Essays and Criticism

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1887

Pirandellian themes like the relativity of truth, the constantly changing nature of personal identity, or the difficulty of distinguishing between reality and illusion or between sanity and madness all have a common thread—they all point to uncertainty as a significant part of human experience. As John Gassner has observed, Pirandello was consistently "expressing a conviction that nothing in life is certain except its uncertainty.''

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In Six Characters in Search of an Author uncertainty begins with the introduction of the "characters." The claim they make about their reality is obviously counter to fact (they are, of course, actors), but Pirandello makes their case so convincing that it is ultimately difficult for the audience to feel certain about what they know to be true. It is interesting to see how Pirandello does this.

First of all, Pirandello has encouraged the audience to adopt their customary willingness to suspend disbelief and accept the stage illusion as reality. As one-dimensional as the members of the theatrical troupe ultimately appear to be, the play seems to begin in a spirit of ultra-realism—with a stage hand nailing boards together (how mundane is the sound of a hammer meeting a nail), with a set that appears unprepared for a formal "show," and with actors improvising their lines so as to sound as authentic as possible. Therefore, if the audience has taken these initial characters for real, what must they do with a group that claims they are even more real than the actors in the Producer's troupe? And the "characters" persist in their claim with such a vehemence that their claim becomes compelling. Contemporary jurisprudence demonstrates a similar phenomenon. No matter how certain a defendant's guilty conduct seems to be, if the person charged with a crime persists in claiming innocence an air of uncertainty eventually envelops the proceedings and significant numbers believe the defendant innocent.

In this way, the Mother is especially difficult for the audience to dismiss as "merely an actress" because she is so simple and direct in her assumption of "'reality." As Pirandello says in his "Preface," the Mother "never doubts for a moment that she is already alive, nor does it ever occur to her to inquire in what respect and why she is alive. ... she lives in a stream of feeling that never ceases.'' And perhaps her most powerful moment comes near the end of Act II when the Producer verbalizes a very common sense approach to her suffering. The Producer is willing to grant the Mother some kind of reality but points out that if her story has happened already she should not be surprised and distraught by its reoccurrence. But the Mother says, "No! It's happening now, as well: it's happening all the time. I'm not acting my suffering! Can't you understand that? I'm alive and here now but I can never forget that terrible moment of agony, that repeats itself endlessly and vividly in my mind." In spite of the collision with common sense that this assertion entails, intensity like this makes the fiction so compelling that the audience is forced to question its own certainty, if only subconsciously and only in a flashing moment. The genius of Pirandello is that he calls attention to the illusion and at the same time helps to perpetuate it, thereby demonstrating the awesome power that illusion has over the human mind and the inevitable state of uncertainty that must result.

An even more obvious contribution to the audience's sense of uncertainty is that Pirandello allows different versions of events to be presented but never suggests which might be more near the * 'truth." Under what circumstances, for instance, did the Mother leave with the Father's secretary? Did she leave of her own accord? Or was she forced to leave? What were the Father's feelings for his stepdaughter while the young girl was growing up? What actually happened in the brothel? The Father, Mother, and Stepdaughter all answer these questions differently but there is no adjudication. In fact, the resolution of the different versions is simply ignored and becomes moot as the play ends in the melodramatic drowning and suicide. And Pirandello makes clear that the resolution would be impossible anyway because uncertainty is at the heart of language itself. In Act I the Father says, "we all have a world of things inside ourselves and each one of us has his own private world. How can we understand each other if the words I use have the sense and the value that I expect them to have, but whoever is listening to me inevitably thinks that those same words have a different sense and value, because of the private world he has inside himself too. We think we understand each other; but we never do. Look! All my pity, all my compassion for this woman {Pointing to the Mother) she sees as ferocious cruelty."

After one examines how Pirandello puts his audience into this condition of uncertainty, the next question is why does he choose to do this? In part, he creates uncertainty in his audience because he believes uncertainty is the natural condition that human beings must learn to live with. In his famous essay, "On Humor" (1908), Pirandello summed up this attitude toward human existence, asserting that "all phenomena either are illusory or their reason escapes us inexplicably. Our knowledge of the world and of ourselves refuses to be given the objective value which we usually attempt to attribute to it. Reality is a continuously illusory construction." Consequently, the "humorist," or artist, sees that"the feeling of incongruity, of not knowing any more which side to take," is the feeling he or she must create in the audience. Illusions are the human attempt to create certainty where it doesn't really exist, and all fall prey to the temptation. Pirandello's art simply puts many of mankind's most common illusions on center stage to demonstrate their flimsy inadequacy and encourages the audience to recognize these illusions for what they are. Pirandello describes life as "a continuous flow," with logic, reason, abstractions, ideals, and concepts acting as illusory constructs that attempt to fix this flux into a reality that can be stabilized and more certainly known. But Pirandello concludes that"man doesn't have any absolute idea or knowledge of life, but only a variable feeling changing with the times, conditions, and luck."

Umberto Mariani has asserted that the typical character in a Pirandellian work of art "has lost the feeling of comforting stability" and chafes under the "tragic knowledge that he cannot achieve what he seeks and needs; a universe of certainties, an absolute that would allow him to affirm himself." Robert Brustein observed that "[For Pirandello] objective reality has become virtually inaccessible, and all one can be sure of is the illusion-making faculty of the subjective mind.'' Brustein noted that "man is occasionally aware of the illusionary nature of his concepts; but to be human is to desire form; anything formless fills man with dread and uncertainty." Aureliu Weiss has summarized all of this most abruptly, asserting that Pirandello simply "derided human certainty and denounced the fragility of the truth." But Weiss has also brought this discussion of content back around to its ultimate focus on form. When everything seems uncertain, "such a concept cannot be expressed through the traditional forms. It needs its own style.... What was needed to succeed in such an enterprise... was to strike an initial blow strong enough to shatter our certainty ... to create an atmosphere where reality would become less concrete and where illusion could play freely and gently worm its way into the audience's consciousness. No longer sure of anything, the spectator would accept as normal the oscillation between reality and illusion."

But Pirandello's obsession with uncertainty can also be accounted for by a basic understanding of the intellectual history of the Western world— which has witnessed a gradual erosion of certitude, from a relatively high degree of certainty in the Medieval world to the relatively high degree of uncertainty in the 20th century. Propelled, ironically, by the discoveries of science, this process has been developing for hundreds of years and has simply culminated in the implications of Darwin, Freud, and Einstein, among others. Anthony Caputi, in his Pirandello and the Crisis of Modern Consciousness, asserted that"Pirandello began where Matthew Arnold began, with the conviction that the world was in disarray, that the system of beliefs that had provided coherence and continuity for centuries had broken down, and that the new sciences could yield little more than organized barbarism." What Caputi called "the crisis of modern consciousness" is "that stage in which not just traditional ways of deriving coherence and value were lost but the capacity for deriving alternative coherences by way of the reason has been undermined as the reason itself has been subverted as an authority. As the idea gained ground that every mind is a relative instrument, subject not to the grand program for coherence provided by Christianity or, for that matter, by any other traditional orthodoxy, but subject to its own conditions, a new variability and a new insecurity were born. Not only did men and women not look to external sources for guides to value, they no longer looked to reason." As Renato Poggioli put it, "logic, or reason, according to the classics of philosophy, had always had a universal value, equally valid for each individual of the human race." But "Pirandello does not believe in reason as an absolute and transcendent value." Reason for Pirandello is simply "a practical activity," a tool the mind uses as it needs to create and defend its illusions. Pirandello was the dramatist of consciousness, examining how the human mind apprehended the world, and he decided that humans could be certain of nothing that was produced from such a variety of mental platforms. The old standards of "reason" and "logic," thought to be constant guides implanted by God in the minds of all human beings, were dead, to be replaced by the disconcerting phenomenon of relativism. In a process of questioning that began most vigorously in the Renaissance all that had been taken as certain for centuries was gradually re-examined until finally the process of consciousness itself fell under scrutiny and humans discovered that the workings of the mind delivered more tricks than dependable conclusions. As Caputi finally put it, Pirandello and "most of the artists and writers of the [twentieth] century'' saw the human mind as "a frail, uncertain faculty capable of little more than self-deception."

John Gassner concluded that Pirandello's "work remains a monument to the questioning and self-tormenting human intellect which is at war... with its own limitations. Once the intellect has conquered problem after problem without solving the greatest question of all—namely, whether it is real itself rather than illusory—it reaches an impasse. Pirandello is the poet of that impasse. He is also the culmination of centuries of intellectual progress which have failed to make life basically more reasonable or satisfactory. He ends with a question mark." And Robert Brustein concluded by saying that "after Pirandello, no dramatist has been able to write with quite the same certainty as before."

Source: Teny R. Nienhuis, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998. Nienhuis is a Ph.D. specializing in modern and contemporary drama.

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