New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1922
[and for this online edition we have added:]
[By Arthur Livingston]
No apology is necessary for offering to American readers a play which critics, with singular unanimity, have called one of the most original productions seen on the modern stage. In less than a year's time, "Six Characters in Search of an Author" has won a distinguished place in the dramatic literature of the Western world, attracting audiences and engaging intellects far removed from the particular influences which made of it a season's sensation in Italy.
Yet the word "original" is not enough, unless we embrace under that characterization qualities far richer than those normally credited to the "trick" play. The "Six Characters" is something more than an unusually ingenious variation of the "play within a play." It is something more than a new twist given to the "dream character" made familiar by the contemporary Italian grotesques. It is a dramatization of the artistic process itself, in relation to the problem of reality and unreality which has engaged Pirandello in one way or another for more than twenty years.
I venture to insist upon this point as against those observers who have tried to see in the "Six Characters" an ironical satire of the commercial drama, as we know it today, mixed, more or less artificially, with a rather obvious philosophy of neo-idealism. No such mixture exists. The blend is organic. The object of Pirandello's hitter irony is not the stage-manager, nor the theatrical producer, nor even the dramatic critic: it is the dramatist; it is the artist; it is, in the end, life itself. I suppose the human soul presents no mysteries to those who have been thoroughly grounded in the science of Freud. But in spite of psycho-analysis a few Hamlets still survive. Pirandello is one of them.
What are people really like? In the business of everyday life, nothing is commoner than the categorical judgment sweeping and assured in its affirmatives. But as we cut a little deeply into the living matter of the spirit, the problem becomes more complicated. Do we ever understand the whole motivation of an action -- not in others only but even in ourselves?
Oh, yes, there are people who know. . . . The State knows, with its laws and its procedures. And society knows, with its conventions. And individuals know, with their formulas for conduct often cannily applied with reference to interest. -- The ironical element, as everyone has noted, is fundamental in Pirandello!
Apart from works in his earlier manner (realistic pictures from Southern Italian life, including such gems as "Sicilian Limes"), Pirandello's most distinctive productions have dealt with this general theme. No one of them, indeed, exhausts it. And how could this be otherwise? Pirandello, approaching the sixties, to be sure, is nevertheless in spirit a man of the younger Italian generation, which, trained by Croce and Gentile, has "learned how to think." But however great his delight in playing with "actual idealism," he knows the difference between a drama and a philosophical dissertation. His plays are situations embodying conclusions, simple, or indeed "obvious" in their convincingness. They must he taken as a whole -- if one would look for a full statement of Pirandello's "thought."
A "thought," moreover, which may or may not invite us to profound reflection. Enough for the lover of the theatre is the fact that Pirandello derives the most interesting dramatic possibilities from it. Sometimes it is the "reality" which society sees brought into contrast with the reality which action proves (Il piacere dell'onestà) . Again, it is the "reality" which a man sees in himself thwarted by the reality which actually controls ("Ma non è una cosa seria"). In "Right You Are" (Così è, se vi pare) we have a general satire of the "cocksure," who, placed in the presence of reality and unreality, are unable to distinguish one from the other.
In the "Six Characters" it is the turn of the artist. Can art -- creative art, where the spirit would seem most autonomous -- itself determine reality? No, because once "a character is born, he acquires such an independence, even of his own author, that he can be imagined by everybody in situations where the author never dreamed of placing him, and so acquires a meaning which the author never thought of giving him." In this lies the great originality of this very original play -- the discovery (so Italian, when one thinks of it, and so novel, as one compares it with the traditional rôle of the "artist" in the European play) that the laborious effort of artistic creation is itself a dramatic theme -- so unruly, so assertive, is this thing called "life" ever rising to harass and defeat anyone who would interpret, crystallize, devitalize it.
And beyond the drama lies the poetry, a poetry of mysterious symbolism made up of terror, and rebellion, and pity, and human kindliness. Let us not miss the latter, especially, in the complex mood of all Pirandello's theatre.
* * *
The three plays of Pirandello, here offered in translations that do not hope to be adequate, are famous specimens of the theatre in Italy. The term "new" is much contested, not only in Italy but abroad. In using the word here it is not necessary to claim that this young, impulsive, fascinatingly boisterous after-the-war Italy is doing things that no one else ever thought of doing. We remain on safe ground if we assert that Pirandello and his associates have broken the bounds set to the old fashioned "sentimental" Latin play.
The motivations of the "old" theatre were largely ethical in character, developing spiritual crises from the conflict of impulses with a rigid framework of law and convention. Dramatic art was, so to speak, a department of geometry, dealing with this or that projection or modification of the triangle. Husbands tearing their hair as wives proved unfaithful; disappointed lovers pining in eternal fidelity to mates beyond their social sphere; cuckolds heroically sheathing the stiletto in deference to a higher law of respectability; widows sending second-hand aspirants to suicide that the sacrament of marriage might remain inviolate: -- such were the themes.
And there is no doubt, besides, that this "old" theatre produced works of great beauty and intenseness; since the will in conflict with impulse and triumphing over impulse always presents a subject entrancing in human interest and noble in moral implications.
But the potentialities of drama are more numerous than the permutations of three. The "new" theatre in Italy is "new" in this discovery at least.
* * *
"Henry IV.," an equally strong and original variation of the insanity motive, is the first of two plays by Pirandello dealing with a special aspect of the problem of reality and unreality. The second, not yet given to the public, is Vestire gli ingnudi (", . . And ye clothed me!"). In the former Pirandello studies a situation where an individual finds a world of unreality thrust upon him, voluntarily reassuming it later on, when tragedy springs from the deeper reality. In "And ye clothed me!" we have a girl who, to fill an empty life of no importance, creates a fiction for herself, only to find it torn violently from her and to be left in a naked reality that is, after all, so unreal.
These two plays indicate the present tendency of Pirandello's rapid production -- a tendency that promises even richer results as this interesting author delves more extensively into the mysteries of individual psychology.
"Henry IV.," meanwhile, is before us. It can speak for itself.
* * *
All of Pirandello's plays are built for acting, and only incidentally for reading. We make this observation with "Right You Are" especially in mind, since that play, above all, is a test for the actor. It is typical of Pirandello for its rapidity, its harshness and its violence -- the skill with which the tense tableau is drawn out of pure dialectic, pure "conversation." Moreover, it states a fundamental preoccupation of Pirandello in peculiarly lucid and striking fashion. Perhaps a better rendering of the title Così è (se vi pare) will occur to many. Ludwig Lewisohn (happily, I thought) suggested "As You Like It," no less. A possibility, quite in the spirit of Pirandello's title in general, would have been another Shakespearean reminiscence: ". . . and Thinking Makes It So." We have kept something approximating the literal, which would be: "So it is (if you think so)."
The text of the "Six Characters" is that of the translation designated by the author and which was used in the sensational productions of the play given in London and New York.
[Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934. Arthur Livingston (1883-1944) was professor of Italian at Columbia University]