In Each in His Own Way, Luigi Pirandello playfully has one of his characters ask another to justify his incessant “harping on this illusion and reality string.” So persistent is Pirandello’s dramatic examination of the multiplicity of personality, the nature of truth, and the interplay between life and art that the term “Pirandellian” has become synonymous with the complexities that result from any attempt to define the fluid line between what is illusory and what is real. In his inquiry into the nature of truth, Pirandello constructs and demolishes layers of illusion, probing the multiple perceptions and identities of his characters to reveal yet conceal the “naked mask.” In his fascination with his own power as artist-creator, he dramatizes the dialectic between the fluid, spontaneous, sprawling nature of life and the fixed, predictable, and contained nature of art.
The typical Pirandellian character—Signora Ponza in Right You Are (If You Think So), for example, or Leone in The Rules of the Game—presents himself through both “mask” and “face,” a dichotomy that is more generally reflected in the playwright’s treatment of theater as both illusory and real. For Pirandello, character creation involves a less-than-subtle but endlessly clever interplay among the psychological, the social, and the theatrical, which consistently reiterates the playwright’s preoccupation with the multiple facets of reality and illusion.
The relationship between reality and illusion provided Pirandello with a seemingly inexhaustible fund of dramatic material. In part this is a tribute to his creative imagination, but it also suggests that this theme is not merely one among others, one that—as some critics have charged—has been worn out through overuse. Rather, the very nature of theater ensures that this theme will be forever fresh in the hands of a playwright who, like Pirandello, has the audacity to make it new.
Right You Are (If You Think So)
Right You Are (If You Think So), also known as It Is So! (If You Think So), is at once a traditional melodrama and a clever investigation into the nature of truth. The dramatic question propelling the play’s action involves the identity of Signora Ponza, the woman whom Signor Ponza claims is his second wife and Signora Frola claims is her daughter. A group of curious members of the community into which the trio has recently moved is determined to discover the truth and, in a series of revelations, is led to believe first Signor Ponza and then Signora Frola. In order for either to be believed, however, the other must be thought to be mentally unstable. Signor Ponza’s story is that Signora Frola was the mother of his first wife, who died, but for her sake he has continued the pretense that his present wife is her daughter. Signora Frola’s story is that the woman is indeed her daughter and that during the daughter’s illness, which necessitated her stay at a nursing home, Signor Ponza went mad. Believing that his wife had died, he refused to accept her as his wife on her return, marrying her a second time as though she were another woman. The two claims are logically irreconcilable: Signora Ponza cannot be both Ponza’s second wife and Signora Frola’s daughter.
The neatly constructed plot unfolds gradually as each new piece of information is revealed. Instead of adding to what has already been established, however, each new bit of information invalidates what was previously believed, leaving the town gossips, as well as the audience, suspicious and unsure. The promise of relief by forthcoming official records from the trio’s previous residence is short-lived, for an earthquake has destroyed all evidence. Encouraged by Laudisi, who is amused by the others’ insistence on one truth when he knows there may be several, the townspeople confront the veiled Signora Ponza herself, who reveals that she is both Signor Ponza’s second wife and Signora Frola’s daughter. The reply satisfies no one but Laudisi, but it is, as Signora Ponza understands, the only solution that compassion will allow.
In his monograph on Modernism in Modern Drama (1966), Joseph Wood Krutch speaks of Pirandello as making the most crucial denial of all: the denial of the existence of a continuous, identifiable self. The play, however, is less a modern skeptic’s dramatization of the dissolution of self than it is a forceful suggestion that truth is not an external, objective fact but an internal, psychological reality. In demonstrating dramatically that Signora Ponza is both women, depending on what her perceiver chooses her to be, Right You Are (If You Think So) sets the stage for Pirandello’s subsequent, more complex inquiries into the nature of reality and illusion.
Six Characters in Search of an Author
The first of a trilogy of stage plays that includes Each in His Own Way and Tonight We Improvise, Six Characters in Search of an Author is a spectacularly theatrical play that leaves its audience as confused as the Stage Manager and Actors whom a family of Characters interrupts, hoping that they will dramatize its story. Those Characters—the Father, his estranged wife, his son, and three stepchildren—claim to have been created by an author who, having given them life, has abandoned them. Driven by the need for self-actualization, the Father insists on enacting—or living—the family’s story onstage, which the Characters do in increasingly provocative episodes that culminate in the drowning of one child and the suicide of another.
Some years earlier, when the couple had only one child, the Father recognized the attraction his wife had for an employee, so he sent the two of them off to live in a common-law relationship that resulted in three children. A number of years later, the Father visits Madame Pace’s brothel, where the Stepdaughter has been forced, by poverty, to work, and he then becomes her client. The Father insists that the Mother’s interruption of the encounter and the discovery of the young woman’s identity prevented a consummation, but the Stepdaughter’s bitterness hints otherwise.
The family’s intensely emotional story constitutes the dramatic...
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