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Six Characters in Search of an Author

Luigi Pirandello

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

What is the significance of the inclusion of the "play within the play" at the beginning of Six Characters?

Six Characters is an exercise in what Pirandello calls the "theater of the theater"—that is theater that generates its drama out of the theater's elements, in this case, 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. This self-referential structure, that of a play about the play, is paralleled by another in the opening scene: the rehearsal of a play within a play. Both these plays belong to Pirandello. The inclusion of Mixing It Up and, later, a double of Pirandello himself, is self-indulgent. As Stanley Cavell notes, the work that would reflect on its own medium often interposes the figure of its author instead. Thus, in the rehearsal of Mixing, Pirandello soon 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. "What does the author intend?" wonders the audience. "Who is this master who plays the fool with me?" Though absent, the author haunts the stage. He will not assume body like the characters but 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. As the Manager confusedly advises the Leading Man, the play is 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 hanged 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; the Character as somebody implies that the Actor is nobody. This brief exchange prefigures the advent of the Characters, who usurp the actors in terms of their life and reality.

What is the significance of Madame Pace's mysterious birth in Act II? Can one describe it, as the Leading Lady does, as a "vulgar trick?"

The strangest action of Act II is undoubtedly the birth of Madame Pace through the medium of the coats and hats that the Father borrows from the company's actresses. Her conjuring immediately provokes protests from the company. An adherent to the standards of plausibility discussed earlier, the Leading Lady denounces the conjuring as a "vulgar trick": it breaks the verisimilitude of theatrical illusion. Even worse, such an expedient device betrays a weakness in playwriting. For the Father, however, this trick is an exercise in the magic that defines the stage. In a work concerned with reflecting on its own medium, Pace's birth evokes the mythic origins of theater—that of rite, ritual, and ceremony, the coats and mantles on show serving as the scene's talismans. As with the Characters, theater would enable crossings from the other world. Equipped with a pair of shears and "puffy oxygenated hair," Pace is almost a comic Fate.

In a "specious argument" from Act III, the Father declares that while a Character is always somebody, man may be nobody. Explain this argument.

Throughout the play, the Father insists on the reality of the Characters, a reality that, as the stage notes indicates, inheres in their forms and expressions. The Father offers his most explicit meditation on the Character's reality in Act II. Here he bristles at the Actors' use of the word "illusion" as it relies on its vulgar opposition to reality. He approaches the Manager in a sort of face-off to challenge this opposition, one that underpins his identity. He wonders whether the Manager can tell him who he is. Convinced of his self- identity, the Manager readily responds that he is himself. The Father believes otherwise. While the Character's reality is real, 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.

Suggested Essay Topics

Consider the trope of the mirror in the play, in particular as it relates to the Actor and Character. What is the relation between the mirroring that happens between these figures and estrangement?

Consider the ways in which Pirandello inserts himself into the play. What is the significance of these moments? For purposes of comparison, you may want to consider his narrative of the play's genesis in the preface.

Though in the background, the crew remains ever-present in the play. How does it function? Consider the role, for example, of the Prompter and the Machinist.

What is the significance of the Child and Son's muteness? What is the effect of their silence?

Consider the function of reminiscence in the play. Who remembers and when? What do they remember? What is the significance of these reminiscences to the Characters' drama? What is their significance to the rehearsal? Isolate two or three reminscenes for comparison.

What is the significance of the Son's self-presentation as an "unrealized character?"

Consider why the Characters appear as a family in mourning. How does mourning function in the play?

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