Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1283
Reality and Illusion
In the stage directions at the beginning of Act I of Six Characters in Search of an Author, Pirandello directs that as the audience enters the theatre the curtain should be up and the stage bare and in darkness, as it would be in the middle of the day, "so that from die beginning the audience will have the feeling of being present, not at a performance of a properly rehearsed play, but at a performance of a play that happens spontaneously." The set, then, is designed to blur the distinction between stage illusion and real life, making the play seem more realistic, but Pirandello has no intention of writing a realistic play. In fact, he ultimately wants to call attention as much as possible to the arbitrariness of this theatrical illusion and to challenge the audience's comfortable faith in their ability to discern reality both in and outside the theatre. Pirandello is concerned from the outset with the relationship between what people take for reality and what turns out to be illusion.
The audience has entered the theatre prepared to see an illusion of real life and to "willingly suspend their disbelief' in order to enjoy and profit from the fiction. In this way, human beings have long accustomed themselves to the illusion of reality on a stage, but in becoming so accustomed they have taken stage illusion for granted and in life they often take illusion for reality without realizing it Furthermore, in life, as on stage, the arbitrariness of what is taken for reality is so pervasive as to bring into question one's very ability to distinguish at all between what is real and what is not.
When the action of the play officially begins, the audience knows they are watching actors pretending to be actors pretending to be characters in a rehearsal, but nothing can prepare an audience for the suspension of disbelief they are asked to make when the six "characters" arrive and claim that they are "real." The audience "knows" these are simply more actors, but the claim these "characters" make is so strange as to be compelling. Even before there are words on a page (not to mention rehearsals, actors, or a performance) these "characters" claim to have sprung to life merely because their author was thinking about them; they claim to have wrested themselves from his control and are seeking out these thespians to find a fuller expression of who they are. These claims understandably strain the credulity of the Producer and the members of his company, who perhaps speak for the audience when they say, "is this some kind of joke?" and "it's no use, I don't understand any more."
The"characters'' insist to the end that they are "real'' even though the audience"knows'' they are actors, and this conflict between what is known and what is passed off as real is intensified by die actors' responses to crucial moments in the play In Act I, for example, the Stepdaughter is summarizing the "story" of these "characters" when the Mother faints with shame and the actors exclaim, "is it real? Has she really fainted?" It is a question the audience would like to dismiss easily—"knowing" that everyone on stage is an actor—but this question is raised again even more dramatically at the end of the play when a real-sounding shot is fired and the Mother runs in the direction of her child with a genuine cry of terror. The actors crowd around "in general confusion," and the Producer moves to the middle of the group, asking the question that the audience, in spite of its certainty, is tempted to ask, "is he really wounded? Really wounded?" An actress says, "he's dead! The poor boy! He's dead! What a terrible thing!'' and an actor responds, "What do you mean, dead! It's all make-believe. It's a sham! He's not dead. Don't you believe it1" A chorus of actor voices expresses the duality that Pirandello refuses to resolve: "Make-believe? It's real! Real! He's dead!" says one, and "No, he isn't. He's pretending! It's all make-believe" says another. The Father, of course, assures everyone that "it's reality!" and the Producer expresses a simple refusal to decide:"Make believe?! Reality*" Oh, go to hell the lot of you! Lights! Lights! Lights!"
Permanence and the Concept of Self
Pirandello was convinced that in real life much is taken for real which should not be. He had only to think of his insane wife's decades of groundless accusations to realize that what the mind takes to be true is often outrageously false. But if illusions are repeated often enough, believed long enough, and enough people take them to be real, illusions develop a compelling reality in the culture at large. Such, for example, is the commonly held belief in the permanence of a personal identity.
Most people believe that they exist as a relatively stable personality, that they are basically the same people throughout their lives. But Pirandello and the Father directly challenge this belief when the Father asks the Producer in Act III "do you really know who you are?" The Producer blubbers, "what? Who I am? I am me!" But the Father undermines this serf-assurance by pointing out that on any particular day the Producer does not see himself in the same way he saw himself at another time in the past. All people can remember ideas that they don't have any more, illusions they once fervently believed in, or simply things that look different now from the way they once appeared to be. The Father leads the Producer to admit that "all these realities of today are going to seem tomorrow as if they had been an illusion," that "perhaps you ought to distrust your own sense of reality." Trapped by these observations, the Producer cries, "but everybody knows that _ [his reality] can change, don't they? It's always changing! Just like everybody else's!"
This question of a permanent personal identify is crucial to the Father because the Stepdaughter is trying to characterize him as a lecherous and even incestuous man. The Father knows that "we all, you see, think of ourselves as one single person: but it's not true: each of us is several different people, and all these people live inside us. With one person we seem like this and with another we seem very different But we always have the illusion of being the same person for everybody and of always being the same person in everything we do. But it's not true! It's not true!" The psychological and physiological needs that led the Father to the brothel were a part of him he does not value; but other people, like his stepdaughter and former wife, choose to define him by this weak moment "We realise then, [he says] that every part of us was not involved in what we'd been doing and that it would be a dreadful injustice of other people to judge us only by this one action as we dangle there, hanging in chains, fixed for all eternity, as if the whole of one's personality were summed up in that single, interrupted action.'' The Father regrets the incident at Madame Pace's brothel but asserts that a human being cannot be defined as a consistent personal identity. The reality is that a human being (from the real world at least) changes so drastically from day to day that he cannot be said to be the same person at any time in his life. A human being is perhaps different hour by hour and may end up being 100,000 essentially different people before his life has ended.