When Someone Asks If You’re a God, You Say Yes! My Reaction to the 1921 Play ‘Six Characters in Search of An Author’

I just listened to this dramatic reading from a cast of Librivox volunteers of the play ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ by Luigi Pirandello. Written and first performed in 1921. I want to get down some initial thoughts and reactions.

Six ‘characters’ show up at a playhouse while a troupe is rehearsing and attempt to relate that they are characters, in the flesh, sprung from a creative mind but abandoned before their play was finished. Thus they are seeking a stage, an author, led by a father figure whose version of their existence and the situation inherent in their being which is to be staged, is presented most authorially. The father comes leading a pack of characters, which is a mixed up family. Though their writer is absent, he is the most ‘authorial’. Thusly many of the literary terms are complicated by their meanings in other realms, throughout the play. It is a somber, complex tale they tell, a situation about an estranged father reunited with his ex- and his daughter in the most discomfiting of circumstances, when the father visits a brothel and makes an appointment with a young madame, who turns out to be the daughter.

What version will be told, is best to get at the ‘truth’, or even will be permitted by social mores to be staged? Where the mother arrives to discover them just in time?

THE FATHER. She, the Mother arrived just then . . . 

THE STEP-DAUGHTER (treacherously). Almost in time!

THE FATHER (crying out)No, in time! in time! Fortunately I recognized her. . . in time.

For you see, whose story?-, whose feelings?- are most important? Authorial? Authorized? Or, if acknowledged that each character, however minor, has their own internal pains and stories, what version is best to get at the truth of the story?

To gloss over, or to generalize, or to not give light to secret pains, what is THE TRUTH?

THE STEP-DAUGHTER. But it’s the truth! 

THE MANAGER. What does that matter? Acting is our business here. Truth up to a certain point, but no further.

But if this is the pivot on which the play turns, a character’s envelopment in the whole curtain thread…

Then the stage lights are hot with a desire to shine and reflect on how the existence of characters says something about ourselves, in our ‘real’ world, and how truth, once told- repeatable as stone-clad in artistic text, eternal, says something about ourselves who are fleeting, changing, and never so chiseled out as ‘characters’. It is an existentialist point, that our essence is in this light of shining and reflecting and never as much as we’d like in being wholly a solid thing.

Actors mock those who living the thing as they enact it so the troupe may see their drama and later represent it, mock the real life versions. The daughter, dressed in mourning for her adopted father, protests when the actress steps in to her tragic scene. She herself is eternally in black dress, her adopted father just recently dead. The actress steps in.

THE STEP-DAUGHTER. But she isn’t dressed in black. 

LEADING LADY. But I shall be, and much more effectively than you.

The son refuses to speak, after the daughter and mother return home to him and his father. The implications of what has happened to bring about their return are too apparent and too full of meaning for him to consider without retreating. He hides in his room, refuses to speak to his father. His father, the man how progressive moral rationality who let the mother go with her lover in the first place so that they might have a happier, more reasonable existence.

At some point, reason becomes…

Anyway, the father was pining for his ex- , wandering their old home together, thinking of whether she was now happy, while the mother was in mourning and without money so that she and her daughter were forced into dire circumstance.

THE FATHER. That is exactly your mistake, never to have guessed any of my sentiments. 

THE MOTHER. After so many years apart, and all that had happened . . . 

THE FATHER. Was it my fault if that fellow carried you away? It happened quite sud- denly; for after he had obtained some job or other, I could find no trace of them; and so, not unnaturally, my interest in them dwindled. But the drama culminated unforeseen and violent on their return, when I was impelled by my miserable flesh that still lives . . . Ah! what misery, what wretchedness is that of the man who is alone and disdains debasing liaisons! Not old enough to do without women, and not young enough to go and look for one without shame. Misery? It’s worse than misery; it’s a horror; for no woman can any longer give him love; and when a man feels this . . . One ought to do without, you say? Yes, yes, I know. Each of us when he appears before his fellows is clothed in a certain dignity. But every man knows what unconfessable things pass within the secrecy of his own heart. One gives way to the temptation, only to rise from it again, afterwards, with a great eagerness to reestablish one’s dignity, as if it were a tombstone to place on the grave of one’s shame, and a monument to hide and sign the memory of our weaknesses. Everybody’s in the same case. Some folks haven’t the courage to say certain things, that’s all! 

THE STEP-DAUGHTER All appear to have the courage to do them though.

So, the father’s reason was a silence that wished to be understood.

THE FATHER. Yes, but in secret. Therefore, you want more courage to say these things. Let a man but speak these things out, and folks at once label him a cynic. But it isn’t true. He is like all the others, better indeed, because he isn’t afraid to reveal with the light of the intelligence the red shame of human bes- tiality on which most men close their eyes so as not to see it. Woman —for example, look at her case! She turns tantalizing inviting glances on you. You seize her. No sooner does she feel herself in your grasp than she closes her eyes. It is the sign of her mission, the sign by which she says to man: “Blind yourself, for I am blind.” 

THE STEP-DAUGHTER. Sometimes she can close them no more: when she no longer feels the need of hiding her shame to herself, but dry-eyed and dispassionately, sees only that of the man who has blinded himself without love. Oh, all these intellectual complications make me sick, disgust me—all this philosophy that uncovers the beast in man, and then seeks to save him, excuse him . . . I can’t stand it, sir. When a man seeks to “simplify” life bestially, throwing aside every relic of humanity, every chaste aspiration, every pure feeling, all sense of ide- ality, duty, modesty, shame . . . then nothing is more revolting and nauseous than a certain kind of remorse—crocodiles’ tears, that’s what it is. 

THE MANAGER. Let’s come to the point. This is only discussion. 

THE FATHER. Very good, sir! But a fact is like a sack which won’t stand up when it is empty. In order that it may stand up, one has to put into it the reason and sentiment which have caused it to exist. I couldn’t possibly know that after the death of that man, they had decided to return here, that they were in misery, and that she (pointing to the Mother) had gone to work as a modiste, and at a shop of the type of that of Madame Pace.

Blindness? Truth? Meta-Narrative tricks in a play from the 1920s having to do with psychological ablutions of character and authorship?

THE FATHER. He disappears soon, you know. And the baby too. She is the first to vanish from the scene. The drama consists finally in this: when that mother reenters my house, her family born outside of it, and shall we say superimposed on the original, ends with the death of the little girl, the tragedy of the boy and the flight of the elder daughter. It cannot go on, because it is foreign to its surroundings. So after much torment, we three remain: I, the mother, that son. Then, owing to the disappearance of that extraneous family, we too find ourselves strange to one another. We find we are living in an atmosphere of mortal desolation which is the revenge, as he (indicating Son) scornfully said of the Demon of Experiment, that unfortunately hides in me. Thus, sir, you see when faith is lacking, it becomes impossible to create certain states of happiness, for we lack the necessary humility. Vaingloriously, we try to substitute ourselves for this faith, creating thus for the rest or the world a reality which we believe after their fashion, while, actually, it doesn’t exist. For each one of us has his own reality to be respected before God, even when it is harmful to one’s very self.

If this is a play about seeking an ‘author’, in the sense of an ‘authority’, the lesson seems to be, be careful what character you choose to make the Father of your collective situation.

THE FATHER: We act that role for which we have been cast, that role which we are given in life. And in my own case, passion itself, as usually happens, becomes a trifle theatrical when it is exalted.

But in the end, it is just another play, a trifle, a diversion, which the MANAGER has reason to lament even being made aware of. And so, the art we divert ourselves with, the entertainment that we choose to center us, apart from our lives, is like the mother who wants the best but cannot provide what we ourselves must deliver into the story.

THE MANAGER (shaking his shoulders after a brief pause)Ah yes: the second act! Leave it to me, leave it all to me as we arranged, and you’ll see! It’ll go fine! 

THE STEP-DAUGHTER. Our entry into his house (indicates Father) in spite of him (indicates the Son. . . 

THE MANAGER (out of patience)Leave it to me, I tell you!

THE STEP-DAUGHTER. Do let it be clear, at any rate, that it is in spite of my wishes.

THE MOTHER (from her corner, shaking her head)For all the good that’s come of it . . . 

THE STEP-DAUGHTER (turning towards her quickly)It doesn’t matter. The more harm done us, the more remorse for him. 

THE MANAGER (impatiently)I understand! Good Heavens! I understand! I’m taking it into account. 

THE MOTHER (supplicatingly)I beg you, sir, to let it appear quite plain that for con- science sake I did try in every way . . . 

THE STEP-DAUGHTER (interrupting indignantly and continuing for the Mother). … to pacify me, to dissuade me from spiting him. (To Manager: ) Do as she wants: satisfy her, because it is true! I enjoy it immensely. Anyhow, as you can see, the meeker she is, the more she tries to get at his heart, the more distant and aloof does he become. 

THE MANAGER. Are we going to begin this second act or not?

And so, this strange family commences. Made of characters and actors. All of us, seeking our authority.

THE SON (half to himself, meaning the Mother to hear, however)And they want to put it on the stage! If there was at least a reason for it! He thinks he has got at the meaning of it all. Just as if each one of us in every circumstance of life couldn’t find his own explanation of it! (Pauses.) He complains he was discovered in a place where he ought not to have been seen, in a moment of his life which ought to have remained hidden and kept out of the reach of that convention which he has to maintain for other people. And what about my case? Haven’t I had to reveal what no son ought ever to reveal: how father and mother live and are man and wife for themselves quite apart from that idea of father and mother which we give them? When this idea is revealed, our life is then linked at one point only to that man and that woman; and as such it should shame them, shouldn’t it?

Enough. The show must go on!

THE MANAGER. Will you oblige me by going away? We haven’t time to waste with mad people. 

THE FATHER (mellifluously)Oh, sir, you know well that life is full of infinite absurdities, which, strangely enough, do not even need to appear plausible, since they are true. 

THE MANAGER. What the devil is he talking about?

THE FATHER. I say that to reverse the ordinary process may well be considered a madness-: that is, to create credible situations, in order that they may appear true. But permit me to observe that if this be madness, it is the sole raison d’être of your profession, gentlemen. 

(THE ACTORS look hurt and perplexed.

THE MANAGER (getting up and looking at him)So our profession seems to you one worthy of madmen then? 

THE FATHER. Well, to make seem true that which isn’t true . . . without any need . . . for a joke as it were . . . Isn’t that your mission, gentlemen: to give life to fan- tastic characters on the stage? 

THE MANAGER (interpreting the rising anger of the Company)But I would beg you to believe, my dear sir, that the profession of the comedian is a noble one. If today, as things go, the playwrights give us stupid comedies to play and puppets to represent instead of men, remember we are proud to have given life to immortal works here on these very boards! (THE ACTORS, satisfied, applaud their Manager.) 

THE FATHER (interrupting furiously)Exactly, perfectly, to living beings more alive than those who breathe and wear clothes: beings less real perhaps, but truer! I agree with you entirely. (The actors look at one another in amazement.) 

THE MANAGER. But what do you mean? Before, you said . . . 

THE FATHER. No, excuse me, I meant it for you, sir, who were crying out that you had no time to lose with madmen, while no one better than yourself knows that nature uses the instrument of human fantasy in order to pursue her high creative purpose. 

THE MANAGER. Very well,—but where does all this take us?

THE FATHER. Nowhere! It is merely to show you that one is born to life in many forms, in many shapes, as tree, or as stone, as water, as butterfly, or as woman. So one may also be born a character in a play.

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