A Maltese eighteenth-century play by Vittorio Gristi
Vittorio Gristi’s Il Naufragio di San Paolo in Malta osia La Conversione di San Publio e dell’Isola is the earliest-known play written by a Maltese and also having a local setting and confirmed to have been publicly performed on the island, notably in the Teatro Pubblico, today’s Manoel Theatre, in January 1749. The play, which is in five acts and with over 200 pages of text, vividly portrays the conversion of Publius and of the Maltese population against a backdrop of love, envy, intrigue, hatred and the final triumph of the new faith. While based on the account in Acts, the main characters of the play, notably Publius and Teodorica, the apostle Paul as well as the scheming pagan high priests, Severo and Taziano all come out as real-life individuals with their own emotions, convictions and moments of self-doubt. Publius, the young prince of the island who refers to Malta as ‘my mother country, so dear to me’, emerges as the main hero, one whose religious loyalty and devotion to the welfare of his people make him initially cautious towards accepting Paul’s teaching, but who is ready to sacriﬁce everything once he is convinced of the veracity of the new faith.
Besides providing an annotated edition of Gristi’s work, Zammit delves deeply into the historical signiﬁcance of the play. Written at the height of the controversy surrounding the actual place of Paul’s shipwreck, the play was, in essence, a patriotic statement of great importance during the formative period of Maltese national identity. The different shades of Maltese patriotism during that time are discussed within the context of rising political tensions between rulers and ruled. Zammit’s publication moreover highlights the contribution of Vittorio Gristi towards asserting Maltese national consciousness under the increasingly absolutistic rule of the Order of St John. The in-depth study of Gristi and of his other literary works undertaken by the author reveals Gristi as one of the prominent Maltese – until now overlooked and forgotten – who gave his utmost in the promotion of his countrys sense of identity and pride.