The Illusory Nature of Existence in Pirandello’s Naked Masks
Man is never so naked than when he wears a mask. Or in other words, what is perceived is the exposed truth people see and not the truth that really exists. The problem is that the mask reflects exactly what a person so chooses to be, but not what he or she really is. Inversely, observers see the façade created by the masquerader as truth but fail to decipher the inner appearance. If five observers were to draw the real face, or reality, of the masked man, there would be five different pictures, five different truths. But who is right? Is there a right and wrong in such a situation? This is the problem of human nature and is best explained through existentialism, through which Pirandello was an adherent of. The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia explains that existentialism is “existence [that] precedes essence: there is no God and no fixed human nature; thus, each person is totally free and entirely responsible for what he or she becomes and does. This responsibility accounts for human dread and anguish.” Responsibility is a terrible burden to bear, often leading to suffering. Thus, it is that Pirandello’s characters disguise their responsibility behind masks of false stability and even madness to create a truth that is totally illusionary.
Of the three plays studied in Pirandello’s Naked Masks, this single theme of the illusory nature of existence is bound together through three points of view, or masks. The first being skepticism, and no other character wore it better than Laudisi in “It Is So! (If You Think So).” All conscious observers have an opinion of what they see in others or in certain concepts. This can be seen in the virtue or fault of first impressions. The undeserved honor meted out due to this self-inflicted form of truth leads to suffering as much as the misconstrued judgments aimed at the innocent. Is it any wonder that nations will fight each other over brutality of the “evil empire,” when there clearly isn’t any such thing to that individual nation? How can such misunderstandings arise over the motives of another? Laudisi explains it best, when speaking to Sirelli about his wife’s continuous unbelief in what he says. “How do you expect your wife to be satisfied with things as you explain them to her, if you, as is natural, represent them as they seem to you?” (Pirandello 69). The illusion of truth is the stem of this argument. Who is right? When one is so sure that they have the truth and others do not. The skeptic answers that no one can ever know the truth, because one’s own perceptions are inaccurate. Truth eludes the pursuer to the very end.
In a skeptic’s world, the truth is continuously masked according to what the observer sees. Those who love and trust the observed believe what they see to the point that it becomes truth, or personal truth. In the play, Ponza steps forward and asserts that his mother-in-law is mad. Some believe this allegation based upon the good name and position established by Ponza. When they meet the madwoman herself, she avows that she only pretends to be mad to placate Ponza’s own madness. She is believed out of her unfortunate condition. Five different observations arise out of this quandary. The mother-in-law, Frola, sees the situation one way, Ponza sees it another. Half the party believes Frola, while the other half believe Ponza, with the skeptic in the middle seeing truth only as deep as the observation. If truth cannot be cultivated out of two contradictory statements, then who is right in their observation? Is it really only error of perception or is it in fact madness? At this point, more facts need to be presented. Or do they?
By interfering with the illusion, by unmasking the masquerader, a possible distortion in their worldview is instilled which could lead to hopelessness, perhaps even death. Such a case is viewed as persecution by both Ponza and Frola (135). All are comfortable in the lives they create. If someone happens to destroy this illusion of truth the entire world crumbles and nothing is left, because to unmask reality is to get to the core of madness, which is another mask altogether. Truth is only accepted upon proving the current perception as being right or wrong. If it is just forced upon one without consideration to their feelings, then it will never be accepted and, in fact, fought against until the bitter end. “Don’t you see what they are after? They all want the truth-a truth that is: something specific; something concrete! They don’t care what it is. All they want is something categorical, something that speaks plainly! Then they’ll quiet down” (117). Skepticism is the only way to placate the truth while doing the least of harm.
So how much of the truth can be totally grasped? Unless one observes the life as intently as the other lives it, then a complete truth cannot be gathered. Or as the skeptical Laudisi observes, “for the truth in my eyes is not in them [material proof] but in the mind. And into their minds [the observed] I can penetrate only through what they say to me of themselves” (97). This is the perception of truth because it is not tangible. Unless one sees what exactly happens they only have the outer, tangible perceptions presented to the world, which is the mask they wear. And as a mask is easily discarded for another, the truth too will be ever elusive. Until truth becomes tangible, fantasy and reality will forever be mixed (98). Mankind conceals the truth in their souls, and gives out the only truth there is, that which the observer sees to be so. This is why the innocent will sometimes be convicted of crimes they did not commit and the guilty go free; why both Ponza and Frola are suspicious of contradictory acts by the same observers. Truth is only a matter of perception and remains elusive no matter how deep it is investigated.
If there is no other alternative to the facts than perception, then can truth still be established? Laudisi gives all his grand advice but in the midst of the second act, it is shown that he could be mad himself! While ranting alone in front of the mirror, the audience gathers a great predicament from him. Who is more real, our images or ourselves? Are they the same? Just as Laudisi questions who is mad, the image or his true self (101). Again it comes to perception and the trickery of the senses. The audience who observes the whole play must decide for themselves also who is mad, and there are those who can argue for every character being either mad or sane. It can be disputed that all the characters have false perception because they cannot see the “phantoms” in themselves, so busy are they with finding the “phantoms” in others (102). Frola is so worried about the son-in-law that she fails to see her own madness. And Ponza is so worried about the mother-in-law that he fails to see his madness as well. The same can be argued for the other characters and even for the audience. The mad quest of finding fault in others blinds all to the truth, and cannot be done.
Then where does perception lie? Not in ourselves. Pirandello, speaking about the mirrors in his dramas, says, “if we present ourselves to others as artificial construction in relation to what we really are, it is logical that upon looking at ourselves in a mirror we see our falseness reflected there, made galling and unbearable by its fixity” (Vittoroni 370). So it is that the masks the main characters wear must be covered with madness, to hide their shame. When the Butler asks for Laudisi, the skeptic answers that there is more than one Laudisi, the reality and the illusion. To the Butler, the physical Laudisi is real, but to Laudisi the mirror image is more real because of perception. With this in mind, it is easy to understand the confusion over the sanity of the characters. For when Signora Ponza enters for the first time she is enshrouded in a black veil so thick that none can perceive her true features. Real truth is so impenetrable that reality is reflected by what is observed on the outside, not by what is actually hidden inside. Truth is such a fickle essence that it is said best in Signora Ponza’s own words, “I am she whom you believe me to be” (Pirandello 138). The deeper the truth, the more questions there will be and the more confusion will arise. There is no heart to the truth, just facts that one makes up about themselves or others. Truth is a point of view; who has a stronger point of view holds the truth. And that is Pirandellian truth.
The second mask is madness. Mad people have a certain bliss that sane people lack; they can wear any disguise they wish and have any truth they want. Therefore they cannot be wrong in what they do, for their perception of truth is excused through the masquerade they parade around in. In the tragedy “Henry IV,” the self-titled character speaks to his valets about his feigned madness. “And you are amazed that I tear off their ridiculous masks now, just as if it wasn’t I who made them mask themselves to satisfy this taste of mine for playing the madam!” (189). But why must both he and they wear the mask of madmen in the first place?
The present life is not as real as that which has already been lived in the past. The future is yet uncharted and uncertain. There lies the doom; there lies the worry. When young people have their own set of truths that are proved later to be false. They find a different self in the present compared to what they were in the past and are never quite the same. “When I was a child, I thought the moon in the pond was real. How many things I thought real! I believed everything I was told-and I was happy!” (193). In the past Henry IV loved Matilda, now, in the present, another man loves her without any regard to his feelings. Then the future comes and unmasks all the truths that were held so dear. And when the past is looked upon again, shock overwhelms the foolish circumstances. So Henry IV created the past forever and believed it. Truth is experience until unmasked by a later certainty; truth is personal until shown the foolishness of such belief. How befitting, then, is madness for those who seek respite in a world where truth is mere perception and is never fixed.
“Without knowing it, we mask ourselves with that which we appear to be” (205). Anyone can create any reality they want as long as they live it. Those in the past had struggled to live their lives to completion, while those in the present struggle to fulfill an unknown future. By donning the characteristics of those in the past, one can become free from responsibility, already having the fates and fortunes worked out, resolved. This is the rub. Being so caught up in the illusion, the false truth can drive a person beyond the brink. Thus Henry IV kills Belcredi because of his relationship to Matilda, as her lover in reality and as his enemy in fantasy. After which, they are forced to live in that fantasy so as not to take any personal blame for detrimental actions their illusion has caused. They seek to be free from personal blame. In so doing they become the prisoner of their masks.
The cruelty of a jest can become the luxury of fantasy. One must get the most out of a half-truth before it becomes totally false. As with Henry IV, who coming out of madness continued to feign it out of comfort, for he had missed twenty somewhat years of his life already, and found the woman he loved with another man. But he would pay the price of it, as would the others for allowing such. When the world accepts madness for the truth, the consequences that follow are misery for those all around. Henry IV was cuddled in his madness to the point where his paranoia between reality and fantasy led him to murder. The result of which meant continuance in the mask of truth that was not reality, but fantasy. Or as Matilda says, reflecting back upon the initial accident of Henry IV, “all our masked faces hideous and terrified gazing at him, at that terrible mask of his face, which was no longer a mask, but madness, madness personified” (159). This is the naked mask; this is what shames the truth.
Dealing with the personal perception of reality is far less deadly than tampering with someone else’s. Those that loved the maddened Henry IV and were to help him with his sickness, but, as pointed out in the earlier play, being so concerned about the other’s madness, they failed to see their own. For what sane mortal would keep up such an illusion of truth, when in fact all know it to be false? Or as Henry IV puts it, “you ought to have known how to create a fantasy for yourselves, not to act it for me, or anyone coming to see me; but naturally, simply, day by day, before nobody, feeling yourselves alive in the history of the eleventh century, here at the court of your emperor, Henry IV!” (194-95). As long as truth is personal perception and not another’s, the less suffering will result from the instability of this knowledge.
These last two plays finally lead up to the third mask, the distortion of truth for the sake of drama. As established in “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” drama, as all know, is not reality but is the perfect illusion of reality. Yet as the characters of the drama ask, who in reality are we, the observers? Are we like the skeptic standing before the mirror asking who is mad? A character in a drama can ask this because they are accurately defined, they cannot change outside of the scope upon which they were written. Whereas people, because they are still defining who they are until they die, will never know. The Father character in the unwritten drama says to the live actors, “if we have no other reality beyond the illusion, you too must not count overmuch on your reality as you feel it today, since, like that of yesterday, it may prove an illusion for you tomorrow” (265). A person’s intellect directs them through the illusion of their life because it is never fixed, and when they die it ends, never to be played again, while the character will continue on as long as the written word is given life. The character becomes immortal in a sense.
Be it drama or be it life, all are play actors with the truth. Isn’t this world but a stage humanity plays upon? Or as the stage manager so eloquently puts it, “you who act your own part become the puppet of yourself” (214). This is why people have certain perceptions of others that they think is true but is just a fleeting moment in time, and is not in fact true. The Father character, in a moment of weakness, goes to a house of ill repute and makes advances upon his daughter who should not have seen her father in such a state; indeed, she should not have been there at all! Yet is this father really a pervert? Or can be branded as incestuous? Unless his the past is brought together with the future, who the Father really is will not be known. He will seem only a dirty old man. Once again truth is perception, which is usually false.
The stereotype of characters is only the surface; the soul within lies hidden. The inner turmoil will never be fully grasped. “Life is full of infinite absurdities, which, strangely enough, do not even need to appear plausible, since they are true” (216). The real distortion of truth is to create a plausible situation and make it appear real. So who is more real, the character or the observer? Characters do not exist in form, actors do. And the effect the actors put upon the character they play is not the same as the character really is. Likewise, the effect a person puts upon his outer façade is not the same as he really is. It is but a mask of the truth within, which is madness. This point is what connects this play with the other two. The man known as Henri IV is not really so, but just an actor of him. Eventually, he takes away the essence of the original and turns into something that is his, madness. Likewise, Frola and Ponza perceive the wife/daughter as something that is not. “For man never reasons so much and becomes so introspective as when he suffers” (267).
The illusory nature of existence, for Pirandello is what makes mankind suffer; this perception of truth. The trouble of perception is that not everybody can see the suffering of a soul until it is too late.
But don’t you see that the whole trouble lies here. In words, words. Each one of us has within him a whole world of things, each man of us his own special world. And how can we ever come to an understanding if I put in the words I utter the sense and value of things as I see them; while you who listen to me must inevitable translate them according to the conception of things each one of you has within himself. We think we understand each other, but we never really do (224).
Truth is but an illusion and the naked mask of suffering is the reality. Pirandello perhaps said it best; “I have tried to tell something to other men, without any ambition, except perhaps that of avenging myself for having been born” (“Luigi Pirandello”).
“Existentialism.” The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia. 5rd edition. 2005.
Pirandello, Luigi. Naked Masks. Ed. Eric Bentley. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, Inc. 1952. 61-276.
“Luigi Pirandello.” The Moonstruck Drama Bookstore. 24 Jan. 2000 < http://www. imagination.com/moonstruck/clsc30.html>.
Vittoroni, Domenico. The Drama of Luigi Pirandello. New York: Russell and Russell, 1969.