All I’m saying is that you should show some respect for what other people see and feel, even though it be the exact opposite of what you see and feel. (It Is So! (If You Think So), 71)
Eric Bentley deserves conceptual credit for his bold stroke. Given room for five Pirandello plays in Naked Masks, he leads with two that are by no means masterpieces – “[i]n reconsidering Pirandello today, fifteen years after his death, the first play to read is Liolà” (viii), Bentley writes, and he means it. What is Pirandello trying to do? These plays are as clear as any. The quotation above could hardly be more direct.
The three masterpieces Bentley includes – Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), Henry IV (1922), and Each in His Own Way (1924) – are all variations on the same theme. All have thin, melodramatic plots behind them, but the clichés are now made necessary by the various ways each play toys with, mocks, or crushes the illusionism of theater, the great emphasis – hardly a discovery – of Pirandello’s.
A family crashes a theatrical rehearsal to demand that their story be told on the stage. Or actually not just told but finished, since the members of the family are not real people but characters in an unfinished play that only has two scenes. The author presumably gave up on the characters and their play because it was such typical, trivial stuff. How the characters embody themselves as people is never explained, but is that not what typically happens on a theatrical stage? So we have a play within the play I am reading, with characters who are characters and characters who are not characters, but rather the actors who are going to play the characters. And then I have to remind myself that both the “characters” and the “actors” would all be played, if I went to see a performance, by actual actors.
The Son [contemptuously]. Literature! Literature!
The Father. Literature indeed! This is life, this is passion!
The Manager. It may be, but it won’t act.
Now we are all used to this sort of fun.
Each in His Own Way plays the play within the play straight. Its innovation is that the intermissions are performed on stage. Does this mean that the actual audience gets no intermission? When do I get my between-acts champagne? I instead watch other, imaginary people, played by actors, drink imaginary, or worse, real, champagne while they discuss the dreary play we were all watching. The trick is that the scenes taking place in the “theater lobby” during “intermission” is substantially more comic, dramatic, and interesting than the nominal “play.”
Voices from the Spectators. Go on with the play! Put them out! Less noise! Shut up! Signora Moreno! Put her out! The third act! We want the third act! Pirandello! Put him out! A speech! A speech from Pirandello! Put him out! A speech! He’s to blame! (355-6)
The ideal way to manage all of this would be to stage the intermission scene during the actual intermission in the actual lobby, while I am in the line for sparkling wine, and try to goose the audience members into joining in on the shouting. I would not have been one of the people yelling for the third act. More fun to be had in the lobby.
In Henry IV, the melodrama is shoved entirely into the back story. An insane man thinks he is Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, and has surrounded himself with actors playing his courtiers. An attempt to cure him reveals that he had in fact been cured long ago, but preferred the illusion to reality; the cure thus drives him back to insanity. Unlike in Six Characters or Each in His Own Way, all of the breaks in theatricality take place within the world of the play, which allowed the central character some pathos:
You know, it is quite easy to get accustomed to it. One walks about as a tragic character, just as if it were nothing… I am cured, gentlemen: because I can act the madman in perfection, here; and I do it very quietly, I’m only sorry for you that have to live your madness so agitatedly, without knowing it or seeing it. (205-6, ellipses mine)
Henry IV was the only one of these three where the characters turned into, you know, characters, and I had some interest in what might happen to them as opposed to what Pirandello would do with them.
Please note the date of Each in His Own Way. This post is my belated entry in the 1924 Club run by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, a good idea.