Pirandello, Rashomon, Derrida
Howard began by acknowledging that few people read Pirandello nowadays. His plays are rarely produced. This is the opposite of the situation in the 1930s, when his plays were a mainstay of the little-theater movement in the United States. I will return to the question of Pirandello’s occultation at the end of this essay.
Wisely, Howard chose one of the Italian dramatist’s pivotal works, "Right You Are—If You Think So" [Così è (se vi pare)], as the centerpiece of his analysis. The play was first presented in 1917.
As the curtain rises the audience glimpses an upper-middle-class apartment in a small Italian town. The residents are unable to contain their curiosity about a newcomer in the building. Her son-in-law, Mr. Ponza, has installed Mrs. Frola, an elderly, reclusive lady. The old woman scarcely ever goes out, even apparently to visit her daughter. A social call by Mrs. Frola provides little elucidation. Later the son in law arrives. He says that they must be understanding. His mother-in-law is mad. Her daughter died several years before, and Ponza remarried. In order to assuage the old lady’s grief, Ponza allows her to believe that his second wife is really Lena, the ostensibly deceased first wife and daughter of Mrs. Frola. Visits must be restricted, so as not to dispell the illusion.
After he leaves Mrs. Frola returns, saying that, on the contrary, it is Ponza who is mad. Four years ago her daughter had to go away for a time for medical treatment. When she returned the husband refused to recognize her. Only by pretending that she was another woman could he be persuaded to resume relations. He married her—even though they already were married. Thus the second Mrs. Ponza is really the first Mrs. Ponza.
Various complications ensue as the inquisitive neighbors attempt to learn the real truth. Finally, the young woman in question appears on stage. She is heavily veiled, and announces that she can be either the first wife or the second, as you prefer. There is no resolution.
In this parable Pirandello is clearly saying that there is no final truth. Moreover (as the conventions of the theater themselves suggest) individuals may have no core personality. The personality that they appear to have is the result of its construction by the person and by others. The arbitrariness of personal identity was the subject of Pirendello's brilliant early novel, The Late Mattia Pascal. In this narrative Pascal "kills" himself, assuming a completely new identity. However, he does not like this persona, and returns to the earlier one.
The first collection of Pirandello's plays was called "Naked Masks." How can a mask be naked. Well it is a good phrase, and of course the interest in masks was widespread in the early twentieth century from Cubism to Pound and Yeats.
Pirandello's play embodies a type of relativism sometimes known as perspectivism. This is the idea that phenomena change depending on which viewpoint is chosen. Perspectivism is often referenced to Friedrich Nietzsche. However, it has been traced to the seventeenth-century philosopher Leibniz. Apparently, Leibniz was thinking of baroque prints of towns. One might show a bird’s eye view; another a frontal scene of the walls and main gate; yet another, the central square of the place with the cathedral and town hall. In addition there might be a map. In this conception the views are different, but in the end there is one town.
Returning to the twentieth century, some have invoked the Heisenberg Principle from atomic physics, which holds that the position of certain particles cannot be determined, because the act of determination creates a disturbance that shifts the position of the particle. Still, there is no doubt that the particle exists and that it has a definite position at all times, even though we may not be able to determine this with the means available.
Thus the views of Leibniz, Nietzsche, and Heisenberg offer interesting analogies. Perhaps the first two provided some precedent, as Pirandello had taken his Ph.D. in Germany. However, the indeterminancy in the play is more radical. It asserts that the interpretations are not just different views of the same thing. They are ultimately irreconcilable.
A true analogue comes from Japan. The Rashomon Effect is the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it. The effect takes its name from a short story by the Japanese modernist Ryonosuke Akutagawa. In the story ("Rasho Gate") several witnesses give conflicting reports of a crime. The stories contradict one another, so that no single resolution is possible. By a curious synchronicity, Akutagawa’s story appeared in 19l5, two years prior to Pirandello’s play.
The popularity of the term Rashomon Effect is due to Akira Kurosawa’s splendid film of 1950. Unfortunately, the film fudges the short story's premise, by offering a solution at the end. The point of the story is that no resolution is possible.
Postmodernism produced a new version of the indeterminacy principle, especially in the deconstructionist writings of Jacques Derrida. While Derrida retains many admirers, clearly his influence has declined. From the foregoing, it would appear that he is less original than has been thought.
Let us return to the question posed at the outset-—the decline of Pirandello’s reputation. As Howard noted, his plays were perfectly suited for the little-theater movement. As that is now a thing of the past, the nurturing environment is gone. It must be confessed that the haute-bourgeois setting of Pirandello’s plays, with their servants and dated social conventions, seems off-putting. Of course such social conventions undergird Ibsen’s plays as well, but one of the major aims of the Norwegian writer is to reveal the harmful arbitrariness of accepted social practices. Pirandello does not offer such a critique. If anything, he implicitly fosters an acceptance of such rigidities. Since everything lies in the keeping of one's perspective, that of the upper bourgeoisie is as good as any other. As perspectives differ, there is no standpoint for any critique that would unassailably identify the right one. We might as well stick with what we have got.
There is also the broader question of the decline of interest in Italy. After World War II, the excellence of its films brought great prestige to contemporary Italy. But that era is over. Once the philosopher Benedetto Croce had a following in the US—but no more. F. T. Marinetti, though a considerable author in his own right, is known mainly as the impresario of the Futurist artists. Alas, Umberto Eco is the only living Italian author who is widely known nowadays outside the country.
Italy remains a tourist mecca. Yet too many routine tours have taken the gloss off visiting Italy, which is now much more expensive than it used to be.
Regrettably, Europe and the high culture we associated with it have lost prestige. For many young people such things doubtless seem stuffy and out of date. Still, the writings of Pirandello, which include short stories and novels, are always there for us. And perhaps with the decline of postmodernism there will be a space for the return of Pirandello’s earlier version, so lively and full of human interest.