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Teaching six characters.

Editorial note:

The following article inaugurates a new section of Italica devoted to presenting essays already published in journals that are out of print, and which continue to have a scholarly impact in their field. In this pedagogical issue, we begin with a reprint of an article by Olga Ragusa, Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and former Editor of Italica. The article was originally published by the journal Teaching Language Through Literature, Volume XXIV, 2 (1985): 3-14. We sincerely thank the author for permission to reprint.

"Six personnages.... L'histoire de cette oeuvre excede a elle seule en importance celle de tout le theatre italien de la troisieme decennie du siecle .... le realisme fantasmagorique des Six personnages est toujours considere, a pres de soixante ans de distance, comme la plus saisissante et la plus feconde des nouveautes qui distinguent le theatre europeen, pour ne pas dire "atlantique," du XXe siecle. Apres que la piece eut fait le tour du monde rien ne fut plus tout a fait comme avant sur les scenes les plus vivantes." (Paul Renucci, pp. Ixxiii-lxxiv in Luigi Pirandello, Theatre complet, Paris, Gallimard, I, 1977)

"Six Characters.... By itself the history of this work exceeds that of the whole Italian theatre in the third decade of the century.... the fantasmagoric realism of Six Characters continues to be considered almost sixty years later the most startling and most fruitful of the innovations that distinguish the European, not to say "Atlantic," theatre of the 20th Century. After the play had made the rounds of the world, on the liveliest stages nothing was any longer exactly as it had been before."

Six Characters is a canonical text for courses in the modern drama, and in English-speaking countries it is undoubtedly read and taught more often in that language than in the original Italian. It has been included in widely used anthologies and discussed in fundamental critical works (1). It is one of the five plays by Pirandello contained in Eric Bentley's edition of Naked Masks, first published in 1952 and regularly reissued since. Indeed, this one anthology, kept in print while all other Pirandello translations have atone time or another and sometimes definitively been permitted to go out of print, (2) has in the United States at least insured the uninterrupted inclusion of Pirandello in drama and literature courses taught in English to which his work is germane.

Whether teaching Pirandello under the aegis of a department of Italian or in conjunction with a program in Comparative literature, I myself have frequently had to rely on translations for students who had an inadequate or no reading knowledge of Italian. Teaching--as opposed to reading--a work in translation raises basic problems that go well beyond the accuracy or reliability of the available texts. On the graduate level, one important problem grows out of the need to supply an appropriate background of cultural, literary, scholarly, as well as theoretical and critical material for the work, to ground it in the tradition that is distinctively its own, to work the inverse vein, as it were, from the search for universal notions in it, the latter being an approach more suited to the undergraduate curriculum. Further, and this applies to teaching Pirandello in whatever language, there is the problem of finding a methodology that will privilege solid progress in the knowledge and understanding of his work instead of encouraging the ephemeral and often uncommunicable critical insights of enthusiastic and less than informed readings. Like a number of other modern writers, with his easily identifiable "philosophical" pronouncements on being and seeming, the multiplicity of the personality, or the impossibility of mutual comprehension, Pirandello has often attracted the wrong academic public.

The first time I taught Pirandello was in the mid-60's when for a summer session the Italian Department at Columbia broke with ifs own tradition in graduate courses and, instead of concentrating on the established classics or englobing single authors in a broader literary historical or thematic context, offered two monographic courses on contemporary authors: one on Moravia, the other on Pirandello; the former to be given, in Italian, the latter in English. Essays on these two authors had been recently commissioned for the series of pamphlets, "Columbia Essays on Modern Writers," which aimed at freshness of point of view by being entrusted not to narrow specialists but to critics who would presumably bring to their subject the excitement of a first encounter. The course on Pirandello was thus born in rather exceptional circumstances: it was not a course I had inherited in a normal departmental turn-over, nor was Pirandello's work as familiar to me in its various aspects as it would have been had I written a dissertation on it or studied it in depth for a similar purpose.

On the assumption that in graduate courses in language departments the critical discourse--the manner in which a work of literature is talked about--takes precedence over making use of it to further competence in the language, it has been customary at Columbia and elsewhere to grant instructors the privilege of choosing the language in which they desire to teach. This should come as no surprise (although it periodically does so for the native speakers among instructors), for over and over again works of literature have been commented on in languages different from the one in which they were written; indeed, a claim might be made that this passing beyond national linguistic boundaries is one of the tests of their survival. But while the instructor

might teach his course in English, there was once no question whatsoever that he or she and the students would read the basic texts and whatever secondary sources were necessary in the original.

The case for undergraduate courses was different, for there teaching in the foreign language was part of teaching it, and it was different also for other undergraduate courses, "World Literature," "Masterpieces of Literature" and such, where both the reading and the teaching were done in English. These latter courses, forerunners of comparative literature but without the theoretical underpinnings that have attempted to turn its study into a discipline, stemmed from the anti-nationalist current of early Romanticism exemplified by Mme de Stael's literary cosmopolitanism with its acceptance of the translator as full-fledged cultural middleman. In the "world literature" courses the Greek and Roman classics were read in English (Greek and Latin having ceased to be requirements in the liberal arts curriculum), and so were works in the less familiar European languages--Russian and the Scandinavian languages in particular--which in the nineteenth century had produced a flourishing literature of international resonance.

The co-existence and growth of different kinds of literature courses with their similar objectives but different practices eventually eroded distinctions once held to firmly, and so it came that I, a professor of Italian, found myself teaching an Italian writer in a graduate course, half of whose students could not read Italian. The stage was set for some surprises, which would be added to over the years as from time to time I was to repeat the course. I was also confronted immediately with doubts and questions as to the function and responsibilities of the instructor of such a hybrid course.

While all of Pirandello's published works and the secondary literature that had grown up around them in Italian (and other major European languages) were available to me, they were not so to all of my students. The first task, then, was the need to structure the course in such a way that the basic required readings would include only works existing both in the original and in English. This turned out to be no easy task for a writer so prolific as Pirandello, for whom there did not yet exist anything approaching a complete critical edition, and who,

in spite of having been a Nobel Prize winner, had been translated haphazardly and with no scholarly criteria in mind. (3) Of the important essay on humor, for instance, the theoretical basis of his aesthetics, since translated in its entirety, only a hastily chosen selection of passages was available. (4) Most of the novels and whatever short stories had been turned into English had to be read in difficult-to-locate editions of the '20s and '30s. (5) For the plays, the piece de resistance of his oeuvre, the accident of production and of copyrights had created a strange configuration, with lacunae that made historical and thematic development hard to follow and that glossed over parts of the production entirely. (6) There was for instance, no translation of Il berretto a sonagli, a pivotal play originally written in dialect, and none of La ragione degli altri, Pirandello's first three-act play, whose original production and first publication in book form throw significant light on some of the fundamental intentions of his theatre. (7) To be sure, we had the recent reissue of Walter Starkie's pioneering 1926 Luigi Pirandello (University of California Press, 1965), and the paperback edition of Domenico Vittorini's 1935 The Drama of Luigi Pirandello (Dover, 1957), a play by play retelling set--alas!--within a framework of simplifying and misleading thematic headings. (8) The easy accessibility of these two works made them particularly attractive to students, and faced me with the added problem of trying to neutralize their influence without at the same time incurring the pedagogically counterproductive effect of disparaging the few secondary sources available to the non-readers of Italian. (9)

An unsatisfactory situation with regard to texts is hot unusual in courses of this kind. Of the strategies to cope with it, I rejected two obvious ones: I made neither the texts in Italian nor those in English the exclusive foundation of the course. A third solution, that of ignoring the problem of texts altogether and letting each student swim or sink as best he can, was likewise discarded for it would have given the instructor an unchallengeable Olympian stance, encouraging him to speak not to but above his audience. The first and third solutions offer the same latitude in exposition, conceptualization and interpretation for the instructor, but whenever the question of the availability of texts in translation is skirted, the students without knowledge of the foreign language become passive recipients or at most uninformed questioners: much of the rime they have no opportunity to compare their own readings with those being presented. Opting for the first solution, that of basing the course on the writer's oeuvre as it is available in the original language, usually leads to a busy activity in translating--as, indeed, occasionally happened in the Pirandello course as I myself prepared translations of shorter or longer passages for integration into class use or as students worked on projects or term papers centered on essays or plays not yet translated. (10) But as far as the presence of translations in the classroom is concerned, the gravest danger to guard against is the attraction of pedantry and the often concomitant lapse into broken English: too vividly the many unenlightening and fruitless attempts at "correcting" translations come to mind, exercises in approximate bilingualism, dead moments in class time devoted to worrying about the precise connotations of words only to come up with the one word that does not fit but is soothingly familiar because deceptively the closest to the original. (11)

I have been speaking about a broad background of attitude toward a course such as the one on Pirandello. It must be obvious that my view was not the generalist's but the specialist's, not that of a novice or co-learner but of a scholar interested more than anything else in the recruitment of new forces for the work to be done. Research, in whatever field, starts with the recognition of an etat present and proceeds to the identification of areas to be explored or to be explored anew. For this reason the instructor in a graduate course must keep two trajectories open: that of the work or works, and that of the critical literature to which these have given rise. In such a course confrontation with the work is always mediated, embedded in something else: the work and existing commentary on the work go hand in hand. In preparing my first Pirandello course, then, I knew that, in addition to the fact that I would be reading the texts in Italian, one of my functions would be that of middleman in transmitting at least some of the vast mass of commentary that had accumulated on Pirandello's works since their first appearance in the early years of the century. (12) It seems strange in retrospect to think that I paid no attention to the possible effect that having the works read in translation might have, specifically the possibility of having to deal with the original and the translation of anyone work side by side. As far as the plays were concerned, in particular, I tacitly accepted a widespread opinion among literary critics that productions of a play often "betray" it (13) as producer, director and actors "make the play" for the theatre audience, and that the betrayal is compounded in foreign countries where adaptations to local practices and customs are almost a necessity. Divergences between the original and its translation are thus usually attributed to this one basic circumstance which is peculiar to drama. But it just so happens that the two texts of Sei personaggi that found themselves in proximity in my class, the Italian one that I was reading and the English one that some of my students were reading, offered a very complex variation on the traduttore traditore saw and started me off on a voyage of discovery that finally came to rest in my Pirandello: An Approach to His Theatre (University of Edinburgh Press, 1980).

The text situation for Six Characters, in translation and in the original, is the following. The translation included in Eric Bentley's Naked Masks, the normal way of access to Pirandello for the American student with no Italian, is the one prepared by Edward Storer for the London premiere of 25 February 1922 and also used for the New York premiere of the following 30 October. It was based on the first edition of the play (Firenze: Bemporad, 1921), which had appeared in print between the stormy Rome premiere of 10 May 1921 and the successful Milan performance of 27 September of the same year. Storer's translation was used by Arthur Livingston for the first collection of Pirandello plays to appear in English, Three Plays (New York: Dutton, 1922; London: Dent, 1923), and a quick look at Ottenmiller's Index to Plays in Collections Published between 1900 and Early 1975 (6th ed. rev. and enl., Metuchen. N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1976) shows that out of 41 translations in anthologies listed, 35 were Storer's. In Italian the work had a second and a third edition, in 1923 and 1924, and there was a fourth edition, "revised and corrected and with the addition of a preface," in 1925. It is this last, revised, edition that is read today, included in what is still the standard edition of the two-volume Maschere nude (Milano: Mondadori, 1958 and subsequent reissues) and in all paperback editions which were derived from it. Thus many of the students who read Six Characters in English--and most as far as the US is concerned continue to read the unrevised, uncorrected version of 1921. (14)

The two editions, the 1921 and the 1925, are not mutually exclusive; they tell the same story and do so in essentially the same way. Something of the manner of the telling is revealed in the Note immediately following the Cast of Characters, which calls attention from the start to an important departure from then current theatre convention. It has passed almost verbatim from the first edition to the fourth and it is quoted here in Storer's translation:
   The Comedy is without acts or scenes. The performance is
   interrupted once, without the curtain being lowered, when the
   manager and the chief characters withdraw to arrange the scenario.
   A second interruption of the action takes place when, by mistake,
   the stage hands let the curtain down. (15)

As far as the story is concerned, we may conceive of it as being that of six fictional characters who are rejected by their author and one day interrupt the rehearsal of a play to ask that the drama of their lives be performed instead; the acting company listens to them for a while but eventually refuses to accede to their wish. Or we may conceive the story as being that of a broken family--Father, Mother, Son--the relationship of whose members is further troubled by the birth of three illegitimate children to the Mother, by the Father's desire (after the death of the Mother's lover) to bring all the children together under one roof, by the death (through drowning and suicide) of the Mother's two youngest children, and by the running off of the Stepdaughter, the Mother's second child. If we follow the first alternative, we emphasize what can be called, by borrowing a term from the analysis of narrative, the frame; if the second, it is the content of the Characters' lives, the brute facts of everyday reality as portrayed in the play, that are the focus of attention. Frame and content come together in the work, but it is not the straightforward coming together of container and contained. As a matter of fact, the interweaving of the two is so constant and complex that for purposes of analysis a further schematization becomes necessary: the identification of three separate bodies of material as constituting the three distinct structural elements of the play. The three bodies of material are: 1) the story of the Characters' lives, i.e., the narrative content, 2) the attempt on the part of Manager and Actors to turn the story into a play, i.e., the playwright's technical expertise and his grasp of theatrical practice, and 3) Pirandello's own telling of the story within his representation of the Company's attempt to give it shape, i.e., the making of this particular play and its intended meaning. The generally perceived difficulty of the play, the repeated attempts at exegesis, are extensions of Pirandello's reworking of it both in the text and in production, of his own realization that the simultaneous crowding of these three bodies of material into the single space of the stage had not yet been satisfactorily resolved, that in the 1921 version the play had not yet been "made." And yet it is this version which has over and over again been at the basis of American interpretations of the play.

Changes in a text between the original and the definitive versions are customarily classified and studied under the headings of excisions, additions, and transpositions. The most important transposition in Six Characters is the displacement of the attempted scene between Mother and Son from the beginning of Act II to Act III, possibly because Act II had already been preempted for "The Scene." (16) The additions changed the beginning and the ending of the play and introduced a physical link between stage and audience. (17) But it is the excisions that turned out to matter most at the textual level. They included cutting the Father's long speech toward the end of Act I, which gave an interpretation of the meaning of the family drama and also contained a reference to the "Demon of Experiment." Ironically--although understandably, since it was the 1921 version that Bentley by way of Storer was acquainted with--the Father's interpretation became the very interpretation that Bently offers as his own in the essay "Father's Day," from a Freudian point of view one of the best pieces written not so much on Pirandello's play as on the inner story that it tells. (18) But it was the presence of the "Demon of Experiment" at this highly charged moment of the drama that prompted the one question from a student (19) that led me to the reconstruction of the relationship between the two editions--indeed, to the realization that there were two editions. While I had been able to dismiss other divergences between the text I was reading in Italian and that read in English translations in the same class, by dubbing them errors or infelicities in translation or invoking the hypothetical constraints created by intercultural adaptations of plays, the sudden appearance of a whole half page which I could not find in my text called for a more radical investigation. (20)

"Every performance of a play, even by the same actors represents a different realization of its possibilities, and no single performance can fully realize all its possibilities." Thus R. Scholes and C. H. Klaus in Elements of Drama (New York and London: Oxford UP, 1971) formulate the principle which justifies interest in what happens to a play after it is written, in its Fortleben. No less important, as is generally recognized for any work of art, is its pre-history, its genesis and early evolution, an instance of which was so spontaneously illustrated in the classroom episode just referred to. The familiar diachronic, genetic or historical, "approach" to a work is complicated in the case of drama by its peculiar transmission, i.e., its production history. Viewed against the continuum formed by the succession of circumstances and actions leading to the text and in turn derived from the existence and "performance" of the text (both at the level of critical interpretation and of theatrical production), many of the negative features of the teaching situation described earlier can actually be turned into positive stimuli for research projects and assignments that will not be ends in themselves but potential contributions to knowledge. (21)

Pirandello's roots lie in Sicily--they are regional more than national --but he became a playwright of international fame and success. To remain within the context of Sei personaggi, between 1921 and 1925 Pirandello's contacts with the life of the theatre intensified and reached out in new directions, including the first productions of his plays outside Italy. Among the important plays that belong to this period are Enrico IV (Henry IV), Vestire gli ignudi (To Clothe the Naked), La vita che ti diedi (The Life I Gave You), and Ciascuno a suo modo (Each in His Own Way), the last being the second of what would eventually become the trilogy of the theatre-within-the-theatre. Two one-act plays likewise written in those years, All'uscita (At the Exit) and L'uomo dal flore in bocca (The Man with the Flower in His Mouth), were instrumental in giving Pirandello direct experience with experimental theatrical milieus: Marinetti's Futurist performances and Anton Giulio Bragaglia's Teatro degli Indipendenti in particular. Mention has already been made of the London and New York premieres of the English version of Sei personaggi. II piacere dell'onesta (The Pleasure of Honesty), given at the Theatre de l'Atelier by Charles Dullin, laid down the foundations of Pirandello's success in Paris. In April 1923 he visited Paris where he saw the Pitoeff interpretation of Sei personaggi at the Comedie des Champs-Elysees. Later that same year he was invited to New York. Of special interest is the phenomenal success of his theatre in Germany where many first-rate theatres scattered all over the country offered considerably more opportunities for production than were available in countries with a more centralized cultural life. Active in Berlin at the time was Max Reinhardt, whose production of Sei personaggi at his new theatre, Kom6die, just built for him by the architect Oskar Kaufmann, marks an essential step in the history of the play between 1921 and 1925. (22) In 1921 two of Pirandello's short stories were turned into films, thus drawing him into the compass of this new art form as well. (23) Finally, in late 1924 he was joined by eleven other enthusiasts in the ambitious project of giving Italy something comparable to a state supported acting company with its own theatre. The Teatro d'Arte in Rome, redesigned by the architect Virgilio Marchi, who only the year before had adapted the ruins of the Baths of Septimus Severus for Bragaglia's avant-garde venture, was inaugurated on 4 April 1925 with Pirandello's new one-act play, Sagra del Signore della nave (Our Lord of the Ship), and Lord Dunsany's The Mountain Gods, which latter Pirandello had seen the year before during his trip to the United States. The double bill emblematized the new company's commitment to both an Italian and non-Italian, international repertory of experimental plays.

Pirandello's work must necessarily be viewed in a comparative, multinational perspective. In such a perspective the translations and the different "readings" which they and the various theatrical productions of his works in different countries and at different times represent become an integral part of the materials that scholarship must uncover, sift, and master. They are thus not stumbling blocks in a "hybrid" course such as the one I have described but grist for the mill, invitations to study Pirandello's works for the theatre--as indeed all works for the theatre should be studied--in something approaching their total phenomenology: not simply as works of literature but as texts in a probably endless process of reinterpretation. At the core of this process, however, there lies a text, a linguistic artifact that was once given a "final" shape. It is from as thorough knowledge as possible of that text that all serious subsequent work must take its point of departure. If a student's question set me off on the quest for that text in the case of Sei personaggi, it was another student's categorical statement years later that rewarded me. The second student was an undergraduate who doggedly picked through the holdings at the Lincoln Center Library for Performing Arts for a senior thesis on New York productions of Six Characters. Atone point he thought of consulting another instructor on campus who had included the play in one of his courses: he came back declaring that he could not talk to that instructor because that instructor did not even know that there were two editions of the play and that he had been reading the wrong one! (24)


Professor Emeritus, Columbia University
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Author:Ragusa, Olga
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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