Carmelo Galea and the Domus

In 1931, a strong revival was given to the Juventutis Domus as Teatru Salesjan was called at the time. A Maltese lay brother, Carmelo Galea, was to dedicate most of his life to the oratory in Sliema, giving particular attention to theatre. 

Ever since the Salesians arrived in Malta, the congregation and Alfons Maria Galea’s intention was that of creating a space in which young people could form themselves both religiously and culturally. This holistic formation, ingrained in the Salesian ethos, was taken up by Don Urso, the Juventutis Domus’s first director who set up a small dramatic group comprising of young people. At the time (1906) the theatre was not yet built as a performing space and the group used a small hall within the St. Patrick’s school complex. Drama works progressed focusing mainly on the declamation of text in Italian. It is said that, even though the texts used were not of a high standard as those performed in formal theatres, they still appealed to the masses and gained popularity with the neighbouring community. It was this appeal that pushed Don Urso and Alfons Maria Galea, into creating a bigger and a more elaborate space in which young people could focus on theatre. 

In the meantime Alfons Maria Galea, who used to regularly publish the series of small books entitled ‘Mogħdija taż-Żmien’, started publishing short translated playtexts and other original work as part of the series. His success was such that a number of works were eventually presented at the Domus. The need of having original texts in Maltese was being felt. The group had the space and personnel but lacked texts in Maltese that would reach out to the general public. Italian was commonly used by the upper class people and so plays wouldn’t generally appeal to the commoner. By time, the group started slowly enhancing its repertoire and thus started using the Maltese language more often in their productions.

The number of productions grew dramatically and the Juventutis Domus gained its reputation in Sliema and across the Maltese islands such that variations of operettas and plays were being showcased on a regular basis. But due to the fact that the group was still in its infancy and hence the lack of professionally in the approach, the group did not manage to present plays written by esteemed foreign playwrights. More so, another element which limited the San Genesio group was that it formed part of a religious order using the same premises so the type of texts used had to adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Females were not allowed within the Oratory complex, so this also impeded the group in deciding on which play texts to use in their repertoire. So the texts used were either taken from Alfons Maria Galea’s publication ‘Mogħdija taż-Żmien’ or one act plays written by some theatre hobbyist.

The theatre context in Malta was changing in the beginning of the 20th century. With the formal theatre taking its important position and defining the role in society, community theatres were being established and people started forming their own ‘theatre companies’. One of these theatre companies, ‘L’Indipendenza’, under the leadership of M.A. Borg, has its successes through plays in Maltese. This interested the other theatre groups which were forming to produce theatre productions, but due to the lack of theatre spaces available and other external and internal factors, their work came to a halt. Activity at the Salesian theatre kept on progressing not only because of the number of texts available for them to produce but because they had formed a structure with which they worked through within their own premises.

Carmelo Galea had set out on a journey to invest in human resource by showing the importance of theatre as education and helping young people develop their art on stage. Even though Carmelo Galea had the support of the original members from the San Genesio group, he wanted to replenish the drama group by inserting more young people into the work whilst keeping the same high quality of productions. Productions started gaining in popularity, such that at times the theatre would cater for thousands of spectators across a period of time, performing the same production every week for months.

Irrespective of past issues, which hindered the educational work, the success of the Domus was closely attributed to Carmelo Galea’s hard work in creating a formative environment within the theatre context. When Carmelo Galea was sent back to Sicily in Modica, the Domus suffered a major blow. Once back, Galea immediately started working on re-establishing the dynamics within the theatre and it soon started regaining its popularity. His love for the arts and passion for theatre, was reminiscent of the same passion taken up by Saint John Bosco in his work with young people.

Feast of St Sebastian
Concert by the Salesian Boys Brigade
21st February 1951

These were years of glory for the Juventutis Domus. The effort in producing very good productions was taken seriously by everyone. Investments were made in creating new scenography, costumes and properties so as to facilitate the style of theatre common in the 30s and 40s. The group had at its disposition the ‘Strauss Orchestra’ conducted by Maestro Albert Manche’, a strong choir and light and sound equipment capable of creating effects of a good ‘standard’, which elevated the work being done at the theatre to a formal level, making the Juventutis Domus a central theatre in Malta. People who lived the time often recall the times in which the Salesian theatre was full of people, eager to watch the productions being showcased on a regular basis. These productions included biblical, patriotic, comedies, social comedies, tragedies, one act plays, operettas, farces, concertos and tableau vivant. A popular type of production, which was of the first to be produced in Malta was the passion play written by Carmelo Galea himself. These passion plays produced with the permission of the Catholic authorities, namely ‘Il-Passjoni ta’ Sidna Ġesu Kristu’, which was presented for thirteen times to over twelve thousand people at the theatre, were produced with the help of Oreste Vassallo, who Carmelo Galea affirms as being his ‘support’.

The Second World War did not hinder the work at the theatre and Carmelo Galea’s enthusiasm to work and produce good productions. Theatre representations were held on Sundays, whilst preparatory activities were held during the week. Other events included anniversaries and feasts during which a repertoire of productions would be performed to honour the saint or special day. The attendance to these events included a number of dignitaries including presidents, ministers and bishops who confirmed the work at the theatre as being very important for Maltese society. It is at this time that the Salesian theatre would start receiving negative feedback from other theatre groups and critics, namely because of the restriction of women on stage and the plays being performed. The Juventutis Domus, being totally linked with the Salesian congregation, was limited with respect of the rules put forward by the Order. Theatre groups related to the Church were accustomed to the norm of gender separation, with such a distinction being abolished at the Salesian Oratory complex with the help of Fr. Joseph Borg S.D.B. in May of 1970.

Generally, the audience would consist of members of the oratory and the local patrons who were accustomed to the routine of presenting a performance on every alternate Sunday. Theatre performances would alternate with the cinema, which was gradually increasing in popularity. A number of people who survived Carmelo Galea nowadays recall situations in which Galea’s actions, reminiscent of this ongoing pedagogical approach, have been instrumental in developing honest citizens and good Christians. His constant love towards the young left an impact on many who used to look up to him as an educator and friend. Throughout the interviews held with a number of people who remember Carmelo Galea, it was clear that the memories they have of him are all products of his embodied charism in being with the young. Not only did he give space to young people to be direct protagonists of their own formation, but he constantly accompanied them and believed in them. Even if the theatre production was not directed by Galea, he would often sit behind the scenes, looking at the children on stage as a means of encouragement. 

The people who I interviewed who at the time were children, recall instances when through stage fright they often panicked, but after seeking Galea’s help or even by knowing that he was around, they would relax and continue. Not only is this important because it shows the bond which these young people had with the man but also because it gives us an idea on the friendly relationship these young people had with their superiors. John Bosco’s idea of using theatre as a means of eduction with young people whilst creating a family spirit was surely being re-lived. The ongoing formation for the young was not solely attached to the oratory and catechism, but theatre also served a means of reaching out and educating. From an organisational point of view, one of the persons I interviewed, who later on formed part of the committee of the Atturi Salesjani (the reformed San Genesio group), recalls a certain code of ethics present during Carmelo Galea’s times. This however was not formally written within a statute. The only form of guidelines which existed focused solely on the Saint John Bosco group which   made constant use of the theatre as a conference hall. In the list of guidelines written on the 20th of November 1938, rule number 8 clearly indicates the role and membership of the San Genesio group within the Oratory; ‘La Filodrammatica ‘S. Genesio’ sara formata da Soci del Circolo D. Bosco.’ This means that the drama group had now become part of a section within the Oratory based completely on forming young adults into becoming good Christians, hence the drama group was, in a way, given a clear vision to what should be performed and by whom.

Circolo Don Bosco

The theatre events were structured in a way that reflected John Bosco’s original guidelines which was derived from classical Italian theatre programmes. Hence they consisted of one act plays or plays with a number of acts and intermezzi that have no relation to the play, during intervals.  Even though this was the norm at the time, the Salesians looked at it as an opportunity to involve more people and make them protagonists of their own cultural space. This development however needed constant training in the art of theatre so as to keep a good standard in the work. The conversations I had with the then young people of the oratory see Carmelo Galea’s directing style as rather primitive in relation to how acting is approached nowadays. He would start by choosing different people for particular roles and giving them a script to study. He would often typecast when writing original works so that he would find it easier to work with the actors on bringing about various actions on stage. When handling characters which needed a cross dressing actor, Galea would look at vocal intonation and appearance. These people were however difficult to find at times since this incurred teasing by the other members, especially during recreation at the oratory. Preventive measures had been taken by Carmelo Galea including a designated area in which only cross  dressers were dress up in costume. Since the actors often wore padded bras to resemble the female physique, Galea took the necessary measures to ensure that utmost respect towards the actors be taken during preparation.

Once on stage, the group would read the whole script and the director would start positioning the actors across the stage. Even though Carmelo Galea emphasised on memorising the lines, some actors would constantly rely on the prompter who sat in the middle of the stage hidden behind a fabric clearly showing the drama group’s insignia. Some people recall private meetings they had with Galea, during which he would work solely with them on acting out their character. This not only shows the focus of training the exterior in characterisation, but also the pedagogical approach which was taken by Galea in putting up plays. 

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