Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2126
Article abstract: Pirandello revolutionized modern drama by creating innovative plays that explored the nature of drama itself. He created an intellectual drama that redefined the nature of the self and examined in detail the effects of relativity on the human psyche.
On June 28, 1867, in the midst of a cholera epidemic, Luigi Pirandello was born prematurely at Il Caos, in Girgenti, Sicily. He was a fragile, weak, and lonely child. Unable to communicate with his authoritarian father, he felt isolated and turned rebellious. This feeling of isolation became a central theme in his creative work. Pirandello was also influenced by his Sicilian background. Sicily’s hierarchical, almost feudal, society demanded restrictive codes of honor and strict adherence to convention, which led to repressed emotions and acts of violence. This conflict between individual desires and repressive social norms would become a recurring motif in Pirandello’s work.
As a student, Pirandello read classical and Italian literature, and at fifteen he wanted to be a poet. His early poetry already showed his preoccupation with the themes of death and madness. After an unsuccessful venture into his father’s business, he pursued his academic studies at the University of Rome and at the University of Bonn, where he earned a doctorate in philology.
After completing his education, Pirandello returned to Rome and became involved in the literary circle of the realist author Luigi Capuana. He then began to focus on his prose writing and published a collection of his short stories, Amori senza amore (1894; loves without love). In 1893, he began to formulate his artistic credo. He saw modern humanity trapped in a maze and believed that the old social norms were disintegrating, leaving the world in a state of uncertainty.
At twenty-six, Pirandello entered into an arranged marriage with Antonietta Portulana, the daughter of his father’s business partner and a woman he hardly knew. Four years later, he began teaching in Rome at the Instituto Superiore Magistero, a teacher’s college for women. In 1903, his father’s sulfur mine was destroyed in a flood, leaving the family bankrupt. Distraught by these events, his wife was stricken by hysterical paralysis and later went insane. She became obsessively jealous, tried to stab Pirandello, and accused him of incest with his daughter. After many years of torment, he finally put her in a clinic in 1919. From living with a madwoman, he learned that reality was a matter of perception and that in the eyes of his demented wife, he could become many different people. These experiences would influence his writing.
Pirandello soon began to establish himself as a noted writer of short stories, novels, and most significantly, dramas. With his novel Il fu Mattia Pascal (1904; The Late Mattia Pascal, 1923), he gained recognition both within Italy and abroad. In the novel, he shows how the modern individual tries both to escape the conventional roles placed on him and to free himself from social restraints. The attempt is a failure. Mattia, an insignificant, unheroic man, always questioning his own actions, finds out that he cannot exist outside the bounds of society, nor can he return to a role he once had.
In Si gira . . . (1916; Shoot, The Notebooks of Serafino Gubbio, Cinematograph Operator, 1926), Pirandello continues to treat the themes of alienation and loss of identity. In this novel, he uses the diary form to trace the fragmented impressions of a cameraman who tries to become a detached recorder of the lives of glamorous movie stars. In Uno, nessuno centomila (1925; One, None, and a Hundred Thousand
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One, None, and a Hundred Thousand, 1933), he foreshadows the modernist novel. The work is composed of long interior monologues, lengthy self-reflexive digressions, and an unreliable narrator who cannot certify what he has seen.
Throughout his career, Pirandello continued to publish short stories, 233 in all. He had planned to do twenty-four volumes but completed only fifteen. His stories reflect a pessimistic worldview tinged with a sense of tragicomic irony. As journeys in search of the unattainable, they bring out the humor in the disparity between human ideals and the cruel realities of experience.
Pirandello was to reach the height of his artistic genius as a dramatist. In 1915, Angelo Musco coaxed Pirandello into writing for the Sicilian theater. Writing plays in the Sicilian dialect, he began to achieve popular success as a playwright, and drama became the perfect medium for him to explore his vision. Between 1916 and 1924, Pirandello made his most significant contribution to modern drama in particular and world literature in general. In Così è (se vi pare) (1917; Right You Are (If You Think So), 1922), he shows how a husband who separates his wife and his mother-in-law can lead a whole town into confusion as both the mother-in-law and the husband claim that they are playing along with the deluded perceptions of the other. In this play and in subsequent dramas of this period, Pirandello turns the well-made play of the nineteenth century against itself. His dramas thrust bizarre characters into fantastical situations that lead to explosive climaxes built around ironic twists. As each character gives his own conflicting view of what has happened, the facts blur, and truth becomes a matter of individual perception. Pirandello’s plays use passionate confrontations to examine one of the major philosophical issues of modern times: the relativity of truth.
In Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (1921; Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1922), Pirandello achieved his greatest success. This play was so unconventional that at its first performance in Rome in 1921, it precipitated a riot in the theater. Pirandello was hissed off the stage and slipped out a back entrance, pursued by a mob crying “Madhouse!” Despite the initial reaction, the play achieved international fame. Between 1922 and 1925, it was translated into twenty-five languages. Pirandello’s fame eventually spread to England and the United States, where one theater devoted an entire season to his plays. Six Characters in Search of an Author tells the story of six unfinished characters who interrupt the rehearsal of a Pirandello play and insist on acting out their drama. In this play, Pirandello not only examines the psychology of the twentieth century individual but also dissects the nature of theater itself. Theater becomes a distorting mirror through which actions are viewed from various perspectives. Each character interprets his actions differently so that reality becomes a matter of perception. As the professional actors try to play the parts of the characters, the characters begin to see distorted views of themselves as others interpret them. Thus, all human beings are seen as actors who play a variety of roles and who constantly try to adjust their perceptions of themselves to the way others see them.
In Enrico IV (1922; Henry IV, 1923), Pirandello continues to depict the uncertain nature of the self. The play shows how a man masquerading as an emperor receives a blow on the head, goes insane, and believes that he actually is the emperor. The play depicts the desperate quest of the modern individual to create a life of his own in a world that is constantly changing. It is the tragedy of a man who has remained frozen and static behind a mask while the rest of the world has changed around him.
Pirandello’s later plays take on a mythical dimension as he confronts universal problems. In La nuova colonia (1928; The New Colony, 1958), he treats the impossibility of the Utopian myth. In Lazzaro (1929; Lazarus, 1952), he focuses on the nature of the religious experience. Finally, in his unfinished work, I giganti della montagna (act 1 published in 1931, act 2 in 1934, and act 3 in 1937; The Mountain Giants, 1958), he confronts the nature of art itself. His final plays have a more fantastical, visionary, and even allegorical quality.
Pirandello not only wrote plays but also produced and directed them. In 1925, he established the Arts Theater, in which he tried to combine the energetic improvisatory style of Italian acting with the more disciplined approach of the new schools of realistic acting. The Arts Theater toured Europe and South America before it was disbanded in 1928 for financial reasons.
In the latter part of his life, Pirandello achieved popular success. In France, he was awarded the Legion of Honor medal. In the United States, he was greeted with accolades. In Italy, he became a member of the Italian Academy, and, in 1934, he won the coveted Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet, to the very end, he believed himself to be an alienated man. In his will, he stated that he wanted his death unannounced, his naked body wrapped in a winding sheet, his remains cremated, and his ashes scattered in the wind so that nothing of himself would remain. His ashes were preserved and finally buried in his birthplace in Il Caos. Pirandello was, indeed, what he had called himself, the “Son of Caos.”
Luigi Pirandello is one of the leading writers of the modernist period. His drama and fiction focus on the relativity of truth and the impossibility of certainty in an age of anxiety. He examines in detail the disintegration of the self, the fragmentation of human experience, the unreliability of rational thought, and the impossibility of language to communicate. His self-conscious, tortuously analytical antiheroes constantly confront the dilemmas of an indifferent universe. His use of parody and farce to undercut the tragedy of existence in a world without hope foreshadows contemporary absurdist literature. The existentialist philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre found him the most timely dramatist of the post-World War II era. His influence on the French dramatists Jean Giraudoux, Jean Anouilh, and Eugène Ionesco is extensive. More than any other playwright, he is responsible for the self-reflexive theatricality of the modern era that has given us everything from the optimistic panoramas of Thornton Wilder to the absurdist dramas of Samuel Beckett. The famous poet, playwright, and critic T. S. Eliot wrote: “Pirandello is a dramatist to whom all dramatists of my own and future generations will owe a debt of gratitude. He has taught us something about our own problems and has pointed to the direction in which we can seek a solution to them.”
Bassnet-McGuire, Susan. Luigi Pirandello. New York: Grove Press, 1983. Briefly discusses the political and personal influences on Pirandello’s work and concentrates on a detailed analysis of the major plays grouped according to themes. Also touches on Pirandello’s one-act plays and mentions his use of stage directions. Contains photographs of international productions and a bibliography.
Bentley, Eric. The Pirandello Commentaries. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1986. A series of articles by an eminent critic and theorist of modern drama, spanning a lifetime’s work of penetrating insights into Pirandello’s major dramas. The articles include a short biographical profile of Pirandello.
Cambon, Glauco, ed. Pirandello: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. A diverse collection of critical articles, including Adriano Tilgher’s influential analysis of Pirandello’s drama, Wylie Sypher’s discussion of Pirandello’s cubist approach to drama, Thomas Bishop’s article tracing Pirandello’s influence on French drama, and A. L. de Castris’ dissection of Pirandello’s experimental novels. Includes a detailed chronology of Pirandello’s life and a selected bibliography of critical works on Pirandello.
Giudice, Gaspare. Pirandello: A Biography. Translated by Alastair Hamilton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975. One of the more comprehensive biographies of Pirandello even though an abridged version of the original. Details much of Pirandello’s personal life using quotations from personal correspondence and other primary sources. Includes extensive descriptions of Sicilian life-styles and a good analysis of the political climate in Italy during Pirandello’s lifetime.
Oliver, Roger W. Dreams of Passion: The Theater of Luigi Pirandello. New York: New York University Press, 1979. This study demonstrates a connection between Pirandello’s theory of humor and his drama. Oliver shows how Pirandello makes a distinction between the surface awareness of contrary events in comic situations and a more internal awareness experienced by an audience when it is cognizant of the “sentiment of the contrary.” Presents a close analysis of five major plays.
Paolucci, Anne. Pirandello’s Theatre: The Recovery of the Modern Stage for Dramatic Art. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974. A literary and theatrical analysis of Pirandello’s major plays and some of his minor dramas arranged thematically. The introduction discusses most of the major themes in his works, and the individual chapters—each preceded by brief synopses of the plays discussed—focus on the development of those themes.
Starkie, Walter. Luigi Pirandello. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965. A very thorough literary biography. Discusses various literary movements in Italy that influenced Pirandello’s writings and outlines the primary themes that run throughout his work. Also discusses Pirandello’s place in world literature as well as his influence on other playwrights. Well organized, with a good but dated bibliography.