Luigi Pirandello (1867)
It was on this date, June 28, 1867, that Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello was born in Girgenti (now Agrigento) on the island of Sicily. He began writing novels, but turned to theatre to make money after the first of two personal tragedies: the loss of the family fortune. Pirandello published an early volume of verse, Mal giocondo (1889), which paid tribute to the poetic fashions set by agnostic Nobel-winning Italian poet Giosuè Carducci.
A tall man with a pointed beard and piercing eyes, he married Antonietta Portulano in 1894, but she suffered a mental breakdown ten years later. This was his second personal tragedy. Unable to afford the institutionalization his wife needed, Pirandello and his children endured her abuse for 15 years, until he had established himself as Italy’s foremost living playwright.
His wife’s dementia turned Pirandello’s dramatic explorations toward the question of just what identity is, as well as toward exploring the ambiguous relationship between reality and belief, which is seen most excellently in his Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore, translated as Six Characters in Search of an Author. In this 1921 play, Pirandello’s characters rebel against their creator, attack the foundation of the play, refuse to follow stage directions and interfere with the structure of the play until, like his wife, it breaks down. Its first performance in Rome caused a scandal, but Six Characters in Search of an Author was hailed in Paris.
Pirandello wrote over 50 plays. His collected plays were published between 1918 and 1935 under the collective title of Maschere nude (Naked Mask). One critic said of his works that Pirandello’s “conception of reality is the exact opposite to the religious.”* And a biographer grudgingly admits, “God is too absent from his work, and there is no trace of the wonderful balm of mysticism.”**
One blot on his character may be Pirandello’s support of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. It may be that he believed Mussolini a man of order in a world of moral and cultural confusion. It is true that Mussolini had publicly announced his admiration for the playwright and helped him open his own Art Theatre in Rome in 1925. Pirandello’s statement, “I am a Fascist because I am an Italian,” would seem a little more enthusiastic than necessary from one who simply wanted to acquire subsidies and publicity by currying favor. Whatever his sincerity, Mussolini’s support launched the Italian playwright onto the world stage and a worldwide tour introduced “Pirandellian” theatre to audiences in London, Paris, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and several cities in Germany, Argentina, and Brazil.
In 1929, Pirandello was elected a member of the newly founded Accademia d’Italia and, in that same year, he published Lazzaro, his “religious myth,” which voices the author’s pantheistic religious convictions. In 1934 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The playwright who wrote in Henry IV, “As soon as one is born, one starts dying,” Luigi Pirandello died on 10 December 1936, in Rome, at age 69. The rooms where he died subsequently were declared a national monument and now house the Centro di Studi Pirandelliani. Perhaps one of his Six Characters spoke Pirandello’s epitaph:
A man will die, a writer, the instrument of creation: but what he has created will never die! And to be able to live for ever you don’t need to have extraordinary gifts or be able to do miracles. Who was Sancho Panza? Who was Prospero? But they will live for ever because — living seeds — they had the luck to find a fruitful soil, an imagination which knew how to grow them and feed them, so that they will live for ever.
* Benedetto Croce, Poesia e Non Poesia, 1923 (Croce disliked Pirandello).
** W.F. Starkie, Luigi Pirandello, 1937 (3d ed., 1965).
Originally published June 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.