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Pirandello's Wife at the Alleyway

Playwright Lynn Elliott

Playwright Lynn Elliott talks about his play and its inspirations

Lynn Elliott first sent his script for Pirandello’s Wife to the Alleyway Theatre 10 years ago.

“After a while, I never dreamed I’d hear back,” confides the playwright. But he had no idea how loyal Alleyway Theatre can be to an idea. Alleyway’s Theatre Plus, which focuses on plays about and of interest to women is currently offering Elliott’s play on the main stage at Alleyway.

Pirandello’s Wife takes its inspiration from a detail in the life of the celebrated Italian master of modern drama, Luigi Pirandello, that is taught to every theater student: He had his wife committed to an insane asylum where she would live for 40 years. In the play, Antonietta Portulano Pirandello is 88 years old. It is 1959, the year she will die, and her fellow patients are staging a play that she has written, telling the story of her life from her own perspective. The result is delightfully comical and highlights the ways in which the power dynamic of the asylum mirrors her life before her confinement.

Elliott explains that the idea occurred to him while he was teaching drama at California State University, Chico, where he is a professor of English and creative writing and recently completed a six-year tenure as department chair. A female student asked for further background on this sad event in this woman’s life, and finding that none was available quipped that her marriage and insanity seemed to be the sum of it all.

Elliott began research but reached an impasse quickly.

“Once she was admitted to the asylum,” he notes, “there is nothing else. We know it was an excessively repressive place. Women were placed on one side and men on the other. There was a small area for visitors.”

The playwright pulled at the meager details available to weave a possible alternate scenario and took a few liberties as well. The actual diagnosis for Antonietta Portulano was “inherited excessive jealousy,” which sounds comical today. To facilitate his story, Elliott has male and female characters interacting.

“I asked myself, ‘What are the possibilities?’” he said.

Antonietta Portulano was educated in a convent and raised by a wealthy and traditional Sicilian family. Her father and Pirandello’s father were business partners. The marriage was arranged like a kind of business deal. About 10 years into the marriage, a flood proved disastrous for the families’ sulfur mining interests and their fortunes were lost—including Antonietta’s generous dowry. From this moment, her mental health went into decline.

“I don’t know if she was ever visited by her husband,” says Elliott. “We do know there was discord in the family about committing her. I have used an incident in which Antonietta found love letters written by Pirandello’s female students, which he had saved. We know that when finances became difficult, she did pawn jewelry.”

In addition to lifting details from the lives of the Pirandellos, Elliott has also borrowed phrases and devices from Pirandello’s plays. “The final line is from Six Characters in Search of an Author. There are certainly references to Henry IV. The idea of lifting the mask and lifting the veil is from Pirandello—the whole idea of trying to distinguish between the public self and the private self. And can we really know ourselves in the end?”

Elliott has also used details from his own life, growing up in Cardiff, Wales.

“When I was young I had a job helping to put up large tents for various public events,” recalls Elliott, “and one of these was for the annual sports day at our local psychiatric hospital! Some of the characters are based on people I remember from there. There was a girl who would throw her dress in the air and say she was in love with me. There was a boy who gave me clear and lucid directions and when I commented that he didn’t seem insane, a member of the staff said, ‘Try him when the moon is full!’ That’s in the play.”

Other details of the Pirandello family history haunt Elliott. For instance, the period leading up to Antonietta’s confinement, presumably the most troubled years for the marriage, were actually Pirandello’s most productive! In addition, the couple’s young daughter attempted to commit suicide and was only spared when the gun misfired—an incident traditionally blamed on her mother’s insane ravings, but about which Elliott now wonders.

“Biographers, who worship Pirandello, naturally put all of the blame for everything on Antonietta,” he notes.

Pirandello’s Wife continues at the Alleyway Theatre through February 19, One Curtain Up Alley (852-2600).

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