The Italian movement known as the Theatre of the Grotesque was characterized by a quality described by its most famous practitioner, Luigi Pirandello, as "umorismo." This was a type of painful laughter that accompanies a sense of tragic bewilderment. Characters in Theatre of the Grotesque resembled puppets with little or no control over their own destinies. They frequently got involved in seemingly irresolvable love triangles involving female infidelity and lost a sense of what was real and what was illusion.
The playwright Luigi Chiarelli began the movement with his 1913 play The Mask and the Face, which he subtitled "a grotesque in three acts." In the play, a cuckolded husband pretends to murder his wife to preserve his honor, but in reality he sends her away and confesses to a crime he did not commit. The man is acquitted of murder and sent bouquets of flowers from women who want to marry him for his supposedly manly actions. His wife returns and the two are reconciled, but the man is then charged with lying to the police in confessing the murder. As a murderer, he was respected, but now it is clear he is innocent, he is hunted down as an outlaw.
Other playwrights followed in Chiarelli's footsteps. These including Luigi Antonelli, who wrote the time-traveling play A Man Confronts Himself, and Enrico Cavacchiolo, who explored the hopelessness of marital infidelity in his highly theatrical play The Bird of Paradise, as well as Rosso di San Secondo, whose play Puppets of Passion exemplifies the obsession Theatre of the Grotesque had with marionettes and other puppets. By far, however, the most influential playwright in the movement was Pirandello.
Pirandello's play Right You Are (If You Think You Are), which premiered in 1917 in Milan, is typical of his early work. It shows a group of civil servants who become obsessed with a new employee whose wife for some reason communicates with an old woman through letters lowered down from a window in a basket. The characters call in the old woman, the man, and ultimately the man's wife, continually trying to get to the bottom of the mystery. With each questioning, however, they uncover new contradictions and are unsure whether to believe the man or the old woman. Instead of resolving the mystery at the end, the wife proclaims that they are both right, and the audience is left with more questions at the end than at the beginning.
The Theatre of the Grotesque tended to repeat itself, however, and Pirandello ultimately outgrew the movement. His 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author goes beyond the tricks of his earlier work. It involves six mysterious individuals who show up in a theatre just as actors are getting ready to rehearse a play. The strange guests explain they are characters in an unfinished story and try to get the performers to act out their history. It ends in chaos, with no one able to distinguish art from reality.
The initial production of the play in Rome had mixed results. While some in the audience hailed it as brilliant, others cried out that Pirandello was a madman. A subsequent production in Milan was more successful, and the play spawned countless imitations. Pirandello followed that success with Henry IV, about a man who thinks he is a Holy Roman Emperor from the 11th century and is humored by his relatives who play along with his delusion. As it turns out, the man knows perfectly well who he is, but prefers living in the fantasy to reality.
Pirandello had personal experience with madness, as his own wife had been committed to an insane asylum since 1919. His explorations of madness, theatricality, and the idea that reality itself might be subjective continued to influence writers and thinkers for years to come. In 1934, Pirandello received the Nobel Prize for Literature, with the committee citing his "bold and brilliant renovation of the drama and the stage."