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Varieties of Consciousness in Pirandello's Henry IV

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Varieties of consciousness in Pirandello's Henry IV

Studies in the Literary Imagination, Fall 2001 by Fairchild, Terry

Monsieur Berenger, the guileless hero of Eugene Ionesco's A Stroll in the Air, spies along the English waterside one afternoon a visitor from the anti-world. Unruffled by this unusual phenomenon, he considers the stranger's origins: "There's not just one Anti-World. There are several and ... they can all coexist in the same space" (47). Daughter Marthe realizes her father is accounting for "a multiple universe," a metaphysical concern that haunts the majority of Luigi Pirandello's plays as well, including Henry IV (Enrico IV). What differentiates Pirandello from Ionesco is that the earlier playwright locates his multiplicities not externally but internally-within human consciousness.

Aesthetic thought in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth had, by Pirandello's time, taken a curious turn. Breaking from the so-called naive certainties of the past, Pirandello and other writers sought out truths that were smaller, more governable, and more palatable. As a result, reality for Pirandello, as well as successors like Ionesco and Beckett, became increasingly fragmented, relative, and undependable. Interestingly enough, however, for all their turning away from historical certitude-the nightmare James Joyce wished to awaken-the desire for absolutes remains as constant for the moderns as it did for the romantics. Pirandello, in his famous essay on humor-- L'umorismo--elaborates:

Life is a continuous flux that we try to stop, to fix in stable and determinate forms, both inside and outside of ourselves.... The forms in which we try to arrest and fix in ourselves this continual flux are the concepts and ideal by which we wish to preserve, in a coherent manner, all the fictions we create for ourselves, the conditions and the state in which we try to achieve stability. (Oliver 4)

Beckett may believe his Everymen Vladimir and Estragon foolishly wait for Godot, a personage who has never arrived and never will; yet his tramps get up each day in anticipation of the man's arrival. For them, for all of us, the alternative is too awful. Beckett, Ionesco, and other so-called "absurdists" made us understand that a belief in a sympathetic universe was ridiculous. But they simultaneously convey that not believing in some form of organizing-intelligence is equally absurd. Hope, they ironically demonstrate, is as fundamental a human need as scientific certainty or impeccable logic.

Pirandello's heroes, particularly Henry IV, possess a similar double-sided vision, one that is realistic, rational, nihilistic, and accepts factual evidence on the one hand, and on the other demands emotional consolation and embraces an eternal, omniscient, or transcendent reality against all historical, intellectual, and social pressures not to do so.

For Pirandello's characters, reality-whatever its nature-is a projection of individual consciousness. What Pirandello understands is that our perceptions of life, and even life itself, will always be variable, even as we yearn for eternal constancy.

Henry IV, Pirandello's most renowned protagonist, is an absolutist. He is unyielding in his perceptions, and his rigidity both elevates and isolates him. Separating him from society, his highly personal vision ultimately leads him to madness. In the play, Henry spends the bulk of his life in the eleventh century, half out of chance and half out of choice, but in his thinking he has never been a twentieth-century man, even prior to his accident. At the carnival, life for his youthful peers is all play and time is virtually meaningless. In contrast, the painfully introverted Henry, much like Pirandello in his youth, behaves with a morbid seriousness: "with him one couldn't joke" (156), Matilda says. Such an inflexible disposition earmarks him for a psychological mishap, with or without his unhappy fall.1

In other plays, Pirandello treats his absolutists with derision. The meddling bourgeoisie in It's So If You Think It's So, for instance, who search for an unblemished truth at whatever cost, are the constant source of Laudisi's laughter and the unmitigated butt of Pirandello's scorn. But, in Henry IV, our sympathies lie firmly with the title character. The reason we accept Henry's private reality-his attempt to construct absolute certainty in a relative universe-is that for however quixotic a goal, it is purchased with a cost (when left alone) to no one but himself. As an absolutist, he transforms himself into the near impossible: a twentieth-century tragic hero. In a minimalist world that by its nature beats down the very idea of classical tragedy, Henry fashions for himself a new universe from his own consciousness modeled on the past. He has elevated himself to a level he will be unable to sustain: this is his tragedy.

Henry IV has been called the Hamlet of the twentieth century (Starkie 189), and the resemblance between the two plays is striking. At the heart of Henry's private universe is madness, a malady that dominates Pirandello's play as much as Hamlet's does Shakespeare's. Moreover, Henry's madness is as baffling as Hamlet's. Let us examine Hamlet's madness for a moment. In Act V, Hamlet acts with clear-mindedness, resolution, and a "bloody" intent not seen in any previous act. This lucidity we take for sanity. His killing of Claudio is transformed from private, obsessive revenge into sober, public execution. At every other moment in the play, Hamlet vacillates under some species of madness, but identifying exactly its source at any given moment is impossible. Like Henry during the pageant, Hamlet at the beginning of the play is in an "exalted" state brought on by the recent death of his King-father and the 'erhasty marriage" of his Queen-mother. Technically, Hamlet suffers from depression caused by profound mourning. But can we call his depressed spirits madness? Following his interview with the Ghost, Hamlet is in an agitated state far in advance of his original melancholy. He seems ever closer to insanity, but, again, how can we say conclusively that he is mad? Complicating our task is Hamlet's resolve to feign dementia as a means of stalking the King. So, when we next hear from Ophelia of his confused and dishevelled state, we are uncertain how much is invention and how much distraction. Polonius's penetration of Hamlet's condition, "though this be madness, yet there is method in't," complicates rather than clarifies matters.

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