Luigi Pirandello’s 150th birth anniversary was celebrated in Italy earlier this year with little fanfare but much solemnity. Though he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1934 for his plays, I had never read any of them, so I approached his work apprehension, fearing an outdated register. To my great surprise, Pirandello’s writing, both for the theatre and in the form of his novels, is intellectually challenging and at the same time irresistibly funny, insightful, beautifully structured, and impeccably timed.
Born in 1867 in the small city of Agrigento – once a major Greek settlement on the southeast coast of Sicily – Pirandello lived the first half of his life in abundance. The son of a prosperous couple, owners of a highly profitable sulphur mine, he embarked on a career in law in Rome, before transferring in 1887 to Bonn (Germany) to complete his degree in philology. Raised in a deeply nationalistic household, Pirandello experienced first-hand the disillusion prevalent in the 1880s and 1890s throughout southern Italy, where poverty and social injustice were the measure of the greatest shortcomings of the recent unification of the country. He would give artistic expression to these circumstances two decades later in The Old and the Young (1913), a gripping novel rich in texture and local colour, set to the backdrop of the political and social turmoil that engulfed Sicily between 1890 and 1894, which came to be known as the Fasci Siciliani, the first revolts of organized labour groups in the region.
Before that, however, Pirandello moved to Rome, where he lived from his family’s allowance while he sought to develop his literary career. He published several poetry books before the century was out, and began collaborating with a number of magazines. He also married in 1894, had his first son one year later, followed by two more children in 1897 and 1899 respectively, accepted a permanent position as Italian (style) teacher in 1897, and progressively moved away from verse to prose. All seemed in place for a rather normal, though not terribly successful life, when in 1903, disaster struck: his family’s mining business plunged to bankruptcy, taking not only his allowance but also his wife’s dowry, long invested into the enterprise.
Impoverished, depressed, and further assailed by his wife’s nervous breakdown – triggered by the family’s financial crisis – Pirandello turned to fiction. In 1904, he published what to this date is largely considered his most accomplished novel, The Late Mattia Pascal, a romantic but extremely intelligent and also humorous exploration of the meaning of identity. Mattia Pascal, the narrator of the novel, finds himself caught in an unbearable situation: Living in poverty at his mother-in-law’s with his wife, both of whom despise him, and having lost two young children to illness, Pascal decides to run away. He considers committing suicide but stops short, heading instead to Monte Carlo with a small amount of money, which he wagers recklessly. Fortune, however, smiles at him on two counts, as he makes a small fortune and at the same time learns from the local newspaper that a man who had committed suicide several days earlier had been identified (erroneously) as Mattia Pascal.
Liberated from his debt, his wife, his in-law and the rest of the misery that awaited him in his hometown, Mattia Pascal changes names, shaves, grows his hair and even has a minor operation to correct a lazy eye. But as his adventures become more tiresome, he comes to recognize that what seemed like the greatest possible degree of freedom is actually more oppressive than anything he has experienced before. Mattia Pascal is 100% free, but he is also 100% outside of the law: he has no birth certificate, no passport, no past. Therefore, he is caught in a Catch-22 scenario: anything more meaningful than a casual exchange would impinge on his total freedom, anchoring him to a place and creating a record of his existence. But who are we without precisely such record?
The Late Mattia Pascal didn’t solve Pirandello’s acute financial problems, though it did consolidate his place as an Italian intellectual. It also introduced questions of reality and perception, identity and language into his creative production, which continued to find its expression in narrative works of various lengths for another decade. It wouldn’t be until well into the 1910s that Pirandello would experiment with plays, the format that most suited him by far. Reconnecting with the issue of identity, he presented in 1917 So It Is (If You Think So), a playful recreation of a small town’s reaction to the arrival of an eccentric stranger who won’t allow his wife to be seen in public.
Contradictory explanations are put forward by different factions during the play while one uninterested observer repeatedly calls for all inquiries to be ceased because in the end everyone will believe whatever they want. That, of course, is precisely what happens when the wife, the metaphorical figure of the truth, as it were, is forced to appear in public, only to acquiesce to every aspect of every theory posed by her inquisitors. Pirandello’s concerns regarding the nature of identity are further complicated by his internalization of a concept that had been shaping European culture for several decades: relativity. In So It Is (If You Think So), he gives voice to a form of subjective relativism which relies heavily on the point of view of his characters, and which is meant to ridicule the seemingly unbreakable connection there is between the truth and reason.
This amusing exploration of the limits of human knowledge would be further complicated with his famous and tremendously successful play Henry IV (1922), which would bring into the equation considerations of the functional meaning of words and concepts by making his characters play roles within their roles in the play. Thus, Henry IV deals with a rich man who, like Don Quixote, is completely obsessed with the medieval world, specifically that of King Henry IV from Sicily, to the point where he forces everyone around him to pretend that he is the king and they are his entourage. The enormous wealth of the main character ensures that everyone is happy to indulge him, despite thinking him mad. But as the mad king bursts into the scene while everyone is out of character, he makes them understand that, by remaining in character the whole time, he is the only sane person in the group, for only a fool or a mad person would spend their entire life pretending to be something they are not just to please their “mad” master/employer.
By the time Pirandello presented Henry IV, he had already produced what remains his most famous play, Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), an extraordinary adaptation to the stage of clearly non-dramatic considerations concerning the difference between “real” characters, which by definition can only exist on the page, and actors, whose perceived reality makes them unable to represent more than a mere shadow of the characters they impersonate in each performance. Six Characters in Search of an Author was not terribly well received but the controversy it generated ensured Pirandello’s following play, Henry IV, would be a rotund success. Already an established literary figure, Pirandello thrived during the early days of Mussolini’s fascist government, opening the Teatro d’Arte in Rome in 1925, being named into the Italian Academy in 1929, and finally receiving the Nobel Prize in 1934. By then, Italy was on the verge of a new war, first with Abyssinia, soon with the rest of the world. Fortunately, Pirandello wouldn’t live to see the horrors that would ensue: he would succumb in 1936 to a pulmonary infection at the age of 69, safe in the knowledge that his characters had found the best of possible authors.
By Monatgue Kobbé