Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

Luigi Pirandello began his writing career as an essayist and poet. He turned soon to narrative fiction, producing several hundred pieces over a period of forty years. His work in drama began in 1908. Critical assessment of Pirandello’s drama has moved between the extremes of the continuum from his own time until the present. He has been vilified as a mere juggler of repetitious words and ideas amassed for their confusing effect and lauded as the greatest theatrical innovator of the early part of the twentieth century. His work in drama has been likened to that of Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and James Joyce in short stories and novels, in its presentation of fragmented and contradictory views of the same reality.

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Pirandello’s plays, and especially those of the theater trilogy, were designed to expose the conventional morality and pretensions of European society in the early years of the twentieth century. His style of drama was identified with the “grotesque school,” the teatro dell’grottesco. Writers in this style were reacting against the romanticized and bourgeois drama of the first dozen or so years of the twentieth century in the Italian theater. Touched as they were by the new pessimism of a Europe about to fall into internecine war, and inspired by the growing body of psychological speculation about the multiple and shifting nature of human beings, writers such as Pirandello sought means of expressing these deeper currents in their drama. For audiences accustomed to accepting surface trivialities as truth, the whole nexus of illusion and reality had to be rent and rewoven and a new system of truth constructed. In his attempt to discover some device through which to present the truth of the convoluted interiority of human experience, Pirandello turned the theater itself inside out before his audience’s eyes. Each in His Own Way, significant in the development of modern theater yet difficult to produce since it requires a cast of more than fifty actors, is recognized as an exemplar of this technique.

For Pirandello, the theater was not a place for creating perfect illusion, as it was for the realists; nor was it merely an arena of nonillusionary fantasies as for the grotteschi. It was a moment of life removed from both of these, a suspended moment during which controlled disillusion might have the power to dissolve reality, push it back from the audience, distance it through conscious role-playing until the real and the unreal became fused and confused, until the make-believe of the theater became the reality of the moment, only to be shown again as the illusion it was. Pirandello held that life itself strives to give the perfect illusion of reality. Humans are all making believe; that pretense, however, is the reality. That is the horror. Life is no more than the reciprocity of illusion; this is humankind’s truth, and it is terrible.

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