Pirandello In Context

(Edited by Patricia Gaborak) Cambridge University Press 2024   £85 ISBN 9781108424547



Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) is best known for his 1921 stage play Six Characters in Search of an Author.  It was a landmark play that changed theatre.  For the first time an acute self-consciousness entered art: characters came on a stage and demanded a proper and authentic life: unfinished by their creator they wanted justice, crying out in despair at their limbo existence – half born and half realised, wanting the privilege (that their audience had) to be free and live agents.

Such an identity flux proved to be an existential slap in the face not just for it’s audience but for future playwrights, novelists and filmmakers.  A modernist template was being set for the future Theatre of the Absurd (Becket, Ionesco, and Pinter); magic realism of the Taviani Brothers films and the moral quest of the Roads to Freedom novel trilogy by Jean Paul Sartre: these being only three instances where the ideas of Pirandello percolated.

Soon the term Piradellianism became fashionable in the 1920’s and 30s.  It’s a term as equally applicable to our time as Kafkaesque or Orwellian – that shorthand for describing our very 20 th / 21 st century condition of being out of control as an anxious humanity is attacked by the bureaucratic forces of the state.  Yet what if being human, irrespective of the time we live in, is essentially to be always out of joint?  That apriori we have a confused and mysterious psychology, an ever changing identity prone to invention, re-invention and constant moral dilemma?  How then do we maintain our sanity and authenticity when we are trapped in situations where masks are worn in a relentless social game that’s both ridiculous and tragic?  Is life of multiple selves worth living in Pirandello’s pessimistic universe?

Pirandello poses all these conflicting doubts and the excellent Pirandello in Context allows thirty three contributors to explore how Pirandello arrived at such radical and shifting sands thinking through his travels, theatre companies, relationships with women, engagement with politics, religion, madness, suicide and much more.  Thirty six brief essays (averaging between 6-8 pages) are here.  Concise academic sketches on the continuing influence of Pirandello on world culture.

Pirandello’s birthplace was Sicily but he and his plays travelled to Rome, Germany, France, The United States and Latin America.  he worked with Max Reinhardt; was admired by George Bernard Shaw; conversed with Einstein; was a supporter of Mussolini’s fascism; wrote on the philosophy of humour; had a difficult marriage to a woman who had severe mental heath issues and in 1935 became the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  All these aspects, and more, are succinctly covered in Pirandello in Context giving us much fascinating biographical detail.

In Patricia Gaborik’s fine piece called “Fascism” we learn that Pirandello’s pressing needs are never being answered.

“He (Pirandello) deserved something like unconditional love, but Mussolini’s embrace was always contingent, shaped by his overall governing needs and strategies; at times Mussolini reminded his “most humble and obedient follower” (the phrase is Pirandello’s) that this was how it worked.”

When asked about his attraction to fascism Pirandello maintained he was apolitical.  This feels like another problematic contradiction in the ambivalent Piradellian psyche – someone who’s looking for the intimacy of strong father figure (Mussolini) who happens to be running a totalitarian regime plus the dictator supported the arts and could give Pirandello money for his projects.

Chapter 5 (Culture and Society) and 6 (Reception and Legacy) cover such topics as Modernity, History, Religion, Avant Garde Theatre after Pirandello and Cinema.  For the most part they are admirably informative save for the two essays on cinema – disappointing for their brisk dismissal of filmmakers Monicelli and Bellochio’s adaptations.  For me, Henry 1V, The Nanny and The Two Lives of Mattia Pascal are indispensable Pirandello films to rank with the Taviani Brothers Kaos.  And we really ought to have had a reference to Hitchcock (Vertigo’s deluded mission to recreate the image of a dead woman is for me a perfect example of Pirandello’s obsession with illusion and reality.)

Pirandello in Context spends more time on the remarkable plays than the startling fiction.  Pirandello’s short stories are I think his greatest achievement: many of them, being on par with the best of Chekhov, are examined under categories like The Fantastic and Suicide.  Yet why couldn’t we have had a whole context chapter on his short story oeuvre that examined their influence?  But at least we are given insightful observations about the unique novels Shoot, The Two Lives of Mattia Pascal and One, No One and One Hundred Thousand.

Any reader and lover of Pirandello will want to own Pirandello in Context.  It’s packed with recent scholarship and research that’s very illuminating.  An invaluable source book to enhance our understanding of Luigi and his Piradellianisms.

Alan Price © 2024.