Deconstructing the Stage: Circles of Conflict in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author
Pirandello delights by surprising. It has been widely noted how his radically experimental play Six Characters In Search of an Author — the first in his ‘theatre in the theatre trilogy’ —proved to bring about a paradigmatic shift in the modern stage for a plethora of reasons, only a few of which can be substantiated here. Indeed, so much of critical attention perhaps has made the play eclipse other works of equal consequence by the author. Besides, it has been lamented how, with time, Pirandello’s aspect of “cerebrality” gained way greater currency among admirers than his strong undercurrents of humor, partly due to inadequate English translations, and partly due to inaccurate interpretations from faulty staging (Bassnett-McGuire 28). The formal deconstruction of the stage, however, is a pervasive theme in Six Characters, in connection with which, a series of other functions of fragmentation in general are linked to form a chain of operative absurdities that whet our curiosity with continual surprises and urge the audience to probe the entire concept of stage reality anew. Even a cursory glance at the opening stage directions reveals a certain willingness on the author’s part to lay stress on the process of theatricality which even the play’s subtitle, “a comedy in the making”, betokens. This process, entailing a conscious disintegration of the theater, becomes a source of new freedom for art (Bloom 63). Such a dramatic mise en abyme explores a broad spectrum of discursive possibilities. When the curtain — that traditionally separated the illusion played out on the stage from the reality of the audience sitting in front — is made to fall “accidentally”, the conception of such a moment presages other remarkably radical moments in twentieth century theater that renders the stage an extension of reality where life and art converge.
Authoritative plot structure rendered a far cry, all we are left with is an author reluctant to let his creations be concretized; characters without authorial control; a text that lacks as well as desires an author. A failed authorship is thematized by the baffled Manager who is tempted to assume the capacity of the play’s director only to be swept aside by the six Characters’ obsessive impulse to tell the truth as it happened rather than put up a representation suitable for the stage. But what truth do they tell and how far is their claim to autonomy justifiable? A study of the 1925 essay by Pirandello, which has since then been added as a ‘preface’ to the play, hardly leads to any conclusive illumination other than farther vindicating the play’s unflinching adherence to ambiguity. Pirandello in his essay confesses his inability to assign a philosophical core to his “characters”, and as an afterthought, after a series of dramatized nagging by the Father and Stepdaughter to be staged and immortalized, he decides to give them a “fake passport” (Illiano 7) as it were, i.e., to represent them as rejected and unfinished — their state as such is to be their meaning. They are in limbo, and that is their a priori meaning.
When the titular “six characters”, presented generically as the Father, the Stepdaughter, the Mother, the Son, the Boy and the Girl, barges into a scene of an ongoing rehearsal of a Pirandello play called The Rules of the Game, and the typically talkative Father proclaims that “The drama is in us, and we are the drama. We are impatient to play it. Our inner passion drives us on to this” (Pirandello, Six Characters 17) to the great scorn and amusement of other actors, some chord is struck in us whereby a self-reflexive identification takes place. The Father and the Stepdaughter’s fragmented cyclical narrative of self-justifications and accusations enact the futility of our everyday efforts at communication — one need not go far looking for “drama”: drama is where conflict is, and life never runs short of the latter. The drama, for the Father, lies in his awareness that the self is always inconsistent and ever-changing, full of contraries that share a relationship of conflict. Conflict between contraries, for example, can be located as Pirandello’s forma mentis: the sentiment of the contrary as the essence of true humor (Illiano 9), where appearances deceive and an apparently ludicrous troupe of characters may hide traumatic pathos sporadically spurting out from among lighter moments of laughter.
Susan Bassnett-McGuire notes how the division between the Characters and the others in continually reiterated. She simplifies and unpacks this conflict to some extent when she comments that the “attempts in section II of the Actors to take on the roles of the Father and Stepdaughter illustrate the impossibility of art representing life, while the confusion that follows the apparent death of the children, when the Actors and the Manager fail to agree on the reality of what they have seen, testifies to the power of art” (36). When it is already insinuated that life is art, the question of representation to which Susan alludes can arise only as a fallacy. Pirandello adds on to the humorous quotient by weaving into his narrative elements of self-critique that are half-comic and half in earnest. The so-called wooden characters, for creating whom dramatists all around the globe have for so long been excoriated by so many, are unabashedly paraded here by Pirandello. The weeping Mother is given hardly any other role apart from, well, weeping, and the Actors stand for most of the time like dumb spectators. Directors face problems with a cast of characters that does not seem to do anything as such and here there is no shortage of such characters as pretty much everyone else save the Father, the Stepdaughter, and the Manager, mostly remain mum. The travesty is accentuated by feckless comments by the Manager such as “Oh, we’ll cut him out. You’ve no notion what a nuisance boys are on the stage …” (Pirandello, Six Characters 31) after the Father painstakingly and loquaciously describes the Boy’s position in their family. It is not clear who is more of a nuisance on the stage, a Boy or such a callous director in a rehearsal.
The Son, on the other hand, is a thoroughly alienated blocking character who does not for once show any interest to be staged, but neither can he leave the stage. His quandary has been interestingly recognized as a foretaste of the situations in which Beckett’s tramps find themselves (Bassnett-McGuire 44). Despite there being opposing evidences, it is an easy and commonplace practice, however, in productions of the play, to portray the Manager and his troupe of Actors as over-acting and unnatural while stressing the naturalness of the six Characters’s state of being. But Pirandello did not want to make things so simple. Instead, in order to make the Characters appear “more real and consistent than the changeable naturalness of the actors” Pirandello suggested the use of masks and other stage devices such as lighting, so that the Characters stand out in their stylization instead of their naturalization (Bassnett-McGuire 37). Any notion of consistency, it is implied, ought to assume by default, an overtly imposed mask of uniformity. Such an implication deconstructs the very notion of ‘natural acting’ as an oxymoronic paradox, a misnomer. Adding to the complexity of Pirandello’s dramaturgy, we have Madame Pace — who is not one of the six Characters — conjured up miraculously as if by magic charm when her absence is felt. Eric Bentley suggests, that if the play be conceived of as many concentric circles of drama, “Madame Pace might well be the innermost circle: play within play within play within play” (64).
What all these theatricality play out is actually nothing but the relationships among the members of a family, though almost the entire story is narrated (save for the scene in Madame Pace’s and the climactic deaths by drowning in the fountain and the suicide) instead of being actually played out. Evidently, propelling the play’s action, the Father is the story’s prime mover, mouthpiece, advocate and challenger (Bassanese 118). It is his desire to free himself from allegations of being a bad husband, incestuous parent, and a debilitated father-figure, that drives him to tell his story. His philosophizing exasperates both the audience as well as the Manager, and acts like an additional mask of rational self-justifications. His masks epitomize the world of “make-believe” that the stage really is; where nothing is real; where “it’s better to imagine . . . because if they fix it up for you, it’ll only be painted cardboard”; where “the make-up will remedy” all lacks (Pirandello, Six Characters 35-41). If it is a play where masks are to be deployed for creating desired effects, it also ensures that the answer to the key questions it raises is also masked in layers of circumlocution. The answer, if any, is relegated to relativity of perception, consciousness, experience, and belief. Responding to the double-deaths towards the end, it comes as no surprise that the climax will be reached only when some actors exclaim “He’s dead! He’s dead!” while others immediately complement it with “No, no, it’s only make believe, it’s only pretence!” as, torn between these two extremes, the Manager is hard put to decide between “pretence” and “reality” (Pirandello, Six Characters 72). His exasperation at not being able to decipher the happenings might as well creep into the audience. Trying to decipher the underlying meaning of such a text as this one evinces manifestly how hermeneutics is by definition an endless exercise.
At every step, Pirandello reminds the audience of the futility of certainties; in this regard, it is an intensely self-conscious text. Finally, it is interesting to note, that despite glaringly flouting all dramatic norms, the play closely adheres to the unities of time and place. This adherence has ironic potential in solemnly observing such age-old strictures and yet casually subverting them to leave us floating in space-time coordinates that are necessarily relative. The multi-layered texture of the play with constantly colliding strands of competing illusions and realities celebrates an “unconcluded and unconcluding plurality” (Illiano 3) that ultimately leaves edifices built from all commonplace assumptions in ruins. Pirandello suddenly changes the tone of the scene after Madame Pace’s surreal apparition, and shows the audience his “imagination in the act of creating, as though [his imagination] were a kind of stage” (Pirandello, “Pirandello Confesses” 49). Life infiltrates the stage, and “since it receives the imagined reality of the six characters, [the stage] does not exist of itself as a fixed and immutable fact, just as nothing in the play exists in advance — everything is actually in the making, everything about it moves and changes, always impromptu, always tentative” (Pirandello, “Pirandello Confesses” 50). Fiercely tempting as it is to not conclude so, the play is not at all free from authorial control, and it is a “search” always already straddling what is immediately found and the consequent sense of dissatisfaction with the finding. Despite acknowledging this, the play’s salient strands of Absurdist elements, surrealist undertones, incipient notions of automatic writing, the profound questions regarding life and art that it poses, and the immense influence of all these on the twentieth-century Modernist stage in Europe, can hardly be overstated in the final reckoning.
Balakian Anna. “Anna Balakian on Surrealism in Pirandello’s Drama.” Luigi Pirandello, ed. Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 2003, pp. 59-64.
Bassanese, Fiora A. Understanding Luigi Pirandello. University of South Carolina Press, 1997. Bassnett-McGuire, Susan. Luigi Pirandello. The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1983.
Bentley, Eric. “Father’s Day: In Search of 6 Characters in Search of an Author.” The Drama Review: TDR, vol. 13, no. 1, 1968, pp. 57–72. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1144434.
Illiano, Antonio. “Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author: A Comedy in the Making.” Italica, vol. 44, no. 1, 1967, pp. 1–12. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/477418.
Pirandello, Luigi. Six Characters in Search of an Author. Trans. Edward Storer, E. P. Dutton, 1922.
Pirandello, Luigi. “Pirandello Confesses… Why and How He Wrote ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author.’” The Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 1925, pp. 36–52. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26434341.
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