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Pirandello: 'twixt Drama And Real Life


On Monday, Hollywood commemorates the 50th anniversary of the death of Luigi Pirandello with a performance of selections from his plays and tales at the James A. Doolittle Theatre. The cast will include Julie Harris , Michael York, John Houseman, Nina Foch and Mariangela Melato; the director is Maurizio Scaparro, director of the Teatro di Roma. Calendar asked for an assessment of Pirandello by Richard Sogliuzzo, a drama critic for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and author of "Luigi Pirandello, Director: The Playwright in the Theater" (Scarecrow Press).

It was a little more than 50 years ago (1932) that Hollywood first collaborated with Pirandello, in the film adaptation of his play, "As You Desire Me," starring Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas and Erich von Stroheim (MGM).

Pirandello--credited and uncredited--continues to exert a significant influence on modern films and drama. An example is Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" at the James A. Doolittle Theatre, with its provocative blurring of the distinction between drama and life--"the real thing." Today, such "Pirandellism" has become commonplace. But I have often wondered how many know its origins or have more than a passing knowledge of Pirandello or his works.

Between 1912 and 1919, Luigi Pirandello lived a relatively obscure and penurious middle-class family life in Rome, teaching and writing poems, essays, novels, plays; a respected but not widely known writer. By 1919, his works gained greater recognition, but the evening of May 10, 1921, marked a turning point in his life and in the history of modern theater. This was the world premiere of "Six Characters in Search of an Author" at Rome's Valle Theatre.

Nothing could have prepared the audience for what they were to see. Upon entering the theater, they found the curtain up, a bare stage, a stagehand hammering away, a stage manager shouting from the wings, telling the stagehand to go to hell. Actors drifted in, chattering among themselves, while the director engaged in idle conversation with his assistant.

The audience was confused. Was this a rehearsal or a performance? Had they arrived on the wrong evening? When six strange-looking characters walked from the rear of the theater to the stage, demanding to perform their own play, the audience became irate. Some began shouting in chorus: "Madhouse!" "Buffoon!" Fistfights broke out. The actors continued valiantly, but at the end of the performance, press and public stormed the dressing rooms and Pirandello was forced to flee the theater.

But later, in September of that year, the same production was acclaimed in Milan. Critics and public agreed that Pirandello was a daring innovator, challenging the frontiers of theater. In one play, he had swept away the living room of the realistic theater and replaced it with a bare stage filled with infinite "realities."

Pirandello's fame spread quickly, with translations and productions in France and Germany, then throughout Europe. New plays followed, notably the monumental "Henry IV" (1922), in which a man who thinks he is a medieval emperor recovers from insanity but continues playing the madman in order to avoid society's greater madness.

"Each in His Own Way" (1924) concerns a play based upon an actual love scandal in a city. A woman in the audience repeatedly interferes with the performance, insisting that it is her life that is being so cruelly exposed on stage. In "Tonight We Improvise," (1930), actors become so totally immersed in their roles that they can no longer distinguish between themselves and their characters to near-fatal consequences.

What made Pirandello's plays so vital and immediately relevant for audiences was that he confronted the essential questions of his age: the time of Einstein and Freud, when scientific certainties had been replaced by a new spirit of skeptical indeterminacy and when traditional moral codes had lost their authority. Einstein reportedly told Pirandello, "We are kindred souls."

Indeed, relativism is fundamental to Pirandello's drama and philosophy, which continually set out to disprove the notion of the separation between appearance and reality. He believed them to be one and the same. "Right you are," said Pirandello, "if you think you are." Be content with what meets the eye, for there is nothing more. In a world where God and an intelligible universe are beyond our comprehension, the human realities left to us are compassion and family devotion.

The plays continued, 44 in all, each born of the author's obsessive quest for theatrical forms that best expressed his psychological and metaphysical view of the human condition. "Each of us," he wrote, "harbors illusory self conceptions, resulting from self-deluding processes, secret or unconscious tendencies, and we function according to these sincere but fictitious notions."

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