World Literature

Luigi Pirandello

 

BORN: 1867, Agirgenti, Sicily, Italy

DIED: 1936, Rome, Italy

NATIONALITY: Italian

GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

The Late Mattia Pascal (1904)

Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921)

Henry IV (1922)

 

 

Luigi Pirandello. Pirandello, Luigi, photograph. AP images.

 

Overview

Luigi Pirandello was a controversial artist whose work traversed many genres and media. He was, first and foremost, a dramatist, but he was also a novelist, an essayist, a poet, and a painter. Pirandello is world famous for his plays that explore the relationship between reality, sanity, and identity. He often portrayed characters who adopt multiple identities, or ‘‘masks,’’ in an effort to reconcile social demands with personal needs.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

An Early Love of the Theater. Pirandello was born on June 28, 1867, in Girgenti, Sicily to Stefano and Caterina Pirandello. His father, a prosperous sulfur merchant, initially sent him to study commerce at the local technical institute. However, Pirandello lacked interest in the subject and transferred to an academic secondary school, where he excelled in oratory and literature. He began writing at a young age and by the time he was twelve had, with siblings and friends, produced his first play, Barbaro. He also wrote poetry and fiction, publishing his first poem in 1883 and his first story a year later. After graduation, Pirandello attended university first in Palermo, then in Rome. During his stay in Rome, he became an avid theatergoer. in 1889 he moved to Germany to continue his studies at the University of Bonn, where he earned a doctorate in Romance philology. He then returned to Rome, living on an allowance from his father while trying to establish himself as a writer.

Loss and Madness. In 1894, Pirandello married Antonietta Portulano, the daughter of a business partner. The couple settled in Rome and had three children. To support his family, Pirandello was forced to increase his literary output and to take a position as professor at a women’s school. In 1904 he saw his first critical success with the novel Il fu Mattia Pascal (The Late Mattia Pascal), but this was overshadowed when his father’s sulfur mines, in which Pirandello was heavily invested, were destroyed in a flood. All of Pirandello’s wealth, including his wife’s dowry, was wiped out. Upon hearing the news, Antonietta suffered an emotional collapse; she subsequently became obsessively jealous and delusional. Pirandello choose to keep his wife at home, but ultimately had her committed to an asylum in 1919. During these difficult years, Pirandello took refuge in his study, where he lost himself in writing short stories, novels, and essays. He also wrote several plays, but he was unable to get them produced.

The War Years. Pirandello began working on a play that was much different from his other work. Liola, (performed in 1916, published in 1917; translated, 1952), was clearly an extravaganza for the author who, at the time, was profoundly troubled by the death of his mother and by his wife’s descent into madness. Perhaps of even greater consequence, however, was the outbreak of World War I and the decision on the part of his son Stefano to go to war, a decision that led to his eventual internment in Austrian concentration camps. Perhaps because of this overriding sensation of looming death, Pirandello created the character of Liola: a peasant, but who also stands for beauty, youth, virility, and, most of all, fertility. The play is lively and fresh, and the characters are not torn by internal turmoil, but experience life in a largely joyful manner.

The next phase of Pirandello’s writing focused more on plays than novels. A period of intense creativity set in and lasted from 1916 to 1922, culminating in the production of his two greatest works: the dramas Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (1921; Six Characters in Search of an Author) and Enrico IV (1922; Henry IV). Pirandello quickly went from being an author with a respectable but modest reputation to being one of the major literary figures in Italy.

Fascism, Mussolini, and the Theater. In the desperate years following World War I, Italy came under the control of ultranationalist dictator Benito Mussolini. Pirandello took advantage of his public prominence to help Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party. Pirandello welcomed and supported Mussolini’s regime, believing Mussolini was someone who could bring order and discipline to Italy. Pirandello openly chose to join the Fascist Party immediately after the assassination of the socialist congressman Giacomo Matteotti by Mussolini supporters. In a letter to the pro-Fascist paper L’imperio, Pirandello asked to join the party and pledged his ‘‘humble obedience’’ to Mussolini. Mussolini, showing his appreciation for the gesture of support, provided funds for the Arts Theater that Pirandello had established. Pirandello, as producer and director, saw many of his plays first performed in this theater, and he took his company on tour throughout the world. However, the Arts Theater never achieved financial success and was dissolved in 1928. Frustrated by the failure of his theater, by his unsuccessful attempts to establish a government-sponsored National Theater in Rome, and by the decreasing popularity of his plays, Pirandello lived in self-imposed exile for the next five years.

In 1925 Pirandello met Marta Abba, the actress who would serve as the muse for many of his plays and with whom he was in love until his death. The seven plays that he wrote for her all feature women protagonists. They began their relationship as the political climate in Italy became increasingly unbearable. Pirandello decided to leave Italy and spent long periods of time in Berlin and Paris. His direct experience with the staging of his plays and Marta’s acting helped him to further cultivate his ideas about the theater and to accept its extraordinary power. For him the theater no longer consisted exclusively of only the playwright’s text but also of how the directors, actors, and scenographers interpreted the play on stage.

In 1934 Pirandello won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Though still fighting for a national theater in Rome, Pirandello nonetheless knew that eventually nothing would come of Mussolini’s promises and that modern theater had no future in Fascist Italy. He convinced Marta to leave the Italian stage and renew her career in the United States, where, he believed, the theater was respected and loved much more than in Italy. He died in Rome on December 10, 1936.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Pirandello's famous contemporaries include:

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965): American-born Eliot spent much of his writing career in England and became a British citizen in 1927, at the age of thirty-nine. He is the author of acknowledged classic poems such as ''The Waste Land'' and ''The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.''

James Joyce (1882-1941): One of the greatest and best-known novelists of the modernist period in literature, Irish-born Joyce is particularly famous for his epic novel Ulysses.

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945): Leader of the Italian Fascist Party and primary European ally of Hitler's Germany during World War II, Mussolini came to a gruesome end with the end of the war itself.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945): U.S. president for most of World War II and the greatest ally of ''Free Europe'' in the United States, Roosevelt was the only U.S. president elected to serve four terms, from 1933 until his death in 1945.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970): A prolific British writer, Russell was a well-respected philosopher and an outspoken pacifist. Later in life, he devoted his considerable energies to campaigning against the proliferation of nuclear arms.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Pirandello's deep involvement with Mussolini's brutal Fascist regime in Italy makes him one of a number of prominent artistic figures who found themselves fascinated by both Italian and German fascism. Here are a few other works by authors and filmmakers fascinated with totalitarian systems:

The Cantos (1915-1962), a poem by Ezra Pound. This poem has been the subject of much controversy over the years, drawing heavy fire for its implicit and overt anti-Semitism, as well as for its role in Pound's development and elaboration of a Fascist political and economic perspective.

Triumph of the Will (1935), a film by Leni Riefenstahl. This disturbing propaganda movie of a National Socialist Congress in Germany was the height of film technique and artistic sensibility—in the service of the basest of agendas, which Riefenstahl appears to have enthusiastically supported.

Journey to the End of the Night (1931), a novel by Louis- Ferdinand Celine. This novel chronicles the life of a misadventurer who stumbles through both war and peace with a savage, laughing hatred for humanity.

 

Works in Literary Context

Verism and Naturalism. Pirandello’s early works were strongly influenced by verism (vero means ‘‘real’’ in Italian), an Italian naturalist movement led by Giovanni Verga. The verists revolted against Romanticism and wrote about real people and real problems, and they included real dialogue. Writing in his native Sicilian dialect, Pirandello chose to describe the landscape and inhabitants of Sicily. His first successful novel, The Late Mattia Pascal, displays a distinctly verist and naturalistic style.

The Mask: Reality and Illusion. In an essay titled On Humor, which he dedicated ‘‘To the Memory of Mattia Pascal, Librarian,’’ Pirandello articulated the major aesthetic principle that guided his work: humorism. Pirandello’s theory of humorism is based upon his vision of the conflict between surface appearances and deeper realities. According to Pirandello, when an opposition exists between a character’s situation and an audience’s expectations, the audience gains an ‘‘awareness’’ of this opposition, and the situation appears comic. When the audience additionally recognizes a character’s suffering beneath the comic appearance, the audience gains a ‘‘sentiment’’ or ‘‘feeling’’ of this opposition. Catharsis occurs when, through a combination of opposing reactions, the audience achieves both a compassionate understanding of the character’s situation in the fictional world and a deeper insight into the real world. Pirandello was thus more interested in the audience’s direct emotional experience of the drama than in the purely abstract and philosophical aspects of his plays.

Pirandello described his dramatic works as a ‘‘theater of mirrors’’ in which the audience sees what passes on stage as a reflection of their own lives: When his characters doubt their own perceptions of themselves, the audience experiences a simultaneous crisis of self-perception. In questioning the distinction between sanity and madness, Pirandello attacked abstract models of objective reality and theories of a static human personality. For these reasons, many critics have labeled him a pessimist and a relativist. Others, noting the strong sense of compassion that Pirandello conveys for his characters, contend that Pirandello is not preaching a definable ideology but is simply expressing his acute consciousness of the absurdities and paradoxes of human life. As Pirandello explained: ‘‘My works are born from live images which are the perennial source of art, but these images pass through a veil of concepts which have taken hold of me. My works of art are never concepts trying to express themselves through images. On the contrary. They are images, often very vivid images of life, which, fostered by the labors of my mind, assume universal significance quite on their own, through the formal unity of art.’’

 

Works in Critical Context

The Danger of Criticism. After writing Henry IV, Pirandello read a discussion of his plays in Adriano Tilgher’s Studies in Contemporary Theater, and the remainder of his career as a playwright was influenced by this critic’s perception of his work. Tilgher saw in Pirandello’s dramas a consistent and compelling philosophical formula that explained the often confusing and contradictory elements of these works, and this vision of his artistry came to haunt Pirandello perhaps as madness had haunted his wife.

Tilgher wrote: ‘‘The philosophy implicit in Pirandello’s art revolves round the fundamental dualism of Life and Form: Life, perpetually mobile and fluid, which cannot help developing into a form, although it deeply resents all form; and Form which determines Life, by giving it rigid and precise borders, and freezes it, suppressing its restless motion.’’ Pirandello was pleased by the academic authority that Tilgher’s essay gave to his dramas, and he was stimulated to approach more intently the life/form dichotomy in his works.

Many critics have blamed this aim for a decline in the quality of Pirandello’s later plays, which were viewed as overly intellectual, obscure, and lacking emotional vitality. Tilgher himself later wrote that ‘‘it would have been better if Pirandello had never read my essay. It is never good for a writer to be too conscious of his inner world, and my essay fixed Pirandello’s world in such clear and well-defined terms that Pirandello must have felt imprisoned in it, hence his protests that he was an artist and not a philosopher ... and hence his attempts to escape. But the more he tried to escape from the critical pigeon-holes into which I had placed him the more he shut himself into them.’’ Pirandello was bitterly disappointed by the critical and popular failure of his later dramas, a disappointment only partially mitigated by winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1934. However, after his death, critics began to question the utility and appropriateness of the life/form dichotomy as the principal critical approach to Pirandello’s works, and the rise of existentialist theory and of the Theater of the Absurd did much to alter the context of the debate on Pirandello.

The Contemporary Perspective. Pirandello is today viewed with a more sophisticated appreciation for his philosophical themes and with near universal esteem for all his works, including his later dramas. What was previously scorned as overly intellectual and incoherent is now respected for its provocative treatment of relativism and antirationalism. Pirandello foresaw the abatement of the critical controversy that he inspired during his lifetime, and he looked to that time when his works would be judged according to the artistic terms in which they were created.

Six Characters in Search of an Author. When Six Characters in Search of an Author was first performed in 1921, audiences were so shocked by its unconventional style that it caused riots. Although it ultimately proved successful with audiences, critics were initially less impressed. In the decades following its initial run, however, critics have come to recognize the work for its importance in the development of modern theater. According to scholar Anna Balakian, the point of the work was simple: ‘‘Pirandello wants to break down the rules the better to preserve the theater.’’ Umberto Mariani refers to it as a ‘‘revolutionary play’’ and notes, ‘‘Pirandello’s Six Characters reveals itself from the outset as thematically much more complex than his earlier masterpieces and far more original in form vis-a-vis the bourgeois theater at the turn of the century.’’ Fiora A. Bassanese calls the work ‘‘his greatest and most essential play.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. In a short essay, describe the humor Pirandello uses in Six Characters in Search of an Author. Explain how humor, irony, and unconventional form highlight the theme of the play.

2. Research the idea of ‘‘reality-testing,’’ a psychological phenomenon discerned by Sigmund Freud and many others. How can this concept help you better understand the behavior of the characters in one or more of Pirandello’s plays? What emotional effect do you think these characters’ reality-testing is likely to have on viewers or readers of the play(s)?

3. Examine Pirandello’s idea of the mask as an obstacle to mutual understanding between human beings. As a class, discuss specific statements by Pirandello on this theme, and explore the way the idea plays out in one of his dramas.

4. Use one of Pirandello’s plays to consider the concepts of truth, identity, and sanity. Discuss how Pirandello presents his message, either through the characters or through the play’s form.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bassanese, Fiora A. Understanding Luigi Pirandello. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

Biasin, Gian-Paolo, and Manuela Gieri. Luigi Pirandello. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Caesar, Ann. Characters and Authors in Luigi Pirandello. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Dashwood, Julie, ed. Luigi Pirandello: The Theatre of Paradox. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.

Gieri, Manuela. Contemporary Italian Filmmaking: Strategies of Subversion; Pirandello, Fellini, Scola, and the Directors of the New Generation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Nichols, Nina da Vinci, and Jana O’Keefe Bazzoni. Pirandello and Film. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Parilla, Catherine Arturi. A Theory for Reading Dramatic Texts: Selected Plays by Pirandello and Garcia Lorca. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.