“Why not,” I said to myself, “present this highly strange fact of an author who refuses to let some of his characters live though they have been born in his fantasy, and the fact that these characters, having by now life in their veins, do not resign themselves to remaining excluded from the world of art? They are detached from me; live on their own; have acquired voice and movement; have by themselves—in this struggle for existence that they have had to wage with me—become dramatic characters, characters that can move and talk on their own initiative; already see themselves as such; have learned to defend themselves against others. And so let them go where dramatic characters do go to have life: on a stage. And let us see what will happen.”
That’s what I did. And, naturally, the result was what it had to be: a mixture of tragic and comic, fantastic and realistic, in a humorous situation that was quite new and infinitely complex, a drama which is conveyed by means of the characters, who carry it within them and suffer it, a drama, breathing, speaking, self-propelled, which seeks at all costs to find the means of its own presentation; and the comedy of the vain attempt at an improvised realization of the drama on stage.
—Luigi Pirandello, Preface to Six Characters in Search of an Author
It can be argued that with Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity arrives on stage. Called by critic Felicity Firth “the major single subversive moment in the history of modern theatre,” the play is a dizzying hall of mirrors that tests the philosophical basis of the concept of reality while exposing and renewing the operating principles of the drama. The play’s startling premise—the interruption of a play rehearsal by six characters conjured and then abandoned by their author who seek the means to exhibit their drama—was so shocking when the play was first per-formed in Rome in 1921 that the audience rioted. Catcalls and jeering led to punches. Six Characters would be subsequently performed internationally to great acclaim and acknowledgment as a watershed drama with its innovative treatment of philosophical themes and dazzling experimentation with dramatic structure. The impact of the play has been likened to “the effect of an earthquake,” with the play’s radical form compared to cubism, in which, as art historian Wylie Sypher asserts, “Pirandello ‘destroys’ drama much as the cubists destroyed conventional things,” by not accepting “as authentic ‘real’ people or the cliché of the theatre any more than the cubist accepts as authentic the ‘real’ object [or] the cliché of deep perspective.” Six Characters pioneered the anti-realistic, self-reflexiveness that is the hallmark of modernist drama. Critic Antonio Illiano summarizes, the “sudden and unexpected appearance of live characters, who claimed to belong to the stage and could actually be seen and heard, was like a bombshell that blew out the last and weary residues of the old realistic drama.” As important in the creation of modern drama as James Joyce is to modern fiction and T. S. Eliot to modern poetry, Pirandello initiated contemporary drama with its radical uncertainties, discontinuities, and undermining of the fundamental concepts of identity and reality. Pirandello’s importance has been attested to by Tom Stoppard, who has asserted the “impossibility” of any contemporary Western playwright “to write a play that is totally unlike Beckett, Pirandello, [or] Kafka.”
Pirandello was born in Sicily in 1867. His father was a wealthy owner of a sulfurmining business. “I am the son of Chaos,” Pirandello wrote, “and not allegorically but literally, because I was born in a country spot called by the people around Cávusu, a dialectal corruption of the authentic Greek word Xáos.” Expected to enter the family firm, Pirandello was appalled by the conditions of the mines in which men were “turned into animals by the mean, ferocious fight for gain” and turned instead to academic and artistic pursuits. Producing his first play with siblings and friends at the age of 12, Pirandello attended universities in Palermo, Rome, and finally Bonn, where he earned a doctorate in romance philology. Settling in Rome to establish himself as a writer, Pirandello agreed in 1894 to an arranged marriage to Antonietta Portulano, the daughter of one of his father’s business associates. To support his wife and three children Pirandello became a literature teacher at a woman’s college, where he worked for 24 years. In 1904, the same year that he gained his first critical success with the novel The Late Mattia Pascal, the failure of his father’s mining business, in which Pirandello was heavily invested, resulted in the paralysis and mental derangement of Antonietta, who became obsessively jealous and delusional. Enduring constant accusations and abuse from his mentally unstable wife, Pirandello refused to have her committed until 1919, finding refuge in his study, where he produced short stories, novels, essays, and several unproduced plays, many dealing with his tormented domestic life and his fascination, prompted by his wife’s condition, with the conflict between truth and illusion and the borderline between sanity and insanity.
Pirandello’s early writing was strongly influenced by the Italian naturalist movement that advocated a truthful reflection of reality. Pirandello, however, came to believe that truth could be apprehended neither objectively nor scientifically and that reality itself was a problematic concept. Experience, in Pirandello’s developing view, was chaotic, in constant flux, in which individuals imposed ideas, concepts, and systems of beliefs to make sense of it. Identity was not intrinsic but multiple, constructed out of the roles and responses circumstances imposed on individuals. Pirandello’s evolving aesthetic principles are outlined in his book-length essay L’umorismo (On Humor), published in 1908. In Pirandello’s theory of humorism, which serves as a key to his art, the comic writer exploits the opposition between appearance and reality. What is comic is the perception of this opposition, which leads both to a compassionate understanding of a character’s fictive situation and a deeper insight into actuality. Pirandello’s art is at its core epistemological, concerned with the problem of knowing and the embodiment of crucial philosophical ideas in a compelling human drama. Pirandello insisted:
My works are born from live images which are the perennial source of art, but these images pass through a veil of concepts which have taken hold of me. My works of art are never concepts trying to express themselves through images. On the contrary. They are images, often very vivid images of life, which, fostered by the labors of my mind, assume universal significance quite on their own, through the formal unity of art.
By the outbreak of World War I Pirandello had established his reputation as a master of the short story and a successful novelist. During the war years he would increasingly devote himself to playwriting. “My taste for the narrative form had vanished,” Pirandello recalled. “I could no longer limit myself to story telling, while there was action all around me. . . . The words would not remain on the written page: they had to explode into the air, to be spoken or cried out.” In 1917 Pirandello completed Cosí è (se vi pare) (Right You Are), the first of his major experimentation with theatrical form and subversion of the conventions of realistic drama. Dramatizing the impossibility of objective truth, the play converts a family comedy into an ontological exploration of being and knowing. Between Right You Are and Six Characters, Pirandello wrote three plays—The Pleasure of Honesty (1918), The Rules of the Game (1919), and All as It Should Be (1920)—that further presented the unstable concept of identity and the conflict between reality and illusion. These themes would have their greatest expression in Six Characters in Search of an Author.
In the history of the modern theater there is perhaps no more shocking moment than the opening of Six Characters, in which the audience, expecting to be entertained by an illusion of real life, confronts a bare stage, “as it usually is during the daytime . . . so that from the beginning the public may have the impression of an impromptu performance.” Onstage a group of actors playing actors prepare to rehearse one of Pirandello’s plays. Both the stage and situation blur the distinction between illusion and reality. Trained by Henrik Ibsen and others to suspend disbelief in favor of onstage realism, Pirandello’s audience is immediately reminded that they are viewing not a living room through the removed fourth wall but artifice. This radical disruption of the realistic principle is further assaulted when six characters interrupt the rehearsal—a Father, Mother, Stepdaughter, Son, adolescent Boy, and young Girl—who claim to be characters created by an author who has abandoned their story. They seek from the actors the means for self-expression. The audience, initially dealing with the notion of actors playing actors in a play that appears spontaneous, must now adjust to the more radical premise of actors playing characters who become actors in a dramatic version of their lives. The Manager and the “real” actors initially suspect the characters’ sanity, but the Father makes clear, they are no less sane nor real than the rehearsing actors: “to reverse the ordinary process may well be considered a madness: that is, to create credible situations, in order that they may appear true. But permit me to observe that if this be madness, it is the sole raison d’etre of your profession.” Having found an audience (both literally and fictively), the characters begin to tell their story. Years before, the Father, having tired of his wife, procured a lover for her with whom she lived and had three children before he died some months before. This extended family—both the Father and Mother’s legitimate Son and his stepbrother and -sisters are now reunited. The Father’s version of their convoluted family’s history is contested both by the Mother and the Stepdaughter whose chance discovery in a brothel by the Father becomes the means for their reunion. Both Father and Stepdaughter are anxious that the scene in the brothel be dramatized to support their opposed versions of events: the Father’s innocence and benevolence and the Stepdaughter’s claims of his ulterior motives, including his incestuous desires. The first act ends as the Manager, having grown intrigued by the dramatic possibilities of their story, invites the characters to his office to develop a dramatic scenario. Having set in motion a play within a play, Pirandello prepares the stage for a meditation on the problematic translation of life to stage illusion and of stage illusion to life.
Act 2 opens with the Stepdaughter storming onstage outraged with the self-serving and misleading drama that the Father and the Manager are creating. The falsification of her version of reality is further undermined by the inauthenticity of actors in representing the characters. To their complaints about their “characterizations” the Manager explains: “On the stage, you as yourself, cannot exist. The actor here acts you, and that’s an end to it!” The Manager, however, eventually consents to allow the characters to interpret their drama, which is then repeated by the actors and critiqued by the characters. The brothel scene is played to the point of the Father’s seduction of his Stepdaughter, when the Mother, unable to control her anger and suffering any longer, acts to separate her husband and daughter forming a recognition scene. The Manager, pleased by this theatrical climax, declares it the first act curtain scene. His words are misheard by a stagehand who actually lets down the curtain to close the act. When the curtain rises again, the scene is the gar-den of the Father’s house in preparation for the drama of the family’s reunion in which the Mother is to confront her guilt over abandoning her son and he must contend with his resentment of his newly discovered siblings. The action is preceded by a lengthy discussion between the Father and the Manager on the difference between reality and illusion. As the Father observes to the Manager and his acting company, “if we [indicating the Characters] have no other reality beyond the illusion, you too must not count overmuch on your reality as you feel it today, since, like that of yesterday, it may prove an illusion for you tomorrow.” Indeed, the Father insists that the characters are in fact truer and more real than the others:
Our reality doesn’t change; it can’t change! It can’t be other than what it is, because it is already fixed for ever. It’s terrible. Ours is an immutable reality which should make you shudder when you approach us if you are really conscious of the fact that your reality is a mere transitory and fleeting illusion, taking this form today and that tomorrow, according to the conditions, according to your will, your sentiments, which in turn are controlled by an intellect that shows them to you today in one manner and tomorrow . . . who knows how? . . . Illusions of reality represented in this fatuous comedy of life that never ends, nor can ever end! Because if tomorrow it were to end . . . then why, all would be finished.
The Father’s radical disruption of the realistic basis of existence is played out in the ensuing drama that further complicates perception. The foreground action of the Mother’s attempted reunion with her resentful Son is disrupted by the revelation that the real drama was the Son’s discovery of the body of the little girl in the fountain with her brother standing helplessly over her. At that moment a revolver shot rings out onstage, and the Mother and several of the actors find the prostrate body of the boy. Is he dead? Or just pretending? This radical uncertainty closes the play as the line between what is acted and what is lived onstage is obliterated, and the Manager exasperatingly cries:
Pretense? Reality? To hell with it all! Never in my life has such a thing happened to me. I’ve lost a whole day over these people, a whole day!
Critic Richard Gilman helpfully summarizes the questions the play raises and the basis for the play’s impact on the theater and modern culture: “What is dramatic ‘reality’ and dramatic ‘illusion’? What does it mean to ‘act’ on stage? . . . What are the relationships between reality and truth, human characters and the characters of a fiction, imagination and actuality?” By calling attention to the conventions of stage realism and their implications, Six Characters in Search of an Author dramatically expands the possibilities of the theater that others, such as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Edward Albee, and Tom Stoppard, would further exploit. With Pirandello the stage is able to contain both a compelling human story and a consideration of the most profound existential questions of knowing and being. As critic Raymond Williams has argued, in Pirandello’s dramas,
The worlds of naturalism and expressionism cross and engender what is really a new form: one which has continued to be influential. Delusion, loss of identity, the reduction of personality to a role and of society to a collective impersonation: these are elements of a new kind of theatre: a use of the theatre to expose itself, and then in the double exposure to question any discoverable reality. What began as the twist of romantic drama became a decisive twist of a whole dramatic tradition. That, now, is Pirandello’s importance.