Six Characters in Search of an Author

by Luigi Pirandello

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Theater stage

Theater stage. The primary setting of the stage play is itself a theater stage. On this naked, darkened protruding platform in a theater, actors are rehearsing another Pirandello play, Mixing It Up, until they are interrupted by six people claiming to be dramatic characters hoping to be realized by an author. These six people (Father, Mother, Step-daughter, Son, Boy, and Child) are mystically enshrouded in light, suggesting further the theme of tension between art or illusion and life or reality. These six real personages dressed in black and wishing to relay their tragic stories are contrasted to the stage actors and the play’s manager, who listen to the tale of the Mother who “ran off” with the Father’s secretary and started a new family, only to be left a destitute widow of three offspring and of the Step-daughter, who is fixated in time by a near-incestuous encounter with the Father at Madame Pace’s brothel.

Madame Pace’s shop

Madame Pace’s shop. Attractive women’s shop with a table, racks of women’s cloaks, and hats that in act 2 is a front for procurement. The play’s stage becomes a mental platform on which the Step-daughter and Father insist on reliving their true feelings and actions, much to the chagrin of Leading Lady and Leading Man, who perceive, as artists, their own interpretation as more valid. Audiences must decipher which is more “real”—the never-changing illusion or the universal human tragedy. Readers, too, must examine their own selves in the process and must question their own philosophical-moral-aesthetic beliefs.


Out-of-doors. Location of the third act, which is a naturalistic one with a backdrop of trees with one or two wings and a fountain basin. It can be any time or place. The Child is found drowned in the fountain; the Boy, hiding behind the trees, fires a revolver. The play’s manager-author, like Pirandello the dramatist himself, becomes agitated with conventions and closure and with the uncertainty of reality, shouting: “To hell with it all! Never in my life has such a thing happened to me. I’ve lost a whole day over these people, a whole day!”

Historical Context

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Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author was a watershed in the history of drama because its form and content were so revolutionary. And to some extent Pirandello's play relates to a more systematic artistic revolution in the 1920s— Surrealism. As C.W.E. Bigsby has said, Surrealism "is essentially concerned with liberating the imagination and with expanding the definition of reality."

The Surrealists insisted that by freeing the mind from the limiting controls of rationality, logic, consciousness, or aesthetic conventions, an artist could reach a higher reality that would include the fantastic and the marvelous—qualities that had generally been considered antithetical to realism. Coined by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and championed by French poet Andre Breton, the term was described in Breton's famous 1924 Manifesto on Surrealism as a resolution of two states of mind— dream and reality. Joined together, these two states of mind made a sort of absolute or snr-reality. When the movement made inroads in England, an attempt was made to substitute the phrase "superreality" but the alternate terminology never caught on.

Earlier movements like Cubism and Dada had prepared the way for the liberating spirit of Surrealism, and the general result of this liberation was a challenge to the dominance of the realistic movement, which had its roots in the 19th century and which still survives today as a very powerful standard in the popular arts. But the "avant-garde," of which Pirandello...

(This entire section contains 965 words.)

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is now taken to be an important part, has always distrusted excessively powerful traditions and has continually sought to enlarge the scope of artistic possibilities.

In his book Rococo to Cubism in Art and Literature, art historian Wylie Sypher observed what he called a "cubist drama" in Six Characters in Search of an Author, claiming that "Pirandello 'destroys' drama much as the cubists destroyed conventional things. He will not accept as authentic 'real' people or the cliche of the theatre any more than the cubist accepts as authentic the 'real' object [or] the cliche of deep perspective." A more thorough discussion of Pirandello's affinity with the Surrealist movement comes from Anna Balakian, who recognized that "an affinity has often been seen between the theatre of Pirandello and the surrealist mode because both adhere to such notions as the 'absurd,' the unconventional, the iconoclastic, and the shocking to stir the receivers of the created work." But in examining closely the elements of the surrealist manifestos and Pirandello's plays, Balakian concluded that "Pirandello and the surrealists shared a moment in the history of the arts but followed parallel rather than converging paths in their spectacular irreverence for the traditional.''

Italian Fascism
In 1921, as Six Characters in Search of an Author was creating an international celebrity of Pirandello, the Italian statesman Benito Mussolini was consolidating his power and rising toward the position he would hold through World War II as the fascist leader of Italy. An Italian nationalist, revolutionary, and socialist from his early years, Mussolini founded his own fascist party in 1919. Italy was suffering social upheaval as a result of World War I and Mussolini capitalized on the situation to raise support for armed fascist squads that attacked Mussolini's political opponents and killed hundreds of people. On May 15, 1921, five days after Six Characters in Search of an Author premiered in Rome, Mussolini and 35 other Fascists were elected are still considered ineligible for induction into baseball's Hall of Fame, the truth of their criminality having been decided by Judge Landis rather than by the process of the legal system. In what is perhaps a similarly contested process of judgment, the 7th Commissioner of major league baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti, banned Cincinnati's Pete Rose from a place in the Hall of Fame in 1989, despite Rose's all-time major league record 4,256 hits, because Rose was accused of illegally betting on baseball games to the Italian parliament and began their struggle for power from within the governmental structure. Already known to his followers as il duce (the leader), Mussolini organized squads of armed men at a Fascists' convention in Naples in October of 1922 and began his famous "march on Rome." Taking over the Italian government from his position as Prime Minister, Mussolini gradually consolidated his power and became virtual dictator by January of 1925.

Pirandello's connection with Mussolim and Italian Fascism is a complex and controversial part of Pirandello's life that is still being debated today. The connection with his art is roundabout but equally complex and controversial. In October of 1922, as Mussolini and his Blackshirts were marching on Rome, Pirandello's second masterpiece, Henry IV, was consolidating his rise to international recognition. Then, on June 10, 1924, Mussolini's men murdered a leading Socialist member of the Italian parliament named Giacomo Matteotti, arousing considerable public uneasiness and controversy. In September of 1924, Pirandello, now an international celebrity and an Italian literary hero, demonstrated his support of Mussolini by giving the fascist newspaper, L'Impero, a copy of a letter to Mussolini asking to join the Fascist party. Scholars still debate Pirandello's motives and the sincerity of his political commitment to Fascism, but the most significant ramification for the history of drama is that in the same year Pirandello and a group of his colleagues founded the Italian Arts Theatre company and Mussolini's political power helped Pirandello gain financial support for a theatre based in Rome. The company's first production was in May in Milan. As the company flourished Pirandello met actress Marta Abba, for whom most of his later plays were written, and his troupe began touring extensively throughout Italy, Europe, and North and South America. Thus, it was indirectly through Pirandello's involvement with Italian Fascism that his plays became so thoroughly disseminated around the world. Pirandello's theatre company collapsed in 1928 because of financial problems, but by that time his international reputation and dramatic impact were well-established.

Literary Style

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The Play Within the Play
The most obvious device that Pirandello uses to convey his themes is to portray the action as a play within a play. The initial play within a play is relatively easy for the audience to handle—Pirandello's own Rules of'the Game is being performed in rehearsal by a troupe of actors. Then the "characters" enter and they seem to embody a completely different play within the play. Furthermore, they insist on acting out the story that have brought to the rehearsal, which is done twice, once by themselves and again by the actors. And once the audience has more or less assimilated all of this, a seventh character, Madame Pace, is created on the spot, as if out of thm air. The effect is similar to that presented with nesting boxes, one inside another and another inside that until the audience gets so far away from their easy faith in their ability to distinguish between reality and illusion that they might throw up their hands like the Producer and simply say, "Make believe?! Reality*?' Oh, go to hell the lot of you! Lights! Lights! Lights!"

Throughout the production of Six Characters in Search of an Author the audience in fact experiences the difficulty of distinguishing between reality and illusion that constitutes Pirandello's main theme. And the Producer's company of actors in many ways speaks for the audience throughout— from the initial, derisive incredulity at the entrance of the "characters" to the ambivalent response at the end of the play. And a crucial moment in this process comes early in Act I, after the derisive laughter of the actors has died down somewhat, and the Father explains that "we want to live, sir ... only for a few moments—in you." In response, a young actor says, pointing to the Stepdaughter, "I don't mind... so long as I get her." This comically libidinous response is ignored by everyone on stage, but it represents an important turning point in the minds of the actors in the company and in the minds of the audience as well. It embodies a playful, tentative acceptance of the illusion, a making do with what's available, an abandonment to the situation as it presents itself. In short, it represents the response to the mystery of life to which human beings obsessed with absolute certainty are ultimately reduced. One must simply get on with life and make the best of it, accepting the hopelessness of trying to draw fine distinctions between what is real and what is not.

A less obvious device in the play is Pirandello's use of laughter to lighten the audience's confrontation with this frustrating collision of reality and illusion. The play is not easily seen as humorous on the page, but in production the humor can be rich and is certainly essential in order to reassure the audience that their inability to easily distinguish between reality and illusion is an inevitable but ultimately comic part of human existence.

The humor is most obvious in the frustrations of the acting troupe. Serious but self-important, they are comical in their inability to deal with anything they are too inflexible to understand. The Producer is admirable in the way he finally bends to the unusual situation and vaguely sees the emotional intensity that the "characters" have brought to him. But he is ultimately comical because he is hopelessly obsessed with stage conventions. He insists on trying to. "fit" this phenomenon within the boundaries of what he's most familiar with and his efforts are comically doomed In the Edward Storer translation of Pirandello's original text, the play ends with the Producer throwing up his hands and saying "never in my life has such a thing happened to me.'' What often makes comedy rich is witnessing human beings forced into being resilient under the common, existential circumstance of confronting the ultimate mystery of the universe.

But the play also displays a grim kind of humor in the desperation of the"characters," who stumble across this rehearsal looking for an "author" and end up settling for a director with decidedly commercial tastes. The Producer is not an author who can complete their story but someone who depends on a script that's finished. The best that he can do is to exemplify the incompleteness the "characters" have brought him; the worst he can do is to create more barriers to their sense of an accurate portrayal of then* story, which he what he most comically does. The Father and Stepdaughter laugh when the actors portray them so differently from the way they see themselves, but the joke is ultimately on them.

At the very beginning of the play, the Producer is complaining of the obscurity of Pirandello's Rules of the Game. He is satirically instructing his leading actor that he must "be symbolic of the shells of the eggs you are beating." It is a very funny moment, given the actors' and Producer's frustration, as well as Pirandello's playful self-denigration. But it is also a moment filled with rich comic ambiguity because the Producer's dismissive explanation is quite seriously what Pirandello's play is all about: "[the eggs] are symbolic of the empty form of reason, without its content, blind instinct! You are reason and your wife is instinct: you are playing a game where you have been given parts and in which you are not just yourself but the puppet of yourself. Do you see? ... Neither do I! Come on, let's get going; you wait till you see the end! You haven't seen anything yet!"

Compare and Contrast

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1921: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States from 1933 to 1945, contracts the poliomyelitis that will cripple him for life and confine him to a wheelchair or require him to wear heavy braces to walk. Since the appearance of robust vitality was necessary for the presidential image, the reality of Roosevelt's paralysis was downplayed by the media and went largely ignored or undiscovered by the American public. Roosevelt became the only U.S. President to be re-elected three times.

Today: Starting with the presidencies of Lyndon Baines Johnson and (especially) Richard Nixon, the media have become increasingly dedicated to examining the appearance of presidents and other political figures. However, Roosevelt's disability still remains a largely ignored part of his presidency. In 1997, a memorial statue of Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., created some controversy when—rather than obviously placing him in a wheelchair—the statue portrayed him as seated in an office chair with casters and with a large cloak draped over his legs that essentially obscured his disability.

1921: Eight baseball players from the 1919 Chicago White Sox major league baseball team go to trial in June on charges of accepting bribes from gamblers to purposely lose the World Series against Cincinnati in 1919. Indicted in 1920, their trial in June and July of 1921 ended in an acquittal, but the presiding judge fpr the grand jury, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, had become the first Commissioner of major league baseball in 1921 and banned the players from baseball for life in spite of the court's verdict.

Today: These eight members of the "Black Sox,'' including the great Shoeless Joe Jackson, are still considered ineligible for induction into baseball's Hall of Fame, the truth of their criminality having been decided by Judge Landis rather than by the process of the legal system. In what is perhaps a similarly contested process of judgment, the 7th Commissioner of major league baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti, banned Cincinnati's Pete Rose from a place in the Hall of Fame in 1989, despite Rose's all-time major league record 4,256 hits, because Rose was accused of illegally betting on baseball games.

1921: The futuristic drama of social satire, R. U.R., (Rossum's Universal Robots), by Czechoslova-kian playwright Karel Capek, opens in Prague. The robots are manufactured men and women who work without complaining. They are so difficult to distinguish from real people that one character decided the robots were capable of developing a soul. When robots around the world revolt against their masters, humanity is almost destroyed. The robots had finally begun to act precisely like human beings.

Today: Though R.U.R. is not widely produced today, the term and concept it essentially created—"robot"—has now become an established part of our vocabulary and thought. The word "robot" was a translation from the Czech word for "forced labor" and while Rossum's robots were manufactured from artificial flesh and blood, Fritz Lang's popular 1926 film, Metropolis, used the term to describe a creature made of metal and that more mechanical concept of robot is what survives today. Today's widespread industrial use of robotics and the controversies over genetic engineering have perhaps given a new immediacy to Capek's drama.

Media Adaptations

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Six Characters in Search of an Author was presented in a full-length firm version in 1992 by BBC Scotland, starring John Hurt as the Father, Brian Cox as the Producer, Tara Fitzgerald as the Stepdaughter, and Susan Fleetwood as the Mother. Adapted by Michael Hastings and produced by Simon Curtis, the film was directed by Bill Bryden. In 1996, the 110 minute film was released on videocassette with a teacher's guide.

In 1987, sections of Six Characters in Search of an Author were represented in an episode on Pirandello for the BBC Channel 4 South Bank Show series called The Modern World: Ten Great Writers. This documentary recreated a day in the life of Pirandello's acting troupe as they brought Six Characters in Search of an Author to London in 1925. The show was written and adapted by Nigel Wattis and Gillian Greenwood and produced and directed by Nigel Wattis. Hosted by series editor Melvyn Bragg, the episode featured Jim Norton as Pirandello, Douglas Hodge as the Producer, Reginald Stewart as the Father, Sylvestra LeTouzel as the Stepdaughter, and Patricia Thorns as the Mother.

A 59-minute videocassette version of Six Characters in Search of an Author was presented in 1978 as part of an educational television series called Drama: Play, Performance, Perception, hosted by Jose Ferrer. A co-production of Mi-ami-Dade Community College, the BBC, and the British Open University, rthe episode was directed by John Selwyn Gilbert and included actors Charles Gray, Nigel Stock, and Mary Wimbush. The film was also distributed in 1978 by Insight Media and Films Inc. with actor Ossie Davis as guest commentator and additional direction by Andrew Martin. This version was re-released in 1992 as a 60 minute videocassette.

A 48-minute audiovisual cassette version of the play was presented by the British Broadcasting Corporation in cooperation with the British Open University m 1976.

A 58-minute VHS videocassette version of the play was produced in 1976 by Films for the Humanities (Princeton, New Jersey) in their History of Drama series as an example of Theatre of the Absurd. It was produced by Harold Mantell, directed by Ken Frankel, translated by David Calicchio, and narrated by Joseph Heller with music by William Perm. The actors included Nikki Flacks, Ben Kapen, Gwendolyn Brown, Dimo Comdos, Bob Picardo, and Kathy Manning. In the same year this version was also released on two reels of 16 mm firm with accompanying textbook, teacher's guides, and two film-strips. The film was re-released in 1982 in Beta and VHS, in 1988 in VHS, and in 1988 in a 52-minute version.

A commentary on the play by Alfred Brooks called "Pirandello's Illusion Game" was released on audiocassette in 1971 from the Center for Cassette Studies.

A 38-minute commentary on the play on audiocassette by Paul D'Andrea was released in 1971 by Everett and Edwards out of Deland, Florida, in the Modern Drama Cassette Curriculum series. Another commentary by Robert James Nelson was released in 1973 as part of their World Literature Cassette Curriculum series.

A production of Six Characters in Search of an Author appeared on BBC television on April 20, 1954 in a translation by Frederick May

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Balakian, Anna. "Pirandello's Six Characters and Surrealism," in A Companion to Pirandello Studies, edited by John Louis DiGaetam, Greenwood Press, 1991, pp 185-92.

Bentley, Eric. "Varieties of Comic Experience," in his The Playwright as Thinker: A Study of Drama in Modern Times, Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946, p 178.

Bigsby, C W E. Dada & Surrealism, Methuen, 1972, p 78.

Bishop, Thomas. Pirandello and the French Theatre, New York University Press, I960, p. 5.

Bree, Germaine. "Foreword," in Pirandello and the French Theatre, by Thomas Bishop, p. xi.
Brustein, Robert "Lmgi Pirandello," in his The Theatre of Revolt. An Approach to the Modern Drama, Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 281-317.

Caputi, Anthony. Pirandello and the Crisis of Modern Consciousness, University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 1, 5,10.

Gassner, John. "Latin Postscripts—Benavente and Pirandello," in his Masters of the Modern Drama, 3rd ed., Dover, 1954, pp. 424-45.

Guidice, Gaspare. Pirandello. A Biography, translated by Alastair Hamilton, Oxford, 1975.

Uliano, Antonio "Pirandello's 5a Characters in Search of an Author A Comedy in the Making," in Italica, March, 1967, p 1.

London Times Review of Six Characters in Search of an Author, excerpted in File on Pirandello, compiled by Susan Bassnett, Methuen, 1989, pp 44.

Manchester Guardian Review of Stx Characters in Search of an Author, excerpted in File on Pirandello, compiled by Susan Bassnett, Methuen, 1989, pp 44-45.

Manam, Umberto. "The 'Pirandellian' Character," in Canadian Journal of Italian Studies, Vol. 12, Nos. 38-39,1989, pp. 1-9.

Pechel, Rudolph. Review of Six Characters in Search of an Author, excerpted in File on Pirandello, compiled by Susan Bassnett, Methuen, 1989, pp. 43-44.

Pirandello, Luigi. "OnHumor," translated by Teresa Novel, in The Tulane Drama Review, Spring, 1966, pp. 46-59.

Pirandello, Luigi "Pirandello Confesses... Why and How He Wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author'' (a translation of Pirandello's "Preface" by Leo Ongley), in The Virginia Quarterly Review, April, 1925, pp. 36-52.

Poggioh, Renato "Pirandello in Retrospect," in Italian Quarterly, Winter, 1958, pp. 19-47:
Ragusa, Olga. "Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore," in Luigi Pirandello • An Approach to His Theatre, Edinburgh University Press, 1980, p. 167.

Sypher,Wylie "Cubist Drama," in Rococo to Cubism in Art and Literature, Random House, 1960, p 294.

Tilgher, Adnano Review of Six Characters in Search of an Author, excerpted in File on Pirandello, compiled by Susan Bassnett, Methuen, 1989, pp. 41-42.

Weiss, Aureliu "The Remorseless Rush of Time," edited and translated by Simone Sanzenback, in The Tulane Drama Review, Spring, 1966, pp. 30-45.

Wurman, Richard Saul NYC Access, 4th ed, Access Press, 1991, p. 144.

Bentley, Enc. "Six Characters in Search of an Author," in The Pirandello Commentaries, Northwestern University Press, 1986, pp 57-77.
An essay that interprets the Father as a schizophrenic.

Cambon, Glauco, ed. Pirandello: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall, 1967.
A collection of fourteen essays, including excerpts from Adnano Tilgher's famous "Life Versus Form'' and Robert Brustein's essay on Pirandello from his The Theatre of Revolt.

Charney, Maurice. "Shakespearean and Pirandellian. Hamlet and Six Characters in Search of an Author," Modern Drama, September, 1981, pp 323-29.
Compares Pirandello's play with Shakespeare's Hamlet and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, finding remarkable similarities and crucial differences.

Clark, Hoover W "Existentialism and Pirandello's Set Personaggi, " Itahca, September, 1966, pp. 276-84.
Examines Pirandello's play for elements that correspond to the main tenets of existentialist thought.

DiGaetam, John Louis A Companion to Pirandello Studies, Greenwood Press, 1991.
A collection of critical essays that deal with philosophical issues, biographical and historical approaches, thematic interpretations, influence studies, feminist approaches, and non-theatncal works—with stage production histories and a thorough bibliography.

Guidice, Gaspare. Pirandello. A Biography, translated by Alastair Hamilton, Oxford, 1975.
The standard biography of Pirandello.

Pirandello, Luigi. "OnHumor," translated by Teresa Novel, in The Tulane Drama Review, Spring, 1966, pp 46-59.
Provides an understanding of what Pirandello was attempting to accomplish in Six Characters in Search of an Author.

Pirandello, Luigi "Pirandello Confesses ," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, April, 1925, pp. 36-52.
A translation of Pirandello's "Preface" to Six Characters in Search of an Author Appended to Pirandello's revision of the play, the "Preface*' offers a basis for understanding the genesis of the play and its themes.


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Bentley, Eric. The Pirandello Commentaries. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1986. These essays include an erudite analysis of Six Characters in Search of an Author. Bentley explores the abstraction of time and space, the characterizations, and Pirandello’s dialectical opposition of reality and illusion in the play.

DiGaetani, John Louis, ed. A Companion to Pirandello Studies. Wesport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991. This major source book features four studies on Six Characters in Search of an Author and two dozen essays on Pirandello’s influence, life, and other works. Appendices include the production history of Six Characters in Search of an Author and a bibliography.

Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. An extraordinary sociological study, directly influenced by Pirandello, on the epistemological “frames” people use to make sense of the world. Goffman’s discussion of the “theatrical frame” is essential for students who wish to understand more about Pirandello’s violations of dramatic convention in Six Characters in Search of an Author.

Pirandello, Luigi. “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” In Playwrights on Play Writing, edited by Toby Cole. New York: Hill & Wang, 1960. Pirandello’s personal account of his motivations for creating characters who, in turn, search for a dramatist to give them life.

Vittorini, Domenico. The Drama of Luigi Pirandello. New York: Russell & Russell, 1935. An accessible survey endorsed by Pirandello. Includes a clear, nontechnical exposition of Six Characters in Search of an Author.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide