Giorgio Strehler, the great maestro, indeed the "Maestro" of Italian theatre and among the world's finest directors was born in Barcola, a locality near Trieste, the 14 August 1921. His father was Austrian (he died when Strehler was three) and his mother Slavic. He came from a musical and artistic background; his mother was a violinist, his grandfather, a theatre manager, played the horn, his grandmother was an actress of French descent. Strehler never failed to attribute to his family his decision to become an artist as well as the European outlook which was his hallmark. After finishing high school in Milan, his elected homeland, he enrolled at university (which he never completed). Instead he attended drama school (Accademia dei Filodrammatici) to train as an actor and came out with flying colours.
He soon began work with an experimental group (Gruppo Palcoscenico) together with Paolo Grassi, his co-founder at the Piccolo Theatre. When war broke out, he was called up, then joined the Resistance movement, after which he went into hiding in Switzerland. It was there, between '42 and '45, that he directed his first plays, T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral and Camus' Caligula, in French, signing himself as Georges Firmy (his grandfather's surname). From that moment on, he was "a theatre addict", the stage became his vocation, his own "home" as he was fond of saying. From the very beginning, he was fascinated by an idea of one of his favourite authors, Carlo Goldoni who believed that a stage production could join together the two great books of Life and Theatre. At the end of the Second World War and the defeat of Fascism, Strehler returned to Italy, where he directed several important productions for private companies, but his path was to be another.
After working as a theatre critic, in 1947, he founded the Piccolo Teatro with Paolo Grassi. It is here that he was able to develop his idea of a theatre of an extremely high aesthetic value, which at the same time would be capable of appealing to people from all social classes. And in the course of fifty years (many of which he collaborated with Grassi, except for a brief spell of absence), he achieved remarkable artistic results. He succeeded in putting Italian theatre, which had grown old-fashioned, in touch with the European mainstream, to train new actors, and to develop a theatre close to poetic realism and therefore capable of linking the work of art to the world, as well as projecting it, like the reflection from a fantastic kaleidoscope, onto the world of art and poetry. It is in the context of what was a real aesthetic struggle that his principal artistic decisions should be viewed, as should his repertoire where mankind was a central concern. He frequently defined his style of theatre as "human".
His eclecticism brought him in touch with the great tradition of the Commedia dell'Arte, with Carlo Goldoni, Pirandello, Shakespeare, Chekhov and several contemporary writers, with the realism of Lombard drama at the turn of the century, with Goethe's insurmountable poetics and Brecht's powerful energy. He was one hundred percent a man of the theatre, unrelentingly curious and dissatisfied with his results. He was probably the finest exponent in Italy and indeed Europe of a directors' theatre which he helped develop, where the theatrical event and stage practice stand central. He acknowledged a debt to several teachers, including the "Jansenist" Copeau, whose stern morality filled him with admiration, while he appreciated Jouvet's capacity as a teacher and Brecht's attempt to unite social issues with a modern form. He remained attached to the idea of a theatre infused with dream and magic, which he had come upon in the work of Max Reinhardt when still a child.
He produced nearly two hundred plays, almost all for the Piccolo and was known the world over for his productions of Goldoni's Arlecchino, Le baruffe chiozzotte, The Campiello, Shakespeare's Lear and The Tempest, Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, Goethe's Faust, parts one and two, in which he played the lead. He also directed Brecht's Three Penny Opera, Pirandello's Mountain Giants and As You Desire Me, and Eduardo De Filippo's Grande Magia. Thanks to these productions Strehler erected not so much a monument to himself, but a living book of the theatre which has educated generations of directors. His artistic contribution in the field of opera is likewise immense. He directed Macbeth, Simon Boccanegra, and Falstaff, among others Verdi operas, as well as his beloved Mozart accomplishing marvellous interpretations of Don Juan, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte. It was while rehearsing Cosi, which he had hoped would inaugurate his new theatre - he had been waiting for this for many years and today it bears his name - that he died in Lugano, on Christmas Eve two years ago.