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...