The Italian author/playwright Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936,
Sicily), is known for his rather bizarre and experimental writings. This play is an expansion of his short story, Mrs. Frola and Mr. Ponza, Her Son-in-Law,
which appears in the Dover collection,
The Oil Jar and Other Stories. The play is in
three acts, and takes place in the apartment of Councilman Agazzi. The Prefect, (or Governor in this translation), has just employed a new secretary by the
name of Ponza. But the busybody women, including Agazzi's wife, Amalia, and daughter, Dina, and their several friends have become distraught—insulted,
actually, that Ponza's mother-in-law has moved in next door and refuses to allow them into her apartment. They demand an investigation into Ponza's
And add to that, other uncomfortable information becomes known, such as the fact that Ponza is married, yet his wife never leaves their apartment. They wonder why the mother-in-law must live alone, and in a quite nice apartment, too. Yet Ponza comes to visit her frequently, She and her daughter, however, only communicate through notes placed in a basket and drawn up to the daughter's upper story apartment. The mystery (or nosiness) deepens.
One central character that is in the play but not the short story is Lamberto Laudisi, Amalia's brother. He thinks the whole thing is funny, and tries to explain that everybody is perceived differently by each different person. That, of course, was Pirandello's whole concept behind the play. Laudisi mocks everyone else for being so insistent to know the "truth," declaring that one person's truth is not the same as another's. But the others get frustrated with him because they want hard facts. Incidentally, according to the Dover edition "Note," other themes include: "the difficulty of separating reality from fantasy and the fluidity of personal identity."
Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Sirelli, accompanied by Mrs.Sirelli's friend, Mrs. Cini, a foolish and malicious old woman, all arrive to join the gossip. Councilman Agazzi also arrives home. He announces that Mrs. Frola will be visiting, and that the Governor has been informed of the strange behavior of his secretary, and is therefore investigating the personal life of Ponza.
Soon Mrs. Frola arrives. She seems to be a sweet old lady and apologizes for all their behavior, and also informs them that the whole family has been through a terrible tragedy. In the village where they previously lived, a catastrophic earthquake struck and all their other family members died. (This apparently was true.) She also states that her son in law, though a loving person, guards his wife, her daughter, jealously, and won't allow the two to communicate in person. She defends him and insists he is not cruel. Mrs. Frola leaves, and the others are even more mystified.
Then Ponza arrives. He says he wishes to clear up the matter, and does so by stating that his poor mother-in-law is insane, because his wife, her daughter Lina, died four years ago. The woman he lives with now is his second wife, Giulia, who keeps up the charade in order to pacify Mrs. Frola. Ponza keeps them separated to protect his wife.
After Ponza leaves, Mrs. Frola returns, and says she knows what her son-in-law must have said, but in fact it is not true. It is he who is unstable. His wife actually survived, and to go along with his delusion, she remarried him. Mrs. Frola doesn't want to call Ponza "insane:"
Mrs. Frola: No! Look! Look! He's not insane, he's not! Let me speak!—You've seen him: he's so intense, violent . . . when he got married, he was seized with a real frenzy of love. He was almost in danger of doing physical harm to my daughter, who was rather delicate. On the advice of the physicians and all our relatives, even his (who are no longer with us, God rest their souls!), we had to take his wife away from him secretly and put her into a nursing home. And then he—already a little affected, naturally, by that . . . excessive love of his—not finding her at home any more—oh ladies, he fell into a furious despair; he really believed that his wife was dead; he wouldn't listen to reason; he insisted on wearing black; he did all sorts of odd things; and there was no longer any way of making him change his mind. So much so that, when (barely a year later) my daughter had regained her health and her bloom, and was brought into his presence again. he said no, it wasn't her any more; no, no; he would look at her—it wasn't her any more. Oh ladies, what torment! He went up to her, he seemed to recognize her, and then again: no, no . . . And to make him take her back, with the aid of our friends, we had to simulate a second wedding.
I dunno . . . to me, Ponza's explanation seems more
sensible. And in fact, the gossips and busybodies are divided as to who is telling the truth. And it gets even more complicated in the next two acts.
Meanwhile, Laudisi just laughs and laughs.
There really isn't a plot, as such, in this play, but it is the dialogue that makes it intense and profound. So, do we ever find out who is telling the truth? That I won't say—you'll have to read it yourself, or better yet, see it performed, which I think would be awesome.
Incidentally, Pirandello's own wife through an arranged marriage, was insanely jealous of both him and their children. After seventeen years, he finally had her committed to an asylum. I have found an interesting article on him and this play at encyclopedia.com.
Below, a scene from a 1987 production of the play by the American Repertory Theater.
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