Luigi Pirandello Pirandello, Luigi (Drama Criticism) - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Luigi Pirandello 1867-1936

One of the most important dramatists of the twentieth century, Pirandello prompted a reevaluation of traditional stagecraft through his innovative use of philosophical themes and experimentation with dramatic structure. Preoccupied with the relationships of reality to appearances and of sanity to madness, he often portrayed characters who adopt multiple identities, or "masks," in an effort to reconcile social demands with personal needs. He was closely associated with the Theater of the Grotesque, a dramatic school that stressed the paradoxes and contradictions of life, and was also deeply concerned with making literature a more truthful and effective means for conveying human experience. Toward this end he developed the aesthetic theory of "humorism," which he defined as a. mingling of comedy and tragedy to produce simultaneous emotional awareness of both of these aspects of the human condition.

Biographical Information

(Drama Criticism)

Pirandello was born in Sicily to a prosperous sulphur merchant. Although his father initially sent him to study commerce at the local technical institute, Pirandello found the subject uninteresting and transferred to an academic secondary school, where he excelled in oratory and literature. After graduation, Pirandello attended universities in Palermo, Rome, and finally Bonn, where he earned a doctorate in Romance philology. After his father arranged Pirandello's marriage to Antonietta Portulano, the daughter of a business partner, the couple settled together in Rome and had three children. To support his family, Pirandello was forced to take a position as professor at a women's normal school. In 1904 he realized his first critical success with the novel Il fu Mattia Pascal (The Late Mattia Pascal), but this was overshadowed when his father's sulphur mines, in which Pirandello was heavily invested, were destroyed in a flood. All of Pirandello's wealth, including his wife's dowry, was wiped out. Upon hearing the news, Antonietta suffered an emotional collapse; she subsequently became delusional and hostile, and was eventually institutionalized. The pressure of Pirandello's personal situation spurred a period of intense creativity from 1916 to 1922, which culminated in the production of his two greatest dramas, Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author) and Enrico IV (Henry IV). Pirandello quickly went from being an author with a respectable but modest reputation to being one of the major literary figures in Italy. In 1934 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He died in 1936.

Major Works

(Drama Criticism)

Although Pirandello's first dramas were not staged until he was forty-three years of age, by the time of his death he had written over forty plays. In his most famous work, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Pirandello described the plight of six characters who interrupt the rehearsal of another Pirandello play to demand that their stories be acted out. His acknowledgment of the stage as the location of a theatrical performance—a place where life is only simulated—startled audiences and critics alike and heralded the self-conscious use of the theater that is a hallmark of modernist drama. Pirandello followed the success of Six Characters with Henry IV, which many critics consider his greatest work. Written four years after he had his wife committed, Henry IV is an expression of the concern with madness that had been prevalent in Pirandello's personal life and in his art. The play depicts a man who, as the result of an injury suffered at the hands of a rival, believes he is Henry IV. Eventually, he regains his sanity but in a fit of rage kills his rival, so that he must feign continued madness to avoid the consequences of his deed.

Critical Reception

(Drama Criticism)

Pirandello described his dramatic works as a "theater of mirrors" in which the audience sees events on stage as a reflection of their own lives: when his characters" doubt their own perceptions of themselves, the audience experiences a simultaneous crisis of self-perception. In questioning the distinction between sanity and madness, he attacked abstract models of objective reality and theories of a static human personality. For these reasons, many critics have labelled him a pessimist and a relativist; others, noting the strong sense of compassion for his characters that Pirandello conveys, contend that Pirandello is not preaching a definable ideology, but is simply expressing his acute consciousness of the absurdities and paradoxes of human life.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


Liolà 1916

Cosí è (se vi pare) [Right You Are! (If You Think So)] 1917

Il piacere dell'onestà [The Pleasure of Honesty] 1917

L'uomo, la bestia e la virtù [Man, Beast, and Virtue] 1919

Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore [Six Characters in Search of an Author] 1921

Enrico IV [Henry IV] 1922

Vestire gli ignudi [Naked] 1922

Ciascuno a suo modo [Each in His Own Way] 1924

Come tu mi vuoi [As You Desire Me] 1930

Maschere nude [Naked Masks] 10 vols. 1930-38

Questa sera si recita a soggetto [Tonight We Improvise] 1930

I giganti della montagna [The Mountain Giants] 1937


Mal giocondo (poetry) 1889

Amori senza amore (short stories) 1894

Beffe della morte e della vita (short stories) 1902

II fu Mattia Pascal [The Late Mattia Pascal] (novel) 1904

Erma bifronte [Two-faced Herma] (short stories) 1906

L'esclusa [The Outcast] (novel) 1908

L'umorismo [On Humor] (essay) 1908

I vecchi e i giovani [The Old and the Young] (novel) 1913

Il carnevale dei morti (short stories) 1919

Novelle per un anno. 15 vols. (short stories) 1922-37

Uno, nessuno e centomila [One, None, and a Hundred Thousand] (novel) 1926

Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

Pirandello Confesses … Why and How He Wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author (1925)

SOURCE: The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, April, 1925, pp. 36-52.

[The following is a translation of Pirandello's preface to Six Characters.]

I had to, to escape from … well, that is what I am going to explain.

As I have written elsewhere, the lively little maid-servant who for years and years now (though it seems as though it were only since yesterday) has been waiting on my writing, is for all that not so new at her work. She is often of a somewhat scornful and jesting humor, this Fantasia of mine. If, now and then, she is of a humor to dress in black, there is no denying that her solemn apparel is often extremely odd. But if you think that this is her usual style of dress, you are very much mistaken. Time and time again I've seen her put her hand in her pocket and pull out a fool's cap, red as a cox-comb, and all a-jingle with its tiny bells. This she claps on her head, and off she goes! Here today, and somewhere else tomorrow!—And she persists in bringing back with her the most disgruntled beings imaginable and filling up my house with them—men, women and children, all involved in the most extraordinary and complicated situations—their plans frustrated, their hopes deluded—in short, people it is often very uncomfortable to deal with.

Well, a few years ago Fantasia was unfortunately inspired—or it may have been just an unlucky whim on her part—to unload a whole family on me. I don't know where in the world she had fished these people up from, but she insisted that they were material for a perfectly gorgeous novel.

A man of about fifty, in black coat, light trousers, his eye-brows drawn into a painful frown, and in his eyes an expression mortified yet obstinate; a poor woman in widow's weeds, leading a little girl of about four by one hand and a boy of ten or so by the other; a pert, bold young miss, also in black, but an equivocal and brazen black it seemed, as she moved about in a constant flutter of disdainful biting merriment at the expense of the older man; and a young fellow of twenty-odd who stood apart from the others, seemingly locked within himself, as though holding the rest in utter scorn … in short, the Six Characters just as they appear on the stage at the beginning of my play. At once they began telling me their misfortunes, first one, then another, each in turn silencing all the rest, as each in turn shouted out his story; and there they were flourishing their scattered passions in my face, just as in the play they flourish them in the face of the thoroughly misunderstanding Manager.

Can an author ever tell how and why his imagination gives birth to a certain character? The mystery of artistic creation is the mystery of birth itself.

A woman may desire a child, but the desire, however intense it may be, does not suffice to create; and then one fine day she discovers that her desire is to be realized, but she cannot tell at what precise moment the life within her came into being. And in just the same way the artist, who gathers within himself innumerable germs of life, can never say how, or why, or at what precise moment one of these particles of life has lodged in his imagination, there to become a living creature inhabiting a plane of life superior to our voluble and vain daily existence.

Well, all I can say is that, without my having sought mem at all, there they were, those six characters you now can see on the stage, so alive you could touch them, so alive you could fairly hear them breathe. And there they stood, each with his secret torment, but bound to all the others by birth and by the tie of events experienced together, waiting for me to let them into the world of art by making of their persons, their passions, and their vicissitudes, a novel, a play, at the very least a short story.

They had come into the world alive and they wanted to live. Now no matter how strikingly individualized a character may be, I have never represented man, woman, or child, for the mere pleasure of representation. I have never related a single experience for the mere pleasure of relating it; I have never described a landscape for the mere pleasure of describing it.

There are authors—and they are not so few—who do write for the pleasure they take in the writing alone, and who look for no other satisfaction. Such writers one might describe as historical.

But there are others who, in addition to deriving the pleasure I have described, feel a spiritual need that will not permit them to use characters, events, or scenes which are not impregnated, so to speak, with a special sense of life that gives them a universal significance and value. Such writers are, properly speaking, philosophical. And to this latter group I have the misfortune to belong.

I hate symbolic art, for it makes a mechanical structure, an allegory, out of all representation, destroying its spontaneity, reducing the creative impulse to an empty and short-sighted effort; for the mere fact of giving an allegorical meaning to what is being represented indicates that the representation proper is held in low esteem, as having in itself no truth, whether real or imaginary. Such a representation has been prepared simply for the purpose of demonstrating some moral truth. But the spiritual need I referred to a moment ago cannot be satisfied by allegorical symbolism, except in the rare instances where, as in Ariosto, the motive is lofty irony. For the latter derives from a concept, or rather is a concept that is trying to become an image; but the former, on the contrary, tries to find in the image itself, which should be alive and spontaneous in every aspect of its expression, a meaning that will give it significance.

Now, for all my prying and searching, I could not succeed in finding any such meaning in these "characters." And I concluded therefore that there was no particular obligation on my part to give them the life for which they were clamoring.

"I have already tormented my readers with hundreds and hundreds of stories," I thought to myself. "Why should I bother them with an account of these six unfortunates, and their wretched plight?"

And acting on this feeling, I pushed them out of the way. Or rather, I did everything I could to get them out of the way.

But one doesn't give life to a character for nothing!

These creatures of my brain were not living my life any longer: they were already living a life of their own, and it was now beyond my power to deny them a life which was no longer in my control.

Persisting in my intention of driving them out of my mind, I found to my consternation that almost completely detached as they were now from any supporting narrative, emerging miraculously from the pages of the book containing them, they went right on living their own lives; from which at certain moments during the day they would turn aside to confront me in the solitude of my study. Now one, now another, now two of them together, would come to tempt me and propose scenes that I was to set down in dramatic form or simply describe; and they were always at great pains to point out the effects to be derived from their suggestions, and the singular and novel turn that some unique situation might take and the interest it would arouse, and so on, and so on.

For a moment I would give in; and this momentary weakening, this brief surrender, was enough for them to draw out of me additional life, and naturally with every particle of life that they thus acquired they grew all the better able to convince me, their powers of persuasion growing with their life, increasing as the life in them increased. And so it became more and more difficult for me to get rid of them in proportion as it became easier for them to appear before me and tempt me. Finally, as I have already suggested, they became an obsession—until suddenly I thought of a means of getting out of my predicament.

"Why not," thought I, "represent this unique situation—an author refusing to accept certain characters bom of his imagination, while the characters themselves obstinately refuse to be shut out from the world of art, once they have received this gift of life? These characters are already completely detached from me, and living their own lives; they speak and move; and so, in the struggle to live that they have persistently maintained against me they have become dramatic characters, characters who can move and speak of their own initiative. They already see themselves in mat light; they have learnt to defend themselves against me; they will learn how to defend themselves against others. So why not let them go where the characters of a play usually go to attain full and complete life—on a stage? Let's see what will happen then!"

Well, that's what I did. And of course things turned out just as they had to turn out: mere was a mixture of the tragic and the comic, of the fantastic and the real, in a situation as humorous as it was novel and complicated. The play all of itself, by means of the breathing, speaking, moving characters in it, who carry the action and suffer its conflicts and clashes in their own persons, demands to be acted at any cost. It is the vain attempt to improvise on the stage the carrying out of this demand that constitutes the comedy.

First, the surprise of the company of actors who are rehearsing on a stage littered with sets and properties, a surprise mixed with incredulity at seeing those six characters appear on the stage and announce that they are looking for an author; then the mother's sudden faint and the instinctive interest of the actors in the tragedies they sense in her and in the other members of that strange family; then the confused, ambiguous conflict that unexpectedly takes possession of that empty stage so little prepared to receive it; and, finally, little by little, the rising tide of mat interest as the conflicting passions of father, step-daughter, son, and mother, break out and try to dominate each the other with tragic and lacerating fury.

And, lo, those six characters who had of their own initiative stepped up on the stage, suddenly find in themselves mat sense of universal significance which I had at first sought in vain; they find it in the excitement of the desperate struggle each character carries on with the others and in the struggle that all of them together carry on with the Manager and the Actors who fail to understand them.

Unintentionally, without knowing it, each one of them, in defending himself against the accusations of the others, under the pressure of his agitation gives out as his own vivid passion and torment, passions and torments that for years have been those of my own being; the impossibility (we take it as a heart-rending deception) of establishing a mutual understanding on the empty abstractions of words; the multiple personality of every one of us, a composite with as many faces as mere are possibilities of being in each of us; and finally the tragic conflict between Life, which is forever fluid, forever in flux, and Form, which hardens Life into immutable shapes from which Life itself withdraws.

Two of those characters in particular, the Father and the Daughter, recur again and again to the frightful and unchangeable fixity of their form in which both see the essence of their being perpetually imprisoned; for the one that unalterable shape is punishment, for the other vengeance; and this form, which is themselves, they defend against the vapid jests and the meaningless chatter of the actors, trying to make the commonplace Manager accept it, while he of course is intent on changing it and adapting it to the so-called requirements of the theatre.

The six characters are not seemingly all in the same stage of formation. This is not because some of them are of first, and some of secondary, importance, finished pictures and studies in the rough. That would be nothing more than the most elementary sort of perspective, necessary to any architectural composition of scene or narrative. Neither is it because they are not all completely formed for the purposes they serve. All six are at the same stage of artistic realization and all six are on the same plane of reality—and this is the strange part of the play. Yet the Father and the Step-Daughter, and also the Son, are realized as mind, while the Mother is nature; and the Boy who looks on and makes gestures, and the Child, both absolutely inert, are no more than onlookers taking part by their presence merely. This creates a perspective of another sort. Unconsciously I had felt that I must realize some of the characters (artistically speaking) more completely, others less so, barely suggesting others still as elements of a story to be narrated or represented; those who are most intensely alive, the Father and Step-Daughter, naturally come forward and direct and drag along the almost dead weight of the others; of whom one, the Son, is reluctant, while the Mother, like a resigned victim, stands between those two small creatures, the children, who have scarcely any being except that of appearance, and who need to be led by the hand.

And that is just how they ought to appear—in the stage of creation arrived at in the author's imagination at the moment he attempts to drive them away from him.

When I stop to think of it, to understand this artistic necessity, and then unconsciously to comply with it and resolve it by means of this perspective seem to me nothing short of a miracle. The truth of the matter is that the play was conceived in one of those moments of illumination when the imagination acts with untrammelled spontaneity, and when, for a wonder, all the faculties of the mind are working together in a superb harmony. No human brain, coldly attacking this problem, could ever have succeeded, no matter how hard it tried, in grasping and satisfying all the necessities of mis form. Therefore whatever I may say in order to throw light on its significance and importance should not be interpreted as something I thought out before I set to work—as a defence of that work in short; but as a progressive discovery which little by little I have been able to make and which I shall certainly never complete in the brief span of my mortal life.

I have tried to represent six characters in search of an author. Their play does not take shape precisely because the author they are looking for fails them; and the play actually presented consists of their vain attempt to induce him to satisfy their wishes—by...

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Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

Eric Bentley (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "Varieties of Comic Experience," in The Playwright as Thinker: A Study of Drama in Modern Times, Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946, pp. 127-57.

[In the following excerpt, Bentley characterizes Pirandello as a pessimist who speaks for the people "who have lived through the extraordinary vicissitudes of the twentieth century, uncomprehending passively suffering. "]

Since Shaw and Wilde no dramatist has written first-rate drawing-room comedies. The best have been by our Maughams and Behrmans and Bernsteins. Writers have been turning from the formality of the drawing room toward a grotesqueness which, in its...

(The entire section is 23563 words.)

Six Characters In Search Of An Author

(Drama Criticism)


Stark Young (review date 22 November 1922)

SOURCE: "Brains," in The New Republic, Vol. XXXII, No. 416, 22 November 1922, pp. 335-36.

[An American playwright, poet, and novelist, Young was a prominent member of the Agrarian group of Southern poets with Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and several others, from 1928 until the mid-1950s. He served for twenty years as drama critic for such journals as the New York Times, and the best of this criticism is collected in Immortal Shadows: A Book of Dramatic Criticism (1948). He is especially acclaimed for his translations of Anton Chekhov's...

(The entire section is 3958 words.)

Critical Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

Olga Ragusa (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore," in Luigi Pirandello: An Approach to His Theatre, Edinburgh University Press, 1980, pp. 137-69.

[Ragusa is an Italian-born American critic and educator with a special interest in Italian literature. In the following excerpt, she offers a thematic and structural analysis of Six Characters in Search of an Author.]

Multifacetedness (poliedricità), wrote Lampedusa, is the distinguishing characteristic of works of absolute first rank. Because Sei personaggi possesses this quality and presents different aspects of itself to different viewers, I judge it a...

(The entire section is 14282 words.)

Henry Iv

(Drama Criticism)


Stark Young (review date 6 February 1924)

SOURCE: "The Pirandello Play," in The New Republic, Vol. XXXVn, No. 479, 6 February 1924, p. 287.

[In the following review of the New York City stage production of Henry IV, Young criticizes the acting as weak but lauds the drama's "intellectual beauty."]

The Pirandello play at the Forty-Fourth Street Theatre is important not by reason of any display or novelty or foreign importation but through the mere occurrence on our stage of a real intellectual impact, a high and violent world of concepts and living. So far as the practical end of it goes...

(The entire section is 14201 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Guidice, Gaspare. Pirandello: A Biography, translated by Alastair Hamilton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, 221 p.

Abridged translation of the standard critical biography.


Bassnett-McGuire, Susan. Luigi Pirandello. New York: Grove Press, 1983, 190 p.

Thematic survey of Pirandello's dramas.

Bazzoni, Jana O'Keefe. "The Carnival Motif in Pirandello." Modern Drama XXX, No. 3 (September 1987): 414-25.

Emphasizes the importance of the carnival motif, concluding that "Pirandello's drama is carnevalesque because it...

(The entire section is 1405 words.)