Pirandello’s As You Desire Me: Capturing the beautiful and dangerous ideal on stage

The lights come up on a woman, assailed. Blindfolded, she vaults across the stage, dancing in and out of the embrace of a group of lusting men. Are these assailants her lovers or attackers? The audience hesitates: is it witnessing a debauched party, or is a more sinister violation being committed against this blinded figure ? 

As You Desire Me’s opening scene premises a play in which different perceptions of reality are pushed onto the stage, competing for legitimacy and power. The ‘unknown woman,’ ultimately a nameless entity, is a figure in which these competing realities clash. Chloé Réjon plays her with a brilliant vitality, tapping somewhat paradoxically both into a sense ferociously unpredictability and complete control. She is the central enigma, a figure constantly in motion, which neither the characters not the audience ever fully grasp. 

Characteristic of the rest of his oeuvre, Pirandello plays with the theme of refracted identity. His heroine slips through a mesh of perceptions, teetering between reality, the imaginary, the idealized and the iconic. But here, the self takes on a geopolitical, rather than existential dimension. The woman is a terrain, an unmarked land onto which characters and the audience plot their maps. Her prismatic identity makes her an uncertain and stateless space. Throughout the play, this nameless space comes to be claimed, invaded, dominated and named by external forces to make her fit the image of their eye. Ripping the blindfold from her eyes, she is the vital force that energises the play and illuminates the world around her, despite being the most enigmatic and unplaceable figure of all.

At the start of the play, we see the ‘unknown woman’ living a life of anonymity and decadent frivolity in Berlin as a cabaret dancer and lover to a famous writer. One evening, a passing Italian photographer recognizes her as the young wife of his friend Bruno Piero. This woman had disappeared ten years earlier without leaving a trace, during the invasion of Italy by the Austro-Hungarian army. They had believed her kidnapped and dead. The photographer names the unknown woman: Lucia. The photographer’s profession provides a key revelation: he has the power to still time and shape history with his gaze. An image can be transposes into any context and perpetually rewrite meaning. The unknown woman is snapped into a perceived reality through the photographer’s gaze, and she is contextualised into Lucia’s history. Following this moment of recognition, the stage is filled with characters who profess recognising the unknown woman as Lucia. Despite this, Réjon’s Lucia is rarely still. She refuted the allegations and continuously escapes the stilling gazes that attempts to trap her.

The play is set 10 years after the First World War, with the first half unfolding in Berlin and the second in Pirandello’s home country of Italy. Europe, coming out of a context of ruin and disaster, is still trying to rebuild itself. Caught in a liminal space and haunted by the ghost of the past, this era sees the rise of dangerously dogmatic visions for the future. Nazism is taking over Germany, and fascism has triumphed in Italy. Different hopes for Europe’s fate clash. Everything is to be remade. The imagined and the real are blurred at a time where the ideas of any man or party can completely reshape Europe’s reality. In this context, the unknown woman becomes a battle ground onto which characters project their narratives, desires, dogmas, beliefs and dreams

The woman’s fate speaks of idealization as both an act of beauty and violence. She is named as a vestige of the past, a mythical figure, once lost, now unearthed. Paradoxically, it is in her namelessness and elusiveness that draws characters and the audience to her. Like a wild and unmarked land provides a feeling of wonder, there is an alien beauty about her presence. Despite (or rather because of) this, the characters and the audience cannot resist the urge to categorize this space, draw its borders and vest it with a binding definition. She comes to represent a golden age, a glorious potential for the future based on the perceived beauty of the past. But how much of this understanding or beauty is a perversion and rewritings of history ? As a contemporary phenomenon on the rise, nationalism and the extreme right narrativized the past as a purer time to go back to (and they still do). The unknown woman becomes a kind of perverted Nietzschean Superwoman in their eyes, a dogmatic rereading of the past, based on illusion. She encapsulates a desire to reach an ideal state of national might and strength through subduing all other versions and readings of reality.

Lucia is metaphor. She represents not only a valiant nation but the ideal of a self that remains intact, untarnished, unvanquishable and ‘pure despite a period of intense trauma. Like the valiant Marianne, icon of the French Revolution, she has braved the battle scene and come out of it without even a scar. Naming her Lucia is a mechanism to not face the reality of war and the destruction it brings to lands, people and psyches. A country in ruins or a traumatised self may lie closer to a barren and nameless land than a proud nation. Can characters really identify and recognise the unchanged spirit of their homeland as it was before the war ? The unknown woman knows that her elevation to the power of the iconic, is not only a trap but also a lie. The ideal exists only through communal agreement and collective projection.

Stéphane Braunschweig’s staging is simple and effective. Adorning the floor of the stage is a large glass panel that mirrors the unknown woman as she strides across it. She is refracted in reflections that expand her body into the immaterial. Every spectator catches her at a different angle, depending on where they are looking at her from. This rectangular mirror flooring is her own space – none of the other characters ever step onto it. They stay in the liminal space beyond the frame. For us, Lucia lives as much as an image as a corporal entity. The Lucia above the mirror is no more material than she who hangs underneath. Ultimately, she is rooted in a space the other characters cannot ever fully reach. Both acts are held up by curtains spread out across three sides of the stage. They box off the space in which the action happens, presenting a vignette. The stage area is a square of light, contained by the curtains and bordered off from the darkness on the other side. Characters coming in and out of folds in the fabric symbolize a crossing over of limits, entering and exiting the body of the stage from some unknown outside. At the end of the first act, we hear a gunshot and one of the characters falls dead. The resounding sound comes as an incursion of undeniable reality into the projected scene. The curtain falls in a resounding crack to the floor of the stage, expanding the gunshot’s sound, echoing through the performance space like a cannon. The backstage area, unadorned and bare, is revealed. Only a thin veil holds up the world of this play, which is inflated by projection and idealization. But tearing down the fabric can reveal an uncomfortable truth – what if, behind this game lies a barren wasteland ? With this reveal, we are made to feel that the real has been exposed. The unveiled space shows what is ‘off stage’ and beyond the metaphor. But is this also just an extension of the illusion ?

In the transition between the two acts, the unknown woman lies on the ground, which lifts to the vertical. The mirror has now become pane of glass, see-through. Everything on stage is a play of illusion, a game of smoke and mirrors. She turns like a piece of meat on the fire. We observe her under this new angle like a mannequin through a window, on display yet completely inaccessible. From bellow, blaring white light and rising smoke emphasise the mythical aspect of this figure. An idol is conjured out of the imagination and rises to the occasion for the second act: Lucia.

The second half of the play takes place in Italy. Order seems to have replaced the chaos of Berlin. We are invited into a controlled and contained living space, adorned in beige and white colours that fill the audience’s vision completely. The only incursion into the tones is the rectangular mirror. In this seemingly ordered society, the unknown woman now appears as Lucia. She seems to have accepted to live up to the ideal, ‘as you desire me’. She plays at being Bruno’s long-lost wife, a return dreamt out of theatre and illusion. The stage is adorned by a huge portrait of the disappeared wife wearing a white dress, an image of virginal purity and innocence. The portrait parallels the unknown woman as we have seen her become between the acts, an image fixed and framed but unreachable. The unknown woman wears the same dress, mirroring the picture and matching the colours and tones of the space around her. 

Is life imitating art, or could the unknown woman really be Lucia ? Lucia the unified whole, at one with her surroundings, comes out of a sense of assuredness in Italy’s fate. Fascism’s narrative has succeeded in weaving itself firmly into reality and blanketing the country with a supreme vision. It has rewritten history as the ascent of iconic, mythical and superior figures (such as the almighty Lucia) who have vanquished over fragility and weakness. It is a world that has tried to bury the trauma of war and heal wounds in national fanaticism, blinding itself to a barbarous reality on the rise. It covers that barbarity up with a perverted veil of purity, as symbolized here in the overbearing and monopolising paleness that has invaded the scene. 

Just as we have settled on this version of events the unexpected occurs. The elusive figure of the ‘mad woman’ rises out of the shadows. This woman is brought in from a psychiatric hospital, with claims that she is in fact the real Lucia. Could the true Lucia lie in this traumatized figure, in this broken and shattered self ? The ‘mad woman’ jitters and flexes with erratic movements, eternally stuck on loops of repetitive gesture, a disturbing vision of a soul trapped on the battlefield. She represents the hidden face of the past, the buried corps that resurfaces in plain sight and the figure characters would rather not see. She is the impossible face of reparation. 

The only word she can pronounce: ‘Lena,’ her aunt’s name. Called out relentlessly, the word comes out as a raw screech. In stark contrast to the unknown woman’s eloquence, all that is left for this figure is a desperate cry, a last attempt at signalling and claiming an identity. As she calls out, trying to escape the confines of a broken body and psyche, images of a city in ruin are projected against the curtains. Huge and hollow carcasses mirror the rattling figure. The woman’s dark makeup turns her into a skeletal being, hollow eyes withered by trauma, mirroring the decimated city. The audience picks up the pieces and signals and starts to shape them around their idea of Lucia. They fill up the emptied interiors with meaning. Would Lucia, having suffered war, not more likely be this violated figure, stuck on the atrocity of events humanity cannot ultimately shake itself of

The other characters refuse to see this figure as the real Lucia. They refute her damaged body, even when the unknown woman herself professes that she is not Lucia and that in the ‘mad woman’ they will find the truth. The eugenic undertones do not go amiss – characters refuse to consider this weak body and mind as the real Lucia, choosing instead the unknown woman’s perfect and strong figure. The reality of the ideal will always be chosen over that of the unpleasant and uncomfortable, ugly truth. 

A sudden change of lighting reveals that the lost wife’s portrait looks nothing like the unknown woman. We realise that the resemblance and the emulation of innocence and ‘purity’ in the unknown woman had been nothing but a trick of light. Could the ‘mad woman’ not in fact be the portrait’s future, a withered and broken version of the woman in the picture ? Just as we are convinced that she is in fact the real Lucia, the curtain again comes crashing to the ground, revealing the backdrop. 

Here is Pirandello’s final coup de force, his ultimate trick. The unknown woman, professing that she was playing a game all along, bares a final speech before escaping from the stage. The playwriter establishes the only external sign that the real Lucia can be recognised by as a birth mark, a spot on her calf. Throughout the play, characters try to locate it, but the unknown woman insists that they should believe or disbelieve she is Lucia without seeing the proof. The unknown woman asks the ‘mad woman’s’ councillor whether she has this birthmark. He replies that she does, but it is not in the right place and is not the right color. At this point we realise that, just as the unknown woman is an ideal, the ‘mad woman’ is another kind of ideal. This version of Lucia has also been constructed. We have picked up the signals and filled in the picture, vesting her with meaning through reading elements of staging such as the images of war projected onto the curtains. 

Both women are different metaphors for the country: one shows a land rising out of the ashes, glorious, self-assured and strong. The other shows the trauma and destruction of war in all its ugliness. Both ideals are perversions, images violently projected onto the two women’s bodies. Mockingly, the unknown woman suggest they try moving the ‘mad woman’s’ birthmark or colouring it in to be the right colour. This is what characters have been doing throughout the play – fitting and forcing the Other around their conviction and changing history and fact to create the world they want to see. In a moment of union, both the unknown woman and the ‘mad woman’ step onto the glass. Four figures stand on the stage, half on either side of the mirror, two idealised figures and two reflections. Just like the unknown woman, the ‘mad woman’ also exists in this unreachable space.

In the end, the play’s narrative has shaped itself around a heroin and her antithesis who never were. We fail to subdue the idealized Lucia to a level or reality. She remains a long-lost memory. In the last moments of the play, the unknown woman exits the stage. Several characters chase after her, as they pursue the version of reality that they have projected onto her. Lena, Lucia’s aunt, turns towards the ‘mad woman’ and, with the final words of the play, recognises and names her as the real Lucia. In the blackout that follows, the audience remains breathless for a few moments, caught in the emotion of this encounter. We want this to be real and wish for the play to end with this vision of an aunt taking in a vulnerable niece. It is a version of events that ends the play in catharsis, in an outburst of emotion and in a warm embrace. But ultimately, what we see is an aunt projecting her version of reality and her choice over who Lucia is onto a traumatised figure that cannot disprove her or speak back. This idealization, albeit coming from a caring and nurturing place, is also an act of violence. It is a violence the aunt cannot help herself from committing when looking to fill up an empty grave with a figure she can vest with love. Today Pirandello’s criticism of the dangers of idealization and people’s ability to change and shape truth are as relevant as they were back when they were written.

As we come out of our own crisis, how will we face the past to build the future we want to see ?

Crédit image : © « Peter McIntyre, Air raid at Monte Cassino, February 1944 » by Archives New Zealand is licensed under CC BY 2.0