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six characters in search of an author

5 april 2018

In my student-actor days, I was once cast in a production of Six Characters in Search of an Author. Or maybe every element of that sentence should be in scare quotes. It was likelier some abridged adaptation of Six Characters than the full-length play, and though I remember rehearsing, the production never really coalesced and was never performed. We mostly sat around trying to get mass and momentum together, but it was summer and we were students and sometimes half the cast wouldn't show up. The director got frustrated and cancelled the show. All in all, it was perhaps the ultimate Pirandellan theatrical experience.

Six Characters in Search of an Author starts, after all, with a rehearsal of a play that will never come off, a play by Pirandello called Il giuoco delle parti – usually translated as "Rules of the Game" but also having the sense "playing the parts" (of a play). The director, stagehands, and cast of Il giuoco delle parti don't think much of the play they're putting on – another pretentious, incomprehensible thing from Pirandello. They are going about their preparation in a desultory way, when in walk the title characters of the play Six Characters. Truly characters, now: neither actors nor real people off the street. Pirandello suggests, in a curiously undogmatic stage direction (9-10), that the Characters wear light, flexible masks, to accentuate their character notes and set them off from the humans of the play. But this isn't always done on stage, and one could argue that Pirandello didn't know best. The Six Characters are essences, not people, but they are only interesting insofar as they embody human experiences and emotions. The masks they wear are perhaps best left metaphorical.

Intrigued by the drama that the Six Characters bring with them, the Director and cast set about composing a play based on their story. But that play doesn't come off either. The Characters keep breaking in and taking over the action – they can't help it; they live for this. This would all be a sterile game if the Characters didn't stay in character. They are only mildly accommodating to the needs of the theater, and at times they are outright hostile. They insist (meta-paradoxically, of course) on representing things that you "can't" do on stage, in Italy or France of the 1920s (where the play was first performed, initially a flop and later an enduring success). They repeatedly critique the actors for not being the characters: not for being bad actors (they're not), but simply for being actors. Actors can never be characters. Of course, there's no pretense (and here the masks would make the point best) that the actors playing the Characters are really those characters either, but that's the whole point. Some in the cast are playing characters and some are playing actors. There's still a distinction.

With Six Characters in Search of an Author, Pirandello created much of 20th-century theater: the meta-drama, the postmodern, the Absurd. I'm struck, though, by the power of the Characters' story (a divided family that comes gruesomely back together when a father vists a bordello and becomes his own stepdaughter's customer). If that central play (within a play within a play) were a mere game, you wouldn't care about the whole shooting match; it would be The Real Inspector Hound instead of great drama. (Inspector Hound is fun, don't get me wrong, but it's not Six Characters.) Pirandello's great insight is that there can be stories that are admittedly fictive and deeply artificial, and that they have power precisely because their characters are elementally real.

Pirandello, Luigi. Six Characters in Search of an Author. [Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore, 1921.] Translated by Mark Musa, 1995. In Six Characters in Search of an Author and Other Plays. London: Penguin, 1995.