The works of the Italian playwright, novelist, and critic Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) generally portray Italian middle-class society. Combining relativistic thinking with a specific Pirandellian brand of humor, he probed the conflict between essence and appearance.
With Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, Luigi Pirandello revolutionized modern drama in all its aspects, from staging to the form of the play. His own specific contribution to the modern theater should be seen in the fact that he imposed upon the art form of theater itself the principles of analytic decomposition which Ibsen was still content to apply to human psychology.
Pirandello was born on June 28, 1867, in Girgenti (now Agrigento), Sicily, the son of a prosperous sulfur mine owner. He received his first schooling in Girgenti, and his formative years were spent at the universities of Palermo, Rome, and Bonn, where he obtained his doctorate in 1891 with a thesis on his native dialect. Upon his return to Italy he entered literary life and wrote his first novel in an artists' colony on Monte Cavo near Rome. In 1894 Pirandello married the daughter of a business associate of his father's, and the couple moved to Rome, where their three children were born. After some years Pirandello accepted a position as professor of Italian at Rome's R. Istituto di Magistero Femminile and in 1908 obtained the chair of Italian language and stylistics at the same institution.
Through a flooding of his father's mine in 1903, Pirandello lost his patrimony as well as his wife's substantial dowry, which had been invested in his father's business. Upon learning of the disaster, his wife suffered a shock and developed a paranoid condition which progressively worsened. She remained with the family, but as the scenes of jealousy became more trying, she was admitted to a nursing home in 1919 and remained there until her death in 1959. There is no doubt that Pirandello's peculiar approach to the problems of essence and appearance was conditioned by this firsthand experience: he once said that a madwoman had led his hand for 15 long years. Throughout this time Pirandello continued his writing, scarcely noted by the rank and file of Italy's critics, and only the clamorous success of Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore (1921; Six Characters in Search of an Author) brought him national recognition and international fame.
In 1924, at a critical time for the regime following the Matteotti murder in June, Pirandello joined the Fascist party, and in September of the same year he founded, with state support, the Teatro d'Arte di Roma, of which he became director. From this time dates his friendship with Marta Abba, the leading actress of the troupe and his second muse. Mainly staging plays of Pirandello, the troupe went on several foreign tours, to England, France, and Germany (1925), to Vienna, Prague, and Budapest (1926), and to South America (1928). This venture proved too costly in the end, and the Teatro d'Arte was dissolved in 1928. Beginning with this year Pirandello took up frequent and extensive residences abroad, especially in Paris and Berlin.
In 1929 Pirandello was elected a member of the newly founded Accademia d'Italia, and in 1934 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He was a tall man with a pointed beard and piercing eyes. Pirandello died on Dec. 10, 1936, in his Roman apartment, which subsequently was declared a national monument and houses the Centro di Studi Pirandelliani. Pirandello's ashes were transferred to his birthplace, where they now rest in a huge rock under a solitary pine tree, a setting he had imagined for his birth in his unfinished Informazioni sul mio involontario soggiorno sulla terra.
Analytical in nature and for the most part lacking in action, Pirandello's plays are dialectical disquisitions on essence and appearance, illusion and reality, the problem of personal identity, the impossibility of objective truth and of communication. His dramatic production (some 43 plays in all) is thus an illustration of his relativistic and pessimistic tenets and philosophical beliefs. As he conceived of his probe into these aspects mainly as a process of unmasking, he published his collected plays under the title Maschere nude (Naked Masks).
Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore (1921), the first play of a trilogy, is an inquiry into the esthetic problems involved in translating the "ideal reality" of the six characters into the casual reality of the stage, represented by the actors and its transitory contingencies of time. The action is continually interrupted by comments paralleling it, the characters themselves are drawn as types, and the stage directions even recommend that they wear masks. Their story is only incidental to the more important aspect of the play, the clash and exchange between the two worlds of art and life.
In the second play, Ciascuno a suo modo (1924; Each in His Own Way), this analytical preoccupation comes out even more clearly in that the dialectical approach is carried to the point where action and ensuing reflection on it are already sharply defined in the outer form of the play: after each of the two acts there follow intermezzi corali, in which the preceding action is discussed. In the last play of the trilogy, Questa sera si recita a soggetto (1930; Tonight We Improvise), we see the consequences of this approach; it no longer makes any pretense at taking seriously the play within the play: the director, Dr. Hinkfuss, has his actors improvise on a scenario, a short story by Pirandello.
Many of Pirandello's one-act plays, such as Il berretto a sonagli (1918), Liolà (1917), La giara (short story 1909; play 1917), La patente (short story 1911; play 1918), and Lumie di Sicilia (short story 1900; play 1911) draw thematically on his Sicilian environment and belong to his regional-naturalistic production; some of them were originally even written in Sicilian dialect.
The great bulk of Pirandello's later production, however, is concerned with the concept of the mask in its different aspects: for Pirandello, the fiction, the mask alone, either self-imposed or, as in most cases, forced on by society, makes life possible. If this mask is ever torn off, willingly or by force, man is no longer able to live, to function in a society based upon the law of common fictions: either he returns to wearing his mask, to "living" the life of the dead, or he becomes "crazy, " "insane" as far as society is concerned. By refusing to wear the mask, Pirandello's characters in the eyes of this world choose death. Thus they may die the symbolical death of insanity, or they may choose to take their own lives in earnest and throw away with their lives the mask and imposed form, as does Ersilia Drei of Vestire gli ignudi (1923; Naked). They even may, willingly, choose a mask as a token of their freedom, as does the protagonist of Enrico IV (1922; Henry IV), one of Pirandello's strongest plays. He chooses to wear the mask of insanity in full consciousness, a decision he has sealed with a murder; and, ironically, society—the world of the masks—cannot hold him responsible because he has taken refuge behind a mask and beaten society at its own game.
Other plays center more directly on Pirandello's relativistic convictions concerning reality and illusion. Thus Cosìè (se vi pare) (1918; Right You Are If You Think You Are) explores the dual aspect of truth. His later plays, such as Diana e la Tuda (1927), Trovarsi (1932), Quando si è qualcuno (1933), are too-rigid exemplifications of the "life versus form" formula the Italian critic Adriano Tilgher had coined for Pirandello's production at the time. Of the trilogy on "modern myths" which Pirandello had envisaged, he completed only the first two plays. La nuova colonia (1928) portrays the rather pessimistic chances he gives society for a decent communal life, whereas Lazzaro (1929), his "religious myth, " voices his pantheistic religious convictions. The last of these plays, the "myth of art, " I giganti della montagna (1938; The Mountain Giants), remained unfinished.
Whereas Pirandello's importance as an innovator in the field of drama is undisputed, in general his novels do not depart from the conventional form of the genre. Thus his first novel, L'esclusa (1901; The Outcast), and the short novel Il turno (1902) are written in the realist tradition.
With Il fu Mattia Pascal (1904; The Late Mattia Pascal), a novel that clearly carries the imprint of Pirandello's characteristic later approach, he first asserted himself on the international scene. Its theme is intrinsically connected with Pirandello's concept of the mask and the antinomy between reality and illusion. The hero, Mattia Pascal, flees what are to him unbearable situations—"masks" he is forced to wear—only to realize that these flights were in vain, for he does not have the courage to cope with the ensuing consequences.
Giustino Roncella nato Boggiòlo, first published under the title Suo marito (1911), treats an important aspect of Pirandello's concept of artistic creation: the antinomy between life and art. I vecchi e i giovani (1913; The Young and the Old) is a historical novel that covers the events in Italy between 1892 and 1894. The following novel, Si gira (1915), published later as Quaderni di Serafino Gubbio operatore (1932), again focuses on the problematic relationship between life and art, which is seen here through the world of cinematographic art. Pirandello's last novel, Uno, nessuno e centomila (1925-1926; One, None, and a Hundred Thousand), is a series of disconnected observations on the motif of the plurality of personality.
As he intended to write one short story per day of the year, Pirandello published his stories with the collective title Novelle per un anno. The definitive edition, however, contains only about 232 stories (1922-1937). It may well be that Pirandello's short stories will remain the most durable part of his work. They contain a host of motifs and often develop themes and plots taken up in full in later novels or plays. Thus the story Quand'ero matto. … (1902) anticipates Uno, nessuno e centomila, and Colloqui coi personaggi I, II (1915) and La tragedia di un personaggio (1911) contain the nucleus of Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore. Il pipistrello (1919) exemplifies art-life antinomy in a casuistical manner; the problem of the mask and man's flight from it is the concern of stories such as Il treno ha fischiato (1914), La maschera dimenticata (1918), and La carriola (1917).
Many of Pirandello's essays explore problems of artistic creation such as Illustratori, attori e traduttori (1908). Arte e scienza (1908) discusses esthetic theory and contains also a categorical rejection of Benedetto Croce's esthetics. Pirandello's major essay L'umorismo (1908) establishes his own concept of humor.
The most recent and concise study of Pirandello in English is Oscar Büdel, Pirandello (1966; 2d ed. 1969). Important previous English studies are Walter Starkie, Luigi Pirandello (1926; 3d rev. ed. 1965), and Domenico Vittorini, The Drama of Luigi Pirandello (1935). Recommended for general historical background are Eric Bentley, The Playwright as Thinker (1946), and Lander McClintock, The Age of Pirandello (1951).
Giudice, Gaspare, Pirandello: a biography, London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.