Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author has had an electrifying performance in a new adaptation at the Gielgud Theatre, directed by Rupert Goold. It is a great romp, a moving tragedy and an intellectual firework display all at once.
Six ‘characters’, as they call themselves and as the script calls them, arrive at a rehearsal of a quite different play (by Pirandello!) and say they are looking for an author -- presumably a playwright.
In the image (from the programme) you can distinguish the Characters by the black of their costumes and their demeanour.
In due course they persuade the Producer and Actors to attend to their own history, which they ‘enact’ for the company and which, at first, the company try to turn into a performance of their own, though soon realising that will have to wait, such is the urgency of the Characters’ insistence on presenting their own, ‘real’ drama. I wrote ‘enact’ in quotes there because the essence of Pirandello’s play is that the Characters’ performance in their own play is their life. When they switch from their mundane negotiations with the Producer and Actors and their endless quarrelling among themselves and switch into their own drama, the sense of the realness of what we then watch is overwhelming, for the audience (us) and for the theatre people hanging around on the stage.
Six Characters is highly dramatic, first because the Characters’ own, ‘real’ drama is tense and horrific (incest, suicide, madness, heartless betrayal, desperate grief), its effect being heightened -- secondly -- by the horrified response of the Producers, Actors and crew as they helplessly watch its unfolding. Thirdly, there is the uncanniness of the Characters’ duality: they are actual people who turn up during a rehearsal they have nothing to do with and who talk about ‘their own drama’ but are also inescapably in that drama, doomed, they tell us, to continue living it ‘eternally’; they are evidently in hell, or undead, and unable to find release and peace. The uncanniness is amplified when a seventh character appears from nowhere, the milliner and brothel keeper Mme Pace (Italian pronunciation)
(The door opens and MADAME PACE comes in and takes a few steps forward. She is an enormously fat old harridan of a woman, wearing a pompous carrot-coloured tow wig with a red rose stuck into one side of it, in the Spanish manner. She is heavily made up and dressed with clumsy elegance in a stylish red silk dress. In one hand she carries an ostrich feather fan; the other hand is raised and a lighted cigarette is poised between two fingers. Immediately they see this apparition, the ACTORS and the PRODUCER bound off the stage with howls of fear, hurling themselves down the steps into the auditorium and making as if to dash up the aisle. The STEPDAUGHTER, however, rushes humbly up to MADAME PACE, as if greeting her mistress.)
The effect was terrifying. (In the production Mme Pace was replaced by a male M. Pace.)
A lovely instance of the way this play goes is the following. In ‘their own, "real" drama', as now re-enacted for the theatre company but at the same time evidently fully real here and now for everyone, including us, the Father enters the brothel bedroom and approaches the prostitute -- his own Stepdaughter.
FATHER:.... May I take off your hat?
STEPDAUGHTER (immediately forestalling him, unable to restrain her disgust): No, Sir, I'll take it off myself! (Convulsed, she hurriedly takes it off.)
(The MOTHER is on tenterhooks throughout. The Two CHILDREN cling to their MOTHER and they, she and the SON form a group on the side opposite the ACTORS, watching the scene. The MOTHER follows the words and the actions of the STEPDAUGHTER and the FATHER with varying expressions of sorrow, of indignation, of anxiety and of horror; from time to time she hides her face in her hands and sobs.)
MOTHER: Oh, my God! My God!
FATHER (he remains for a moment as if turned to stone by this sob. Then he resumes in the same tone of voice as before): Here, let me take it. I'll hang it up for you. (He takes the hat from her hands.)
He is thrown momentarily out of his immediate 'role' by the Mother’s sob -- but the Mother was not/is not in fact present in the bedroom: she, like the Producer and Actors, is watching the scene but, unlike them, is part of the family situation that gives rise to the Father-Stepdaughter encounter, and is -- momentarily -- interacting with the Father inside that other reality in which the theatre lot don’t participate. You see the intriguing and disturbing intricacy of it all.
This is a play with ideas, but before I describe one let me say that ‘ideas’ extracted from literature and spelled out as bald propositions are invariably (at least I can’t think of any exceptions) unsatisfying, like bad philosophy. One beauty of this play is that one is never called on finally to decide whether they have to be taken seriously or are simply there to make the drama possible. There’s nothing in the end to stop us concluding that Six Characters is anything more than a satisfying entertainment -- albeit one that puts us through it emotionally and intellectually besides keeping us on our toes and constantly surprising us by its turns. After all, dramatic characters don’t live in the way they are shown living here, so in that sense the play is ridiculous.
On the other hand, ideas that never fully present themselves for analytic examination but are placed in our consciousness by things the characters say, mixed up with all the other things they say, or are suggested by the dramatic scenario etc (e.g. characters can have lives), do for the time being get themselves entertained in our consciousness even though we would rationally reject them in the light of day. The whole play may at one level be ridiculous, but at the same time it forces us to take it seriously.
A key ‘idea’ that seems to demand to be taken seriously is that real people are just as illusory as dramatic characters, who, in the words of the Father, ‘have no other reality outside this illusion!... What for you is an illusion that you have to create, for us, on the other hand, is our sole reality. The only reality we know.’ Thus, ‘… if we have no reality outside the world of illusion, it would be as well if you [to Producer] mistrusted your own reality…. The reality that you breathe and touch today…. Because like the reality of yesterday, it is fated to reveal itself as a mere illusion tomorrow.’
This is, is it not, a well-known and central modernist theme: reality and identity shift from day to day, dissolve under the gaze; a stable world and stable personhood are illusions. This must have been how things felt with a particular new force from (according to Malcolm Bradbury’s narrative, The Modern World: Ten Great Writers) about 1870. I'm not sure that I've ever felt that way myself; or perhaps, rather, I've grown up in a world in which that idea was so taken for granted that it’s simply my normal experience, not to be particularly remarked upon. For instance, it’s as inconceivable, I think, for me to believe in any of the old ‘grand narratives’ as it would be to believe in God.
One ‘truth’ that the play appears to present is that the truth has to be sacrificed to make art. At least, the whole truth does, the truth of every character:
STEPDAUGHTER I want to present my own drama! Mine! Mine!
PRODUCER … but there isn’t only your part to be considered! Each of the others has his drama, too. (He points to the FATHER.) He has his and your Mother has hers…. All the characters must be contained within one harmonious picture, and presenting only what is proper to present.
But the Producer’s truth itself has to be sacrificed, (a) because aspects of the Characters’ truths that are not ‘proper to present’ get presented, and (b) because the Producer’s own drama, to which this ‘truth’ is integral, attains realisation only in so far as its ‘proper’ parts are included in Six Characters. This is an example of the sort of vortex of regression you get into watching this play.
The date of Six Characters took me by surprise: 1921. That’s before the great outburst of post-war modernist works that began in 1922, Ulysses and The Waste Land being the earliest of that group listed by Malcolm Bradbury.
The introduction to the 1954 (Heinemann) translation I found in Surbiton library says that in 1915 ‘James Joyce first introduced his work to English readers’ (‘his’ is ambiguous but it must mean Pirandello’s), and the brilliant and learned Pirandello must have been in touch for some years with modernist movements elsewhere in Europe. Apparently he had already founded and contributed to the grotesque movement in Italian drama, of which I had not heard. And of course modernist experiment in the visual arts was flourishing in Italy with Futurism and perhaps early Surrealism too (de Chirico and co.).
Modernist this work certainly is in its spirit: it has to an outstanding degree that iconoclastic, breath-of-fresh-air, sweeping-all-the-fusty-Victorian-crap-away quality that’s so distinctive of early modernism.
Which is why, if my memory is reliable, I enjoyed Six Characters so much as a sixth-former. I believe I've had occasion before to mention the education I got from Bradford’s (amateur) Civic Theatre in the 1950’s. It was there that I first saw the play, and also, I believe, Pirandello’s Tonight We Improvise.