Pirandello, Luigi

views updated May 11 2018

Luigi Pirandello

BORN: 1867, Agirgenti, Sicily, Italy

DIED: 1936, Rome, Italy


GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry

The Late Mattia Pascal (1904)
Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921)
Henry IV (1922)


Luigi Pirandello was a controversial artist whose work traversed many genres and media. He was, first and fore-most, 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. Liolà, (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 Liolà: 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.


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.

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.


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 Céline. This novel chronicles the life of a misadventurer who stumbles through both war and peace with a savage, laughing hatred for humanity.

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-à-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 high-light 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.



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 García Lorca. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

Pirandello, Luigi

views updated May 11 2018


Nationality: Italian. Born: Agrigento, Sicily, 28 June 1867. Education: Schools in Agrigento to 1882, and Palermo to 1886; University of Palermo, 1886-87; University of Rome, 1887-89; University of Bonn, 1889-91, received doctorate. Family: Married Antonietta Portulano in 1894 (she was committed to a mental clinic from 1919); two sons and one daughter. Career: Writer in Rome from 1891; teacher, Regio Istituto Superiore di Magistero Femminile, 1897-1922; co-editor, Ariel, 1898; financial disaster in 1903 forced him to increase income by tutoring and working as traveling examination commissioner; became involved in the theater during World War I; director, with Nino Martoglio, Teatro Mediterraneo troupe, Rome, 1919; co-founder, Teatro d'Arte di Roma, 1924-28; joined Fascist party, 1924, but relations with it were strained; lived outside Italy, mainly in Berlin and Paris, 1928-33. Awards: Nobel prize for literature, 1934. Member: Italian Academy; Legion of Honor (France). Died: 10 December 1936.



Opere. 6 vols., 1956-60.

Collected Plays. 1985—.

Short Stories

Amori senza amore. 1894.

Beffe della morte e della vita. 2 vols., 1902-03.

Quand'ero matto…. 1902.

Bianche e nere. 1904.

Erma bifronte. 1906.

La vita nuda. 1910; as The Naked Truth, 1934.

Terzetti. 1912.

La trappola. 1913.

Le due maschere. 1914; as Tu Ridi, 1920.

Erba del nostro orto. 1915.

E domani lunedi. 1917.

Un cavallo nella luna. 1918; as The Horse in the Moon, 1932.

Berecche e la guerra. 1919.

Il carnevale dei morti. 1919.

Novelle per un anno. 15 vols., 1922-38; 2 vols., 1944.

Better Think Twice about It. 1933.

Four Tales. 1939; as Limes from Sicily and Other Stories, 1942.

Short Stories, edited by Frederick May. 1965.

Tales of Madness, edited by Giovanni R. Bussino. 1984.

Tales of Suicide, edited by Giovanni R. Bussino. 1988.


L'esclusa. 1901; as The Outcast, 1925.

Il turno. 1902.

Il fu Mattia Pascal. 1904; revised edition, 192l; as The Late Mattia Pascal, 1923.

Suo marito. 1911; as Giustino Roncella nato Boggiolo, 1953.

I vecchi e i giovani. 2 vols., 1913; as The Old and the Young, 2 vols., 1928.

Si gira…. 1916; as Quaderni di Serafino Gubbio, operatore, 1925; as Shoot!, 1926; as The Notebook of Serafino Gubbio, or Shoot!, 1990.

Uno, nessuno, e centomila. 1926; as One, None and a Hundred Thousand, 1933; as One, No One and One Hundred Thousand, 1990.

A Character in Distress. 1938.


L'epilogo. 1898; as La morsa (produced 1910), 1926; as The Vise, in One-Act Plays, 1928.

Samandro (produced 1928). 1909.

Lumie di Sicilia (produced 1910). 1911; as Sicilian Limes, in One-Act Plays, 1928.

Il dovere di medico. 1912; as The Doctor's Duty, in One-Act Plays, 1928.

Se non cosi (produced 1915). 1915; revised version, as Le ragione degli altri, 1921.

L'aria del continente, with Nino Martoglio (produced 1916).

Pensaci Giacomino! (produced 1916). 1917.

La giara (produced 1916). 1925; as The Jar, in One-Act Plays, 1928.

Il berretto a sonagli (produced 1916). 1918.

Liolà (produced 1916). 1917; translated as Liola, in Naked Masks, 1952; revised version, music by Giuseppe Mule (produced 1935).

'A vilanza, with Nino Martoglio (produced 1917).

Cosi e (si vi pare) (produced 1917). 1918; as Right You Are (If You Think So), in Three Plays, 1922; as It Is So (If You Think So), in Naked Masks, 1952.

Il piacere dell'onesta (produced 1918). 1918; as The Pleasure of Honesty, in Each in His Own Way and Two Other Plays, 1923.

Il giuoco delle parti (produced 1918). 1919; as The Rules of the Game, in Three Plays, 1959.

Ma non e una cosa seria (produced 1918). 1919.

La patente (produced 1919). 1918; as By Judgment of the Court, inOne-Act Plays, 1928.

L'uomo, la bestia, e la virtu (produced 1919). 1922.

'U ciclopu, from Cyclops by Euripides (produced 1919). 1967.

L'innesto (produced 1919). 1921.

Come prima, meglio di prima (produced 1920). 1921.

Tutto per bene, from his novella (produced 1920). 1920; as All for the Best, 1960.

La signora Morli, una e due (produced 1920). 1922.

Cece (produced 1920). 1926; as Chee-Chee, in One-Act Plays, 1928.

Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore, from his novella (produced1921). 1921; as Six Characters in Search of an Author, in Three Plays, 1922.

Vestire gl'ignudi (produced 1922). 1923; as Naked, in Each In His Own Way and Two Other Plays, 1923; as To Clothe the Naked, 1962.

Enrico IV (produced 1922). 1922; as Henry IV, in Three Plays, 1922.

L'imbecille (produced 1922). 1926; as The Imbecile, in One-Act Plays, 1928.

All'uscita (produced 1922). 1926; as At the Gate, in One-Act Plays, 1928.

La vita che ti diedi (produced 1923). 1924; as The Life I Gave You, in Three Plays, 1959.

L'altro figlio (produced 1923). 1925; as The House with the Column, in One-Act Plays, 1928.

L'uomo dal fiore in bocca, from his novella (produced 1919). 1926; as The Man with the Flower in His Mouth, in One-Act Plays, 1928.

Ciascuno a suo modo (produced 1924). 1924; as Each in His Own Way, 1923.

La sagra del signore della nave (produced 1925). 1925; as Our Lord of the Ship, in One-Act Plays, 1928.

Diana e la Tuda (produced 1926). 1927; as Diana and Tuda, 1950. L'amica delle mogli (produced 1927). 1927; as The Wives' Friend, 1960.

La nuova colonia (produced 1928). 1928; as The New Colony, inThe Mountain Giants and Other Plays, 1958.

Lazzaro (produced 1928). 1929; as Lazarus, 1952.

La salamandra, music by Massimo Bontempelli (produced 1928).

Bellavita (produced 1928?). 1937. O di uno o di nessuno (produced 1929?). 1929.

Questa sera si recita a soggetto (produced 1930). 1930; as Tonight We Improvise, 1932.

Come tu mi vuoi. 1930; as As You Desire Me, 1931.

Sogno (ma forse no) (produced 1931). 1936.

Trovarsi. 1932; as To Find Oneself, 1960.

Quando si e qualcuno (produced 1933). 1933; as When Someone Is Somebody, in The Mountain Giants and Other Plays, 1958.

La favola del figlio cambiato, music by Malpiero (produced1933). 1938.

Non si sa come (produced 1934). 1935; as No One Knows How, 1963.

I giganti della montagna (unfinished). 1938; as The Mountain Giants, 1958.

Naked Masks: Five Plays, edited by Eric Bentley. 1952.


Pantera nera, with Arnaldo Frateili, 1920; Acciaio, with Stefano Landi, 1933; Pensaci Giacomino!, with others, 1935.


Mal giocondo. 1889.

Pasqua di Gea. 1891.

Pier Gudrò. 1894.

Elegie renane. 1895.

Zampogna. 1901.

Fuori di chiave. 1912.


Laute und Lautentwicklung der Mundart von Girgenti. 1891; asThe Sounds of the Girgenti Dialect, and Their Development, edited by Giovanni R. Bussino, 1992.

Arte e Scienza. 1908.

L'umorismo. 1908; as On Humor, edited by Antonio Illiano and Daniel P. Testa, 1974.

Pirandello in the Theatre: A Documentary Record, edited by Jennifer Lorch and Susan Basnett. 1988.

Pirandello e il cinema; con una raccolta completa degli scritti teorici e creativi, edited by Francesco Callari. 1991.

Pirandello's Love Letters to Marta Abba. 1994.

Translator, La filologia romanza, by Fed. Neumann. 1893.

Translator, Elegie romane, by Goethe. 1896.


Critical Studies:

The Drama of Pirandello by D. Vittorini, 1935; The Age of Pirandello by Lander McClintock, 1951; Pirandello and the French Theatre by Thomas Bishop, 1960; Pirandello by Oscar Büdel, 1966; Pirandello: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Glauco Cambon, 1967; Pirandello 1867-1936 by Walter Starkie, 4th edition, 1967; Pirandello's Theatre: The Recovery of the Modern Stage for Dramatic Art by Anne Paolucci, 1974; Pirandello: A Biography by Gaspare Giudici, 1975; The Mirror of Our Anguish: A Study of Pirandello's Narrative Writings by Douglas Radcliff-Umstead, 1978; Pirandello: An Approach to His Theatre by Olga Ragusa, 1980; Pirandello, Director: The Playwright in the Theatre by A. Richard Sogliuzzo, 1982; Pirandello by Susan Basnett-McGuire, 1983; Understanding Luigi Pirandello by Fiora A. Bassanese, 1997; Pirandello and His Muse: The Plays for Marta Abba by Daniela Bini, 1998; Characters and Authors in Luigi Pirandello by Ann Caesar, 1998.

* * *

Luigi Pirandello entitled his collected short stories Novelle per un anno (Stories for a Year), as it was his original intention to write 365 of them. He had written 233 when he died in 1936, having contributed steadily to the genre throughout his lifetime. While he is better known for his plays, which were nearly all written in his last 20 years, the short story remained for him an irreplaceable vehicle because of the quality of concentration necessitated by its brevity and discipline. His relativism—the passionate commitment to uncertainty that rendered authorial omniscience an impossibility—led him increasingly to cast his stories in the form of monologues, in which the protagonist tells the tale in first person either directly to the reader or within some dramatic framing device to a fictive listener; alternatively it may be told in the third person by means of free indirect speech or, still from a single standpoint, by an observer who is in some way connected with the protagonist. All writing, for Pirandello, was a subjective exercise, and his short stories in particular derive their note of urgency and intensity from the personal involvement of the fictional narrator.

The inexhaustible diversity of narrative voices does not hide the common factor: the dark nihilistic vision that permeates Pirandello's short fiction, which is darker perhaps than the best-known and most-often translated stories might lead the general reader to suspect. At the bottom of the pit are stories like "The Trap," "Nothing," "Destruction of the Man," "The Little Red Notebook," "The Fly," and "In Silence," in which life is held cheap, humanity is brutish, and death sets in at birth, coming quickly for those who are lucky. Every form of suffering is portrayed, from the physical and factual (disease, deformity, idiocy, bereavement, poverty, bankruptcy, and starvation) to the metaphysical (despair, awareness of mortality, and the all-pervasive sense of the meaninglessness of life). There are countless stories of suicide. For two reasons misery is universal: the world is the plaything of chance and human consciousness is in itself a source of pain.

Paradox and the unexpected play a large part in these stories. Not the least paradoxical feature is their humor, or that blend of irony and compassion that Pirandello called umorismo. He has a rare eye for life's contradictions, for its incongruous characters (the visionary lawyer, the pagan priest, the euphoric prisoner, the murderous child, the peace-loving soldier, and the often-recurring lucid madman), and for its incongruous ceremonies (marriages are frequently despairing while funerals can be hilarious). Animals are often introduced to demonstrate the perverse irrationality of life. In "The Black Kid," a farcical threnody on the passingness of human attachments, the English girl abroad is enchanted by the graceful young creature of the title, and on her return to England sends for it. The literal-minded vice-consul in Agrigento carries out her wishes and despatches the adult, stinking, and dung-encrusted billy-goat as requested. In "Cinci" a child murders another, provoked to indignation on behalf of a threatened lizard. A good many stories are set in Sicily, and in these particularly animals are the agents of chance; dogs, cats, flies, horses, and crows are all unwitting destroyers.

A corollary of this is that in a world without purpose or pattern, in which all experience is subjective, random objects can suddenly assume a disproportionate significance: a blade of grass ("Chants the Epistle") or a torn sleeve ("The Tight Frock-Coat") can change the course of a life, while sanity can be lost or calm restored by the observation of a pair of shoes ("Somebody's Died in the Hotel") or a sheet of wrapping-paper ("The Man with the Flower in His Mouth"). Recurring inanimate symbols stress life's littleness and limitations (traps, cages, ill-fitting garments, dim claustrophobic interiors, the fly struggling in the glass of water), and its transience: from layettes and trousseaus preserved but never worn, to all the paraphernalia of ageing. Often a chance encounter between strangers in a café or a railway train prompts the confessional urge, and the story's setting appears in itself as an image of impermanence. In contrast a large number of Pirandello's characters in their insignificance and ugliness are moved to raise their sights and draw some consolation, with or without a telescope, from the contemplation of the stars.

The compelling quality in Pirandello's stories that keeps his reader turning the pages is a sense of vision, the suggestion that in spite of all disclaimers to omniscience, the author, in whatever person he is writing, has access to some secret knowledge, some key to an understanding of the universe. And from time to time a character experiences something very close to a mystical revelation. In "The Wheelbarrow" the sober lawyer-protagonist is traveling by train, staring with unseeing eyes at the passing countryside. He becomes aware that his spirit is somehow floating free in some distant dimension, where it is able to apprehend a new and alien mode of being that promises spiritual wholeness and fulfilment. The moment of vision permanently alters the lawyer's perspective. He sees his physical existence and family circumstances as irrelevant and constricting, and thereafter he feels the need to devote five minutes of every day to an act of complete irrationality. To reassure himself of his existential freedom, he locks his study door and plays at wheelbarrows with his dog.

The caricatural element is strong. Grotesque faces and contorted bodies abound to reinforce the sense of the irrelevance of physical appearance and the discrepancy that exists for Pirandello in every sphere between the inner world and the outer. The fat bore at the watering-spa maintains that his mountainous flesh conceals "a cherubic infant soul" ("Bitter Waters"), and the brutalized one-eyed sulphur miner shed tears of consolation at his first sight of the moon ("Ciaula Discovers the Moon"). Inwardly triumphant, a short-sighted theologian vindicates the scholarship of a lifetime in "Professor Lamis' Vengeance," unaware that he is addressing only a bunch of steaming macintoshes, while a lovelorn bridegroom on his wedding night expires in the moonlight beside the carcass of a dead horse.

In his 15 volumes of short stories Pirandello demonstrates through a multitude of disparate narratives voices that there is no limit to the number of ways in which the world may be perceived.

—Felicity Firth

See the essay on "War."

Luigi Pirandello

views updated May 23 2018

Luigi Pirandello

The works of the Italian playwright, novelist, and critic Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) generally portray Italian middle-class society. Combining relativistic thinking with a specific Pirandellian brand of humor, he probed the conflict between essence and appearance.

With Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, Luigi Pirandello revolutionized modern drama in all its aspects, from staging to the form of the play. His own specific contribution to the modern theater should be seen in the fact that he imposed upon the art form of theater itself the principles of analytic decomposition which Ibsen was still content to apply to human psychology.

Pirandello was born on June 28, 1867, in Girgenti (now Agrigento), Sicily, the son of a prosperous sulfur mine owner. He received his first schooling in Girgenti, and his formative years were spent at the universities of Palermo, Rome, and Bonn, where he obtained his doctorate in 1891 with a thesis on his native dialect. Upon his return to Italy he entered literary life and wrote his first novel in an artists' colony on Monte Cavo near Rome. In 1894 Pirandello married the daughter of a business associate of his father's, and the couple moved to Rome, where their three children were born. After some years Pirandello accepted a position as professor of Italian at Rome's R. Istituto di Magistero Femminile and in 1908 obtained the chair of Italian language and stylistics at the same institution.

Through a flooding of his father's mine in 1903, Pirandello lost his patrimony as well as his wife's substantial dowry, which had been invested in his father's business. Upon learning of the disaster, his wife suffered a shock and developed a paranoid condition which progressively worsened. She remained with the family, but as the scenes of jealousy became more trying, she was admitted to a nursing home in 1919 and remained there until her death in 1959. There is no doubt that Pirandello's peculiar approach to the problems of essence and appearance was conditioned by this firsthand experience: he once said that a madwoman had led his hand for 15 long years. Throughout this time Pirandello continued his writing, scarcely noted by the rank and file of Italy's critics, and only the clamorous success of Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore (1921; Six Characters in Search of an Author) brought him national recognition and international fame.

In 1924, at a critical time for the regime following the Matteotti murder in June, Pirandello joined the Fascist party, and in September of the same year he founded, with state support, the Teatro d'Arte di Roma, of which he became director. From this time dates his friendship with Marta Abba, the leading actress of the troupe and his second muse. Mainly staging plays of Pirandello, the troupe went on several foreign tours, to England, France, and Germany (1925), to Vienna, Prague, and Budapest (1926), and to South America (1928). This venture proved too costly in the end, and the Teatro d'Arte was dissolved in 1928. Beginning with this year Pirandello took up frequent and extensive residences abroad, especially in Paris and Berlin.

In 1929 Pirandello was elected a member of the newly founded Accademia d'Italia, and in 1934 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He was a tall man with a pointed beard and piercing eyes. Pirandello died on Dec. 10, 1936, in his Roman apartment, which subsequently was declared a national monument and houses the Centro di Studi Pirandelliani. Pirandello's ashes were transferred to his birthplace, where they now rest in a huge rock under a solitary pine tree, a setting he had imagined for his birth in his unfinished Informazioni sul mio involontario soggiorno sulla terra.

Career as a Playwright

Analytical in nature and for the most part lacking in action, Pirandello's plays are dialectical disquisitions on essence and appearance, illusion and reality, the problem of personal identity, the impossibility of objective truth and of communication. His dramatic production (some 43 plays in all) is thus an illustration of his relativistic and pessimistic tenets and philosophical beliefs. As he conceived of his probe into these aspects mainly as a process of unmasking, he published his collected plays under the title Maschere nude (Naked Masks).

Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore (1921), the first play of a trilogy, is an inquiry into the esthetic problems involved in translating the "ideal reality" of the six characters into the casual reality of the stage, represented by the actors and its transitory contingencies of time. The action is continually interrupted by comments paralleling it, the characters themselves are drawn as types, and the stage directions even recommend that they wear masks. Their story is only incidental to the more important aspect of the play, the clash and exchange between the two worlds of art and life.

In the second play, Ciascuno a suo modo (1924; Each in His Own Way), this analytical preoccupation comes out even more clearly in that the dialectical approach is carried to the point where action and ensuing reflection on it are already sharply defined in the outer form of the play: after each of the two acts there follow intermezzi corali, in which the preceding action is discussed. In the last play of the trilogy, Questa sera si recita a soggetto (1930; Tonight We Improvise), we see the consequences of this approach; it no longer makes any pretense at taking seriously the play within the play: the director, Dr. Hinkfuss, has his actors improvise on a scenario, a short story by Pirandello.

Many of Pirandello's one-act plays, such as Il berretto a sonagli (1918), Liolà (1917), La giara (short story 1909; play 1917), La patente (short story 1911; play 1918), and Lumie di Sicilia (short story 1900; play 1911) draw thematically on his Sicilian environment and belong to his regional-naturalistic production; some of them were originally even written in Sicilian dialect.

The great bulk of Pirandello's later production, however, is concerned with the concept of the mask in its different aspects: for Pirandello, the fiction, the mask alone, either self-imposed or, as in most cases, forced on by society, makes life possible. If this mask is ever torn off, willingly or by force, man is no longer able to live, to function in a society based upon the law of common fictions: either he returns to wearing his mask, to "living" the life of the dead, or he becomes "crazy, " "insane" as far as society is concerned. By refusing to wear the mask, Pirandello's characters in the eyes of this world choose death. Thus they may die the symbolical death of insanity, or they may choose to take their own lives in earnest and throw away with their lives the mask and imposed form, as does Ersilia Drei ofVestire gli ignudi (1923; Naked). They even may, willingly, choose a mask as a token of their freedom, as does the protagonist of Enrico IV (1922; Henry IV), one of Pirandello's strongest plays. He chooses to wear the mask of insanity in full consciousness, a decision he has sealed with a murder; and, ironically, society—the world of the masks—cannot hold him responsible because he has taken refuge behind a mask and beaten society at its own game.

Other plays center more directly on Pirandello's relativistic convictions concerning reality and illusion. Thus Cosìè (se vi pare) (1918; Right You Are If You Think You Are) explores the dual aspect of truth. His later plays, such as Diana e la Tuda (1927), Trovarsi (1932), Quando si è qualcuno (1933), are too-rigid exemplifications of the "life versus form" formula the Italian critic Adriano Tilgher had coined for Pirandello's production at the time. Of the trilogy on "modern myths" which Pirandello had envisaged, he completed only the first two plays. La nuova colonia (1928) portrays the rather pessimistic chances he gives society for a decent communal life, whereas Lazzaro (1929), his "religious myth, " voices his pantheistic religious convictions. The last of these plays, the "myth of art, " I giganti della montagna (1938; The Mountain Giants), remained unfinished.

The Novels

Whereas Pirandello's importance as an innovator in the field of drama is undisputed, in general his novels do not depart from the conventional form of the genre. Thus his first novel, L'esclusa (1901; The Outcast), and the short novel Il turno (1902) are written in the realist tradition.

With Il fu Mattia Pascal (1904; The Late Mattia Pascal), a novel that clearly carries the imprint of Pirandello's characteristic later approach, he first asserted himself on the international scene. Its theme is intrinsically connected with Pirandello's concept of the mask and the antinomy between reality and illusion. The hero, Mattia Pascal, flees what are to him unbearable situations—"masks" he is forced to wear—only to realize that these flights were in vain, for he does not have the courage to cope with the ensuing consequences.

Giustino Roncella nato Boggiòlo, first published under the title Suo marito (1911), treats an important aspect of Pirandello's concept of artistic creation: the antinomy between life and art. I vecchi e i giovani (1913; The Young and the Old) is a historical novel that covers the events in Italy between 1892 and 1894. The following novel, Si gira (1915), published later as Quaderni di Serafino Gubbio operatore (1932), again focuses on the problematic relationship between life and art, which is seen here through the world of cinematographic art. Pirandello's last novel, Uno, nessuno e centomila (1925-1926; One, None, and a Hundred Thousand), is a series of disconnected observations on the motif of the plurality of personality.

Short Stories and Criticism

As he intended to write one short story per day of the year, Pirandello published his stories with the collective title Novelle per un anno. The definitive edition, however, contains only about 232 stories (1922-1937). It may well be that Pirandello's short stories will remain the most durable part of his work. They contain a host of motifs and often develop themes and plots taken up in full in later novels or plays. Thus the story Quand'ero matto. … (1902) anticipates Uno, nessuno e centomila, and Colloqui coi personaggi I, II (1915) and La tragedia di un personaggio (1911) contain the nucleus of Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore. Il pipistrello (1919) exemplifies art-life antinomy in a casuistical manner; the problem of the mask and man's flight from it is the concern of stories such as Il treno ha fischiato (1914), La maschera dimenticata (1918), and La carriola (1917).

Many of Pirandello's essays explore problems of artistic creation such as Illustratori, attori e traduttori (1908). Arte e scienza (1908) discusses esthetic theory and contains also a categorical rejection of Benedetto Croce's esthetics. Pirandello's major essay L'umorismo (1908) establishes his own concept of humor.

Further Reading

The most recent and concise study of Pirandello in English is Oscar Büdel, Pirandello (1966; 2d ed. 1969). Important previous English studies are Walter Starkie, Luigi Pirandello (1926; 3d rev. ed. 1965), and Domenico Vittorini, The Drama of Luigi Pirandello (1935). Recommended for general historical background are Eric Bentley, The Playwright as Thinker (1946), and Lander McClintock, The Age of Pirandello (1951).

Additional Sources

Giudice, Gaspare, Pirandello: a biography, London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1975. □

Pirandello, Luigi

views updated May 29 2018

Pirandello, Luigi (1867–1936) Italian dramatist, novelist, and short-story writer. Among his plays are Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) and As You Desire Me (1930). His novels include The Late Mattia Pascal (1923). His work explores the boundaries between reality and illusion. He won the 1934 Nobel Prize in literature.