The Lionesses in Liolà
As someone raised by three matriarchs from Agrigento (my mother and her two sisters), each under the rule of the woman my father calls ‘Mother Superior’ (my nonna), I have never quite been able to understand the view that women in the work of Pirandello represent the weaker vessel. These women were the kind Pirandello, also from Agrigento, was likely to have come across, and it appears to me that despite the outwardly passive exterior of some of his female characters, they are very much the catalysts of the plots, setting alight the main action. Under a succession of different rules – Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic, Norman – Sicily has evolved a patriarchal system led by men who sit comfortably at the head of the table. But beneath this superficial exterior, the Sicily I have come to know is an island fixed with the adoration of the mother / the Madonna at the centre of the family. Women in Sicily – and, following unification in 1861, in united Italy – might have lacked a political voice (they gained the right to suffrage only in 1946) but this does not mean they have lacked a voice of their own. In fact, if there were ever a voice to avoid when creeping home after a late-night summer ride on a vespa, it was nonna’s.
This kind of paradox (what you see on the outside is the opposite of what is really going on underneath) is at the heart of Pirandello’s approach. In his critical essay Humorism (1908), Pirandello explains this term by giving the example of an elderly woman, heavily made-up to look much younger. Our unease with her appearance makes us want to laugh, which is what the comedian does. The ‘humorist’, on the other hand, pays close attention to why she is parading herself like this and recognizes that it is because she fears losing her younger husband. As a result, the ‘humorist’ can no longer laugh like the comedian. As Pirandello puts it, he is more concerned with uncovering the ‘shadow’ of his works (what is hidden beneath the exterior) than exposing the ‘body’ (what is portrayed on the surface).
In the opening stage directions, Pirandello calls Liola his ‘countryside play’. In the first scene, as the women pass the time speculating (a tradition which has died hard in Sicily), whilst cracking almonds, they discuss how the impotent ‘King’ of the estate, Uncle Simone, blames his young wife Mita for not producing any heirs. Because Mita is an orphan with no brothers to defend her, and has not fulfilled her ‘duty’ to bear a son (Simone’s late wife also left him childless), she has to tolerate his abuse and is unable to leave him (the legalization of divorce in Italy was only passed after a long campaign in 1974 Liolà has occasionally been described as misogynistic, yet despite outward appearances, the puppet master of the play, beneath the surface, is a female character. As Pirandello put it, in a letter published in the journal Il messaggero on 6 November 1916, ‘the plot motivator of the entire action is Tuzza’ – she is the character at the heart of the play, calling all the shots. Having fallen pregnant by the larger-than-life Liolà (literally meaning someone who is either here (Li) or (0) there (Là), with this or that woman), Tuzza persuades the old but not-so-wise Uncle Simone to leave his wife Mita and to convince the community that she is carrying his heir. She is spurred on by her power-hungry mother Croce, described by Pirandello in this letter as the most ‘eager’ to keep his wealth in the family. Since women gained their social status through marriage, Tuzza (whom Pirandello states is motivated by three factors: hatred of her rival Mita, personal interest, and deluded ambition’) would therefore become the ‘Queen’ of the estate. Playing Tuzza at her own game, however, Mita wins back her husband and convinces him that it is she who is carrying the legitimate heir to his throne. What we are therefore left with at the end of Liolà are three very different but equally strong women: Tuzza pulling the strings, the greedy Croce telling her how to pull them, and the triumphant Mita, pulling Tuzza’s exact same strings, only this time to her advantage.
As for Pirandello’s contemporary (predominantly Catholic) critics, what they were left with was a rather unconventional ending for its time. Instead of neatly tying up the play with Liolà asking for the pregnant Tuzza’s hand in marriage, or with a duel involving her male relatives challenging Liolà for abandoning Tuzza in her condition, Pirandello’s conclusion leaves Tuzza a single mother. According to one of the great 20th-century figures of the left, writer Antonio Gramsci — who – was an admirer of the play —the unusual ending struck a moral chord with audiences, which is why it was withdrawn for a time from Italian theatres. In fact, the plot is based on an extract from Pirandello’s earlier novel, The Late Mattia Pascal (1904), but whereas Mattia marries the women he impregnates, Liolà rebels against society’s expectations.
Pirandello states in a letter to his son Stefano of 24 October 1916 that Liolà ‘will live for a long time’, and although temporarily removed from the stage, the play continued to have a great impact in Pirandello’s lifetime. Despite giving his son the impression that composing it was a breeze, completed in only fifteen days whilst he was on holiday, it would appear that this is one of Pirandello’s only plays to have really troubled him throughout his long career. Having originally written it in his mother-tongue dialect, Agrigentino alongside a literal translation in Italian, Pirandello attempted to make the translation appeal to a wider public b revising (and re-revising) it in 1928 and again in 1936, shortly before his death.
While he seems content with his play, which he describes in the letter as `so light-hearted that it does not seem my own work’, at the same time a strong sense of sadness emerges between the lines. Before concluding, Pirandello states to his son, who at the time was a prisoner of war in Austria, ‘my only regret is not having you with me, my Stenù, and for me this is the root cause of the darkness which runs beneath the light exterior throughout Liolà. To all appearances, the play seems a comedy, based on a character described in this letter as being ‘high on the sun’; yet on the flip side. Pirandello steers the action towards tragedy by emphasizing the character’s underlying loneliness, as he loses his much loved Mita to the wealthy Simone.
Just like Pirandello’s audiences at the premiere, what we still find in Liolà today is a work in which there is more to the drama than meets the eye. Pirandello subtly reveals the corruption underneath the exterior, particularly where his female ringleaders are concerned. It is precisely this intriguing world, full of paradoxes, unanswered questions, and untidy endings, which continues to draw us to this one-of-a-kind play.
by Enza De Francisci, July 2013,
Based on “Women in Verga and Pirandello: From Page to Stage”, PhD Thesis