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January 25, 2006

Who are we? Pirandello asking essential questions: As You Desire Me - Luigi Pirandello

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Luigi Pirandello's As You Desire Me
directed by Jonathan Kent
Playhouse, London
27th October 2005 - 22nd January 2006

"Who am I?" asks the essentialist, trying to construct some imperishable psychological dwelling out of the wreckage left behind by the contingent experiences of everyday life. Pirandello made this question the centre of his work. It is a question that has gained ever more salience as twentieth century scepticism has replaced the romantic idealism of the nineteenth century. Identity is at the heart of his As You Desire Me (written in 1930) in which we are introduced to a Marlene Dietrich figure referred to as L'ignota the unknown woman. She is a night-club siren, enmeshed in Weimar decadence. She has a rich lover and a lesbian admirer, and she clearly hates it all. An Italian stranger appears, claiming that she is actually Lucia, or "Cia", lost for years because she has been the victim of a traumatic multiple rape and kidnap by soldiers during the First World War. She really belongs in a rich estate in Italy, and her husband is said to have long been seeking to find her once more. The rest of the play follows her back to Italy in the process of reclaiming this possibly lost life.

But how are we to know if she is really "Cia", or merely an adventuress with a chance to escape an intolerable life? Identity is a tricky idea. Bureaucrats and detectives have a bodily conception of what it is, and its signs are fingerprints, birthmarks, DNA, the colour of eyes and suchlike. In literature and philosophy, however, identity is memory. It is what we remember experiencing as a continuous self, and that is why amnesia destroys identity.

But in Pirandello's play, a third notion appears. Identity is any life one can manage to lead so long as the social context will sustain it. Martin Guerre in the famous film traded on that sense of identity, though he eventually failed. The social context is made up of the people one must live with. Convince them and you convince yourself.

In As You Desire Me, L'ignota makes a pretty good fist of being "Cia", but her husband exhibits a fatal uncertainty about the truth of the matter. It is difficult to escape the serpent of doubt, as she remarks, once it has appeared. The crisis comes when her German lover (played by Bob Hoskins) turns up with a deranged woman in a wheelchair. He claims to have traced this woman to an institution in Austria and that she is the real "Cia". His aim is to unmask L'ignota as an imposter because he wants her back as his mistress, while "Cia's" Italian husband needs her there in order to sustain a legal claim to the estate they are living in. Hard issues are at stake no less than psychology. Truth is at the mercy of interests in both cases. Our heroine complains of "the revenge of facts". But who actually is L'ignota? What are the facts? Veterans of modern theatre will hardly be surprised to learn that no unambiguous answer to the question is given.

The brilliance of the play lies in the forensic drama in which the heroine herself both demonstrates that her real identity is that of "Cia", and then undermines the evidence on which that conclusion rests. It is a dazzling performance. But take away the metaphysical elements of the problem, and we have the more familiar plot of a woman choosing between two lives, between, as it were, two suitors. George Bernard Shaw was a great admirer of Pirandello and one can see why. Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion has precisely the same problem as L'ignota, and (in the play, though not in the film or the musical) makes the same choice. What is clear here is that the unknown woman can sustain both identities, and which one she chooses must depend in part on what other people want her to be hence the ambiguity of that conjunction in the title of the play as you desire me.

A large element of identity in the modern world depends, then, on the social context. It depends on who others think you are. This was not a problem that faced Romeo and Juliet, whose inner lives could stand up to intense social pressure. L'ignota might be making a calculation of the benefits of the two lives she might adopt, or it may be that she herself doesn't really know who she is. Psychiatrists often create pathologies out of existential problems, and L'ignota might in these terms be suffering from Inner Life Deficit Disorder. We never learn what she might or might not actually remember, but we live in a world where introspection as a source of knowledge is not taken seriously. Indeed in the modern world, there are some people who sometimes acquire the memories that benefit them, and others whose past seems to depend on what is plausibly suggested to them by others.

Pirandello's concerns clearly connect with many powerful archetypes. As You Desire Me might plausibly be seen as a variation on Orpheus and Eurydice, in which the husband fails to save her from the hell of nonentity. L'ignota is, again, Proteus who can take on any shape. But what is certainly true is that the play is a dazzling dramatic piece, and Kristin Scott Thomas and Bob Hoskins give it all the star power any dramatist could wish. Even when Hoskins has for the moment been back-grounded by the dramatist, he remains a riveting object entirely in character.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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