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 he must work with the knowledge that he can...
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never deal directly with his audience. Between him and the audience stand the actors and the directors; they give life to the script, but they can never give it quite the sort of life the author has in mind. Thus, an author may get Tallulah Bankhead’s version of a character, or Helen Hayes’s, or Meryl Streep’s. Even if Shakespeare were alive today, audiences would not know exactly how he imagined Hamlet. Instead, audiences would know how Laurence Olivier presented him, or John Gielgud, or Ralph Finnes: each with his own personality, his own background, his own voice. They can never have quite the personality, background, voice, or mannerisms that Shakespeare had in mind for Hamlet. No wonder, says one of Pirandello’s characters, that a playwright may sometimes throw up his hands in despair and decide that the theater cannot present his situations and characters as he wants them presented.
That is what happens in Six Characters in Search of an Author. A playwright (Pirandello) gives up. He imagines six very tormented characters and a very sordid situation but decides not to go on with his play. As one of his characters puts it, “he abandoned us in a fit of depression, of disgust for the ordinary theater as the public knows it and likes it.” However, once the characters are imagined they assume a life of their own. If the playwright refuses to look after them, they will look after themselves. Going to a theater where a play is in rehearsal, they insist that they have a play that must be produced. The story that the characters have to tell emerges in fits and starts. They are much too busy cursing or wrangling with one another to present a very coherent plot. For, as Pirandello insists, each character sees the central situation from his own point of view and each tries to justify himself from that vantage point.
The Father is a great talker and a great explainer. He insists that he put the Mother and his clerk out of his house together because he assumed that they were attached to each other and pitied them; indeed, he asserts that he tried to help them afterward. Still, the Mother, uneducated and nonverbal, insists that the Father threw her and the clerk out of the house and forced her on the clerk. The Stepdaughter refuses to believe that her Mother did not love the clerk initially; after all, the clerk (now dead) was the only father she knew. The Son—the legitimate son of the Father and the Mother—who feels that he was deserted by both father and mother, attempts to reject both. The Stepdaughter, consumed by a passionate hatred of the Son and the Father, passes up no opportunity to show her contempt and to remind the Father that, at a time when he did not recognize her, he almost had sexual relations with his own stepdaughter. No one is completely right, and no one is completely wrong—but none is able to understand that.
Act 2 develops the theme of mutual misunderstanding but modulates it into a different key. For now the characters learn, to their consternation, that they will not be able to play their parts themselves (that is, as they were realized by their creator). The actors will do it for them. Of course, the actors cannot possibly play the characters as the characters see themselves. As the Father explains, It will be difficult to act me as I really am. The effect will be rather—apart from the make-up—according as to how he [the actor] supposes I am, as he senses me—if he does sense me—and not as I inside of myself feel myself to be.
Later the act moves to a general attack on the conventions of the theater and the limits of the theater. As the Manager points out, “Acting is our business here. Truth up to a certain point, but no further.”
In the last act, the Father gives still another twist to the problem of reality and the artistic presentation of it. In a sense, he insists, the characters are more real than the actors are. For people change from day to day. What a person seems to be one day no longer exists the next day (though his image of himself may persist). The characters, on the other hand, will always remain the same. To turn the statement around, art, since it is static, can never deal with the fluid nature of reality. “All this present reality of yours,” says the Father, “is fated to seem a mere illusion to you tomorrow . . . your reality is a mere transitory and fleeting illusion, taking this form today and that tomorrow.”
Pirandello is a philosophical dramatist, the maker of a theater of ideas. Inevitably he has been attacked as an author who concerns himself more with concepts than with people and with action. He has also been stoutly defended as one who, immersed in certain basic, tragic facts of human existence, provides them with a hauntingly, overwhelmingly genuine dramatic substance.