The audience faces a stage as it usually is in the daytime: empty, half dark, and with curtain raised. The company enters from the back and readies for a rehearsal of Pirandello's Mixing it Up and the Prompter awaits the Manager with the book in arm. The Manager enters and calls for the second act. All except three actors move to the wings. The Prompter sets the scene; the Manager points to the principle exit and instructs the Property Man on set design. The Leading Man asks if he must absolutely wear a cook's cap.
The Manager jumps up in rage; the book demands a cap. Moreover, is it his fault that France will not send them good comedies, reducing them to mounting Pirandello's works, plays where "nobody understands anything and where the author plays the fool with us all?" The Leading Man should understand he is on no ordinary stage. In beating the eggs, he "represent[s] the shell of the eggs" he is beating. The actors erupt in laughter. The Manager calls for silence and continues his explanation. Here the Leading Man stands for reason and his wife is instinct. The parts will be mixed up, because the man who acts his own part becomes the puppet of himself. The manager asks if the Leading Man understands, and he replies, "I'm hanged if I do." The Manager admits that he does not understand either.
The Door-Keeper enters from the stage door and approaches the Manager. Simultaneously the Six Characters enter from the rear; a "tenuous light" surrounds them—the "faint breath of their fantastic reality." Even when the light disappears, they remain almost suspended in their "dream lightness," but this does not detract from the "essential reality of their forms and expressions." The Door-Keeper timidly announces their arrival. With embarrassment, the Father explains to the angry Manager that they are in search of an author. The Step-Daughter vivaciously declares that they bring them their new piece.
When the Manager replies that he has no time for mad people, Father rejoins mellifluously that he knows life is full of "infinite absurdities" that do not even need to appear plausible since they are true. To reverse this process is madness and the Manager defends his art. If today's playwrights give them stupid comedies and puppet characters, they remain proud of having given life to immortal works. Father interrupts furiously: the Manager is exactly right. They have given life to "living beings more alive than those who breathe and wear clothes: beings less real perhaps, but truer!" Nature uses the "instrument of human fantasy" for her creative purpose. One is born in many forms, such as tree, stone, water, butterfly, woman, or as a character in a play. The Manager and Actors explode in laughter. Hurt, Father remarks that they know the Characters carry a drama with them—the veiled Mother makes this clear. Their incredulity shocks him: they are accustomed to seeing characters spring to life in themselves. Just because here there is no "book."
As noted in the Context, Pirandello retrospectively grouped Six Characters in a trilogy of the "theater of the theater." These works generate their drama out of the theater's elements through the conflict between actors, manager and characters, and the missing author. For Pirandello, the theater is itself theatrical—that is, it is itself implicated in the forms and dynamics of the stage. Beginning with a supposed daytime rehearsal, Six Characters puts the theater and its processes themselves on stage. Put otherwise, the play is an allegory for the play. Crucial to this allegory is a dismantling of the conventions of the well-made play, a dismantling that renders the play's workings visible to the spectator. Thus Six Characters often appears improvisational, sketch-like, and in rough form, or what the Manager calls a "glorious failure." For example, note the aborted rehearsal, rejected and incompletely drawn characters, and hastily assembled sets. To anticipate the Father's confession, one could describe Pirandello as subject to the "Demon of Experiment." The play's overarching self-referential structure, that of a play about the play, is paralleled by another in the opening scene or the rehearsal of a play within a play. Both these plays belong to Pirandello. Some might accuse the inclusion of Mixing It Up—and a double of Pirandello himself—of self-indulgence. As Stanley Cavell notes, the work that would reflect on its own medium often tends to interpose the figure of its author instead. Pirandello immediately appears as the maddening native playwright who "plays the fool" with everyone. Such fantasies of authorship are intrinsic to the literary work. The author is not only that which the characters search for, but, as Pirandello laments in his preface to the play, the spectator as well. Though absent, the author haunts the stage, it is appropriate that the Characters are dressed in mourning. The author will not assume body like the characters but instead become a function or mask that circulates among the players.
The aborted excerpt of Mixing It Up also provides an allegory of sorts for Six Characters. Again, like a hall of mirrors, the play about the play produces an endless series of reflections. As the Manager perplexingly advises the Leading Man, Mixing It Up demands a "mixing up of the parts, according to which you who act your own part become the puppet of yourself." When he asks the actor if he understands, he replies, "I'm hanged if I do." Put otherwise, the actor who dons the mask becomes its puppet. The actor's joke marks the presence of death in acting. In some sense, the animation of the persona involves the death of the person. This brief exchange prefigures the advent of the Characters, who, as we will see, usurp the actors in terms of their life and reality.
As Pirandello notes in the preface, the Characters' "impossible situation" drives the play—that of a group of characters, rejected for reasons that remain obscure, who seek an author to bring their drama into being. The Characters require an author's authorization, or something must fulfill the author-function for their work to emerge. The author-function is essential to the work. In bringing the troupe on-stage, Pirandello gives the Characters substance and separates them from the actors who would play them. Mask and actor, persona and person stand face-to-face in the play's central mirror relation. The play's central thematic conflict over life, truth, and reality unfolds between these two groups. Throughout, Pirandello will insist on the reality of the Characters, a reality of aesthetic forms that transcends that of the actor. Thus, though the lighting lends the Characters a "dream lightness," the stage notes underline their "fantastic reality" and the "essential reality of their forms and expressions."
Soon after the Characters' advent, the Father, in a set of meta-linguistic comments about their drama that will characterize his speech, teases and then forcefully insists on their reality, truth, and life. Importantly, for the Father, truth is not synonymous with plausibility. Truth need not appear according to the representational code of the plausible. Invoking the long tradition of associating acting and madness, Father names the actors mad for creating the plausible so that it appear true. The theater cannot manifest truth through plausible representation. But the Character who appears as form itself does. Strangely the Father then rhapsodizes that the Character is another form of "nature" into which one can be born, as with woman, tree, or butterfly. Even here, however, we see how the play opposes the reality of the Character against that of nature. As the Father argues furiously, the Character is more true, real, and alive than the fleeting, natural being.