Matthew Paris :: Xiccarph :: View topic - Right You Are by Luigi Pirandello
Right You Are by Luigi Pirandello
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Matthew Paris
 

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 6:09 pm - Right You Are by Luigi Pirandello
On November 28th I saw Right You Are by Luigi Pirandello, once known as a precursor of the theatre of the absurd, now perhaps seen as a playwright whose originality defies such easy pigeonholing of him into some historical notion of cultural evolution.
This is a revival of the Eric Bentley translation of the 60s, then rather ungracefully called Right You are (If You Think You Are). The National Actors Theatre set in Pace College by the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most affluently endowed companies of its kind in New York; it is at least fronted by Tony Randall, one of the lead actors in this play. Whatever wants to call this play, it is a later emanation of the famous Italian playwright that has very strong thematic resemblance to more well known his Six Characters In Search of an Author and Henry IV, both of them dramas with more passionate moments than this very Voltarian didactic farce.
Yet Right You Are isn't a waste of time either; it has an ingenious initial idea, an amusingly executed main action and development, several cunning reversals and a very wonderfully chilling and enigmatic denouement. If it were by anybody else but Pirandello we might think this was a masterpiece of a certain kind of wry Euclidean discourse about illusion and reality. On the other hand if we compare it as we cannot help doing since it is by Pirandello to Henry IV with its tragic and feverish characters we might find this neat and brilliant dark comedy lacking in the emotional power Pirandello had given his characters in other highly charged and tragic narratives.
Of course, this is a play using the same materials to produce a kind of Mozartean-Da Ponte like comedy with stock characters filched out of those musical confections, of necessity not a platform upon which one can produce the sort of high and heartfelt inner utterance of Henry IV.
Yet Right You Are seems to call for a composer to set it to music; as a play its detachment has some of the coldness of Cosi Fan Tutte without much passion to lard the philosophical theme both Da Ponte and Pirandello take up from different angles with a bit more candied emotion for us to resonate with the action and the actors. As a result we are either entertained or bored by the ingenuity or lack of it in the story; the characters are at best pads puppets whom we deem considerably less intelligent than ourselves.
In this comedy we are laughing at rather than with the action. We are suitably flattered as we are when watching a television sitcom filled with fools and louts by diminishing the intellectual capacities of the grotesques on stage at once ordinary and without a clue about adult measure. Some of the problems in this making sort of drama worth an evening comes from a cultural gap between us and Italy that certainly has been dealt with in Eric Bentley's dogged and lame translation.
We are not Italians; we aren't accustomed to what comes down to neo-classic drama in a world burdened with a great deal of memory in which recognizable stock paradigms garnered from plays centuries old are subjected to a farcical turn of events, we don't think of life as a dry ritual as many the urbane and educated Italians do; we don't have a tradition of inquiry into illusion and reality in or out of our theatre that gobs back millennia.
We do have from the English if it is not quite a native style a genre of mad kings indulged by their servants. That is why Henry IV works more effectively in our peculiar and republican envelope of culture.
Given that, any translator of this play would do well to calculate how the underlying values of Right You are might be recast in some way that would make Pirandelloís virtuosi duel with its own traditions remain persuasive to us. The closeout we could get to the absurd little provincial small town world of this play might be some aristoi in Mississippi, Eric Bentley's translation, not recognizing this problem, is straightforward, pedestrian and plodding when it needs to mirror the vaporous character of both the obligations and language of Pirandelloís cabal of the narrow Italian small town elite.
Bentley seems insensitive to the nuances of Italian manners, disinterested in the satire of presenting what are at bottom close to opera buffa characters in a world of Pirandello's characteristic dizzy vertigo about reality even the burlesques and plays on illusions of opera buffa never thought of. Right You are is pinioned on the curiosity of this Italian set of well off citizens in a town about who among two people is telling the truth and who is insane or at least terminally mendacious.
There is no real plot other than this. The tale is set off and propelled by the pique of the main detectives at being refused hospitality when they came to pay a call on one of the two possible lunatics or liars. The joke and the point in the play about the curiosity and gossipy character of small town Italians, the absurdity of their deep anger of these provincials at being treated with lack of politeness got lost in this production in its sea voyage across the Atlantic.
This version also had miscalculations from the direction which didn't help the play. Fabrizio Melano, aiming for pace and momentum, avoided entirely the kind of wry takes and silences that might have animated this play with episodic business that at once broke up the steady motion of the main action with some roundness and complexity and mirrored its confusions of its otherwise rather predictable, perhaps slightly tedious cartoon spirits.
The central run of Pirandello's jokes on the supposed obligations of various characters to each other in a life of ritual is jettisoned entirely because the director doesnít give the actors a chance to run takes and silences ironically undercutting these supposed obligations. As a result a whole dimension of this comedy is lost, one that would have added considerable weight to the generally amusing vertigo. Pirandello, born a Sicilian, beginning his career turning out provincial Sicilian plays, was writing for an urbane Roman audience here. We are supposed to laugh at the small town provinciality of his characters much as we might at a performance of Tobacco Road or a dramatization of a Sinclair Lewis novel. Fro this production one would never know it.
Yet this version had many good points as well some near lethal flaws. The austere black and white checkerboard set with its two huge seemingly marble statues and three large doors is possibly extrusive and certainly dwarfs the actors; it is also very brilliant.
It's a fine solution to the difficulties of this large theatre, in its Hague capacity as well as its distance from the audience suggests it is fashioned to offer the monumental, whether the play of the moment has that grandiose character or not. Right You Are, though it has about ten characters would go better on a small stage in an inmate theatre. The authors and formal setting of course tends to diminish the small town narrow characters even more than the play itself does.
Given the deliberately one-dimensional treatments of the characters, it is up to the actors to find in their parts something more than a cardboard figure or make some secrecy rounded spirit creep in and out from its exoteric banality. Some do in this production; some donít.
The lead in it, Tony Randall, whom you would expect to be superb in the role of the eccentric philosopher who speaks with the author's voice, is listless, does no takers underplays and speeds most of his lines Randall uncharacteristically seemed rather bored and disgruntled by his role.
He may have been sick; he coughed while we went through his part on this evening. He may have ben struggling for lines and feeling uncomfortable; I was after all watching a preview. In any case he was disappointing. This is an actor whose gift for multiple takes, farce and elevating basically empty roles into some semblance of life and humanity is famous, documented amply in his movie work from his dizzy virtuosity in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter to his ultimate display of range in The Ten Thousand Faces of Doctor Lao; one would have never guessed his talent for this genre from the performance I saw this evening.
Almost certainly this company staged Right You Are as a vehicle for his gifts; maybe the director squelched them all. All the actors play their parts very broadly and without nuance, undercutting any possibility of suggesting more rounded personalities by occasional signs of reflection. They are absurd as the plot. This really goes against the acting style Pirandello almost certainly expected.
One can see this manner in plays one can attend even today in Rome or in many mid-century Italians movies. When one is plain comedy in this genre one goes at it deadpan and reflectively as Marcello Mastroianni does in Fellini movies. That's how actors anywhere get mileage out of such parts. The audience, recognizing the racialist character of the action these banal souls are immersed in, connects to their wry looks and silences.
Mastroianniís Everyman acting style is a key to how to do this soot of dark farce. Mastroianni never yelled, never become wildly irate, always aimed at measure and dignity sort of like Chaplin, no matter what happened to him in those Fellini films. As a result he achieved moments of tragedy in the laughter as well as a rounded sense of spirit in tales that would otherwise have been detached and boring or even repellent had they been acted without such subtlety and nuance.
The joke of the style is that the measure and reasonableness of the ordinary man whom we all feel is our covert double is not resourceful enough to meet with the wild absurdity of the situations the characters face. We all feel like that much of the time about our own lives. The fashions and follies change from culture to culture; the sense of alienation, the attempt to salvage what one can from oneís losses in a lunatic world doesnít vary. The humor laced with our own terror does the work of making the play dryly amusing for us.
This is I think the only style with which one could make a persuasive case in the United States for Right You Are. This advocacy isn't even attempted by this broad and brassy sale of propulsive acting in this production. A few of the characters ar directed to blow up constantly at nothing; others are simply told like instrumentalists in a terminally minimalist piece of music to repeat a single note endlessly.
A farce, a form in which ordinary people are faced with absurd and grotesque sets of circumstances, needs room for the character to react, to oppose, to engage the audience in their follies and dilemmas. In this production, bent on a broad motoria movement, we often are watching an empty Italian sitcom in which this never happens.
Still, in spite of this hardly optimal presentation, Right You Are has an original resonance which lingers with the audience. It is very pleasant to watch a master dramaturgist like Pirandello execute his craft in a Voltarian way with the kind of diabolical ingenuity this author has at his best. It is amusing and terrifying to watch has two characters, both of whom claim to indulge the madness or emotional crumpling out of rapture of the others.
It is all too familiar to us who have in our levies intaglios many in their folly out of compassion or indifference that nobody knows which of the two is telling the truth, even whether or not they are both lying as they say they are indulging the lunacy or daft transports of the other one. We accept as Pirandello does that it doesnít mater who is lying or crazy out of our own disinclination to ferret out the truth when it doest concern us or our vanity more than Pirandelloís philosophic notion that the truth cannot be known; it doesn't matter to us because seemingly it is not our folly.
We have lived in Pirandelloís realms of people gone fashionably bonkers and scramble our way through them with considerably less comedy.
Pirandello of course means to make these grotesque situations a metaphor for these ordinary relating in which we in intimae circumstances support the illusions of those closest to us. Accepting how helpless one is to affect anotherís tragedy is one of the prices of both love and charity. The denouement in which the supposed wife of one candidate for being a lunatic, the daughter of another such a possible victim of dementia or erotic passion, comes one stage and says she is what she is to both of them, and is nothing to herself is suitably chilling. Yet I found myself translating many of the lines back into Italian, a language in which they were much more persuasive.
As in many foreign plays the effectiveness of the drama is muffled by the inability of the production to translate not merely words and situations but a large cultural envelope to a proper and familiar American idiom.
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