(b. June 28, 1867, Agrigento, Sicily, Italy—d. Dec. 10, 1936, Rome)
Luigi Pirandello was an Italian playwright, novelist, and short-story writer who won the 1934 Nobel Prize for Literature. With his invention of the “theatre within the theatre” in the play Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (1921; Six Characters in Search of an Author), he became an important innovator in modern drama.
In 1891 Pirandello gained his Doctorate in Philology for a thesis on the dialect of Agrigento. In 1894 his father arranged his marriage to Antonietta Portulano, the daughter of a business associate, a wealthy sulfur merchant. This marriage gave him financial independence, allowing him to live in Rome and to write. He had already published an early volume of verse, Mal giocondo (1889), which paid tribute to the poetic fashions set by Giosuè Carducci. This was followed by other volumes of verse. But his first significant works were short stories.
In 1903 a landslide shut down the sulfur mine in which his wife’s and his father’s capital was invested. Suddenly poor, Pirandello was forced to earn his living not only by writing but also by teaching Italian at a teacher’s college in Rome. As a further result of the financial disaster, his wife developed a persecution mania, which manifested itself in a frenzied jealousy of her husband. His torment ended only with her removal to a sanatorium in 1919 (she died in 1959). It was this bitter experience that finally determined the theme of his most characteristic work, already perceptible in his early short stories—the exploration of the tightly closed world of the forever changeable human personality.
Pirandello’s early narrative style stems from the verismo (“realism”) of two Italian novelists of the late 19th century—Luigi Capuana and Giovanni Verga. Success came with his third novel, often acclaimed as his best, Il fu Mattia Pascal (1904; The Late Mattia Pascal). Although the theme is not typically “Pirandellian,” since the obstacles confronting its hero result from external circumstances, it already shows the acute psychological observation that was later to be directed toward the exploration of his characters’ subconscious. Other novels, notably I vecchi e i giovani (1913; The Old and The Young) and Uno, nessuno e centomila (1925–26; One, None, and a Hundred Thousand), followed.
Pirandello also wrote over 50 plays. He had first turned to the theatre in 1898 with L’epilogo, but the accidents that prevented its production until 1910 (when it was retitled La morsa) kept him from other than sporadic attempts at drama until the success of Così è (se vi pare) in 1917. This delay may have been fortunate for the development of his dramatic powers. L’epilogo does not greatly differ from other drama of its period, but Così è (se vi pare) began the series of plays that were to make him world famous in the 1920s. Its title can be translated as Right You Are (If You Think You Are). A demonstration, in dramatic terms, of the relativity of truth, and a rejection of the idea of any objective reality not at the mercy of individual vision, it anticipates Pirandello’s two great plays, Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) and Enrico IV (1922; Henry IV).
Six Characters is the most arresting presentation of the typical Pirandellian contrast between art, which is unchanging, and life, which is an inconstant flux. Characters that have been rejected by their author materialize on stage, throbbing with a more intense vitality than the real actors, who, inevitably, distort their drama as they attempt its presentation. And in Henry IV the theme is madness, which lies just under the skin of ordinary life and is, perhaps, superior to ordinary life in its construction of a satisfying reality. The play finds dramatic strength in its hero’s choice of retirement into unreality in preference to life in the uncertain world. The production of Six Characters in Paris in 1923 made Pirandello widely known, and his work became one of the central influences on the French theatre.
The universal acclaim that followed Six Characters and Henry IV sent Pirandello touring the world (1925–27) with his own company, the Teatro d’Arte in Rome. It also emboldened him to disfigure some of his later plays (e.g., Ciascuno a suo modo ) by calling attention to himself, just as in some of the later short stories it is the surrealistic and fantastic elements that are accentuated.
After the dissolution, because of financial losses, of the Teatro d’Arte in 1928, Pirandello spent his remaining years in frequent and extensive travel. In his will he requested that there should be no public ceremony marking his death—only “a hearse of the poor, the horse and the coachman.”