Review: Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello

Six Characters in Search of an Author [1921] – ★★★★

Luigi Pirandello’s plays are considered precursors to the Theatre of the Absurd and this play in three acts I read is one thought-provoking work that satirises the staging of a play, while muddling up such concepts as creation and performance, and an objective viewpoint and its subjective counterpart. In the play, a number of Characters come and gate-crash the rehearsal of a play “Mixing It Up”: the Father, the Mother, the Step-Daughter, the Son, the Boy and the Child. The Manager and the Actors are amazed to suddenly find on stage this group of Character-people, abandoned by their Author and eager to act out the drama of their lives. What then can the Manager do, but allow the Characters to try their hand at staging their performances? This play about a play is also an illusion within an illusion and a triple drama, of a book we read as play, of a stage to be set for a real drama, and, finally, of a play to come to “life” through an artistic vision gone haywire.

Firstly, comes the satire on producing a play itself, “where nobody understands anything, and where the author plays fools with us all”. Before the arrival of the Characters, the Manager explains to the Leading Man the essence of a play “Mixing It Up”: “You stand for reason, your wife is instinct…it’s a mixing up of the parts, according to which you who act your own part become the puppet of yourself. Do you understand?” The Leading Man: “I’m hanged if I do”. The Manager: “Neither do I. But let’s get on with it. It’s sure to be a glorious failure anyway” [L. Pirandello/A. Kernan (ed.)/E. Storer (tr.) Classics of the Modern Theatre, 1921/65: 227].

Secondly, come the existential crises of the Characters, who insist not only on them being “alive” and purposeful, but also immortal in comparison to the Actors, who are mere mortals and hardly having a life purpose (see also Clarice Lispector’s book A Breath of Life [1978] for a similar theme): “…one is born to life in many forms, in many shapes, as tree, or as stone, as water, as butterfly, or as a woman. So one may also be born a character in a play”. The Characters’ “real” drama spills onto the stage as the Actors watch transfixed, probably wondering: does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? The drama is this: there seems to have been a family discord and the Mother left at some point, leaving the Father with the Son, and when the Mother’s Lover died, she, together with her children by her Lover, returned to the Father. When the Manager agrees to try to help the Characters enact their life-drama on stage, all the absurdities of trying to play “life” come to the surface, with the Characters challenging the Actors’ “realism”, to which the Manager also replies: “Acting is our business here. Truth to a certain point, but no further” [L. Pirandello/A. Kernan (ed.)/E. Storer (tr.) Classics of the Modern Theatre, 1921/65: 258].

This play is also naturally about the reversal of a normal theatrical production process, as the Manager allows the Characters to enact their drama on stage and, only when they finish their performances, thoughts would be jotted down (script produced). This also gives rise to another kind of a drama. As a character, The Father recognises not only his own subjective viewpoint in the family drama, but also the objective point of the drama of a play. Of course, the problem here, as Pirandello implies, is that the two are stark contrasts to each other. The “life” to be played out is at odds with the conventions and rules of the theatre. While the production, with its decorative limits and common sense approach to pleasing the audience, is concerned with the presentation of a logical drama, not too long and not too short, mindful of all the logistics and practicalities, the Characters insist on being taken seriously, on their imagination given free reign, on their passions not to be ignored and on their traumas being given plenty of time for expression.

This irreconcilability of people’s positions (since each of them is a different “universe” with their own sets of “laws”) echoes Pirandello’s avid interest in the psychology of identity, metaphysics and even individual consciousness: “each of us has within him a whole world of things, each man of us his own special world. And how can we ever come to an understanding if I put in the words I utter the sense and value of things as I see them; while you who listen to me must inevitably translate them according to the conception of things each one of you has within himself! We think we understand each other, but we never really do” [L. Pirandello/A. Kernan (ed.)/E. Storer (tr.) Classics of the Modern Theatre, 1921/65: 234]. Even the Characters’ insistence in the play that they are “alive”, which seem absurd to us, becomes not so absurd if we consider the fact that multiple-personality disorder (where a number of different personalities are created in the brain to deal with different circumstances) is a recognisable medical condition, and science is still to prove empirically and objectively that any “I” exists. There are physical brains inside our heads, but there is still no objective evidence that there is, in fact, a thing called personal consciousness, apart from, of course, any person saying: “It’s me”, which, in turn, may as well be an illusion.

On a negative side, I am still warming up to both Pirandello’s jerky way of dropping his heavy philosophy in the midst of a sentimental family drama, and to his presentation of women (though latter probably nothing not corresponding to the year 1921).

Six Characters in Search of an Author is rightly considered to be a classic of modern theatre, being a delightfully absurdist creation where everyone has their own truth.

Luigi Pirandello (1867 – 1936) was an Italian novelist (for example, known for his psychological works The Late Mattia Pascal [1904] and One, No One and One Hundred Thousand [1926]), playwright, poet and short story writer (penning over a hundred). He was awarded the 1934 Nobel Prize in Literature for “his almost magical power to turn psychological analysis into good theatre”. This review was written as a contribution to my Italia Reading Challenge that runs from January to December 2022. Join me on this exciting journey, and, as it is clear from this review, not only novels count, but also plays, non-fiction and short-stories written by any Italian author!

11 thoughts on “Review: Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello

  1. Amazing review! I’ve heard so much about this book in Italian literature classes but I have never read it. I usually have a hard time reading plays because I basically lose my focus at every dialogue, but maybe I should check this one out! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this play in French a few years ago and very much enjoyed it. I picked it up because Le Théatre de la Ville de Paris came to our relatively small college town and performed it live with English subtitles. A treasured experience.

    Liked by 1 person

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