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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 in the end her only way out is to kill herself again, this time for good.

That, at any rate, is what the plot of Clothing the Naked would have us believe. There is a general principle, however, that applies to Pirandello as much as to any other dramatist. It may be summed up as follows: a situation, once it is disclosed on the stage, takes on the character of an objective fact independent of the playwright’s intentions and interpretative glosses and independent too of whatever turn or development his fancy imposes, as a pattern, on the subsequent action. It is by reference to this prime factual reality, this exposed core of evident truth, that, in the last analysis, one tests a theatrical work, finding it true or false, convincing or weak and inconclusive.

In other words, the action onstage as worked out by the playwright must match the real situation as presented to the assembled spectators; if not, the playwright is faulted. We recognize a good playwright not because he is cleverer and more adept at contrivance than the next but because he shows a more complete mastery of the meaning of the event he has put on the stage. As meaning and event proceed in unison we are brought to a kind of exaltation; the totality of what has been acted or suffered is extolled. Sophocles faces up to Oedipus’ bad luck; Voltaire, when he makes Laius’ son a victim of superstition, evades the reality of his theme to divagate on a preconceived idea—the product of his own head.

If we apply this Ockham’s razor to Clothing the Naked, what do we find? We find Pirandello, in his eagerness for pathos, ignoring the very facts he has offered us, forcing them to mean the opposite of what they are plainly saying and of what his own theatre inherently would demand. Such a distortion of the matter in hand accommodates itself readily to the structures of conventional playwriting. At the same time, however, Pirandello, being Pirandello, proposes to have his plot incorporate a meaning that obviously does not jibe with conventional dramatic form. The resulting clash points both to the real originally of the playwright and the false position he has put himself in.

On the stage all this becomes manifest. A simple fact gives it away—the fact that Ersilia Drei’s objective situation, which Pirandello counts on to touch and affect us, is much more true and more human than he realizes.

For Pirandello, Ersilia Drei is a blameless girl who has been seduced by two men, abandoned by the first (the naval officer) and by the second (the consul, with whom she was in service as a nursery governess) treated as a use object. It befalls her that one day, while she is being bedded by the insistent Signor Consul and while the little girl she is supposed to be taking care of is by necessity left alone, the child falls off a terrace and dies. Chased out of the house and heaped with shame by the Signora Consul, who has grasped the whole story, Ersilia roams the streets, penniless, and is driven by despair to sell her body to pay for her hotel room.

At this point of degradation, she tries to kill herself. In the hospital, determined to die respectably covered, she invents her lie of a disappointment in love. The newspapers pick up the story, and she becomes an object of universal sympathy, which in turn brings about her final agony.

The naval officer reappears, intending to make amends, and discovers that Ersilia was far from being the poor innocent of the sob stories: the motive of her suicide, far from being a broken heart, was the shame and humiliation into which she had sunk. Next comes the consul, incensed at the scandal she has unloosed with that lie of hers; he feels wholly justified in treating her as a fallen woman, since after all he was not the first to get her into bed. Finally even ‘the novelist who had taken her in when she left the hospital drops her on finding that the “real” and present Ersilia does not correspond with the character he had fashioned in his mind. Between them, they have reduced her to a state of being truly “unable to be anything.” Accordingly, she kills herself once and for all.

Now note that this interpretation of Ersilia Drei’s case rests on a false and quite unnecessary assumption on Pirandello’s part. In order to be humanly moving and theatrically acceptable, there is no reason that the young woman should be an utterly unreal figure all of whose acts were performed in a state of innocence—including the sale of her body for cash, a transaction that lends itself to angelic construction only in the novels of Dostoevsky and Eugène Sue. According to this logic, the impulse that prompts her to want to cover her shame with a lie about hopeless love has to be angelic too. On the contrary, however, that impulse has been supplied by Pirandello after the fact, from his stock of ideas. The “moral” of his apologue has been metamorphosed into a psychological motive and gratuitously assigned to the heroine.

But he cannot have it both ways. Either Ersilia Drei is what he would like to make of her, in which case the metaphor of the “little dress” evaporates in pure sentimentality. A desperate girl who feels herself to be both blameless and covered with blame dies, and that is all there is to it: that she may have invented a fiction that will have some posthumous validity is only a specious hypothesis. Or else we are dealing with a woman fully aware of what has befallen her, for whom life has become, quite simply and straightforwardly, insupportable. And in that case too it is the author’s notion, not hers, that she should get the idea of clothing herself in piteous lies.

It is time now to say outright that things are not the way Pirandello wants them to be. Ersilia Drei is no innocent; she is a wretched, unfortunate woman. Her story is a squalid item out of a tabloid, and here, precisely, rather than in the bathos imputed to it by the author, is its value as an apologue. Certain specific things happened to a woman, to a particular Ersilia Drei. This woman tries to do away with herself. Where, pray, is the sham in her saying that she did it out of despair, because of a lover’s betrayal? Why drag in the business of the “little dress”?

In strict Pirandellian terms (which, after all, are no more than those of common humanity), from the minute Ersilia claims this as her motive, it is her motive. Nobody has the right to deny it to her, not even Ersilia herself, suddenly proffering as an explanation a need to cover her nakedness. Even in terms of ordinary realistic probability, it is perfectly likely that she tried to kill herself because her heart was broken when the naval officer left her. This is no “little dress”; it is the truth. And out of that truth, misunderstood and trampled upon by the hypocrisy of others, arises the pathos—the real kind—of the Pirandellian fable.

Yes, folks, Ersilia Drei slept with the naval officer; yes, folks, she let the Signor Consul seduce her; yes, folks, the giddiness of the flesh made her forget the little girl; yes, she finished off by prostituting herself. And so? Who has the right to judge her? Certainly not those, anyway, who are bound up with her irrevocably in those identical circumstances, her accomplices in the full sense of the word.

This woman wanted to destroy herself and failed to do so. For that reason alone, she has been left defenseless, prey for the judgment of others—a judgment that differs in no way from a bestial drive to unload their offenses on her, so that the naval officer can reject her a second time but now with an easy conscience, because she does not conform to the “poor victim” stereotype applied to her story by the male sob-sister of the newspaper…. So that meanwhile the consul can feel himself entitled not only to upbraid her for the scandal but to claim that she was the one, with her sexual expertise, that led him into temptation. So that the novelist, finally—one of the most incompetent dei ex machina ever to be let down from the flies by a dramatist—can react like any common philistine when he sees the teary image he has made of the girl shatter before his eyes, an image which, by the way, he has put together with the aim of using it in a novel, as well as for private erotic and sentimental purposes.

This is the highly Pirandellian drama that Pirandello let go by the boards, for the sake of pathetic effects, on the one hand, and of conformity to the canons of nineteenth-century dramaturgy, on the other.

In short, he chose the easy way. In this connection, it is worth remembering the date of Clothing the Naked: 1922, one year after Six Characters. In Six Characters there was an explosion (there is no other word for it) of an active theatrical principle—genius or inspiration—that in fact had been working as a disturbing element as far back as Cap and Bells and in the plays that followed. Had Pirandello stuck to this track, pursuing his inspiration, he would have made something very different of the story of Ersilia Drei.

He would not have started out with the device, certainly mechanical, of the novelist who takes the poor creature in and invents a touching story about her. He would not have chosen the writer’s lodgings as the setting—an unhappily realistic rendering of “the place,”* as it was called in the old mystery and miracle dramas. He would have approached her story head on and without ficelles. He would have had all the characters on stage, each presenting his case and contending with the others for possession of the bare, gnawed bone of “objective truth,” each one right, according to his lights, and no one capable of making his version of the truth prevail, in short of being above the action, as a deus ex machina or arbiter of the drama in which they are all caught up. Because in human affairs there is no single truth and still less a single person who has rights over it. But there is a destiny, in this instance that of Ersilia Drei, poor woman, who has had not her clothing but her life stripped away from her, who cannot live because there is nobody left who cares to have her alive.

It is not the critic’s province to say how Pirandello might have handled the true story of Ersilia Drei and avoided the stage trickery that then forced him to tack on an extraneous meaning. Still, the critic may wonder why the author could not have followed the dramatic principle of Six Characters and gone straight to the point. He could have begun no matter where, providing that the actual story (as in Six Characters) had already taken place and was being repeated in the theatre in order to make plain its real truth—a thing that can never come about in actual life since, for Pirandello as for present-day consciousness in general, human beings elude any finality of judgment and the real truth, for each, consists only in a destiny.

The concept of the stage action as repetition, re-enactment of an already accomplished fact (rather than simulation of a set of facts still in the course of happening), goes back to the very origins of the theatre. It is this basic, primordial concept (and I shall never get tired of saying so) that modern dramatists, from Ibsen to Pirandello and Genet, have been trying to return to, in different ways and with varying degrees of success.

A return to such a concept, or guiding principle, is the theatre’s only hope, in my belief, of freeing itself from nineteenth-century conventions and mechanical plot construction. In the theatre, the main thing is the drama, the conflict of individual situations, of ideas and passions—the clash of characters who are left, so to speak, on their own. If this is so, then the fictional element—fabulation—loses all importance. What matter are reflection and judgment. As for the plot, it plays exactly the same part as played by the corpus delicti in a law court. It has already happened and is now being re-examined, mounted on the stage for inspection—not the exterior episodes, as in a film, but the relevant and material acts, those we would turn over in our minds, in the course of reflection.

translated by Mary McCarthy and Ronald Strom

  1. *

    Translators’ note. The central, stationary acting area or platea, generally free of scenery, around which were grouped the various movable “pageants” and “mansions” representing Herod’s palace, Pilate’s hall, and so on.

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