Right You Are, If You Think You Are

by Luigi Pirandello

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Historical Context

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Pirandello & World War I
World War I raged while Pirandello wrote his play, Right You Are, If You Think You Are. Pirandello later said that ‘‘It was war that revealed theatre to me. Mine is a theatre of war.’’ War between Germany and France had been considered inevitable since at least 1905, and finally broke out in 1914. What began in a nationalist frenzy soon stalemated in a 350-mile line of trenches where thousands of lives were sacrificed to gain or lost a single mile. Euphoria was replaced by nihilism as it became evident that a whole generation was going to slaughter. To many writers and thinkers, the war was proof of the crisis in consciousness that was separate but intricately linked with the political problems that plagued Europe. Italy joined the war in 1915, and Pirandello’s son Stefano enlisted, interrupting his university studies. Stefano was immediately was sent to the front, where he was wounded and taken prisoner. Pirandello’s younger son Fausto was called up, but was so weak from an intestinal operation that Pirandello had to intervene to get him released to convalesce; however, Fausto had already contracted tuberculosis. Then Stefano contracted tuberculosis as well. Pirandello lobbied for a trade of prisoners, and the Austrian government demanded three prisoners in return for Stefano. Caught between his patriotic duty and his love for his son, Pirandello refused. Stefano was released at the end of the war. During the war years, with both sons in danger, Pirandello’s wife Antonietta, who was already mentally unstable, grew unpredictable and violent. The war years were a time of disillusion and danger to all, but of particular torment for Pirandello. After the war, Pirandello joined the Fascist movement, both because it promised to bring backward Italy into the twentieth century, and because of his desperate need to feel connected as well as his attraction to the allure of revolution and dramatic change. Fascism ultimately disappointed him.

It is difficult to place exactly when in time the idea of relativism first took root. Certainly it hit its stride when Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity in 1905, but that event merely gave a scientific example of a way of thinking that already existed; in fact, the term ‘‘relativity’’ was already in use. Further back, Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 started a cataclysmic shift in allegiance away from religion, God was ‘‘dead,’’ and the idea of progress became an end to itself. Of course, the idea of progress, too, was already extant at this time, in the form of Imperialism and its notion that growth was necessary for survival. Darwin’s theories seemed to support nineteenth century imperialism, yet were unsettling to his age because they suggested that humankind may not have been destined to rule, but developed power through a random series of trials and error. Even though the human species sat at top of the ‘‘Great Chain of Being,’’ humanity’s divine sponsorship was called into question. Then Freud came along with his The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) and accelerated the sense of displacement, by proving that emotion and unconscious forces were as strong as, if not stronger than, logic and reason. The confidence of the Age of Enlightenment was eroding, and the self-adulation of the Romantic Age seemed inappropriate. World War I would prove to the Allies that the fittest who survived were not necessary morally better. The ‘‘Lost Generation,’’ led by Ernest Hemingway and his friends in Europe, mourned this realization. The acceptance of relativism thus came about more as a slow, layer-by-layer removal of outdated arrogances than as a sudden, bright epiphany. If humans could not put their confidence in god, they could at least put it into their own consciousness, whatever that might be. Consciousness could be the new ‘‘god,’’ or rather, gods, since each person’s view was different, or relative.

Literary Style

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Parables, like the stories told by Christ in the Bible, are simple stories designed to teach a lesson. The simple, flat characters and rather thin plot serve to illustrate an important idea. Thus, the characters do not need to seem realistic, nor does the plot need intrinsic interest. In this way, the parable is a kind of allegory, which Coleridge defined as ‘‘a translation of abstract notions into picture-language.’’ Pirandello’s Right You Are, If You Think You Are is a parable in the sense that it is not really about a specific man, Laudisi, who has trouble convincing his family and friends that they cannot discover the real truth about their new neighbors. Rather, it is an illustrative example of the theme that all truth is relative; it is an example of the concept, with multiple reminders (through Laudisi’s theorizing) to pay attention to the larger ideas at play, and not the story itself. On another level, the play also addresses the moral, Pirandello’s corollary to the principle of relativism, to respect people’s privacy, for if there is no absolute truth, then we have no right to judge others according to our truths. It is the modernist version of the biblical moral, ‘‘He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.’’

The raisonneur
In some parables or plays of ideas, a raisonneur plays the role of guiding the audience to comprehend a moral or intellectual message. The raisonneur must have credibility, which he gains through his actions, words, and attitude, but he can also be playful as he chides the other characters for their blindness to the central idea. Laudisi is the raisonneur in Right You Are, If You Think You Are, but like the prophet Cassandra of the Greek tragedies, his words of warning are destined to be ignored. In his role of chiding the other characters, Laudisi is also a kind of clown, trickster, or harlequin figure, seen as foolish by those who cannot hear his message.

Coup de Theatre
A coup de theatre is a surprising and usually unmotivated stroke in a drama that produces a sensational effect; by extension, any piece of claptrap or anything designed solely for effect’’ (Holman and Harmon A Handbook to Literature, 6th edition). The hand thrusting from the grave at the end of the thriller film Carrie was a coup de theatre; so was Hamlet’s sudden stab at the tapestry in his mother’s rooms, when he thought he had discovered the King spying on him, but killed Polonius instead. The coups de theatre at the ends of each scene in Right You Are, If You Think You Are may be less physically dramatic, but they are intellectually dramatic. In the first act, Laudisi’s friends and family stand stunned after Signora Frola explains that Ponza’s wife is not, after all, her daughter, thus overturning Ponza’s explanation that Signora Frola is mad, which had just overturned her explanation that Ponza kept her daughter locked up because he loved her so much. The drama lies in stretching the listener’s credibility to the maximum. The townspeople stand in ‘‘blank astonishment.’’ At the end of Act Two, ‘‘they stand in blank amazement,’’ after Ponza explains that he feigned his insane rage at Signora Frola as a palliative to her insanity. The coup here is the ingenuity of Pirandello’s tortuous plot construction. At the end of Act Three, the crowd simply looks in ‘‘profound silence’’ at Signora Ponza, who has stunned them all by admitting to being both Signora’s daughter and Ponza’s second wife. Her bizarre dress and sudden appearance conform to conventionally shocking coups de theatre, but once again, Pirandello shows dramatic mastery by not relying on the surprise effect as much as on the unusual intellectual twist that her speech confers on the play’s meaning. For someone who came rather late to the theater, Pirandello had a flair for dramatic elements such as the coup de theatre.

Compare and Contrast

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1917: A network of ‘‘ententes’’ or political alliances between European countries had been signed wherein each promised to help its allies in case of war. Europe was divided by paper loyalties. As warring countries coerced their neutral allies to join in the war according to their agreements, there was a ‘‘domino’’ effect as the new aggressors called upon their neutral allies.

Today: Europe is attempting to create a universal agreement among its nations on several levels: economically through the ‘‘eurodollar,’’ and politically through the European Union (Europa), a multinational European parliament.

1917: Europe was embroiled in a full-scale war that left no country, even those like Belgium that claimed neutrality, safe from invasion.

Today: Although the Kosovo crisis of 1998 threatened stability in Eastern Europe, decisive action on the part of NATO prevented the con- flict from spreading to other countries.

1917: Influenza killed more people during and just after World War I than did weapons and bombs, and tuberculosis was an incurable and devastating disease that often led to death.

Today: A simple annual flu shot can prevent most strains of influenza, and the millions who do not receive inoculations can get relief from its symptoms with antibiotics. Flu can still be fatal, if not treated adequately. Tuberculosis, though still incurable, is rare in developed countries. Skin tests are used to screen for its presence so that the disease can be managed if contracted.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bentley, Eric. The Pirandello Commentaries, Northwestern University Press, 1986.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Luigi Pirandello: Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House, 1989.

Caputi, Anthony. Pirandello and the Crisis of Modern Consciousness, University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Matthaei, Renate. Luigi Pirandello, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1973.

Further Reading
Bassanese, Fiona. Understanding Luigi Pirandello (Understanding Modern European and Latin American Literature), University of South Carolina Press, 1997. Considers Pirandello in the light of the modernist crises of consciousness and of the self.

Bentley, Eric. The Pirandello Commentaries, Northwestern University Press, 1986. A collection of Eric Bentley’s incisive essays on Pirandello, as written over a thirty-year period.

Biasin, Gian-Paolo and Manuela Gieri. Luigi Pirandello, University of Toronto Press, 1999. An anthology of recent literary criticism on Pirandello’s works, responding to a renewed interest in him.

Bassnet, Susan and Jennifer Lorch. Luigi Pirandello in the Theatre: a Documentary Record, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1993. Excerpts of reviews and letters, with photographs of play productions, chronicling Pirandello’s impact on Italian theater and film.

Bini, Daniela. Pirandello and His Muse : The Plays for Marta Abba (Crosscurrents), University Press of Florida, 1998. Explores how Pirandello’s perception of women and his relationship with Marta Abba influenced and subliminally shaped his plays (Right You Are, If You Think You Are is not treated).

Bloom, Harold, ed. Luigi Pirandello: Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House, 1989. An anthology of recent scholarship on Pirandello, with a brief commentary by Bloom in which he dubs Pirandello a ‘‘‘playwright-as-sophist’ leading us to the relativity of all truth.’’

Caesar, Ann. Characters and Authors in Luigi Pirandello, Oxford University Press, 1998. Examines issues of self, family, society, and narrative space in Pirandello’s work.

Cambon, Glauco. Pirandello: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967. An early collection of criticism on his work as a whole, rather than on specific plays.

Caputi, Anthony. Pirandello and the Crisis of Modern Consciousness, University of Illinois Press, 1988. Explores the role of relativity as a theme of modernism that finds expression in Pirandello’s works.

Dashwood, Julie (ed.). Luigi Pirandello: The Theater of Paradox, Edwin Mellen Press, 1997. An anthology of recent literary criticism on issues of gender, genre, and language, among others, in Pirandello’s dramatic works.

Digaetani, John, ed. A Companion to Pirandello Studies, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1991. An anthology of recent literary criticism by acknowledged experts on Pirandello, concerning his life, work, and influence on the theater.

Guidice, Gaspare. Pirandello: A Biography, Oxford University Press, 1975. Covers his early life, his tempestuous marriage, his love for actress Marta Abba, and attempts to justify his association with the Fascist movement.

Matthaei, Renate. Luigi Pirandello, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1973. Brief but insightful biography and synopses of the major plays.

The Nobel Foundation. The Electronic Nobel Prize Project [web page], September, 1999. http://www.nobel.se/enmindex. html Contains a copy of Pirandello’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded in 1934.

Paolucci, Anne. Pirandello’s Theater: The Recovery of the Modern Stage for Dramatic Art, Southern Illinois University Press, 1974. A scholarly analysis of Pirandello’s plays, finding in them dramatic value that can withstand the test of time better than his theme of relativity alone.

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Critical Essays


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