Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 721

By the 1950’s some critics judged Sicilian-born Luigi Pirandello to be the most important playwright of his era. That estimation probably originated partly on the basis of his 1934 Nobel Prize in Literature and partly because of the psychological realism of his works, especially his dramas. Since the plays are marred by rather clumsy exposition, form was definitely not a factor in this choice.

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Among Pirandello’s best-known works are Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (1921; Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1922), Enrico IV (1922; Henry IV, 1923), and Cosìè (se vi pare) (1917; Right You Are (If You Think So), 1922). Even though the plots are widely different, all deal with the same theme: reality and identity.

Walter Starkie, whose early study of Pirandello, probably contains the most exhaustive and credible analysis of his work, points out that Pirandello represents the culmination of various Italian theatrical traditions. One tradition is that of the commedia dell’arte, a type of professional theater that developed in the sixteenth century and that utilized masks so extensively that the masks became synonymous with and inseparable from the characters they represented. Another tradition is that of grotesqueries, dramatic pieces that are neither comedy nor tragedy and that intermingle reality and fantasy. Such works probably developed from the attempts to turn the improvisational commedia into a literary form. The third is that of the futuristic movement, which was an outgrowth of expanding technology and depicted human beings as a small part of a vast machine. The movement reflected the dissatisfaction of a society that had lost not only the security of a sense of belonging but also the knowledge of who and what function it served.

Each of these theatrical influences seems to be incorporated in Pirandello’s work, and each had its special place in the story of Henry IV. Henry IV is indisputably a story of many masks, both literal and figurative, as well as a story of dissociation. The man behind the mask of Henry is never identified to the audience. Throughout the play, he is simply referred to as Henry. That identity began with a literal mask: a costume and identity that he selected for a pageant. The audience learns how his choice of masks was influenced. The woman he loves chooses to be a certain historical character. He chooses Henry IV because of the historical connection between the two. During the pageant, he suffers a blow to his head, and when he regains consciousness, he believes himself to be Henry IV. He begins to inhabit fantasy created by his mask. Those around him have to wear masks to enter into his reality.

A major theme, not only in Henry IV but also in Pirandello’s other plays and novels, is the question: What constitutes reality, and whose reality is correct? Each of the other characters, for example, has a totally different memory of Henry before his accident. Since memory betrays, the only memory available may be a delusional one. The characters assemble in a room dominated by two huge portraits; one is of the youthful Henry IV, in his pageant costume, painted as he was twenty years earlier. When Henry appears, his visitors are shocked to see that he wears yet another mask, the mask of youth. His hair is dyed and he wears heavy makeup to reproduce the youth of the man in the portrait. To Henry IV himself, he is twenty-six years old; that is his truth. Within his world and existence, it is only his reality that matters; to the others it might have been fantasy but to him it is reality. There is no way to separate fantasy from truth.

Some critics theorize that Pirandello’s relentless investigations into identity and reality resulted from the mental illness of his wife. The playwright was constantly confronted by a person whose reality was radically different from those about her. Somewhat insidiously, her perceptions forced realities and identities, like masks, onto those around her. For example, if she saw her husband as her betrayer, he was, in a very real sense, just that, and he had to deal with her in that role. It was such a dilemma that Pirandello translated into his plays, novels, and short stories. His dramatic legacy about perception and reality was passed on to theatrical movements such as absurdism.

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Critical Context