As a stage manager and a group of actors prepare to rehearse a Pirandello play, they are interrupted by the appearance of six characters: a man of about fifty, a woman, a young woman, a young man of twenty-two, a boy of fourteen, and a little girl. The man and the young woman are searching for an author who will put all six of them into a drama. They insist that they are already living characters but that they need an author to put their drama into suitable form for the stage. The manager, at first annoyed at the interruption of his rehearsal, finally listens with some interest to the rather confused story that the man and the young woman, who, it turns out, is his stepdaughter, try to tell him.
Years ago the father got rid of his wife, whom he found both boring and pitiable, by providing her with a lover, his former secretary, to whom she might go when she was rejected by her husband. Long afterward, the father visited Madame Pace’s dress shop, a legitimate business that she operated as a cover for her procuring, and was provided with a pretty young woman whom he did not recognize as his stepdaughter until they were separated by the sudden appearance of his wife. When he learned that his wife was destitute, her lover having died two months before, he permitted her to return to his home with her daughter and two younger children, all illegitimate.
To forestall a refusal by the manager to act as vicar-author for the drama, the father assures him that he need not be bothered about the presence of the two children, for they will quickly disappear from the story. In fact, the daughter will also disappear, leaving only the three original members of the family. The manager dismisses his actors for a few minutes in order to hear more of the plot as it is outlined to him in his office.
Returning a few minutes later from the office conference, the manager sets about putting together the play, asking his prompter to take down the most important points in shorthand so that his actors might properly learn their parts later. At this point the father interrupts; the manager, he says, simply does not understand. This is not a play for the manager’s professional actors; it belongs to the characters themselves. There is no need for actors when the manager already has six living characters at hand.
After hearing similar objections from the stepdaughter, the manager consents to use the characters, as this is only a rehearsal, but he wonders who will play Madame Pace if they are going to do the dress shop scene. After borrowing hats and other clothes from several actors to hang on clothes pegs, the father arranges the set. Madame Pace suddenly appears to play her part, but when she finds that she is expected to play it in the presence of the mother, who will be watching the rehearsal from the side of the stage, she is scandalized at such impropriety and leaves in a rage.
The rehearsal continues, with the mother watching and listening intently, suffering all the while at the reenactment of the scene in which her husband, with honeyed words and actions, plans to purchase the favors of the pretty girl whom he does not recognize as his stepdaughter. The action is suddenly stopped and then repeated, this time with the parts of the father and the stepdaughter being taken by the leading man and the leading lady of the actors’ company. The stepdaughter...
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is unable to control her laughter at what seems to her the ludicrous performance of the leading lady, and the father objects to the way the leading man is portraying him. Again the scene is played with the original characters, this time up to the point where, after the girl reminds the father that she is wearing mourning, he suggests that she remove her dress. At that point the action is abruptly stopped by the entrance of the mother, who in horror pulls her daughter away from the father. The manager is well pleased with this action; it will, he decides, make a fine first-act ending for the drama.
Preparations begin for working up a second act, using a garden scene. The father engages in a lengthy discussion of the difference between reality and the mere illusion of reality to be found in conventional stage representations, or, for that matter, in life itself. The manager, the father says, must try to perceive what he so far missed: Ordinary people have illusions about themselves which they later discover are not the realities they thought them to be; the only reality the six characters have is that of a permanent, unchanging illusion, more real than any reality the manager himself might have.
The stepdaughter also enters the discussion, which is marked by the manager’s increasing irritation and the father’s persistence in following his argument through. She, her father, and the other characters were created by an author who then decided that he did not want to use them in one of his plays. Being created, however, they now have existence in drama which must be revealed. But, insists the manager, drama is action, not slow, dull philosophizing; let the talk stop and the action begin. The manager places the silent, fourteen-year-old boy behind a tree and some bushes in the garden and the little girl near a fountain. Then he prepares for a conversation between the legitimate son and his mother. There is no such scene in the garden, says the boy; what happened is that his mother comes into his room and he leaves, refusing to talk to her. The manager asks what happens then. The son replies that nothing happened, that he dislikes scenes and simply went away. He seems very unwilling to discuss the matter or to have anything to do with acting in the drama that his father and his half sister are trying to have presented.
When his father demands that he play his part, the son turns violently upon him, asking what madness makes him wish to expose the family shame before the world. If the son himself is in the theater, he explains to the confused manager, it is only because his father had dragged him there. However, the manager insists on knowing what happened after the son left his room. Reluctantly, the son answers that he merely walked in the garden. When the manager urges him to continue, he bursts out that it was horrible.
The manager, noting the mother’s apprehensive look toward the fountain, partly comprehends, while the father explains that she was following her son. Then the son quickly tells that he found: the body of the little girl in the fountain pool and the brother staring insanely at it. At that moment a revolver shot sounds behind the stage bushes where the boy is hidden. Amid the resulting confusion the manager asks if the boy is wounded, and the actors disagree as to whether he is dead or merely pretending to be. The father cries that it is real. The manager, losing his temper, consigns the whole play and the characters to hell. He lost a whole day over them.