Luigi Pirandello
Luigi Pirandello; drawing by David Levine

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 echoing from within his dramatic voice, a voice that is in essence an excruciating scream of pain. Marta’s mistrust quickly melted away.” She commissioned Ortolani to edit and translate the letters. But what about Marta’s side of the correspondence? She must have had possession of her own letters, because Ortolani says that she allowed him to see but not to use them. He returned them to her and now, he says, “I am aware that a publication of Marta’s surviving letters is being prepared in Italy.” That must be annoying even though the most important letters, according to Ortolani, were destroyed by Pirandello in 1929 on Abba’s orders.

She sounds an imperious lady. Pirandello’s side of the correspondence shows him struggling to comply with her demands—generally in vain. She regarded his “excruciating screams of pain” as “idle chatter” and ordered him to shut up about his love, his loneliness without her, and his suicidal despair. So he is always apologizing for his previous letter, eating mud, then telling her all over again how he loves and needs her and how unhappy he is, hinting at suicide and then apologizing all over again for annoying her and giving her pain. The letters really are “excruciating,” but every now and then they remind one of Woody Allen without the jokes.

In 1928 Pirandello’s Italian theater company (with Abba as its leading lady) collapsed from lack of funds, and he left Italy in disgust. Shaking the dust from his feet was his habitual reaction to setbacks, and that as well as the Abba problem may help to account for the desolation of his peripatetic later years. He first went to Berlin to seek his fortune, and persuaded Abba to accompany him. She did, but with her sister as chaperone. They stuck it out for six months but then, since none of Pirandello’s promises for Abba’s career materialized, she returned to Italy and set up her own touring company.


From wherever he was—Berlin, Paris, London, New York—his thoughts would follow her movements. They traveled with her from station to station in accordance with the railway timetable, saw her into the taxi at her final destination, then into her hotel room or her parents’ house in Milan, where he would beg her to rest and look after her health. If she was in a play, his imagination would follow her across the stage, line by line and gesture by gesture. She, for her part, told him to write only about practical matters like contracts and finance.

She seems to have been quite peremptory with Ortolani too. Her first instruction to him was “that the English language remain as close as possible to the original Italian” which, he says, “made my effort to translate this important but uneven body of literature very arduous.” The result is dreadful. It reads like a first draft, and even with Abba’s ghost breathing down his neck Ortolani might have strayed from literalness a little farther than to make the wretched Pirandello begin his letters “My Marta.”

Ortolani makes up for this excessive obedience by disregarding Abba’s second request, namely “that the work of introduction and comment be minimal.” There are long interpretative—no, invasive—footnotes, which paraphrase the text in case one hasn’t got the point: “In his open statement of supreme and total love, which takes the form of humble self-abnegation—literally at the feet of the beloved—Pirandello seems to indulge in a dreamy kind of masochism.” There are also little yelps of pedagogic illumination: “What a Pirandellian Pirandellism! It sounds like a line in one of his plays!” and “Here Marta becomes almost like Petrarch’s Laura.” Poor Pirandello! To suffer the humiliation of such editing when the text itself is already so full of mortification!

His image doesn’t come well out of these letters. They show him full of self-pity and paranoia, with occasional bouts of off-the-wall euphoria when he outlines schemes for making millions for himself, Abba, and the ideal theater they would found. He was vengeful toward his enemies, some of whom were probably real, since the Italian stage was a nest of intrigue. After his death, he predicted,

Italy will mourn the writer she will have lost, the writer she fought against and embittered to the very last, to whom nothing was given except with clenched teeth and balled fists. I will be sorry then not to be able to raise my head from my coffin to spit in the faces of my posthumous admirers.

On the other hand, he was willing to support anyone who supported him in his dreams of a theater in which artistic rather than commercial values would prevail. When Mussolini promised to finance a national theater, Pirandello joined the Fascist Party; when the money ran out he turned against the Duce. In 1936 he wrote to Marta in New York:

I won’t tell you how I was left feeling. You can figure it out. With you I lost my light. I cannot see anything anymore. I do not know why I keep on living. There is nothing that interests me or attracts me. They took me to Berlin. I went there; they gave me a lot of welcoming parties: Goebbels gave orders that my complete works for the theater, translated by Jews, be retranslated and performed again in the theaters of Germany. A new publisher offered me a very advantageous contract, and the revival will begin pretty soon at the State Theater of Berlin with special ceremonies, in other times all that would have made me proud and happy; now without you, it doesn’t have any effect on me.

Still, he did love ceremonies and titles and honors, like his election to the Italian Academy and the Nobel prize, which he won in 1930. Nor was he above trying to organize honors for Marta’s father, or soliciting the minister for culture to appoint him an inspector of the Society of Authors—which proves how confident he was in his own prestige, since Signor Abba kept a hardware store and doesn’t seem, on the face of it, to have been highly qualified for the office.

In 1932 Pirandello wrote a play called Quando Si E Qualcuno (When One Is a Somebody). It sums up his relations with Abba and the world in a manner that is painful because everything is so embarrassingly close to the truth and yet so melodramatically, so monumentally distorted—literally monumentally, as a summary of the plot will show. The hero—oracularly called “***” in the script—is a great writer whose fiftieth birthday is about to be celebrated by his elevation to the rank of count. He falls in love with a strong-willed, vivacious young girl, who is willing to give herself to him. He rejects her, and after she has stormed off, he says:


You don’t understand how the shame of being old holds me back—from you, who are so young. You don’t know the horrible thing that happens to old people. One sees oneself in a mirror—quite accidentally—and each time the desolation of seeing what one sees is stronger than the amazement at having forgotten it. And the shame inside you, the shame you feel—it’s like an obscenity for a person who looks so old to feel so young and so ardent. Ah, you are alive and young…so much alive that you have already changed—you can change from minute to minute, and I—no—I no longer can.

The speech continues with a worry about identity, which is indeed very Pirandellian: when you become a Somebody, you are no longer alive for other people, you no longer exist, you become a puppet, you decree your own death. This tragic cri de coeur brings down the curtain on Act II. But the play ends triumphantly with “***” returning from the off-stage ceremony of his elevation to make a speech to the assembled company. As he speaks, his words appear miraculously engraved on the palace wall behind him. The upbeat ending has something aesthetically fascist about it, though it could be wonderful theater. Fascism can be.

One never gets the feeling as one reads these letters, that Pirandello was a political fascist. But his later plays, from the entrance of Abba into his life, are greatly given to pronouncements as well as greatly theatrical: the style has become fascist. The plays which are performed, by which he is remembered—Six Characters in Search of an Author, To-Night We Improvise, and Henry IV—were all written just before he took up with the actress. The Abba years coincide with his artistic decline.

This Issue

May 12, 1994