On Pirandello’s ‘Clothing the Naked’

“Let this be like a tribunal!” the Chief Actor shouts at the Director in Tonight We Improvise. He wants genuine improvisation, not the false article the Director seeks to impose on the troupe in rehearsal, and he appeals to the freedom of the theatre to back him up in his mutinous demand.

“Let this be like a sentimental drama,” Pirandello seems to be saying in Clothing the Naked. But we cannot have a sentimental drama, because we have Pirandello, and the only theatre Pirandello knows how to make is one of judgment and reflection; his stage is, precisely, a tribunal or raised bench of judges. Like so many of Pirandello’s plays, Clothing the Naked comes out as the opposite of a tear-jerker. Instead, we have reasoned analysis and “humoristic” reduction of the proposition set before us—in Pirandello’s own sense of the term “humorism,” which for him meant an effect of ambiguity brought about when reflection intervenes in the contemplation of reality. In the end, we cannot do better than to borrow from Brecht’s vocabulary and say that Pirandello’s theatre achieves a “distancing” of the familiar drama of heartbreak.

Surely it is clear—or should be—to those who know his work that in Pirandello the plot, or story, is only there to serve as an example, a mere illustration of a proposition being demonstrated before our eyes; in essence, the action is always an “apologue,” or lesson-carrier, as in a moral fable.

In Clothing the Naked, the demonstration we witness has to do with a theme we know from Right You Are (If You Think You Are): the nonexistence, for subjective human beings, of so-called “objective reality.” But whereas in Right You Are (If You Think You Are) a fanatical belief in objective truth as something that can be determined takes the form of petty provincial curiosity and gossip and is finally routed in a comic way, in Clothing the Naked it appears as raw, naked selfishness, and the end is ferocious—homicidal. Nonetheless, as occasionally happens with Pirandello (either because he is trying for too much or because he does not accept in full the logic of his own inspiration and hence makes the claim that a theatre of reflection and deliberation can also be a theatre of “simple natural feelings” and “down-to-earth humanity”), in this play he wants to move us, and if possible, to tears.

So here is the pitiful case of Ersilia Drei, a poor, seduced, abandoned girl and an attempted suicide. She has been led to her act by remorse at having been responsible, unintentionally, for the death of a child in her charge but, coming to on her hospital bed, she has sought to make herself a “proper little dress” to die in by inventing a story of having poisoned herself for love. Unfortunately for her, though, she is still alive, which allows rough, unfeeling men to strip the flimsy garment of pretense from her back and expose her, naked, to the public gaze, so that…

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