In Six Characters in Search of an Author, Luigi Pirandello presents the problem of identity in a dramatic life. The successive layers of personality conflicts among the various characters and the simultaneous existence of multiple perspectives shape an identity that is always changing. This identity escapes the grasp of onlookers and subjects alike and expresses a basic incongruity in human existence that challenges the most earnest attempts to create a unified self. Sometimes his protagonist finds that what “he”depends on the viewpoint of a great number of people. Such incongruity can be tragic or comic–or both at once–according to one’s attitude, a topic that echoes in the double-edged humor of his plays.
These themes of ambiguous identity, lack of communication, and deceptive appearance reach a particular intensity in this play.The initial absurdity of the play appears when the six admitted fictional characters arrive with their claim to be “truer and more real” than the “real” actors they confront. Their “truth” is the truth of art with its profound but fixed glimpses into human nature. Each character represents a particular identity created by the author. They are incapable of developing outside that role and are condemned, in their search for existence, to painfully re-enact their essential selves.Conversely, the characters have more stable personalities than “real” people who are still “nobody,” incomplete, open to change and misinterpretation. The Characters are “somebody” because their nature has been decided once and for all.
Yet there is a further complication to this contrast between real and fictional characters: the characters have real anxieties because they desire to play their own roles, and are disturbed at the prospect of having actors represent them incorrectly. “We always have the illusion of being the same person for everybody,” says the Father, “but it’s not true!” When he explains himself as a very human philosopher driven by the Demon of Experiment, his self-image is quite different from the picture held by his vengeful Stepdaughter or the passive Mother who blames him for her banishment from the house. The Stepdaughter, in turn, appears to love an innocent little sister (The Child) because she reminds the Stepdaughter of an earlier self. It is an entanglement of motives and deceit of mutual understanding that goes beyond the tabloid level of a sordid family scandal and claims a broader scope.But if one of Pirandello’s central concerns is the theater’s inability to perceive reality as it is, an even more central concern is his seemingly paradoxical notion that theater is “truer” than life.
He expresses this by contrasting the fixed reality of fictional characters with the ever-changing reality of human beings. Fictional characters are “less real, perhaps, but truer.” It is the characters’ tragedy that they are fixed within immutable bounds, often in one disastrous moment of their lives, or that, like The Boy and The Child in Six Characters, they may have personalities and histories that are barely developed. Still, though they may be frustrated by their ineffective attempts to extend their fixed identities, they do not–like the human beings they imperfectly imitate–have to experience the yet more frustrating attempt to unify the multiple aspects of their personalities. As the Father tells the Manager in the play:”Ours is an immutable reality which should make you shudder when you approach us if you are really conscious of the fact that your reality is a mere transitory and fleeting illusion, taking this form today and that tomorrow, according to the conditions, according to your will, your sentiments, which in turn are controlled by an intellect that shows them to you today in one manner and tomorrow . . . who knows how? .
. . Illusions of reality represented in this fatuous comedy of life that never ends. . .
.”The Father’s argument here is also Pirandello’s: human beings–unlike the imaginative creations of characters–are merely a series of moods, impressions, beliefs, idiosyncrasies, and social masks which can never be fully integrated. The human tragedy, and comedy, is that we keep trying to unify these contrasting elements, and are dejected at our failure.Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author was first produced by the Teatro Valle in Rome; directed by Dario Niccodemi, the production opened on May 9, 1921. It received a divided reception, splitting the audience into admirers and adversaries. Another subject that plays a rather large role in Six Characters is memory. The Father, the Stepdaughter, the Mother, the Son, the Boy, and the Child were created by an author but never actually written down into a play, hence their search for an author and a company to perform their drama. Their pursuit is made even more challenging by the fact that the characters all have conflicting memories that they are fighting to realize.
It is due to their unique circumstances that the characters must fight so hard. As characters that have neither been written nor acted, all they have is their memories. Because the characters only exist in these memories, they must fight to legitimize their experiences through this theatre company. This theme of authenticity of experience is relevant to many marginalized groups throughout the world. If one were to stage this play through a social justice lense, an interesting choice would be to cast oppressed minorities for the Characters and white actors for the rest of the company.
In doing so, the divide will be visibly apparent and and undeniable; the clear lack of fluidity between the two groups should be obvious to the audience and perhaps make them uncomfortable. Because the Characters’ goal is to find an author to validate and codify their existence, this choice makes a point show that oppressed minorities have to fight to be taken seriously. Moreover, the fact that the Characters are willing to let the white Manager to tell their story expresses their desperation to acknowledged at any cost and the lack of representation of oppressed minorities in positions of power.
The Characters’ frustration that the actors are not portraying them accurately speaks the lack of agency oppressed minorities have in telling their own stories.Though Adriano Tilgher’s review of the premier, published in Il Tempo on May 10, 1921, provided some insights into the production, it largely focused on the complexities and motifs of Pirandello’s work instead of the performance elements. According to Tilgher, the first two acts were much stronger than the third. He says, regarding the first two, “It was a success imposed by a minority on a bewildered, confused public who were basically trying hard to understand.”1 Tilgher, however, faults the third act for its absurdity, ambiguity, confusion, and lack of character development; the critic wished that Pirandello had established a more complete character arc. Tilgher’s objection makes sense considering Pirandello predates the absurdist and postmodernist movements.
Provided a contemporary audience’s exposure to such techniques, narratives, and theatrical forms, the relevance of these objections do not hold the same weight today.In early 2001, Richard Jones produced Six Characters in London, choosing to over elaborate the mischief of the piece and satirize the theatre itself instead of emphasizing the elements of psychopathy. Reviewer Michael Billington said, “Everything is done to highlight the artifice of theatre: the rehearsing actors are all heightened “types,” performers and characters are separated by divisive footlights, stage trickery is relentlessly exposed.”2 This production also incorporates multimedia.Six Characters in Search of an Author was a groundbreaking play