Pirandello, Luigi (Drama Criticism)
Luigi Pirandello 1867-1936
One of the most important dramatists of the twentieth century, Pirandello prompted a reevaluation of traditional stagecraft through his innovative use of philosophical themes and experimentation with dramatic structure. Preoccupied with the relationships of reality to appearances and of sanity to madness, he often portrayed characters who adopt multiple identities, or "masks," in an effort to reconcile social demands with personal needs. He was closely associated with the Theater of the Grotesque, a dramatic school that stressed the paradoxes and contradictions of life, and was also deeply concerned with making literature a more truthful and effective means for conveying human experience. Toward this end he developed the aesthetic theory of "humorism," which he defined as a. mingling of comedy and tragedy to produce simultaneous emotional awareness of both of these aspects of the human condition.
Pirandello was born in Sicily to a prosperous sulphur merchant. Although his father initially sent him to study commerce at the local technical institute, Pirandello found the subject uninteresting and transferred to an academic secondary school, where he excelled in oratory and literature. After graduation, Pirandello attended universities in Palermo, Rome, and finally Bonn, where he earned a doctorate in Romance philology. After his father arranged Pirandello's marriage to Antonietta Portulano, the daughter of a business partner, the couple settled together in Rome and had three children. To support his family, Pirandello was forced to take a position as professor at a women's normal school. In 1904 he realized his first critical success with the novel Il fu Mattia Pascal (The Late Mattia Pascal), but this was overshadowed when his father's sulphur 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 delusional and hostile, and was eventually institutionalized. The pressure of Pirandello's personal situation spurred a period of intense creativity from 1916 to 1922, which culminated in the production of his two greatest dramas, Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author) and Enrico IV (Henry IV)....
(The entire section is 249 words.)
Although Pirandello's first dramas were not staged until he was forty-three years of age, by the time of his death he had written over forty plays. In his most famous work, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Pirandello described the plight of six characters who interrupt the rehearsal of another Pirandello play to demand that their stories be acted out. His acknowledgment of the stage as the location of a theatrical performance—a place where life is only simulated—startled audiences and critics alike and heralded the self-conscious use of the theater that is a hallmark of modernist drama. Pirandello followed the success of Six Characters with Henry IV, which many critics consider his greatest work. Written four years after he had his wife committed, Henry IV is an expression of the concern with madness that had been prevalent in Pirandello's personal life and in his art. The play depicts a man who, as the result of an injury suffered at the hands of a rival, believes he is Henry IV. Eventually, he regains his sanity but in a fit of rage kills his rival, so that he must feign continued madness to avoid the consequences of his deed.
(The entire section is 200 words.)
Pirandello described his dramatic works as a "theater of mirrors" in which the audience sees events 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, he attacked abstract models of objective reality and theories of a static human personality. For these reasons, many critics have labelled him a pessimist and a relativist; others, noting the strong sense of compassion for his characters that Pirandello conveys, contend that Pirandello is not preaching a definable ideology, but is simply expressing his acute consciousness of the absurdities and paradoxes of human life.
(The entire section is 114 words.)
Cosí è (se vi pare) [Right You Are! (If You Think So)] 1917
Il piacere dell'onestà [The Pleasure of Honesty] 1917
L'uomo, la bestia e la virtù [Man, Beast, and Virtue] 1919
Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore [Six Characters in Search of an Author] 1921
Enrico IV [Henry IV] 1922
Vestire gli ignudi [Naked] 1922
Ciascuno a suo modo [Each in His Own Way] 1924
Come tu mi vuoi [As You Desire Me] 1930
Maschere nude [Naked Masks] 10 vols. 1930-38
Questa sera si recita a soggetto [Tonight We Improvise] 1930
I giganti della montagna [The Mountain Giants] 1937
OTHER MAJOR WORKS
Mal giocondo (poetry) 1889
Amori senza amore (short stories) 1894
Beffe della morte e della vita (short stories) 1902
II fu Mattia Pascal [The Late Mattia Pascal] (novel) 1904
Erma bifronte [Two-faced Herma] (short stories) 1906
L'esclusa [The Outcast] (novel) 1908
(The entire section is 167 words.)
Pirandello Confesses … Why and How He Wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author (1925)
SOURCE: The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, April, 1925, pp. 36-52.
[The following is a translation of Pirandello's preface to Six Characters.]
I had to, to escape from … well, that is what I am going to explain.
As I have written elsewhere, the lively little maid-servant who for years and years now (though it seems as though it were only since yesterday) has been waiting on my writing, is for all that not so new at her work. She is often of a somewhat scornful and jesting humor, this Fantasia of mine. If, now and then, she is of a humor to dress in black, there is no denying that her solemn apparel is often extremely odd. But if you think that this is her usual style of dress, you are very much mistaken. Time and time again I've seen her put her hand in her pocket and pull out a fool's cap, red as a cox-comb, and all a-jingle with its tiny bells. This she claps on her head, and off she goes! Here today, and somewhere else tomorrow!—And she persists in bringing back with her the most disgruntled beings imaginable and filling up my house with them—men, women and children, all involved in the most extraordinary and complicated situations—their plans frustrated, their hopes deluded—in short, people it is often very uncomfortable to deal...
(The entire section is 6106 words.)
Overviews And General Studies
Eric Bentley (essay date 1946)
SOURCE: "Varieties of Comic Experience," in The Playwright as Thinker: A Study of Drama in Modern Times, Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946, pp. 127-57.
[In the following excerpt, Bentley characterizes Pirandello as a pessimist who speaks for the people "who have lived through the extraordinary vicissitudes of the twentieth century, uncomprehending passively suffering. "]
Since Shaw and Wilde no dramatist has written first-rate drawing-room comedies. The best have been by our Maughams and Behrmans and Bernsteins. Writers have been turning from the formality of the drawing room toward a grotesqueness which, in its nearness to commedia dell' arte or to Aristophanes, may seem more primitive, yet which, in its psychological depth and intricacy, may well be more sophisticated. Strindberg … sometimes achieved comedy by giving a quick twist to one of his own tragic themes. Wedekind aimed at tragedy, but by the novel method of using almost exclusively comic materials, thus reversing the technique of Strindberg's comedies. In Italy it teatro del grottesco arose. Its spokesman Luigi Chiarelli said: "It was impossible [in the years immediately preceding 1914] to go to the theater without meeting languid, loquacious granddaughters of Marguerite Gautier or Rosa Bernd, or some tardy follower of Oswald or Cyrano. The public dropped sentimental...
(The entire section is 23563 words.)
Stark Young (review date 22 November 1922)
SOURCE: "Brains," in The New Republic, Vol. XXXII, No. 416, 22 November 1922, pp. 335-36.
[An American playwright, poet, and novelist, Young was a prominent member of the Agrarian group of Southern poets with Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and several others, from 1928 until the mid-1950s. He served for twenty years as drama critic for such journals as the New York Times, and the best of this criticism is collected in Immortal Shadows: A Book of Dramatic Criticism (1948). He is especially acclaimed for his translations of Anton Chekhov's dramas. In the following review of the 1922 stage production of Six Characters in Search of an Author in New York City, he maintains that Pirandello's drama shows a "brilliant originality" and is a "fine theatrical piece. "]
We can judge the excellence of a man's legs by how well he can run or jump or dance, and can see easily enough how much eye for color he has. And we can judge his ear for music. We know how strong his muscles are by what he can lift, move or endure. Happily by some kind fortune this does not hold of the mind. We have no reason to believe that there is any higher average of mental endowment of its kind than there is of the eyes for color or of muscles or musical ears. But there is no...
(The entire section is 3958 words.)
Olga Ragusa (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: "Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore," in Luigi Pirandello: An Approach to His Theatre, Edinburgh University Press, 1980, pp. 137-69.
[Ragusa is an Italian-born American critic and educator with a special interest in Italian literature. In the following excerpt, she offers a thematic and structural analysis of Six Characters in Search of an Author.]
Multifacetedness (poliedricità), wrote Lampedusa, is the distinguishing characteristic of works of absolute first rank. Because Sei personaggi possesses this quality and presents different aspects of itself to different viewers, I judge it a work difficult enough to require exegesis and rich enough to withstand it. Of the three bodies of material that for purposes of analysis can be seen as constituting distinct structural elements in the play—(1) the story of the Characters' lives, (2) the attempt on the part of Manager and Actors to turn this story into a play, and (3) Pirandello's own telling of the story within his representation of the Company's attempt to give it shape—it is the first that in early productions attracted the greatest share of attention and that continues to awaken a good deal of perplexity even today. An inveterate habit of mind demands an answer to the question. 'What exactly did happen?' and conceives of the question as referring to Father, Mother,...
(The entire section is 14282 words.)
Stark Young (review date 6 February 1924)
SOURCE: "The Pirandello Play," in The New Republic, Vol. XXXVn, No. 479, 6 February 1924, p. 287.
[In the following review of the New York City stage production of Henry IV, Young criticizes the acting as weak but lauds the drama's "intellectual beauty."]
The Pirandello play at the Forty-Fourth Street Theatre is important not by reason of any display or novelty or foreign importation but through the mere occurrence on our stage of a real intellectual impact, a high and violent world of concepts and living. So far as the practical end of it goes Pirandello's Henry IV is difficult for our theatre. Its range and complexity of ideas are made more difficult by the presentation that it gets now and that it would be almost sure to get one way or another in any of our theatres.
The play is fortunate in its translation, certainly; Mr. Livingston's rendering is both alive and exact, and especially in the second act, where the thought is more involved, Mr. Livingston achieves an unusual quality of distinction. Mr. Robert Edmond Jones's two settings—save for the two portraits in the first scene, which obviously should be modern realistic in the midst of the antique apartment—are ahead of anything Pirandello would be apt to get in Italy, more precisely in the mood...
(The entire section is 14201 words.)
Guidice, Gaspare. Pirandello: A Biography, translated by Alastair Hamilton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, 221 p.
Abridged translation of the standard critical biography.
OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
Bassnett-McGuire, Susan. Luigi Pirandello. New York: Grove Press, 1983, 190 p.
Thematic survey of Pirandello's dramas.
Bazzoni, Jana O'Keefe. "The Carnival Motif in Pirandello." Modern Drama XXX, No. 3 (September 1987): 414-25.
Emphasizes the importance of the carnival motif, concluding that "Pirandello's drama is carnevalesque because it celebrates the struggle of the human spirit for freedom, for self-knowledge, and for communion."
Bentley, Eric. "Enrico IV" and "Six Characters in Search of an Author." In his Theatre of War, pp. 32-44, pp. 45-63. New York: Viking Press, 1972.
Examines the defining characteristics of both dramas.
——. The Pirandello Commentaries. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1986, 119 p.
Includes ten essays written between 1946 and 1986.
Bishop, Thomas. Pirandello and the French Theater. New York: New York University Press, 1960, 170 p.
Traces Pirandello's influence on the major French playwrights of the...
(The entire section is 1405 words.)