Right You Are, If You Think You Are
LUIGI PIRANDELLO 1917
As with many of Pirandello’s plays, Right You Are, If You Think You Are is an adaptation of one of his short stories, “Signora Frola and Signor Ponza, Her Son-in-Law,” published in 1915. The story concerns the conflicting versions of the truth told by the characters of the title, and comes right to the point by declaring that one of them is mad. Determining which one is mad, and where fantasy meets reality, is the focus of the play and of the townspeople. Signora Frola explains that her son-in-law went mad when her daughter, his wife, died four years ago, then remarried but fantasizes that the new wife is his old wife. For his part, Ponza claims that Signora Frola could not accept her daughter’s death, went mad, and only survives by believing that his second wife is in actuality her living daughter; it is for this reason, he says, that he guards his wife so jealously. In the play, as Renate Matthei describes in her 1973 work on Pirandello, “the social role built up by one character for himself is continually destroyed by another, devaluated into a sick sham existence that outsiders accept as real only out of pity.” Neither the short story nor the play gives the satisfaction of an answer; in fact, the ambiguities expand as the townspeople press for more data in their vain attempts to fix reality through the unreliable medium of perception. Both the play and the short story are representative of Pirandello’s obsession with the fine line between fantasy and reality as they are experienced in human consciousness. As Page 310 | Top of Articlehe explained to his son in a 1916 letter, the plot is a “great deviltry.”
Luigi Pirandello was born to affluent parents in 1867 in a small provincial town in Sicily. He was sensitive and ill-suited to follow his robust and occasionally violent father into the family business of sulphur mining, and led a rather sheltered life until he went to college, first in Rome, and then in Bonn, Germany. There he began to bloom intellectually, and he led an active social life, though he longed for his own sunny climate. His happiness lasted until his arranged marriage with the daughter of one his father’s business partners. Antonietta was an unsuitable wife for Pirandello, but he immediately fastened his illusions of love onto her. Early in their marriage, Pirandello’s father’s firm failed, forcing Pirandello to take a teaching job to support his young family. Antonietta had been jealously overprotected by her father, and with the added financial stress, she, in her own turn, tortured her new husband with insane jealousy. For seventeen years she haunted his and their three children’s lives until Pirandello committed her to an asylum. He continued to teach school, without enjoying it, until his literary career took hold. In 1925, Pirandello fell in love with a beautiful young actress named Marta Abba. Marta kept the older man at arm’s length as she pursued her acting career. A recently published volume of his letters to her show him vacillating wildly between suicidal depression and euphoric mania for the rest of his life.
Pirandello was fairly well known for his short stories and novels before he turned to the theatre and made his name with Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). Many of his works concern the self, or more specifically, consciousness. For this he was called the founder of modern theatre, since modernism, too, is concerned with the instability and fabrication of the self. Pirandello portrayed consciousness as fleeting, unreliable, and idiosyncratic, affected as it is by memory, personality, and mood. Once Pirandello discovered the theatre, he devoted himself to modernizing Italian theater through new kinds of repertoire and acting, and then educating his audiences to appreciate it. Unfortunately, the impoverished years following World War I and the rise of Fascism in Italy during the years before World War II made the success of his experimental theater, Teatro d’ Arte, all but impossible (even with Mussolini’s patronage), though similar projects were flourishing elsewhere in Europe. A fascist sympathizer, Pirandello publicly joined the party in 1924 to help boost Mussolini’s popularity. When his Teatro d’Arte di Roma closed in 1928 due to lack of funds, Pirandello left for Germany to participate in the newly invented cinema, to adapt several of his plays for the “talkies.” He became more popular in Germany and the rest of Europe than in Italy. He resented Italy’s aloofness, and determined not to return, saying, “I am a foreigner in Italy.” However, he returned to Rome in 1933 to be near Marta, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934, still admired everywhere but in Italy. He died of pneumonia in 1937.
The play opens in the parlor of Commendatore Agazzi. Agazzi’s wife Amalia, their daughter Dina, and Amalia’s brother Laudisi are arguing about an affront the ladies have suffered from Signora Frola, a newcomer to the town who refused to see them when they called. On a second visit, Ponza, her son-in-law, coolly answered the door and again frustrated their visit. To top it off, the town is curious about Ponza’s wife, because she never goes out and never visits her mother, although Ponza does daily. Ladisi accuses the women of nosiness, and is incensed that they intend to have Signor Agazzi complain to Ponza’s boss, the Prefect, about his behavior. While they debate whether Ponza has actually done anything wrong, the butler announces visitors. Three town gossips, Sirelli, his wife, and Signora Cini, join in the fray, also eager to know the truth about the newcomers. Laudisi finds their obsession laughable, since as he demonstrates, he himself is “a different person for each of [them].” Signora Sirelli calls his pessimism “dreadful.” The new gossips mention that Ponza and company’s village was destroyed by an earthquake recently, which may explain why they all dress in black. Agazzi arrives to announce that he has arranged a visit from Signora Frola herself, and soon thereafter, the old lady is announced.
Signora Frola, a sweet, sad, older lady, apologizes for her negligence of her “social duties,” defends her strange family relations, and tells of having lost all of her relatives in the village earthquake. Page 311 | Top of ArticleThe group pursues her with questions, and they worm out of her that Ponza loves her daughter so jealously that he insists on their communicating only through him. Despite this, she considers him a loving son-in-law. After she leaves, the group condemns Ponza for his cruelty. Now, Ponza himself arrives, and is coldly received. But he throws everyone off with a complex explanation that his mother-in-law is insane, that her daughter is really dead, that his present wife is his second wife, although Signora Frola thinks she is her daughter. Ponza keeps them separated to protect his new wife. Now Ponza’s story is accepted.
They are processing new attitudes when the butler announces another visitor: Signora Frola again. After mildly chastising them for interfering with her family, she reveals that it is not she, but Ponza who is mad, with delusions that his wife had died. Signora Frola claims that the daughter actually survived, but to go along with Ponza’s delusions, she remarried him. Signora Frola insists that Ponza keeps her locked up out of fear of losing her. For herself, Signora Frola feigns madness to sustain Ponza’s delusion. The curtains falls with Laudisi laughing at the stunned busybodies.
Act Two opens in Agazzi’s study. Agazzi is on the phone with police commissioner, Centuri, asking if he has found anything in his investigation of the Ponza story. Centuri reports that all the village records had been destroyed by the earthquake. Laudisi advises Agazzi and Sirelli to believe both stories, or neither. He sums up the essence of the play’s conflict:
She [signora Frola] has created for him, or he for her, a world of fancy which has all the earmarks of reality itself. And in this fictitious reality they get along perfectly well, and in full accord with each other; and this world of fancy, this reality of theirs, no document can possibly destroy because the air they breathe is of that world—if you could get a death certificate or a marriage certificate or something of the kind, you might be able to satisfy that stupid curiosity of yours. Unfortunately, you can’t get it. And the result is that you are in the extraordinary fix of having before you, on the one hand, a world of fancy, and on the other, a world of reality, and you, for the life of you, are not able to distinguish one from the other.
They ignore him. Now, Sirelli hatches the idea to bring Ponza and his mother-in-law together, so they can sort out the truth. Even though Laudisi finds this laughable, a ruse is undertaken to bring them to Agazzi’s house without letting on that the
other will be there. All depart except Laudisi, who looks into a mirror and wonders aloud whether he or the image is the lunatic. “What fools these mortals be, as old Shakespeare said,” he muses. The butler sees Laudisi talking to himself and wonders if the man is crazy, then announces the arrival of two more gossips, Signora Cini and Nenni. Laudisi has some fun with the butler by asking whether he is the version of Laudisi they want to see, and the ladies are shown in. Laudisi teases them with the thought that a certificate of the second marriage has been found, but bursts their bubble by adding it may be a fraud. Dina arrives with news of other documents: Signora Frola has shown her and Amalia letters written to her by her daughter. Arguments ensue until Ponza and the old lady arrive; the men and women stay in separate rooms. Suddenly, Ponza hears Signora Frola playing a piano piece that his wife, Lena, used to play. He becomes agitated, and the ladies are brought in. Not only is the mystery is not solved, but it is only further complicated by another name, Julia, his name for his second wife, Julia. Signora Frola pretends to go along with Ponza’s delusions, and then goes home. By now all are convinced that he is mad, but then he explains to them that he was only acting agitated to sustain her delusions that her daughter is really dead. When he departs, they all stand “in blank amazement,” Page 312 | Top of Articleexcept for Laudisi, who once again is laughing as the curtain falls.
Back in Agazzie’s study, Laudisi is reading a book when Police Commissioner Centuri arrives with the news that he has proof at last. Laudisi reads it and announces that it proves nothing, then proposes that the commissioner make up something more “precise,” for the sake of peace in the town. Centuri refuses, not realizing that his findings are equally uncertain. A witness has stated that he thinks that the “Frola woman” was in a sanitorium. Not knowing which Frola woman is meant makes the evidence valueless. Laudisi now hits upon a foolproof solution—to interview the wife. Sirelli, with growing skepticism, suggests that an interview will work only if the prefect himself conducts the interview. The commissioner goes off to arrange it. Everyone feels certain that the truth is at hand, but Laudisi spoils their hope by casting doubt on the existence of the wife; after all, no one has ever seen her!
The prefect arrives. Although trustful of Ponza (his secretary), he agrees to conduct the interview. As a formality, he asks Ponza’s permission first. But Ponza surprises him by offering his resignation before the words are barely out of the prefect’s mouth. The Prefect offers assurances of his trust, adding that he is performing the interview only to assure the others. Ponza refuses “to submit to such an indignity.” His anxiety and protests succeed in making the prefect skeptical. Finally, Ponza relents and goes to get his wife. He plans to keep his mother-in-law out of the way himself, during the interview.
Unfortunately, Signora Frola comes to visit just at the wrong moment. She wants to say goodbye, for she plans to leave town. Agazzi tells her that her son-in-law is about to arrive. She begs the townspeople to stop tormenting her family, and begins to weep. As the prefect tries to console her, a woman dressed in deep mourning, her face concealed by a thick veil, appears at the door. Signora Frola shrieks, “Lena!” and Ponza dashes into the room shrieking “No! Julia!” He is too late to stop Signora Frola from grasping the woman in an embrace, just the event he had wanted to avoid. The veiled woman dismisses them both coldly, and they depart arm in arm, weeping. The final twist to the plot comes when the veiled woman proclaims to the group that she is both “the daughter of Signora Frola and the second wife of Signor Ponza” but for herself, “nobody.” She exits, and the curtain falls on Laudisi, saying “you have the truth! But are you satisfied?” He laughs ironically.
Amalia is wife to Agazzi and sister to Laudisi. She and her daughter Dina feel rebuffed by Signora Frola because she does not answer the door or return their visit when they call on her. Their interest in the gossip about Signora Frola is part human concern, but mostly provincial curiosity. Signora Agazzi enjoys and is quite comfortable with the prestige that comes of being wife to the councilor.
Agazzi is a provincial councilor, or lawyer, husband to Amalia, Laudisi’s sister. Agazzi is close to fifty years old, accustomed to the authority of his status in a small town. He participates fully in gossiping about Signora Frola and Ponzo.
Dina, at nineteen, acts very grown up about her role in detecting the true details of gossip.
Centuri is the Police Commissioner who is brought in to investigate the history of Ponzo, Ponzo’s wife, and his mother-in-law. He is around forty, very serious, and single-minded about his duties. He presents his findings with an air of having solved the mystery, failing, however, to comprehend that facts are insignificant in this case. He is quite relieved to be given the duty to call in his superior, the Prefect, since that puts him once again in the realm of concrete action.
Signora Cini is one of the ladies of the town, an old woman with affected manners and an air of surprise about the misdeeds she loves to hear of in others. She, along with Signora Nenni and the Page 313 | Top of ArticleSirellis operate similarly to the Greek chorus, as a group of normal citizens who react to the events of the play. Unlike the Greek chorus, however, they do not guide the audience, but rather serve as a foil to the audience’s hoped-for reaction.
Signora Frola is the mysterious older woman who is stationed in a fashionable apartment by her son-in-law. The townspeople cannot decide whether to believe her or her son-in-law. Either she is quite mad, delusional about her dead daughter, or quite sane, and foolishly going along with Ponza’s delusions, and thus play-acting at being insane, to mollify his insanity. Her pleas to be left alone are ignored.
See The Prefect
Laudisi (“Nunky” to Dina, because he is her uncle) good-naturedly plays the devil’s advocate in the gossip ring, using a Socratic kind of probing and jibing. He tries but fails to convince the others of the futility of discovering the truth about Ponza and his mother-in-law. He tells the Sirellis from the very beginning that they are both right, explaining that he himself “is a different person for each of [them].” When they think they have solid data in the form of Centuri’s investigative report, he proves to them that it is ambiguous (which Signora Frola was in a sanitarium?) and hints that the record may have been forged. He encourages them to bring in the wife for questioning, then laughs when her appearance complicates, rather than solves, the mystery. He acts as a raisonneur, a character who, in contrast to the others, behaves reasonably and makes sense of the messy facts; he is similar to Sherlock Holmes in this respect. He is also the alter ego of the playwright, who has fashioned a puzzle and withholds the conventional solution. His solution is a meta-solution, aimed not at solving the problem, but at endowing a better appreciation for awareness itself.
Signora Nenni is another town gossip, similar to Signora Cini, who comes in toward the end of the play.
See Lamberto Laudisi
Ponza is the new secretary to the town’s prefect, recently moved to town with lodgings for himself and wife, and a separate apartment for his mother-in-law. He presents a mystery to the townspeople, because he stays away from them and keeps his wife concealed in their fifth-story apartment, yet pays daily visits to his mother-in-law without allowing her to visit his wife, her daughter. Ponza’s dark, swarthy complexion and nervous demeanor undermine his credibility, but his version of things competes well enough with Signora Frola’s version to confuse the townspeople completely. He claims that his first wife is dead, and that he keeps his deluded mother-in-law away from his second wife to protect the latter from the mother’s caresses. He claims to feign craziness as a way of soothing his mother-in-law.
Ponza’s wife appears in the very last scene, dressed in mourning, and heavily veiled in black. After Ponza and his mother-in-law stumble weeping out of the room, affected by the wife’s public appearance, Signora Ponza announces that she is daughter to Signora Frola, wife to Ponza, and to herself, “nobody.” This last statement throws uncertainty on everything that has been conjectured and verified about her, since it implies that she has allowed herself to be formed by others, and thus she cannot be speaking “the truth.” As such, she is the perfect emblem of Laudisi’s theory that every person is exactly as others perceive her to be; however she undermines even his theory too, in denying his corollary at the same time, that she is still herself.
The Prefect, Ponza’s superior, and the person of highest rank in the town, is called in to mediate the gossip crisis, which he will do by interrogating Signora Ponza himself. He is about sixty, competent, and good-natured, and perfectly confident in his ability to take charge and set things aright. However, he has to threaten Ponza with dismissal to force him to bring in his wife. Up to this point, the Prefect has trusted Ponza, but even his trust also is undermined by a surfeit of information.
A pretentious and overdressed provincial who, with his wife, gets into the thick of the gossip ring.
Signora Sirelli is a provincial gossip, young and pretty, who cannot understand Laudisi’s demonstration that she can be many things to many people. Her argument is that she is “always the same, yesterday, today, and forever!”
Relativism is the theory that “truth and moral values are not absolute but are [pertinent] to the persons or groups holding them” (American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd Edition). The idea of relativism is a core concept of 20th century modernism. At the turn of the century, it was a new idea, just gaining coinage. It followed on the crisis of faith that had occurred during the nineteenth century, spurred on by Darwin’s discoveries. Relativism suggests that rather than seek an overarching, absolute truth, such as that previously held forth by the Church, each person might in his or her own conscious discover a relevant truth. At the end of the nineteenth century, philosophers like Matthew Arnold theorized that the way to make the conscious “worthy” of such responsibility was to cultivate genius, to fill the mind with “the best that has been known and said in the world” (as Arnold phrased it in 1873). But who would arbitrate what was the best? The two dimensions of this idea, what was right, and how much weight the conscious could bear, became the burning questions that attended the theory of relativism. Artists and writers tried out the new theory in different contexts, plumbing its depths and testing its fit. So did Pirandello. In an 1893 essay called “Art and Consciousness Today,” he wrote,
In minds and consciousnesses an extraordinary confusion reigns. In their interior mirror the most disparate figures, all in disordered attitudes, as if weighed down with insupportable burdens, are reflected, and each gives a different counsel. To whom should we listen? To whom should we cling? The insistence of one counsel overrides for a moment the voices of all the others, and we give ourselves to him for a time with the unhealthy impulsiveness of someone who wants an escape and doesn’t know where it is—we feel bewildered, lost in an immense, blind labyrinth surrounded on all sides by impenetrable mystery. There are many paths, but which is the true one?—The old norms have crumbled, and the new ones haven’t arisen and become well established. It’s understandable that the idea of the relativity of all things has spread so much within us to deprive us almost altogether of the faculty for judgement.
The term “relativity” does not appear directly in Pirandello’s play Right You Are, If You Think You Are, but it undergirds its plot, placing it in the context of perceptions about other persons. Amalia, Dina, Agazzi and the others are obsessed with finding the absolute truth about Sigonora Frola and Ponza. But an earthquake has destroyed their past, and they give conflicting stories. Laudisi accepts relativism; he is modern, a man in tune with new ideas. None of the other characters is “ready” to accept that there is no absolute truth. Thus Laudisi is a vanguard of modernist thought, while the other characters are blind (or veiled, like the wife at the end of the play) to reality, or rather, realities.
Along with the modernist theme of relativism in Right You Are, If You Think You Are lies a more conservative theme. Signora Frola makes a heartfelt plea for the townspeople to leave her family in peace. She insists that they do not realize the harm they are doing with their persistent questioning and prying into her family’s affairs. Pirandello himself, who was at the time of writing this play suffering from the presence of his severely mentally ill wife in his home, certainly understood the need for privacy and peace. His wife Antonietta exhibited paranoia and severe jealousy, and her outbursts embarrassed Pirandello, who was shy and reserved. He therefore cloistered himself from prying eyes, and fabricated reasons for his many separations from his wife, when either she left him or drove him and the children away from their home. Everyone in Right You Are, If You Think You Are except for Laudisi (the playwright’s alter ego) commits the social crime of overstepping the boundaries of conventional propriety in asking questions of Signora Frola and Ponza. The truth is not even revealed to the audience, as if forcing their respect for privacy. Although moralist plays were no longer fashionable Page 315 | Top of Articlein 1917, Pirandello’s play is moralist in the sense that it conveys the theme of respecting personal privacy as a maxim of proper human relations.
Parables, like the stories told by Christ in the Bible, are simple stories designed to teach a lesson. The simple, flat characters and rather thin plot serve to illustrate an important idea. Thus, the characters do not need to seem realistic, nor does the plot need intrinsic interest. In this way, the parable is a kind of allegory, which Coleridge defined as “a translation of abstract notions into picture-language.” Pirandello’s Right You Are, If You Think You Are is a parable in the sense that it is not really about a specific man, Laudisi, who has trouble convincing his family and friends that they cannot discover the real truth about their new neighbors. Rather, it is an illustrative example of the theme that all truth is relative; it is an example of the concept, with multiple reminders (through Laudisi’s theorizing) to pay attention to the larger ideas at play, and not the story itself. On another level, the play also addresses the moral, Pirandello’s corollary to the principle of relativism, to respect people’s privacy, for if there is no absolute truth, then we have no right to judge others according to our truths. It is the modernist version of the biblical moral, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”
In some parables or plays of ideas, a raisonneur plays the role of guiding the audience to comprehend a moral or intellectual message. The raisonneur must have credibility, which he gains through his actions, words, and attitude, but he can also be playful as he chides the other characters for their blindness to the central idea. Laudisi is the raisonneur in Right You Are, If You Think You Are, but like the prophet Cassandra of the Greek tragedies, his words of warning are destined to be ignored. In his role of chiding the other characters, Laudisi is also a kind of clown, trickster, or harlequin figure, seen as foolish by those who cannot hear his message.
Coup de Theatre
A coup de theatre is a surprising and usually unmotivated stroke in a drama that produces a
sensational effect; by extension, any piece of claptrap or anything designed solely for effect” (Holman and Harmon A Handbook to Literature, 6th edition). The hand thrusting from the grave at the end of the thriller film Carrie was a coup de theatre; so was Hamlet’s sudden stab at the tapestry in his mother’s rooms, when he thought he had discovered the King spying on him, but killed Polonius instead. The coups de theatre at the ends of each scene in Right You Are, If You Think You Are may be less physically dramatic, but they are intellectually dramatic. In the first act, Laudisi’s friends and family stand stunned after Signora Frola explains that Ponza’s wife is not, after all, her daughter, thus overturning Ponza’s explanation that Signora Frola is mad, which had just overturned her explanation that Ponza kept her daughter locked up because he loved her so much. The drama lies in stretching the listener’s credibility to the maximum. The townspeople stand in “blank astonishment.” At the end of Act Two, “they stand in blank amazement,” after Ponza explains that he feigned his insane rage at Signora Frola as a palliative to her insanity. The coup here is the ingenuity of Pirandello’s tortuous plot construction. At the end of Act Three, the crowd simply looks in “profound silence” at Signora Ponza, who has stunned them all by admitting to being both Signora’s daughter and Ponza’s second wife. Her bizarre dress and sudden appearance conform to conventionally shocking coups de theatre, Page 316 | Top of Articlebut once again, Pirandello shows dramatic mastery by not relying on the surprise effect as much as on the unusual intellectual twist that her speech confers on the play’s meaning. For someone who came rather late to the theater, Pirandello had a flair for dramatic elements such as the coup de theatre.
Pirandello & World War I
World War I raged while Pirandello wrote his play, Right You Are, If You Think You Are. Pirandello later said that “It was war that revealed theatre to me. Mine is a theatre of war.” War between Germany and France had been considered inevitable since at least 1905, and finally broke out in 1914. What began in a nationalist frenzy soon stalemated in a 350-mile line of trenches where thousands of lives were sacrificed to gain or lost a single mile. Euphoria was replaced by nihilism as it became evident that a whole generation was going to slaughter. To many writers and thinkers, the war was proof of the crisis in consciousness that was separate but intricately linked with the political problems that plagued Europe. Italy joined the war in 1915, and Pirandello’s son Stefano enlisted, interrupting his university studies. Stefano was immediately was sent to the front, where he was wounded and taken prisoner. Pirandello’s younger son Fausto was called up, but was so weak from an intestinal operation that Pirandello had to intervene to get him released to convalesce; however, Fausto had already contracted tuberculosis. Then Stefano contracted tuberculosis as well. Pirandello lobbied for a trade of prisoners, and the Austrian government demanded three prisoners in return for Stefano. Caught between his patriotic duty and his love for his son, Pirandello refused. Stefano was released at the end of the war. During the war years, with both sons in danger, Pirandello’s wife Antonietta, who was already mentally unstable, grew unpredictable and violent. The war years were a time of disillusion and danger to all, but of particular torment for Pirandello. After the war, Pirandello joined the Fascist movement, both because it promised to bring backward Italy into the twentieth century, and because of his desperate need to feel connected as well as his attraction to the allure of revolution and dramatic change. Fascism ultimately disappointed him.
It is difficult to place exactly when in time the idea of relativism first took root. Certainly it hit its stride when Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity in 1905, but that event merely gave a scientific example of a way of thinking that already existed; in fact, the term “relativity” was already in use. Further back, Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 started a cataclysmic shift in allegiance away from religion, God was “dead,” and the idea of progress became an end to itself. Of course, the idea of progress, too, was already extant at this time, in the form of Imperialism and its notion that growth was necessary for survival. Darwin’s theories seemed to support nineteenth century imperialism, yet were unsettling to his age because they suggested that humankind may not have been destined to rule, but developed power through a random series of trials and error. Even though the human species sat at top of the “Great Chain of Being,” humanity’s divine sponsorship was called into question. Then Freud came along with his The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) and accelerated the sense of displacement, by proving that emotion and unconscious forces were as strong as, if not stronger than, logic and reason. The confidence of the Age of Enlightenment was eroding, and the self-adulation of the Romantic Age seemed inappropriate. World War I would prove to the Allies that the fittest who survived were not necessary morally better. The “Lost Generation,” led by Ernest Hemingway and his friends in Europe, mourned this realization. The acceptance of relativism thus came about more as a slow, layer-by-layer removal of outdated arrogances than as a sudden, bright epiphany. If humans could not put their confidence in god, they could at least put it into their own consciousness, whatever that might be. Consciousness could be the new “god,” or rather, gods, since each person’s view was different, or relative.
Right You Are, If You Think You Are opened on June 18, 1917 at the Teatro Olimpia in Milan. Pirandello had sent the script to director Virgilio Talli describing the play as “a parable, which is truly original, new in both its conception and development, and
very daring.” Talli wrote back saying that although he loved the dialogue, he thought the play might not hold together on stage, that it seemed more suitable to be “enjoyed in solitude,” through reading. However, Talli did stage the play, and it won the attention that Pirandello’s previous seven plays had not garnered. His success initiated a productive writing period that saw thirteen more Pirandello plays appear over the next six years. Of the debut of Right You Are, Pirandello reported in a letter to his son that “it was performed very successfully,” and that he was received “very warmly.” After a tour of major Italian cities, the play reached Rome the following year, to much acclaim. His popularity increased after the arrival in 1921 of his best-known play, Six Characters in Search ofan Author (1925), but then waned in Italy a few short years later. A German reviewer of a 1925 production of Right You Are, If You Think You Are called it a “terrifying play,” in which “both sides were equally crazy—and—all the other characters held their own in a quiet craziness of their own.” Another German reviewer called the play “bluff—clever bluff at times—but bluff all the same.” Nevertheless, Pirandello’s renown in the rest of Europe was firmly established, and the term Pirandellisme came to signify his style of dramatic intellectual games.
During the height of his fame, Right You Are, If You Think You Are was first played in New York at the Guild Theater February 21, 1927, with Edward G. Robinson as Ponza. Reviewer Stark Young deemed this production “at least passable,” for a play with an “exhilarating game of motives and ideas,” one that put Right You Are in a league with the commedia dell’arte, or improvisation with a clown, or harlequin, character. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times hailed it as a good run from “satire to metaphysics and on to melodrama” that is “ingeniously exciting and amusing by turns.” Helen Hayes played Signora Frola in a 1966 production at the Lyceum Theater in New York City, following the stage directions and translation of Eric Bentley, again to good acclaim. A 1972 production in New York earned high praise from New York Post critic Jerry Tallmer, who especially liked Page 318 | Top of Articlethe stage design that included a wall of mirrors to emphasize the shifting perspectives. Clive Barnes considered the same production with less enthusiasm, though he fully approved of Bentley’s translation, which he deemed as having “just the right primed and provincial seediness to it.”
For many decades scholarly treatments of his work appeared only in Italian, though these were, and continue to be, numerous. The 1950s brought about a revival of his work, as it corresponds well with Existentialism and the Theater of the Absurd. Once the copyright of his works expired and the centenary of his death was celebrated (in 1986), his plays experienced a resurgence in popularity, and since then new anthologies of his works and new volumes of literary criticism in English have appeared with some regularity.
Like George Bernard Shaw, Pirandello felt oppressed by publicity. In 1935, he complained of “the many Pirandellos in circulation in the world of international literary criticism, lame, deformed, all head and no heart, erratic, gruff, insane, and obscure, in whom no matter how hard [he tried, he could not] recognize himself even for a moment.” To some, his was an intellectual art, lacking feeling. The term “Pirandellisme,” as it was applied to Jean Giraudoux and Jean Anouilh, meant “pure intellectual game,” a trait that was much appreciated in French theater. Pirandello objected to this label as suggesting he was merely a “juggler of ideas.” It was not until after World War II that audiences appreciated his seriousness.
Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina. In this essay she examines the themes of privacy and relative truth in Right You Are, If You Think You Are, especially in light of Pirandello’s tormented personal life.
Pirandello’s Right You Are, If You Think You Are is one of many of his plays and essays that concerns relativism, a feature of the modern consciousness. Pirandello described his own version of the theory in Umorismo, [On Humor] (1908):
Life is a continuous flux that we seek to arrest and to fix in stable and determinate forms, within and outside ourselves—But within ourselves, in what we call the spirit—the flux continues, indistinct, flowing under the banks, beyond the limits that we impose as we compose a consciousness for ourselves and construct a personality.
Not surprisingly, many critics have focused on the theme of relativism as it appears in Right You Are, If You Think You Are. The play concerns “flux” of shifting truths in the several explanations that Ponza and Signora Frola proclaim about Signo-ra Ponza. Each of their revelations supercedes the last, and each new truth seems final, until the next one is presented. For example, Signora Frola’s story that Ponza keeps her away from her daughter out of love melts away when Ponza explains that she is insanely perpetuating a myth that her daughter is alive. With each turn of events, it is as though the solid background of the theater gives way to another curtain, and then, impossibly, to another.
Against the overlaying of multiple truths, Laudisi, Pirandello’s alter ego in the play, insists that all of the explanations are simultaneously true, and thus there is no ultimate truth to uncover. To prove his case he tells them, ‘ I am really what you take me to be; though—that does not prevent me from also being really what your husband, my sister, my niece, and Signora Cini take me to be—because they are all absolutely right!” Each perspective is “right” in its own way, although incomplete. The friends and family ignore him, however, and continue their quest for the ultimate truth. In doing so, they fail to grasp the metaphysical truth that Laudisi represents and that underpins the play. Thus on one level, Pirandello’s play simply illustrates his theory of multiple coexisting truths, i.e., relativism, and its consequences.
Relativism’s effect on human relations, Pirandello’s play suggests, leads to frustration, because humans continue to search for absolute truth. As Anthony Caputi points out in Pirandello and the Crisis of Modern Consciousness, the play also concerns itself with “the implications of living with fictions created with a full awareness that they are fictions.” When people understand, with Laudisi, that truth is relative, they feel unmoored, lacking the comforting anchor of absolute truth. The sensation can be as unsettling as madness, and so Laudisi asks his image in the mirror, “Who is the lunatic, you or I?” He goes on, “What are you for other people? What are you in their eyes? An image, my dear sir, just an image in the glass!” In other words, relativism reduces truth to a play of surfaces, where conflicting interpretations compete for viability in a world that refuses to offer confirmation. The family
and friends base their assessment of Ponza and Signora Frola on their explanations, which they cannot verify because Signora Ponza is hidden away and an earthquake has destroyed the family’s documents. As a last resort, the townspeople force a confrontation between Ponza and Signora Frola, to force the truth out. But the confrontation proves no more fruitful than Laudisi’s conversations with his mirror image. This is because the problem lies not in the facts or words, but within themselves. Laudisi laughs, “’What fools these mortals be! “as old Shakespeare said.” As Pirandello’s spokesperson indicates, the problems of relativism are personal, and therefore it is necessary to consider Pirandello’s personal relationship to the theme of relativism. In doing so, the related moral theme of respect for human privacy becomes paramount.
Drama critic and director Eric Bentley notes in The Pirandello Commentaries that Pirandello is not simply interested in the philosophy of relativism, but in the moral dilemma that accompanies it. He asserts that, “the play is not about thinking, but about suffering, a suffering that is only increased by those who give understanding and enquiry precedence over sympathy and help.” Suffering is a thread that quietly winds its way through the play. Signora Frola and her family are mourning the effects of losing many members of their family, and under these condictions, the townspeople’s insistent questioning is “cruel.” Although they accuse Ponza of cruelty and selfishness, they are blind to the cruelty they impose on her, in their relentless crusade to uncover her truths. In the end of Act Three, Signora Ponza cries, “You must stop all this. You must let us alone. You think you are helping me. You are trying to do me a favor; but really, what you’re doing is working me a great wrong.” According to Bentley, a key detail is the fact that in spite of their efforts, the truth about Signora Ponza never comes to light. Bentley emphatically says, “The truth, Pirandello wants to tell us again and again, is concealed, concealed, CONCEALED!” It is as though Pirandello is demonstrating not that truth is impossible to perceive, tricky or shifting, but that it is, and should be, private. Bentley concludes, “The solution of the problem, the cure for these sick human beings, is to leave their problem unsolved and unrevealed.”
The theme of suffering at the hands of nosy gossips could easily derive from Pirandello’s tormented life. From an insane wife who tormented him with her jealous rages to his own obsessive
dependency on her and then on a much younger actress, Pirandello’s personal life was something he needed to obscure from public view. Former students of his attest to a man who “always kept to himself,” who cared to befriend neither his students nor his colleagues. Perhaps he was ashamed of his marriage. In catholic Italy, divorce was impossible, as was abandonment, especially since he felt he could not live without his wife, despite her madness. To ease the agony, he wrote about it. In his novel, Her Husband, he describes a man tormented as “the target of madness” from a wife who “knew nothing of his ideal life, his superior talents” but only saw “the phantom she had made of him.” He was “two people: one for himself, another for her.” Perhaps there was, too, a side of Pirandello that aggravated her madness, or that somehow thrived on it. Most biographers cast Pirandello as the victim of his mad wife’s behavior. But Renate Matthaei suggests that “His mad wife was an inspiration. She showed him all the symptoms of a disturbance that he recognized in himself but had managed to conceal, being more robust than she.” For years Pirandello managed to conceal his own obsessive nature behind the mask of his wife’s madness. He brought it to the light in the relative safety of stories and plays that explored the boundaries of such relationships. In Right You Are he plays with various readings of the Ponza-Frola relationship, with killing off the wife, or simply fantasizing her death. It is as though he cannot bear to reach a resolution with it, just as he could not bear to resolve his own marriage’s difficulties. It took seventeen years of torment before, with the support of their children, he had her institutionalized. He must have felt both relief and great guilt when he finally took that step.
Not to have made a decision about his wife was a way of keeping all of the options alive, all truths simultaneously true. Bentley is correct to point out that the mystery character’s secret truth stays concealed, even at the end of the play when a resolution is fervently expected. Furthermore, Signora Ponza verifies every interpretation of her, by claiming to be both wife to Ponza and daughter to Signora Frola, and “nothing” to herself. This final intellectual turn shockingly reveals that Signora Ponza has allowed herself to be molded by her husband. Her veiled existence, a product of other’s perspectives of her, makes an eloquent appeal for human privacy. The viewer is left feeling that she should somehow have resisted their interpretations, and kept true to herself, as Pirandello often urged Marta Abba to be. To stay true to oneself is to resist and lock out other people’s interpretations so that one’s own ideas may survive. In Pirandello’s case, he wanted to obscure the realistic appraisals of outsiders, so that they would not interfere with his fantasies. His fantasies occluded a proper assessment of his mad wife, such that he let his family suffer for seventeen years. They also allowed him to burn for ten years in futile passion for an actress half his age.
Pirandello’s sentiments concerning truth are given voice by Laudisi, who argues for keeping alive all of the possible interpretations of Ponza, his wife, and his mother-in-law, and their tortuous relations. Laudisi could equally well have been arguing for keeping alive all the fantasies that Pirandello used to negotiate his complex and troubled life. The theory of relativism, for Pirandello, is a means to maintaining his internal fictional world. The play’s title, Right You Are, If You Think You Are, could be directed at the Laudisi’s friends, at Pirandello’s friends, or even, at Pirandello himself.
Source: Carole Hamilton, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
In this essay, Petrusso discusses how social values and the theme of truth shape Right You Are!.
In Luigi Pirandello’s Right You Are! (If You Think So), many of the primary characters are on a quest Page 321 | Top of Articlefor the truth about newcomers to their community. The Agazzis, Lamberto Laudisi, and their friends want to know several things about Signor Ponza, his wife, and his mother-in-law, Signora Frola. They are curious about the unusual living situation among the Ponzas and Frola, as well as what happened to them in their previous home. This nosy interest leads to much speculation, gossip, and trickery, but the group never really finds out the “real” truth about the Ponzas and Frola. Pirandello shows how relative “truth” can be, and how such an investigation can harm those concerned.
At the end of Right You Are! (If You Think So), the primary protagonists—Commendatore Agazzi, his wife Amalia, their daughter Dina, and their friends the Sirellis, among others—end up forcing a face-to-face confrontation between Signor Ponza, his wife, and his mother-in-law, Signora Frola, to get at the truth about them. Over the course of the play, it is stated several times that Signora Ponza and Frola have not talked in such a face-to-face manner because of something that happened in the past. The only way the alleged mother and daughter have communicated is by letter. Frola would visit the Ponzas’ tenement apartment, and Signora Ponza would drop a basket from her fifth floor balcony for the exchange of notes. Yet the forced meeting does not answer any of the protagonists’ questions about the Ponzas and Frola. Signora Ponza tells them that the contradictory stories that Signor and Signora Frola have told them are both true. The previously unseen Signora Ponza solves the play by not solving it, thus giving Right You Are! its primary theme: the truth about people differs based on point of view. Much of the time, what is believed to be a truth is irrelevant.
The reason for the protagonists’ quest for the truth is understandable. The more they find out about the Ponzas and Frola, the more their interest is piqued. In addition to the letter-only communication between mother and daughter, the Ponzas live in a tenement on the edge of town, while Frola lives in the same upscale building as the Agazzis. Signor Ponza does not want Frola to have a normal social life with anyone, including her neighbors. Yet Frola and Signor Ponza spend much time together. Though Frola manages to have some social contact, her alleged daughter has none at all. No one in the village has seen her outside the home until the end of Right You Are!, and the only reason she has been brought there is because the village’s Prefect has ordered it.
But what starts the Agazzis, their relatives and friends on their quest is a breach of perceived social mores by Frola. Before this major transgression, it seems the protagonists merely noticed and gossiped about the minor social oddities of the Ponzas and Frola. A major transgression opens a floodgate, and gives the protagonists a license to dig deeper and create confrontational situations. This transgression is Frola’s refusal to receive the social call of Signora Agazzi and her daughter Dina just before the action of Act I begins. This infuriates Signora Agazzi and Dina because, as Signora Agazzi states, “We were trying to do her a favor.” The truth becomes important to them because of their values. Their social mores must be upheld, and the only way to do that is to discover the truth. The truth would explain why Frola refused to (or was not allowed to) receive them, which would allow the social mistake to be acceptable.
Nothing less than what the protagonists perceive to be the truth will do to counteract this social misstep by Frola. They go to great lengths to find out the truth, without respect for the privacy of the Ponzas and Frola or other social mores. Some of their group goes as far as to call for the firing of Ponza from his governmental job based on speculation and rumor, even before explanations can be given by Ponza and Frola. Like the truth at the end of Right You Are!, social graces are portrayed as relative, at least for established citizens of the village.
Thus when Frola calls upon the Agazzis in Act I to apologize and relate her story, they conveniently deny their already stated abhorrence of her social Page 322 | Top of Articletransgression so that more information can be obtained. Signora Agazzi herself says, “Oh, we are just neighbors, Signora Frola! Why stand on ceremony?” This statement comforts Frola and makes her more open to answering their questions. Frola tells them about an earthquake in which she and Ponza lost their families, which should sufficiently explain away why they act differently. But the group gathered push Frola to the limit with their persistent, torturous questions. There is no regard for sociability here. The group cannot accept Frola’s feeble explanations nor her statements of happiness. When she says, “We all have our weaknesses in this world, haven’t we! And we get along best by having a little charity, a little indulgence for one another,” they ignore her implied plea and decide to dig deeper for a more “real,” socially acceptable truth.
Soon after Frola leaves in Act I, Ponza makes a social call to the Agazzis and relates his version of events to counteract anything Frola may have said. Ponza is flustered and controlling, explaining that Frola must be left alone. When the group does not like this, Ponza reveals that she is insane. He claims that he was married to Frola’s daughter at one time, but she died and the woman he is married to now is his second wife. Frola has mistaken the second wife for her own daughter, and lives in obsessed denial about who the woman Ponza is married to really is. This is Ponza’s reason for essentially keeping Frola under lock and key, and not allowing social mores to be followed. Some of the group of protagonists accepts most of this explanation, while others are not so sure.
Their quest for truth takes another unexpected turn when Frola returns. She tells them that while Ponza is an excellent worker, he is the one who is a lunatic. Frola’s version of the story is that her daughter became ill with a contagious disease and had to be isolated and hospitalized. Ponza believed that his wife had died in the hospital, and when she recovered, he would not believe it was her. A second wedding was held for the couple, so Ponza still believes that Frola’s daughter is dead. Frola assures them that this is the only way Ponza can survive his day-to-day life. She also says that she pretends to be insane for his benefit. As Frola tells the group during her second visit, “Oh, my dear Signora Agazzi, I wish I had left things as they were. It was hard to feel that I had been impolite to you by not answering the bell when you called the first time; but I could never have supposed that you would come back and force me to call upon you.”
Throughout Acts II and III, the group of protagonists, led by the Agazzis, try to discern the truth of these statements: Who is really insane, Frola or Ponza? Which is telling the truth about their past? The quest for the truth only gets more confusing, not less. When they resort to trickery in Act II, they find out that Frola calls Signora Ponza by the name of Julia, while Ponza insists that her name is Lena. They end up hurting Ponza desperately. The group also arranges for a background investigation by the police which leads nowhere. Their quest ends in the manner described above, by involving the town’s Prefect and arranging a confrontation between all three which does nothing to fulfill their need to know. When forced, the mysterious Signora Ponza asks of the group, “And what can you want of me now, after all this, ladies and gentlemen?” What the group wanted was a clear truth so they could judge the social acceptability of the Ponzas and Frola. What emotional damage and distress they caused in their explanation was irrelevant, though that is also a breach of social mores.
There is one voice of reason in Right You Are!, Signora Agazzi’s brother, Lamberto Laudisi. Though he is aligned with the group of protagonists, he is a skeptic who questions their every statement, every motive, and every move. Laudisi sees the narrowness of their vision, how they perceive that everything must be true or false, with no other possible explanation. From the beginning of the play, he says things like “It was none of your damned business” when Dina Agazzi tried to rationalize their visit to Frola. Laudisi is aware of the importance of privacy, and implicitly sees how the group is using social mores to further their quest. He tries to show them the futility of their task, but he is ridiculed, and, at one point, banned from the room. Still, he maintains a sense of humor which serves him well. And at the end of each act, including the end of Right You Are!, Laudisi gets the last laugh because he has known the truth about their “real” truth all along.
Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Robert S. Dombroski
The following is Dombroski’s aim in this essay: “Rather than interpreting Laudisi’s laughter as a sign of Pirandello’s satirical aims, I should like to suggest the possibility of viewing it simply as a spontaneous show of approval for a humorous situation, a favorable response to a rather elaborate joke.” Page 323 | Top of ArticleCriticism has more or less agreed that Pirandello’s intention in writing Right You Are (If You Think So) was to illustrate his conviction that truth does not exist absolutely, but merely as a product of the individual mind. From here it became a question of whether the play was successful as drama and to what extent the thesis may be said to either enhance or diminish the work’s emotional content. Is Right You Are a “sensitive” and “provoking” expression of Pirandello’s philosophy? Or is it nothing more than—as Gramsci would have it—“a superficial fact of literature: a pure and simple mechanical aggregate of words”? (AVANTH!, Oct. 5, 1917) Contemporary criticism has rescued the play from a type of discussion based on whether Pirandello did or did not succeed in dramatizing his relativist Weltanschauung by shifting the perspective from the work’s philosophical content to its social bearings and the existential turmoil of its main characters; that is, from Laudisi’s arid reasoning about the relativity of truth to the sufferings of the Ponza-Frola group. Eric Bentley, for example, views the play as a social satire, Pirandello’s aim being to demonstrate how the “idle curiosity” and “nosi-ness” of the townspeople is detrimental to the sufferers’ struggle for life in its inner essence and private depths. And Robert Brustein goes a step further, describing the work as a “drama of social revolt.” According to him, “the play is a protest against [he quotes Bentley] the’scandalmonger, the prying reporter, and the amateur psychoanalyst’ and [he himself adds] the sob sister, the candid cameraman, and the Congressional investigator—those who recklessly probe the secrets of others.”
For Bentley and Brustein, therefore, the drama consists in the play’s emotional content, that is, in Signora Frola’s and Signor Ponza’s struggle for survival against the onslaught of the townspeople’s destructive curiosity. Although convincing in many ways and certainly supported by the characters’ awareness of conflict, interpretations of this sort do not take sufficiently into account the function of the “intellectual” frame in which the drama develops: they focus on the dramatic or dialectical process as if this process were free from the imposing presence of Laudisi and thus ignore the importance of the relationship between structural elements in determining the play’s total meaning.
Those readers to whom Right You Are appeared as too intellectually contrived had good reasons on which to base their assumptions. For it is clear that the conflict between the townspeople and the Ponza-Frola group is a dramatic actualization of Laudisi’s
relativist convictions. From the standpoint of the play’s thematic organisation Right You Are appears unequivocally as a dramma a tesi. It begins simply with man’s natural desire to know the things around him (the townspeople’s wanting to understand the reasons for the Ponza-Frola group’s strange living arrangement). It concludes with the discovery that things have not an absolute, but a relational existence (the meaning of Signora Ponza’s final words “Io sono colei che mi si crede”). The play develops in a way that the thesis is proved in each of the acts and in the final act it becomes impossible to disprove. From the standpoint of action, the reader follows a circular schema whereby he sees the townspeople move from a state of unsatisfied curiosity through several intense moments of expectation and disillusionment back to that same state; while thematically he proceeds from the lack of knowledge through a series of demonstrations to the awareness that truth beyond appearance is unattainable. In addition to Laudisi and Signora Ponza, who express their relativist beliefs directly to the townspeople, Signora Frola and Signor Ponza illustrate perfectly Pirandello’s thesis: they both tell equally convincing stories and each is aware of the role the other is playing.
At the same time, however, the play’s emotional nucleus does consist in the struggle of the Ponza- Page 324 | Top of ArticleFrola group to preserve their illusions, although we may sincerely wonder if this theme could not have been expressed in a less mechanical way. Is the character of Laudisi really necessary to the drama? Why did Pirandello choose such an “unrealistic” story to illustrate his convictions? It might be that the artist is at fault. Professor Brustein believes that Pirandello, by not fusing the “spokesman-sufferer “(Laudisi) with the pathetic sufferers (the Ponza-Frola group), has not yet perfected his dramatic structure. But the work’s flawless technique suggests that Pirandello has willingly created an ambiguous dramatic structure, which in itself is perfect. The ambiguity lies in the figure of Laudisi who, on the one hand, tells us that truth is equal to appearance and laughs at those who seek “objective facts,” and on the other, goes no further than showing abstract sympathy for the sufferings of the Ponza-Frola family. That is to say, Laudisi relates to Signora Frola and Signor Ponza through his episte-mological considerations which are potentially beneficial to their lives. But his involvement in their drama ends there. He does not, for instance, act directly to help them; nor does he voice more than mild objections at the townspeople’s tactics. Thus, as an element of structure, Laudisi does not have the status of a character belonging to one of the dialectical forces in the play. Rather he is a sort of device whose function lies in establishing the emotional and intellectual relationships between the playwright and the dialectical oppositions he is representing.
The role of Laudisi in Right You Are may be better understood if we consider for a moment the short story on which the play is based, “La signora Frola e il signor Ponza suo genero” (1915). The story is related by an anonymous speaker in the form of a dramatic monologue. The speaker of the monologue addresses an audience of readers, telling them how the entire citizenry of Valdana is perplexed at not being able to distinguish which of the two eccentric strangers, Mrs. Frola or Mr. Ponza, has gone mad. The speaker then goes on to recount the events (repeated for the most part in the play) leading to the townspeople’s suspicion that “reality is just as bad as fantasy, and that every reality can quite well be fantasy and vice versa.” Ulrich Leo, in a well known article, has argued convincingly that the “persona” of the monologue may be described as an “embryonic” Laudisi, “a Laudisi avant la lettre,” essentially because he utters in direct discourse much of the same Pirandellian epistemology contained in the play. However true this may be, there are perhaps reasons for establishing a more binding relationship between the raisonneur of Right You Are and the nameless speaker of the story. Laudisi and the speaker of the monologue, in my view, share the same structural peculiarities within the context of their respective genres; and they perform basically the same function as dramatic devices. Only, in the story, on account of a more elementary structure, the function is more clearly seen and understood. Like Laudisi, the “persona” partakes of the dialectical oppositions in the story and, at the same time, conveys directly the author’s thoughts. Pirandello’s choice of the dramatic monologue doubtless facilitates this scheme and his use of free indirect discourse makes it possible. In the story’s opening sentence, for instance, the speaker states sympathetically the townspeople’s chief preoccupation which reappears in the play on the lips of Signora Sirelli:
Well, just imagine what it’s like! It really is enough to drive you out of your mind to be completely unable to find out which of these two people is mad....
SIGNORA SIRELLI. But how can you escape the curiosity we all feel to get to the bottom of this mystery which is enough to drive us all mad?
But he also goes on to speak in behalf of Signora Frola and Signor Ponza, uttering the very words that their counterparts will express in the drama. Here is one of many possible examples:
Oh, no, for pity’s sake! He’s not cruel! There’s just this: he wants her all, he wants that darling little wife all for himself, even to such an extent that her love for her mother, well, he wants it to reach her not directly, but through him, by way of him.
SIGNORA FROLA. Jealous of me, her mother? I don’t think you can say that.... You see, he wants his wife’s heart all for himself, to the extent that the love which my daughter must have for me, her mother (...). He wants that it should reach me through him, that’s it!
In addition, the speaker conveys Pirandello’s reaction to the situation by interjecting, from time to time, his thoughts into the monologue, such as, “Even if it is true that they have undergone a terrible disaster, it is nonetheless true that at least one of them has had the good luck to go mad....” The similarities between the anonymous speaker and Laudisi as elements of structure suggest that Laudisi was mainly conceived as personage-replacement for the “persona”: that is, as a character-device which betrays, as we shall see, the author’s uncertain position with respect to his drama.
When the play begins, the Agazzi household is in a turmoil because Signora Frola, the mother-in-law of Signor Ponza, the new provincial secretary, Page 325 | Top of Articlehas not welcomed in her home Agazzi’s wife and daughter. The visit has been prompted by their desire to understand why the Ponza-Frola family, having come to town as the sole survivors of an earthquake, should live divided: the man and his wife sharing the top floor of a tenement at the edge of town while the mother lives at her son-in-law’s expense in a fashionable apartment. It is also known that the wife never leaves the tenement and that the mother never sees her face to face. This situation leads to the townspeople’s investigation, their aim being to unite mother and daughter according to accepted standards of social behaviour.
Immediate suspicion as to who is at fault falls on Signor Ponza, and Signora Frola confirms the people’s assumption, stating that she lives separated from her daughter because of Ponza’s need for absolute possession of his wife. She adds, however, that she is in perfect agreement with the arrangement and that by living this way the family is very happy. Signora Frola having exited, Ponza himself enters to vouch for the fact that it was he who prevented his mother-in-law from carrying out her social obligations. The reason is because Signora Frola is mad. Her madness—he says—consists in her believing that her daughter is alive, when in fact she has been dead for several years. The mother is therefore deluded in thinking that the husband’s second wife is actually her daughter. Her illusion, nevertheless, must be preserved in order that she not suffer from the truth. Now public opinion has shifted in Ponza’s favor, but not for long. Signora Frola, aware of her son-in-law’s version of the story, returns to tell the townspeople that it is really Ponza who is deluded. His love for his wife—she explains—was so overpowering that it was necessary for reasons of health to commit her to a sanatorium. Ponza, thinking she was dead, would no longer accept her as his wife. To reunite the couple a second wedding had to be staged. Ponza’s wife, therefore, according to the mother, is really her daughter who, in order not to unmask her husband’s beneficial illusion, pretends to be his second wife. At this point, after having heard two equally plausible, but contradictory accounts of why the family must live divided, the astonished townspeople stand looking at each other, while Laudisi, who all along has argued that there is no key to the mystery, has a hearty laugh at their expense.
In the second act, the dialectical pattern repeats itself. Disappointed because there are no documents to prove who is telling the truth, Agazzi plans to have Ponza and Frola meet face to face, believing that the encounter would force the hand of one of them. It appears, in fact, to be the case when the husband becomes furiously angry with the mother and tries to convince her before the others that his wife is not her daughter. But as soon as the mother leaves, his rage subsides. He was just pretending to be mad in order to verify her impression of him. Once again the spectators remain dumbfounded and once again Laudisi bursts out laughing.
In the final act, the pattern is repeated again. Now the townspeople have no other recourse than to call the wife to unravel the mystery. Signora Ponza, however, is of little help to them. She confesses that she is both Signora Frola’s daughter and Signor Ponza’s second wife and that for herself she is nobody. Now thoroughly foiled in their quest for the truth, Agazzi and Co. stand baffled as Laudisi’s laughter once again fills the stage.
Inasmuch as Laudisi functions as a raisonneur, he shares the playwright’s convictions and states them as universal premises, i.e. truth is equal to appearance. But more important is the fact that he reacts as a spectator to the dramatic events by laughing in every crucial moment of the play’s development. His recurring laughter, I believe, is a clear sign of the way Pirandello himself interprets his drama, and only through an understanding of the psychology of his laughter can we arrive at an understanding of Pirandello’s point of view.
Laudisi’s laughter is generally seen as being “caustically sardonic,” intended to deride the phil-istine attitudes and pretentions of the townspeople and thus viewed as an expression of “social revolt.” To quote again Robert Brustein:
Pirandello exercises [in Right You Are ] the animus of his social revolt; and the tragedy which threatens is averted at the end. Their right to privacy affirmed, their secret still hidden from the gossips and busybod-ies, the pharmakoi [the pathetic sufferers] depart into darkness, while the alazones [buffoons] stand lost in amazement, whipped by the savage laughter of the eiron [sufferer-spokesman].
One possible objection to this view is the lack of textual evidence that might reveal the “sardonic” quality of Laudisi’s laughter. On the contrary, although the stage directions do not divulge the nature of his laughter (“Laudisi,” Pirandello indicates simply, “Scoppiera a ridere—Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!”), the dialogue between him and his family clarifies his attitude toward their actions as being somewhat less than contemptuous. Like Pirandello, Laudisi is sympathetic to human foibles. His manner Page 326 | Top of Articleof reacting to the townspeople’s naivete is at most benevolently ironical, as when he tells them:
I enjoy hearing you talk. I’ll be quiet, don’t fear. At the very most, I shall indulge in a laugh or two, and if I really burst out laughing, please forgive me.
In other words, Laudisi amuses himself at their expense, laughing when reality proves to be at odds with their ambitions. This sort of relationship between the author’s spokesman and his would-be antagonists would seem inappropriate in a dramatic context where the message is one of either social or existential revolt. Rather than interpreting Laudisi’s laughter as a sign of Pirandello’s satirical aims, I should like to suggest the possibility of viewing it simply as a spontaneous show of approval for a humorous situation, a favorable response to a rather elaborate joke.
Laudisi’s laughter alone does not establish sufficiently the presence in the play of a joke pattern, for the acid test of a joke is not whether it provokes laughter or not. What does, however, is his awareness of a humorous situation:
AGAZZI. Some of the talk had reached him [the Prefect] and even he feels that it’s time to clear up this mystery, so that we shall know the truth.
LAUDISI. [ bursts out laughing ] Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
AMALIA. All we need now is for you to laugh.
AGAZZI. And why is he laughing?
SIGNORA SIRELLI. Because he says that no one can ever know the truth!
The joke implied in this instance is that the townspeople know the truth already, since whatever seems to each of them true is true.
Translated into terms compatible with Pirandello’s reflections on humor, Laudisi’s laughter would derive from his perception of something incongruous (“L’avvertimento del contrario”): that is, he laughs because the townspeople make fools of themselves by trying to control logically something uncontrollable and, in doing so, appear ludicrously distorted, frozen in their futile ambition. Bergson would say that Laudisi has perceived something mechanical encrusted on something living (for Pirandello, Form imposed on Life), the townspeople thus being automata who threaten to deprive the Frola-Ponza group of its spontaneity and freedom, while Laudisi’s actual laughter results from his observing the spiritual rigidity and lifelessness of Agazzi and Co. To Freud the Ponza-Frola group would probably appear as the symbolic expression of the subconscious that has succeeded in breaking down the control imposed on it by the conscious mind, symbolized by the townspeople. Laudisi’s laughter in this case would be a sign of freedom experienced in the face of a momentary release of psychic energy.
Regardless of what theory we choose to explain Laudisi’s laughter, we are dealing basically with a play on form, an attack on something formal by something informal; the townspeople’s established, logically controlled approach to reality is overturned by the vitality and irrationality of the Ponza-Frola group. Why then does the subversion of form not indicate the animus of revolt? The answer lies in the joke form itself which implies that the upsetting of formal values or thought patterns is only temporary, and that the laugh it elicits is a sign of momentary freedom from the burden of reality. Although Signora Frola and Signor Ponza challenge the accepted pattern of structuring reality throughout the play, they succeed only at the end of each act in tilting the scales in their favor. The joke also implies a congenial relationship between the joker and the societal group in which the joke is told and accepted. Mary Douglas, who has made several studies of jokes and their relationship to social experience, argues that the joker “has a firm hold on his own position in the social structure and the disruptive comments which he makes upon it are in a sense the comments of the social group upon itself. He merely expresses consensus. Safe within the permitted range of attack he lightens for everyone the oppressiveness of social reality, demonstrates its arbitrariness by making light of formality in general.” (Italics mine).
Right You Are (If You Think So) contains three distinct structural elements, two of which (the townspeople and the Ponza-Frola group) represent the terms of the joke pattern; the third (Laudisi) embodies an ideal audience of listeners. Pirandello relates to the townspeople and family through Laudisi, whose rapport with the members of his family and their friends reflects in a sense Pirandello’s own position within the social structure of his time. Laudisi is an evolved part of the provincial bourgeois society he ridicules. Aware of the problematic nature of human existence, he challenges the townspeople’s claim to objective truth, but rather than offending their values, he is really only causing a nuisance, a minor hindrance to their investigation. In other words, the epistemological relativism that Pirandello conveys through his raisonneur is not meant to undermine the social structure represented by Agazzi and Co., but rather to define a drama in which everyone participates: the drama of man’s Page 327 | Top of Articledepersonalization, of his life as a role actor on the stage of society. Signora Frola and Signor Ponza literally act out this drama in their conflict with the townspeople. On stage, they perform according to the demands created by the social context. The more accentuated the demands become (the more the townspeople push ahead in their quest for “truth”) the more they challenge each other’s role in the face of the investigators, until Signora Ponza, herself the personification of man’s identity crisis, arrives to declare that her appearance is her existence: she is whoever she appears to be—“Cosi e (se vi pare).” For Pirandello the Frola-Ponza group has a dual function. As dramatic characters they illustrate the crisis of the divided self, while as the major term of the joke pattern they afford the opportunity for realizing that the townspeople’s way of structuring reality may be arbitrary and subjective, and therefore without necessity.
As for the townspeople, they exemplify the element of control against which the vital, uncontrolled Ponza-Frola group combats. In their ranks, we can certainly find the busybody or buffoon type: the Signoras Sirelli, Nenni, and Cini, for example, and Agazzi and the Prefect are unquestionably persistent enough to be likened to “congressional investigators,” but there are characters such as Amalia and Sirelli who appear more humane and compassionate. Their motives for carrying out the investigation are somewhat less selfish than those of their fellow citizens. On the whole, it is a diversified group representing various types and degrees of curiosity. The character of Laudisi bridges the gap between the two groups. Socially he is one of the townspeople, but in his epistemological reflections, he speaks for the Ponza-Frola family. His laugh is the effect of an exhilarating sense of being liberated from conventional thought patterns. For a moment Life has subverted Form: the human spirit has been released from the limitations imposed on it by logical discourse.
The social message concealed in Right You Are (If You Think So), as in any joke or humorous situation, is not one of satire or revolt (both of which necessitate contempt for reality, and, at least, an implicit display of objective values); rather what we have can be best described as the mild ridicule a society imposes upon itself as a way of censoring its belief in the objective world constructed by its own reason. Right You Are is a play written for a confused, disoriented society, spiritually uprooted by the havoc and catastrophies of war; a society whose members have lost confidence in its institutions and are questioning the rational foundations on which those very institutions are built. It is a play of crisis in which a solution is only hinted at.
With Henry IV and Six Characters in Search of an Author, Pirandello begins to emerge from the structural ambiguity manifested in Right You Are (If You Think So). The momentary liberation from the official categories of thought crystallized in the relationship between Laudisi and the Ponza-Frola group becomes an extended escape that springs from the development of a counter-logic (the logical paradoxes of Laudisi) and terminates in the creation of a new and eternal form of existence. Henry’s willed decision to accept as his reality the mask of madness indicates his desire to live apart from his social group in the timelessness of history where his identity has already been accounted for as a Holy Roman Emperor. The six characters who wander on to the set of The Rules of the Game are in search of an author who will eternalize their masks and thereby confer on their problematic lives the timelessness of art. The elaboration of myth in the dramatist’s later phase signals the exasperation of his quest for existential cohesion.
If Right You Are (If You Think So) reflects, as I believe it does, a crisis of values and the consciousness the society has of the crisis, I should like to suggest going a step further to note how the evolution of Pirandello’s theater from Right You Are to the later plays is analogous to the political and social evolution that took place in Italy in the aftermath of the First World War. The movement from the dialectics of crisis (i.e. Pirandello’s relativism) to the compensations offered by existence apart from the social group parallels the movement from the state of uncertainty and confusion of post-war society to the acceptance of a new, mystical form of civil life embodied in the “Fascist revolution” which, as it is known, presented itself as a substitute for the inadequacies of political reason. Pirandello’s acceptance of Fascism should be viewed within the perspective of this historical crisis and the irrational solutions which the regime glorified.
Source: Robert S. Dombroski, “Laudisi’s Laughter and the Social Dimension of Right You Are (If You think So),” in Modern Drama, Vol. 16, 1973, pp. 337–46.
The following essay contains Orazio Costa’s comments regarding the attitudes seen in the play: “In fact, one is suggested here, which I attempted to
realize scenically: analogous to the prying attitude of the provincial society gathered in a typical drawing-room, and facing a group of shy and secret creatures who refuse the principle of “sociability.”
Ever since 1945, many of Orazio Costa’s productions have stood out as landmarks in the development of the Italian theatre.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he has staged a good many of Pirandello’s plays and even staged some of them several times over. A fascinating experience for such a recognized “perfectionist”!
One of Orazio Costa’s most characteristic features is the combination of extreme rigour in the analysis of the text—the sure sign of the philologist—with a constant, but never completely fulfilled aspiration towards the highest summits of spirituality. And while equally fitted to make his mark at a University or to devote himself to meditation, he decided to consecrate his talents to the theatre, that is to say to the task of conveying literature to the stage and of embodying his aspirations in the most concrete of plastic forms.
This is what gives outstanding value to the study he has kindly sent us. On receiving the latter, we realized at once that lack of space would unfortunately prevent us from bringing it out in full.
We have therefore decided to publish only the first part and to omit, to our deep regret, Orazio Costa’s commentaries on other Pirandello plays and notably on The Giants of the Mountain, the spirit of which he brought out to such excellent effect. [Costa directed Pirandello’s plays several times, and was recognized for his intellectual rigor in interpreting dramatic texts.]
Even before I realized my first staging, I was convinced, from the study of Six Characters in Search of an Author and of Right You Are—If You Think You Are, that Pirandello had taken the European theatre to the end of its bourgeois cycle by renovating it totally: plot, characters, settings. Pirandello, fully aware of the futility of the plot, reduced the argument to an interchangeable canvas; he rediscovered, in the characters’ sufferings, the only dignity worthy of containing and expressing life; he stripped the stage of its decorative tinsel and restored it to the nudity of its primary function, that of a machine. Thus, he came to the theatre in a state of absolute virginity, perfectly conscious of his part as a renovator and even perhaps—all considered—the only poet of his time in such a position....
I am coming now to the interpretation of Right You Are—If You Think You Are, a play I have also been able to stage twice, first with the Piccolo Teatro della Citta di Roma, in 1952, then with the Theatre National de Belgique, in 1959.... The provincial town tallies with the theatre company and its presumption of having all its “recognized titles”; and the three unfortunates—Mme Frola and the Ponza couple—are effectively “characters” kneaded out of the same dough as the Son’s character: they tend to be demure, to refuse to make an exhibition of themselves.
It must be admitted that, up to Pirandello, dramatic poetry tended, by its own nature, to confirm the existence of characters eager to manifest themselves, with the result of making creditable a vision of the world easy to read, transparent and, in its exuberance, wide open.
In Right You Are clearly appears the modern trend which consists in proposing for the audience, in each drama, a particular attitude. In fact, one is suggested here, which I attempted to realize scenically: analogous to the prying attitude of the provincial society gathered in a typical drawing-room, and facing a group of shy and secret creatures who refuse the principle of “sociability.” A cruelly comic choir, crowded around a very small space—the only space subsequently provided for the characters, seemingly questioned with much respect, in fact, pilloried.
In view of obtaining the greatest possible opposition between the cruel circle and the “mourning” central group, during all the rehearsals I kept apart the actors of the grotesque choir and the tragic characters, so that their tones—aggressive questioning Page 329 | Top of Articleon the one hand, tragic panicking on the other—would not, from the beginning, tend towards an insufferable unification, but that, fixed on distinct registers, they would only in the end reach that minimum of common tuning demanded by the necessity of establishing a colloquy, however hostile....
Source: Orazio Costa, “Six Characters; Right You Are... and Henry IV, [with introduction]” in World Theatre, Vol. 16, 1967, pp. 248–55.
Bentley, Eric. The Pirandello Commentaries, Northwestern University Press, 1986.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Luigi Pirandello: Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House, 1989.
Caputi, Anthony. Pirandello and the Crisis of Modern Consciousness, University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Matthaei, Renate. Luigi Pirandello, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1973.
Bassanese, Fiona. Understanding Luigi Pirandello (Understanding Modern European and Latin American Literature), University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Considers Pirandello in the light of the modernist crises of consciousness and of the self.
Bentley, Eric. The Pirandello Commentaries, Northwestern University Press, 1986.
A collection of Eric Bentley’s incisive essays on Pirandello, as written over a thirty-year period.
Biasin, Gian-Paolo and Manuela Gieri. Luigi Pirandello, University of Toronto Press, 1999.
An anthology of recent literary criticism on Pirandello’s works, responding to a renewed interest in him.
Bassnet, Susan and Jennifer Lorch. Luigi Pirandello in the Theatre: a Documentary Record, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1993.
Excerpts of reviews and letters, with photographs of play productions, chronicling Pirandello’s impact on Italian theater and film.
Bini, Daniela. Pirandello and His Muse: The Plays for Marta Abba (Crosscurrents), University Press of Florida, 1998.
Explores how Pirandello’s perception of women and his relationship with Marta Abba influenced and subliminally shaped his plays (Right You Are, If You Think You Are is not treated).
Bloom, Harold, ed. Luigi Pirandello: Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House, 1989.
An anthology of recent scholarship on Pirandello, with a brief commentary by Bloom in which he dubs Pirandello a “’playwright-as-sophist’ leading us to the relativity of all truth.”
Caesar, Ann. Characters and Authors in Luigi Pirandello, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Examines issues of self, family, society, and narrative space in Pirandello’s work.
Cambon, Glauco. Pirandello: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967.
An early collection of criticism on his work as a whole, rather than on specific plays.
Caputi, Anthony. Pirandello and the Crisis of Modern Consciousness, University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Explores the role of relativity as a theme of modernism that finds expression in Pirandello’s works.
Dashwood, Julie (ed.). Luigi Pirandello: The Theater of Paradox, Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.
An anthology of recent literary criticism on issues of gender, genre, and language, among others, in Pirandello’s dramatic works.
Digaetani, John, ed. A Companion to Pirandello Studies, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1991.
An anthology of recent literary criticism by acknowledged experts on Pirandello, concerning his life, work, and influence on the theater.
Guidice, Gaspare. Pirandello: A Biography, Oxford University Press, 1975.
Covers his early life, his tempestuous marriage, his love for actress Marta Abba, and attempts to justify his association with the Fascist movement.
Matthaei, Renate. Luigi Pirandello, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1973.
Brief but insightful biography and synopses of the major plays.
The Nobel Foundation. The Electronic Nobel Prize Project [web page], September, 1999. http://www.nobel.se/enmindex.html
Contains a copy of Pirandello’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded in 1934.
Paolucci, Anne. Pirandello’s Theater: The Recovery of the Modern Stage for Dramatic Art, Southern Illinois University Press, 1974.
A scholarly analysis of Pirandello’s plays, finding in them dramatic value that can withstand the test of time better than his theme of relativity alone.