Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 668

Right You Are, If You Think You Are opened on June 18, 1917 at the Teatro Olimpia in Milan. Pirandello had sent the script to director Virgilio Talli describing the play as ‘‘a parable, which is truly original, new in both its conception and development, and very daring.’’ Talli wrote back saying that although he loved the dialogue, he thought the play might not hold together on stage, that it seemed more suitable to be ‘‘enjoyed in solitude,’’ through reading. However, Talli did stage the play, and it won the attention that Pirandello’s previous seven plays had not garnered. His success initiated a productive writing period that saw thirteen more Pirandello plays appear over the next six years. Of the debut of Right You Are, Pirandello reported in a letter to his son that ‘‘it was performed very successfully,’’ and that he was received ‘‘very warmly.’’ After a tour of major Italian cities, the play reached Rome the following year, to much acclaim. His popularity increased after the arrival in 1921 of his best-known play, Six Characters in Search of an Author (1925), but then waned in Italy a few short years later. A German reviewer of a 1925 production of Right You Are, If You Think You Are called it a ‘‘terrifying play,’’ in which ‘‘both sides were equally crazy— and—all the other characters held their own in a quiet craziness of their own.’’ Another German reviewer called the play ‘‘bluff—clever bluff at times—but bluff all the same.’’ Nevertheless, Pirandello’s renown in the rest of Europe was firmly established, and the term Pirandellisme came to signify his style of dramatic intellectual games.

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During the height of his fame, Right You Are, If You Think You Are was first played in New York at the Guild Theater February 21, 1927, with Edward G. Robinson as Ponza. Reviewer Stark Young deemed this production ‘‘ at least passable,’’ for a play with an ‘‘exhilarating game of motives and ideas,’’ one that put Right You Are in a league with the commedia dell’arte, or improvisation with a clown, or harlequin, character. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times hailed it as a good run from ‘‘satire to metaphysics and on to melodrama’’ that is ‘‘ingeniously exciting and amusing by turns.’’ Helen Hayes played Signora Frola in a 1966 production at the Lyceum Theater in New York City, following the stage directions and translation of Eric Bentley, again to good acclaim. A 1972 production in New York earned high praise from New York Post critic Jerry Tallmer, who especially liked the stage design that included a wall of mirrors to emphasize the shifting perspectives. Clive Barnes considered the same production with less enthusiasm, though he fully approved of Bentley’s translation, which he deemed as having ‘‘just the right primed and provincial seediness to it.’’

For many decades scholarly treatments of his work appeared only in Italian, though these were, and continue to be, numerous. The 1950s brought about a revival of his work, as it corresponds well with Existentialism and the Theater of the Absurd. Once the copyright of his works expired and the centenary of his death was celebrated (in 1986), his plays experienced a resurgence in popularity, and since then new anthologies of his works and new volumes of literary criticism in English have appeared with some regularity.

Like George Bernard Shaw, Pirandello felt oppressed by publicity. In 1935, he complained of ‘‘the many Pirandellos in circulation in the world of international literary criticism, lame, deformed, all head and no heart, erratic, gruff, insane, and obscure, in whom no matter how hard [he tried, he could not] recognize himself even for a moment.’’ To some, his was an intellectual art, lacking feeling. The term ‘‘Pirandellisme,’’ as it was applied to Jean Giraudoux and Jean Anouilh, meant ‘‘pure intellectual game,’’ a trait that was much appreciated in French theater. Pirandello objected to this label as suggesting he was merely a ‘‘juggler of ideas.’’ It was not until after World War II that audiences appreciated his seriousness.

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