Remy Bumppo’s Pirandello’s HENRY IV: A Modern Masterpiece Given Life

pirandello-cover0001Though considered a major modern playwright, the plays of Luigi Pirandello are rarely produced.

The reasons are numerous. First, the large casts require large budgets. Second, the plays’ philosophical facades are difficult to crack. And third, directors struggle to find a production style which makes the plays both clear and exciting to an audience.

Consequently, Remy Bumppo’s wonderfully theatrical and dramatically overpowering production of Pirandello’s masterpiece Henry IV (the last of his plays to use the image of madness) is as an important an occasion as you are apt to find anywhere.

“Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) initiated a new direction for the modern theatre by penning realistic plays that questioned the very fact of reality. He created plays in which the “given cir­cumstances,” to use Russian director Con­stantin Stanislavsky’s term, are hidden throughout the play. The truth of the dramatic situation, like the truth of life, can never be known. Moreover, his dramatic characters usually need to hide some truth to protect other characters from unnecessary pain. Often a raisonneur (voice of reason) denies the existence of hidden secrets, thereby leading both the char­acters and the audience away from the answers they are seeking. Pirandello saw existence as a confused layering of masks and faces—some internal, others external, some self-made, oth­ers demanded by society. Where could one find reality, truth, or even identity? Because layers of illusion and numerous masks are stripped away to no avail, the truth remains just beyond the next layer or mask…. Pirandello himself was a partner in an ar­ranged marriage. His wife suffered a mental breakdown and lived as a paranoid sadist who almost drove their daughter to suicide. Pirandello was eventually forced to commit his wife to an asylum. Although his dramatic form remained realistic, his ideas started a main current of the modern theatre.”[i]

The Pirandello current has been most clearly embraced by the Czech playwright Tom Stoppard, the translator of this Henry IV, whose first success, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966), could have been written by Pirandello himself.

The brilliance of the Remy Bumppo production is due first, to the Stoppard translation which the theater gives its Midwest debut, and second to the director Nick Sandys, himself a Stoppard scholar.

Stoppard’s language and Nick Sandys’ direction cleverly disguise Harold Bloom’s insight that Pirandello employs rhetoric “to enchant the audience into a realization of the antithetical nature of all truth”, choosing instead to emphasize the enjoyment of Pirandello’s plot twists and turns.

Sandys wisely avoids the philosophical mumbo-jumbo trap which hides the fact that the play is, at core, a love triangle, like the other great Italian play concurrently playing in Chicago, Lucia di Lammermoor.

In both plays two men (Henry and Belcredi, Edgardo and Arturo) vie for the hand of the woman (Matilda and Lucia), in both the unscrupulous man (Belcredi and Arturo) wins, and in both one of the lovers goes mad, Lucia in Donizetti’s opera, Henry in Pirandello’s modern tragedy.

Pirandello hides his love triangle by having the resolution of the love struggle happen before the action of the play begins, in the play’s “given circumstances.” Henry, the main character has, for eight years, been hiding the fact that he has regained his sanity; during the previous lost twelve years of madness his friends have vanished, his love has deserted him, and his rival has triumphed. Like the catatonic Leonard Lowe in the film Awakenings (1990),Henry can imagine no place in the world into which he wakes.

Pirandello uses a bogus raisonneur (voice of reason) in the character of the psychologist Doctor (Noah Simon), to blow pseudo-scientific blather across the rabbit-holed landscape, insisting there is more to the situation than meets the eye. (Pirandello suffered years of such psychological hogwash in his heart-breaking efforts to save his beloved wife.)

Director Nick Sandys has cast the play flawlessly, with actors who can live on the fine, but treacherous, edge of the place where farce and tragedy tenuously meet. The “acting” courtiers – Harold (Martel Manning), Landolf (Jake Szczepaniak), Ordolf (Michael Turrentine), and Bertold (Chris Vizurraga) create a jolly band with an infectious playing style as they unconsciously lead the audience down the first of many rabbit holes. The quartet of Belcredi (James Houton), the man who, twenty years ago, caused Henry’s madness and thereby cheated him of his beloved Matilda; Matilda (Patrice Egleston), the woman Henry loved and lost twenty years ago; Frida (Clare Cooney), Matilda’s daughter, and Frida’s fiancé Di Nolli (Chris Amos.) introduce both the life Henry lost  and the world which has no place for the “king”. They present another rabbit hole for the audience to ponder. Only the simple and content Giovanni (Walter Brody) offers an uncomplicated life of self-less devotion as an alternative way of life.

All are wonderful actors, giving impeccable performances.

The great revelation comes when Henry (Mark L. Montgomery) suddenly, and casually, reveals he has not been mad for the past eight years and we discover that all that we had seen had been mere play-acting. It is a moment one will never forget, a moment of gasps, a sublime coup de théâtre only made possible by the work of the other actors preceding it. Mr. Montgomery’s performance clarifies the enigmatic observation made by the dean of American critics, Eric Bentley,

“The protagonist insists on tragedy; the author does not. The protagonist is a character in search of the tragic poet: such is Pirandello’s subject, which therefore comes out as absurd, grotesque, and tragicomic.”[ii]

Mr. Montgomery’s performance is a career defining one, and one which should be mandatory viewing for all who claim to love fine acting. The performance is simultaneously simple and profound.

Belcredi, Henry’s former rival, must now die because he fails to take the would-be tragic hero seriously. The death confirms the Italian critic and novelist Leonardo Sciascia’s insight:

“In Pirandello’s world love always retains a smell of death.”

All of the actors play in a unified style which is hard to describe – theatrical realism, perhaps, with a dash of commedia thrown in for seasoning. You must see it to appreciate it. The setting by Joe Schermoly, costumes by Rachel Lambert, sound by Victoria DeIorio, and lighting by Michael Durst all contribute to the creation of the production’s unique, mesmerizing style.

But it is director Nick Sandys’ vision which coordinates all of these individual efforts into such a splendid whole. This is undoubtedly the clearest production of a play by Pirandello you will ever see, and that clarity is one of the keys to the play’s great success. Another key is Mr. Sandys’ mastery of the thrust stage’s unique compositional demands. The downstage corners are employed masterfully, and the rear façade frames important pictures eloquently. The production’s rhythm is varied to highlight important points, and to transition with gusto from comic to serious moments. Throughout the evening one senses everything under control, a beautiful control.

“Human nature is to be seen,” Pirandello is telling us with Henry IV, “not as a problem but as a mystery.” The trauma of desperation is at the heart of things in Pirandello’s world, “and that is one reason why his work is dramatic: theatre is shock because life is shock.”[iii]

Compassion, the compassion of the meek Giovanni, becomes the only possible code of ethics in the face of such stark human impossibility.

[i] Paul Kuritz, The Making of Theatre History. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1988.

[ii] Eric Bentley, “Enrico IV: The Tragic Emperor” in Luigi Pirandello, ed. by Harold Bloom, New York: Chelsea House, 1989, p. 20.

[iii] Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama. New York: Atheneum, 1972)

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