Written for a ReDiscovery reading, Dec. 9, 2013, starring Patrick Page in the title role. The reading was a near-unanimous success. -DL
In 1903, Luigi Pirandello and his wife received a shock. Flooding had destroyed Sicily’s sulphur mines, wiping out their family inheritance overnight. Antonietta Pirandello, upon reading the news, fainted. Stricken with paralysis of the legs, she would not move for 6 months afterward, and would be mentally disturbed for the rest of her life. Luigi was forced to supplement his literary ambitions by teaching at a girls’ school in Rome. In 1919, Antonietta was committed to an institution. As if inspired by this trauma, Pirandello wrote three plays, all undisputed masterpieces, over the next five years.
The last of these, Henry IV (1922), deals more explicitly than any Pirandello play with the subject of madness. After falling from a horse in a carnival celebration in which he was dressed as Henry IV, an Italian aristocrat in the 1920s becomes convinced he is the actual Holy Roman Emperor. His apparent madness drives his family to send him to a remote villa, where his attendants dress in period attire and entertain his fantasy. The play’s action occurs 20 years after the accident. His nephew has brought a doctor and the original “players” from the carnival celebration. They will try and cure him by presenting him with aspects of the real and fantasy world simultaneously.
Like Pirandello’s other plays, this one seems to defy categorization. It is a tragic farce, looking forward to the Theatre of the Absurd, and backward to Calderón’s Spanish Golden Age comedias of reality vs. illusion, or Plato’s philosophical dialogues about the nature of existence. On the one hand, the play has the architecture of classical tragedy, with its slow revelations of trauma buried in the past, and its inevitable descent into catastrophe. On the other hand, Pirandello seems to be mocking the very idea of tragedy, with its actors playing dress-up and reenacting the suffering of great and obscure kings. In some ways, the play is Pirandello’s attempt at a modern tragedy, preaching the harshest of truths: appearance is reality. Life makes us all wear masks, whether real or metaphorical, and we in turn become their prisoner. The belief in God, or in a fundamental psychological “self,” is just a useless abstraction. Other critics have noted Henry IV’s insights into psychology, describing it as an uncannily realistic study of the schizophrenic experience. Like that disease, it is at once a darkly funny and deeply sad piece of work.
In this brilliant translation, which premiered in 2004 at London’s Donmar Warehouse, Tom Stoppard does Pirandello one better. It is actually funny, instead of “theoretically” comic, as Pirandello can tend to be in translation. In particular, the clowning of the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like Counsellors, Henry’s attendants, adds needed texture and lightness to the play.
Luigi Pirandello died in Rome on December 10, 1936. In keeping with his plays, which show his disgust with the illusions of life, he made the simplest possible plans for his cremation and funeral. His wife, Antonietta, died in a sanitarium in 1959.
– Drew Lichtenberg, Literary Associate