Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725
Relativism is the theory that ‘‘truth and moral values are not absolute but are [pertinent] to the persons or groups holding them’’ (American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd Edition). The idea of relativism is a core concept of 20th century modernism. At the turn of the century, it was a new idea, just gaining coinage. It followed on the crisis of faith that had occurred during the nineteenth century, spurred on by Darwin’s discoveries. Relativism suggests that rather than seek an overarching, absolute truth, such as that previously held forth by the Church, each person might in his or her own conscious discover a relevant truth. At the end of the nineteenth century, philosophers like Matthew Arnold theorized that the way to make the conscious ‘‘worthy’’ of such responsibility was to cultivate genius, to fill the mind with ‘‘the best that has been known and said in the world’’ (as Arnold phrased it in 1873). But who would arbitrate what was the best? The two dimensions of this idea, what was right, and how much weight the conscious could bear, became the burning questions that attended the theory of relativism. Artists and writers tried out the new theory in different contexts, plumbing its depths and testing its fit. So did Pirandello. In an 1893 essay called ‘‘Art and Consciousness Today,’’ he wrote,
In minds and consciousnesses an extraordinary confusion reigns. In their interior mirror the most disparate figures, all in disordered attitudes, as if weighed down with insupportable burdens, are reflected, and each gives a different counsel. To whom should we listen? To whom should we cling? The insistence of one counsel overrides for a moment the voices of all the others, and we give ourselves to him for a time with the unhealthy impulsiveness of someone who wants an escape and doesn’t know where it is—we feel bewildered, lost in an immense, blind labyrinth surrounded on all sides by impenetrable mystery. There are many paths, but which is the true one?—The old norms have crumbled, and the new ones haven’t arisen and become well established. It’s understandable that the idea of the relativity of all things has spread so much within us to deprive us almost altogether of the faculty for judgement.
The term ‘‘relativity’’ does not appear directly in Pirandello’s play Right You Are, If You Think You Are, but it undergirds its plot, placing it in the context of perceptions about other persons. Amalia, Dina, Agazzi and the others are obsessed with finding the absolute truth about Sigonora Frola and Ponza. But an earthquake has destroyed their past, and they give conflicting stories. Laudisi accepts relativism; he is modern, a man in tune with new ideas. None of the other characters is ‘‘ready’’ to accept that there is no absolute truth. Thus Laudisi is a vanguard of modernist thought, while the other characters are blind (or veiled, like the wife at the end of the play) to reality, or rather, realities.
Along with the modernist theme of relativism in Right You Are, If You Think You Are lies a more conservative theme. Signora Frola makes a heartfelt plea for the townspeople to leave her family in peace. She insists that they do not realize the harm they are doing with their persistent questioning and prying into her family’s affairs. Pirandello himself, who was at the time of writing this play suffering from the presence of his severely mentally ill wife in his home, certainly understood the need for privacy and peace. His wife Antonietta exhibited paranoia and severe jealousy, and her outbursts embarrassed Pirandello, who was shy and reserved. He therefore cloistered himself from prying eyes, and fabricated reasons for his many separations from his wife, when either she left him or drove him and the children away from their home. Everyone in Right You Are, If You Think You Are except for Laudisi (the playwright’s alter ego) commits the social crime of overstepping the boundaries of conventional propriety in asking questions of Signora Frola and Ponza. The truth is not even revealed to the audience, as if forcing their respect for privacy. Although moralist plays were no longer fashionable in 1917, Pirandello’s play is moralist in the sense that it conveys the theme of respecting personal privacy as a maxim of proper human relations.