Six Characters in Search of an Author | Study Guide

Luigi Pirandello

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Six Characters in Search of an Author | Context


World War I and Modernism

Pirandello wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author in 1921, three years after the end of World War I. His work has ties to the literary tradition of Modernism, particularly the widespread literary Modernism emerging in Europe after the war.

World War I was among the deadliest wars in history. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, popularizing a phrase from British writer H.G. Wells, called it "the war to end all wars." To many people the world felt unsafe, unstable, and chaotic even after the war ended. Art and literature began to reflect the disillusionment and grief most survivors felt. Modernist poems like British poet T.S. Eliot's famous The Waste Land (1922) expresses collective anguish. Writers struggled to make art relevant in the face of real tragedy.

One way to increase art's relevance was to destabilize readers with new techniques. Older novels and plays with conventional narrative structures didn't make sense in the postwar world. Writers attempted to bring fresh meaning to their work through the use of innovative constructions. American Modernist poet Ezra Pound, who worked with Eliot, declared his goal was to "make it [poetry] new."

Characters in Modernist writing may lack a clear sense of identity, unlike the stable and iconic characters of many older narratives. Modernist characters may be skeptical about their realities or feel they don't inhabit the same realities as others around them. Writers experimented with different ways to demonstrate this confusion. Modernist Irish novelist James Joyce and English novelist Virginia Woolf used the stream of consciousness technique by exposing readers to the rapid flow of thoughts in their characters' minds. The characters' thoughts are often fractured and sometimes appear nonsensical to the reader. Among other effects, the stream of consciousness technique shows how the perception of reality can change from person to person.

Pirandello wrote directly about World War I in his 1934 novel Berecche e la Guerra (Berecche and the War). The male protagonist, Berecche, sees his political convictions, morals, and family life challenged by the instability of world conflict. Pirandello's other works often tackle what is called today posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by war survivors: disillusionment, suffering, and an unstable sense of self.

Six Characters in Search of an Author reveals Modernist influence in characters' fluid realities, identity confusion, and debates over the nature and importance of art. The six Characters exist as art forms with unchanging stories. They're forced to live out the events of their lives over and over again. In turn the Characters force the Actors and Director to confront their own unstable identities as changing human beings. One of the Characters, the Father, asks the Director if he really knows who he is. Like stream of consciousness novels, the play considers what it means to be human with any meaning in a chaotic world.

The unique structure of the play questions whether art and the theater mean anything at all. When conflict arises between the needs of the Characters and the Director, Pirandello exposes the theater as absurd and unreal. The Characters replay events constantly, unable to move on, and living in what the Father calls "the eternal moment." One of the Characters, the Boy, dies violently onstage. The postwar world seemed similarly absurd, violent, and full of suffering, and Pirandello's play reflects this outlook.

Commedia dell'arte

The six Characters looking for an author wear masks during the play. They also act out fixed character types. Pirandello draws on the symbolism of an old Italian theatrical form called Commedia dell'arte. The art form thrived in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Commedia dell'arte relied on groups of actors portraying archetypes, or stock characters, in improvised comic situations. Actors wore masks that identified their archetype. Theatrical companies drew their plots from the more serious works of Italy's commedia erudita, or "literary drama," turning the plots into broad physical comedies.

Part of the Commedia dell'arte's appeal was audience familiarity with its stock characters. Characters conformed to four basic types: servants, old men, young lovers, and powerful captains. Actors developed unique characters based on the types, turning them into recurring audience favorites like Harlequin, Pierrot, or Punch—half of the violent comic duo known as Punch and Judy. Audiences knew the characters before they knew what would happen in the drama.

Like the Commedia dell'arte characters, Pirandello's six Characters resemble archetypes— typical examples of a certain personality. Their identity is unchanging and immediately obvious to the audience. Pirandello pairs each Character with a dominant emotion or desire. For instance, the Father is remorseful, the Stepdaughter is vengeful, and the Mother is grief-stricken. Although Six Characters in Search of an Author could be seen as a comedy of absurd effects, its Characters incorporate tragedy because they're stuck in their fates. The Father will always be ashamed, and the Mother will always grieve. The Characters' masks are in part designed to represent their frozen identities, so the masks do not hide but identify.

Theater of the Absurd

Pirandello Lays the Groundwork

Pirandello helped lay the groundwork for a revolutionary genre in drama of the 20th century known as the Theater of the Absurd. Plays in this genre, often called absurdist plays, turn standard notions of plot, characters, and unity upside down. The plays often portray the struggle of existing in a meaningless or "absurd" universe. The term comes from French philosopher Albert Camus's belief that mankind is stuck in an absurd or pointless existence he must continually struggle against for purpose.

Pirandello had something of an Absurdist outlook on existence. Writing about his own art in 1920, he called life "a very sad piece of buffoonery," seen in forms "disorderly, interrupted, interspersed with constant digressions, deconstructing rather than constructing ... stormy and disordered ... sidetracked, contradicted." People deceive themselves constantly, he claimed, by creating new imaginary realities for themselves. He especially admired talking films as they were introduced in the 1920s, putting into "images dream, memory, hallucination, madness, and the doubling of personality."

Pirandello's exploration of truth, artifice, and isolation anticipated and inspired Absurdist writers. He creates Characters who live only onstage. The Character of the Father tells the Actors their reality is only an illusion, since people's sense of reality changes day by day. The audience thus may see the Characters as real and permanent and view humans as fleeting and temporary. Both humans and Characters are trapped—the Characters onstage, the humans in a life that must one day end in death. Pirandello here turns traditional notions of art and life upside down.

His defiance of traditional plot structure and characterization stunned audiences of his time. Critic Anne Paolucci said Pirandello "forever shattered" the idea of a play relying on straightforward character motivation, intention, and action. Pirandello's Characters have unpredictable dramatic outbursts. They never achieve the catharsis or dramatic release of tension protagonists usually experience in a play. Their problems, such as they are, remain unsolved.

Beckett, Pinter, Genet, and Ionesco Push the Boundaries

Pirandello's work opened the door for later European writers such as Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Jean Genet, and Eugene Ionesco to push the boundaries of theater further. Leading drama critic Robert Brustein called Pirandello "the father of the contemporary theater."

Beckett, Pinter, Genet, and Ionesco used the terms Anti-Theater or New Theater to describe their writing. Another massive conflict, World War II (1939–45), left a need for more innovation in the face of a changed reality. But many works before this time featured elements of absurdity. Writers like Irishman James Joyce and Czech novelist Franz Kafka wrote dreamlike, surreal narratives. French playwright Alfred Jarry's 1896 play Ubu Roi (King Ubu) presented mythical, bizarre archetypes in the form of puppets.

Absurdist plays often lack a traditional plot structure. Main characters, rather than progressing toward goals, might be stuck in states where they can't change anything. Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1953), one of the most famous examples of the genre, features two men waiting for a third man who never arrives. The futility of characters' situations mirrors the absurdist view of the human endeavor as pointless. Events often unfold in a random, illogical sequence, defying dramatic notions of an orderly plot with beginning, middle, and end.

Archetypes, or characters that represent ideas, are common in Absurdist theater. Characters are simple, not well-rounded. They may lack motivation and awareness of their surroundings. Some have universal names, like the Father and the Mother in Pirandello's play. Instead of watching a drama about a specific person's life, audiences see characters who could be anyone, even themselves.

Characters might speak in repetitive dialogue without forming complete thoughts or sentences, showing the difficulty of human communication through language. This hurdle of communication includes the audience. Absurdist playwrights deliberately challenge audiences to experience a play they don't understand.


Six Characters in Search of an Author is a play conscious of being a play. One Actor refers to plays as illusions of reality. And the six Characters of the title were all, according to the Father, "born to the stage." The play is one of the most famous examples of what in 1963 drama critic Lionel Abel called "metatheater."

Abel describes metatheater as a play where characters are "aware of their own theatricality." Metatheater draws attention to the artificial nature of theater. It deliberately reminds the audience that they're seeing an illusion and encourages audiences to question what the boundaries between illusion and reality are. The action may be bizarre and improbable or feature exaggerated gestures. Characters may address the audience directly, thus breaking the theater's "fourth wall" (the imaginary barrier between the audience and the onstage world of the play). Metatheater may include characters "roleplaying within the role" or making literary references. For instance, the Director in Six Characters in Search of an Author discusses other Pirandello plays and the merits of Pirandello as a playwright.

Some dramas use the technique of presenting a "play within a play" where the setting is itself a theater. The discrete unconnected dramatic episodes in the play within the play serve as a subplot to the drama's main plot. The "play within a play" is in fact a convention as old as the works of 16th-century English playwright William Shakespeare. The Shakespearean plays A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595), Hamlet (1600), and The Tempest (1611) all feature plays within the main drama. Pirandello is thus using a well-established technique for his own purposes.

Modern playwrights have explored metatheater's possibilities in depth. British playwright Tom Stoppard's absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) features two minor characters from Hamlet and refers to Hamlet frequently. German playwright Bertolt Brecht experimented with metatheater in his "epic theater." Brecht wanted audiences to approach plays with detachment, not emotional involvement. If spectators knew they were watching a play, they could engage with the work more critically, even politically. Epic theater presented a chronicle of past events, similar to an epic poem.

Pirandello used the term "mirror theater" to describe his technique. His Characters, aware of being characters, hold up a mirror to the Actors. The Characters reveal "weaknesses, hypocrisies and essential humanity" in the human behavior of their observers, according to critic Marianka Swain. The Actors are also an imperfect "mirror" or imitation of the Characters.

Six Characters in Search of an Author blurs the boundaries between actor and role, audience and stage, and fiction and reality. The Characters complain the Actors can't portray them accurately, since actors inevitably bring their own interpretations to the role, so the Characters in a sense have more reality and life. The stage design too is unique and minimal, and features the Foreman working to build a set as the audience arrives.

Critic Milly Barranger says metatheatrical plays are "about the human impulse to create fiction and revise reality." Pirandello's play calls attention to the illusions created in a theater—actors portray imagined scenarios, not real-life events. But the Characters insist their reality is more valid than the Actors' lives. They demand to present an account of what really happened to them, while the Director wants them to perform only what's possible onstage. The drama becomes an unresolved conflict between different notions of fiction and reality and of truth and illusion.

Masks, Multiple Identities, and More Themes in Pirandello's Work

Pirandello's unusual approach to questions of identity and consciousness set his work apart from his contemporaries. Intrigued by psychology, he studied the writings of French psychologist Alfred Binet and Sigmund Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis. The idea of a subconscious personality especially interested Pirandello. His essay On Humor (1908) explores his ideas about life and art, including how "what we know about ourselves is ... a very small part of what we really are" in the unending chaos and flux of identity as a series of contradictions of truths.

The self-perception of Pirandello's characters is often far different from the way they are perceived by others. Their identities shift around other people. They wear figurative—or sometimes literal—masks on the stage. A collection of his plays from 1918 to 1935 is called Naked Masks. The oxymoronic (logically impossible) title shows Pirandello's interest in how identity can be shielded and revealed. In the play Right You Are, If You Think You Are (1917), the character of Signor Ponza's wife is an enigma. It isn't made clear whether she is truly the signor's wife, or possibly his mother-in-law. Other characters speculate on who she is, but the audience never learns the truth.

Truth is often subjective in Pirandello's plays. Not only do his characters present multiple identities, they frequently have conflicting perspectives about what's true and real. Who's right? Are the characters who they think they are or who others believe them to be? Does an illusion become real if someone thinks it's real? For Pirandello there can be as many truths as there are points of view. By not leaving the audience with an answer or even a concrete sense of reality, he makes the theater an innovative, confrontational place of logical impossibilities.

His characters are caught between art and life. While art remains the same, life is constantly changing. Sometimes Pirandello's characters invent their own realities and reverse art and life so that life becomes fixed and meaningless while art is open and dynamic, as in the title character in Henry IV. After suffering a tragic accident, the protagonist believes he is German emperor Henry IV and constructs his own imaginary world. When he learns this world is an illusion, he chooses the fantasy over the grim reality of his life.

When Pirandello created his most famous play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, he took themes of identity and illusion to an extreme. In this work Pirandello broke down barriers between actor and audience, truth and invention, appearance and reality, and life and art. Italian audiences initially found the "play within a play" concept of Six Characters too disorienting, and in fact the first performance provoked a near riot and charges against the playwright of having created a work of madness. International productions soon drew more receptive crowds, however.

Reception and Relevance

Six Characters in Search of an Author opened in 1921 at Rome's Teatro Valle to a controversial reception. Audience members shouted "Madhouse!" when confronted with the bizarre characters and format. By the play's conclusion, audience members, critics, and performers entered into fistfights that spilled from the theater onto the surrounding streets.

But critic Adriano Tilgher's review influenced the theatergoing public positively. His review read, in part, "Pirandello is most certainly among the leading creators of a new spiritual environment, one of the most deserving precursors of tomorrow's genius." Soon Six Characters in Search of an Author opened to a more favorable reception in Milan, London, and New York.

In 1923 Parisian producer Georges Pitoëff then made several changes to enhance the drama's disorienting "play within a play" feel. Pitoëff dressed the six Characters in black and extended the physical stage into the auditorium so performers could go back and forth into the audience area. Pirandello went a step further and suggested the six Characters wear masks, making cast members archetypes rather than individuals. This anonymity gave the play an even more revolutionary form. Pirandello became a celebrity and important literary figure after the play's Parisian production.

American theatrical critic and playwright Robert Brustein declared that Pirandello's "influence on modern drama of the 20th century is immeasurable." Brustein further commented, "After Pirandello, no dramatist has been able to write with ... the same certainty as before."

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