Six Characters in Search of an Author | Study Guide

Luigi Pirandello

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Six Characters in Search of an Author | Themes


Illusion Versus Reality

Pirandello's work frequently explores the blurred lines between reality and illusion. The author felt humans created their own realities through unique individual perspectives, so each person's reality might be an illusion to someone else.

Theater audiences expect a play to present illusions—untrue, but convincing, stories resembling reality. Pirandello's Characters, however, resist being called illusions. They feel themselves to be real. As the Father argues, a person's sense of reality is an untrustworthy illusion since it can change from day to day. He points out that the Director's "reality"—including his experiences, beliefs, and sense of self—will "inevitably seem like an illusion tomorrow."

Even a person's identity is an illusion, the Father says. Individuals have many "possibilities of being," depending on who observes them. The Director is disturbed when his sense of identity is challenged, since identity represents stability and certainty. The Father describes this revelation—the idea of how quickly identities shift—as "the very earth beneath slipping away from you."

The Characters are similarly troubled by attempts to make their realities into illusion. The Stepdaughter and Son resist having actors perform their roles. The Stepdaughter says the Leading Lady simply isn't her. The Father feels his role played by the Leading Man will become "what he interprets me to be" rather than the Father himself. Meanwhile Madame Pace's magical appearance on the stage seems like a trick or illusion to the Actors. But the Characters sense her to be more real than the Actors are themselves.

The play also discusses the subjective nature of reality. If everyone's perception of reality is different, then how can there be a "true" reality? The Characters give different versions of the same events and stubbornly insist their version is the right one. The Actors and Characters all witness the same dramatic event at the play's conclusion, but they can't agree whether it's fiction or reality.

Life versus Art

Pirandello explores the space where life and art collide in Six Characters in Search of An Author. He shows that life is constantly changing and will eventually end, but art is permanent and will outlive its creators and appreciators. "Whoever has the luck to be born a living character ... will never die!" the Father brags. Art is referred to as "form," implying its fixed, unchanging nature.

In the theater live actors take on artistic roles, transforming themselves into art. Pirandello asks if this transition can ever be genuine—whether the characters exist independently, or only through the eyes of the theater audience.

The Director and Characters grapple with the question of which is more "true"—life or art. The Father insists his story's passion and immortality make it truer than the constantly changing human experience. The Director can't imagine that his life is less true than a story made up by a playwright. Conversely, the Director resists showing the Stepdaughter's near sexual encounter with the Father, although the Stepdaughter demands he show the truth. Art, the Director thinks, sometimes needs to conceal the truth.

The question becomes especially tricky when no one can decide on the truth. The Son declares the Father is telling "fiction" or lies. Every Character has a different version of the family's saga and each insists his version is the right one. The play provides none of the "facts" the Director seeks and no universal, anchoring truth. It suggests instead that in art and in life, truth and meaning depend not on objective reality but on individual perspective.

The play also considers whether art exists only as performance. As the Characters present their drama, they're eager to reveal what really happened. They want the truth to come to light. But they have Actors to perform for and a play to craft. They must adjust their presentation to keep the Actors interested. The Director, in turn, feels their story is "not actable." It's too longwinded, too graphic, and too troubling to work as a play. He urges the Stepdaughter and Madame Pace to speak up when they're having a private conversation and implies that anyone watching their drama will lose interest if they can't hear what's being said. While the Characters live out their reality, the Director grows impatient for a drama the public will understand.

The tension between the Characters and the Director also illustrates the internal conflict of a playwright. The playwright has to convey characters' independent lives while considering the expectations of those who will read or attend the play.

The Author's Responsibility

What do writers or playwrights owe their characters? Pirandello observes his Characters as fully formed entities with independent lives, not just creations of an author's imagination. The six Characters' tragedy involves being rejected by an anonymous author. They believe the author brought them into being like a mother gives birth to a child. The Father says they're "given life and left without life." He tells the Director and Actors they do the same with each performance, when they create "living beings" from scripts.

Each Character is tormented in different ways by the author's rejection. They have to relive heightened, dramatic, and painful moments of their lives constantly. The Son is physically unable to leave the stage even when he tries. The Mother desperately wants to live the scene in which she reunites with the Son. But the scene remains unwritten, and she never gets what she wants.

Although the Characters were invented by an author, they feel themselves to be more alive and true than the Actors. By creating characters, an author creates a new, powerful version of reality. The Characters, accordingly, have a supernatural, compelling quality. The Actors are often fascinated by the Stepdaughter when she performs or shows extreme emotion. The Father says the Actors should "shudder to come near" the Characters, implying that the Characters' reality is sacred.

The play illustrates Pirandello's view that characters aren't dependent on their authors; instead authors are dependent on their characters. The Characters have certain scenes and stories they want to present. Although they want to live out these stories on the stage, they resist having their stories rewritten. Speaking for his own author, the Father says authors will be successful only if they present their characters the way the characters themselves want to be. Authors take dictation from their imaginations, but they lack control. This idea suggests that authors' first responsibility is not to the reader of a script or the observer of a performance. Their first responsibility is to the truth of their story as expressed by their characters.

Acting, Performance, and Disguise

As a playwright Pirandello recognizes the absurdity inherent in theater, where actors pretend to be other people. The setting of the play is the theater itself, a venue known for its creation of artificial realities. Although the Characters live permanently on the stage, they're not acting. Their emotions are more genuine and tumultuous than the Actors can handle.

To punctuate this absurdity, multiple layers of disguise permeate the play. The Actors perform different roles. The Characters appear in masks, showing the permanence of their states. While faces change expression multiple times, masks have a fixed expression. The Mother is further shrouded by her veil.

The performance in Act 2 shows how actors, sometimes without meaning to, bring their own interpretations to a role. The Actors earnestly try to recreate the Father and Stepdaughter's scene in the brothel. But the Characters don't recognize themselves in the Actors. They see an entirely different scene unfold, a melodramatic, romantic one they never intended. Madame Pace's spontaneous appearance on the stage adds another element of absurdity. Her outfit and speech are startling, not at all resembling a person in real life. She can't communicate with the Actors. She is uniquely theatrical and can't be portrayed by any Actor.

The play also reveals an element of artifice and performance in real life. The Father says everyone has personal beliefs and an agenda, or "a world of things" inside them. He ponders whether people can communicate honestly with one another without misinterpreting the other person's words. The Father believes each individual "acts the part assigned to him." The Actors are similarly identified by their jobs in the theater company, not by first names. Once they enter the stage, they take on a new identity, even if they haven't been assigned a role in a play.

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