Six Characters in Search of an Author, Luigi Pirandello’s best-known play, contrasts illusion and reality, as do several of the author’s other works. It may also be thought of as a dramatic criticism of the popular but artificial “well-made” play of the nineteenth century. Instead of starting with a cleverly constructed drama, Pirandello begins with a group of characters and experiments with letting them—with some professional direction—try to fashion their story into an actable drama. Inexperience, clashes of opinion, interruptions, and above all a lack of poetic understanding defeat their purpose. Nevertheless, the attempt itself produces a drama of a sort, not the characters’ but Pirandello’s.
One of the greatest Italian playwrights of the twentieth century, Pirandello is now generally recognized as a classic figure of world literature. His stature was recognized when he received the Nobel Prize in 1934, two years before his death. First a poet, then a novelist and writer of short stories, finally a dramatist, Pirandello evolved gradually toward the forms and themes on which his international reputation is based. If his early work is realistic and naturalistic, much of his later, major work may be characterized by his description of Six Characters in Search of an Author as “a mixture of tragic and comic, fantastic and realistic.” The basic ideas of his major plays are somber, even bitter: the idea that no one can penetrate or understand anyone else’s world; the idea that the picture people have of themselves is different from the picture everyone else has of them; the idea that no mental image—about oneself or about others—can encompass the truth about life, which is always changing and always elusive. There is, therefore, no such thing as the Truth: There is simply truth “A” that one believes and truth “B” that another believes. However, they are both wrong. To themselves, however, they are always right. Or, to quote the title of one of Pirandello’s plays: Right You Are (If You Think So).
It is, of course, no wonder that these ideas should arise in the skeptical twentieth century. Pirandello was not alone among authors in thinking as he did, and a number of his attitudes may be traced to the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Pirandello had a personal reason for his reaction, however, a reason that made the concept that men cannot possibly understand one another become an obsession with him. He was for many years married to an insane woman who gave him no rest. Among other things, her insanity took the form of a violent, raging jealousy. Pirandello did everything he could to reassure his wife; he did not go out, he turned from his friends, he even yielded up his entire salary to her. Nevertheless, his wife’s image of him remained the same, so that alongside his own picture of himself as a patient, resigned, pitying family man, there always hovered the image in his wife’s mind of a loathsome being who gave her nothing but pain. As far as Pirandello was concerned, such conflicting images underlay even the most normal of human relations, though in insanity the problem is multiplied or at least seen more clearly.
Six Characters in Search of an Author deals with the problem of conflicting images and with the problem of reality in general, and it also deals with a special aspect of the same set of problems, for the playwright has a particularly difficult task. He must not only struggle to pin down the very elusive, ever-changing thing he calls reality but also...
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