lunedì 12 gennaio 2015

Truth, sanity and madness in Pirandello’s “Enrico IV”

Luigi Pirandello
by Olga Lenczewska


“Truth” is a piece of information with conforms to reality as it is. It is meant to be objective and commonly shared by a large group of people. The opposite of truth is fiction, therefore also any form of art that alters reality, or even goes as far as to create new characters and events, could be called the opposite of truth. Yet, since any author is a creator of a new world that functions within his works, theatre itself conveys always its own version of truth – the one that is true within the newly-created world, and presented as such on stage. In order to follow and understand the spectacle, we must engage in this game. In theatre, therefore, illusion often becomes truth. In Pirandello's works, however, the game goes much farther – the notions of truth and illusion within any play not only constantly intertwine, but intertwine to such an extent that the notion of truth gets lost in the way, and one does not know any more what is an illusion and what is not. The concept of truth in Pirandello’s plays can be illustrated by the vagueness of the distinction between sanity and madness in his “Enrico IV”. 

“Enrico IV” presents a story of a talented actor and historian falls off his horse while playing the role of Henry IV in a historical pageant. After he comes to, he believes himself to be Henry. For the next twenty years, his wealthy nephew, Count de Nolli, funds an elaborate hoax in a remote villa, hiring actors to play the roles of Henry's privy councillors in order to simulate the 11th-century court. In the play the notions of sanity and madness are defined within its frame and laws: we are confronted with a comparison between a theatrical world that resembles ours and anther one with in that does not resemble ours. The first one is represented by all of the “persone” except of Enrico; the latter by Enrico and the theatre-in-theatre, created by others who are aware of the game. Therefore the distinction between madness and sanity seems initially to be marked by the awareness of the game (everyone but Enrico) or by lack thereof (Enrico). 

A scene from Enrico IV
During the first two acts the reader may establish truth as that what the others say, and insanity as Enrico's behaviour. The situation, however, complicates itself to an unbearable extent in the last act when the reader and the other characters find out that Enrico has been aware for eight years that he is not really the German Emperor, and that the has been playing the game with the others, or he has been imposing the rules of his game upon the others who were completely unaware of it. Who appears to be mad at this point? Funnily enough, we are still inclined to say: Enrico, despite the fact that now we know it was him who was aware and the others that were not. But somehow the criterion of madness changes, and Enrico seems to have been mad by letting the game continue and acting as an insane person. Was this a mad decision? We are inclined to say it was, but nevertheless the definition of insanity is being substantially altered. Finally, it is altered once more at the very end of the play when Enrico, having unveiled the truth about himself to everyone's bewilderment, has a change to appear as sane, and in fact is considered as such by some characters, for example Belcredi: “BELCREDI: (…) Tu non sei pazzo!”. Enrico, however, immediately denies this, shouting “Non sono pazzo? Eccoti!”, and kills Belcredi. This decision seems to have been made by him in order to prove a point, but we get a feeling that a sane person would never kill somebody just to prove a point. 

Is Enrico really mad for doing so? And, is he still mad, or is he mad again but in a different way now? Clearly the definition of madness as well as the demarcation line between sanity and insanity become extremely vague at this point, and much is left to the reader's interpretation and speculation. But that is precisely what Pirandello wants: to leave the search for the truth to the readers; this is the final part of the game. In my opinion, at the end of the play Enrico himself doubts whether he is mad or not, but his decision to kill Belcredi has consequences, and he has to act as mad again (“Ora sí... per forza... qua insieme, qua insieme... e per sempre!”), which is inevitable in the light of his previous decision. The notion of truth seems relative and its objectivity hidden to us (as well as some characters). 

The notion of truth in Pirandello's plays is presented as relative. “Enrico IV” introduces so many dimensions that it is virtually impossible to answer, on the objective grounds, the question which of the characters are sane and which are mad. The truth, therefore, becomes a strongly relative concept, or, to put it differently, the objective truth is hidden from the audience (and some characters as well), and what remains visible are just certain viewpoints or perspectives of the theatrical reality. Which scenario is the true one or which characters are real and sane is never explicitly sad, and thus the truth is always hidden from the reader. Moreover, it can be questioned whether a fixed truth even exists in the plays – where would it be? I see no space within which it could exist – it cannot be found in the texts, implicitly or explicitly, and there are many plausible interpretations of what has really happened to the characters before the play. But pondering it might turn out to be useless, as the characters did not exist before the play and, after all, they are mere creations of the author.

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