Luigi Pirandello ( 28 June 1867 - 10 December 1936) was a prolific writer who wrote over fifty plays, six novels, a variety of poems and countless short stories. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934 and is considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, with his plays being the forerunners to Theatre of the Absurd. Throughout all of these achievements, Pirandello lived and worked in a world that was constantly shifting and uncertain.
As the rest of the world moved into the industrial age, Italy lagged behind. Pirandello’s Sicily was one of the few states in the south to prosper from industry, and both his father and father-in-law were wealthy sulfur merchants. This freedom of wealth allowed Pirandello to pursue a university degree, and he graduated from the University of Bonn in Germany with a Doctorate in Philology.
All seemed to be going smoothly in Pirandello’s life as he was then married off to the daughter of another wealthy sulphur merchant, Antonietta Portulano, thus giving him the freedom to pursue his writing not for money, but for art. (Pictured to the left, Pirandello and his family, 1901.) This idyllic life came to a swift end in 1903 when a landslide destroyed the sulphur mine responsible for his and his wife’s wealth, effectively bankrupting Pirandello and his wife. He was forced to begin writing for money and took up teaching at a school in Rome. This event also led to the mental deterioration of his wife. Now raising two sons and a daughter with an unstable wife and no financial stability, Pirandello faced a new reality that he explored in his novels.
The start of WWI dramatically changed his life yet again. Italy joined the war in 1915, and both of Pirandello’s sons were called to fight. This was the year that Pirandello’s mother died and his son Stefano was captured and held prisoner by the Austrians. His second son, Fausto was unable to join the war as he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Struggling to pay for a sick son and ailing wife, Pirandello began taking commissions, including a play for the Sicilian theatre that sparked his most productive period of playwriting and resulted in the plays that made him famous.
Fausto recovered, and Stefano returned home in 1919. Rather than a joyous reunion, it was bittersweet as Pirandello finally succumbed and committed his wife to a sanatorium. Pirandello no longer had a reason to remain rooted and began a nomadic life traveling from hotel to hotel, writing and attending performances as around him Italy swelled with chaos and confusion. Fascism began to take root and in October of 1922, Mussolini was appointed the Prime Minister of Italy and given permission by the Emperor to dissolve the current Parliament and reform a new government.
Just one month later, the first production of Naked took place at the Teatro Quirino di Roma. In 1921, when asked to comment on his work, Pirandello stated:
I think that life is a very sad piece of buffoonery; because we have in ourselves, without being able to know why, wherefore or whence, the need to deceive ourselves constantly by creating a reality (one for each and never the same for all), which from time to time is discovered to be vain and illusory…. My art is full of bitter compassion for all those who deceive themselves, but this compassion cannot fail to be followed by the ferocious derision of destiny which condemns man to deception.
In 1924 Pirandello wrote a letter to Benito Mussolini asking him to be accepted as a member of the National Fascist Party. In 1925, Pirandello, with the help of Mussolini, assumed the artistic direction and ownership of the Teatro d'Arte di Roma, founded by the Gruppo degli Undici. He described himself as "a Fascist because I am Italian." For his devotion to Mussolini, the satirical magazine Il Becco Giallo used to call him P. Randello (randello in Italian means cudgel).
He expressed publicly apolitical belief, saying "I'm apolitical, I'm only a man in the world..." He had continuous conflicts with famous fascist leaders. In 1927 he tore his fascist membership card to pieces in front of the startled secretary-general of the Fascist Party. For the remainder of his life, Pirandello was always under close surveillance by the secret fascist police OVRA.
His play, The Giants of the Mountain, has been interpreted as evidence of his realization that the fascists were hostile to culture; yet, during a later appearance in New York, Pirandello distributed a statement announcing his support of Italy's annexation of Abyssinia. He gave his Nobel Prize medal to the Fascist government to be melted down for the Abyssinia Campaign. Mussolini's support brought him international fame and a worldwide tour, introducing his work to London, Paris, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Germany, Argentina, and Brazil.
Pirandello's conception of the theatre underwent a significant change at this point. The idea of the actor as an inevitable betrayer of the text, as in the Sei personaggi, gave way to the identification of the actor with the character that they play. The company took their act throughout the major cities of Europe, and the Pirandellian repertoire became increasingly well known. Between 1925 and 1926 Pirandello's last and perhaps greatest novel, Uno, Nessuno e Centomila (One, No one and One Hundred Thousand), was published serially in the magazine Fiera Letteraria.
Pirandello was nominated Academic of Italy in 1929, and in 1934 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature after he had been nominated by Guglielmo Marconi, member of the Royal Academy of Italy. He was the last Italian playwright to be chosen for the award until 9 October 1997.
This sentiment is seen throughout the majority of Pirandello’s plays. It is easy to see how the chaotic nature of his own life and that of his country could foster such a worldview. His own words from Naked could be said to best describe his life, “What a lesson for the artist. One struggles to reach a higher plane…yet always, the street is there…the mud, the noise, the blank faces, the repulsive intimacies. I plan the perfect story. Then the blare of a horn intrudes.” Pirandello’s own perfect story was rudely interrupted at every turn, and yet his works emerged from the struggle to reach a higher plane, and continue to influence and shape theatre to this day.
Life is full of infinite absurdities, which, strangely enough, do not even need to appear plausible, since they are true.
The history of mankind is the history of ideas.
Each of us, face to face with other men, is clothed with some sort of dignity, but we know only too well all the unspeakable things that go on in the heart.
Pirandello died alone in his home at Via Bosio, Rome, on 10 December 1936. He refused a State funeral offered by Mussolini and only in 1947 were his cremated remains buried in Sicily. Walking along a path in the countryside close to the Pirandello museum, you arrive at a very old pine tree. Beneath this huge tree, Pirandello used to sit and think, paint, relax and write to his friends. According to his last will, fulfilled with the cerimony of the transfer of his ashes on 10th of December 1961, he was buried under the tree. It is a very simple grave. A memorial stone, carved by the sculptor Marino Mazzacurati, houses the Master's cinerary urn, among wild flowers and agaves.
'... take my cinerary urn to Sicily and place it into a stone in the Girgenti countryside, where I was born'.