Pirandello and social reality


What is reality? How are we to know what is ‘real’ and what is merely imaginary? Pirandello (1867-1936) dealt with these matters in his drama. In Henry IV, he created a character, Henry IV, who was deluded. He falsely believed that he was Henry IV. His father, Marquis Charles Di Nolli, employed a number of young men to dress up as German knights of the XI century to amuse his son. ‘Henry IV’s” room was also set up as a throne with a Baldachin! However, unbeknownst to his father and family, Henry IV had recovered from his malady but enjoyed being waited upon, so much so, that he continued to pretend be ill and remained in the role of Henry IV.


This drama allowed Pirandello to examine, to question, and to interrogate the nature of social reality. In this particular drama as in all theatre, the actors are acting their roles. The ‘acting’ is going on at several levels. There is the straightforward fact of acting in a play. Then, there is the fact that the young men who oversee Henry IV are both acting themselves as well as pretending to be German knights and Henry IV who everyone believes to be mad, to be deluded is actually pretending to be ill. Where does the truth of reality lie then? Is it within the audience, or the young men or Henry IV? One of the young men, Landolph says


Cheer up, my dear fellow! We don’t any of us know who we are really. He’s Harold; he’s Ordulph; I’m Landolph! That’s the way he calls us. We’ve got used to it. But who are we? Names of the period!



Here is an exploration of what it might mean to be mad, how madness might differ from logic and reason, and whether in truth any distinction exists between madness and reason. Of course, the implication being that the mad world alters how reality manifests itself before us. Delusions, abnormal and false beliefs determine how one perceives one’s status, one’s role, one’s relationship to others, and how secure one’s identity is. Abnormal moods and abnormal perceptions do just exactly the same, lending aberrant colour or hallucinated experiences to influence the character of reality. But the point that Pirandello strives to make in this drama is that  ‘reality’ is multi-layered; even without the cloak of madness, we live within an illusory world, an illusion that is so natural and full of stealth and enchantment that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be aware of its lure and power. Harold says


You ought to have known how to create a fantasy for yourselves, not to act one for me, or anyone coming to see me; but naturally, simply, day by day, before nobody, feeling yourselves alive in the history of the eleventh century, here at the court of your emperor, Henry IV! You, Ordulph, alive in the castle of Goslar, waking up in the morning, getting out of bed, and entering straightaway into the dream, clothing yourself in the dream that would be no more than a dream, because you would have lived it, felt it all alive in you. You would have drunk it in with the air you breathed; yet knowing all the time that it was a dream, so you could better enjoy the privilege afforded you of having to do nothing else but live this dream, this far off and yet actual dream!



But, what is the dream that we (the audience) are living outside of the time of the drama? Aren’t we too immersed in the multifold dreams created by our senses, the privilege as well as handicap of our brain, not to speak of advertising and propaganda: happy young couples, happy families, holidays that fulfill all needs, material goods that declare our status, prosperity and so on? And, is it possible to extricate oneself from such dreams as these, so pervasive, so captivating, entrancing to the extent that who needs a prison gate when the imagination would suffice?



In All for the Best, Pirandello explored the same terrain but searching with other tools, examining what influence emotions and perspective have on what we perceive social reality to be. This is a story of a man, Martino Lori who continues to mourn his wife’s death and to worship his daughter. He is treated with utter contempt by his daughter and all around who are not aware that he does not know that for all their married life his wife had conducted an affair with his boss, Salvo Manfroni, and that his daughter is not his daughter after all but Manfroni’s daughter. When he discovers this, Martino Lori says


Your contempt. No, you none of you ever concealed it. So that was the reason? You all thought I knew, and that I was keeping my mouth shut? But why – tell me, tell me why should I have kept quiet if I’d known you were not my daughter? Why should I have pretended not to notice the scorn you all showed? Yes, I can see it now: I can see how you all despised me


It became clear that the others had thought that Lori was playing the role of the grieving husband in order to maintain his position with Salvo Manfroni, his boss. This realization further deepens Lori’s self-loathing.  What is interesting is that this pivotal discovery that his love for his wife was true and deep, changed the attitudes of the others towards him, suddenly he is admired for his enduring love for his wife. Whereas for Lori his love for her died


She dies for me in this moment, dies for me in this moment, killed by her own betrayal!


There is no better demonstration of the role and influence of context in determining value and meaning. The grieving husband continues to demonstrate his love for his deceased wife because he does not know of her infidelity, others regard him with contempt because they believe that he is pretending to be a grieving husband for gain, for who could love an unfaithful wife like this? In this drama context is everything. Our feelings are fickle and inconstant. In the play we have a wonderful balance of emotions: Lori loves his wife but others treat him with contempt; he loses his love for her but he is admired for his enduring and constant love!


In the end Lori lies: he tells his ‘daughter’ that she is really his daughter when she is really Salvo Manfroni’s daughter. This lie acts to shore up her feelings about herself. Nothing in this play is what it seems.


Pirandello’s concern is to show that social reality, just like our perception of the sensory objective world is prone to error. The errors are differently determined; the one by social context, by values and imputed meaning and the other by flawed organs and tools.


Photos by Jan Oyebode 


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