Analysis of Luigi Pirandello’s Plays

In Each in His Own Way, Luigi Pirandello (28 June 1867 – 10 December 1936) playfully has one of his characters ask another to justify his incessant “harping on this illusion and reality string.” So persistent is Pirandello’s dramatic examination of the multiplicity of personality, the nature of truth, and the interplay between life and art that the term “Pirandellian” has become synonymous with the complexities that result from any attempt to define the fluid line between what is illusory and what is real. In his inquiry into the nature of truth, Pirandello constructs and demolishes layers of illusion, probing the multiple perceptions and identities of his characters to reveal yet conceal the “naked mask.” In his fascination with his own power as artist-creator, he dramatizes the dialectic between the fluid, spontaneous, sprawling nature of life and the fixed, predictable, and contained nature of art.


The typical Pirandellian character—Signora Ponza in Right You Are (If You Think So), for example, or Leone in The Rules of the Game—presents himself through both “mask” and “face,” a dichotomy that is more generally reflected in the playwright’s treatment of theater as both illusory and real. For Pirandello, character creation involves a lessthan- subtle but endlessly clever interplay among the psychological, the social, and the theatrical, which consistently reiterates the playwright’s preoccupation with the multiple facets of reality and illusion.

The relationship between reality and illusion provided Pirandello with a seemingly inexhaustible fund of dramatic material. In part this is a tribute to his creative imagination, but it also suggests that this theme is not merely one among others, one that—as some critics have charged—has been worn out through overuse. Rather, the very nature of theater ensures that this theme will be forever fresh in the hands of a playwright who, like Pirandello, has the audacity to make it new.

Right You Are (If You Think So)

Right You Are (If You Think So), also known as It Is So! (If You Think So), is at once a traditional melodrama and a clever investigation into the nature of truth. The dramatic question propelling the play’s action involves the identity of Signora Ponza, the woman whom Signor Ponza claims is his second wife and Signora Frola claims is her daughter. A group of curious members of the community into which the trio has recently moved is determined to discover the truth and, in a series of revelations, is led to believe first Signor Ponza and then Signora Frola. In order for either to be believed, however, the other must be thought to be mentally unstable. Signor Ponza’s story is that Signora Frola was the mother of his first wife, who died, but for her sake he has continued the pretense that his present wife is her daughter. Signora Frola’s story is that the woman is indeed her daughter and that during the daughter’s illness, which necessitated her stay at a nursing home, Signor Ponza went mad. Believing that his wife had died, he refused to accept her as his wife on her return, marrying her a second time as though she were another woman. The two claims are logically irreconcilable: Signora Ponza cannot be both Ponza’s second wife and Signora Frola’s daughter.

The neatly constructed plot unfolds gradually as each new piece of information is revealed. Instead of adding to what has already been established, however, each new bit of information invalidates what was previously believed, leaving the town gossips, as well as the audience, suspicious and unsure. The promise of relief by forthcoming official records from the trio’s previous residence is short-lived, for an earthquake has destroyed all evidence. Encouraged by Laudisi, who is amused by the others’ insistence on one truth when he knows there may be several, the townspeople confront the veiled Signora Ponza herself, who reveals that she is both Signor Ponza’s second wife and Signora Frola’s daughter. The reply satisfies no one but Laudisi, but it is, as Signora Ponza understands, the only solution that compassion will allow.

In his monograph on Modernism in Modern Drama (1966), Joseph Wood Krutch speaks of Pirandello as making the most crucial denial of all: the denial of the existence of a continuous, identifiable self. The play, however, is less a modern skeptic’s dramatization of the dissolution of self than it is a forceful suggestion that truth is not an external, objective fact but an internal, psychological reality. In demonstrating dramatically that Signora Ponza is both women, depending on what her perceiver chooses her to be, Right You Are (If You Think So) sets the stage for Pirandello’s subsequent, more complex inquiries into the nature of reality and illusion.


Six Characters in Search of an Author adapted by Steve Moulds

Six Characters in Search of an Author

The first of a trilogy of stage plays that includes Each in His Own Way and Tonight We Improvise, Six Characters in Search of an Author is a spectacularly theatrical play that leaves its audience as confused as the Stage Manager and Actors whom a family of Characters interrupts, hoping that they will dramatize its story. Those Characters—the Father, his estranged wife, his son, and three stepchildren—claim to have been created by an author who, having given them life, has abandoned them. Driven by the need for self-actualization, the Father insists on enacting—or living—the family’s story onstage, which the Characters do in increasingly provocative episodes that culminate in the drowning of one child and the suicide of another.

Some years earlier, when the couple had only one child, the Father recognized the attraction his wife had for an employee, so he sent the two of them off to live in a common-law relationship that resulted in three children. A number of years later, the Father visits Madame Pace’s brothel, where the Stepdaughter has been forced, by poverty, to work, and he then becomes her client. The Father insists that the Mother’s interruption of the encounter and the discovery of the young woman’s identity prevented a consummation, but the Stepdaughter’s bitterness hints otherwise.

The family’s intensely emotional story constitutes the dramatic center of the play, but the play’s greatest interest rests in the interplay among the dimensions of reality and fiction it presents. Although the Characters insist that they are living, not reenacting, their story, the Stage Manager believes otherwise. His attempt to cast the Actors as the Characters, however, results in a patently false performance, lending curious authenticity to the presumably fictive Characters. For the Characters, the script, though unfinished, is their destiny, compelling them to define themselves through what their author has created and constantly to live their story and their suffering.

As drama, Six Characters in Search of an Author is exceptionally self-conscious, dramatizing not only the relationship between reality and illusion in a philosophical sense but also the process of character creation. The play boldly presents character in the making, from the author’s conception through the independent, seemingly autonomous transformations that each character undergoes before achieving full realization. When the Actors play the Characters, it becomes evident that their interpretation of character does not coincide with that of the author, thus making the actor a participant in the creation as well. Still, the Father, who feels confident that he knows his own essential nature, argues that the fictive character’s life is fixed and identifiable, unlike the human life, which changes daily.

In his preface to the play, Pirandello speaks of how the Characters surfaced in his imagination one day, but how, finding no special meaning in them, he decided to abandon them. The Characters, though, remained, virtually demanding that they live and making Pirandello realize it was no longer in his power to deny them life. Thereafter, they chose their own time to reappear in his imagination, each time enticing him to give them a story, until Pirandello found himself obsessed with them. It was then that he had the idea of dramatizing this peculiar, but artistically typical, situation itself, to present the autonomy of these dramatic characters. The result, he remarks, was a combination of “tragic and comic, fantastic and realistic” that finally suggested the conflict between an ever-changing life and a fixed, immutable form.

Pirandello’s manipulative powers are at their best in this play, which ends with the Actors, as well as the audience, questioning whether the deaths of the children are real, and hence a onetime occurrence, or fictive, and hence performable night after night. The unsettling ending is a fitting climax to the ongoing dialectic between reality and illusion and life and art that the Characters’ invasion of the Actors’ stage has caused.


Henry IV

A play as provocative dramatically and philosophically as Six Characters in Search of an Author, Henry IV introduces an unnamed protagonist who, some twenty years earlier, suffered a fall during a masquerade party. Dressed as Henry IV at the time, he has since lived his life as though he were the eleventh century German king, with a host of retainers who support the pretense. The protagonist repeatedly replays one particular incident in the life of the historical king, Henry’s penitent journey to Canossa, where he knelt before Pope Gregory VII. At the masquerade, the woman whom the protagonist loved, Donna Matilda, was dressed as Matilda of Canossa, and she has remained that figure in the mind of the madman.

Early in the play, Donna Matilda, along with four others—Carlo Di Nolli, the protagonist’s nephew; Frida, Donna Matilda’s daughter and Carlo’s fiancée; Belcredi, the rival for Donna Matilda’s affection; and Dionysius Genoni, a physician—visit the throne room, intending to administer a treatment that they hope will restore the protagonist’s memory. Through dressing the young woman as her mother in masquerade twenty years earlier, then presenting her along with the older woman, who has aged, they hope to telescope time and shock the protagonist into sanity. The group does not know, however, that the protagonist recovered his memory after twelve years and has for the past eight years only pretended to be Henry IV.

The plan proceeds and backfires. When the protagonist sees the young woman looking exactly as her mother did twenty years earlier, he loses his sense of certainty in his sanity; thinking the younger woman to be Donna Matilda, he becomes obsessed with her, as he had been years before with her mother. As with the earlier play, the ending leaves the visitors and the audience questioning whether the final event occurs in the realm of reality or illusion, whether Henry IV is sane or insane when, in an act of revenge, he slays Belcredi. Either way, the protagonist must now remain in an “eternal masquerade,” permanently fixed in the identity of Henry IV. The love triangle is central to Henry IV, just as the family’s story was to Six Characters in Search of an Author, but as with the earlier drama, the play’s contribution to dramatic innovation rests in the philosophical and artistic questions that it raises.

Henry IV is perhaps the richest of Pirandello’s plays in its treatment of the complexity of identity, for each of its characters possesses at least two distinct selves. In the case of Donna Matilda, the character moves among several identities as the action shifts from the distant past to the recent past to the present. Which of these several selves she is at any given moment depends on the director of the play-within-the-play, Henry IV. If the protagonist is playing the penitent, Donna Matilda must assume the role within that scenario. So also might Donna Matilda be the young woman of twenty years earlier, whom the masquerading protagonist loved, or the middle-aged woman of the present, depending on the protagonist’s perception of her. The protagonist is well aware of his manipulative powers and of the superiority that his position grants him. When the protagonist pretends to be mad, he is fully conscious that his role is an illusion, but he sustains the role to amuse and protect himself. Even when he is actually mad, though, he is curiously superior to the others, for then he is so totally committed to his one, fixed identity as Henry IV that for him no distinction exists between the mask and the face.

Henry IV’s madness and sanity also serve to suggest the division between life and art that so fascinated Pirandello. As the playwright remarks in his 1908 essay, L’umorismo (revised 1920; partial translation On Humor, 1966; complete translation, 1974), we are constantly trying to stop the continuous flow of life and to fix it in determinate forms. In Henry IV, the protagonist, unlike the others in the play, succeeds through his selfcreated fiction, which, in its immunity to time, belies his own graying hair. Yet in his success, the protagonist has sacrificed the spontaneity that only the “continuous flow” of which Pirandello speaks can offer. The ongoing dialectic between motion and form that characterizes life is exemplified in the play’s final moments, when Frida steps out of the picture frame where she posed as the youthful Donna Matilda and the protagonist embraces her, in a ground swell of emotion that has been suppressed for twenty years. Within moments, however, the protagonist loses the possibility of embracing the pure life that Frida symbolizes, for in slaying Belcredi, he must reclaim and perpetuate his fictive role.

Each in His Own Way

Though less often performed in the United States than the three plays discussed above, Each in His Own Way exemplifies the theatrical innovation on which Pirandello’s fame rests. In this play, the audience itself is involved in the action, informing the already complex dialectic between the fictive and the real with yet another dimension. The play being performed is presumably based on the recent scandal involving Amelia Moreno, an actress who betrayed her sculptor fiancé, Giacomo La Vela, by running off with Baron Nuti, leading the distraught sculptor to suicide. Onstage, two men attempt to blame the dramatic counterparts of the three involved in the love triangle. As with Right You Are (If You Think So), the audience vacillates between believing first one person and then another, but here the playwright has added reversals that leave the audience uncertain as to whether the young woman, Amelia Moreno, is to be blamed. At the moment when she has been vindicated, she appears to take full responsibility and to apologize. The first-act curtain falls in a seeming intermission, but before the audience can parade out into the lobby, the “intermission” begins to take form onstage, which is now set as a theater with audience members and critics discussing the Pirandello play. In a wonderful invasion of this already unusual performance, a woman who is apparently Amelia Moreno rushes onstage to protest this intrusion of her privacy.

Act 2 begins with Amelia and the man for whom she left her artist fiancé arguing, embracing, then going off together as the guilty pair. Again, the curtain falls and is raised on the intermission set, and Amelia Moreno rushes onstage to protest. This time, however, the audience witnesses a presumably real-life scene among the characters on whom the drama is based. In a clever reversal, Pirandello has set up a situation in which life imitates art rather than the other way around. The annoyed actors refuse to perform the third act, and the play ends, presumably incomplete but having perfectly achieved Pirandello’s goal.

Principal Drama
La morsa, pb. as L’epilogo, 1898, pr. 1910 (The Vise, 1928); Scamandro, pb. 1909, pr. 1928; Lumìe di Sicilia, pr. 1910, pb. 1911 (Sicilian Limes, 1921); Il dovere del medico, pb. 1912, pr. 1913 (The Doctor’s Duty, 1928); Se non così . . . , pr. 1915, pb. 1916; All’uscita, pr. 1916, pb. 1922 (At the Gate, 1928); Liolà, pr. 1916, pb. 1917 (English translation, 1952); Pensaci, Giacomino!, pr. 1916, pb. 1917; Il berretto a sonagli, pr. 1917, pb. 1920 (Cap and Bells, 1957); Così è (se vi pare), pr. 1917, pb. 1918 (Right You Are [If You Think So], 1922); La giara, pr. 1917, pb. 1925 (The Jar, 1928); Il piacere dell’onestà, pr. 1917, pb. 1918 (The Pleasure of Honesty, 1923); Il giuoco delle parti, pr. 1918, pb. 1919 (The Rules of the Game, 1959); Ma non è una cosa seria, pr. 1918, pb. 1919; La patente, pb. 1918, pr. 1919 (The License, 1964); L’innesto, pr. 1919, pb. 1921; L’uomo, la bestia, e la virtù, pr., pb. 1919 (Man, Beast, and Virtue, 1989); Come prima, meglio di prima, pr. 1920, pb. 1921; La Signora Morli, una e due, pr. 1920, pb. 1922; Tutto per bene, pr., pb. 1920 (All for the Best, 1960); Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore, pr., pb. 1921 (Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1922); Enrico IV, pr., pb. 1922 (Henry IV, 1923); L’imbecille, pr. 1922, pb. 1926 (The Imbecile, 1928); Vestire gli ignudi, pr. 1922, pb. 1923 (Naked, 1924); L’altro figlio, pr. 1923, pb. 1925 (The House with the Column, 1928); L’uomo dal fiore in bocca, pr. 1923, pb. 1926 (The Man with the Flower in His Mouth, 1928); La vita che ti diedi, pr. 1923, pb. 1924 (The Life I Gave You, 1959); Ciascuno a suo modo, pr., pb. 1924 (Each in His Own Way, 1923); Sagra del Signore della nave, pb. 1924, pr. 1925 (Our Lord of the Ship, 1928); Diana e la Tuda, Swiss pr. 1926, pr., pb. 1927 (Diana and Tudo, 1950); L’amica della mogli, pr., pb. 1927 (The Wives’ Friend, 1949); Bellavita, pr. 1927, pb. 1928 (English translation, 1964); La nuova colonia, pr., pb. 1928 (The New Colony, 1958); Lazzaro, pr., pb. 1929 (Lazarus, 1952); O di uno o di nessuno, pr., pb. 1929; Sogno (ma forse no), pb. 1929, pr. 1936 (I’m Dreaming, But Am I?, 1964); Come tu mi vuoi, pr., pb. 1930 (As You Desire Me, 1931); Questa sera si recita a soggetto, pr., pb. 1930 (Tonight We Improvise, 1932); I giganti della montagna, act 1 pb. 1931, act 2 pb. 1934, act 3 pr. 1937 (The Mountain Giants, 1958); Trovarsi, pr., pb. 1932 (To Find Oneself, 1943); Quando si è qualcuno, pr. 1933 (When Someone Is Somebody, 1958); La favola del figlio cambiato, pr., pb. 1934; Non si sa come, pr. 1934, pb. 1935 (No One Knows How, 1960); Naked Masks: Five Plays, pb. 1952

Other Major Works
Long fiction: L’esclusa, 1901 (The Outcast, 1925); Il turno, 1902 (The Merry-Go-Round of Love, 1964); Il fu Mattia Pascal, 1904 (The Late Mattia Pascal, 1923); Suo marito, 1911 (Her Husband, 2000); I vecchi e i giovani, 1913 (The Old and the Young, 1928); Si gira . . . , 1916 (Shoot! The Notebooks of Serafino Gubbio, Cinematograph Operator, 1926); Uno, nessuno, centomila, 1925 (One, None and a Hundred Thousand, 1933); Tutti i romanzi, 1941 (collected novels).
Short fiction: Amori senza amore, 1894; Beffe della morte e della vita, 1902-1903 (2 volumes); Quando’ero matto . . . , 1902; Bianche e nere, 1904; Erma bifronte, 1906; La vita nuda, 1910; Terzetti, 1912; Le due maschere, 1914; Erba del nostro orto, 1915; La trappola, 1915; E domani, lunedì, 1917; Un cavallo nella luna, 1918; Berecche e la guerra, 1919; Il carnevale dei morti, 1919; A Horse in the Moon and Twelve Short Stories, 1932; Better Think Twice About It! and Twelve Other Stories, 1933; The Naked Truth and Eleven Other Stories, 1934; Four Tales, 1939; The Medals and Other Stories, 1939; Short Stories, 1959; The Merry- Go-Round of Love and Selected Stories, 1964; Selected Stories, 1964; Short Stories, 1964.
Poetry: Mal giocondo, 1889; Pasqua di Gea, 1891; Pier Gudrò, 1894; Elegie renane, 1895; Elegie romane, 1896 (translation of Johann von Goethe’s Römische Elegien); Scamandro, 1909 (dramatic poem); Fuori de chiave, 1912; Saggi, 1939. nonfiction: Arte e scienze, 1908; L’umorismo, 1908, revised 1920 (partial translation On Humor, 1966; complete translation, 1974); Saggi, 1939.
Miscellaneous: Opere, 1966.

Alessio, A., D. Pietropaolo, and G. Sanguinetti-Katz, eds. Ottawa, Ont.: Canadian Society for Italian Studies, 1992.
Bassanese, Fiora A. Understanding Luigi Pirandello. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Biasin, Gian-Paolo, and Manuela Gieri, eds. Luigi Pirandello: Contemporary Perspectives. Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
Dashwood, Julie, ed. Luigi Pirandello: The Theater of Paradox. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996.
O’Grady, Deidre. Piave, Boito, Pirandello: From Romantic Realism to Modernism. Lewiston, N.Y.: EdwinMellen Press, 2000.
Parilla, Catherine Arturi. A Theory for Reading Dramatic Texts: Selected Plays by Pirandello and García Lorca. New York: P. Lang, 1995.
Stella, M. John. Self and Self-compromise in the Narratives of Pirandello and Moravia. New York: P. Lang, 2000.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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