Henry IV

by Luigi Pirandello

Translated by Martha Witt
& Mary Ann Frese Witt
with an Introduction
by Mary Ann Frese Witt

Pirandello Society of America Journal


Pirandello Society of America Journal 30 (2017): 93–95

Pirandello’s masterwork, Henry IV, is paired with The License in a new translation by Martha Witt and Mary Ann Frese Witt. The “Introduction” explains that the plays were placed as companion pieces because they both deal with the same subject — madness.

Although both plays ostensibly deal with madness — feigned or true — the similarities stop there, and one could argue that madness is not the true subject of either play. What the plays really share in common is an exploration of the subjectivity of truth, and madness is shown to be a subjective perception in both plays. Henry IV is a tragicomedy that is both a play and a philosophical treatise. Madness here is a defense against the onslaught of time and aging, a mask to be worn in the search for continuity of Self. The License is a slight farce with typical Pirandellian irony rooted in Sicilian folklore. Perceived madness here is the result of local superstition and belief in the evil eye, which enables madness to be exploited as a business scheme. Because the plays vary in both genre and style, the problems of translation posed by each are very different.

Henry IV presents multiple challenges to the translator. The play is over-long, suffers from a prolonged exposition and the need to recount an historical back-story that is both unfamiliar to contemporary audiences and confusingly revealed. Multiple secondary characters need to be introduced, and long discursive monologues that paraphrase sections of Pirandello’s essay L’umorismo need to be rendered as playable dialogue on stage. Reading the long descriptive passages and detailed stage directions, one feels Pirandello the novelist often gets the better of Pirandello the playwright. In a play about a man who is the author, director and lead actor in his own drama, Pirandello failed to trust the actor to portray what is unwritten. As such it is the translator’s burden to succeed where Pirandello himself has failed. Yet who can resist the attempt?

The play’s inherent theatricality, its use of all the elements of theatre — costume, sets, character, and role play — and the brilliance of the conceit on which it is based remain a lure. This new translation is remarkably faithful to the Italian yet still gives the language a contemporary feel. Gone are the Briticisms that plagued the Edward Storer version. The language of Henry’s court remains stately, yet modern.

The long exposition, for the first time, seems thoroughly comic. Individual attendants are more clearly defined as separate characters by their dialogue. The self-reflexive humor that seems to be missed in other translations is aptly revealed. Take, for example, the translation of “il nostro vestiario si presterebbe a fare una bellissima comparsa in una rappresentazione storica, a uso di quelle che piacciono tanto oggi nei teatri” as “[...] we’ve got everything we need for the set, and our costumes would be perfect for one of those historical plays that are so popular in the theatre today.” And poor Berthold’s confusion over century and country reflect the humor of a Commedia zanni.

Once Lady Matilda and her entourage enter, the play’s tempo falters. Eighteen pages of exposition follow before Henry makes his entrance more than one-third of the way through the play. Unfortunately, this is not the delayed comic entrance of Tartuffe, and little in the dialogue, either in Italian or English, can compete with Molière’s “serrez ma haire, avec ma discipline.” The drama here must come from the acting, and no translation can save the moment. Lady Matilda seems more acid-tongued here, and her numerous insulting exchanges with Belcredi give a more palpable sense of her disdain for him than in other translations. But poor Henry remains burdened by confused storytelling and by Pirandello’s need to explicate his theories of umorismo in the dialogue.

The translation does not make the back-story much clearer nor the long didactic passages any less heavy, but this is a flaw in the original text that could only be overcome by substantial editing. This translation strives to flow along with the Italian, yet wherever a single English word can replace several in Italian, the translators have opted for economy, which facilitates the play’s flow and makes the dialogue more actable. Alienisti is here translated as “psychiatrists,” which updates the term to contemporary usage. It does, however, lose the connotation of being strangers to ourselves as we engage in the self-conscious role-play that Henry IV dramatizes.

The translators have chosen to break up many of Pirandello’s long sentences. This helps to move the action along and serves the drama of the finale well by permitting an acceleration of the pace leading up to Belcredi’s stabbing. The horrified response is staccato in the Italian and in the translation, underscoring the shock of Henry’s final act.

The translation of The License is a delight and is a marked improvement over the William Murray translation. It captures the comic rhythm of the text and suggests the physical humor aptly in the stage directions. The absurdity of the village that believes in the jettatore or evil eye is clear in the dialogue of the secondary characters. Idiomatic expressions that were translated literally in prior translations and made no sense are here interpreted into current English usage. The comic elements pulsate through the text, and this translation makes the play a stage-worthy vehicle.

Henry IV defined the genre of tragicomedy that would come to dominate the twentieth century. The play elucidated the central concerns of the modern theatre — the struggle for permanence and meaningful identity in a hostile world governed by the weight of time and change. Pirandello’s understanding of games, social masks, and self-conscious role-play are an early expression of the themes we later find in Beckett, Genet, and Pinter, and as such he remains a seminal figure of the modern avant-garde. This translation’s updating of the text for the contemporary audience is a welcome addition to theatre studies.

Mira Felner
Hunter College, CUNY

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