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Six Characters in Search of an Author:
A Comedy in the Making
:
By Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
First Performance
Setting
Characters
Tone
Relativism in the Play
Introduction
Plot Summary
Themes
Climax
Representing Reality
Six Quotations About Reality
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Author's Biography
Complete Free Text

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012

Type of Work

.......
Six Characters in Search of an Author is a stage comedy in which the performers include persons who say they are characters from an unfinished play. The comedy, written in Italian
(Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore), helped lay the foundation for the Theater of the Absurd, a literary genre popular in the second half of the twentieth century. Absurdist drama presents life as meaningless, nonsensical, and comic. It may also allow unreality to exist in the real world. 
 
First Performance

.......
Six Characters in Search of an Author was first performed at the Teatro Valle in Rome in 1921. 

Setting

.......The action takes place in the daytime on a theater stage. The only props are several tables and chairs and the prompter's box.

Dramatis Personae

The Characters From an Unfinished Play

The Father
The Mother
The Stepdaughter
The Boy
The Child
The Son
Madame Pace

The Theater Company

The Director (also referred to in translations as the manager or the producer)
The Leading Man
The Leading Lady
The Second Lady
L'Ingénue (actress who specializes in playing innocent young girls)
Juvenile Lead
Other Actors and Actresses
The Prompter
The Property Man
The Machinist
The Director's Secretary
The Doorkeeper
The Scene-Shifters

Tone

.......The tone is playful and comic.

Relativism in the Play

.......The play depends in part for its effect on relativism, which maintains that the way one person evaluates or judges another person or a place, a thing, or an idea varies from individual to individual.

Introduction

.......In Six Characters in Search of an Author: a Comedy in the Making, Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello presents six characters who walk off the pages of an unfinished play script and onto the stage of a theater. There, in front of a company of actors and their director, these characters assert that they are every bit as real as the actors rehearsing the play. In fact, the characters suggest, they may actually be more real than the actors. After all, actors merely play roles, but characters are the roles. If the author has properly done his job, the characters will be true to life. And is it not the goal of the theater to present the truth?
.......Those who maintain that the characters are not real but simply an illusion or a trick need to realize that objective reality is not the only reality, Pirandello seems to be saying. And who is to say that objective reality is true reality anyway?

Plot Summary
Based on Edward Storer's 1922 English Translation (New York: E. P. Dutton)

.......Actors assemble to rehearse an old Pirandello play. The stage is empty except for several tables and chairs. After the director arrives and goes to a table, the prompter opens his copy of the script while the property man turns on lights. Three actors walk to the front of the stage to begin rehearsing their parts for the second act. The prompter notes the setting: a room in Leo Gala's house that serves as a study and dining room.
.......The director instructs an actor playing Socrates about what to do on his entrances and exits. When the act begins, the prompter says, the actor playing Leo Gala is to wear a cook's hat and apron while beating an egg in a cup. An actor playing Philip is also to beat an egg while an actor playing Guido Venanzi is sitting. The Leading Man, who plays Gala, thinks it is stupid to have to wear a cook's hat. But the director orders him to do so.
.......Moments later, six people unconnected with the acting company invade the stage. An eerie light shines on them, as if they have just walked out of a dream. They identify themselves as characters from a play by a writer who abandoned them after he completed only part of the work. They say they are looking for an author to finish the play so that they will be able to perform it. The director tells them that the actors in his company are rehearsing an old play, not a new one. Consequently, the author is not present. The characters looking for an author include the following:
The Father, a man of about 50.
The Mother, the wife of The Father. She wears black clothing. A black mourning veil covers her face.
The Stepdaughter, a beautiful and outspoken young woman.
The Boy, a timid fourteen-year-old.
The Child, a four-year-old girl.
The Son, a twenty-two-year-old with a sneering manner.
.......When the Stepdaughter importunes the director to allow them to act out their story as a new play, he thinks they are playing a weird joke. Meanwhile, the actors standing by for rehearsal are becoming agitated.
.......The Father tells the director that the characters in a play are, in a sense, real people who present universal truths and often live on for centuries after their author has died. However, the Father says, all that he and his fellow actors are asking is to be allowed to live for a short while within the actors assembled for rehearsal. An adolescent male actor says he has no objections to that request if it is the comely Stepdaughter who lives in him. When the director asks the characters where the script is, the Father says it is in him and the other characters.
.......“We are the drama,” he says.
.......The alluring stepdaughter demonstrates her skills as a singer and dancer. The actors shout bravos.   
.......As the characters converse with themselves and the director, the details of the plot in which they are involved begin to unfold.
.......The character known as the Mother is the wife of the character known as the Father. Years ago, after they married, she bore him a son. In time, the Father tired of the Mother and promoted an affair between her and his office clerk. The Mother fell in love with the clerk and eventually left left home to be with him. The Son remained behind. The Father later puts the Son under the care of a wet nurse in the country so that he would grow up healthy and strong. When he returned to the Father's house, he had "no tie of intellect or affection binding him to me," the Father says.
.......Meanwhile, over the years, three children are born to the Mother and the clerk: the character known as the Boy, the character known as the Stepdaughter, and the character known as the Child. Over time, the Father became interested in his wife again, as well as her new children, and looked for them around town. The Stepdaughter says he used to bring her presents. But the clerk, the Mother, and the three children moved out of town.
.......Recently—in fact, just two months before the characters showed up at the rehearsal—the clerk died. With no means of support, the Mother and the three children returned to town to find employment to support themselves.
.......The Stepdaughter introduces into the conversation Madame Pace and her shop, which sells robes, manteaux (loose-fitting cloaks), and other articles of clothing. This topic makes the Father uncomfortable—and with good reason. Here is what happened there.
.......Madame Pace gave the Mother a job in the shop in order to get at the Stepdaughter. She wanted to hire her for her brothel in a back room. After the lovely young lady took the job, one of her clients turned out to be the Father. When he came in one day with a hundred lire, he was about to go to bed with the Stepdaughter when the Mother happened to enter the room. Embarrassed, the Father said he was unaware of the girl's identity. The Stepdaughter disputed his claim. The Father then took the Mother, the Stepdaughter, and the other children home, and they became a family. The Son, whom the Mother left behind when she absconded with the clerk, resented the intrusion of these people into his home.
.......The director is now intrigued by the story and agrees to stage it. However, he wants his own actors to perform the drama; the characters are to speak their lines while the prompter copies them down. The characters object, but the director gets his way.
.......The rehearsal is to begin with the scene in the brothel. Although Madame Pace is not present, the Father mysteriously conjures her. After the Father and Stepdaughter present part of the scene, the director tells his actors to take over and rehearse the same part. But when they recite their lines, the characters laugh at them, the Stepdaughter noting that the dialogue is wrong. She points out, for example, that the actor playing the Father is supposed to say to the actor playing her, “Let's take off this little dress at once.”
.......The director then allows the characters to demonstrate the scene. The Stepdaughter places her head on the Father's chest. Following the script of the unfinished play, she throws her arms around the Father's neck and sees “a vein pulsing in my arm.”
.......The Mother, thinking the scene is reality, comes forth and separates them, saying to the Father, “You brute! You brute! She is my daughter.”
.......The director likes the scene.
.......After a break, the characters continue the drama. The scene changes to the Father's house. When the Mother attempts to speak to the Son, he ignores her and goes into the garden. There he sees the Child (the four-year-old daughter) in the fountain, a drowning victim. He tells the director, “I was jumping in to drag her out when I saw something that froze my blood . . . the boy standing stock still, with eyes like a madman's, watching his little drowned sister, in the fountain! The Boy (the fourteen-year-old son of the Mother and the clerk) has a handgun. He shoots himself.
.......The director asks, “Is he really wounded?”
.......Some of his actors say, “He's dead. Dead.” Other actors say the Boy is only pretending. The Father says the death is real.
.......The director, disgusted, says, “Pretence? Reality? To hell with it all! Never in my life has such a thing happened to me. I've lost a whole day over these people, a whole day!”

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Themes

What Is Real? What Is Illusion?

.......The six characters in Pirandello's play maintain that they are real even though they are products of an author's imagination. But because the director and his actors can see and hear them, they perceive them as flesh-and-blood humans playing a trick. For the characters to say that they come from the mind of an author is beyond absurd to the acting company.
....... Speaking for his fellow characters, the Father then challenges the reality of the director and the acting company, saying, "If we have no other reality beyond the illusion, you too must not count overmuch on your reality as you feel it today, since, like that of yesterday, it may prove an illusion for you tomorrow. . . .Ours is an immutable reality which should make you shudder when you approach us if you are really conscious of the fact that your reality is a mere transitory and fleeting illusion, taking this form today and that tomorrow, according to the conditions, according to your will, your sentiments, which in turn are controlled by an intellect that shows them to you today in one manner and tomorrow . . . who knows how?"
....... Underlying the bizarre, seemingly absurd dialectic is a serious theme: each person perceives and interprets reality differently. For example, two painters looking at the same subject will produce strikingly different representations of it. Consider that Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso both painted images of armed conflict which bore no resemblance to each other and were far removed from reality. Paradoxically, however, these paintings (Dali's The Face of War and Picasso's Guernica) both presented realitythe reality of stark, nightmarish war.
.......The point that Pirandello is making is that there is more to reality than meets the senses. One man's reality may be another man's illusion, and vice versa. And sometimes true reality hides itself beneath a veneer that no empirical observer can penetrate. Shakespeare wrote, “A goodly apple rotten at the heart. / O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” (The Merchant of Venice, 1.3.83.84). 

Who Am I?

....... Some people attempt to define us. Our friends may see us as kind and courageous; our enemies, as cruel and cowardly. One boss may see us as efficient and productive; another, as inefficient and unproductive. One cousin may regard us as funny; another, as dull. Which opinions about us are valid is not always easy to determine. We ourselves may be confused about which is our true reality. After all, we tend to be blind to our own weaknesses. Others, usually our adversaries, tend to be blind to our strengths.
....... In Pirandello's play, the actors are blind to the reality of the six characters, the Father and Stepdaughter maintain. The actors' blindness serves as a metaphor for the partiality, prejudice, and ignorance that color the opinions of people in everyday life.

Good Literature Endures

.......Almost everyone who reads or likes to listen to stories has heard of Frankenstein,  Ebenezer Scrooge, and Little Red Riding Hood. These characters have walked out of the pages of books and become part of our everyday lives. Sometimes they invade our dreams. Sometimes they come to our aid when we are making a comparison in our conversation or writing. Every Halloween, we see them walking the streets of cities and towns.
.......In Pirandello's play, the Father speaks of the immortality of a character born in a book. “He cannot die. The man, the writer, the instrument of the creation will die, but his creation does not die.”
.......The Father is right. Even now, the characters in the first two great works in western literature—Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, composed nearly three thousand years ago—continue to live in high school and colleges, on the screens of theaters, and in other literary works they have wandered into. Who has not heard of Achilles, Helen of Troy, and the Trojan War? Who has not heard of Zeus, Athena, and the alluring Sirens?  

Climax

.......The climax occurs when the Boy shoots himself and the actors cannot determine whether he really committed suicide or is just pretending. This moment sums up the main theme of the play. Here is the dialogue:
Director: Is he really wounded?
Some Actors: He's dead! Dead!
Other Actors: No, it's only make-believe, it's only pretense.
The Father: Pretense? Reality, sir, reality!
Director: Pretense? Reality? To hell with it all! Never in my life has such a thing happened to me. I've lost a whole day over these people, a whole day!

Representing Reality: Character vs Actor

.......In a manner of speaking, the Father and the Daughter are right: an actor is less real than a character. Consider that in novels and short stories, characters speak directly to their readers in dialogue, They do not need actors to play them.
.......In a script for the stage or a motion picture, an actor playing a character is simply pretending to be the character. It is the character who represents reality. In rare instances, a talented actor can seem to become the character. Still, he is not the character.

Six Quotations About Reality
  1. Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.—Albert Einstein. Quoted in Einstein's Lament, by Fred W. deJavanne.
  2. The highest problem of any art is to cause by appearance the illusion of a higher reality.—Johann von Goethe. Quoted in Forty Thousand Quotations: Prose and Poetical, compiled by Charles Noel Douglas. 
  3. Art is not a study of positive reality, it is the seeking for ideal truth.—George Sand (pen name of the French writer Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin). This quotation appears in La Mare au Diable. Here is the original French: L'art n'est pas une étude de la réalité positive; c'est une recherche de la vérité idéale.
  4. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.T. S.  Eliot, from The Four Quartets.
  5. Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.—C.S. Lewis, Quoted in C.S. Lewis: The Shape of His Faith and Thought, by Paul Holmer.
  6. True absurdism is not less but more real than reality.—John Simon. Quoted in "absurdism," The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Write an essay that explains why following words spoken by the Father help to develop the thesis of the play. "Each one of us has within him a whole world of things, each man of us his own special world. And how can we ever come to an understanding if I put in the words I utter the sense and value of things as I see them; while you who listen to me must inevitably translate them according to the conception of things each one of you has within himself."
  • Tell your classmates about a person you know who attempts to live in another world, another reality?
  • Do you consider as real only what you can perceive with your five senses? If your answer is yes, how would explain the existence of thoughts?
  • Write an essay that attempts to define reality.