Six Characters in Search of an Author | Study Guide

Luigi Pirandello

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Six Characters in Search of an Author | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Author's Preface

Pirandello added the Preface to Six Characters in Search of an Author in 1925, four years after the play's first performance. He describes how a spirit of "Fantasy" sent him six distinct Characters: a man, a woman in mourning, two young children, a brazen young woman, and a contemptuous young man. He says he first intended to write a book with them in it, but decided against putting the Characters in a novel, yet they wouldn't leave him alone. Pirandello realized the Characters had their own life independent of the everyday world, and that a drama might best show this.

He wrote a play in which the six Characters have been rejected by the author who created them. The Characters, seeking the life their author denied them, enter a theater where a troupe of actors is rehearsing. He calls the resulting drama of the Characters with the actors, director, and stagehands "tragic and comic, fantastic and realistic."

The Characters express the difficulty of true communication, the multiple personalities within everyone, and the clash between changing life and unchanging "form," or art. Pirandello reveals why the Characters act the way they do. The Father and Stepdaughter are aware they're Characters. They argue passionately for a chance to live out their drama. The Mother is unaware she's a Character, but she responds to events with great emotion and feeling. Madame Pace is a Character who comes to life on the stage, propelling the play into "a sudden change in the level of reality."

Pirandello explains that despite the disjointed and chaotic events of the play, he's presented a classical and predictable structure. The play satirizes the conventional "romantic" theater through the frustrating situation of the six Characters. The Son, who resists participating in the Characters' drama even though he's a Character himself, adds another layer to the satire of how plays are supposed to be. The climactic act at the end, when a "mechanical weapon" discharges onstage and either kills or doesn't, dissolves the "experiment" of the theater.

Act 1

The Foreman is working on a bare stage. The Stage Manager tells the Foreman rehearsal is starting. The Actors and Director enter. They rehearse a scene from Pirandello's play The Game of Role Playing. The Director isn't fond of Pirandello plays and thinks the writer makes them difficult on purpose.

The six Characters, who consist of the Father, the Stepdaughter, the Son, the Mother, the Boy, and the Little Girl, enter during rehearsal. Most are dressed in black, and all are wearing masks. The Mother and Stepdaughter wear mourning clothes.

The Father interrupts the Director and explains that the six Characters need an author. The Characters claim the drama itself is already within them, they have it. The Director thinks they're crazy.

The passionate Father and lively Stepdaughter try to convince the Director they have a stage-worthy drama. They reveal the family's story. The Father sent the Mother to marry another man, his former secretary, because she could not love him. The Father had previously sent their own Son away to a wet nurse when he was still a young boy to be breastfed by another woman. With her new husband, the Mother had three additional children—the Stepdaughter, the Boy, and the Little Girl. The Father took an interest in the Mother's new family, watching the Stepdaughter as she walked home from school. The Stepdaughter implies that the Father's interest in her was sexual. She also suggests he paid for sexual contact with her while she worked in a brothel to support the family. When the Mother's new husband died, the impoverished family returned to the Father and Son. But the Son wouldn't accept them.

The Characters frequently dispute each other's version of events. The Son, standing apart, refuses to participate in the drama.

The Director finds the story intriguing. He decides to try making it into a play. The Father and the Director go offstage to discuss the first scene. The Actors are skeptical but decide to see what happens.

Act 2

The Director, Foreman, and Property Man set up the first scene, which takes place in the parlor of Madame Pace—the Stepdaughter's employer. Despite the Characters' insistence that they should play themselves, the Director casts Actors in the role of the Characters. The Director points out that they're missing a key Character, Madame Pace. The Father asks the Actresses to put their hats and coats on the set's coatrack. He thinks Madame Pace, a seamstress, will be "drawn by the tools of her trade."

Soon Madame Pace, a large woman with an orange wig and red dress, appears onstage. The Actors scream in terror. The Stepdaughter has a private conversation with Madame Pace, and the Mother shrieks at Madame Pace to get away from her daughter. Madame Pace speaks in unintelligible sentences combining Spanish and English. The Director finds her absurd and comical. But Madame Pace doesn't stay for the scene—she refuses to be in the same room as the Mother.

The Father and Stepdaughter act out the scene while the Actors watch. The Father meets the Stepdaughter in Madame Pace's sewing shop, which doubles as a brothel. The two talk briefly until the Director stops the scene so the Leading Man and Leading Lady can take over the roles. Then the Characters watch the Leading Man and Leading Lady act out their scene. The Stepdaughter and the Father don't think the Actors resemble them at all, and the Stepdaughter laughs in protest.

The Stepdaughter tells the Director she wants to perform what really happened. The Father propositioned her and she undressed. The two then nearly had a sexual encounter. The Director replies the scene she's describing is impossible to perform onstage. The Stepdaughter threatens to leave. She finally asks the Director if he'd like to see the Characters' real drama. The Mother sobs and begs the Director not to allow their story onstage. She says the traumatic events aren't in the past—they're still happening and torturing her every day.

The Father adds that the Stepdaughter wants to trap him in one shameful moment of his life. The Stepdaughter recreates the moment she found herself in the Father's arms and tells the Mother to "scream as you screamed then." The Mother separates the two, shrieking.

The Actors are aghast, while the Director applauds a "splendid" first scene.

Act 3

The Actors, Characters, and Director prepare to stage the second scene of the Characters' drama. The family will enter the house in spite of the Son. Although the Mother doesn't want to upset the Son, the Stepdaughter wants him to feel guilty.

The scene requires a garden and a house set, but the Director can't put both sets on the stage at once. The Actors suggest holding up signs to help the play's theater audience get the "illusion." The Father is upset by the word "illusion" and asks them not to use it. He explains what they call illusion is the Characters' only reality. Humans shouldn't trust their reality either, he says. The Father asks the Director to consider how much he's changed from the person he was long ago. As the Director's outlook changes, so does his reality. His former self becomes an illusion, the Father argues. By contrast, the Characters' reality never changes. The Father and Stepdaughter describe how they begged their author to write more scenes for them.

The Director wants to move ahead with the play. He sets up a garden fountain at the Stepdaughter's direction. The Stepdaughter remembers the Little Girl playing in the fountain and weeps. The Director continues to set the stage for a moonlit garden. When the Boy does not move as requested, the Director drags him into position beside a tree. The Stepdaughter explains that the Boy won't speak as long as the Son is around.

The Son says he wants to leave anyway. However, when he turns to go, he can't make it down the stairs. He is stuck onstage. The Father threatens to force the Son to act out the scene in the garden with his mother.

The Stepdaughter begins the scene by taking the Little Girl to the fountain. As she is talking to the Little Girl, the Stepdaughter screams in horror. The Little Girl is drowning, and no one is rescuing her. The Stepdaughter accuses the Boy of watching silently. She finds a revolver in the Boy's pocket.

The Director encourages the Son to act out the next scene. The Son refuses. He begins to describe what really happened between him and the Mother. There was no uproar, he says—he simply left the room. The Father screams at the Son to perform the scene for his mother. The Father and Son fight, and the Son throws the Father to the ground.

As the Director goads him, the Son reveals more details. He left the room and crossed the garden. The Mother followed him and went to the fountain to drown herself. The Son, overwhelmed by the horror of the story, describes how he stopped to rescue the Mother from the fountain. Then he saw the Boy staring at his drowned sister—the Little Girl.

While the Son is talking, the Boy's revolver discharges. When the Boy is shot, the Actors and Director panic. They carry the Boy's body backstage and return to the stage arguing. Some think the Boy is really dead. Some think the Boy was just acting. Upset that he has wasted a whole day, the Director screams at them all to go home. The Actors leave.

The Characters' silhouettes are visible behind a backcloth, frightening the Director offstage. The Characters slowly walk onstage. The Stepdaughter looks at them and runs, laughing, offstage and out the doors of the auditorium. Her wild manic laughter ends the play.

Six Characters in Search of an Author Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 The Director and Actors begin rehearsal.

Rising Action

2 The Characters arrive searching for an author.

3 Madame Pace appears onstage.

4 The Father and Stepdaughter enact the brothel scene.

5 The Son attempts to leave the theater.

6 The Little Girl drowns in the fountain.


7 The Boy shoots himself.

Falling Action

8 The Director ends the rehearsal.


9 The Stepdaughter leaves the stage and the family.

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