Critical Context

Before 1916, Luigi Pirandello’s reputation was based exclusively on his novels and essays. He had always been drawn to the theater, but apparently he believed that his work would be misinterpreted and degraded there. In 1916, he was persuaded by an actor to have an old play of his staged, and it was remarkably successful. He turned primarily to the theater then and wrote many plays in the next eight years. Still it was not until his mid-fifties, with Sei personnaggi in cerca d’autore (pr., pb. 1921; Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1922) that he suddenly achieved international fame. Henry IV, his next play and in the opinion of many his greatest, was written in the aftermath of his phenomenal success in London and New York. It has a premise similar to that of the previous play. Like Six Characters in Search of an Author, it has six characters—the councillor Berthold and the five visitors, who arrive at the castle at the beginning of the play seeking roles to play, seeking to be shown how to behave. With Henry IV, Pirandello invented the vehicle best suited to transmit the ideas that were his life’s mission.

Henry IV expresses the themes that are Pirandello’s focus repeatedly in his plays—man’s compulsion to create a mask to protect the fragile self, his thirst for permanence in a world of painful flux, his confusion of appearance with reality. Also like Pirandello’s other plays, Henry IV moves back and forth between the poles of comedy and pathos, ultimately creating a complex response in which both are simultaneously present. Like the other plays, but with more disturbing effect, it offers the spectator a world that is as comic as it is tragic. Pirandello’s art confirms how immensely difficult it is to be certain about the world, how much of that world is colored by one’s subjective response to it. In that way, admittedly difficult to trace and even more difficult to measure, Pirandello’s plays have had a huge impact on most of the important twentieth century playwrights who followed him.