Marta Abba: Luigi Pirandello’s muse and unfulfilled love

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Marta Abba

In February 1925, the 58-year-old world-famous playwright Luigi Pirandello met Marta Abba, an unknown actress half his age, and fell in love with her.

She was to become, until his death in December 1936, not only his confidante but also his inspiring muse and artistic collaborator.

Pirandello’s love for the young actress was neither a literary infatuation nor a form of fatherly affection, but rather an unfulfilled, desperate passion that secretly consumed him during the last decade of his life.

Benito Ortolani, Editor and translator of the letters, Princeton University Press 1994.

Luigi Pirandello in 1932

Pirandello more than any other playwright has been responsible for a revolution in men’s attitude to the world that is comparable to the revolution caused by Einstein’s discovery of the concept of relativity in physics: Pirandello has transformed our attitude to human personality and the whole concept of reality in human relations by showing that the personality- the character in stage terms – is not a fixed entity but an infinitely fluid, blurred and relative concept.

Martin Esslin, Reflections

Abba (second from left) and Pirandello (third from left) at the Grand Hotel de Bains, in Lido di Venezia in 1928

Introduction

Luigi Pirandello is one of my favorite playwrights.

Some time ago I wrote an article on Mattia Pascal, an absolutely brilliant novel written by Pirandello.

Today I want to share another dimension of the man’s personality, not necessarily and directly reflected in his plays. His love for Marta Abba. This love should, of course, be taken into context. Pirandello was a complicated man, and his life reflected this more than enough. Many dimensions of this complexity have been reflected in his relationship with Marta Abba, and even shaped it.

Marta Abba

Pirandello met Abba in Rome, in February 1925. She was 24, he was 58. He was a Sicilian gentleman, married with children, who at the time were older than Marta. His wife was seriously ill, and about to be confined to an asylum for the mentally ill.She was a young actress, embarking n her career. During the eleven years of their “relationship”, they spent relatively little time together. They both had busy lives, Abba with her acting and Pirandello with his travels around Europe and the American Continent.

The letters Pirandello wrote to Marta are the material I will use to present their relationship. As the editor and translator, Benito Ortolani, notes they had agreed to live in a “nonintimate intimacy”.

Abba (right) and her sister Cele on the terrace of the Grand Hotel de Bains in Lido di Venezia in 1928

The Letters

All the quotes that follow come from the Princeton University Press 1994 edition of the letters.

The period covered by the published letters is from 1925, when Pirandello met Abba in Rome, to 1936, when he died. Only Pirandello;s letters to Marta have been published. Abba did not approve of the publication of the letters she wrote to the “Maestro”.

Dear Marta,

….But what shall I do with the money? For that matter, what should I do with my life, if I don’t have anybody to whom I can give it? To me, life is of no use. I don’t ask for any more beyond the time I need to finish the works that are left for me to write; because I feel it as an imperative obligation of my conscience, that I must write them. Without this, who knows where I would be by now –  since that horrible night spent in Como….

Luigi Pirandello

The letter was written on the 20th August 1926.The reference to the ‘horrible night in Como’ is very important. Although there is no proof of the exact date, it was a night back in October 1925. We do not have any explicit description of what happened. Only in one of Pirandello’s plays, a young woman (presumably Marta) addresses an old poet (presumably Pirandello) and throws in his face the memory of a traumatic event between them. She had offered herself to him, but he declined, offering a rational explanation.

Pirandello's typewritter in his studioi in via Antonio Bosio, 15 – Rome.
Pirandello’s typewriter in his studio in via Antonio Bosio, 15 – Rome.

My Marta,

…. You say that I “do not believe in anybody”. That really is a reproach. What do you mean I don’t believe? If I did not believe, what would I be living for, so far away and living alone? I can still hold out in this life only because I believe. And your advice to stay in Rome “among people who still love me” sounded to me like a mockery! Should I concentrate on the complications of your advice, perhaps then would I recognize the terrible folly of feeling as I do and of living the way I do … or not living!….

Your disappointed Maestro

This letter was written on the 8th January 1931. Pirandello was in Paris, France, and Abba in Turin, Italy. Marta had written to Pirandello, suggesting that he moves to Rome to be with his family. His children loved him, but could not quite comprehend his infatuation with Abba, while their mother was confined in a asylum for the mentally ill. Two years later, Pirandello followed Marta’s “advice” and moved to live in Rome, where he died.

Pirandelloreads
Pirandelloreads “Trovarsi” to Marta Abba, Lido di Camaiore, August 1932 (2)

My Marta,

I am writing in bed, where I have been lying since I arrived. Right on the morning of my arrival, when we were already docked in the harbor of Naples… – suddenly I felt sick: a burning pain in the chest, which took away my breath and made my legs feel weak. … You did the right thing, my Marta, in not coming to Naples…. But now I have an immense desire to see you again.If I were not in this condition, I would fly to Salsomaggiore, but I cannot…. I must stop writing, because I am too weak. I will write as soon as I can to tell you the many things that I have to communicate to you…..

Your Maestro

The letter was written on the 14th October 1935, one day after Pirandello suffered a heart attack on the day of his arrival in Naples.

Portraits of Marta Abba in Pirandello's studio, via Bosio 15, Roma
Portraits of Marta Abba in Pirandello’s studio, via Bosio 15, Roma (2)

My Marta, 

…. I know that you are still in Italy. I know that in a few days, on the evening of Tuesday of next week, I will see you again in Milan; that still keeps me going. But what will happen to me on the evening of May 23rd when you leave for London? And what will happen to me in August, when you leave even Europe and depart for America?I fell as if I am slowly sinking, as if the ground is becoming soft under my feet; I do not know what to hold on to; I have no more support….

Your Maestro

This letter was written on the 16th May 1936. Pirandello was in Rome, and Abba in Milan. In May 1936 Abba signed a contract to perform in New York’s Broadway.In preparation for her New York appearances, she went to London, England.

Pirandello directs Marta Abba and Lamberto Picasso in
Pirandello directs Marta Abba and Lamberto Picasso in “La nuova colonia”, 1928. (2)

My Marta

…This letter is already long, and it is time that I send it to the post office. But when will it reach you? If I think about the distance, I at once feel that I am sliding into a horrible loneliness, like into an abyss of despair. But you should not think about that! I embrace you tightly, tightly, with all, all my heart.

Your Maestro

This letter was written on the 4th December 1936, six days before Pirandello died of pneumonia. He was in Rome, and Abba was in New York City. She announced Pirandello’s death on stage at Plymouth Theater.

Cele, Marta and Pirandello on the balcony of the Grand Hotel de Bains in Lido di Venezia in 1928

Marta Abba, a leading Italian stage performer of the 1920’s and 30’s and the lifetime companion of the playwright Luigi Pirandello, died after suffering a stroke on her 88th birthday Friday in a Milan nursing home, her family announced today.

The New York Times, 26 June 1988

Sources:

  1. Pirandello’s Love Letters to Marta Abba, Edited and translated by Benito Ortolani. Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey, 1994.
  2. A Marta Abba per non morire”: il ricordo di lei