide and the risk is a secularization and progressive desiccation of the Christianized territories. Thus, the strategy had to change. I perceive it as less invasive. For example, the goal of the initiatives that accompanied the Jubilee was to awaken the spirituality, not to impose a religion that can be taken for granted, especially in Rome: something that looks extinguished needs to be revived. For a secular person, this is less annoying, because the effort is not directed to you, the outsider, but to the insider who needs to rediscover those values. The secular person is allowed not to know or hear some things, but the religious one needs to feel the presence of the Christ inside him. And if they lose those values, then the shepherd wields the archaic tool, the same that converted the Romans 2,000 years ago and that now becomes means of re-conversion.

The subject of your book and your monologue is, indeed, a communicative project aimed to a target. However, the title of both is “Non Dirlo” – Don’t Tell – which is a call on silence. Why?

This is one of the most mysterious aspects of the Gospel of Mark and it requires a little bit of research: I had to study to understand it. And as I go on with the story, both in the book and in the monologue, I reveal what I got out from this silence injunction. On one hand, there is a strategy that is not Mark’s but Jesus’s: he wants to constantly keep ambiguity of his identity and his gestures until he will be on the cross. It’s the cross that puts the light on everything he did and said. And then, there is a communicative strategy. A person that does incredible things and intimidates people not to talk about them creates a short-circuit that causes a mystery. And a mystery is what Jesus wanted to substitute to the certainties the Jewish people had in the 30s and the Romans in the 80s: he wants to erode the securities and habits and replace them with a mystery and a doubt.

Do you think the American and, above all, New York’s audience will understand this story that is so Roman?

If today there is a population that resembles the Romans of that time are the American people. And in some ways New York, which is at the center of the empire, is like ancient Rome: very different and separated from the provinces. Mark’s voice is a voice created to be heard by the powerful, by the strong. New York’s audience is the corresponding audience the Gospel was written for. I am sure they’ll understand the text.

Translated by Giulia Casati.

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