Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Luigi Pirandello. Loving the theatre, in spite of it all

Patricia Gaborik

Luigi Pirandello, far left, attends the Maria Melato Company’s rehearsal of his play Lazarus, 1929. Online collection of the Istituto di Studi Pirandelliani e sul Teatro Contemporaneo, Rome

“I’m sorry to hear that, still, nearly on the eve of the shows, many things are missing, which, with so much lead time, should have been ready. But we’re always the same! Everything at the last minute! Improvisation; “making do.” And the blind faith that, in any case, it will go well. That’s how it will go because Italian actors have always worked miracles. But the real actors, who are little by little disappearing; it won’t be this way tomorrow; it’s already very, very difficult for it to happen today.”

Such was the lament of the great Italian playwright – and 1934 Nobel Laureate in Literature – Luigi Pirandello in a letter to actress Marta Abba, responding to her tales about preparations for an upcoming performance. His frustration is palpable, a response to an obviously recurring problem – “we’re always the same”. He would go on to complain that the Italian theatre had been degraded by the importation of too much superficial foreign entertainment: as a result, he argued, the ever-expanding number of companies and actors needed to produce it had flooded the boards with mediocrity. He wrote this letter in July of 1936, very near the end of his life, a life whose last decade had been dedicated to a rebirth of the Italian theatre.

A long, strange journey led Pirandello to his mission. Although today he is remembered as one of the twentieth century’s most revolutionary dramatists, the author’s arrival on stage was rather belated, and in some ways due not to a love for the art form but rather to ambivalence about it. In 1908, when he had already published several volumes of poetry and was a well-respected author of fiction but hadn’t yet started writing seriously for the stage, he voiced his suspicions in an essay entitled Illustrators, Actors, and Translators.There he held up the theatre as an inherently lacking and imperfect art: an author’s creation lay on the page, and so any rendition of it on stage (however well done), like a translation, would automatically be something lesser. Performance made material that which was supposed to reside in the imagination and thus inevitably presented an interpretation of the work, not the work itself. Still, despite these misgivings, he went on to write plays, and how! Many of his finest, most original pieces in fact investigate the theatre itself – among these, Each in His Own Way, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Tonight We Improvise, The Mountain Giants –, almost as if he needed to work out his doubts by testing the drama’s limits.

Despite Pirandello’s evident perception that the inability to get things organized was an Italian one, theatrical lore has it that everything always comes down to the wire. Anyone with experience will chuckle at Pirandello’s brooding precisely because the issue he names is so familiar. All too often, debacle seems certain. Directors rage because their actors aren’t off book (that is to say, they haven’t memorized their lines). Seamstresses fret because that one piece of velcro never attaches during the quick costume swap. For whatever reason, the mechanism always jams during the second act set change… The problems pile up the closer one gets to opening night, and it seems impossible – really, beyond possible this time – that things will come together. And then, somehow, they do. The universality of this perception was used to good effect in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, co-written by Marc Norman and Sir Tom Stoppard and directed by John Madden, when impresario Philip Henslowe reassures fretting moneylender Hugh Fennyman that he ought not worry about the London playhouses being closed due to the plague. “Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business,” he says: “The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.” When Fennyman therefore asks what they should do, Henslowe matter-of-factly replies, “Nothing. Strangely, it all turns out well.” He doesn’t know how, he concedes. “It’s a mystery.” The magic of the theatre.

Surely, the increasing fame and success it brought him was good incentive for Pirandello to keep writing plays. But his growing attachment to the theatre was more profound than that. He didn’t just write lots of scripts (nearly fifty throughout his career), but, as noted above, he interrogated the theatre through the theatre in the genre that today we call metatheatre, and he also took up the directorship of his own company, The Teatro d’Arte di Roma, an experience that would transform him into a true man of the stage – and give him the insider’s knowledge that enabled him to see first-hand the very mechanisms he complained about. Despite these frustrations, though, the stage became his chief area of activity; while he continued to be a prolific writer of short stories, he had left poetry long behind and after 1926 never wrote another novel.

The theatre’s magic – its partial inexplicability – seemed to be, in the end, what charmed Pirandello most about it. If in 1908 actors and their bodies seemed to be the problem, over time he came to appreciate the art form’s dependence on its interpreters, recognizing them as miracle workers. This had much to do with his experience, first, as a produced dramatist and then as practitioner of the stage art. When he took the reins of the Teatro d’Arte in 1925, a project dreamed up by his son Stefano Landi and the playwright Orio Vergani, he began to work as a director (even if back then the Italian word for the figure, regista, didn’t yet exist). If initially he believed that the director should serve as a sort of spokesman for the writer who would discipline actors into placing themselves in service to the text, he would increasingly come to view performers as creative partners, recognizing that their individuality was a key ingredient not only in the success of a given performance but also in the writer’s own conception of character. This was particularly true of Marta Abba, whom he hired in the first season to play a particularly challenging role and who would become the actor he relied on most, the inspiration for several of his female protagonists, and constant confidante (as well as unrequited love interest).

Pirandello’s turn to metatheatre – a dramatic genre that investigates the way theatre itself works, often through the technique of placing a play within the play – reveals his fascination with the actor’s unique creative potential, the process of bringing a work to life on stage, and with the technical mechanisms of the playhouse itself. Traces of the author’s initial ambivalence remain, as he often includes moments where rehearsals or shows break down because something goes wrong: actors get confused because they don’t know if their scene partners are speaking as themselves or their characters, the curtain drops at the wrong time, a seeming short circuit plunges the auditorium into darkness, uncomprehending audiences turn violent… These moments explore the theatre’s materiality, its reality – those problematic things! – and, at the same time, often point to the mysterious magic of the drama itself.

Perhaps the most iconic moment in Pirandello’s entire theatrical opus comes from his seminal Six Characters in Search of an Author, a play that tells the tale of the eponymous figures who show up at a rehearsal in hopes of finding someone who can tell their story. As they enact this story for the group of players who they hope will stage it, they realize that Madame Pace is missing but they cannot go on without her. Suddenly she appears, however, almost as if by magic. The actors, indeed, are frightened: what tricks are these?, their manager asks. But the explanation, closely considered, is quite simple: she has been brought to life because they provided the right costume pieces for her, set the stage and environment to her liking. In truth, they, too, had to “make do” – for their props were not identical to the objects in the characters’ mind. And yet, the miracle happened all the same. Henslowe would have said it was a “mystery.” We must think that Pirandello would have agreed. After all, he spent the next decade – until his death in 1936 – investigating just how the magic happens, over and over again.

Pirandello in Context
by Patricia Gaborik

About The Author

Patricia Gaborik

Patricia Gaborik is Professor of English at the Accademia Nazionale d'Arte Drammatica 'Silvio d'Amico'. She has published widely on early twentieth-century Italian theatre and dram...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!