Forum Italicum, 48.3 (November 2014): 633-35
While there are several English translations of Luigi Pirandello’s (1867–1936) most famous theatrical work, Six Characters in Search of an Author (Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore, 1921 and 1925), teachers seeking to introduce their students to this seminal modernist play will be excited by the new volume translated by Martha Witt and Mary Ann Frese Witt. Their edition is the first to combine a sensitive English rendering of the play with translations of related documents from Pirandello’s corpus. As a result, it reveals one of Italy’s most prominent literary figures in a new light to his English readers; we see here how the Pirandellian character (personaggio) takes shape, developing from figures haunting the author in his autobiographical short stories to creatures of the imagination who take center stage in their search for artistic realization. Their translation reminds us why Pirandello was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1934 for his “bold and brilliant renovation of dramatic and scenic art”: in Six Characters he combines personal obsession, psychological speculation, and a new visual and performance language to convey a sense of modern fragmentation that haunts us still today.
The most useful aspect of this new translation is its contextualization of Pirandello’s play along with short stories and other documents relating to its conception. These include two short stories, the previously untranslated “Characters” (“Personaggi,” 1906) and a new translation of “The Tragedy of a Character” (“La tragedia d’un personaggio,” 1911, previously translated as “A Character’s Tragedy” by Stanley Applebaum in Eleven Short Stories / Undici novelle: A Dual-Language Book [New York: Dover, 1994]); Pirandello’s early notes for a proposed novel on the same theme, “Six Characters in Search of an Author: A Novel to Be Made” (“I sei personaggi” in his “Foglietti”); an “Excerpt from a Letter” from Luigi to Stefano Pirandello; and the “Preface” (“Prefazione”) to the play that Pirandello published in the journal Comoedia (January 1925) and then in the second edition of Sei personaggi later that year. By framing Six Characters with these related documents, the volume clarifies how Pirandello’s notion of the living character develops across genres and over a span of decades, revealing the complexities of the titular Characters in new detail for its English readers.
In addition to these documents, Mary Ann Frese Witt offers a concise introduction to historicize the play. Clearly informed by recent scholarship, she highlights how the play transforms aspects of the modern European stage. Especially useful here is her account of how the play was modified by the intervention of prominent artistic directors such as the Pitoëffs in Paris (April 1923) and Max Reinhardt in Berlin (December 1924). Her description of the structure of 19th- and early- 20th-century theater troupes also clarifies the relations among the Actors, the Director (Capocomico), and the Characters. The introduction also addresses issues that have sometimes been misunderstood, such as the way in which Pirandello’s view of the author’s supremacy changes as he spends more time working in the theater. One difficulty, common to introductions of this sort, is that while much of the information is important for a student approaching the text for the first time, its analysis of the play includes information that will spoil the plot for a first-time reader, revealing how the Characters’ stories end. This forces a trade-off between having the background information to deepen initial comprehension and being able to experience the full dramatic tension of the work in an initial reading.
Witt and Witt’s translation does a commendable job of staying close to Pirandello’s language. Occasionally this fidelity can result in a sentence that would not sound entirely natural in English if performed on the stage, such as the Stepdaughter’s insistence to the Director about one of the Father’s lines: “No, no, my dear sir! He has to say to me exactly what he said, ‘Then let’s take it off right now, this little dress!’’’ (p. 71). In performance, some minor adaptations of a line like this would likely be useful to ensure the naturalness of its effect. However, in other places the translators have already made adaptations to help maintain the text’s immediacy and impact. An excellent example is their intelligent decision to render Madame Pace’s speech as a pigeon mixture of Spanish and English in order to replicate the bizarre effect of her lines. This is what the Stepdaughter highlights when she proclaims: “it makes you laugh when you hear her say that there’s an ‘old señor’ who wants to ‘amuse himself with migo’’’ (p. 64). Likewise, by using everyday language as much as possible in some of the Father’s long philosophical speeches, they are made to feel more believable than a more abstruse rendering would allow. Overall, it is clear that the translators have chosen to avoid a “scholarly” tone (also in their few footnotes) in order to keep the text vital, fresh, and exciting. Proponents of Pirandello’s work will be especially excited to see this, given Pirandello’s own preoccupation with how artistic form can kill off the vitality of life’s natural flow, its changing, multiform existence.
In his last theatrical work, The Mountain Giants (I giganti della montagna, staged posthumously in 1937), Pirandello depicts how an author’s masterpiece is kept alive after his death by the tireless dedication of a theatrical troupe. Among other things, this is a kind of plea by Pirandello – not only to his lead actress, Marta Abba (1900–1988), but to us today – to maintain the vitality of his ideas by bringing them back to life on the stage. As an excellent volume for students of both literature and theater, this translation will contribute to that ongoing artistic resurrection.
— Michael Subialka, St Hugh’s College,
University of Oxford, UK