Why do you have to be so small-minded and pick everything to pieces! You’re destroying the miracle, for that’s what it is! Reality itself kindled into life, conjured up, brought into being by the scene itself and drawn towards it, with more rights to life in this place than you have. She has more truth than you have!
How many plays does a playwright have to write to become influential? I asked myself this after reading Oneworld’s edition of Luigi Pirandello’s plays, because, influence aside, I don’t think, after reading the thirteen plays in the collection, that he wrote many good ones. Who’s ever heard of A Woman in Search of Herself, Caps and Bells, Honest as Can Be? Prior to reading them, I hadn’t; and afterwards I wished I had remained in ignorance thereof. Oneworld’s edition is edifying if nothing else: no reader will finish it with his idea of Pirandello unaltered. Who would have guessed that the great innovator, iconoclast, father of meta-theatre and precursor of the theatre of the absurd was in fact a scribbler of formally conservative and boring domestic melodramas lacking in sagacity, wit, vitality and urgency?
Pirandello’s reputation today lingers on a trio of plays written between 1921 and 1930 and commonly known as the “theatre in the theatre” trilogy, composed of Each in His Own Way, Tonight We Improvise and the most famous of them, Six Characters in Search of an Author. (Another great play by him is Henry IV, which dramatizes concepts of illusion, reality and fantasy; a play that still feels very modern.)
It’s always curious how the perception and appreciation of a literary work changes with time. When Six Characters in Search of an Author was staged in 1921, it was booed by the audience, denounced as the work of a lunatic, and Luigi Pirandello, the author, had to run away from the room. Today it is considered one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. In 1925 Pirandello added a clarifying preface to the text which today sounds awkward and pointless: Pirandello’s innovative techniques have permeated the fabric of contemporary to such an absolute degree that the modern reader doesn’t need Pirandello to explain what is now commonplace techniques to him. Fictional characters aware of their own fictionality and constant references to the audience watching the play hardly befuddle spectators when you consider that Edward Albee, arguably the greatest living playwright, for instance, has written several plays – The Lady from Dubuque, Lolita, The Play About the Baby, Occupant – that tear apart the veil between performance and illusion, break down the fourth wall and have the characters directly engaging the audience with retorts and questions, and who speak different lines in the text depending on the replies from the spectators. Pirandello’s price to pay for having changed the 20th century theatre is that his innovations were so attractive that they seem like they’ve been there all along. These few plays also gave him an aura of mystique that is boggling to someone who’s had to endure the saccharine banality of Lazarus and Think it over, Giacomino!
What is it about Six Characters in Search of an Author that makes it such a powerful play?
The play opens with a Producer, a group of actors and other people involved in theatre, rehearsing Luigi Pirandello’s play The Rules of the Game. An actor objects to the idea of having to wear a chef’s hat for his role; it’s ridiculous, he says. “Ridiculous, is it?” asks the Producer. “You find it ridiculous! And what do you suggest? Can I help it if we can’t get hold of good French plays any more so that now we’re reduced to putting on plays by Pirandello? Nice stuff if you can understand it, but designed it would seem to get up the noses of actors… and critics… and audiences!” Pirandello pokes fun at himself while engaging in a self-referencing game that has become the bread and butter of theatre. Truth be said, this technique is at least as old as Don Quixote, but to better appreciate the importance of its re-emergence it’s necessary to remember that during the 19th century realism rose as the de facto aesthetic school of thought thanks to Balzac, Zola and, in theatre, Ibsen. Pirandello was rebelling against a way of conceiving literature that was on its death throes but didn’t know it yet. James Joyce hadn’t even published Ulysses yet, the apogee of the realistic novel, one that captured the present moment with as little dramatisation as possible. Apart from this play, Pirandello wasn’t very interested in fantasy, but more in illusion, in the unreality of things, in blurring fact and fiction, making theatre, make-believe by nature, a unique vehicle for his ideas. For all that, though, it’s debatable how far he was ready to take his ideas. His play Tonight We Improvise doesn’t really do any improvising. In the Italian Commedia dell’Arte there was the lazzo, an improvised routine or dialogue which had many permutations and could be altered from performance to performance. Dario Fo has incorporated this technique in his own plays, which can be called truly improvisational and open works, being constantly re-written and updated. In light of them, Pirandello’s rigidity fails to impress. It’s more like he’s putting an act, pretending to be avant-garde without bothering to be.
Pirandello, however, had more than just self-referential tricks to offer. When six fictional characters wander onto the stage they turn everything upside down. The creations of an author who didn’t write a play for them, they live with their drama inside them waiting for an author to write them a play to let them bring life to the stories they were born for. Their drama is about a father who sends his wife away to live with the woman she loved. Years later she returns to him, with several children; but their son, who meanwhile had been sent to live with another family and returned after his mother had left, resents his mother’s return. One of the climaxes of this drama is when the father, a patroniser of brothels, has an awkward meeting with his stepdaughter who had gone to work in one to help pay her mother’s bills. Their story then is a big, sensational, old-fashioned family tragedy in which the sins of the father pass down to the children and ends with a little girl drowning and the boy committing suicide. Moralistic to the point of parody, if one removed the meta-theatrical frame narrative it’d be more in line with Pirandello’s typical plays. Even when he was innovating he couldn’t veer too far from who he was.
The Producer, initially reluctant to believe their story and claim that they’re fictional characters, nevertheless finds the story interesting and agrees to help them write a play. Complications arise, however, when the characters live out their dramas for the actors who will play them in the real play. When the actors try to play them, however, they come off as false and wooden. Pirandello here introduces an interesting point about theatre: all theatre is fantasy not matter how much verisimilitude it tries to achieve. Perhaps he’s saying theatre will never be as real as real life and shouldn’t try to be when it can do things real life can’t.
What is real and what is fantasy? For Pirandello, the characters are more real than the actors who play their dramas, for the characters were created like that. “A character, my dear sir,” says the Father, “may always ask a man who he is. Because a character really does have a life of his own, stamped with his own characteristics which ensure that he is always who he is. While a man – I don’t mean you in particular, but a man in general, can very easily be ‘no one.’”
Producer: That’s good! Now tell me that you and this play of yours are more real and true than I am!
Father: Of that there can be no doubt at all.
Producer: Is that so?
Father: I thought you had understood that all along.
Producer: You are more real than me?
Father: If your reality can change from one day to the next…
Producer: Of course it does! That’s obvious! It’s always changing. Everybody’s is.
Father: But not ours! Not ours, do you see? That’s the difference! It doesn’t change, it can’t change, it can never be any different, ever, because it’s fixed, as it is, once and for all. We are stuck with it, sir, and therein lies the horror; stuck with an immutable reality. You should find our presence chilling.
When they perform their life stories, they’re expressing the only truth they know, their own essence. When the actors play them, they filter their lives through the conventions of theatre. One point the Producer brings up is censorship and how standards of decency establish the limits of what can be realistically portrayed on stage. Real life, he explains to the Stepdaughter, can’t be shown on stage because the audiences wouldn’t tolerate it with all its ugliness and incoherence. The actors instinctively replace the rawness of a brothel scene, which is emotionally devastating to the Father and Stepdaughter, with comical lightness. Today everything is permitted on the stage and the scene would have been staged as is. The curious thing, though, is that loosening of moral standards and censorship were probably more necessary for Ibsen or G.B. Shaw than for Pirandello, whose plays, truth be said, were wholesome for the most part.
Although I think Pirandello’s importance and greatness need some deflating to do, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Six Characters in Search of an Author, one of his few really brilliant plays. He does in it an excellent job of dismantling many notions of theatre and his touch is visible in Beckett, Ionesco, Albee, Havel, Fo and Pinter. But the pleasure of returning to his work is not as strong as in his descendants.