Mario Azzopardi, anti-establishment theatre director and poet, dies at 77

Intellectual Mario Azzopardi, co-founder of the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju and a voice of the cultural anti-establisment in theatre and art, has died

Mario Azzopardi, 1944-2022
Mario Azzopardi, 1944-2022

The poet and theatre director Mario Azzopardi has died – he was 77.

A co-founder of the counter-cultural Moviment Qawmien Letterarju, Azzopardi was a co-founder of the children’s educational magaazine Sagħtar, as well as of other literary journals such as Il-Polz and the left-wing Neo, and co-edited Analiżi, the bi-monthly journal for students of literature.

PEN Malta said the author, poet, director and playwright had left a tremendous impact on Malta, with his consistent demand that art, literature and education have to instigate a radical and critical debate that questions powers.

“Throughout his impressive expanse of work, in his writings, theatre and research, Mario gave us a living testimony of a committed artist who does not shy away from controversy, going against the grain without seeking approval,” said PEN Malta President Immanuel Mifsud.

“In Mario’s vision, art and literature had a very clear role in strengthening democracy and our civil liberties. While we’ll miss Mario’s unique and persistent voice, we wholeheartedly thank him for the work he has given us and we extend our sincere condolences to his family.”

Azzopardi, who until 2014 was still heading the Malta Drama Centre, was forced to resign when he suffered a stroke. While still in hospital after the calamity, he was determined to finish his most recent publication, a collection of essays dealing with religion and theatricality through the ages. He wrote his last two chapters of Verġni Sagri, Demonji u Boloħ għal Alla, a collection that analyses the signs of theatricality in religious ritual and practice and the semiotics of works by Milton, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and John of the Cross, at the neurological ward at Mater Dei Hospital.

The publication was a surprise to all those who always assumed Azzopardi’s criticism of Catholic hypocrisy made him ‘anti-religious’. “That has always been a very wrong assumption, as my stand has always been against bigotry not against spirituality.” 

Azzopardi was born to working class parents in a run-down area in Ħamrun. Having pursued his studies at University after attending the Teachers’ College, he graduated with an M.Phil in Theatre Studies with a thesis on the concept of the communal theatre, a deeply socialist concept first formulated by the innovative Polish theatre director Jerzy Marian Grotowsky.

It should not be surprising that a couple of years later he would be asked by the Prime Minister of the time, the late Dominic Mintoff, to set up Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in Maltese.

As editor of Il-Mument’s cultural supplement Spektrum, Azzopardi would use his critical weekly newspaper columns taking to task anything from TV shows like Tista’ Tkun Int to the Vatican.

“The important thing for me as a writer and a columnist is to have a democratic platform which would not compromise what I believe in,” he had told MaltaToday.

“I have written in favour of divorce, abortion, about the rights of immigrants, in favour of stem cell research, against golf courses and the rape of the countryside, against Church fundamentalism… and the PN papers never censored my writings. I am diametrically opposed to the notion of having Malta regarded as a satellite of the Vatican and my editors are fully aware of my position, yet my newsprint columns are not tampered with.”

On Labour’s radio station, he broadcast his razor-sharp satirical programme Super One Cocktail, attacking everything, with an audience that varied from university academics to working class housewives. Cocktail targeted social, political, sexual and religious taboos, parody on the media has made inroads, and there have been attempts to continue to demystify politicians.

“But try touching the institutional Church, for instance and you’re damned,” he had complained to MaltaToday. “Try cracking a satirical piece about the absurd proposal to have anti-abortion laws entrenched in the Constitution and you’ll find that your quirky smartness will do you in, probably for good. Well, after all, such strictures should not hit us as a great surprise.”

Azzopardi’s constant anti-establishment stand did not prevent him from working within the establishment, not only as a teacher but also as consultant to Louis Galea when the latter was still culture minister and the actual author of Malta’s cultural policy. “I worked in the educational sector for the best of 40 years and I still feel that the education system has a pathetic deficit when it comes to the creative output of our students, from junior school to university.

“Our system is a depository system, obsessed with recycling static information for examinations. There is no adventurism in our education system, no risk, and education should be about life rehearsals not about mechanical responses. Far from being liberating, our education system is stifling. It is a construct, not a creative force; it imitates knowledge, instead of researching it.”

As a teacher and journalist, Azzopardi’s work revolved around art and theatre, serving as one of the first resident tutors of the Maltese Academy of Dramatic Art from 1977 to 1981, and the drama unit. He set up the Lyceum Youth Theatre in 1979, and conducted theatre in education projects in London, Paris, Sonnenberg, Trento, Bolzano throughout the 1980s, and with Jane Maud of the Young Vic Company in London.

His directoral repertoire included works by Aristophanes, Euripedes, Shakespeare, Webster, Moliere, Ibsen, Chekov, Pinter, Albee and so many others.

In 1987, he founded Politeatru, a drama forum to cater “for the culturally deprived masses”.

In 1998, he co-founded the Maltese-Palestinian Standing Committee and edited a collection of poems by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. He was co-ordinator of the International Festival for Peace to commemorate the Bush-Gorbachev Malta summit in 1989, and in 1990 directed The Wall in Hamburg, marking the fall of the Berlin wall.

He published poems in shared anthologies Antenni (1968), Analiżi ’70 (1970), Mas-Sejħa tat-Tnabar (1971), and Dwal fil-Persjani (1972). He published five individual collections, Demgħat tas-Silġ (1976), Passiflora (1977), Tabernakli (1979), Monokordi (1984), and Noti mis-Sanatorju ta-Mistiċi (1995).