Themes of Privacy and Relative Truth

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1597

Pirandello’s Right You Are, If You Think You Are is one of many of his plays and essays that concerns relativism, a feature of the modern consciousness. Pirandello described his own version of the theory in Umorismo, [On Humor] (1908):

Illustration of PDF document

Download Right You Are, If You Think You Are Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Life is a continuous flux that we seek to arrest and to fix in stable and determinate forms, within and outside ourselves—But within ourselves, in what we call the spirit—the flux continues, indistinct, flowing under the banks, beyond the limits that we impose as we compose a consciousness for ourselves and construct a personality.

Not surprisingly, many critics have focused on the theme of relativism as it appears in Right You Are, If You Think You Are. The play concerns ‘‘flux’’ of shifting truths in the several explanations that Ponza and Signora Frola proclaim about Signora Ponza. Each of their revelations supercedes the last, and each new truth seems final, until the next one is presented. For example, Signora Frola’s story that Ponza keeps her away from her daughter out of love melts away when Ponza explains that she is insanely perpetuating a myth that her daughter is alive. With each turn of events, it is as though the solid background of the theater gives way to another curtain, and then, impossibly, to another.

Against the overlaying of multiple truths, Laudisi, Pirandello’s alter ego in the play, insists that all of the explanations are simultaneously true, and thus there is no ultimate truth to uncover. To prove his case he tells them, ‘‘I am really what you take me to be; though—that does not prevent me from also being really what your husband, my sister, my niece, and Signora Cini take me to be—because they are all absolutely right!’’ Each perspective is ‘‘right’’ in its own way, although incomplete. The friends and family ignore him, however, and continue their quest for the ultimate truth. In doing so, they fail to grasp the metaphysical truth that Laudisi represents and that underpins the play. Thus on one level, Pirandello’s play simply illustrates his theory of multiple coexisting truths, i.e., relativism, and its consequences.

Relativism’s effect on human relations, Pirandello’s play suggests, leads to frustration, because humans continue to search for absolute truth. As Anthony Caputi points out in Pirandello and the Crisis of Modern Consciousness, the play also concerns itself with ‘‘the implications of living with fictions created with a full awareness that they are fictions.’’ When people understand, with Laudisi, that truth is relative, they feel unmoored, lacking the comforting anchor of absolute truth. The sensation can be as unsettling as madness, and so Laudisi asks his image in the mirror, ‘‘Who is the lunatic, you or I?’’ He goes on, ‘‘What are you for other people? What are you in their eyes? An image, my dear sir, just an image in the glass!’’ In other words, relativism reduces truth to a play of surfaces, where conflicting interpretations compete for viability in a world that refuses to offer confirmation. The family and friends base their assessment of Ponza and Signora Frola on their explanations, which they cannot verify because Signora Ponza is hidden away and an earthquake has destroyed the family’s documents. As a last resort, the townspeople force a confrontation between Ponza and Signora Frola, to force the truth out. But the confrontation proves no more fruitful than Laudisi’s conversations with his mirror image. This is because the problem lies not in the facts or words, but within themselves. Laudisi laughs, ‘‘‘What fools these mortals be!’ as old Shakespeare said.’’ As Pirandello’s spokesperson indicates, the problems of relativism are personal, and therefore it is necessary to consider Pirandello’s personal relationship to the theme of relativism. In doing so, the related moral theme of respect for human privacy becomes paramount.

Drama critic and director Eric Bentley notes in The Pirandello Commentaries that Pirandello is not simply interested in the philosophy of relativism, but in the moral dilemma that accompanies it. He asserts that, ‘‘the play is not about thinking, but about suffering, a suffering that is only increased by those who give understanding and enquiry precedence over sympathy and help.’’ Suffering is a thread that quietly winds its way through the play. Signora Frola and her family are mourning the effects of losing many members of their family, and under these condictions, the townspeople’s insistent questioning is ‘‘cruel.’’ Although they accuse Ponza of cruelty and selfishness, they are blind to the cruelty they impose on her, in their relentless crusade to uncover her truths. In the end of Act Three, Signora Ponza cries, ‘‘You must stop all this. You must let us alone. You think you are helping me. You are trying to do me a favor; but really, what you’re doing is working me a great wrong.’’ According to Bentley, a key detail is the fact that in spite of their efforts, the truth about Signora Ponza never comes to light. Bentley emphatically says, ‘‘The truth, Pirandello wants to tell us again and again, is concealed, concealed, CONCEALED!’’ It is as though Pirandello is demonstrating not that truth is impossible to perceive, tricky or shifting, but that it is, and should be, private. Bentley concludes, ‘‘The solution of the problem, the cure for these sick human beings, is to leave their problem unsolved and unrevealed.’’

The theme of suffering at the hands of nosy gossips could easily derive from Pirandello’s tormented life. From an insane wife who tormented him with her jealous rages to his own obsessive dependency on her and then on a much younger actress, Pirandello’s personal life was something he needed to obscure from public view. Former students of his attest to a man who ‘‘always kept to himself,’’ who cared to befriend neither his students nor his colleagues. Perhaps he was ashamed of his marriage. In catholic Italy, divorce was impossible, as was abandonment, especially since he felt he could not live without his wife, despite her madness. To ease the agony, he wrote about it. In his novel, Her Husband, he describes a man tormented as ‘‘the target of madness’’ from a wife who ‘‘knew nothing of his ideal life, his superior talents’’ but only saw ‘‘the phantom she had made of him.’’ He was ‘‘two people: one for himself, another for her.’’ Perhaps there was, too, a side of Pirandello that aggravated her madness, or that somehow thrived on it. Most biographers cast Pirandello as the victim of his mad wife’s behavior. But Renate Matthaei suggests that ‘‘His mad wife was an inspiration. She showed him all the symptoms of a disturbance that he recognized in himself but had managed to conceal, being more robust than she.’’ For years Pirandello managed to conceal his own obsessive nature behind the mask of his wife’s madness. He brought it to the light in the relative safety of stories and plays that explored the boundaries of such relationships. In Right You Are he plays with various readings of the Ponza- Frola relationship, with killing off the wife, or simply fantasizing her death. It is as though he cannot bear to reach a resolution with it, just as he could not bear to resolve his own marriage’s diffi- culties. It took seventeen years of torment before, with the support of their children, he had her institutionalized. He must have felt both relief and great guilt when he finally took that step.

Not to have made a decision about his wife was a way of keeping all of the options alive, all truths simultaneously true. Bentley is correct to point out that the mystery character’s secret truth stays concealed, even at the end of the play when a resolution is fervently expected. Furthermore, Signora Ponza verifies every interpretation of her, by claiming to be both wife to Ponza and daughter to Signora Frola, and ‘‘nothing’’ to herself. This final intellectual turn shockingly reveals that Signora Ponza has allowed herself to be molded by her husband. Her veiled existence, a product of other’s perspectives of her, makes an eloquent appeal for human privacy. The viewer is left feeling that she should somehow have resisted their interpretations, and kept true to herself, as Pirandello often urged Marta Abba to be. To stay true to oneself is to resist and lock out other people’s interpretations so that one’s own ideas may survive. In Pirandello’s case, he wanted to obscure the realistic appraisals of outsiders, so that they would not interfere with his fantasies. His fantasies occluded a proper assessment of his mad wife, such that he let his family suffer for seventeen years. They also allowed him to burn for ten years in futile passion for an actress half his age.

Pirandello’s sentiments concerning truth are given voice by Laudisi, who argues for keeping alive all of the possible interpretations of Ponza, his wife, and his mother-in-law, and their tortuous relations. Laudisi could equally well have been arguing for keeping alive all the fantasies that Pirandello used to negotiate his complex and troubled life. The theory of relativism, for Pirandello, is a means to maintaining his internal fictional world. The play’s title, Right You Are, If You Think You Are, could be directed at the Laudisi’s friends, at Pirandello’s friends, or even, at Pirandello himself.

Source: Carole Hamilton, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina.

Social Values and Truth

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1577

In Luigi Pirandello’s Right You Are! (If You Think So), many of the primary characters are on a quest for the truth about newcomers to their community. The Agazzis, Lamberto Laudisi, and their friends want to know several things about Signor Ponza, his wife, and his mother-in-law, Signora Frola. They are curious about the unusual living situation among the Ponzas and Frola, as well as what happened to them in their previous home. This nosy interest leads to much speculation, gossip, and trickery, but the group never really finds out the ‘‘real’’ truth about the Ponzas and Frola. Pirandello shows how relative ‘‘truth’’ can be, and how such an investigation can harm those concerned.

At the end of Right You Are! (If You Think So), the primary protagonists—Commendatore Agazzi, his wife Amalia, their daughter Dina, and their friends the Sirellis, among others—end up forcing a face-to-face confrontation between Signor Ponza, his wife, and his mother-in-law, Signora Frola, to get at the truth about them. Over the course of the play, it is stated several times that Signora Ponza and Frola have not talked in such a face-to-face manner because of something that happened in the past. The only way the alleged mother and daughter have communicated is by letter. Frola would visit the Ponzas’ tenement apartment, and Signora Ponza would drop a basket from her fifth floor balcony for the exchange of notes. Yet the forced meeting does not answer any of the protagonists’ questions about the Ponzas and Frola. Signora Ponza tells them that the contradictory stories that Signor and Signora Frola have told them are both true. The previously unseen Signora Ponza solves the play by not solving it, thus giving Right You Are! its primary theme: the truth about people differs based on point of view. Much of the time, what is believed to be a truth is irrelevant.

The reason for the protagonists’ quest for the truth is understandable. The more they find out about the Ponzas and Frola, the more their interest is piqued. In addition to the letter-only communication between mother and daughter, the Ponzas live in a tenement on the edge of town, while Frola lives in the same upscale building as the Agazzis. Signor Ponza does not want Frola to have a normal social life with anyone, including her neighbors. Yet Frola and Signor Ponza spend much time together. Though Frola manages to have some social contact, her alleged daughter has none at all. No one in the village has seen her outside the home until the end of Right You Are!, and the only reason she has been brought there is because the village’s Prefect has ordered it.

But what starts the Agazzis, their relatives and friends on their quest is a breach of perceived social mores by Frola. Before this major transgression, it seems the protagonists merely noticed and gossiped about the minor social oddities of the Ponzas and Frola. A major transgression opens a floodgate, and gives the protagonists a license to dig deeper and create confrontational situations. This transgression is Frola’s refusal to receive the social call of Signora Agazzi and her daughter Dina just before the action of Act I begins. This infuriates Signora Agazzi and Dina because, as Signora Agazzi states, ‘‘We were trying to do her a favor.’’ The truth becomes important to them because of their values. Their social mores must be upheld, and the only way to do that is to discover the truth. The truth would explain why Frola refused to (or was not allowed to) receive them, which would allow the social mistake to be acceptable.

Nothing less than what the protagonists perceive to be the truth will do to counteract this social misstep by Frola. They go to great lengths to find out the truth, without respect for the privacy of the Ponzas and Frola or other social mores. Some of their group goes as far as to call for the firing of Ponza from his governmental job based on speculation and rumor, even before explanations can be given by Ponza and Frola. Like the truth at the end of Right You Are!, social graces are portrayed as relative, at least for established citizens of the village.

Thus when Frola calls upon the Agazzis in Act I to apologize and relate her story, they conveniently deny their already stated abhorrence of her social transgression so that more information can be obtained. Signora Agazzi herself says, ‘‘Oh, we are just neighbors, Signora Frola! Why stand on ceremony?’’ This statement comforts Frola and makes her more open to answering their questions. Frola tells them about an earthquake in which she and Ponza lost their families, which should sufficiently explain away why they act differently. But the group gathered push Frola to the limit with their persistent, torturous questions. There is no regard for sociability here. The group cannot accept Frola’s feeble explanations nor her statements of happiness. When she says, ‘‘We all have our weaknesses in this world, haven’t we! And we get along best by having a little charity, a little indulgence for one another,’’ they ignore her implied plea and decide to dig deeper for a more ‘‘real,’’ socially acceptable truth.

Soon after Frola leaves in Act I, Ponza makes a social call to the Agazzis and relates his version of events to counteract anything Frola may have said. Ponza is flustered and controlling, explaining that Frola must be left alone. When the group does not like this, Ponza reveals that she is insane. He claims that he was married to Frola’s daughter at one time, but she died and the woman he is married to now is his second wife. Frola has mistaken the second wife for her own daughter, and lives in obsessed denial about who the woman Ponza is married to really is. This is Ponza’s reason for essentially keeping Frola under lock and key, and not allowing social mores to be followed. Some of the group of protagonists accepts most of this explanation, while others are not so sure.

Their quest for truth takes another unexpected turn when Frola returns. She tells them that while Ponza is an excellent worker, he is the one who is a lunatic. Frola’s version of the story is that her daughter became ill with a contagious disease and had to be isolated and hospitalized. Ponza believed that his wife had died in the hospital, and when she recovered, he would not believe it was her. A second wedding was held for the couple, so Ponza still believes that Frola’s daughter is dead. Frola assures them that this is the only way Ponza can survive his day-to-day life. She also says that she pretends to be insane for his benefit. As Frola tells the group during her second visit, ‘‘Oh, my dear Signora Agazzi, I wish I had left things as they were. It was hard to feel that I had been impolite to you by not answering the bell when you called the first time; but I could never have supposed that you would come back and force me to call upon you.’’

Throughout Acts II and III, the group of protagonists, led by the Agazzis, try to discern the truth of these statements: Who is really insane, Frola or Ponza? Which is telling the truth about their past? The quest for the truth only gets more confusing, not less. When they resort to trickery in Act II, they find out that Frola calls Signora Ponza by the name of Julia, while Ponza insists that her name is Lena. They end up hurting Ponza desperately. The group also arranges for a background investigation by the police which leads nowhere. Their quest ends in the manner described above, by involving the town’s Prefect and arranging a confrontation between all three which does nothing to fulfill their need to know. When forced, the mysterious Signora Ponza asks of the group, ‘‘And what can you want of me now, after all this, ladies and gentlemen?’’ What the group wanted was a clear truth so they could judge the social acceptability of the Ponzas and Frola. What emotional damage and distress they caused in their explanation was irrelevant, though that is also a breach of social mores.

There is one voice of reason in Right You Are!, Signora Agazzi’s brother, Lamberto Laudisi. Though he is aligned with the group of protagonists, he is a skeptic who questions their every statement, every motive, and every move. Laudisi sees the narrowness of their vision, how they perceive that everything must be true or false, with no other possible explanation. From the beginning of the play, he says things like ‘‘It was none of your damned business’’ when Dina Agazzi tried to rationalize their visit to Frola. Laudisi is aware of the importance of privacy, and implicitly sees how the group is using social mores to further their quest. He tries to show them the futility of their task, but he is ridiculed, and, at one point, banned from the room. Still, he maintains a sense of humor which serves him well. And at the end of each act, including the end of Right You Are!, Laudisi gets the last laugh because he has known the truth about their ‘‘real’’ truth all along.

Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

Laudisi’s Laughter and the Social Dimension of Right You Are (If You think So)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4119

Criticism has more or less agreed that Pirandello’s intention in writing Right You Are (If You Think So) was to illustrate his conviction that truth does not exist absolutely, but merely as a product of the individual mind. From here it became a question of whether the play was successful as drama and to what extent the thesis may be said to either enhance or diminish the work’s emotional content. Is Right You Are a ‘‘sensitive’’ and ‘‘provoking’’ expression of Pirandello’s philosophy? Or is it nothing more than—as Gramsci would have it—‘‘a superfi- cial fact of literature: a pure and simple mechanical aggregate of words’’? (AVANTI!, Oct. 5, 1917) Contemporary criticism has rescued the play from a type of discussion based on whether Pirandello did or did not succeed in dramatizing his relativist Weltanschauung by shifting the perspective from the work’s philosophical content to its social bearings and the existential turmoil of its main characters; that is, from Laudisi’s arid reasoning about the relativity of truth to the sufferings of the Ponza- Frola group. Eric Bentley, for example, views the play as a social satire, Pirandello’s aim being to demonstrate how the ‘‘idle curiosity’’ and ‘‘nosiness’’ of the townspeople is detrimental to the sufferers’ struggle for life in its inner essence and private depths. And Robert Brustein goes a step further, describing the work as a ‘‘drama of social revolt.’’ According to him, ‘‘the play is a protest against [he quotes Bentley] the ‘scandalmonger, the prying reporter, and the amateur psychoanalyst’ and [he himself adds] the sob sister, the candid cameraman, and the Congressional investigator—those who recklessly probe the secrets of others.’’

For Bentley and Brustein, therefore, the drama consists in the play’s emotional content, that is, in Signora Frola’s and Signor Ponza’s struggle for survival against the onslaught of the townspeople’s destructive curiosity. Although convincing in many ways and certainly supported by the characters’ awareness of conflict, interpretations of this sort do not take sufficiently into account the function of the ‘‘intellectual’’ frame in which the drama develops: they focus on the dramatic or dialectical process as if this process were free from the imposing presence of Laudisi and thus ignore the importance of the relationship between structural elements in determining the play’s total meaning.

Those readers to whom Right You Are appeared as too intellectually contrived had good reasons on which to base their assumptions. For it is clear that the conflict between the townspeople and the Ponza- Frola group is a dramatic actualization of Laudisi’s relativist convictions. From the standpoint of the play’s thematic organisation Right You Are appears unequivocally as a dramma a tesi. It begins simply with man’s natural desire to know the things around him (the townspeople’s wanting to understand the reasons for the Ponza-Frola group’s strange living arrangement). It concludes with the discovery that things have not an absolute, but a relational existence (the meaning of Signora Ponza’s final words ‘‘Io sono colei che mi si crede’’). The play develops in a way that the thesis is proved in each of the acts and in the final act it becomes impossible to disprove. From the standpoint of action, the reader follows a circular schema whereby he sees the townspeople move from a state of unsatisfied curiosity through several intense moments of expectation and disillusionment back to that same state; while thematically he proceeds from the lack of knowledge through a series of demonstrations to the awareness that truth beyond appearance is unattainable. In addition to Laudisi and Signora Ponza, who express their relativist beliefs directly to the townspeople, Signora Frola and Signor Ponza illustrate perfectly Pirandello’s thesis: they both tell equally convincing stories and each is aware of the role the other is playing.

At the same time, however, the play’s emotional nucleus does consist in the struggle of the Ponza Frola group to preserve their illusions, although we may sincerely wonder if this theme could not have been expressed in a less mechanical way. Is the character of Laudisi really necessary to the drama? Why did Pirandello choose such an ‘‘unrealistic’’ story to illustrate his convictions? It might be that the artist is at fault. Professor Brustein believes that Pirandello, by not fusing the ‘‘spokesman-sufferer’’ (Laudisi) with the pathetic sufferers (the Ponza- Frola group), has not yet perfected his dramatic structure. But the work’s flawless technique suggests that Pirandello has willingly created an ambiguous dramatic structure, which in itself is perfect. The ambiguity lies in the figure of Laudisi who, on the one hand, tells us that truth is equal to appearance and laughs at those who seek ‘‘objective facts,’’ and on the other, goes no further than showing abstract sympathy for the sufferings of the Ponza-Frola family. That is to say, Laudisi relates to Signora Frola and Signor Ponza through his epistemological considerations which are potentially bene- ficial to their lives. But his involvement in their drama ends there. He does not, for instance, act directly to help them; nor does he voice more than mild objections at the townspeople’s tactics. Thus, as an element of structure, Laudisi does not have the status of a character belonging to one of the dialectical forces in the play. Rather he is a sort of device whose function lies in establishing the emotional and intellectual relationships between the playwright and the dialectical oppositions he is representing.

The role of Laudisi in Right You Are may be better understood if we consider for a moment the short story on which the play is based, ‘‘La signora Frola e il signor Ponza suo genero’’ (1915). The story is related by an anonymous speaker in the form of a dramatic monologue. The speaker of the monologue addresses an audience of readers, telling them how the entire citizenry of Valdana is perplexed at not being able to distinguish which of the two eccentric strangers, Mrs. Frola or Mr. Ponza, has gone mad. The speaker then goes on to recount the events (repeated for the most part in the play) leading to the townspeople’s suspicion that ‘‘reality is just as bad as fantasy, and that every reality can quite well be fantasy and vice versa.’’ Ulrich Leo, in a well known article, has argued convincingly that the ‘‘persona’’ of the monologue may be described as an ‘‘embryonic’’ Laudisi, ‘‘a Laudisi avant la lettre,’’ essentially because he utters in direct discourse much of the same Pirandellian epistemology contained in the play. However true this may be, there are perhaps reasons for establishing a more binding relationship between the raisonneur of Right You Are and the nameless speaker of the story. Laudisi and the speaker of the monologue, in my view, share the same structural peculiarities within the context of their respective genres; and they perform basically the same function as dramatic devices. Only, in the story, on account of a more elementary structure, the function is more clearly seen and understood. Like Laudisi, the ‘‘persona’’ partakes of the dialectical oppositions in the story and, at the same time, conveys directly the author’s thoughts. Pirandello’s choice of the dramatic monologue doubtless facilitates this scheme and his use of free indirect discourse makes it possible. In the story’s opening sentence, for instance, the speaker states sympathetically the townspeople’s chief preoccupation which reappears in the play on the lips of Signora Sirelli:

Well, just imagine what it’s like! It really is enough to drive you out of your mind to be completely unable to find out which of these two people is mad . . . .

SIGNORA SIRELLI. But how can you escape the curiosity we all feel to get to the bottom of this mystery which is enough to drive us all mad?

But he also goes on to speak in behalf of Signora Frola and Signor Ponza, uttering the very words that their counterparts will express in the drama. Here is one of many possible examples:

Oh, no, for pity’s sake! He’s not cruel! There’s just this: he wants her all, he wants that darling little wife all for himself, even to such an extent that her love for her mother, well, he wants it to reach her not directly, but through him, by way of him.

SIGNORA FROLA. Jealous of me, her mother? I don’t think you can say that. . . . You see, he wants his wife’s heart all for himself, to the extent that the love which my daughter must have for me, her mother (. . .). He wants that it should reach me through him, that’s it!

In addition, the speaker conveys Pirandello’s reaction to the situation by interjecting, from time to time, his thoughts into the monologue, such as, ‘‘Even if it is true that they have undergone a terrible disaster, it is nonetheless true that at least one of them has had the good luck to go mad. . . .’’ The similarities between the anonymous speaker and Laudisi as elements of structure suggest that Laudisi was mainly conceived as personage-replacement for the ‘‘persona’’: that is, as a characterdevice which betrays, as we shall see, the author’s uncertain position with respect to his drama.

When the play begins, the Agazzi household is in a turmoil because Signora Frola, the mother-inlaw of Signor Ponza, the new provincial secretary, has not welcomed in her home Agazzi’s wife and daughter. The visit has been prompted by their desire to understand why the Ponza-Frola family, having come to town as the sole survivors of an earthquake, should live divided: the man and his wife sharing the top floor of a tenement at the edge of town while the mother lives at her son-in-law’s expense in a fashionable apartment. It is also known that the wife never leaves the tenement and that the mother never sees her face to face. This situation leads to the townspeople’s investigation, their aim being to unite mother and daughter according to accepted standards of social behaviour.

Immediate suspicion as to who is at fault falls on Signor Ponza, and Signora Frola confirms the people’s assumption, stating that she lives separated from her daughter because of Ponza’s need for absolute possession of his wife. She adds, however, that she is in perfect agreement with the arrangement and that by living this way the family is very happy. Signora Frola having exited, Ponza himself enters to vouch for the fact that it was he who prevented his mother-in-law from carrying out her social obligations. The reason is because Signora Frola is mad. Her madness—he says—consists in her believing that her daughter is alive, when in fact she has been dead for several years. The mother is therefore deluded in thinking that the husband’s second wife is actually her daughter. Her illusion, nevertheless, must be preserved in order that she not suffer from the truth. Now public opinion has shifted in Ponza’s favor, but not for long. Signora Frola, aware of her son-in-law’s version of the story, returns to tell the townspeople that it is really Ponza who is deluded. His love for his wife—she explains— was so overpowering that it was necessary for reasons of health to commit her to a sanatorium. Ponza, thinking she was dead, would no longer accept her as his wife. To reunite the couple a second wedding had to be staged. Ponza’s wife, therefore, according to the mother, is really her daughter who, in order not to unmask her husband’s beneficial illusion, pretends to be his second wife. At this point, after having heard two equally plausible, but contradictory accounts of why the family must live divided, the astonished townspeople stand looking at each other, while Laudisi, who all along has argued that there is no key to the mystery, has a hearty laugh at their expense.

In the second act, the dialectical pattern repeats itself. Disappointed because there are no documents to prove who is telling the truth, Agazzi plans to have Ponza and Frola meet face to face, believing that the encounter would force the hand of one of them. It appears, in fact, to be the case when the husband becomes furiously angry with the mother and tries to convince her before the others that his wife is not her daughter. But as soon as the mother leaves, his rage subsides. He was just pretending to be mad in order to verify her impression of him. Once again the spectators remain dumbfounded and once again Laudisi bursts out laughing.

In the final act, the pattern is repeated again. Now the townspeople have no other recourse than to call the wife to unravel the mystery. Signora Ponza, however, is of little help to them. She confesses that she is both Signora Frola’s daughter and Signor Ponza’s second wife and that for herself she is nobody. Now thoroughly foiled in their quest for the truth, Agazzi and Co. stand baffled as Laudisi’s laughter once again fills the stage.

Inasmuch as Laudisi functions as a raisonneur, he shares the playwright’s convictions and states them as universal premises, i.e. truth is equal to appearance. But more important is the fact that he reacts as a spectator to the dramatic events by laughing in every crucial moment of the play’s development. His recurring laughter, I believe, is a clear sign of the way Pirandello himself interprets his drama, and only through an understanding of the psychology of his laughter can we arrive at an understanding of Pirandello’s point of view.

Laudisi’s laughter is generally seen as being ‘‘caustically sardonic,’’ intended to deride the philistine attitudes and pretentions of the townspeople and thus viewed as an expression of ‘‘social revolt.’’ To quote again Robert Brustein:

Pirandello exercises [in Right You Are ] the animus of his social revolt; and the tragedy which threatens is averted at the end. Their right to privacy affirmed, their secret still hidden from the gossips and busybodies, the pharmakoi [the pathetic sufferers] depart into darkness, while the alazones [buffoons] stand lost in amazement, whipped by the savage laughter of the eiron [sufferer-spokesman].

One possible objection to this view is the lack of textual evidence that might reveal the ‘‘sardonic’’ quality of Laudisi’s laughter. On the contrary, although the stage directions do not divulge the nature of his laughter (‘‘Laudisi,’’ Pirandello indicates simply, ‘‘Scoppiera a ridere—Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!’’), the dialogue between him and his family clarifies his attitude toward their actions as being somewhat less than contemptuous. Like Pirandello, Laudisi is sympathetic to human foibles. His manner of reacting to the townspeople’s naivete is at most benevolently ironical, as when he tells them:

I enjoy hearing you talk. I’ll be quiet, don’t fear. At the very most, I shall indulge in a laugh or two, and if I really burst out laughing, please forgive me.

In other words, Laudisi amuses himself at their expense, laughing when reality proves to be at odds with their ambitions. This sort of relationship between the author’s spokesman and his would-be antagonists would seem inappropriate in a dramatic context where the message is one of either social or existential revolt. Rather than interpreting Laudisi’s laughter as a sign of Pirandello’s satirical aims, I should like to suggest the possibility of viewing it simply as a spontaneous show of approval for a humorous situation, a favorable response to a rather elaborate joke.

Laudisi’s laughter alone does not establish suf- ficiently the presence in the play of a joke pattern, for the acid test of a joke is not whether it provokes laughter or not. What does, however, is his awareness of a humorous situation:

AGAZZI. Some of the talk had reached him [the Prefect] and even he feels that it’s time to clear up this mystery, so that we shall know the truth.

LAUDISI. [ bursts out laughing ] Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

AMALIA. All we need now is for you to laugh.

AGAZZI. And why is he laughing?

SIGNORA SIRELLI. Because he says that no one can ever know the truth!

The joke implied in this instance is that the townspeople know the truth already, since whatever seems to each of them true is true.

Translated into terms compatible with Pirandello’s reflections on humor, Laudisi’s laughter would derive from his perception of something incongruous (‘‘L’avvertimento del contrario’’): that is, he laughs because the townspeople make fools of themselves by trying to control logically something uncontrollable and, in doing so, appear ludicrously distorted, frozen in their futile ambition. Bergson would say that Laudisi has perceived something mechanical encrusted on something living (for Pirandello, Form imposed on Life), the townspeople thus being automata who threaten to deprive the Frola-Ponza group of its spontaneity and freedom, while Laudisi’s actual laughter results from his observing the spiritual rigidity and lifelessness of Agazzi and Co. To Freud the Ponza-Frola group would probably appear as the symbolic expression of the subconscious that has succeeded in breaking down the control imposed on it by the conscious mind, symbolized by the townspeople. Laudisi’s laughter in this case would be a sign of freedom experienced in the face of a momentary release of psychic energy.

Regardless of what theory we choose to explain Laudisi’s laughter, we are dealing basically with a play on form, an attack on something formal by something informal; the townspeople’s established, logically controlled approach to reality is overturned by the vitality and irrationality of the Ponza- Frola group. Why then does the subversion of form not indicate the animus of revolt? The answer lies in the joke form itself which implies that the upsetting of formal values or thought patterns is only temporary, and that the laugh it elicits is a sign of momentary freedom from the burden of reality. Although Signora Frola and Signor Ponza challenge the accepted pattern of structuring reality throughout the play, they succeed only at the end of each act in tilting the scales in their favor. The joke also implies a congenial relationship between the joker and the societal group in which the joke is told and accepted. Mary Douglas, who has made several studies of jokes and their relationship to social experience, argues that the joker ‘‘has a firm hold on his own position in the social structure and the disruptive comments which he makes upon it are in a sense the comments of the social group upon itself. He merely expresses consensus. Safe within the permitted range of attack he lightens for everyone the oppressiveness of social reality, demonstrates its arbitrariness by making light of formality in general.’’ (Italics mine).

Right You Are (If You Think So) contains three distinct structural elements, two of which (the townspeople and the Ponza-Frola group) represent the terms of the joke pattern; the third (Laudisi) embodies an ideal audience of listeners. Pirandello relates to the townspeople and family through Laudisi, whose rapport with the members of his family and their friends reflects in a sense Pirandello’s own position within the social structure of his time. Laudisi is an evolved part of the provincial bourgeois society he ridicules. Aware of the problematic nature of human existence, he challenges the townspeople’s claim to objective truth, but rather than offending their values, he is really only causing a nuisance, a minor hindrance to their investigation. In other words, the epistemological relativism that Pirandello conveys through his raisonneur is not meant to undermine the social structure represented by Agazzi and Co., but rather to define a drama in which everyone participates: the drama of man’s depersonalization, of his life as a role actor on the stage of society. Signora Frola and Signor Ponza literally act out this drama in their conflict with the townspeople. On stage, they perform according to the demands created by the social context. The more accentuated the demands become (the more the townspeople push ahead in their quest for ‘‘truth’’) the more they challenge each other’s role in the face of the investigators, until Signora Ponza, herself the personification of man’s identity crisis, arrives to declare that her appearance is her existence: she is whoever she appears to be—‘‘Cosi e (se vi pare).’’ For Pirandello the Frola-Ponza group has a dual function. As dramatic characters they illustrate the crisis of the divided self, while as the major term of the joke pattern they afford the opportunity for realizing that the townspeople’s way of structuring reality may be arbitrary and subjective, and therefore without necessity.

As for the townspeople, they exemplify the element of control against which the vital, uncontrolled Ponza-Frola group combats. In their ranks, we can certainly find the busybody or buffoon type: the Signoras Sirelli, Nenni, and Cini, for example, and Agazzi and the Prefect are unquestionably persistent enough to be likened to ‘‘congressional investigators,’’ but there are characters such as Amalia and Sirelli who appear more humane and compassionate. Their motives for carrying out the investigation are somewhat less selfish than those of their fellow citizens. On the whole, it is a diversified group representing various types and degrees of curiosity. The character of Laudisi bridges the gap between the two groups. Socially he is one of the townspeople, but in his epistemological reflections, he speaks for the Ponza-Frola family. His laugh is the effect of an exhilarating sense of being liberated from conventional thought patterns. For a moment Life has subverted Form: the human spirit has been released from the limitations imposed on it by logical discourse.

The social message concealed in Right You Are (If You Think So), as in any joke or humorous situation, is not one of satire or revolt (both of which necessitate contempt for reality, and, at least, an implicit display of objective values); rather what we have can be best described as the mild ridicule a society imposes upon itself as a way of censoring its belief in the objective world constructed by its own reason. Right You Are is a play written for a confused, disoriented society, spiritually uprooted by the havoc and catastrophies of war; a society whose members have lost confidence in its institutions and are questioning the rational foundations on which those very institutions are built. It is a play of crisis in which a solution is only hinted at.

With Henry IV and Six Characters in Search of an Author, Pirandello begins to emerge from the structural ambiguity manifested in Right You Are (If You Think So). The momentary liberation from the official categories of thought crystallized in the relationship between Laudisi and the Ponza-Frola group becomes an extended escape that springs from the development of a counter-logic (the logical paradoxes of Laudisi) and terminates in the creation of a new and eternal form of existence. Henry’s willed decision to accept as his reality the mask of madness indicates his desire to live apart from his social group in the timelessness of history where his identity has already been accounted for as a Holy Roman Emperor. The six characters who wander on to the set of The Rules of the Game are in search of an author who will eternalize their masks and thereby confer on their problematic lives the timelessness of art. The elaboration of myth in the dramatist’s later phase signals the exasperation of his quest for existential cohesion.

If Right You Are (If You Think So) reflects, as I believe it does, a crisis of values and the consciousness the society has of the crisis, I should like to suggest going a step further to note how the evolution of Pirandello’s theater from Right You Are to the later plays is analogous to the political and social evolution that took place in Italy in the aftermath of the First World War. The movement from the dialectics of crisis (i.e. Pirandello’s relativism) to the compensations offered by existence apart from the social group parallels the movement from the state of uncertainty and confusion of post-war society to the acceptance of a new, mystical form of civil life embodied in the ‘‘Fascist revolution’’ which, as it is known, presented itself as a substitute for the inadequacies of political reason. Pirandello’s acceptance of Fascism should be viewed within the perspective of this historical crisis and the irrational solutions which the regime glorified.

Source: Robert S. Dombroski, ‘‘Laudisi’s Laughter and the Social Dimension of Right You Are (If You think So), ’’ in Modern Drama, Vol. 16, 1973, pp. 337–46.

Six Characters; Right You Are . . .and Henry IV,[with introduction]

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 726

[Introduction] Ever since 1945, many of Orazio Costa’s productions have stood out as landmarks in the development of the Italian theatre.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he has staged a good many of Pirandello’s plays and even staged some of them several times over. A fascinating experience for such a recognized ‘‘perfectionist’’!

One of Orazio Costa’s most characteristic features is the combination of extreme rigour in the analysis of the text—the sure sign of the philologist— with a constant, but never completely ful- filled aspiration towards the highest summits of spirituality. And while equally fitted to make his mark at a University or to devote himself to meditation, he decided to consecrate his talents to the theatre, that is to say to the task of conveying literature to the stage and of embodying his aspirations in the most concrete of plastic forms.

This is what gives outstanding value to the study he has kindly sent us. On receiving the latter, we realized at once that lack of space would unfortunately prevent us from bringing it out in full.

We have therefore decided to publish only the first part and to omit, to our deep regret, Orazio Costa’s commentaries on other Pirandello plays and notably on The Giants of the Mountain , the spirit of which he brought out to such excellent effect. [Costa directed Pirandello’s plays several times, and was recognized for his intellectual rigor in interpreting dramatic texts.]

[Costa’s Remarks] Even before I realized my first staging, I was convinced, from the study of Six Characters in Search of an Author and of Right You Are—If You Think You Are, that Pirandello had taken the European theatre to the end of its bourgeois cycle by renovating it totally: plot, characters, settings. Pirandello, fully aware of the futility of the plot, reduced the argument to an interchangeable canvas; he rediscovered, in the characters’ sufferings, the only dignity worthy of containing and expressing life; he stripped the stage of its decorative tinsel and restored it to the nudity of its primary function, that of a machine. Thus, he came to the theatre in a state of absolute virginity, perfectly conscious of his part as a renovator and even perhaps—all considered— the only poet of his time in such a position. . . .

I am coming now to the interpretation of Right You Are—If You Think You Are, a play I have also been able to stage twice, first with the Piccolo Teatro della Citta di Roma, in 1952, then with the Theatre National de Belgique, in 1959. . . . The provincial town tallies with the theatre company and its presumption of having all its ‘‘recognized titles’’; and the three unfortunates—Mme Frola and the Ponza couple—are effectively ‘‘characters’’ kneaded out of the same dough as the Son’s character: they tend to be demure, to refuse to make an exhibition of themselves.

It must be admitted that, up to Pirandello, dramatic poetry tended, by its own nature, to con- firm the existence of characters eager to manifest themselves, with the result of making creditable a vision of the world easy to read, transparent and, in its exuberance, wide open.

In Right You Are clearly appears the modern trend which consists in proposing for the audience, in each drama, a particular attitude. In fact, one is suggested here, which I attempted to realize scenically: analogous to the prying attitude of the provincial society gathered in a typical drawingroom, and facing a group of shy and secret creatures who refuse the principle of ‘‘sociability.’’ A cruelly comic choir, crowded around a very small space— the only space subsequently provided for the characters, seemingly questioned with much respect, in fact, pilloried.

In view of obtaining the greatest possible opposition between the cruel circle and the ‘‘mourning’’ central group, during all the rehearsals I kept apart the actors of the grotesque choir and the tragic characters, so that their tones—aggressive questioning on the one hand, tragic panicking on the other—would not, from the beginning, tend towards an insufferable unification, but that, fixed on distinct registers, they would only in the end reach that minimum of common tuning demanded by the necessity of establishing a colloquy, however hostile. . . .

Source: Orazio Costa, ‘‘Six Characters; Right You Are . . . and Henry IV,[with introduction]’’ in World Theatre, Vol. 16, 1967, pp. 248–55.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Critical Overview

Explore Study Guides