Six Characters in Search of an Author

by Luigi Pirandello

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Consider Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author as a production, not just a literary work.  In the stage directions, Pirandello recommended that the actors playing the six characters wear masks. Why do you think he made that recommendation, and what would the result be in terms of effect on the audience?

Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author is about the process of theater-making, specifically that of the playwright. The audience gets to see the initial ideas for a story and what happens when those ideas come to life on stage. The play explores Pirandello's idea that theater as a whole is not what it seems; rather, it reflects back to its audience just how much of a production it is. Pirandello suggests this by having the characters wear masks throughout the play, suggesting that they don't have an identity outside of their roles in the production.

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Luigi Pirandello was one of the most influential playwrights of the twentieth century. He is best known for his experiments in metatheater—that is, theatrical productions about the nature of theater. His 1921 play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, is an example of this.

Pirandello uses the play...

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Luigi Pirandello was one of the most influential playwrights of the twentieth century. He is best known for his experiments in metatheater—that is, theatrical productions about the nature of theater. His 1921 play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, is an example of this.

Pirandello uses the play to question the role of the playwright in the process of theater-making. In the stage directions, Pirandello recommends that the six characters wear masks. Pirandello does this in order to explore the nature of theater, specifically that of theater as a place where things are not what they actually are, but rather, what the artists say they are. The six characters only have an identity insomuch as their story can be told in a play.

This idea is physically represented by the masks they wear, which visually reinforce the idea for the audience. The masks cover their faces—the most distinguishable part of the human body and often the main way people are identified. With the six characters' faces covered, the audience only sees moving and speaking bodies, not completely fleshed-out characters.

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Luigi Pirandello likely recommends that each of the six characters wear masks in order to differentiate the “six characters” from the other characters in the story. The six characters are supposed to be unfinished characters who are in search of an author to finish their story. The six characters do not have specific names and are missing their identity.

If the six characters are wearing masks, it further illustrates that the characters are unfinished and that they do not have the same life and realism that the other actors carry. The story is also ambiguous as to whether the six characters are really appearing during a rehearsal or if the the entire play is just part of the director’s imagination. Either way, the masks on the six characters symbolize that reality and dreams can be blurred together.

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Luigi Pirandello's 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author is an example of modernism, in which, as in the plays of Brecht and Beckett, the play breaks through the "fourth wall" of the proscenium and impresses upon us its own theatricality, through use of masks and other devices. This rhetorical construction is known as "metatheater," a theater which reflexively comments on the nature of theatric illusion rather than simply presenting an illusion.

Pirandello's audience in this context would immediately have associated the masks with two theatrical traditions, those of classical Greek tragedy and comedy and a native Italian one of Commedia dell'arte. 

In classical Greek comedy, in which masks are worn, one standard feature is known as the "parabasis," in which an actor playing the playwright speaks directly to the audience, usually commenting on the nature of the play itself.

Commedia, even more than Greek comedy, uses stock characters named only by type (the old man, the clever servant, etc.) and includes interruptions and interludes, improvisations, and asides to the audience. The masks suggest that the very radicalism of Pirandello's metatheater is in fact grounded in historic traditions, and the masked characters, thus evoke not so much the illusion of individual people but the history and nature of theater and character themselves. 

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