Six Characters in Search of an Author

by Luigi Pirandello

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In Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, how do "rehearsal" and "performance" of a fixed dramatic text impact the themes of order and structure?

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In theater, there is an expectation of a form of order and structure imposed by author, director, stage directions and scripted dialogue and actions. The order applies rigidly to the performance (known to be illusion and performance) taking place on the stage, behind the separating and framing proscenium arch; it is known that theatrical order does not transfer to life-order except as a symbol or metaphor of life and human experience.

In life, there is an expectation of a form of order and structure imposed by a god (expected by many), by sociocultural norm or rule (you follow the norms of the middle class; you obey the rule of the U.S. Congress; you obey the rule of the Sunni government, etc) or by personal will or volition (you believe you have the power to affect order in your circumstances, surroundings, future and happiness). The expected order and structure applies fluidly to individuals, families, communities, countries and global sectors. This order and structure is so fluid that there is debate as to whether these are reality or illusion: Do I really have the power? Does my religion or government really have the authority? Does my socioeconomic class really have the wisdom? Symbol and metaphor are often used by teachers, speakers, poets, playwrights, novelists, philosophers and others to explore and describe the question of reality versus illusion in life's definitions of order and its closely related counterpart, structure.
In Six Characters, Pirandello removes the theatrical form of order and structure (structure as seen in life in governments, religion, culture and social-economic status) from the outset of the play by having the curtain--indicating (and part of) the separation achieved by the proscenium arch--lifted and by revealing the stage as it would be seen by production participants and from the audience during a rehearsal in preparation for a not-yet-existent performance. In an ironic existential twist, Pirandello both resolves and disrupts the need for order and structure in life by, first, acknowledging such need exists and by, second, challenging that it is an element derived from reality.

In the conclusion of the play, when the Mother character reacts with terror at the sound of a gun shot, a debate ensues in the form of intermingled cries of "he's dead!" "It's all make-believe." "It's real! ... He's dead!" "He's pretending!" "it's reality!" Pirandello is using the shattered proscenium arch to shatter the illusion that reality versus illusion can be known and separated from each other. He is confirming, or resolving, that the need for order and structure exists (through the disoriented feelings and reactions of characters and audience) while shattering, or disrupting, the belief that order and structure are anything more than illusion: illusion is the proscenium arch of life that separates us from the existential truth of the non-existence of reality and in front of which we daily suspend our disbelief and absorb the order and structure of reality and identity as though they were the truth of existence.
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This play is Italy’s most successful contribution to the artistic expression of the philosophy of Existentialism.  Dramatic characters are inventions and constructions of an author: they exist to perform a fairly specific rhetorical and linguistic set of actions, and their “success” or “failure” can be measured by how well they do so.  Humans, on the other hand, in the eyes of the existentialist (existence precedes essence), are not constructions of a creator, but design and “build” themselves by every choice they make.  For Pirandello, then, to write a play in which “characters” are seeking someone to “construct” them (cf. Waiting for Godot) and give them meaning and purpose (an “author”) is a very creative and dramatic way to state the difference between existentialism and theocratic, essence-based views.  Rehearsals and performances, and all the other structural elements of staging a play, have no parallel in real life: we do not get to “perfect” our next speech or action, and there is no “director” to co-ordinate our actions into a meaningful whole, and no audience other than our family and friends.  That this Pirandello work has been successfully “staged” for dozens of years demonstrates the profundity of the metaphor.

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