The Decameron: Revival from a Black Death

In the midst of the 14th century, death arrived in the form of a black plague – morbid and grotesque in its intentions and appearance. Innocent civilians fled pale at the sight of it as the catastrophe ailed Europe. In Florence specifically, men and women struggled to survive the vicious disease but were unable to adapt to such a malevolent environment so they abandoned Black Death in search of possible hope. Hence, we have the primary plot of The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.

Boccaccio, a 14th-century author and polymath, absorbed the Renaissance spirit and was among the first writers to create popular art by replacing Latin in literature with vernacular Italian. He displays his talents as a humanist, poet and storyteller in 100 short stories in The Decameron which focus on the adventures and stories of a group of young men and women who escape the bubonic plague and linger in a villa outside Florence. Unlike other writers of the time, Boccaccio did not choose to take the Christian approach and preach religious morals. Instead, he produced a novel that taught new lessons, ones that amused and pleased the spirit.

“Decameron,” a word originating from ancient Greek and meaning “10 days,” is not just another example of well-written literature; it is an inspirational and influential novel about love, adventure and human trysts. Because there is no script for The Decameron, a group of nine students assisted Director of University Theater Program Adrian Giurgea in transitioning the work from novel to script. The book features 100 different tales, and although they are clever and enjoyable, they would be impossible to stage in a theater production. Therefore, the students and Giurgea chose nine that best represent the major themes of the book. The point of creating a script from The Decameron was to understand the beauty of dramatic structure. The key to selecting and altering the novel to fit the needs of a stage involved not only creativity, prior knowledge and adherence to dramatic structure, but also an overall balance of emotion, artistry and respect to Boccaccio’s truth.

University Theater has worked long hours to ensure that The Decameron is immediate to the human experience and meaningful to its audience. Five hours a day, six days a week for over a month, students and faculty remained true to the novel and the art of theater. Because The Decameron is a novel and not a play, the students and Giurgea had to design an original set that would embody the themes presented by Boccaccio and properly display the montage of stories selected. This time around, the production will last not one, but two weeks beginning on Thursday. Along with having extended performances and bringing in professional costume designers to revive a vibe authentic to 14th-century Florence, they altered the auditorium configurations.

The stage in Brehmer Theater is too distant from the audience; therefore, the members of University Theater did something that was never before done at Colgate. If the audience could not come to the stage, they would bring the stage to the audience. Therefore, the only clear solution was to raise a stage to the height of the balcony. Under the supervision of Giurgea, Theater Technical Director Joel Morain, Associate Professor of English and Scenic Designer Marjorie Kellogg and Light Director G. Benjamin Swope, this daunting task became possible. The crew achieved this by scaffolding at about 10′ and constructing platforms on top of them at 5′ (with numerous trap doors); this deems impressive as both a theatrical and technological feat.

This proved to be immense work for the tech and stage crew, and providing ideal lighting for various scenes becomes a slight issue, but overall, the elevation of the stage supports the themes of “up and down” and physically vertical settings in the novel, contrasting with Boccaccio’s love for the poor and ridicule for the rich. The audience finds itself in proximity to the action, and the new stage augments the overall experience by establishing a more realistic and engaging environment.

Conversing with Giurgea soon became more than just an interview on The Decameron; specific questions were applied to a broader sense and were sincerely eye-opening. The Decameron is bound to be an enlightening experience. The University Theater program does need more resources and possibilities, and it inevitably requires extraordinary support from students, faculty and the community. Giurgea wisely stated, “Knowledge becomes life [in theater]. We don’t just read and take tests on Boccaccio. Here, we inhabit the world of Boccaccio; we become Boccaccio. He wrote this novel in Italian to make it accessible even to the uneducated masses. He provides simple answers to stories that are fascinating, funny and immediate. This is the perfect liberal arts learning experience, when learning becomes active and personal, involving the heart as much as intellect.” He believes that the reason he and others selected Boccaccio’s The Decameron was that it was a way of reinforcing remembrance and hope in today’s world. In the story, the characters run away to seek refuge from impending doom but in turn, the 100 tales become a metaphor for the power of art and storytelling. According to Giurgea, “Our plague isn’t the black death that desegrated Europe; it is AIDS, the Asian flu and evolving diseases such as smallpox from biological warfare. The plague is right around the corner. Where do we find solace?” Boccaccio intends to entertain as well as to educate the masses; to create an amusing model of worldly hypocrisy. Giurgea believes this is where the novel and their play become accessible to audiences and readers.

The thespians of The Decameron include senior Maria Bui, juniors Simon Bresler, Alex Coplin and Jessica Popkin, sophomores Elizabeth Bubriski, Andrew Burten and Mandisa Granderson, and first-years Ally Dall, George Loomis III and Kelly McKay. They all claim that their experience working on this project has been unique to any other plays produced by University Theater and other student theater groups.

“We’ve all been working hard to create and understand the characters and their motivations, intentions and backgrounds in order to remain true to the text and its aspirations,” Bui said.

Burten recalls a similar experience. He did not want to audition for just another play, where he would receive a script and merely memorize it and act it out on a normal stage. “I wanted to do something really creative and original, something I will remember and learn new things,” Burten stated.

Burten has grown to love the play and all the lessons it teaches. Major themes such as love and adventure never change in the human experience; they are timeless, and this may be one of the greater reasons as to why The Decameron has proven accessible to contemporary society.

Burten, upon being asked how this production could compare to the upcoming Hollywood version, amusingly [and honestly] proclaimed, “It will be much better than the upcoming movie because we [the cast and crew] are much hotter than Mischa Barton and Hayden Christensen any day.”

Giurgea selected his parting words wisely, “We in theater make our knowledge public and we hope that The Decameron brings all departments and the community together to unite in this extraordinary celebration, and hopefully it contributes to our growth spiritually and intellectually.”