Both Luigi Pirandello and Woody Allen
Answers from Anya Tretyakova
The notion that theatre and film share many similarities, is not a new one. Both are their own ‘stage’ for the trials and tribulations of the characters that inhabit them. Either medium affords the creator a great depth of exploration into the human character; what it means to be a person in any given place or time, but more importantly, what it means to be at all. Two such ‘creators’ or authors of theatre and film, vital to each medium, are Luigi Pirandello and Woody Allen, respectively. Not only are both authors important, but they are clearly intertwined in their works, the former clearly influencing the latter, albeit perhaps indirectly; a legacy stretching over a period of more than a century.
Luigi Pirandello was born in 1867 in a farmhouse in Il Caos, located between Porto Empedocle and Agrigento, Sicily (Giudice). From such humble beginnings, he became one of the 19th and 20th centuries’ most influential writers, culminating in his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1934 (Nobelprize.org). The sheer volume of his work, spanning hundreds of novellas, dozens of plays, several books of poetry, scholarly essays and articles, is impressive in itself, but it is for his work as dramatist and playwright that his true genius is recognised (Nobelprize.org). Not only did Pirandello alter the face of theatre forever through his plays, but he also in 1924 founded the Teatro d’arte – an Art Theatre company in the style of other European Art Theatres – instilling discipline in his actors and placing special emphasis on their work as an ensemble, a radical notion at the time (Bassnett and Lorch). Not only did his directorial methods strengthen and normalise ensemble work in theatre, his loathing for the use of prompters during plays, all but eradicated this tradition in Italian theatre (Bassnett and Lorch). Indeed his directorial work revealed another facet of Pirandello, as evidenced in his playwriting; Pirandello’s heavy use of stage directions, elaborate descriptions of scenery, lighting, costumes and even the psychological attributes of his characters, are more akin to a modern day Auteur than a 19th Century playwright (Sogliuzzo).
Pirandello’s influence on theatre did not end there; it becomes quickly apparent to one reading or watching his plays, that his style and form is remarkably different from his predecessors. Using perhaps his most famous work as example; Six Characters in Search of An Author questions identity, the reality of existence and the authenticity of life itself. The characters in the play are all in themselves a work of fiction, authored by Pirandello, but the distinction drawn between the ‘real’ characters, the company of actors putting on a play and the six ‘fictional’ characters that interrupt their rehearsal in order to tell their story, is an innovative philosophical exploration of the nature of existence (Pirandello). In a word, the play is a pre-cursor to modern existentialist philosophy (Cincotta). One of the most important tenets of modern existentialism is the nature of reality and how the individual relates to this (Cincotta); in Six Characters in Search of an Author reality is subjective, or relative to the observer (Pirandello). The theatre company staging Pirandello’s play is ‘real’ in diegesis and the six interrupting ‘characters’ are fiction, although they ‘exist’ in the diegesis, interacting with the ‘real’ characters both naturally and physically (Pirandello). The paradox, of course, lies in the audience’s knowledge that all the characters on stage are fictional and further attention is drawn to this fact by Pirandello including his own name as the author of the play the theatre company is staging, within the play (Pirandello). In this way, Pirandello rejects the traditional Aristotelian thinking which epitomised Italian philosophy at the time, dismissing logic as the cardinal method of analysing human existence, in favour of an early form of absurdism, another important tenet of modern existentialism (Cincotta).
Like Camus, Pirandello affirms the futility and meaninglessness of existence, in the face of the realisation that death (or non-existence) is inevitable (Cincotta). The six fictional ‘characters’ in the play yearn to exist, to live out and tell their story; when asked by The Manager what they want to achieve by telling their story, The Father replies “We want to live…only for a moment…in you” (Pirandello 6). The implication is that the ‘characters’ are only real when viewed subjectively by an observer, in this case, the members of the theatre company; the more important conclusion however, is that all the characters on the stage are only ‘real’ for a moment in time, through the eyes of the audience; bringing into question the nature of existence as it relates to the audience. The audience are forced to question what makes them and their existence any more real than the players they are watching. If it is because they, unlike the characters on stage are alive, the inevitability of death swiftly and bluntly posits that existence is futile, superfluous and therefore, absurd. All life and subsequent action, whether the result of free will or determinism, is equally pointless and insurmountable; existence is inherently irrational (Cincotta). This notion has plagued many an author, director or creator of art since Pirandello, perhaps one of the most influential in the medium of film – a contemporary theatre of sorts – has been Woody Allen.
Like Pirandello, Allen’s volume of work is staggeringly impressive; having worked on over 100 films, writing and directing almost half of them himself, he has been nominated for 23 Academy Awards for writing and directing (once for acting) and has won four of those times (Oscars.org). With a career spanning four decades, Allen’s contemporary relevance can hardly be questioned, having just taken home his fourth Academy Award for the film Midnight in Paris, which he wrote and directed (Oscars.org). Allen’s prominence in the film industry and unique style has advanced his status to that of Auteur, his name synonymous with the aesthetic exploration of the human character, the nature of life and the paradox of death. Like Pirandello, one cannot view Allen’s body of work without the profound realisation that his views on life are heavily affected by his views on the nature of existence. Allen’s films, some earlier comedies aside, overwhelmingly focus on what it means to be alive and the futility and meaninglessness of a life ended by death – that is, all life. Allen’s work is saturated with modern notions of existentialism, dripping with absurdity at the crushing and inevitable realisation of death.
Just as in Six Characters in Search of an Author, Allen’s characters in The Purple Rose of Cairo grapple with what it means to be ‘real’, yearning to live, even for a moment in time (Young). In The Purple Rose of Cairo, one such ‘fictional’ character, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), sick of playing the same role over and over again, promptly turns to a member of the movie theatre audience – Cecilia (Mia Farrow) – and addresses her directly; he then decides to leave the screen and theatre with her, to the shock of dozens of movie-goers. This is of course an absurd notion, that a character can leave a movie screen and step into ‘real’ life, but it is accepted within the diegesis by other characters (both real and fictional). Like Pirandello’s six ‘characters’, Allen’s Tom Baxter tries in vain to exist in ‘reality’ but is limited by how his character has been written. Baxter’s reality is subject to how he has been created and subsequently viewed. Furthermore, the mere notion that the movie theatre owner turn off the projector after Tom Baxter leaves, is met with uproar by another ‘fictional’ character who begs him not to, shouting “…don’t turn the projector off…it gets black and we disappear…you don’t understand what its like to disappear, to be nothing, to be annihilated…” a line which epitomises the existential crisis arising from the realisation of the inevitability of death.
Just as Pirandello philosophises on the nature of existence in his plays, so Allen investigates the paradox of existence through the paradigm of absurdism. In his 1980 film Stardust Memories, filmmaker Sandy Bates (played by Allen) is haunted by memories of a past relationship, simultaneously being ‘visited’ by characters and from his movies and thoughts. Fictional character and ‘reality’ is blended throughout, most interestingly when a woman comes to Bates and asks if he remembers her, because she is his mother; when he appears confused, she clarifies that she once ‘played’ his mother in one of his films (Stardust Memories). Mighty Aphrodite, another film, which sees fictional characters, this time from the Greek tragedy Oedipus, interacting with Allen’s character Lenny Weinrib and narrating his story via a masked, Greek theatre chorus; sometimes the chorus is even present in the background of scenes of everyday Manhattan, seemingly fictional characters having a very real affect on ‘reality’. Mighty Aphrodite practically screams that life itself is as real as fiction and ultimately, just as meaningless, only existing through subjective observation for the briefest of moments. Another film in which Allen deftly intertwines the lives of ‘real’ characters with ‘fictional’ characters is Deconstructing Harry, wherein almost every major character is played by two actors. In it, Allen himself plays Harry Block, a writer who uses his own life as almost verbatim inspiration for his work (an observation often made of Allen’s work, which he just as often denies); Block is confronted by angry ex-lovers and family members who are appalled at being used as characters in his books. Block also interacts with fictional characters from his books, being congratulated by them all at the end of the film, for creating them so well; observations of narcissism aside, there is again, a very strong emphasis on the meaning of existence and identity as well as the looming quality of death. This is highlighted when a younger Block (played by Tobey Maguire) stays in another man’s apartment in order to hire a hooker, he answers a knock at the door and is horrified to see Death standing there, looking to take the owner of the apartment, his protestations at the case of mistaken identity are only met with ridicule by the grim reaper. The fragile nature of identity in the face of pointless existence is a major theme of Allen’s films; he often uses absurdism to emphasise this paradox of personal identity in relation to life and death, just as Pirandello used on his stage.
Pirandello gave his plays the collective title of maschere nude or naked masks, “…he was concerned with in this work [with] nothing but the constant assembling and dismantling of the personality in the struggle of life…” (Matthaei 5). Allen’s films overwhelmingly espouse a similar philosophy; the medium being only slightly different and arguably far more adapted to the mass dissemination of philosophical ideas (Carroll). Although it would be difficult to claim Allen was directly influenced by Pirandello in his works, the similarities in style, medium and content are undeniable. Pirandello’s early emphasis on ensemble work in the theatre could also have influenced Allen’s ensemble-driven filmmaking style, having himself been quite heavily influenced by theatrical conventions.
Both Luigi Pirandello and Woody Allen remain important contributors to their respective mediums. Pirandello was an early pioneer of breaking theatrical convention and Aristotelian logic, in favour of examining the human condition and identity through the eye of early existentialist absurdism. Allen is a contemporary carrier of this proverbial torch; although perhaps his filmmaking style and passion for exploring the meaning (and meaninglessness) of life was not ignited by Pirandello, the latter’s works and innovations in theatrical art certainly paved the way for the latter and many others for years to come.
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