25 June 2018

Marta Abba - actress

Aspiring star who became Pirandello’s muse

Marta Abba was just 24 when she met the  playwright Luigi Pirandello
Marta Abba was just 24 when she met the
playwright Luigi Pirandello
Marta Abba, who as a young actress became the stimulus for the creativity of the great playwright Luigi Pirandello, was born on this day in 1900 in Milan.

The two met in 1925 when Pirandello, whose most famous works included the plays Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) and Henry IV (1922), asked her to see him, having read an enthusiastic appreciation of her acting talents by Marco Praga, a prominent theatre critic of the day.

Abba had made her stage debut in Milan in 1922 in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and was noted for the exuberance and passion of her performances. Pirandello was impressed with her and immediately hired her as first actress for his Teatro d’Arte company in Rome.

Over the next nine years until Pirandello’s death in 1936, Abba would become not only his inspiration but his confidante. When Abba was not working with him but was on stage in some other city or country, they would correspond in writing, exchanging hundreds of letters.

Pirandello was said to be infatuated with Abba from their first meeting in 1925 in Rome
Pirandello was said to be infatuated with Abba from
their first meeting in 1925 in Rome

There was a considerable age gap between them - Abba was 24 and Pirandello 58 when they met - and their relationship was complex and not always harmonious.  It has been speculated that there was a romance between them but any love affair was probably one-sided.

The Sicilian playwright, who was married but whose wife was in an asylum for the mentally ill, was infatuated with the young actress but it is thought it was a passion that was unconsummated, which meant that the relationship was a source of torment for Pirandello as well as one that inspired his creativity.

The eldest daughter of a Milan merchant, Abba went to a theatre school in Milan and was always set on a career in theatre.  Her collaboration with Pirandello, starring in many of his plays, would make her a significant figure in theatre in Italy.

Abba did not marry until after Pirandello's death
Abba did not marry until after
Pirandello's death

In 1930 she founded her own theatrical company and specialized in staging the works of Pirandello and other European playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw, Gabriele d'Annunzio and Carlo Goldoni, under the direction of prestigious directors such as Max Reinhardt and Guido Salvini.

After Pirandello’s death, she moved to the United States, making her Broadway debut was in the play Tovarich, by the French writer Jacques Deval, at the Plymouth Theatre.

She remained single until after Pirandello’s death. In January 1938 she married a wealthy Cleveland polo player, Severance Allen Millikin.  They lived in Cleveland until they divorced in 1952, at which point Abba returned to Italy.

Her health remained robust until the last few years of her life, when she was confined to a wheelchair.  She spent the last few weeks before her death in 1988 receiving treatment at the spa town of San Pellegrino Terme, north of Bergamo.

She wrote an autobiography, La mia vita di attrice (My Life as an Actress). After her death, a collection she had kept of more than 500 letters between her and Pirandello was donated to the University of Princeton, in New Jersey.

The Art Nouveau Grand Hotel in San Pellegrino Terme
The Art Nouveau Grand Hotel in San Pellegrino Terme
Travel tip:

San Pellegrino Terme is a small town in a little over 20km (12 miles) north of the city of Bergamo, in Lombardy, in the Val Brembana. Its name has become known all over the world because of the fame of its spring water, bottled by a company that marketed it as San Pellegrino mineral water. The company’s main production centre used to be in the town, which is also notable for several striking Art Nouveau buildings from the early 20th century, including the Casinò, the Grand Hotel and the Terme (Baths).

The Palazzo Chigi-Odescalchi in Rome
The Palazzo Chigi-Odescalchi in Rome
Travel tip:

Luigi Pirandello’s Teatro d’Arte company used to stage its productions at the Odescalchi Theatre inside the Palazzo Chigi-Odescalchi, in Piazza Santi Apostoli, a short distance from Piazza Venezia in the heart of Rome. The palace, which belonged originally to the Colonna family, was remodelled by Carlo Maderno before undergoing a later transformation under the great Roman sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, with later input from Nicola Salvi and Luigi Vanvitelli, with the façade on Via del Corso rebuilt by Raffaelo Ojetti.


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