Written by Italian proto-absurdist and Nobel Prize winner Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters In Search Of An Author is one of theatre's first metafictions. Bizarre and controversial in its day, audience members supposedly shouted out "Madhouse!" during its first performance because it was so unlike anything they had ever seen on stage.
The first scene starts with an acting company beginning rehearsals for another of Pirandello's plays Il Gioco delle Parti (The Game of Roles). This goes fine until six strange people appear on stage. They claim to be characters of Pirandello's from a play he never bothered to finish. The Manager at first thinks they're crazy but, after some convincing, agrees to put their play on stage so they may finally have an end to their tale.
Though generally only ever gathered through snippets of dialogue throughout the play, we learn about the characters and their relationships with each other; The Father and The Mother separate after The Mother falls in love with another man. The Son, their child, is forced to go live in the country. The Mother has The Step Daughter, The Boy and The Child with this other man, but after his death, the family falls into poverty and moves back to the town. The Step Daughter is forced to become a prostitute to keep her family afloat and unknowingly sleeps with The Father. The Father learns about The Mother's financial situation and takes her back into his house along with her children and The Son. However, due to The Son's cold nature towards his half siblings, The Child drowns, and The Boy who tried to save her shoots himself in despair. Or at least this is what was meant to happen if the story had been finished.
In the second scene things get an little complicated as the characters watch the company's attempts to re-create their lives. They complain that the actors look nothing like them, that the set looks nothing like the scenes where their story took place, and generally that the company is "doing it all wrong!" The biggest complaint is on the part of The Step Daughter. She and her step-father unintentionally have an affair, but when she starts describing this scene, the Manager stops her insisting that there is no way they could stage this. The Step Daughter is furious because this is an essential part of her character arc, and there's no way her story can be told without it. What is real and what is part of the play begins to blur by the end of the scene.
The final scene is a rehearsal of the final scene. The Characters complain that the Company can't replicate the emotion of the scene as the The Child drowns and The Boy shoots himself. This scene would be devastating if the end weren't the manager getting fed up with the bizarreness of the scene and saying, "To hell with it all. Never in my life has such a thing happened to me. I've lost a whole day over these people, a whole day!"
Six Characters explores the nature of literature, theatre, realism, character and author. The play can be downloaded from here
Six Characters In Search Of An Author contains examples of:
- All Part of the Show: Pirandello plays (no pun intended) with this expertly. There have been productions where the actors would get through at least half a the first scene of The Game of Roles before the six characters come on stage. Many people didn't realise what was going on until the scene ended.
- Author Avatar: The Father is usually the one to give an Author Filibuster.
- Back Story: It's important to know for the sake of the characters' relationships, but the main point of the story is definitely the metafiction.
- Cute Mute: The Child never talks throughout the play.
- Death of a Child: The unfinished story of the Characters concludes with the deaths of the Child and the Boy. This happens for real at the end of the play - maybe.
- Demoted to Extra: All the lead actors and actresses that should be the focus of the play get pushed aside for the characters.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": All the characters are called by either their job or their position in the family. Even the ones who are supposed to be outside the text are only called The Manager or The Lead Actor. This is shown in the the quote, "She isn't a woman, she is a mother," meaning that all The Mother can ever be is the character shown and has no ability to change beyond the parameters of the text, forever locked in the grief of what has happened to her family.
- Flat Character: The Characters are those, since each of them explicitly represents a specific emotional state. They lampshade this for The Company too, though - look Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep" above.
- Gainax Ending: The Manager laments the time, and sends everyone home since it's too late to keep rehearsing, but The Technician accidentally switches on a floodlight that projects The Characters' shadows on a screen (minus The Boy and The Child, since they are dead - or not?). The Manager flees in terror, and The Characters slowly and silently emerge from behind the screen. The Step Daughter comes out last, and exits the theatre from the audience side, running and laughing.
- Mind Screw: Especially in a more recent reinterpretation. The layers of reality just keep peeling back and back, and in one version, one of the final scenes involved two of the characters in the room as Pirandello writes the play, finishing it when he leaves to take a meal.
- Postmodernism: Well if we want to get technical it's really absurdist, which is part of the modernist movement with post-modern elements.
- The Un-Favourite: The Son feels like the Black Sheep, which is why he's not fond of his half siblings
- Who Wants to Live Forever?: The characters, even the ones who die, live forever within the text. But because of this they are eternally stuck in the emotions they express in the play. See Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep", above.