Before Beckett or Ionesco there was Luigi Pirandello, whose Six Characters in Search of an Author was allegedly so shocking to its original audience that people could be heard crying out, “Madhouse!” in response to what they were seeing. Now, unfortunately, its impact has dulled, and we are left with a play that feels very much like a minor imitation of the work that it would go on to influence.
Six Characters opens on a theater company apathetically rehearsing Pirandello’s The Rules of the Game. They are interrupted by a family who announce that they are characters not bound by any text and looking for an author to write their story. The Director (Alain Libolt) thinks they are mad, but after hearing about their lurid, incestuous relationship, he agrees to stage it. But when the Director wants his ridiculous actors to take over, the Father (Hugues Quester) insists on his family playing their parts themselves. The Director relents, and as the characters perform their drama, he becomes increasingly detached from the devastating truth of their suffering and more enthusiastic about its dramatic effect.
There is a particularly nice moment late in Six Characters where the Director is smacking his lips over what will prove to be powerful theater while the Father trails him, moaning, “It really happened like that!” Indeed, the play does raise some interesting discomfort over the fact that audiences around the world are entertained daily by other people’s trauma. But unlike Beckett, Pirandello never quite clinches the emotional connection—it is either a little too self-conscious or a little too written, it feels like an exercise and not a drama. Without that human quality (the very quality that Pirandello himself is explicitly looking for), there is an emptiness to Six Characters that leaves us intrigued but disappointed.