Luigi Pirandello wrote seven novels, more than three hundred short stories, a number of critical essays, and six volumes of poetry. The standard edition of his works, Opere (1966), published by Mondadori in Milan, consists of six volumes, including Novelle per un anno (1956-1957); Tutti i romanzi (1957); Maschere nude (1958); and Saggi, poesie, scritti vari (1960).
Italy’s most acclaimed modern writer, Luigi Pirandello is known in the United States primarily for three or four of his forty-four plays, written between 1917 and 1924 and collected by Eric Bentley in Naked Masks (1952). Of these plays, Six Characters in Search of an Author has earned for Pirandello a reputation as a major figure in the development of modern drama. Assessing the impact of that play’s 1923 production in Paris, Georges Neveux remarked that “the entire theatre of an era came out of the womb of that play.” Another critic affirmed Pirandello’s seminal importance by referring to his plays as the symbolic beginning of a new form of drama, for which the phrase “after Pirandello” has become a critical shorthand.
Critics who have tired of plays that explore the theme of reality and illusion have complained that Pirandello is more philosopher than playwright, but his plays endure as theatrically surprising and provocative contributions to the modern stage. Himself influenced by Luigi Chiarelli and the teatro del grottesco, Pirandello in turn has influenced virtually every playwright of reputation writing since the 1920’s, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Eugene O’Neill, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Thornton Wilder, Jack Gelber, Jean Anouilh, Jean Giraudoux, and Jean Genet. With Beckett, Pirandello stands as the most influential playwright of this century.
In addition to 233 published short stories, Luigi Pirandello produced several volumes of poetry, seven novels, and forty-four plays. Through his many essays, Pirandello established himself as an influential literary philosopher, commentator, and critic.
In 1934, Luigi Pirandello was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in recognition of his lifetime achievement in all the major literary genres. Pirandello was the preeminent figure in the European revolt against the pretentiousness and sentimentality of nineteenth century Romantic literature. With compassion for the reality of human misery, he labored through more than fifty years of creative activity to present one central thesis: the bittersweet comedy of life in which sorrow and joy are inextricably commingled, the absurd contradictoriness of the human condition. He appealed to generations disillusioned by the failure of numerous revolutions designed to bring harmony within countries terrorized by the chaos of a truly world war and confounded by their own inability to establish harmony even in their personal relationships with those they loved. His tragicomic view that the paradox of human reality could be resolved only in black laughter was masterfully presented in his seminal essay L’umorismo (1908, revised 1920; partial translation On Humour, 1966, complete translation, 1974), a view that caught the attention of the literary world and gave rise to the literary movements that coalesced by midtwentieth century as absurdism and existentialism. Pirandello is recognized as a key figure in the modern exploration of the crisis of the interior life.
Luigi Pirandello (pee-rahn-DEHL-loh) was an exceptionally prolific writer. In addition to seven novels, he produced numerous volumes of short stories, several collections of poetry, more than forty plays, and a considerable number of essays, reviews, and journalistic pieces. He produced most of his poetry between 1889 and 1912, in the earlier part of his career, and it is as a poet that Pirandello is least remembered. His lyrics are relatively traditional, although they do mirror the writer’s inner restlessness. The first compositions recall the strong moral fiber and tones of Giosuè Carducci, the most influential late nineteenth century Italian poet, as well as some of the darkly pessimistic character of critic Arturo Graf’s lyrics, whereas the later collections were somewhat influenced by the melancholy and distressed quality of the crepuscular poets.
The short stories are more interesting not only because they contain a number of Pirandellian motifs, narrative devices, and ideas but also because they continued to intrigue the author as a genre. Pirandello produced his first short story as an adolescent; the last appeared the day before his death, although the majority of his stories were penned at the same time as his longer fiction. Pirandello’s early stories reflect the influence of Verism; like his literary mentors, Luigi Capuana and Giovanni Verga, Pirandello drew a pessimistic portrait of lives stifled by social conventions and imbued with a tragic fatalism. Unlike his fellow Sicilians, however, Pirandello added elements of irony and paradox, which were to become standard ingredients of his fiction. The irrational pervades these narratives; characters fall prey to chance as the unexpected intrudes on them, all attempts at controlling life being futile; the bizarre and the grotesque are also staples of the Pirandellian diet, distinguishing the author from other veristi.
This same universe houses the plays. Pirandello is unquestionably Italy’s greatest modern playwright, yet his theater is closely allied in theme and thought to his prose fiction. The critic E. Allen McCormick has pointed out this artistic fraternity, suggesting that novel, short story, and drama “derive their peculiar Pirandellian shape through the interplay of plot and commentary on plot” or, in other terms, the fusion of “action and exposition of action.” It is not incidental that more than twenty of Pirandello’s plays were based on novellas or sections of novels. One example is Liolà (pr. 1916; English translation, 1952), a lighthearted version of an episode taken from the first part of The Late Mattia Pascal, which presents a similar plot with a darker sense of humor and a moralizing constituent.
Significantly, Pirandello’s serious involvement in theater corresponded to his abandonment of the novel: Only One, None, and a Hundred Thousand was published after his first great dramatic success, and that book had been fifteen years in the making. While Pirandello did change genres, he did not radically alter his vision. The author’s perceptions of the relativity of reality, the multiplicity of the individual, and the chaos of life recur throughout his fiction and his plays. It is the message of Così è (se vi pare) (pr. 1917; Right You Are [If You Think So], 1922), in which an entire town persecutes an unusual family triangle—husband, wife, and mother-in-law—in order to discover the “facts” surrounding their relationship. Is Mrs. Ponza the first or second wife? Is Mrs. Frola her mother or a sweet madwoman? Who is really crazy, the old woman or her son-in-law? Facts in Pirandello are not solutions: The documents that might answer these questions are unattainable. Thus the truth is irretrievable, as it often is for this writer. The holder of the key is Mrs. Ponza—first or second?—who enters the final scene veiled, only to declare to the assembled busybodies who are destroying...
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Luigi Pirandello was one of the first writers to give voice to the dilemma of modern people. From the outset of his literary career, he exhibited what literary critic Carlo Salinari justly termed “the awareness of crisis,” a feeling for the inherent absurdity of life and a sense of the anguish people experience when faced with chaos and nothingness. Pirandello challenged the postulates of Western civilization by subverting their very existence. Denying the possibility of an objective reality, declaring people’s fundamental unknowability and multiplicity, and stressing the inherent fluidity of truth and the power of chance, this writer created a tragic vision of the human condition that would influence future generations of...
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In Six Characters in Search of an Author, Luigi Pirandello parodies the “well-made play.” Determine the essentials of this type of play.
What were Pirandello’s motives for parodying the well-made play?
What does it mean for characters to lack and want “an author”?
Is Pirandello correct that humans prefer art to life?
Cite instances of Pirandello’s influence on playwrights devoted to “the absurd.”
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Alessio, A., D. Pietropaolo, and G. Sanguinetti-Katz, eds. Pirandello and the Modern Theatre. Ottawa, Ont.: Canadian Society for Italian Studies, 1992. A selection from the proceedings of the International Conference on Pirandello and the Modern Theatre, held in Toronto in November, 1990. Includes bibliography.
Bassanese, Fiora A. Understanding Luigi Pirandello. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997. An introduction to Pirandello’s work, focusing largely on his thought and the relationship of his life to his work.
Biasin, Gian-Paolo, and Manuela Gieri, eds. Luigi Pirandello: Contemporary...
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