Luigi Pirandello lost his wife to madness. Then he
created some of the most significant and hilarious works of modernist theatre
ridiculing the idea of sanity and reality itself.
In 1919, playwright and novelist Luigi Pirandello had his increasingly violent and unstable wife Antonietta committed to an asylum. In many cases, it could be debated whether knowing such a sad and salacious fact about the life of an artist really adds anything to how we appreciate their work. One might argue that overemphasis on biography has actually hindered rather than helped us in understanding art and how it is created. And yet, in the case of Pirandello, understanding that his wife went insane is critical, not only because he was seemingly haunted by this tragedy for years; but also because Pirandello's best work seem designed to mount an assault on the sane world, and even on the idea that a sane world really exists.
Pirandello was born in 1867 to an upper class family in southern Sicily. His father had fought for Garibaldi and both parents were strong supporters of the Risorgimento. When he was an adolescent, the family moved to Palermo, where Pirandello completed high school. The young man wrote prolifically, fell in love with his cousin (a marriage was planned and called off), became distant from his father and close to his mother, and gained ties with the socialist organization known as the Fasci Siciliani. In 1887, he began university studies in Rome, eventually switching to Bonn after a disagreement with a professor. In Rome, he was introduced to the failings of the Risorgimento generation, and in Bonn, he became well-read in the Romantics. He earned his doctorate in historical linguistics and returned to Rome, where he married the shy Antonietta Portulano, and began writing his celebrated novellas and novels.
The early novels and novellas are interesting in regards to the later work because here Pirandello's strength as a satirist of social life begins to show itself. However, in my humble opinion, they're also more akin to melodrama, that form of emotional surrealism in which everyone feels everything intensely, acutely, and profoundly. In spite of the fact that they are considered classics of Italian literature, for most of us who don't specialize in Pirandello, there is little need to read them.
In 1903, Pirandello's father lost a fortune when the sulphur mines at Aragonia, in which he had invested, flooded. Antonietta's dowry was lost, the family was financially ruined, and Antonietta suffered the first nervous breakdown of many to come. Luigi worked to save the family, teaching languages, and publishing his first success Il Fu Mattia Pascal (The Late Mattia Pascal). As Pirandello's fame as a writer increased, his wife Antonietta became increasingly suspicious, insecure, violent, and obsessive- a situation Pirandello would partially fictionalize in his novel Suo Marito (Her Husband) (1911). Incredibly, Pirandello wrote The Late Mattia Pascal while working all day and caring for his mentally ill wife at night.
Her Husband is well worth reading, as are later novels, such as I Vecchi e i Giovani (The Old and the Young) (1913), however, in my opinion, Pirandello's best work is found in his plays. Pirandello's work serves as an enjoyable introduction to modernism because, unlike T.S. Eliot for example, his writing is funny. There are sections of the plays that cause the audience to laugh out loud. Joyce is also very funny, hysterical even, but Pirandello is more easily accessible. He reminds me of Woody Allen, in that Pirandello is that rare dramatist who can use slightly surreal comedy to illustrate significant existential dilemmas.
Pirandello's first play, 1917's Così è (se vi pare) (Right you are (if you think you are) , is a farce in which the members of a provincial Italian town, led by its gossipy women, try to sniff out the true identities of two newcomers, an executive secretary and his mother-in-law, whose stories contradict each other. All efforts end in vain though, much to the amusement of the obnoxious character Laudisi. Not only does Pirandello suggest in the play that individuals are ultimately unknowable to one another; he suggests that they should retain some inscrutable core of self-hood, unknowable to even themselves.
Because this core is unknowable, individuals create their own realities. Jacques Barzun links Pirandello to those artists whose theme is ''the ambiguity of all experience'', particularly the symbolists, and argues that Pirandello stressed, ''the ambiguity at the bottom of self and behavior.'' Pirandello's Enrico IV (Henry IV) (1922) features a character who has supposedly gone mad and convinced himself that he is a medieval emperor, forcing his loved ones to play along with his delusion. However, we begin to realize that, by forcing so many people to go along with this ridiculous pretense, he has altered reality- who we are is actually who others take us to be. And we all do this, playing a role and trying to get approval from others, whether we are mad or sane. In fact, Pirandello suggests that the two are the same.
In a sense, Pirandello also undermines theatre itself by turning the mirror on the audience and, impolitely, informing them that they too are playing a role. In his most famous play, Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author) from 1921, Pirandello literalizes the idea of characters playing their own particular roles at odds with the world around them. In the play, rehearsals for another Pirandello play are interrupted by the arrival of six characters who have been created and abandoned, and who now want the chance to tell their own stories. The play riffs on the contrast between real life and theatre, but it also shows the similarity between the two; we all go through life playing our roles as we understand them and seeking to get those around us to accept our narrative. Social life is theatre. However, there is a disconnect between all of us in that we all create our own realities to some extent. Pirandello here prefigures later thinkers such as Erving Goffmann, who are more often related to so-called ''postmodernity''.
The most extreme failure to sell one's conception of reality to others is madness. And Pirandello's best work argues that madness and sanity are determined by popular consensus. King Henry is judged insane in spite of the fact that his particular narrative of reality is accepted by everyone around him. Pirandello's work therefore flies in the face of his decision to have his wife committed. If we agree with the argument that he makes in his plays, there is no such thing as biological mental illness, and therefore the only difference between Antonietta and the rest of us is that our reality narrative is accepted, although only ever partially, by those around us.
There is something truly heartbreaking about this. Pirandello lost his wife to madness and then created some of the great theatrical works of modernity, which make the argument that the mad are no different than the rest of us, and that reality is always individual. His wife lost touch with reality and so Pirandello undermined the concept of reality and sanity itself.