Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 927

The first production of Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Teatro Valle in Rome on May 10, 1921, astonished its unsuspecting audience. As Gaspare Giudice reported in his biography of Pirandello, "things started to go badly from the first, when the spectators came into the theatre and realized that the curtain was raised and that there was no scenery." Some spectators considered this "gratuitous exhibitionism," especially as it was yoked with stagehands and actors milling about as if they were not really in a play. The arrival of the"characters" was even more "extraordinary" and "all this was enough to infuriate anyone who had gone to the theatre to spend a pleasant evening. The first catcalls were followed by shouts of disapproval, and, when the opponents of the play realized that they were in the majority, they started to shout in chorus, 'ma-ni-co-mio' ('madhouse') or 'bu-ffo-ne' ('buffoon')." The production had its supporters, but their defense of Pirandello's play created even more confusion, and the audience members, actors, and critics ended up exchanging blows that even spread out into the street and into a general riot after the play had ended.

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Cooler heads ultimately prevailed, led perhaps by th& review the next day by Adriano Tilgher, who would later become one of the most important and influential critics of Pirandello's work. Tilgher pronounced that the production was "a success imposed by a minority on a bewildered, confused public who were basically trying hard to understand. '' Tilgher concluded that"from today, we can say-that Pirandello is most certainly among the leading creators of a new spiritual environment, one of the most deserving precursors of tomorrow's genius if tomorrow ever comes.''

A few months later the production was remounted in Milan and because of the intervening publication of the text, audience and critics were prepared for the play's radical innovations of style and theme. Over the next three years, Six Characters in Search of an Author was produced successfully all over the world.

An especially important production of the play directed by Georges Pitoeff was mounted in Paris on April 10,1923. The production had, according to Thomas Bishop, "the effect of an earthquake." Most famous for Pitoeff s ingenious device of bringing the characters down onto the stage in an elevator, the production created "characters" who were deemed "supra-terrestrial," and Germane Bree followed the famous French dramatist Jean Anouilh in saying that because of the influence that Pirandello had on generations of French dramatists"the first performance of Pirandello in Paris still stands out as one of the most significant dates in the annals of the contemporary French stage."

Another very important production of the play occurred in Berlin in December, 1924. Directed by the legendary Max Reinhardt, the characters were on stage from the beginning of the play but hidden from the audience until, as Olga Ragusa described it, "a violet light made them appear out of the darkness like 'apparitions' or ghosts." The production was said in a review by Rudolph Pechel to have fully realized "the magnitude and the possibilities of [Pirandello's] theme." According to Pechel, "it was Max Reinhardt rather than Pirandello who was the poet of this performance" because "Reinhardt felt the potential of this piece and offered a master production of his art in which the audience became fully aware of all the horror of this gloomy world.'' According to Pechel, the "characters" were "like departed souls in Hades yearning for life-giving blood."

In 1925 Pirandello's own theatre company took the play to London as part of its world tour and the play was performed in Italian because the British censors had objected to the play's references to incest. A reviewer for the London Times maintained that in Italian "the tragic personages are more tragic, the squalid personages more squalid, and the comic remnant more emphatically and volubly comic" He called it"a new theatrical amusement For it is certainly amusing to see characters disintegrated, as it were, on the stage before you, wondering how much of them is illusion and how much reality, and setting you pondering over these perplexing problems while enjoying at the same time the orthodox dramatic thrill.'' A reviewer for the Manchester Guardian simply proclaimed the production "a dramatized version of a first-year course upon appearance and reality" in which "the author's strength lies not in any philosophical brilliance but in the practical cunning whereby he as made metaphysics actable."

Between 1922 and 1927 productions of the play appeared throughout Europe, the United States, and even in Argentina and Japan, testing directors, audiences, and critics around the world. As a result of the many rich responses to his work, Pirandello fashioned a significantly revised version of his play in 1925 in which he suggested the use of masks for the "characters" and appended his famous "Preface" that reveals the genesis of the work and Pirandello's concept of its thematic elements. Today, the "Preface" remains an almost integral part of the play itself.

Important productions around the world continued throughout the decades following Pirandello's death, including a New York production in October, 1955, adapted and directed by Tyrone Guthrie and a three-act opera version that appeared in New York in 1959 with a libretto by Dems Johnston and a score by Hugo Weisgall As Antonio Ilhano reported, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author "was like a bombshell that blew out the last and weary residues of the old realistic drama" and today it is widely considered one of the most important and influential plays in the history of twentieth-century drama.

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