Luigi Pirandello

PirandelloLuigi Pirandello was born in 1867 in Girgenti (now Agrigento) on the island of Sicily. Luigi's father was a fairly prosperous sulphur dealer and intended that his son should follow in his footsteps, but the boy demonstrated a studious bent early on, and as a result, he was provided with a literary schooling. He entered the University of Rome in 1887, but later transferred to Bonn University where he completed his doctoral thesis, a study of his native Sicilian dialect.

Pirandello's first creative efforts were in the realm of verse--he translated Goethe's Roman elegies--but after falling under the influence of Sicilian novelist Capuana who became his friend and advisor, Pirandello turned his attention to naturalistic fiction. His first novel, The Outcast (1893), contains the seeds that would blossom in his later writing.

Pirandello's sense of disillusionment was burned into his psyche early on by a very personal tragedy. In 1894, at the age of 27, he married a young woman whom he had never met. The marriage had been arranged by his parents according to custom. His young bride, Antonietta Portulano, was the daughter of his father's business partner. The girl's mother had died in childbirth because her father was so insanely jealous that he would not allow a doctor to be present during the birth. For a time, the young couple found happiness, but after the birth of their third child and the loss of the family fortune in a flood, Antonietta suffered a mental breakdown. She became so violent that she should have been institutionalized, but Pirandello chose instead to keep her at home for seventeen years while she spat her venom at the young writer and his three children. Their daughter was so disturbed by her mother's illness that she tried to take her own life. Fortunately, her instrument of choice, a revolver, was so old as to be of no use. The illness had a profound effect on Pirandello's writing as well, leading him to explorations of madness, illusion, and isolation. It was not until his plays finally began to prove profitable around 1919 that he was able to send Antonietta to a private sanitarium.

Pirandello wrote his first widely acclaimed novel, The Late Mattia Pascal, in 1904. By the time the First World War broke out ten years later, he had published two other novels and numerous short stories. It was not until 1916, however, that he turned his attention to the theatre. He quickly became enthralled by this new medium, and became quite prolific, turning out as many as nine plays in one year. His first three plays, Better Think Twice About It!, Liolà, and It is So!, If You Think So, were each written in less than a week. His first notable critical success came in 1920 with As Before, Better than Before. Then, within a five week period in 1921, he wrote two masterpieces: Six Characters in Search of an Author, and Henry IV. Six Characters had a successful but scandalous opening in Rome and, soon after, another successful--but less scandalous--opening in Milan. Almost overnight, the play was being directed by Komisarjevsky in London, Brock Pemberton in New York, and Max Reinhardt in Germany. 1922 saw the successful opening of two more plays, Henry IV and Naked.

Between 1922 and 1924, Pirandello became a major public figure. In Paris, he received the Legion of Honor, and in 1925, with the help of Mussolini who had publicly announced his admiration for the playwright, Pirandello opened his own Art Theatre in Rome. Pirandello's relationship with Mussolini has been the subject of much debate. Some scholars have suggested that the playwright's enthusiastic adoption of fascism was simply a matter of practicality, a strategic ploy to advance his career. Had he opposed the fascist regime, it would have meant serious difficulties for him and for his art. Acceptance, on the other hand, meant subsidies and publicity. His statement that "I am a Fascist because I am an Italian." has often been called on to support this theory, and one of his later plays, The Giants of the Mountain, has often been interpreted as showing the author's growing realization that the fascist giants were hostile to culture. And yet, during his last appearance in New York, Pirandello voluntarily distributed a statement announcing his support of Italy's annexation of Abyssinia. He even gave his Nobel medal over to the Italian government to be melted down for the Abyssinian campaign. However, Pirandello was a complex creature, and all that can be certain is that nothing is certain. At any rate, Mussolini's support quickly brought the Italian playwright international fame, and a worldwide tour ensued, introducing London, Paris, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and several cities in Germany, Argentina, and Brazil to the intriguing intellectual contortions of "Pirandellian" theatre.

Influenced by his wife's long illness, much of what Pirandello wrote dealt with themes of madness, illusion and isolation. In Henry IV, Pirandello's protagonist loses his mind after falling from a horse at the end of a masquerade. His illusion that he is the medieval German emperor Henry IV is coddled by a wealthy relative who surrounds the delirious man with a grotesque retinue of servants and courtiers. Finally, after twelve years, the injured man recovers his sanity, but continues to feign insanity because he prefers this world of illusions to the real world in which he lost the woman he loved. When this woman and her new lover come to visit, "Henry IV" is overcome with rage and mortally wounds his rival. Now it is more imperative than ever that the pretence of madness continue. If he is to escape the legal consequences of his actions, he must remain Henry IV for the rest of his life. The brilliance of Henry IV lies in its hero's deliberate rejection of reality as something to painful to bear.

The most popular of Pirandello's comedies, however, his masterpiece, is Six Characters in Search of an Author. The premise of the play is that these six characters have taken on a life of their own because their author has failed to complete the story. They invade a rehearsal of another Pirandellian play and insist on playing out the life that is rightfully theirs. Suggesting that life defies all simple interpretations, Pirandello's characters rebel against their creator. They attack the foundation of the play, refusing to follow stage directions and interfering with the structure of the play until it breaks down into a series of alternately comic and tragic fragments.

Although he reached his peak of dramatic originality with Six Characters in Search of an Author, Pirandello continued to write until the time of his death and continued to experience a great deal of critical success. It was also in the theatre that Pirandello finally found a more understanding relationship with a woman, the actress Marta Abba for whom he wrote most of his later plays. In 1931, Judith Anderson appeared on Broadway in Pirandello's As You Desire me. In the film version, Anderson was replaced by an even bigger star--Greta Garbo. Pirandello was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1934, and at the time of his death in 1936, he was in negotiations to appear in a film version of Six Characters.

Luigi Pirandello left instructions for his funeral, saying, "When I am dead, do not clothe me. Wrap me naked in a sheet. No flowers on the bed and no lighted candle. A pauper's cart. Naked. And let no one accompany me, neither relatives nor friends. The cart, the horse, the coachmen, e basta. Burn me." But the church did not believe in cremation and the Fascist party did not want a world-famous fascist to slip away naked, without his black shirt. Thus, against his wishes, Pirandello was given a state funeral.

Pirandello was clearly the greatest Italian playwright of his time, and he has left a lasting mark on all the playwrights that have followed him. In his agony over the illusory nature of existence and the isolation of man, he anticipates such writers as Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Eugene Ionesco. Perhaps Pirandello best summed up his art himself when he said, "I have tried to tell something to other men, without any ambition, except perhaps that of avenging myself for having been born."

Pirandello's Plays  |  Other Works  | Pirandello's Films  |  Biographies/Studies


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Luigi Pirandello

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