(Drama for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1283 words.)