Pirandello was becoming a very successful and popular playwright during the years after the First World War, and the critics anticipated the first performance of Six Characters in Search of an Author (Six Characters). It was first performed in Rome in 1921. Pirandello was known for using very new techniques in the theatre so the audience was expecting a different and totally new type of play. However, they were obviously not fully prepared for Six Characters because after the performance the audience was so shocked that a riot was started.
In this essay I intend to explain why the first performance of this play was not accepted, and why Pirandello was called a clown for writing it. I will be mainly concentrating on the audience, and what their reaction would have been, because they were obviously the ones who were first to judge the play and who gave it its first reviews, therefore giving it its initial bad name. The first, most striking thing about Six Characters is that it is a play within a play, but at the same time so much more.
This is a very difficult thing to try and explain because there are so many things that are meant by this. There is the fact that Six Characters is about a separate play that is literally being written before the audience’s eyes. Ignoring the beginning, before the characters enter, the whole play is being written there and then, and somehow Pirandello manages to act out both the script between the characters, director, actors and all stage hands, and at the same time enables the characters’ story to be told, written, made sense of, and acted out in front of the audience.
This was a completely new concept that had never been tried before; it is possible, although it may seem strange to us, because we are, I will not say used to this style, but accustomed to it, that the audience in 1921 felt Pirandello had cheated them. For them it took away the whole thrill and reality of going to the theatre, after all people do not go to the theatre to watch the rehearsals of a play!
It must have been very strange for the audience to have the making of a play acted out in front of them. They obviously did not like this style, they came to the theatre to be lost in a play that builds up from the beginning, in which each scene flows into the next and in the final moments everything is explained and the underlying message is spelt out to them. This is what Brecht called the “old theatre”, Brecht preferred the alienation effect and Pirandello agreed with this.
He wanted to break free from this boring and universal way of creating theatre, and in doing so created Six Characters, where the audience is made to face reality and the human being is put on trial (“Can you tell me who you are? ” 54). The audience is so forced to question themselves and their own lives. The second meaning to it being a play within a play is the audiences reaction to all this. Pirandello uses the audience exactly as a conventional playwright would use his characters; he builds up their sense of shock and horror.
At the scene change they are allowed to relax while the director and characters disappear to discuss the next act, to discuss how they can next shock the audience and achieve the desired effect. When the second act starts all the feelings that have been oppressed during the break come flowing back, and the audience is kept in shock until the horrific reality at the end of the play comes to life and the message is then displayed to them through their feelings and not though the script.
The audience was not used to this, they were not used to their feelings being played with and this was bound to have a profound effect on them, but, not even Pirandello, could have predicted the violence that resulted from that first performance. You can see just by reading a summary of the play that Six Characters is a play within a play, but it is also reality within a play. From where the audience is sitting it is meant to look like the characters’ entrance is actually an interruption, I doubt that they were really fooled by this but they would certainly be very intrigued as to what was going on.
The fact that the characters story was turned into a play before their eyes; the fact that the stagehands were so clearly involved in the play; the fact that the two children were not seen again after their death; even when they take their bow (or Pirandello’s version of it) all that is seen are the four remaining characters standing behind the backdrop. The fact that the director “jumps from the stage” in terror when he sees this and to top it all off the stepdaughter runs off screaming1.
All these factors mean that the audience would be left, with emotions running high, thinking exactly what the director says: “Make-believe! Reality!… I don’t know, but nothing like this has ever happened to me before. ” (65-66). The audience, like the director, did not know what to make of it, some may have even thought that two actors had died right before their eyes. This was too much; for them it was too real. The idea that the director’s words reflected the audience’s thoughts is no coincidence.
Throughout the play the director is used as a mirror to reflect what Pirandello predicts to be the audiences reaction. After all, the director is in exactly the same situation as the audience only more involved. The director starts off by being annoyed at the interruption (“Would you please do me a favour and leave. We have no time to waste on crazy people” 11), he then goes on to being very intrigued (“Perhaps something really extraordinary could come of all this. ” 30).
From there he becomes excited, amazed and finally horrified and scared (“When the DIRECTOR sees them, he is terrified and jumps from the stage. ” 66). If the play were reality then what would the director have done next? This does not concern Pirandello and he obviously does not tell us; but he knows the audience will be left, just as the director is, without knowing how to answer the questions the play has put to them. Pirandello had tried to, not re-model, but re-create theatre and, as far as they could see he had failed, it would take much more than one performance to make this style accepted.
To say they thought Pirandello was a clown is probably an understatement, they thought of him as perverted, sick, even mentally unwell. To give a modern day example of Pirandello it would be someone like Tracy Emine who displayed her soiled bed and claimed that it was art. The nation and the world were horrified, nobody thought of it as art; in fact most people still do not. She put on display the type of thing that the majority does not recognise as art, art as we know it today is changing and this is exactly what happened to Pirandello.
He was criticised for not knowing what a play was, and the people who saw it were horrified. However it was soon seen that Piradello had opened a whole new chapter to the theatrical world, just as modern artists have begun to open a whole new chapter for the world of art today. The problem at the time though was that this Six Characters was not recognised as art, Pirandello broke down all the barriers between the spectators, actors and director; he redefined the role of the audience and exposed the role of the author.
Pirandello’s redefining of the author and audience is another reason the play was received so badly; he puts the play on trial in front of his audience. The play deconstructs itself, questioning the relationship between life and art. The play begins with another play being rehearsed and therefore a play in a very sorry state, no author, director, or cast would want their play being seen at this stage, and in fact no audience would want to see it. Pirandello ignores this and exposes the play in rehearsals, the fact that this play is another of Pirandello’s emphasises this exposure and makes it even harder to ignore.
He does not stop here though because he introduces the six characters and portrays them as an author’s idea, an unwritten story, as if we are seeing the way an author thinks up this idea and expands on it until he arrives at the final outcome, his play. A playwright has to think of everything from the script, to the limitations of a stage, to the visual effects; they have to literally act out the play in their mind in order to get the complete effect.
It is as if he is a magician revealing the secrets to his tricks, when it was first performed people within theatrical circles would have been enraged by this because he had given away part of the mystery behind a play; they thought that Six Characters removed the reality from other more conventional plays. One of Pirandello’s major themes in the play is the fact that humans cannot communicate with each other: “… how can we understand one another, sir, if in the words I speak I put the meaning … I myself see… while the one who listens… takes them according to the meaning…
[which] he has inside of himself. ” (19). The whole play is about interpretation (“We think we understand each other; we never understand one another. ” 19). Not only is the audience told that they cannot understand one another but it is acted out in front of them. The play is being written by four different sets of people: the six characters tell and act out the story as it happened; the director tries to limit it to within the boundaries of a play; the actors try to interpret the characters but inevitably get it wrong and, finally, the prompter tries to take all this down.
We begin to notice that this way of doing things is a bit chaotic, but it illustrates the point about interpretation perfectly. If this is what can happen to a play with the characters present then imagine what happens in real life. For the audience, however, this must be quite insulting to be told that you cannot communicate, it is as if Pirandello is saying that the human race is stupid. What he is actually saying is that we are far too complex for our own good. We hear one thing and through our own experiences turn it around to mean something completely different.
This is surely incorrect, we all speak the same language, how can an author, a master of literature, come up with such an absurd notion? It may not be so absurd in the twenty first century, but in 1921 the idea would have been ridiculous. Pirandello rewrote the rules of the theatre with Six Characters. The line between reality and illusion was too thin for its first audience, the questions he asks are too hard to answer but, at the same time, too close to the truth. He has exposed the theatre at its basest form and, while doing this, created a horror scene that people were not willing to accept as art.
He was called a clown and, perhaps, at the time, rightly so because he changed the structure and style to plays and ignored what his director and most other playwrights of the time were saying: “This is the theatre! The truth only goes just so far! ” (48). However, in doing this Pirandello is now recognised as a true modernist because he really did introduce new techniques, he made an impact on the literary world but it took a little time to be recognised as something to be celebrated and not revoked.
Bishop, Thomas. Pirandello and the French Theatre. New York University Press, 1960. Pirandello, Luigi. Six Characters in Search of an Author and Other Plays. Penguin Group, 1995. Vittorini, Domenico. The Drama of Luigi Pirandello. Dover Publications Inc. , 1957. 1 In the original version of the play, the one first performed, the stepdaughter ran off through the aisles screaming. Pirandello later changed this so that she ran off in hysterical laughter.