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). Pirandello quickly went from being an author with a respectable but modest reputation to being one of the major literary figures in Italy. In 1934 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He died in 1936.
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.
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.
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
L'umorismo [On Humor] (essay) 1908
I vecchi e i giovani [The Old and the Young] (novel) 1913
Il carnevale dei morti (short stories) 1919
Novelle per un anno. 15 vols. (short stories) 1922-37
Uno, nessuno e centomila [One, None, and a Hundred Thousand] (novel) 1926
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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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