I first intended to highlight two religious dramas staged in 1955: “La Predestinata” and “Bin il-Bniedem”. I believe these two represent the peak of this genre, and the people behind them were influential during my focus period. I also think this period marked the peak of this genre. To trace these genres, I referred to “Il-Passjoni għad-Drammi tal-Passjoni fl-aħħar Mitt Sena” (The Passion for Passion Plays in the last 100 years) by Galea, from which I borrow the title of this post, and to which I credit for filling blind spots and drawing historical contours for this performative secular activity that has evolved on the island. He traces the religious processions, which survive until today, back to the sixteenth century; however, the large-scale religious dramas have climaxed, and the pageant plays, a spin-off of these grandiose national theatrical events, remain.

Galea presents two scenarios of the recent influence (compared to the processions) attributed to the twentieth century. Unlike other places, such as Italy, where processions progressed into outdoor theatre events, in Malta, the genre of sacred plays entered late. Galea attributes this entrance to the surge of the global phenomenon of religious spectacular shows being staged traditionally every decade, especially those attributed to the village of Oberammergau after the Catholic Church gave the play a “Missio Canonica” in 1922. It is a certification that the beliefs of the Catholic Church are being taught or presented in this case. The other influence he attributes to the cinema, in that cinema has always tapped into biblical stories and offered another spectacular interpretation while cashing in at the box office. From my reading so far, I think that the First Centenary of the ‘Dogma of the Immaculate Conception’ (1954) was pivotal in the conception and financial support of these two religious dramas. According to Galea, the main characteristics of these productions were the large scale in terms of the scenery and the number of actors on stage.

Book Cover of LA PREDESTINATA by V.M. Pellegrini. The design was probably by Emvin Cremona.

La Predestinata by V. Maria Pellegrini (1911-1997)

According to a Daily Intake book housed at Teatru Manoel, “La Predestinata” was performed at Teatru Manoel on March 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13. Vincenzo Maria Pellegrini wrote the libretto in Italian. The producer was Carlo Bisazza[2] . Maestro Carmelo Pace (1919-1987) composed the music. The play was “very similar to the medieval miracle plays in style.” The Compagnia Filodrammatica Carlo Goldoni, who was behind the staging and cast, is not mentioned in the press.

This play was first partially presented at the Phoenicia Hotel in October on the First Centenary of the ‘Dogma of the Immaculate Conception’, and the press mentioned the involvement of Goldoni and the Circolo Della Crociata, together with the Isouard Choir. Pellegrini confirms this during an interview with Prof. Guze Aquilina (1911-1997) in 1975. It remains unclear whether this was a commissioned work or not. In the press, the presence of the Hon. Ministry of Finance and clergy members is noted during this presentation.

Maria Pisani, also present for the interview, deserves a notable mention as she was responsible for many of Pellegrini’s and other male writers’ translations and adaptations during this epoch. She translated this work into Maltese, as Pellegrini wrote in Italian, and he reverberated the Italian cultural influence throughout his theatre career. Pisani also designed and researched the costumes and performed in the play. Very little is known and written about this woman, whose name started to pop up during my research. According to Pellegrini’s memories during the interview, the translated play of Pisani was presented at Radio City fifteen times. Pawlu Xuereb (1923-1994) translated the play into English; however, I have not yet found sources of it being staged. When asked why these shows are not put up anymore, Pellegrini points out that money and enthusiasm, or the lack of both, are the main reasons such grand endeavours cannot exist anymore (1975). These now large-scale sacred theatrical works of the past haunt the basements of these long-gone theatre stages. Pellegrini also claims that his sequel, “Il-Martri tal-Golgota”, inspired Soler and Saliba to create their “Bin il-Bniedem”.

“Bin il-Bniedem” by Inez Soler (1908-1974) and Guido Saliba (1923-2004).

Although Inez Soler [3] has appeared to me earlier in my research as a pedestal in certain avenues of the arts, very little has been written or documented about her. Most of what we know and was published about her is attributed to her younger husband, Guido Saliba. What I have collected regarding the conception of “Bin il-Bniedem” is mainly narrated through Saliba’s memories. I look forward to the day when I enter a room full of Soler’s papers and memories.

Saliba gives a different version of things than Pellegrini claims. An interview conducted in 1995 by Ivan Said with Guido Saliba and actor Victor Apap (1913-2001) as two broadcasting veterans, since Soler and Saliba were behind many Maltese radio plays broadcast during these times. The concept for this staged work derived from a series of radio dramas based on the prayers of the Mystery of the Rosaries, which were first broadcast on Rediffusion. The series started with “Il-Mistenni mill-Ġnus”, which covered the nativity, followed by a series on the “Misteri tad-Doloruż”, the parts which cover the Passion of Christ. It was from these latter series that the duo transformed the staged version of “Bin il-Bniedem” at the Radio City Opera House in 1955.

Saliba narrates how Ġużeppi Schembri (1899-1977), the owner and manager of the theatre, used to give them all the box office money as these were going as donations towards the newly built Dominican project (1952) of the Gwardamanga Rosary Sanctuary dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima. He only kept the cash on standing audience, and although he was not allowed and knew he would be fined a fiver for it by the police, he would still have made a hundred each night because people flocked to the theatre.

Saliba adds that while rehearsing for the show, Schembri heard their mix, which marked the moment Christ died, and was so impressed with the sound that he allowed them to use a new system he had installed, stereophonic audio for the first time. On the nights, the mix of hundreds of RMA soldiers running on stage with the Golgota staged at 18 feet above stage level, together with the sound FX, created such a realistic drama that people in the audience got terrified, and there were worrying moments of panic breaking out in the audience.

At this time, Galea, quoting Saliba from a different source, points out that the Church banned such sacred plays, and one could only perform a play with written permission and approval from the bishop himself. As we can see, the clergy and the church were very well intertwined with the staged art at this point, which will culminate in the opening of the Istitut Kattoliku (Catholic Institute) in 1960, a cultural complex which also housed one of the most prominent theatre halls at the time and came to play a pivotal role in the formation of the theatre fabric in post-independent Malta. According to Galea, the church had no particular interest in theatre until it became popular.

Apap mentions the plays staged at the Catholic Institute by Mons Salv Laspina (1903-1981), which aligns with Galea’s; however, the chapter attributes the first passion plays staged to the Salesians and further expands on the timelines of pageant plays and religious processions associated with these times and unveils the changes of styles and trends through the time.

Emanuel Vincent (Emvin) Cremona (1919-1987) u Gwardamanġa

In this micro-narrative where everything appears interconnected, it is noteworthy to mention that during these productions, Emanuel Vincent Cremona— a relative newcomer in the field of theatre—served as the set designer for both productions. Cremona, who had been leading the painting department at the Malta School of Art since 1948, is recognised as one of Malta’s modernist pioneers. Despite the clergy’s resistance to modernism, Cremona established his reputation through numerous church commissions. His involvement in theatre as a visual artist is an aspect that warrants further investigation.

One of Cremona’s large scale paintings at Fatima, Pieta.

Furthermore, my origins trace back to Pieta, formerly known as Gwardamanga, where I was brought up close to the Fatima Church. As a devout altar boy who attended mass daily from a young age, I was constantly enveloped by Cremona’s large-scale artworks. These pieces left a profound impression on me, as their presence was integral to my daily devotions. The writing of this post has led me to connect the dots, revealing that the play ‘Bin il-Bniedem’ was sponsored by the Dominican Order as a fundraising initiative for the ‘Sanctuary for Our Lady of Fatima, Gwardamangia.’ Fr Klimeck’s words in The Times on April 2, 1955. further illuminated this connection.

Thank you for reading. Should you possess any additional information concerning these individuals and their performances or any details pertinent to the timeline of 1935-1965, please do not hesitate to contact me.

These blog posts are snippets from threads of my doctoral research where I am mainly re-analysing the period from 1935 to 1965 in the local theatre historiography. I want to thank the support from Teatru Malta, the Ministry of Education, and the University of Malta for SIPARJU, a scholarship I was awarded at the beginning of my studies, Teatru Manoel and Istitut Kattoliku for allowing me access to their repositories, and for my colleagues who are continuously pouring into the Digital Archive of Theatre Studies many preserving digital copies of many historical documents which allow us to gradually contribute to more precise and accurate narratives and historical analysis.

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