Last reviewed: June 2017
Italian dramatist, fiction writer, and poet
June 28, 1867
Girgenti (now Agrigento), Sicily, Italy
December 10, 1936
Luigi Pirandello (pee-rahn-DEHL-loh), who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1934, became a force in twentieth century drama by calling attention to the limitations of the school of the “well-made” play, the poetic drama, and the naturalistic drama of the nineteenth century. He offered in their stead a theater that the Italians called grottesco and that elsewhere has been called expressionistic. However named, Pirandello’s theater directs attention to the psychological reality that lies beneath social appearances and overt social action. He found inadequate the plays of Eugène Scribe and Victorien Sardou, which are cleverly contrived to excite and divert, and he rejected the overwrought and often insincere language of the poetic drama of Gabriele D’Annunzio and Sem Benelli, for he aimed at language closer to that of normal impassioned speech. Finally, he rejected not so much the subject matter of the naturalistic theater of Eugène Brieux as its assumptions: that drama is a branch of sociology. Drama, if a branch of anything, was to Pirandello a branch of psychology; it is superior to psychology in that the dramatist who investigates mental states is not bound by a theory or dogma. The dramatist’s only obligation is to be faithful to his or her insights into the particular situation that is treated.
In addition to his opposition to literary fashions, Pirandello used the conditions of his own life in his literary production, conditions that, in his many plays and almost countless stories, he tried to study and resolve. Pirandello was born to a well-to-do family in Girgenti, Sicily, which at that time was a backward and violent region of Italy. Pirandello was early impressed by the special civil and religious privileges accorded the upper classes to which he belonged. Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936).
Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936).
Later experiences helped to underline this lesson. When he attended the University of Rome he encountered academic pedantry. After further training in Germany, Pirandello returned to Sicily and, discovering that he and his fiancé of long standing had lost interest in each other, married instead, in 1894, Antonietta Portulano, a young woman chosen by his father. For some years the couple lived comfortably in Rome, but this changed, first when Antonietta’s family lost their fortune, and then when Antonietta became mentally ill. Until her death in 1918, Pirandello kept her at home and watched over her, though her condition greatly disrupted his life and those of their three children. During these years Pirandello taught in a teachers’ college and continued to write and publish.
Pirandello became internationally recognized as a result of his play Six Characters in Search of an Author, which was first produced in 1921. As early as 1904, in his novel The Late Mattia Pascal, Pirandello had called attention to the gap between what individuals are and what they must seem to be if they are to live in conformity with their social role. Six Characters in Search of an Author makes a similar contrast between the conventional bonds that hold persons together and the real bonds of passion and injury that connect one person with another. As You Desire Me presents an amnesia victim whose sense of identity depends not on her self-knowledge but on whether a man—possibly her former husband—believes that she is the person she claims to be. Henry IV poses another difficult problem, typical of Pirandello and closely related to his personal tragedy: What the word “sanity” means, and whether sanity is what is possessed by the “normal” majority or by persons endowed with a peculiar insight.
Pirandello was an asker of questions. He questioned the wisdom of taking sense impressions, surface appearances, and sanity for granted. In this respect he resembles many other twentieth century writers. Pirandello’s influence has been considerable, especially in his own country, where more recent Italian writers like Ugo Betti and Diego Fabbri have imitated his technique and have continued his merciless and exhaustive scrutiny of human motives and actions.