Pirandello Today!

By Paolucci, Anne | The World and I, April 1997 | Go to article overview
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Pirandello Today!

Paolucci, Anne, The World and I

Rediscovering Sicily's Seminal Playwright

Despite cultural misunderstanding, glitzy competition, and often uneducated criticism over the years, the works of Luigi Pirandello have become highly relevant to today's audiences.

Drama critic John Gassner observed over half a century ago that the American theater was in a state of "protracted adolescence," at best "provincial." Eugene O'Neill had already emerged, of course, as our first modern playwright. Single-handedly bringing to the stage the realism of Ibsen and the heightened social and class awareness of Strindberg, O'Neill underscored with provocative stage gimmicks (masks, shrinking rooms, symbolism) his obsessive interest in Greek themes, Freudian psychology, and Marxist philosophy.

By refashioning language and mapping fertile ground for subsequent playwrights, O'Neill gave American theater fresh impetus. By the fifties American theater had moved into the mainstream of European realistic drama, ironically just as Italian, French, and German playwrights were responding to the existentialism of midcentury Europe and experimenting with what came to be called Theater of the Absurd. For the most part, American playwrights blissfully ignored the challenge and allowed critics and audiences alike to relax in the easy realism of political, social, and ideological theater. Edward Albee, a splendid aberration and practitioner of European experiments of the fifties, has achieved recognition for only his more traditional plays. Unfortunately, Gassner's remarks of over half a century ago are still painfully on target. American playwrights, critics, and audiences have not moved far from that realism.

Lulled to Indifference

The rich diet of megamusicals, lulling audiences through glitz and glitter into a state of easy receptivity, compounds the static situation. Experimental theaters with their small audiences are the only places where a few avant-garde plays can find a stage, but this is limited fare. There is no middle ground. Under the present conditions, the new and the old--"tradition and the individual talent" (in T.S. Eliot's apt phrase)--cannot evolve as an integral dramatic equation among us. As a result, the continuity and tradition of "legitimate" drama have been seriously compromised in our country. "Protracted adolescence" seems to have hardened into atrophy. Is it any wonder that, in such a climate, Italy's Luigi Pirandello still waits to be discovered in America?

When asked in the late fifties who was the most timely and modern dramatist of his day, Jean-Paul Sartre replied: "It is most certainly Pirandello." Three decades earlier, in 1923, another Frenchman, Georges Pitoeff, had staged a memorable premiere of Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Comedie des Champs-Elysees, establishing overnight an international and long-enduring reputation for both himself and the Sicilian playwright. Max Reinhardt ensured Pirandello's great success in Germany. By the time of his death in December 1936, two years after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, Pirandello had come to be recognized as the major European playwright of his age, his reputation established throughout the world. Well, ... almost.

Efforts to introduce the new playwright to American audiences were isolated and scattered. Arthur Livingston, "the leading Italianist of the English-speaking world," according to publisher Samuel Putnam, did his best to promote Pirandello's plays in translation and, together with producer-director Brock Pemberton, offered Enrico IV on Broadway in 1924 (two years after the play's premiere) under the title The Living Mask. Pirandello was convinced that he would strike it rich here and be able to pay the debts accumulated over a number of years.

There was even talk of putting some of his plays on film, but only one was realized in the new medium during Pirandello's lifetime: Irving Thalberg's Come tu mi vuoi (As You Desire Me), with Greta Garbo, Erich von Stroheim, and Melvyn Douglas in the leading roles.

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