One of the most influential and prolific Italian writers of the twentieth century, Pirandello is a pivotal figure in the development of both modern theatre and narrative. Concerned with crucial themes such as the relativity of truth, the multiplicity of identity, and the fallacy of human reason, Pirandello’s writing explores the enigmatic and grotesque spectacle of modern life. His poetic and philosophy was so peculiar that his name turned into an adjective, a privilege granted to very few artists. The abundance of his production, the variety of the genres he used, and the controversial nature of his worldview place Pirandello among the most important authors of European Modernism, a writer whose theatrical accomplishments had an essential impact on many twentieth-century playwrights and directors.
The second child of six children, Pirandello was born on the southern coast of Sicily near Girgenti (now Agrigento) in 1867. His father Stefano belonged to a wealthy family involved in the local sulphur-mining and match-making industry which dominated the town, Sicily being an actively volcanic island. His mother, Caterina Ricci Gramitto, descended from a professional bourgeois family in Girgenti. Both families were nationalists and extremely anti-Bourbon, and participated in the struggle for Italy’s unification known as Il Risorgimento [The Resurgence]. Pirandello’s father Stefano took part in the famous “spedizione dei Mille” [adventure of the Thousand] led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, the legendary general whose objective was to free Italy from foreign domination and establish a more democratic regime under the rule of the Savoy family. The enthusiastic participation in the Risorgimento was quickly frustrated by the reality of the newly born kingdom of Italy. Pirandello addressed his resentment and sense of betrayal in his 1913 novel I vecchi e i giovani [The Old and the Young], a bitter portrayal of the failure of the myth of the Risorgimento. In 1880 the Pirandello family moved to Palermo, the capital of Sicily where Pirandello completed his high school education and started writing his first poems. Luigi’s relationship with his father Stefano was problematic, to say the least. Adventurous, practical, and authoritarian, Stefano was for his son an incomprehensible and unjust man, an indifferent parent who created an insurmountable barrier between them. Luigi’s rebelliousness and artistic anarchy were acts of disobedience to his father. After his mother’s death in 1915, and in spite of all the grief and incomprehension, Luigi invited his father to stay with him in Rome, and took as good care of him as possible. Pirandello described Stefano in the novel L’esclusa [The Outcast; 1901], where he is portrayed as a tall and angry man with whom it was impossible to reason and communicate.
In 1887 Pirandello moved to Rome to continue his studies. His stay in the city was disappointing and as a result of a conflict with one of his Professors he decided to move to the University of Bonn in 1889. The sojourn in Bonn was extremely fruitful. He graduated in Glottology [Phonetics] in 1891 with a dissertation on the dialect of Girgenti titled: Suoni e sviluppi di suoni nella parlata di Girgenti [Sounds and the Development of Sounds in the Speech of Girgenti]. In Bonn Pirandello also developed his profound interest in German culture which remained constant and vivid throughout his life. After his return from Germany his family arranged his marriage to Antonietta Portulano, daughter of a business associate of his father’s. Pirandello had three children: Stefano (born in 1895), Lietta (1897), and Fausto (1899). The Sicilian writer settled with his family in Rome, where in 1897 he started his career as a teacher at the Istituto Superiore di Magistero and where he spent most of his life.
Pirandello’s early literary production was diverse. In 1889 he published his first collection of poems, significantly titled Mal giocondo [Painful Joy], followed by Pasqua di Gea [Gea’s Easter; 1891], Elegie rename [Rhenish Elegies; 1895], and Zampogne [Bagpipes; 1901]. In the same period he also wrote his first volume of short stories, Amori senza amore [Loves Without Love; 1894] and a few theoretical essays such as La menzogna del sentimento nell’arte [The Falsification of Sentiment in Art; 1890], and L’azione parlata [Spoken Action; 1899].
From a biographical standpoint 1903 was a crucial year. The flooding in the sulphur mine where Pirandello’s family had invested an enormous amount of money, including Antonietta’s own dowry, provoked the financial collapse of the family. As a result, Pirandello’s wife became mentally ill, and the writer was forced to turn to writing to support his three children and sick wife. Antonietta’s madness became over the years an essential aspect of the writer’s vision of the absurdity and meaninglessness of the world. Her illness undoubtedly led Pirandello to the exploration of themes such as folly, isolation, and illusion, often represented in his works. Antonietta was sent to a private sanitarium in 1919.
Although he had already written two novels, L’esclusa [The Outcast; 1901], the story of a faithful wife unfairly accused of adultery, and Il turno [The Shift; 1902], it is with Il fu Mattia Pascal [The Late Mattia Pascal; 1904] that the Sicilian writer achieved his first major literary success. The novel, which contains many autobiographical elements, is considered one of the earliest and most significant works in European Modernism. Pirandello’s break from Verismo (the Italian counterpart of French Naturalism) paved the way for his most mature literary and theatrical endeavors, characterized by surreal and anti-realistic settings. In 1908 he published the essay L’umorismo [On Humor], widely considered his most important and influential theoretical work. Besides cataloguing the different modes of the comical in literature and aesthetics, and discussing some humorous writers, Pirandello laid out the philosophical and artistic principles that would remain constant throughout his career as a novelist, short story writer, and playwright. At the core of Pirandello’s philosophy lies the difference between the “avvertimento del contrario” [perception of the opposite] and the “sentimento del contrario” [feeling of the opposite]. The example used by the writer is rather telling:
I see an old lady whose hair is dyed and completely smeared with some kind of horrible ointment; she is all made-up in a clumsy and awkward fashion and is all dolled-up like a young girl. I begin to laugh. I perceive that she is the opposite of what a respectable old lady should be. (Pirandello 113)
The comic effect occurs precisely in this moment. However, if we observe the scene more carefully, we will soon realize that she takes no pleasure in “dressing up like an exotic parrot […] and does it only because she pitifully deceives herself into believing that, by making herself up like that […] she may be able to hold the love of her much younger husband” (113). At this point, we cannot laugh anymore. We are forced to reflect upon the old lady’s behavior and, more importantly, sympathize with her. As Pirandello put it: “From the beginning perception of the opposite, reflection has made me shift to a feeling of the opposite. And herein lies the precise difference between the comic and the humor” (113).
After Il fu Mattia Pascal, Pirandello wrote four more novels: Suo marito [Her Husband; 1911], I vecchi e i giovani [The Old and the Young; 1913], Si gira, later republished as Quaderni di Serafino Gubbio operatore [Shoot; and The Notebooks of Serafino Gubbio, Cinematograph Operator; 1915, 1925] in which he explores the world of the cinema, and, finally, the seminal Uno, nessuno e centomila [One, None, One-Hundred Thousand, 1925]. Heavily influenced by the theories of the French experimental psychologist Alfred Binet and his main work Les alterations de la personnalité [The Alterations of Personality], Pirandello was extremely aware of the fragility of identity. Vitangelo Moscarda, the protagonist of Uno, nessuno e centomila, epitomizes the individual’s impossible quest for an objective self. After discovering that his wife sees him quite differently than he does, Vitangelo has to come to terms with the fact that he is, at the same time, “uno, nessuno e centomila”. In the Pirandellian universe there is no room for objective reality, and truth is always a relative concept.
Pirandello’s relationship with theatre was profound and intense. His first play, L’epilogo [The Epilogue], written in 1892 and published in 1898, was produced for the first time only in 1910 with the new title La morsa [The Lock]. After a few plays in which Pirandello toyed with the conventions of bourgeois theatre (Il dovere del medico [The Doctors’ Duty] published in 1912 and produced in 1913) and explored the rural world of Sicily (Liolà, produced in 1916 and published in 1917), in 1917 the Sicilian author wrote and produced his first major theatrical success, Così è (se vi pare) [Right You Are (If You Think You are)], a work that began the series of plays that made Pirandello one of the world’s most innovative and influential playwrights. As the title clearly indicates, Pirandello was once more concerned with the representation of the relativity of truth and the rejection of any positivistic vision of life and art. Like Moscarda, Laudisi – the main character of the play – voices the Pirandellian dilemma of the multiplicity of the human personality, and acts as a spokesman for the playwright’s ideas.
Between 1917 and 1918, Pirandello wrote two other major plays, Il piacere dell’onestà [The Pleasure of Honesty; 1917] and Il Giuoco delle parti [The Rules of the Game or The Game of Roles; 1918]. Although both plays adhered to the conventions of naturalist theatre, and focused on the traditional love triangle of husband, wife, and lover, their main goal was to challenge those very conventions, and subvert the familiar territories of bourgeois drama. The protagonists of both works (Angelo Baldovino and Leone Gala) constantly question the ‘objective’ reality that surrounds them, and relentlessly expose the illusions lurking behind the masks.
With the production of Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore [Six Characters in Search of an Author; 1921], the first play of his theatre-within-the-theatre trilogy, Pirandello finally established himself as a true theatrical modernizer. The play opens when six characters interrupt a rehearsal of Pirandello’s Il Gioco delle Parti and demand that the actors stage their own play. When the actors try to do so the characters accuse them of inauthenticity and begin to act out their play themselves. As the characters teach the actors how to act, as they did in the terrible real life story that they want to tell, the audience begins to realise that the complex philosophical point being made derives ultimately from Plato’s theory of knowledge: the characters in a play are abstract ideas. They are more real than any real people, and also more real than any actors who represent them. The narrative of the six characters is an Oedipal drama of broken families and potential incest which culminates in death, but as the curtain falls the audience is left wondering if two of the characters have actually died (because they do not take part in the curtain-call). Thus the play raises but fails to resolve many questions about art and reality, truth and make-believe, and the nature of identity.
In a typical Pirandellian fashion, Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore dramatized the author’s radical views on theatre. The unresolved conflict between the ‘real’ actors on stage and the six characters desperately looking for some kind of authorship best summarizes Pirandello’s concern with the mise en scène and the relationship between original text and theatrical performance. Disturbing and displacing at the same time, Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore was an international success. The 1923 production in Paris by Georges Pitoëff, for example, was recognized as a major force in shaping subsequent French theatre.
In 1922 Pirandello produced Enrico IV [Henry IV], a play where the boundaries between illusion and reality, folly and reason, were constantly challenged and baffled. The play revolves around a young man who fell from his horse whilst taking part in a festival cavalcade wearing the dress of King Henry IV. Having become convinced that in reality he is the King, he has been incarcerated in a madhouse where he can act out his delusion without harm. During the play his friends pay him a visit and the King first reveals that for a long time he has been entirely sane but has just carried on playing mad because he enjoys the power it gives him over his apparently sane friends. He then contrives to murder the man who has taken his place in his fiancée’s affections, recognising that since he is officially mad he cannot be punished for his entirely rational act. The play was immediately successful and universally acclaimed as a masterpiece.
Vestire gli ignudi [To Clothe the Naked, 1922] explored the question of identity from a female standpoint. The narrative concerns a young woman, Ersilia Drei, whose neglect of her young charge when working as a nanny to the Italian consul in Greece leads to the child’s death, and then to the nanny’s disowning by her fiancée and attempted suicide. When this story is written up in the newspapers, a novelist rushes to invite her to live in his apartment so he can turn her tale into a book. Her fiancée and the Consul, who, it transpires, was her lover, then appear, and each of these three men try to “construct” Ersilia’s personality in the terms of their own needs and desires. Ersilia feels “naked”, and seeks some form of “clothing” for her identity, but she feels that none of the identities provided actually expresses her essence. The play explores the characteristic Pirandellian theme that representation betrays identity, but here does so in a context of gender relations that makes the play particularly resonant for today’s audiences.
In 1924 Pirandello wrote and produced Ciascuno a suo modo [Each in His Own Way], the second of his meta-theatrical plays, and a year later (April 4, 1925) he assumed, with Benito Mussolini’s support, the artistic direction of the Teatro d’Arte di Roma [National Art Theatre of Rome] founded by the so-called Gruppo degli Undici [Group of Eleven] which comprised, among the others, Massimo Bontempelli, Orio Vergani and Stefano Landi (Luigi’s own son Stefano). Between 1925 and 1928 the Teatro d’Arte produced and staged plays by Pirandello and other playwrights (Bontempelli, Vidrac, Ramuz), toured Italy and Europe (Paris, Berlin, Bonn, London), fostered the talents of new up and coming actors (Marta Abba), and introduced innovatory lighting. Pirandello was at the peak of his success and fame: he was a famous playwright whose repertoire was known around the world.
In 1929 he was nominated Accademico d’Italia [Academic of Italy] by the Fascist leader Mussolini. Pirandello’s relationship with Fascism was controversial. If on the one hand his explicit adhesion to the Fascist party cannot be denied (he became a member of the National Fascist Party in 1924), on the other hand it should also be noted that his artistic and philosophical weltanschauung was as distant as possible from the totalitarian ideology of Mussolini and his supporters. Enzo Lauretta, one of Pirandello’s prominent scholars, maintains that:
La verità è che Pirandello mancava di qualsisasi traccia ideologica, anzi la sua arte dissacratoria nei confronti […] dei valori e delle strutture borghesi [...] dice l’assurdità di una vera adesione al fascismo, con il quale peraltro entrò quasi subito in polemica a proposito della politica teatrale di Stato. (119)
[The truth is that Pirandello lacked any ideological inclination. His desecrating attitude towards […] bourgeois values and structures […], says everything about the absurdity of a true adhesion to Fascism, with which he had a few disagreements concerning the State theatrical policy].
In the last few years of his life Pirandello concluded his meta-theatrical trilogy with Questa sera si recita a soggetto [Tonight We Improvise; 1930] and composed the so-called mythical trilogy which included La nuova colonia [The New Colony; 1928], Lazzaro [Lazarus; 1929], and the unfinished I giganti della montagna [The Mountain Giants; 1931-1934].
Although theatre was the greatest passion of his life, Pirandello can also be considered one of Italy’s greatest writers of novelle [short stories]. His original plan was to write 356 stories, one for each day of the year, to be collected into a single volume title Novelle per un anno [Short Stories for One Year]. Due to editorial problems the novelle were divided into 24 different volumes containing 15 stories each. Pirandello was only able to publish 14 collections (another one was published posthumously) and was never able to finish his ambitious project. Besides being little masterpieces in their own right, the novelle were used by Pirandello to explore characters, situations, and themes that later inspired his plays. As a final recognition of all his accomplishments, in 1934 Pirandello was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature for his outstanding renovation of the drama and the stage. He died two years later in Rome.
Luigi Pirandello was one of the first writers to give voice to the existential dilemma of modern men and women, and express the inherent absurdity of Western civilization and its false myths. His disoriented and out-of-key characters embody the crisis of the nineteenth century positivist philosophy, and the consequent sense of disillusionment. Pirandello was a major influence on theatrical developments of the twentieth century. Leading theatre directors such as Max Reinhardt, Georges Pitoëff, Giorgio Strehler, and Franco Zeffirelli, have staged his plays in the capitals of Europe. His theatrical debates on reality and illusion, identity, and the relativity of knowledge, make of him one of the forerunners of the so-called “theatre of the absurd”, and have found echoes in writers such as Beckett, Sartre, Ionesco, and Pinter, among the others. Pirandello’s contribution to twentieth century narrative is just as remarkable. Such novels as Il fu Mattia Pascal and Uno, nessuno e centomila stand among the best examples of European Modernist narrative, and represent a decisive and crucial break from the tradition of realistic fiction.
Enzo Lauretta. Luigi Pirandello. Storia di
un personaggio ‘fuori di chiave.’ Mursia: Milano,
Luigi Pirandello. On Humor. Transl. by Antonio Illiano and Daniel P. Testa. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1974.
Citation: Chirumbolo, Paolo. "Luigi Pirandello". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 15 July 2008 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=3571, accessed 09 December 2022.]