Three Plays: Six Characters in Search of an Author, Henry IV, The Mountain Giants (Oxford World's Classics)

BOOK: Three Plays: Six Characters in Search of an Author, Henry IV, The Mountain Giants (Oxford World's Classics)
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Three Plays
Six Characters in Search of
an Author
Henry IV
The Mountain Giants

Translated with an Introduction and Notes by





was born near Agrigento in 1867, the son of a Garibaldian veteran who had grown rich in the sulphur-mining industry. After studying at the universities of Palermo, Rome, and Bonn, Pirandello lived in Rome and devoted himself to literature with an abundant production of short stories and novels in the Sicilian realist tradition.
The Late Mattia Pascal
(1904) broke this pattern and announced his dominant modernist themes of absurdity and unstable identity. In 1894 he married Antonietta Portulano who gave him three children; but, after the bankruptcy of Pirandello’s father in 1903, she became increasingly unbalanced and was definitively interned in 1919, an event reflected in Pirandello’s frequent representations of madness. In 1910 he began a succession of dialect comedies, followed in 1917 by
Right You Are, If You Think You Are
, his first play in standard Italian, influenced by the emerging ‘theatre of the grotesque’. In 1921 the controversial
Six Characters in Search of an Author
established his international reputation as an experimental dramatist, and the breakthrough was confirmed in the following year by
Henry IV
. He joined Mussolini’s Fascist party in 1924 and went on to direct the artistically successful but short-lived Arts Theatre of Rome (1925–8). The metatheatrical trilogy initiated by
Six Characters
was completed by
Each in His Own Way
(1924) and
Tonight We Improvise
(1930). A number of later plays such as
Diana and Tuda
As You Desire Me
Finding Oneself
(1932), and
When Someone is Somebody
(1932) derive from the dramatist’s own experience and his tormented passion for the young actress Marta Abba. The
New Colony
(1928) and
(1929) belong to a ‘myth trilogy’ which should have been concluded by the unfinished
Mountain Giants
. After 1930 Pirandello spent much of his time in Germany and travelled widely. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1934 and died in Rome in 1936.

is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and also taught for many years at the University of Geneva. In addition to his academic work on English Renaissance poetry and Anglo-Italian literary relations, he has published verse translations of Dante (
Vita Nuova
), Cavalcanti, Petrarch, Michelangelo, Angelus Silesius, and Villon.




Note on the Text

Select Bibliography

A Chronology of Luigi Pirandello




Appendix I
: Pirandello’s Preface to
Six Characters in Search of an Author

Appendix II
: The Historical Henry IV

Explanatory Notes


The following abbreviations are used throughout and refer to the Mondadori ‘Meridiani’ edition of the
Opere di Luigi Pirandello
under the general editorship of Giovanni Macchia:


Maschere Nude
, ed. Alessandro d’Amico, introd. Giovanni Macchia, 4 vols. (Milan, 1986–2007).


Novelle per un anno
, ed. Mario Costanzo, introd. Giovanni Macchia, 3 vols. (Milan, 1986–90).


Tutti i romanzi
, ed. Giovanni Macchia and Mario Costanzo, foreword Giovanni Macchia, 2 vols. (Milan, 1973).

Texts contained in this volume are indicated as follows:


Six Characters in Search of an Author


Henry IV


Mountain Giants


Preface to Six Characters

The ‘Meridiani’ volume of
Saggi e interventi
, ed. Ferdinando Taviani (Milan, 2008), gives the 1908 text of
). Pirandello’s thought, however, is clearer in the revised text of 1920 which is found in volume vi of the older Mondadori edition of Pirandello,
Saggi, poesie, scritti varii
, ed. Manlio Lo Vecchio-Musti (Milan, 1960), denoted here by the abbreviation

All translations are my own.


10 May 1921, at the Teatro Valle in Rome, the first performance of Pirandello’s
Six Characters in Search of an Author
provoked a famous theatrical brawl. The actors had to contend with shouting, whistling, and cries of ‘madhouse’; counter-protests by the author’s supporters led to scuffles in the street; Pirandello and his daughter Lietta were showered with insults and small coins as they sought a taxi to take them safely home. Four months later, with an audience who had been prepared both by the scandal and by publication,
Six Characters
received a better reception in Milan, and in 1923 Georges Pitoëff’s imaginative Paris production set off a wave of enthusiasm that saw the play performed in almost every European capital and as far afield as New York, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo. In 1922 a similar but more immediate success greeted Ruggero Ruggeri’s masterly interpretation of
Henry IV

Both plays are now established as seminal classics of the modern stage and there is no good reason to challenge the orthodoxy that sees them as Pirandello’s most characteristic and influential achievements. But we should not, on this account, regard what came before
Six Characters
as mere apprenticeship or dismiss what came after
Henry IV
as a decline. Our vision of the two plays becomes distorted if they are detached from the broader context of Pirandello’s long literary career, and the significance of that career cannot be understood solely in terms of its most notable successes.

The author who enjoyed such a sudden international breakthrough was, in fact, already in his mid-fifties and anything but a newcomer to the Italian literary scene. He had started out as a poet, but soon turned to novels and short stories, initially marked by an adherence to the school of Sicilian naturalism (
) as represented by Federico De Roberto, Luigi Capuana, and, above all, Giovanni Verga. This period culminates with
The Old and the Young
I vecchi e i giovani
, first part 1909, completed 1913), a long novel centred on the period between 1892 and 1894 and structured around the two poles of Rome, where the political class is mired in a grave banking scandal, and Sicily, shaken by the doomed peasant rebellion of the
fasci siciliani
. The portrayal of Sicilian society resembles that of such better-known novels
as De Roberto’s
The Viceroys
(1894) or Lampedusa’s
The Leopard
(1958), as it traces the rapid decline of Garibaldian idealism, the compromises and collusion that link old aristocracy to raw and ruthless bourgeoisie, and the failure of the new unified Italy to provide any political solution for the stunted development, grinding poverty, and archaic social structures of the island. The author himself seems to stand behind Don Cosmo Laurentano’s disenchanted withdrawal from political engagement:

One thing only is sad, my friends: to have understood the game … I mean the game of that playful devil that each of us has within and who amuses himself by representing to us, outside, as reality, what a moment later he will reveal as our own illusion … Wear yourselves out and torment yourselves, without thinking that all this will come to no conclusion. (
ii. 509–10)

The Old and the Young
was already something of a throwback by the time it started to appear. Five years earlier Pirandello had published
The Late Mattia Pascal
Il fu Mattia Pascal
, 1904) which is usually considered as announcing the new direction of his work. Here Pirandello abandons Sicily for a setting which is announced as Liguria but presented without any marked regional features. The story of the eponymous narrator emerges as a philosophical fable in a way that justifies Leonardo Sciascia’s bracketing of Pirandello with Kafka and Borges.
Trapped in a loveless marriage, devoid of any real vocation, and leading a life that is completely beyond his control, Mattia Pascal is offered what appears to be a fresh start when a drowned corpse is officially identified and buried as his. Assuming a new identity under the invented name of Adriano Meis, he at first experiences a euphoric feeling of freedom and envisages honest and constructive relations with his fellow men. But the illusion is short-lived: freedom becomes isolation, for the lie on which the new self is based makes it impossible for him to participate in the conventions and institutions to which human relations inevitably give rise. A new marriage is out of the question in a situation where he cannot even buy a dog. Thus he will eventually suppress Adriano Meis through a faked suicide and ‘die’ for a second time. But a return to the old false relations is now impossible. Rather than disturb his supposed widow and her new husband, he withdraws to the decayed municipal library, significantly housed in a deconsecrated church, to write his autobiography.

The Late Mattia Pascal
, as in the later novel
One, No One, One Hundred Thousand
(1926), we find many of the themes that will recur in the plays. Mattia, for all his extraordinary adventures, is a twentieth-century Everyman, plagued by the impossibility of possessing a stable identity, tormented by the ‘sad privilege’ of consciousness, by a ‘feeling of life’ that he mistakes for knowledge of it, condemned, after the failure of the ‘great lanterns’ of religions and ideologies, to walk by the light of his own little lamp which reveals nothing but the darkness around him (
i. 484–8). This is the ‘lanternosophy’ expounded in the novel by the spiritualist philosopher Paleari who finds in the theatre another metaphor for the absurdity of life in a purposeless post-Copernican world. He imagines a Sophoclean drama like
being performed in a puppet theatre when suddenly a hole appears in the painted paper sky above the stage:

Orestes would still be intent upon revenge, yet in the very moment when he is about to accomplish it with passionate intensity, his eyes would look up there, to that rent in the sky, through which all kinds of evil influences penetrate down to the stage, and his arm would fail him. Orestes, in short, would become Hamlet. Believe me, there lies all the difference between ancient and modern tragedy: a hole in a paper sky. (
i. 467)

The metaphor of the world as stage is all too familiar, but where Macbeth saw human life as resembling ‘a poor player’, here the tragic protagonist is further reduced to a mere puppet of the kind that Pirandello must often have seen during his Sicilian childhood. The hole in the sky reveals the pitiful illusion of reality within which his action occurs. The central innovation of Pirandello’s theatre will be that it calls into question not only its own power as illusion but also its communicative function as a frame that allows and contains meaning.

In the 1890s Pirandello had renounced the theatre after writing a few plays that failed to reach the stage. In 1910, however, with a difficult financial situation aggravated by the increasing insanity of his wife, he found a welcome new source of income when a fellow Sicilian, the playwright-producer Nino Martoglio, persuaded him to adapt and expand some of his short stories into dialect plays, all of which were later translated into Italian. Many of these, such as
Sicilian Limes, The Doctor’s Duty
, and
The Jar
, were one-act affairs, but there were also more substantial works, among them
Think it Over, Giacomino
(1916) and the pastoral comedy
(1917) which has a vitality and
irreverence reminiscent of Synge’s
Playboy of the Western World
. But by 1917 Pirandello was tiring of dialect theatre and his decision to write henceforth in Italian must have been reinforced by the success of two younger contemporary playwrights, Luigi Chiarelli and Rosso di San Secondo, both associated with the current known as ‘the theatre of the grotesque’ which takes its name from the subtitle of Chiarelli’s
The Mask and the Face
La maschera e il volto, grottesco in tre atti
, 1916). The ‘grotesque’ events of this play involve a husband who, instead of killing his adulterous wife, allows her to escape with her lover while he, having confessed to drowning her, is tried, acquitted, and feted for having acted as an honourable man should do. When the deception is discovered, he is universally reviled and threatened with thirty years in prison as punishment for simulating a crime. By now, however, his wife has returned to him and, in a nicely ironic and symmetrical conclusion, the pair escape (or elope) together. Rosso di San Secondo’s
Puppets, What Passion!
(1918) presents three stages of passion in characters who, like those of
Six Characters
, remain nameless. Neither Chiarelli nor Rosso di San Secondo are major innovators, but their metaphors of puppets and masks link bourgeois conventions with the lack of stable or authentic identity in a way that echoes
The Late Mattia Pascal
and anticipates Pirandello’s major plays.

Right You Are, If You Think You Are
Così è (se vi pare)
, 1917) is the first of the nine full-length plays in Italian that Pirandello wrote before
Six Characters
and is probably the most frequently performed. The plot is taken from a short story,
Signora Frola and Signor Ponza, Her Son-in-Law
iii. 772–81) and presents a mystery of the kind that would normally receive a logical solution in the last act. The survivors of an earthquake—Signor Ponza, his wife, and his mother-in-law Signora Frola—arrive in a small town. There Signora Frola, instead of living with her son-in-law, takes lodgings and has no face-to-face contact with her daughter, though she communicates by letter and by shouting up from the courtyard. Unable to restrain their curiosity, the pillars of the local community demand an explanation from Signor Ponza who tells them that the woman with whom he lives is actually his second wife, his first having died in the earthquake. His mother-in law, he asserts, is suffering from a terrible delusion and believes that her daughter is still alive; it is to preserve this illusion that he keeps his wife away from her. For Signora Frola, however, it is Signor Ponza who is deluded in believing his first wife to be dead,
while she and her daughter, in his interest, accept the fiction of a second marriage. Which of these two incompatible versions is true? We receive the answer (which is not one) in the final scene when the veiled wife herself claims to be both Signora Frola’s daughter
the second wife of Signor Ponza. To the objections that she must be one or the other, she asserts: ‘No, gentlemen, I am whoever you think I am’ (
i. 509).

Pirandello himself described the play as ‘a devilish trick’,
but there is far more to it than the desire to frustrate conventional expectations with a demonstration of the relativity of truth. The key to what Pirandello is doing lies in the character who is absent from the short story but essential to the play: Lamberto Laudisi. For most of the play Laudisi is a
figure who speaks for the author and delivers a commentary on the action, deriding the quest for a straightforward solution. But it is he who finally intervenes to drive the plot to its strange unravelling. What this compassionate ironist teaches his audience, both onstage and off, is not some trite doctrine of relativism, but rather the recognition that some truths are better left veiled and that necessary illusions should be respected. Thus Signor Ponza respects what he believes is the delusion of Signora Frola and she protects what she thinks to be his. As for Signora Ponza, the objective truth of whether she is the first or the second wife is ultimately irrelevant since she completes a trinity of love by accepting both roles as ‘the remedy that compassion has found’ for their predicament (
i. 508). Role-playing is not simply a matter of social conformism or bourgeois hypocrisy; it may also create and reveal whatever identity we have. Hence the oxymoron Pirandello chose as a title for his collected plays:
Naked Masks
Maschere nude

Philosophy and Poetics

As if it were not enough to be an inheritor of the theatre of the grotesque and a precursor of the theatre of the absurd, Pirandello has also been likened to Shaw and claimed for ‘the theatre of ideas’ on the grounds that many of his characters (Laudisi is a major example) spend a great
deal of time in what sounds like ratiocination. Moreover, some of his plays, on a first reading, do seem designed to demonstrate a philosophical point, be it the inevitability of role-playing, the multiplicity of identity, the relativity of truth, or the impossibility of real knowledge of the self or the world. Benedetto Croce, Italy’s preeminent philosopher in the first half of the twentieth century, notoriously dismissed Pirandello’s work as an awkward hybrid between art and philosophy,
but this is hardly surprising if we consider the contrast between Croce’s own neo-idealism and the dramatist’s radical pessimism, rooted in the work of Schopenhauer and his French disciple Gabriel Séailles. And even if Pirandello’s ideas are no more than the common intellectual currency of his age, we still need to see how they relate to his poetics. In this context the crucial document that has served as a starting point for most later discussions of the issue is Pirandello’s own lengthy essay
, 1908, revised 1920).

The only available English translation of
is entitled
On Humor
which is unfortunate if it suggests some theory of the comic along the lines of such near-contemporary discussions as Bergson’s
(1900) and Freud’s
Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious
(1905). There are, no doubt, points of contact with both these texts, but ‘humourism’, as John Barnes reminds us,
is no laughing matter and the immediate sources of Pirandello’s thought are to be found in such less-known works as Alfred Binet’s
The Alterations of Personality
(1892) and Giovanni Marchesini’s
The Fictions of the Soul
(1905). The first part of
is a fairly academic account of writers who have been described as ‘humourists’; it is only in the second part of the book that Pirandello gets down to discussing what ‘humourism’ actually is, with a verve and an intensity that leave us in little doubt that he is defining his own poetics. At the heart of ‘humourism’ lies the bleak vision that had already been roughly outlined four years earlier in
The Late Mattia Pascal
. Pirandello follows Bergson is seeing life as a continuous flux, evanescent and ever-changing, which we seek in vain to halt by imposing on it the ‘stable and determinate forms’ constructed by the intellect. These are the concepts, ideologies, and ideals, the ‘fictions’ that give us a deceptive consciousness of ourselves,
the illusion of some coherence in our lives. Thus life and form are at odds. At times inevitably the forms into which we try to channel our lives will be overthrown by our unruly passions and we shall be plunged back into the chaotic flux; but the alternative is a subjection to forms whose rigidity means death (
, p. 151).

BOOK: Three Plays: Six Characters in Search of an Author, Henry IV, The Mountain Giants (Oxford World's Classics)
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