Friday, November 6, 2015

Is Pirandello getting so low that he makes comedies on society gossip? Yes.

The logical place to go after the feminist domestic fiction of Matilde Serao and Maria Messina is to the plays of Luigi Pirandello.

That preposterous statement is almost true.  It contains the key to why I had never really understood Pirandello’s plays.  Now I understand them.   Oh sure.  If I go down that path, there is no point to any of this, so let’s all pretend.

The issue was all of the melodrama Pirandello uses, all of the soap opera stuff.  Also the clichéd characters that enact the melodrama.  Here we have, by reputation, one of the great originals of 20th century theater, yet his plays are full of all this old stuff, the furnishings of the well-made play.

And Pirandello… is Pirandello getting so low that he makes comedies on society gossip.  (p. 332, ellipses in original)

That line is a multi-level inside joke from Each in His Own Way (1924).  The great avant-gardist had been doing just that all along, going back even to his 1904 novel The Late Maria Pascal.  Early on, his characters were not making self-conscious references to what was going on in Pirandello plays, including the one they were in.  That kind of messing around with theatrical illusion did come later.

Liolà (1916) is about a man who cheerfully goes around his Sicilian village impregnating young women.  Uncle Simone and his young wife have not been able to have a child.  Liolà is happy to help them solve that problem.  Everyone in the village knows what happened.  The conflict, the drama, is about the difficulties in deciding exactly what everyone will agree to claim is true. 

Words, words, WORDS!  The deceit people see in us is no deceit at all.  The real deceit is in you – but nobody sees it!  (55)

By the end there is an agreement on which deceit does the greatest good.  Fortunately Liolà is a free spirit who is easy to please and loves to please others.

My page numbers refer to Eric Bentley’s 1952 Pirandello collection Naked Masks (various translators), which leads with Liolà, which is not a major play, exactly to make this argument, that Pirandello’s investigation of truth and illusion is not an artifact of art or the theater, but rather of life, and it is not just individual but social.

It Is So! (If You Think So) (1917) is more openly theatrical, but it still does nothing to violate the illusion of the stage.  A group of gossips try to learn the true story of a new family.  The mother says her son-in-law is insane due the loss of his wife; the husband says his mother-in-law is insane due to the loss of her daughter (here, again, is the core melodrama).  Neither one appears to be insane except in their insistence that the other is insane.  Meanwhile, who exactly is the husband’s current wife, who stays offstage until the final scene?  The gossips, like a more active theatrical audience, arrange several scenarios or tricks that they hope will reveal the truth.  In a Pirandello play, that won’t work.

Pirandello often has an observer character, Laudisi in this case, who can express something close to his own point of view – Pirandello can be pretty blunt:

Sirelli.  Oh, nonsense!  In that case neither of them would be mad!  Why, one of them must be, damn it all!

Laudisi.  Well, which one?  You can’t tell, can you?  Neither can anybody else!  And it is not because those documents you are looking for have been destroyed in an accident – a fire, an earthquake – what you will; but because those people have concealed those documents in themselves, in their own souls…  the result is that you are in the extraordinary fix of having before you, on the one hand, a world of fancy, and on the other, a world of reality, and you, for the life of you, are not able to distinguish one from the other.  (98, ellipses mine)

I think I expected Pirandello to be screwier than he really is, more clever or surreal.  More like Stoppard or Ionesco, descendants of Pirandello.  But no, in these earlier plays, as in the even earlier novel, truth is real but impenetrable because of the illusions with which people conceal it.


  1. I think I expected Pirandello to be screwier than he really is, more clever or surreal.

    That's what I think!

    I read a massive collection of plays, but they're so ordinary; I don't think there's much Pirandello outside the deservedly famous "Six Characters in search of an author."

  2. I have read a few plays beyond the Eric Bentley anthology. Two, three?

    Pirandello is so narrow. His few ideas turned out to be incredibly rich for other authors, but it is helpful to finally figure out how much he does not do. It really helped me see what he really does.

    I did think Henry IV was as good or better than Six Characters, but they are working on similar ideas.

  3. Pirandello's short stories are worth reading. There si/was a good OUP translation. I was always a bit surprised and puzzled by the clams made for Pirandello as a theatrical innovator - had the people who made them never heard of The Knight of the Burning Pestle or The Tragedy of Tragedies? The only innovation was treating as tragedy what is naturally comic.

  4. That 1965 book of short stories sounds good.

    I now think the answer to your question is Yes. And if they had heard of those plays, they had forgotten about them. Then the next question is how or why? Something about the commercial side of theater, or the artistic difficulties theater had during the 19th century in many countries, or what? What made playwrights ignore the theatricality of theater to such an extent that a renewed emphasis by Pirandello was such a shock? I don't know.