Six Characters in Search of an Author | Study Guide

Luigi Pirandello

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Luigi Pirandello | Biography


Early Life and Marriage

Italian author and Nobel Prize–winner Luigi Pirandello made a name for himself as a man willing to tackle the abstract concepts of reality, illusion, and identity. Pirandello was born the son of a prosperous sulfur merchant in Sicily, Italy, on June 28, 1867. The family villa was called Kaos, or chaos—a theme that would come to pervade both Pirandello's personal life and his work. Although Pirandello's father wanted him to pursue a career in commerce, Pirandello was more interested in academics.

He attended the University of Rome in 1887 and transferred to Germany's University of Bonn the following year. His doctoral thesis was in philology, the study of languages. For his dissertation, he examined the dialect of Agrigento, his native region in Sicily.

In accord with local custom, Pirandello's father arranged his son's marriage in 1894. Pirandello had never met his wife-to-be, Antonietta Portulano, the wealthy daughter of his father's business partner. Her family fortune allowed the two of them to live comfortably in Rome. The couple had three children, and for a few years Pirandello was free to write.

Their luck changed in 1903. The sulfur mine was destroyed in a natural disaster, and their family investments went with it. Pirandello took a teaching job to keep the family afloat. The stress of their financial difficulties led his wife to develop severe paranoia, accompanied by jealousy and violent behavior. Her mental illness affected both Pirandello and the children. The couple's daughter even tried to take her own life. In 1919 Pirandello could finally afford hospital care for Antonietta. By then he'd discovered dark aspects of the human psyche. Pirandello's experience with his wife likely influenced the explorations of madness, personality changes, and isolation in his writing.

Novels, Poetry, and Theater

Despite chaos in Pirandello's personal life, he managed to produce an impressive volume of work. He wrote short stories, novellas, novels, and poetry. But he's most famous for his plays.

Pirandello wrote poetry early in his career. His works include a translation of German writer J.W. von Goethe's Roman Elegies (1896) and the collection Pasqua di Gea, or The Easter of Earth (1891). This collection is an ode to a former love. Pirandello's realist short stories, which seek to portray reality as it is, contain some reflective and chaotic elements that foreshadow the absurdist style of his later work, which captures the ridiculous search for meaning in a chaotic universe. His 15-volume collection Novelle per un Anno (Short Stories for a Year) was published annually between 1922 and 1937. Each volume contains one story or novella for each day of the year. Pirandello's first novel, The Late Mattia Pascal (1904), relates the tale of a man who by a complicated ruse cheats death and tries to start life over again. He published two more novels before World War I (1914–18).

By 1916 Pirandello was writing plays. Excited by the possibilities of drama, he wrote over 40 plays, publishing 28 works in just eight years (1916–24). The play Right You Are (If You Think You Are) (1917) established Pirandello's recurring themes of illusion, reality, and the relativity of truth. A later drama called As Before, Better than Before (1920) was the first to bring Pirandello significant media attention. In the early 1920s his career took off with the performance of two groundbreaking plays: Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) and Henry IV (1922).

Later Work and Legacy

The success of Six Characters in Search of an Author allowed Pirandello to open his own venue, the Teatro d'Arte (Art Theater) in Rome. He was also backed by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Pirandello was publicly supportive of Mussolini's fascist rule, which earned him important government favor in 1920s Italy.

In the years 1925–27 Pirandello traveled the world with the company of performers from the Teatro d'Arte. His name became an adjective; his surreal and self-referential theatrical techniques were called "Pirandellian." In 1928 the Teatro d'Arte dissolved, but Pirandello kept traveling.

He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1934, two years before his death. When Pirandello died on December 10, 1936, he was considering appearing in the film version of Six Characters in Search of an Author. Pirandello didn't want a funeral or gathering for his death. He wanted only "the cart, the horse, the coachman" and cremation of his body.

Pirandello's ideas and literary style lived long after his death. He influenced European absurdist playwrights Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. His ideas about illusion and reality had an effect on French existentialist writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Anouilh. Six Characters in Search of an Author is considered an innovation in theater history and one of the cornerstones in modern European literature. In the words of Felicity Firth, one of Pirandello's editors, it is "the major single subversive moment in the history of modern theatre."
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