Pirandello’s Love Letters to Marta Abba
edited and translated by Benito Ortolani
Princeton University Press, 363 pp., $35.00
The Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello fell in love with the actress Marta Abba in 1925, when he was fifty-eight and she not quite twenty-five. He was by then well known for his plays throughout the Western world, Six Characters in Search of an Author having appeared in 1921 and Henry IV in 1922. Even if Abba had been willing, he could not have married her under Italian law: his wife was alive, though she had been confined in an asylum for many years. Pirandello remained infatuated with Abba until his death eleven years later, and the Italian edition of his letters to her runs to more than 1,500 pages of mostly distressing text. The editor and translator of the English edition Benito Ortolani thinks that
when Pirandello allows his fantasy to elaborate on idyllic dreams and fervent longings and amorous enlightenment, his ornate language and similes might well remind us of the great classic lovers, from Petrarch singing his rapture for Laura’s beauty to Abélard affectionately instructing his beloved Héloïse.
They might: but more than anything else they remind one of Professor Unrath imploring Lola in The Blue Angel. Pirandello was in Berlin—fretting over productions of his plays and trying to break into German films—at the time Josef von Sternberg was directing his famous movie: and later on both its stars, Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings, showed an interest in having Pirandello write screenplays for them. So one can’t help thinking he must have seen the film and perhaps identified with its pathetic antihero. It is a painful thought, because what these letters show is an older man racked, humiliated, crawling with hopeless passion for a much younger woman.
Not that Abba was a love goddess like Lola. Between the lines of his tactful introduction, Ortolani seems to be telling us that she was frigid. She was interested only in her art, as Pirandello saw it; others might have called it her career. Human affection was reserved for her parents and sister. They were a petit bourgeois Italian family, strait-laced and very close. When Pirandello died, Abba had just become an international star at last in the Broadway production of Tovarich. Just over a year later she married a Cleveland millionaire called Severance A. Milliken, and retired from the stage. The marriage lasted only a few weeks, though the couple were not divorced until 1963. Abba returned to Italy, and tried, unsuccessfully, to make a comeback on the stage. She died in 1988.
In 1984, Ortolani says in his introduction, she gave Pirandello’s letters to Princeton, and the university agreed to publish them in Italian and in English. The following year he visited Abba: “She screened me carefully with respect to my deep feelings about the Maestro, and I plainly told her what I had always thought: that Pirandello is a poet of human suffering, and that to understand and appreciate him there is no other way but to learn to hear the agony …