Luigi Pirandello may not be a household name for many of us, so I’m going to begin with a bit of background. Pirandello was born in 1867 on the island of Sicily, where his family owned a sulphur business. At the age of 19, he decided the family business wasn’t for him, and went to the University of Palermo, then on to study in Rome and Bonn, completing his doctorate and, after working for a time as a lector in Italian, he returned to Rome where he was quickly considered one of the more serious and prominent writers in a group centered around the already famous novelist and critic, Luigi Capuana.
Pirandello first published a collection of poems in 1889 called Mal Giocondo (Playful Evil). Between the years 1902 and 1926, he published 7 novels. Between 1916 and 1930, he wrote 14 major plays including the Six Characters in Search of an Author (Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore) reviewed here. In addition, he published many collections of poetry and 15 volumes of short stories. With the help of Mussolini, in 1925 he assumed the ownership and artistic directorship of Teatro d’Arte di Roma. He described himself as “apolitical” but, while some people interpret his play The Giants of the Mountain as showing him to believe that fascists were anti-culture, it was mainly due to the support of Mussolini that he achieved worldwide fame, and was able to tour major artistic cities of Europe and South America. In 1927, he renounced his membership in the fascist party, yet later, he gave the party the medal he received with his Noble Prize for Literature (1934) received for his “bold and brilliant renovation of the drama and the stage” to be melted down to support the Abyssinian campaign. He died in December, 1936. A couple of his famous quotes which may help to understand his Six Characters are included here:
Whoever has the luck to be born a character can laugh even at death. Because a character will never die! A man will die, a writer, the instrument of creation: but what he has created will never die!
When the characters are really alive before their author, the latter does nothing but follow them in their action, in their words, in the situations which they suggest to him.
At the beginning of the play, Pirandello has actors milling around, preparing to begin a daytime rehearsal of a play by Pirandello called The Game as He Played It (a phantom play, if you will). The producer arrives, and the leading lady is late, although she arrives before the practice begins. None of the company has names; they are called by their positions: Producer, Stage Manager, Leading Lady, The Ingenue, The Prompter, etc. They finally begin rehearsing Act 2, when 6 “Characters” arrive, also nameless (Father, Son, Step-Daughter, etc.), as well as authorless. They are characters created and then set adrift without an author to let them act out their reality as they perceive it. The rest of the rehearsal becomes a philosophical discussion of what is reality and what is appearance.
The Father argues with and finally persuades The Producer to allow the Characters to enact their stories, and so the “Actors” become the audience, and the play becomes something which appears to be totally improvised. The stage becomes a metaphor for the play, a rather sordid little melodrama which examines what translator Frederick May has described as “the disillusionment and spiritual desolation of its time.” Along the way, the discussions, which interrupt the “performance,” seem to dismantle the process of the polished play as usually seen by an audience — sets are hastily thrown together, and time and place are changed to suit the compression of time and the limitations of the stage rather than as they are perceived by The Characters to have happened. The author seems to be saying that ordinary people, like The Characters, want their story told from their own perspective, but that reality is different from one day to the next, so even their own realities become illusions.
It’s an interesting concept, a bit confusing at times, and many parts of the dialogue demanded that I reread them and think them through. But it’s brilliant! Well worth the read. I’ve looked at a lot of different cover designs used to represent the play, and some of them stand out as an extension of the concept. The one at the top is the edition I have. I’m including two more for you to contemplate. It’s not a long play and could be read in one sitting, but it’s probably best to either stop at least once to let the ideas sink in, or to read it through, and then read it again. You can get a free version online here, although it is a different translation based on the original presentation by Pirandello, rather than the definitive text of his final edition. I’d be very interested in any comments and views you might like to share. * * * * *