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The Divine Comedy: A Poem that Makes Students and Prisoners Recite Together

Dante’s continued relevance is affirmed as he is interpreted across the world – from the USA, with prisoners and students, to Italian piazze, to Kenya

Un'immagine della recita di "Dante Behind Bars" alla casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò della New York University (Foto Alex Fiszbein)

What do a dozen inmates at the MacDougall-Walker maximum-security prison in Connecticut; a dozen Yale theology students; 140 children from Kibera, a neighborhood on Nairobi’s periphery and the largest slum in Africa; and 1,000 residents of Ravenna; all have in common? The fact that they all were able to accomplish a feat bordering on the impossible: staging and transforming Dante’s The Divine Comedy, the poem par excellence, into a theatrical performance in far and diverse places.

Marco Martinelli with the children of Kibera, Kenya, recites Dante

Beginning in the 1960s, protests erupted in American universities on the part of students and professors against the so-called “dead white men” who dominated the curriculums of all disciplines. Since then, some of those men have been forced into retirement while a couple women, together with several ethnic or gender minorities, have been able to enter the literary and artistic canon, albeit with difficulty. But one figure was never at issue: Dante. Even in smaller universities lacking even one lecturer in Italian Literature, there are still courses on Dante’s Divine Comedy.

In Italy, not even the school system has been able to make Dante tedious to generations of students, despite having continuously cast him in a limited light—either as a theological poet or a national figure. Dante has managed to survive even the “Dantists” (those who specialize in him) of academia. In Florence, there was one such scholar who boasted an entire course dedicated to the study of only one terzina, an exercise in philological pedantry able to extinguish the passion of even the most enthusiastic of readers.

And thus, Dante, who has survived the American feminists and the Italian philologists, constantly finds new life and new interpretations outside the classroom, especially in these years leading up to the seventh centennial of his death (2021). Theatrical interpretations, far from the halls of traditional theaters, are one example, with the original verses of Dante’s Comedy being mixed with rewritings and bearing witness to the universality of his otherworldly voyage.

For years, Ron Jenkins, lecturer in theater at Yale and Wesleyan, has offered courses in which prisoners are paired with students and, together, without ever meeting in person, they work on a rewriting of the Divine Comedy that draws on the personal experiences of the incarcerated individuals. The verses of Dante, who himself was accused and sentenced to death in absentia, could not find more attentive and receptive readers, with his journey of change and conversion mirroring their own lives.

An image of “Cantiere Dante” in Ravenna

Ermanna Montanari and Marco Martinelli, heart and soul of the Teatro delle Albe, one of the most innovative and important theater companies in Italy, spoke of their “Cantiere Dante” during one of their recent tours in New York. The initiative, which is part of the Ravenna Festival, saw the participation of 1,000 citizen-actors last summer who, for over a month, actively participated in the itinerant performance that unraveled from Dante’s tomb and then spread across the streets, piazze, and churches of Ravenna, which has welcomed Dante’s tomb and keeps watch over his remains.

Marco Martinelli also brought this experience to the ideal antipode of Ravenna, the slum of Kibera in Kenya, where the children he worked with had never, unsurprisingly, heard of Dante and his Divine Comedy. But when Marco began to tell Dante’s story: “There’s a man, alone, in a forest, he is lost and scared; he hears three ferocious beasts approaching…”, the children from Kibera interrupted him and claimed: “We know this one: it is our story!”. And thus began a rereading of the Divine Comedy in the light of their own experience. This performance became a grand procession that involved the entire shantytown. Even in Kibera today, like in Florence in the 1300s, whoever finds himself in a dark forest seeks to leave it and see the stars.

Marco Martinelli with the students of Kibera, Kenya, for Dante’s play

Translated by Alyssa Erspamer

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