Roberto Zucco # 5

Impossible love in Roberto Zucco

At the heart of Roberto Zucco is the idea of an impossible love, and its corollary for performance: the fight for love. Every character of the play, in varying degrees and in different ways, tries furiously to love another one, with almost never any success. This motif is found in Bernard-Marie Koltès’ whole oeuvre. There are many examples, whether it be in The Night Just Before the Forests, in which the person who speaks seeks the love of the one who listens, or in Black Battles With Dogs, that tells the story of the impossible love between Cal and Léone. But this has not been explored in such depth and brought to such incandescence until Roberto Zucco. 



Koltès says this very clearly in the preamble: Zucco is monstrously strong yet he is brought down by a woman. A woman – The Girl – who is not trying to bring him down but trying to find him again. However, to find him again, she must betray him and go to the police. The love story between Zucco and The Girl is the only love story that reaches a conclusion in the play. The scene between Zucco and The Girl is a purely joyous moment in a deeply sinister family context. There is a father, an alcoholic who hits his wife, a woman who is, herself, broken by life; there is a sister who is the buffer for every tension in the family, and a brother who is mean and a coward, and who traps all the women of his family into their house. And yet, it is love that holds this family together: the desperate love the Mother feels for her daughter; the suffocating love the Brother feels for his Sister; the hysterical love the Sister feels for the Girl; the love turned violence the Father feels for the Mother. Placing her love outside of the family context is a way for the Girl of freeing herself of the claws of her family and of exploding it, like a house of cards. Yet, ironically, in so doing she gives herself to a predator who is much more dangerous than the violence she experiences daily. Every scene that shows this family therefore depicts a crisis where each family member tries to re-establish an older world order. But the harder they all try, the furthest they sink into a more inextricable situation. Where Koltès’ immense talent lies is in his ability to show this with a magnificent force of life: his characters aren’t afflicted with paralysing despair. Even at the worst of times, they fight, in an attempt to free themselves, but like a panicked horse would fight when drowning in quicksand. 

The founding moment of the play is a moment of pure tragedy: it is the scene where Roberto Zucco’s mother is murdered by her son. In this scene, we see how complex their relationship is. It is made of hatred, disgust, repressed tenderness, fear, hope and love. Depending on where on the spectrum one decides to place Zucco’s violence, the scene can be understood in several ways. Some have played Zucco as an affectionate son confronted with a crude and possessive mother. This interpretation is problematic because it justifies the character’s violence as caused by his family and as having psychological reasons. We, on the other hand, believe that Zucco’s urges aren’t linked to his family history, but that they are instead intrinsic to who he is. There aren’t many scenes that allow us to see the negative side of Zucco, apart maybe from the scene where he murders a child. This is the second scene in the play. And the impossibility of love is established since Zucco’s birth. Indeed, his mother says these terrible words to him: “Roberto, you are mad. We should have understood that when you were in your cot and thrown you away with the rubbish”. While it is possible that some audience members will hate the Mother, we must still make sure that they eventually agree with her. Roberto is insane, he is a murderer (he has just killed his father) and the number of murders he will commit will keep getting bigger. Here, what Koltès suggests is a real tour de force for whoever directs the play. He asks us to make the audience dislike Roberto Zucco in spite of all the times when he is fundamentally lovable. This impossible love as theatrical motif extends to the relationship between the stage and the auditorium, characters and audience, and it is exciting to explore. 

Two scenes in the play are absolutely unique and new for Koltès’. These are the scene with the Melancholy Detective (scene 4) and the one in the underground (scene 6). They are unique because they show apparently opposed characters share and empathise with one another. In scene 4, the Melancholy Detective confides in the Madam who runs the brothel ‘the Petit Chicago’. She kindly listens to him and attempts to distract him from his morbid premonition (which, unfortunately for him, will turn out to be correct). The affection between the two characters is real and shared. However, the punishment immediately follows: the Detective is murdered by Zucco just after he exits the scene with the Madam. Similarly to Greek tragedies, a messenger comes in and tells the Madam everything. The messenger is a whore who very precisely describes the Detective’s encounter with death. It is beautifully described by the prostitute in her story: the moment Zucco stabs the Detective in the back, the Detective hangs his head, as if having finally understood the meaning of his existence. In Roberto Zucco, death is, in a way, a loving act, and it becomes the most beautiful of brides. We can’t help but see here a sort of premonition for Koltès, who, when he was writing the play, probably knew he was going to die. We must then make sure that moments like these strongly echo for the audience. 

The second scene, in the underground, shows Zucco and the Older Gentleman, lost in the labyrith-like tunnels of the underground, at the time when the station is closing. This scene is very strange. The older man, whose life has always been normal, is worried, and then he meets the calm young murderer who tells the unbelievable story of his own normal life. Throughout the scene, we can imagine that Roberto Zucco will kill the Older Gentleman, because there is, after all, no reason for him not to. What maybe holds him back could be the fact that the older gentleman’s story really speaks about Roberto’s experience: a man who is lost in the labyrinth of his life and of his mind, a man who has lost his mind and who is now facing death. Once more here, the proximity of death is what activates love and makes it possible for a real exchange between two human beings to happen. The Older Gentleman will die because he is old. Roberto Zucco will die because it is his destiny.

The culmination of this motif is probably reached in scene 12: the train station, scene 13: Ophélie and scene 14: the arrest. They come just before the final scene, Zucco in the sun, which resolves the drama in a definitive manner by fusing the main character with the sun. Nowhere else in Koltès’ work can we see scenes of such dramatic intensity of love. In scene 12, Zucco and the Elegant Lady meet in a train station, a few hours after Roberto has killed the Lady’s son at point blank range. She is a woman who is at the same time torn apart by her son’s murder yet attracted to his assassin. She asks Zucco to let her come with him, an idea he rejects. Only a few short pages long, this scene crystallises all the key questions that haunt Koltès’ work: desire, memory, internal contradictions, solitude, madness, and also a desperate form of humour. Scene 12 might be the most difficult scene to perform in the whole play: it is difficult to make it sound right and to reflect everything that is at stake. For it, the actors must show flexibility, intensity, truth, and the ability to go out of themselves without saturating the scene. 


Koltès titled scene 13 ‘Ophélie’, a reference to the madness of Shakespeare’s Ophelia before she commits suicide. We can actually easily imagine that, after delivering this monologue, the Sister, full of rage and of a hatred of men (who represent for her vice and dirt), takes her own life. The monologue happens in the same location as scene 12: it is the only time in the play where two scenes take place one after the other in the same location: the train station, a symbol of departures and separations. In spite of all her love and care, the Sister has failed to protect the Girl. She blames it on the Brother, “this rat among rats, this stinking swine, this corrupt male who dirtied her and dragged her in the mud, holding her by the hair and taking her to his pile of manure.” Here, love is impossible because a relative smothers and destroys it. “I should have wrapped barbed wire around the cage of my love”, says the Sister. This evokes the beautiful and terrible idea of love as a battlefield. Scene 13 takes the intensity of scene 12 up a notch, this time in a way that is neater, more focused and more specific.


Scene 14 starts with a bit of humour: the two detectives who are a mirror image of the play’s first scene and who wonder how useful it is that they are there. But contrary to the first scene, they manage here to stop Zucco, thanks to the Girl who has become a prostitute. Zucco doesn’t try to escape. When she sees him, the Girl runs up to him and tells him that she loves him. Her love is total and unconditional even though she knows that he betrayed her. We know that this love is impossible, which makes the naïve beauty of the Girl’s speech even more upsetting. 



Shortly after writing the play, Bernard-Marie Koltès died of the disease of love. The last words of Roberto Zucco are: “He falls”, while a light as bright as the glow of an atomic bomb inundates the stage. Icarus’ impossible love for the sun is, ultimately, the metaphor for this play. 

Lorenzo Malaguerra and Jean Lambert-wild



The story of Bernard-Marie Koltès’ Roberto Zucco, based on Roberto Succo’s infamous journey, is set in...