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—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. 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 theater. Thus it presents characters dubbed the Second Leading Lady and Property Man and it hinges on multiple frames of (self)-reference, staging the staging of a play within the play. Akin to a hall of mirrors, this device, the mise-en- abîme, is common to plays that would reflect on the properties of their own medium. Self-referentiality attains heights here. The play's act divisions, for example, mirror those of the Characters' drama, a number of scenes show the Actors playing the doubles of the audience, and onward. Crucial to this project is a dismantling of the conventions of the "well-made" play that would render the play's workings visible to the spectator. Six Characters often appears improvisational, sketch-like, what the Manager calls a "glorious failure." Note the aborted rehearsal, rejected and incompletely drawn characters, hastily assembled sets, and onward. To anticipate the Father's confession, one could describe Pirandello as perhaps subject to the "Demon of Experiment."
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. 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 realities as illusion, whereas the Character exists in the timeless reality of art.
The Father and Step-Daughter sell the Manager on their drama with the scene around which it crystallizes: the inadvertent sexual encounter between them in the back room of Madame Pace's shop. In Act I, the spectator receives it in exposition, the Father offering an existentialist interpretation of its nature. For him, its tragedy inheres in man's belief in his unitary being. He only perceives this once caught in an act, so to speak, that determines him entirely. Judged by another, he appears to himself in alienated form, suspended in a reality that he should have known. The Step-Daughter should not have seen the Father in Pace's room and he should not have become real to her. The Father's suspension as pervert simultaneously fixes him as a Character. Similarly, the other Characters remain bound to this "eternal moment." This scene, for example, impels the Step-Daughter to vengeance and condemn the Mother an eternal grief. The Mother figures as witness to this obscene exchange, releasing its anguish in her final, culminating wail. Eternally posed before this scene, the Mother can only live "every minute of her torture."
In the rehearsal of another of Pirandello's plays within this one, the figure of 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. "What does the author intend?" wonders the audience. 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. Though in the preface Pirandello describes authorship through metaphors of divine and even the Immaculate Conception, speaking of "miracles," and "divine births," such identifications are covered over within the play. There the Father decidedly appears as the author's double.
Above we noted the multiple frames of reference at work in the play. As the Father's speech on the fatuous comedy of human existence suggests, these frames would implicate the spectator's reality as well. This gesture of implication becomes especially clear in Pirandello's act divisions. The conclusion of Act I, for example, would have the so-called reality of the spectacle invade that of the audience just as the Characters have appeared among the living Actors. Here the Manager agrees the experiment, and the Characters retire to his office. Thus they break the frame, leaving the audience with the actors who had come to serve as the Characters' audience. Their chatter, in which they jeer at the Manager's authorial pretentious, complain that this breaking of theatrical convention will reduce them to the level of the improvisers, and would add an additional sense of reality to the scene. The breaking of the frame and staging of a scene within the audience would ratify what we saw as real. The real-time pause—delimiting both the interruption of the action and the intermission—similarly attempts to fold stage reality into that of the audience's.
In the play's preface, Pirandello confesses an aversion to the use of symbol in the theater. If we take the term loosely, however, we can identify a number of symbolic structures and objects in the play. First, as noted above, the play itself is symbolic of, or more accurately, an allegory for, the theater itself. Second, some of Six Characters's readers have suggested the symbolic properties of the Characters themselves. Critic Diane Thompson, for example, believes that the play 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.
We might also look toward certain objects in the play as bearing symbolic properties. For example, the mirror, screen, and window that the Step-Daughter calls for in the staging of the Pace scene indicate her obsession with spectacle and, more specifically, her self-image as that spectacle's object. The vein she recalls in her sexual encounter with the Father incarnates the disgusting excessiveness of the scene, excess that the Manager would keep off-stage at all costs. Pirandello also makes use of a numbers regarding the relation between reason and sentiment. Memorably, the Manager points to the Leading Man's egg- shells in Mixing It Up! as symbolizing psychology of empty reason without its counterpart. Similarly, the Father imagines a fact as an "empty sack" unless filled without these two qualities.