By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Six Characters in Search of an Author is one of the most famous plays about theatre, a metatheatrical masterpiece which invites us to think about the relationship between theatre and ‘real’ life. Luigi Pirandello’s most celebrated and widely staged play, Six Characters in Search of an Author is worth exploring more closely; but before we offer an analysis of the play, perhaps it might be a good idea to recap the plot (briefly).
Six Characters in Search of an Author: summary
The play begins with a group of actors rehearsing another Pirandello play, Rules of the Game. While they are in rehearsals, six characters, wearing masks, arrive in the theatre. Each of these masks represents a different emotion which remains fixed throughout the play. These six figures or characters are: the Father, the Mother, the Son, the Boy, the Sister, and the Stepdaughter.
These six characters tell the actors and director that they have their own story, but, having created them, their author lost interest in them and they are now in search of an author who will tell their story for them.
Throughout the course of the play, the six characters reveal their story to the actors and director: how the Father, having had a Son with the Mother, then sent the Mother to live with another man, with whom she had three more children: the Stepdaughter, the Boy, and the Sister. Each character has a fixed emotion, which is embodied by the mask they wear. The Father’s emotion is Remorse: painful regret at having sent his wife, the Mother, away.
One particular scene from their past involves a hat shop, where the Stepdaughter went to work; really, it was a brothel. The Mother, needing money, went to work there, too, and walked in on the Father – who had visited the brothel in need of some female company – when he was about to have sex with the Stepdaughter (not knowing who she was).
This scene of the characters’ past is dramatised in the second act of Six Characters in Search of an Author, but just as they are about to act out the scene, the real-life brothel madam, Madame Pace, turns up in the theatre!
When the actors try to replicate what the Father and Stepdaughter had re-enacted, arguments soon break out about how the scene should be played. A long philosophical discussion ensues, chiefly between the Father and the director of the play.
The Father, wearing his mask of remorse, has a fixed emotion and cannot change; the director, too, is living in the deluded view that his ‘reality’ is more real than the Father’s.
At the end of the play, while attempting to enact another scene from the lives of the Six Characters, the Sister drowns herself and the little Boy shoots himself. The actors are convinced it is all illusion, but the Father tells them it is real. Meanwhile, the Stepdaughter leaves the theatre itself – in many productions, not just the theatre that is being ‘staged’ in front of the audience, but the auditorium of the real theatre in which the real audience sits. Her laughter can be heard as she exits the building.
Where has she gone? Out into the ‘real’ world? And what makes it ‘real’?
Six Characters in Search of an Author: analysis
Six Characters in Search of an Author invites us to ask a number of key questions, not just about the theatre, but about life itself. It simply uses the theatre as a powerful, visual, tangible metaphor and vehicle for these questions. What is reality? How can we know reality from illusion? What is ‘authentic’ emotion? Isn’t everything, to an extent, a performance, an illusion, an artifice? How ‘fixed’ are we as people, as personalities?
Pirandello was influenced by a number of Italian theatrical models for Six Characters in Search of an Author. The idea of the Six Characters wearing masks which embody their emotions, for instance, harks back to the Commedia dell’Arte tradition in Italian theatre, where figures such as Harlequin and Scaramouche represent particular personalities.
But Pirandello was writing in the wake of Freud’s ideas about psychoanalysis, too, and the discussions between the ‘real’ characters (the director, the actors) and the ‘fictional’ Six Characters raise a number of questions about human personality which Pirandello encourages his audience to ponder.
Of course, we should be aware of the artifice of the whole thing: another long-standing tradition which Six Characters in Search of an Author harks back to is the play-within-a-play concept. The ‘real’ characters, we know as we sit watching everything unfold from the auditorium, are as fictional as the Six Characters: the ‘actors’ are actually actors playing ‘actors’.
But at the same time, Pirandello invites us to treat the rehearsal of their play as real: they are, after all, rehearsing a genuine Pirandello play, called Rules of the Game, and it is only when the Six Characters show up that we are really invited to snap out of our illusions and recall that the whole thing, like all theatre, is make-believe.
As Michael Patterson observes in his The Oxford Guide to Plays (Oxford Quick Reference), even the title of Pirandello’s play is a piece of sleight-of-hand: these ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ have already found their author – he’s the one who created them – and they already have their story. What they need, however, is someone to realise that story for them on the stage.
They are, after all, really six characters in search of a director. But when they find their Director – and the Father is convinced the Director is the one who can bring their story to life – this Director finds his whole understanding of theatre thrown into doubt as the Six Characters force him to confront some difficult questions.
For instance, to whom does a story or a scene ‘belong’? The author of the play? The director who brings it to life on the stage? The actors who ‘interpret’ the part? Or, if the play is based on real-life events, does it truly belong to the people who lived through the events the play dramatises?
This point comes home during the scene in the ‘hat shop’, where the actors are tasked with acting out the scene in which the Mother discovers the Father and Stepdaughter about to be … caught in an intimate embrace. The Stepdaughter, who has ‘lived’ the reality of her character, tells the actors and director that the actor playing the Father cannot possibly bring to life the true anguish the Father felt when he found himself in the arms of a woman who, when she had been a little girl, he had doted on as his own.
Pirandello was interested in the theories of Stanislavsky, whose method of psychological immersion (similar to, but distinct from, so-called ‘method acting’) was becoming popular in Europe at the time (Stanislavsky had been involved in some of Chekhov’s productions at the end of the nineteenth century).
Actors should spend a long time ‘becoming’ the part they are playing, through training their brains in certain ways of thinking and responding. These theories clearly inform Six Characters in Search of an Author.
No wonder this play is so rarely performed!
I saw this play back in the 1960’s in a church basement not far from our famous “Second City” improv comedy venue here in Chicago. I didn’t understand a single thing that was going on. I suppose it’s a little like seeing “Waiting For Godot” for the first time. The only hope is growing older and seeing multiple versions. Who owns any work of art? Art requires at the very least artifact, artifice and audience. Like this commentary and analysis, I prefer questions rather than answers. I am grateful for them.
Sounds great. I just bought a copy :)