[Epic symbols (Vietnam 2017). Foto Rb]

Italian Twentieth-century playwright Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), born one-hundred and fifty years ago this year, had “immeasurable” influence on contemporary world drama. According to Robert Brustein:

“In his agony over the nature of existence, he anticipates Sartre and Camus; in his insights into the disintegration of personality and the isolation of man, he anticipates Samuel Beckett; in his unremitting war on language, theory, concepts, and the collective mind, he anticipates Eugene Ionesco; in his approach to the conflict of truth and illusion, he anticipates Eugene O’Neill (and later, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee); in his experiment with the theatre, he anticipates a host of experimental dramatist, including Thornton Wilder and Jack Gelber; in his use of the interplay between actors and characters, he anticipates Jean Anouilh; in his view of the tension between public mask and private face, he anticipates Jean Giraudoux; and in his concept of man as a role-playing animal, he anticipates Jean Genet”.[1]

This is all true. However, possibly the most important contribution that Pirandello’s theatre gave to posterity was his anticipation of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre.[2] I will hereby illustrate in which way Pirandello’s theatre can be defined as epic and what is the connection between the work of the two playwrights.

According to Peter Szondi, classic drama is “the literary form embodying the (1) always present, (2) interpersonal, (3) event”.[3] Drama came into being in the Renaissance as “the result of a bold intellectual effort made by a newly self-conscious being who, after the collapse of the medieval worldview, sought to create an artistic reality within which he could fix and mirror himself on the basis of interpersonal relationships alone”.[4] At a time in which the sphere of the “between”, or interpersonal relationship, was the most important aspect of man’s humanity, drama sought to express it through dramatic dialogue. Dialogue is indeed the main linguistic and structural feature of classic drama.

The other important feature of drama is its “absolute” nature. Drama is “always present”: past events are not performed, even though they might be mentioned during the characters’ dialogue; events occurring in the outside world are not performed and do not enter the realm of dramatic action. Drama is the event or, to put it in Szondi’s words, drama is “primary”. It is not a representation of something else. It is itself. Classic drama does not imply the presence of a dramatist or an author: “Ultimately the whole world of the Drama is dialectical in origin. It does not come into being because of an epic I which permeates the work”.[5]

This theatrical model starts its decline at the end of the XIX century, along with the crisis of contemporary man who loses his/her centrality and starts questioning traditional forms of social aggregation such as the family. According to Szondi, the crisis of traditional drama is made apparent by the intrusion of narrative or epic elements in its structure. So, while classic drama used to be pure action taking place in the present, on the stage, in front of an audience, making no reference to the outside world and expressing its interpersonal nature through the dominance of dialogue, contemporary drama puts on stage troubled individuals who have lost the sense of their centrality in the world, have become more aware of their subconscious thoughts, of the importance of their past, and tend to reflect on the nature of relationships rather than engaging with them. Monologue becomes dominant in contemporary play, or monologue disguised as dialogue. Characters indulge in detailed descriptions of their inner world and talk about the motives of their actions. The past dominates the present and sometimes blocks the dramatic action. All these elements of dramatic action are considered narrative or epic by Szondi because they are descriptive in nature and they imply the presence of an author behind them.

Pirandello’s masterpiece Six characters in search of an author is a classic example of the new epic drama. It declares its epic nature beginning with its title. We have not even sat down to watch the play and we already know that there is an author, an epic I, who has created the characters, and there are six characters looking for him. The title of Pirandello’s play is therefore our gateway to contemporary drama.

Dialogue is very important in the play but, as one of the characters explains, it is pointless in the modern world as it has lost its communicative function. Everyone uses a different set of values and ideas to decode other people’s words, and communication is therefore bound to fail:

“IL PADRE: Ma se è tutto qui il male. Nelle parole! Abbiamo tutti dentro un mondo di cose; ciascuno un suo mondo di cose! E come possiamo intenderci, signore, se nelle parole ch’io dico metto il senso e il valore delle cose come sono dentro di me; mentre chi le ascolta, inevitabilmente le assume col senso e col valore che hanno per sè, del mondo com’egli l’ha dentro? Crediamo d’intenderci; non c’intendiamo mai!”[6]

As regards the unity of time, the play which the actors are attempting to perform is a past traumatic event, thus there is continuous reference to the fact that this event has already taken place in the past. Subsequently, the plot of the sub-play enacted by the six characters is descriptive in nature. It is a narration of something that has already happened rather than an action happening in front of the audience’s eyes. Needless to say that the characters’ interiority, their feelings towards their creator, their past traumas and the company of actors who are attempting to rehearse the characters’ play, are the real protagonists of the play. This is another element that Szondi would define epic or narrative and therefore characteristic of modern drama.

During the Twenties and Thirties, a new theatre develops in Germany, France and Russia aiming to make extensive use of the technological innovations introduced in scenic effects, stage architecture and lighting by a number of avant-garde directors and authors such as Pitöeff, Reinhardt, Piscator and Mejerchol’d. In particular, Erwin Piscator used a wide range of technological innovations, including the projection of movies onto the back of the stage, in order to draw his audience’s attention to the social and economic conflicts that were troubling Europe between the two world wars. Through use of multiple and rotating stages connected by bridges and stairs, Piscator intended to perform simultaneously scenes happening in different locations. The projection of historical or political movies was used to make reference to the big political picture and raise the audience’s awareness about events happening in the world outside the stage. Piscator was therefore breaking the unity of place and time of traditional drama. Going back to Szondi’s model, Piscator was making extensive use of narrative or epic devices and breaking the illusion that an action was being performed in front of his audience, in the absolute space of the present.

Along with these technological innovations, another important change is introduced in European theatre with the appearance of the stage manager who has the task to coordinate different aspects of the performance including acting, text adaptation, scenic effects, lighting, make-up and so on. This new role acquires so much importance, also due to the technological innovations experimented by the avant-garde, that stage managers become true divas who claim to be more important than playwrights, and show an inclination to manipulate the text and the acting to the point of creating a play which may be quite different from the one conceived by the author.

Pirandello, who was fascinated by the technological innovations introduced in European theatre during the Twenties and had emphasized the importance of the stage manager in Six characters, is not ready to embrace either the political use of technology promoted by Piscator or the dominant role of the stage director theorized by the European avant-garde. His experiments with lights, scenic effects, multiple stages or bridges connecting the stage and the audience, aim to reproduce on stage the dreamlike, surreal and subconscious quality of a fantastic world that mirrors as much as possible the space of the author’s mind, where the characters were born. This idea of theatre as a dreamlike and surreal space becomes more and more defined in Pirandello’s poetics. When Pirandello adopted the innovations of Piscator’s theatre, especially in the play Tonight We Improvise (1930), he did not seem to embrace the ideology and the poetics behind it.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) follows on from Piscator’s efforts and brings his concepts to maturity. Brecht draws his audience’s attention to the alienation and fallacy of social processes. His theatre is pedagogical and didactic. His aim is to express a definite message to his audience. His theatre is therefore descriptive and “epic” in nature. To raise his audience’s awareness about the socio-political issues dealt with in his plays, Brecht uses the stage as a narrator. As a narrator would interrupt the dramatic action and describe or explain what is happening on the stage from a social viewpoint, in Brecht’s epic theatre every single component of the theatrical device such as the script, acting, make-up, costumes, lighting, billboards, the projection of movies,  fulfil the same function as a narrator. So, for example, an actor might interrupt the scenic action to turn around to the audience and address a point of social concern, the movie projected on the backstage might be of a political nature, the costumes worn by the actors might reveal the true nature of the characters’ personality beyond the appearance of their role. All these aspects contribute to conjure up what Brecht calls “alienation effect”, Verfremdungseffekt,  which encourages the audience to watch the play with an active rather than passive attitude, learn about the fallacy of social processes, develop a critical conscience and adopt a constructive attitude in everyday life that will help them change the same processes.

Akin to Brecht and Piscator, Pirandello’s theatre explodes the form of classic drama and, as Szondi claims, enacts the “impossibility of the drama”, especially in the Six characters. However, Pirandello’s search of a new poetics, after declaring the death of traditional theatre, goes in a different direction than the one indicated by Brecht. Pirandello does not ratify a political or social use of drama. After the trilogy of the theatre within the theatre, or meta-theatre, Pirandello will go back to the magical and ritualistic roots of theatre and will discover the theatre as a semi-mystical and evocative experience.

The connection between Pirandello and Brecht’s theatre is therefore to be found in the critical attitude that both playwrights had towards traditional forms of theatre, and their subsequent deconstruction of the dramatic form which mirrored and signified a deconstruction of the dramatic content. I am thinking of a specific character acting as the critical conscience of the drama in Pirandello’s theatre – the “epic character” or “choir character” – which becomes every single character in Brecht’s theatre. In the Six Characters the role of the epic character is that of the Capocomico [Stage Manager] who keeps bringing the audience’s attention to the deeper meaning of the play, as per the intentions of the playwright. Thus, the Capocomico emphasizes the “narrative” or descriptive nature of the story that the Six Characters are trying to perform in front of the actors, and the impossibility to perform it. In sum, through the Capocomico, Pirandello intends to refer to the crisis and death of traditional drama that has become epic or narrative in nature and is therefore impossible to perform. In the following passage, the Capocomico interrupts the memory of the stepdaughter who is recollecting his meetings with the stepfather as a young girl outside her school:

“IL CAPOCOMICO: Ma tutto questo è racconto, signori miei!
IL FIGLIO (sprezzante). Ma sì, letteratura! Letteratura!
IL PADRE. Ma che letteratura! Questa è vita, signore! Passione!
IL CAPOCOMICO. Sarà! Ma irrapresentabile!”[7]

The role of the Pirandellian Capocomico is performed in Brecht’s theatre by all the characters in the play that adopt a critical attitude towards the content of their performance and continuously voice the playwright’s concerns about the social processes represented on stage. Thus, Pirandello’s epic character is the predecessor of Brecht’s epic stage and epic acting. This is an important legacy if we consider the enormous significance that Brecht’s epic theatre has had in contemporary dramaturgy.

[1] R. Brustein, The Theatre of Revolt, Boston, Little Brown and Company, 1964, p. 316.
[2] On the topic of Pirandello’s influence on Brecht’s theatre, see P. Chiarini, Pirandello e Brecht, in Atti del Congresso internazionale di studi pirandelliani: Venezia (2-5 ottobre 1961), Le Monnier, Firenze: 317-41, 1967.
[3] P. Szondi, Theory of the Modern Drama, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1987, p. 45.
[4] Ibid., p. 7.
[5] Ibid., p. 10.
[6] L. Pirandello, Three Plays. Sei Personaggi in Cerca d’Autore, Enrico IV and La Giara, edited by Felicity Firth, Manchester University Press, 1969, p. 21.
[7] Ibid., p. 25.