Monday, September 8, 2014

Tonight We Improvise

Luigi Pirandello

Unlike Lampedusa, who wrote a kind of sophisticatedly modern historical novel; unlike Primo Levi, who reinvented journalism as a literary genre; unlike Calvino, who did what all the world would like to do but only the truly great can get away with, which is to write whatever and however words came into his head and have them turn out brilliant; unlike D'Annunzio, who wanted to be Wagner but settled for being Wilhelm Meister; unlike Croce, who mistook literature for philosophy; unlike any of these other geniuses of modern Italian writing, Pirandello saw literature as a branch of psychology, and used the theatre much as Freud used the psychiatric couch: as a locus for confession, revelation, psychic exploration and the unravelling of the madness of this world. Being completely insane himself was clearly a factor and an aide, but who has ever met a serious professional in the field of the human psyche who wasn't clinically certifiable? Each scene of each act of each play affords another layer of, another perspective on reality – the sliding-doors that Durrell tried to impose upon the time-continuum in Alexandria; only here it is mental, not temporal.

In "Tonight We Improvise" he created what was really an essay on the theatre, or at least on the gap between being and seeing - Brecht called it "the fourth wall" - which may not after all be the same thing. "Six Characters In Search Of An Author", which had its première in 1921, went even further, dissociating reality from reality as well as unreality from unreality by staging a play within a play; and a play about the putting-on of the outer play by the inner one at that. The absolute antonym to anything by Brecht, Beckett was clearly influenced, right down to the staging, but especially dialogue such as: 

FATHER: We’re looking for an author

PRODUCER (angry and astonished): An author? Which author?

FATHER: Any author will do, sir.

The metaphor as metaphor! And later, in Act Two, a monologue that could as easily be Malone's, or Molloy's:

MOTHER: No! It’s happening now, as well: it’s happening all the time. I’m not acting my suffering! Can’t you understand that? I’m alive and here now, but I can never forget that terrible moment of agony, that repeats itself endless and vividly in my mind. And these two little children here, you’ve never heard them speak have you? That’s because they don’t speak any more, not now. They just cling to me all the time; they help to keep my grief alive, but they don’t really exist for themselves any more, not for themselves…

"Six characters" begins on an empty stage, with no set and no wings, in almost total darkness and the stage manager building what will be the set for a play entitled "The Game As He Played It", encouraging the audience to worry that they have come to the wrong event, unsettling them psychologically. Pirandello could not have done this without Brecht, but neither could Brecht have written "Six Characters". An actor, playing the part of an actor, who is representing someone who denies that they are acting: once the metaphor goes that far the fourth wall simply implodes and there is no longer a space between the real and the unreal – which is to say the imaginary, the fictitious, the fantastical – the metaphorical itself.

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