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The curtain rises, revealing the shifted scenery: a drop, a few trees, and the portion of a fountain basin. The Manager demands that they leave the second act to him. The Step-Daughter insists that he understand she came to the Father's house in spite of her wishes. The Mother implores the Manager to understand she tried to pacify her. Step-Daughter scoffs that the meeker Mother is, the more aloof the Son becomes. She then tells the exasperated Manager that the entire action cannot take place in the garden. The Son is always shut up in his room and the Boy is always indoors. The Manager protests that while directors perhaps did so when the public was at the level of the Child, they cannot change scenes three or four times in an act. The Leading Lady remarks that it makes the illusion easier.
Father bristles at the cruel word "illusion." The Characters have no life outside illusion; the Actors' game of art is their sole reality. Pausing, Father approaches the Manager and adds that this does not apply to the Characters alone. The Father asks if the Manager can tell him who he really is and the Manager responds that he is himself. Father notes he is right to laugh at his joke but asks his question anew. A character can always pose this question to a man as while he is always somebody, a man might be nobody. If man, as he really is now, sees himself as he once was and thinks of all those illusions that mean nothing to him now, that do not even seem to exist, is his present reality not fated to become mere illusion tomorrow. Astonished and befuddled by this "specious argument," the Manager asks where Father's thoughts take us. Nowhere, Father replies. He only means to show how man should not count overmuch on his reality. The character is more real as his reality is fixed, immutable. Man's reality is but "transitory and fleeting illusion Illusions of reality represented in this fatuous comedy of life."
The Manager commands Father to stop his philosophizing. Looking him over from head to foot, he concludes that Father's tale of the author who abandoned them is nonsense. Father himself is trying to imitate the manner of an author he heartily detests, an author whose play he was rehearsing just when they arrived. Father replies that he does not know this author and that only those who blind themselves with human sentiment and do not think what they feel think he philosophizes. Man never reasons so much as when he suffers. Father is "crying aloud the reason of [his] sufferings." The Manager asks if anyone has ever heard of a character who speechifies as Father does. Father replies that he has not because the author always hides the labor of the character's creation. When the character is alive, they follow the author in action, words, and situation—when born he acquires an independence of him.
With the lifting of the curtain, the Manager appears ready to stage the next act. Immediately another conflict arises between the Characters' drama and theatrical convention, or the number of scene changes. As we will see, these conventions demand the combination of action. Simultaneity in time, across what the Step-Daughter describes as decidedly discrete spaces of the house and garden, will also become simultaneity in the playing space. Note here the references to childhood: the Manager jeers that companies staged multiple scene changes when audiences were at the level of children. To the Leading Lady's indignation, the Father claims that the Actors participate in a game or play of art. In some sense, the theater divested of its conventions appears here as a return to child's play, a turn from conditions of plausibility, action, and pace, to the stage's mythic origins.
The Leading Lady's use of the word "illusion" precipitates the most extended dialogue on the Characters' reality. The Father bristles at this word as it relies on the most vulgar opposition between these two terms. For the Characters, art—what the Actors would call mere illusion—is their sole reality. Here he approaches the Manager in particular in a sort of "face- off" between doubles to challenge this opposition, one that underpins his identity. Convinced of his self-identity, the Manager readily responds that he is himself. The Father believes otherwise. While the Character's reality is real while the Actors' is not; while the Character is somebody, man is nobody. Man is nobody because he is subject to time. His reality is fleeting, always ready to reveal itself as illusion, whereas the Character's reality remains fixed for eternity. Put otherwise, time enables an opposition between reality and illusion for man—over time, man comes to identify erstwhile realities as illusion, whereas the Character exists in the timeless reality of art.
For critic Diane Thompson, this reality echoes the Italian tradition of the commedia del 'arte, in which the mask designates the character's eternal quality in opposition to the transient naked face of the actors. The mask would give the impression of figures fixed forever in its own fundamental emotion: that is, Remorse for the Father, Revenge for the Stepdaughter, Scorn for the Son, Sorrow for the Mother. With this "specious argument" about the actor's naked face, the Father would unhinge the actors' reality and unmask it as a series of illusion in the "fatuous comedy of life." By dramatizing life, the Father truly takes the company nowhere except for where they already are, the stage. Note how the stage' boards come to metonymically refer to the earth itself. The stage as a space of illusion serves as familiar metaphor for human reality.
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