When Luigi Pirandello (1867-1937) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934, the Sicilian-born dramatist was widely known as the author of intricate philosophical comedies. One in particular, Six Characters in Search of an Author, had catapulted him onto the international scene in the early 1920s, leading to acclaimed performances all over Europe and the Americas.
The setting and the initial style of Six Characters is very familiar to audiences worldwide. A professional acting troupe gathers on stage to rehearse Pirandello's The Game of Role Playing. The troupe is comprised of the requisite players including a prompter, stage manager, director, technician, actors, secretary, crew members; in essence, a representation of the hustle and bustle of professional theater - professional to the point that the director wants the impudent leading lady fined for being late and when the boorish leading man complains about his costume, the director exclaims, "We never get a good play from France anymore, so we are reduced to producing plays by Pirandello!" Pirandello is certainly not lacking in self-deprecating wit.
Before the actors can dig into the script at hand, however, six characters wander into their rehearsal space a little lost and perplexed. A Father, Mother, Step Daughter, Son, Boy and Little Girl explain that they have been abandoned by their author and their story left dangling, incomplete. The Father pleads with the director to help them complete their story and live, for a moment at least, through the actors. Pirandello describes the characters in his stage directions as "created realities, unchanging constructs of the imagination, and therefore more solidly real than the actors with their fluid naturalness."
Intrigued and persuaded, the director begins the challenging task of sorting out each of their unfinished stories and finding a way to develop a cohesive play for the stage. Eventually the character's become frustrated with the actors' process of making their story into a play and deny the value of interpretation altogether. The characters want to take on the roles themselves and "live," not play at, their own truths. They struggle to take on the roles themselves, but even this becomes mired in the conventions of the stage they wish to avoid altogether.
Although they initially present themselves as flat Characters, their story is actually far from simple, since it is a collection of many stories made up of individual perspectives. The conventions of communication available to them and to the actors simply do not suffice to get all of their inner truths out into the world and communicated to others intact.
Why should we think about or even perform Pirandello's near-century old little play any more? Well, perhaps because it teaches us the very best and the very worst aspects of human communication. Maybe we will come to realize, as Pirandello does with Six Characters in Search of an Author, all that can be achieved is a kind of collective empathy for our common disability - an awareness that we are trapped in our own stories and our own perspectives about those stories.
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