Theatre and epidemics – A lonely business

And the great licentiousness, which also in other kinds was used in the city, began at first from this disease. For that which a man before would dissemble and not acknowledge to be done for voluptuousness, he durst now do freely, seeing before his eyes such quick revolution, of the rich dying and men worth nothing inheriting their estates…Neither the fear of the gods nor laws of men awed any man, not the former because they concluded it was alike to worship or not worship from seeing that alike they all perished, nor the latter because no man expected that lives would last till he received punishment of his crimes by judgment. 

Thucydides – on the Athenian Plague of 430 B.C.

The first time I read History of the Peloponnesian War I was truly fascinated by Thucydides, a failed Athenian general who contracted the plague and was put in exile by his own city. Probably at his time he was considered a pathetic loser.

The events of these days made me think about the passage where he describes the plague in Athens.

Emotionally, it has been a real rollercoaster. We had to cancel all of our shows. Theatres are closed all over Italy until the 3rd of April (and the may stay shut way beyond that) and all people working in the so-called ‘entartainment field’ are pretty much confined in the cage of their houses. If you are a painter or musician chances are that you can still practice your trade in the solitude of your home. If you are a stage actor instead, that’s a very hard feat… unless you are schizophrenic.

Today’s post is not trying to depict a gloomy picture of the situation but rather to see it for what it is, maybe provide even a glimpse of hope.

Let’s look at the current situation.

As I’m writing this, if you divide the number of total cases by the population, Italy has become the first country in the world hit by Coronavirus. We now have a total of over 9,000 cases i.e. 151 cases every million people (China by comparison only has 56 cases every million people). Even the mortality rate of the the virus is higher than China. This may mean a lot of things. Among the many it may be an indication that the real number of infections in the country is much higher (probably around 20,000). Given that the number of cases doubles every 2,6 days we will have 30,000 confirmed Covid19 positive cases by this coming Sunday  and if nothing is done to stop the outbreak there are strong chances this number will reach 160,000 cases within 2 weeks.

Now, you might have heard that the whole of the North Italy is locked down. On paper it looks that way. I can assure you though that living here, the situation is still very fluid. Schools are closed but students meet in parks, cinemas are shut but people still go to bars and restaurants (not to mention supermarkets), and yesterday scores of people travelled overnight to the South before the quarantine of Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna was put into effect. I’m speaking about tens of thousands of people. They used any possible means of transportation: bus, train, cars, even taxis – a 30 year-old woman paid 1,200 euros to get to Rome by taxi from Milan.

Some people compare this situation with a war but that’s wrong. Humanity has gone through epidemics for a long time and, psychologically, they all play out pretty much in the same way, even in 2020.

Wars usually bring social cohesion: people coming together under one flag, national anthems being played, men leaving for the front, women working in factories. Unemployment falls, birth rates rise, everyone is pretty much occupied, whether in the trenches or in bed. On top of that everyone, if has the means, goes out and has a good time just to forget about the fighting for a few minutes.

Epidemics instead have the exact opposite effect. Everyone is pretty much for himself. Here’s a few lines from Boccaccio’s Decameron that describe the plague in Florence in the Middle Ages.

Tedious were it to recount, how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbours was scarce found any that shewed fellow-feeling for another, how kinsfolk held aloof, and never met, or but rarely; enough that this sore affliction entered so deep into the minds of men and women, that in the horror thereof brother was forsaken by brother, nephew by uncle, brother by sister, and oftentimes husband by wife; nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate, as if they had been strangers.

So much for the psychology of epidemics. They are a very lonely business.

[***Breaking news*** now the whole of Italy is in quarantine. It’s just come out.]

Fortunately enough I kind of like solitude, and I now have a lot of free time.

Like Thucydides I have nothing to aspire to.

Maybe something good may come out of all of this.

To be continued…