A brilliant playwright who practiced what is regarded as a precursor of Absurdism, Luigi Pirandello was born in Girgenti (now Agrigento), Sicily in 1867 to a wealthy family of sulfur miners. During the 1880s, he attended the University of Rome and then the University of Bonn, earning his doctorate in Roman philology in 1891. In 1894 he married Antonietta Portulano, the daughter of a sulfur merchant, in what appears to have been a business deal between their respective families. From 1904 onward, Portulano suffered severe bouts of hysteria and other mental illness that weighed heavily on their household, Pirandello ultimately institutionalizing her in 1919 upon the capture of both their sons in a World War I military campaign.
Pirandello began writing while at university and returned to Rome in the late 1890s to pursue a career as an author. After a flood ruined his family's sulfur mines, Pirandello began to support himself by teaching rhetoric and then Italian Literature at various local colleges. During this time, he translated Goethe's Roman Elegies, wrote his Elegie Renae, two books of poetry, and a volume of short stories entitled Amore Senz' Amore (1894). Pirandello's first novel, L'esclusa, appeared in 1901; Il Fu Matta Pascal, his first major success, followed in 1904. Though Pirandello had begun writing plays in the 1880s, he initially considered drama an impoverished medium in comparison with the novel. He would only come to the theater in 1915, ferociously producing sixteen plays in six years. Pirandello became so prominent on the Italian dramatic scene that he would later win Mussolini's support to lead an ultimately failed campaign to establish a National Art Theater in Rome. Much to the dismay of his present readers, Pirandello was an ardent fascist who joined the party in 1923. Though he harbored a somewhat idiosyncratic and not entirely uncritical relationship to the government, Pirandello remains remembered for his blunt declarations of allegiance to the party and his extravagant displays of support, most famously, "I am a Fascist because I am an Italian." The most oft-cited example of the latter is the donation of his personal gold, including his 1934 Nobel Prize medal, for the Italian campaign into Ethiopia.
Eric Bentley, perhaps Pirandello's most canonical critic in Anglo-American dramatic studies, divides the playwright's career into three major phases: the early period of Sicilian folk comedies, Pirandello's philosophical works, and that of the mythic plays written under fascist rule. It is for the works of the second period, those often considered progenitors of the absurdist theater, that Pirandello is remembered today. Apart from the famous Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), notable examples include Right You Are If You Think You Are (1917), a tale of a mysterious woman who could be either one of two different people, and Henry IV (1922), the story of a madman who believes he is a German Emperor from the eleventh-century. To accommodate his madness, his sister keeps him in a medieval castle surrounded by actors playing the role of his courtiers.
Premiering to great controversy in Rome, Six Characters in Search of an Author recounts the fate of a family of characters left unrealized by their author. Desperate to come to life, the characters interrupt the rehearsal of another Pirandello play and demand that the director and cast stage their story. Pirandello retrospectively grouped this surreal tale in a trilogy of "the theater in the theater," along with Each His Own Way (1924) and Tonight We Improvise (1930). Taking the theater itself as its setting and subject, this trilogy drew upon the relations between all the major players of the dramatic spectacle—directors, actors, characters, spectators, and critics—to "present every possible conflict." As such a deeply self- referential or meta-theatrical work, Six Characters is also a key exercise in what Pirandello termed il teatro dello specchio or "the mirror theater," a play that turns a mirror onto the theater itself. As critic Anne Paolucci notes, the result then is not a reflection but a shattering, Pirandello generating his works through the fracturing of the dramatic spectacle itself.