Some Reflections on Stage Fencing

13 September 1999

Subject: Some Reflections on Stage Fencing

With a few notable exceptions, much present-day stage fencing is

choreographed by professionals designated fight arrangers or

directors, while certified fencing teachers engaged in preparing

competitive fencers tend to look askance at what is often no more

than a parody of serious swordplay. Maestro Aldo Nadi used to say

that there was only "one fencing." He meant by this that the

principles of fencing were universal, and applicable to all

swordplay. Indeed, he himself was involved in choreographing

fencing for the cinema, and sought in his work to reconstruct

historical swordplay as accurately as possible. His best work, in

my estimation, was the fencing sequence in Tyrone Power's The

Mississippi Gambler.

But the finest swordplay in a film that I have seen to date was

Maestro Enzo Musumeci Greco's reconstruction of turn-of-the-century

fencing at Rome in Visconti's L'innocente. In this rare instance,

according to Maestro Musumeci Greco, the director, Visconti, simply

said: "Do as you wish, Enzo." In other words, there were no

directorial preconceptions or misconceptions of swordplay that

influenced the course of the fencing in this picture. Now, it is

important to observe that Maestro Musumeci Greco was one of Italy's

most respected fencing masters and the teacher of champions. He

told me that the funds to maintain his fencing academy in Rome came

principally from his work with the theatre and film. And it is

significant that he was a very successful competitor in his youth;

for example, in 1942 he placed first in the Torneo Internazionale

di Spada for professionals at Vigevano. His biography and that of

his celebrated uncles, Agesilao and Aurelio Greco, can be found in

Lauriano Gonzales, "Greco" uomini e maestri d'armi (Roma, 1983).

Maître Pierre Lacaze, like Maestro Musumeci Greco, has

contributed much to stage fencing, and is not only one of France's

most prominent teachers of competitive fencers and past President

of the French Academy of Arms, but also one of the most

distinguished fencing historians of our time. His fine volume, En

garde: Du duel à l'escrime (Paris, 1991), is still obtainable in

France. Maître Lacaze was the student of his father, Maître Albert

Lacaze, who shared his Paris salle d'armes with Maestro Aldo Nadi

in the 1930s. In addition to the fencing instruction Pierre Lacaze

received from his father, he had the distinction of being taught by

Maîtres Camille Prévost, Lucien Mérignac, Luigi Barbasetti, and

Aldo Nadi. Maestro Nadi, in fact, speaks of Pierre Lacaze in his

autobiography, The Living Sword (Sunrise, 1995), 252.

What Maestri Nadi and Musumeci Greco had in common with my other

fencing masters, Maestri Ettore Spezza in Florence and Amilcare

Angelini in Frankfurt, both of whom also arranged swordplay for the

theatre, was their conviction that stage fencing should be as

realistic as possible. Unfortunately, most actors have little or no

professional training in classical fencing, and virtually no

knowledge of what is contained in the original texts of the time

periods they are portraying. Consequently, they do not look like

skilled swordsmen on the stage, and they turn fencing into a

ludicrous and burlesque exercise. I am certain that everyone

reading this has seen on the stage or on film the prolonged and

purposeless banging of blades, ducking from cuts to the head, and

jumping up to avoid cuts to the feet, pressing together at close

quarters, nose to nose, spinning around during the action, kicks to

the groin, and absurd acrobatics that result in complete exposure.

Add to this nonsense fencing up and down staircases and on the

edges of balconies, and the clownery is complete. Where in all of

this travesty of an elegant, beautiful, and exciting art form is

the repertoire of five hundred years of fencing experience? Do any

of the actors or fight directors participating in such farces know

how to execute a flanconade in fourth and oppose this with a ceding

parry? Do they know how to parry and riposte with a one-two, or

how to employ correctly the inquartata and passata sotto? They

probably do not! Yet these actions are defined and their execution

explained, as well as the appropriate counteractions, in the texts

of Masaniello Parise and Ferdinando Masiello. One need only follow

the synoptic tables in these books to construct logical fencing


And for those who do not read Italian, I have reorganized and

expanded the same material on foil in The Science of Fencing

(Bangor, 1997)135- 177. For example, a fencing phrase that might

be used effectively on the stage or on film for a seventeenth- or

eighteenth-century encounter can be developed from the flanconade

in fourth. On Table I Principal Simple Attacks, the action begins

with fencer A, from his own engagement in fourth, executing a

flanconade in fourth with a lunge. This is then opposed by fencer

B with either a parry in second or a ceding parry in fourth,

followed by ripostes, respectively, to the high line or outside low

line, or to the inside high line or outside low line by flanconade

in fourth; or instead of parrying, fencer B can counterattack with

the imbroccata. This relatively simple progression of movements,

which is easy to follow, duplicates exactly what might have

occurred in a real duel. And, of course, if a more prolonged

fencing phrase is desired, the flanconade can be employed as a

single or double feint, as in Tables II and III, with a

corresponding increase in the number of possible counterattacks.

When we see a film such as Ross's Dancers, with Mikhail

Baryshnikov, the fact that Baryshnikov is highly esteemed as a

dancer by everyone in the narrative is clearly evident to anyone

watching him perform. He is a well- trained professional, and this

is evident in every movement he makes dancing. But when we are

told in the story of a picture that the protagonist is a superb

swordsman, and a fumbling display of buffoonery follows, the whole

thing becomes unbelievable. Either fencers trained to act, or

actors replaced by fencers as doubles, are possible solutions to

the problem. In the past, fencing masters, like Fred Cavens and

Ralph Faulkner, did fencing choreography in Hollywood, and have

left their marks on films such as The Mark of Zorro, with its

exciting fencing sequence between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone.

Here is an instance in which both actors already knew how to fence

before making the film.

Obviously, in some plays fencers should be inept for comic

effect, as in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in which Viola is

confronted by Sir Andrew. But in Romeo and Juliet the fight

between Mercutio and Tybalt is serious business; and the same is

true of the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes in Hamlet.

Undoubtedly, there were trained swordsmen in every one of

Shakespeare's audiences, who would very likely not have tolerated

silliness where the story required skillful swordplay.

In the most recent issue of the Italian Fencing Masters

Association publication, Notiziario Aims (no. 3/99), Maestro

Giovanni Toran, President of the Association, observes that at the

national examinations in Naples this year two specialists in

historical fencing, Drs. Massimo Malipiero and Giovanni Rapisardi,

participated in a new program for examining and certifying teachers

of historical swordplay. Three levels have been developed:

Scholar (Scholare), Master (Magistro), and King Master (Magistro

Re). The highest classification can only be obtained after the

candidate has earned the title of Regional Instructor (Istruttore

Regionale) in sport fencing. In this way the teacher of historical

swordplay will have acquired a sound basic knowledge of traditional

fencing theory and practice, which can then become the key to

comprehending swordplay of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth,

and nineteenth centuries. I should mention here that Dr. Malipiero

has developed two interesting videotapes in Italian and in English:

Medieval Sword Fighting, and The Flower of the Battle. And these

are available for purchase.

I realize, of course, that there are some who would reject a

link between the past and present, but careful reading of older

texts makes it apparent that the current theory of the Italian and

French schools is the product of Renaissance swordplay. In my

opinion, without the framework of traditional fencing theory it is

impossible to interpret correctly the texts of the great masters of

the past. Indeed, one of the chief aims of my contribution, The

History of Fencing (Bangor, 1998), was to encourage my readers to

go to the original texts, rather than relying entirely on secondary

sources, such as Egerton Castle. I have the utmost respect for his

monumental work, but it is important to remember that he was an

amateur exposed chiefly to the French foil technique of the

nineteenth century. This was somewhat precious, and far removed

from the duelling practice of the preceding centuries. Castle

speaks of Marozzo "as the greatest teacher of the old school, the

rough and undisciplined swordsmanship of which depended as much on

dash and violence and sudden inspiration as on carefully cultivated

skill." Marozzo's organization of material, description of method,

and pedagogical advice, suggest otherwise.

It would be profitable, in my view, if we followed the Italian

example and encouraged fight directors and historical fencers to

acquire a background in classical fencing theory and practice

through a program such as the one offered by the United States

Fencing Association Coaches College under the directorship of

Maître Alex Beguinet. In addition, knowledge of Italian and French

fencing theory can be acquired by reading Luigi Barbasetti's The

Art of the Foil, and Roger Crosnier's Fencing with the Foil.

With a professional background gained through the study of

fencing theory and practice, the fight arranger and historical

fencing teacher can reconstruct with precision the swordplay of

the past.

William M. Gaugler

Director, Fencing Masters Program

San José State University

Submitted by Military Master at Arms Ralph K. Sahm for

Maestro di Scherma William M. Gaugler