Antonietta Portulano was a quiet, religious girl raised in Agrigento, Sicily by a single parent (a protective, overbearing father) and educated in a convent. In 1894 she married the man destined to become Italy's most famous twentieth-century playwright, Luigi Pirandello, and was whisked off to Rome.
After the loss of her substantial marriage dowry (mismanaged by her father-in-law), the ensuing poverty, three difficult childbirths (the last of which paralyzed her for several months), and growing suspicions about her husband's fidelity, Antonietta Pirandello (nee Portulano), in the twenty-fifth year of her marriage, was committed to an asylum for the insane in Rome. Here she spent the remaining forty years of her life, dying in 1959, twentythree years after her famous husband.
Why was Antonietta committed? Critics, wishing to sustain the positive image of her playwright-husband, point to the cause as Antonietta's insane jealousy, gelosia suprema, a genetic disorder supposedly inherited from her father. The result was years of suffering for Luigi Pirandello. Yet the years prior to Antonietta’s commitment were also his most productive: It Is So (If You Think It Is So), Six Characters in Search of an Author, and Henry IV.
The above information is fact. The play itself is fiction. Antonietta employs the patients of the asylum to act out her life—as she sees it. While an inherited genetic disorder, “gelosia suprema,” is one possibility, there is, potentially, another: marginalization and complete loss of self.
In the first act of this play, the audience witnesses the circumstances of Antonietta's life through her eyes. Unable to control outside events, Antonietta’s destiny (financially and socially) lay in the hands of the males who surrounded her. Her “little drama,” as performed by the inmates of the asylum, is a desperate attempt to reveal her truth to the authorities of the asylum. If successful, she hopes to leave Rome, the city of her disintegration, and return to Sicily, where she can die surrounded by family and friends.
But the Director (Direttore) of the asylum interrupts this rehearsal of Antonietta's play. He sees her revisionist history as an affront to the absolute veracity of the Pirandello biography. Unwilling to accept her reimagining of events, he rewrites her play forcing it towards the more established interpretation of married life in the Pirandello household. But whereas Antonietta knows something of the craft playwriting, our Direttore does not. His poorly written script is thrust into the hands of the actor-patients. In their hands lies the Direttore's script. But, in their heads, is that of Antonietta, a fellow patient.
The result is a joyous, farcical disintegration — with serious consequences.