Pirandello’s Premieres

Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author opened to a hostile audience but soon received worldwide attention and became one of the most influential dramas of the modern period.

Summary of Event

By 1921, Luigi Pirandello had established himself as an innovative short-story writer and novelist. Some of his dramas had already dealt with the theme of the relative nature of truth, but during World War I, Pirandello had been stricken with a profound sense of despair that led him to focus on the meaninglessness of existence and the irrationality of human actions. Out of his own personal suffering, he began to create a dramatic form that expressed the sense of alienation that had become a part of the modern age. Six Characters in Search of an Author (Pirandello)
Theater;modern drama
[kw]Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author Premieres (May 10, 1921)[Pirandellos Six Characters in Search of an Author Premieres (May 10, 1921)]
[kw]Six Characters in Search of an Author Premieres, Pirandello’s (May 10, 1921)
Six Characters in Search of an Author (Pirandello)
Theater;modern drama
[g]Italy;May 10, 1921: Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author Premieres[05420]
[c]Theater;May 10, 1921: Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author Premieres[05420]
Pirandello, Luigi
Pitoëff, Georges
Shaw, George Bernard
Reinhardt, Max

As early as 1918, Pirandello became obsessed with the notion that six characters were trying to get him to write a novel about them; however, he did not want to write their story, because he did not care about them or about anyone else. He did not write the novel, but his idea evolved into the play Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (pr., pb. 1921; Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1922), in which six characters abandoned by their author barge in on the rehearsal of a play and try to get the actors to let them create their own drama. Their story focuses on an eccentric man who encourages his wife to run off with a lover and who later finds himself about to have sex with his stepdaughter, unaware of who she is. The crux of the play, however, comes in the disparity between how the characters see themselves and how the actors portray them. As the stepdaughter and the father try to re-create the scene of their assignation and what led up to it, the truth becomes blurred by various accounts of events.

Six Characters in Search of an Author was first produced by Dario Niccodemi at Teatro Valle in Rome. At its premiere on May 10, 1921, audience members were offended when they entered the theater to see that the curtain had already been raised and the stage was set up as if for a rehearsal. When six characters walked toward the stage from the back of the auditorium, the audience booed. Some cried out “madhouse” and “buffoon.” A riot broke out in the theater, and when Pirandello appeared on the stage, the audience grew more raucous. Pirandello and his daughter hid in the theater for almost an hour and then tried to sneak out through a back alley, but Pirandello’s hecklers pursued them through the streets until they caught a taxi. After Pirandello left, the melee continued into the night.

In contrast to the powerful negative reaction it provoked in Rome, Six Characters in Search of an Author was a success when it opened at the Teatro Manzini in Milan, Italy, on September 27, 1921, and the influence of Pirandello began to spread throughout the world. The play sent shock waves across the theatrical worlds of Europe and the United States and was produced as far away as Tokyo and Buenos Aires. From 1922 to 1925, it was translated into twenty-five languages. In England, the Lord Chamberlain prevented all public performances of the play on the grounds that it would be spiritually disturbing to an audience. George Bernard Shaw, England’s foremost playwright of the early twentieth century, arranged a private performance by the Stage Society on February 27, 1922. Shaw later stated, “I have never come across a play so original as Six Characters.” In the United States, the play opened at the Princess Theatre in New York City on October 30, 1922. Jack Crawford of the magazine Drama called it “the most original drama I have ever seen” and awarded it the publication’s first prize among the year’s foreign plays.

The greatest impact of Six Characters in Search of an Author came in France. Georges Pitoëff presented the play at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, where it opened on April 10, 1923. Although the audience response was not immediate, the play achieved critical acclaim. Pitoëff added to the play’s effect by having the six characters brought down in an elevator, an event that stayed in the memories of many famous French playwrights. The play was also produced in Germany by the famous director Max Reinhardt, who added many expressionistic elements. Reinhardt’s production ran for 131 performances.

The cataclysmic reaction to Six Characters in Search of an Author came in large part from the fact that the play used the theater itself as a means of reflecting on the very nature of reality. Pirandello blurred the distinction between theater and life at the same time he questioned the theatrics of everyday life. For Pirandello, the sense of self breaks down into a series of roles. The father in Six Characters in Search of an Author points out that people are not the same today as they were yesterday. Reality itself is in constant flux, and absolute truth is impossible to determine. In a universe where everyone lives in his or her private, illusory world, life itself becomes meaningless, and communication breaks down. In the play, the father even notes the inability of words to communicate.

Pirandello posed a paradox that influenced the direction of modern theater. For Pirandello, theater falsifies life, but life itself is no more than theatrics and is just as illusory as theater. Pirandello went beyond the bourgeois theater of realism and opened up a theater that would not try to express reality in all of its details or try to reflect life in the guise of illusion. Instead, he created a theater that questioned the nature of reality and penetrated the illusion of theater. With Six Characters in Search of an Author, Pirandello brought theatricalism to the forefront of modern theater. As one playwright put it, “The entire theater of our era came out of the womb of that play, Six Characters.”


When Pirandello wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author, Western civilization was still smoldering from the effects of World War I. Whatever was left of the nineteenth century concept of a harmonious world order held together by a sense of absolute values was blown away by the devastation of mechanized warfare. The old order and the great dynasties of Europe and Russia had crumbled, and no new order was there to take its place. In 1915, during the war, Albert Einstein refined his theory of relativity and, in so doing, dismantled the Newtonian order of the universe, which was held together by the immutable laws of physics. Time and space would no longer be considered fixed entities; rather, they could change depending on the position of an observer. Like Einstein, Pirandello also postulated a theory of relativity. The father in Six Characters in Search of an Author continually points out that each person can see the world only through his or her own point of view, thus life is based on illusion.

Playwrights in France were influenced by the production of Six Characters in Search of an Author and picked up on Pirandello’s themes and style. Jean Giraudoux Giraudoux, Jean created characters who need to maintain illusions in order to survive. In Intermezzo (1933; The Enchanted, 1950), Enchanted, The (Giraudoux) he shows how a young girl’s illusions should not be destroyed outright. In La Folle de Chaillot (1945; The Madwoman of Chaillot, 1947), Madwoman of Chaillot, The (Giraudoux) a group of old women need to hold on to the fantasy of an imaginary dog. Like Pirandello, Giraudoux focused on split and multiple personalities. Jean Anouilh Anouilh, Jean also followed a Pirandellian line in his plays, which deal with characters who try to escape from themselves. In Le Voyageur sans bagage (1937; Traveler Without Luggage, 1959), Traveler Without Luggage (Anouilh) Gaston, an amnesia victim, tries to escape from Jacques, his past self. In Colombe (pr. 1951; Mademoiselle Colombe, 1954), Mademoiselle Colombe (Anouilh) the young Julien is puzzled by the woman he loves, who is both an innocent young girl and a worldly actress.

Anouilh also used the play-within-a-play motif. In La Répétition: Ou, L’Amour puni (1950; The Rehearsal, 1958), Rehearsal, The (Anouilh) a group of actors rehearsing a play discover the similarities between the characters they are playing and the lives they are leading. Anouilh carried the breakdown between theater and life one step further in Le Rendez-vous de Senlis (pr. 1941; Dinner with the Family, 1958), Dinner with the Family (Anouilh) in which Robert gets actors to portray his parents, but the actors begin to take their roles seriously and get confused between illusion and reality. Like Pirandello’s father, characters in Anouilh’s play find themselves caught between trying to be what they want to be and accepting roles in which others have cast them. In Becket: Ou, L’Honneur de Dieu (1959; Becket: Or, The Honor of God, 1960), Becket (Anouilh) Thomas Becket, a profligate churchman, finds that he has no sense of self and honor, but as soon as he is made archbishop of Canterbury, he takes on the role of archbishop, defending the honor of God and opposing the king who appointed him.

Pirandello also influenced writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre, Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist heroes seek to slough off their false identities and to free themselves from all illusions in order to accept the meaninglessness of life courageously. For Sartre, humans are always in a state of becoming and cannot be frozen into one role. In Six Characters in Search of an Author, the father refuses to have his whole life judged by one incident, just as Gaston in Sartre’s Huis clos (pr. 1944; In Camera, 1946; better known as No Exit, 1947) No Exit (Sartre) refuses to stand condemned for one act of cowardice. Sartre once commented that Pirandello was the most timely of all modern playwrights.

Pirandello’s influence also carries over into the Theater of the Absurd. Theater of the Absurd Samuel Beckett’s Beckett, Samuel tramps create illusions, play roles, and act out games in a world where truth is relative and existence has no meaning. They also call attention to the fact that they are acting in a play that they wish would end. Interestingly, Anouilh compared the opening of Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954) Waiting for Godot (Beckett) with the opening of Six Characters in Search of an Author in Paris.

Absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco Ionesco, Eugène owes a debt to Pirandello as well. Ionesco saw Pirandello’s drama as a foundation, an archetype for the modern idea of theater. Ionesco’s characters are reduced to purely mechanical roles. They not only live in a world of illusion, but they also forget who they are and fail to recognize the people they supposedly have known all their lives. The father in Six Characters in Search of an Author notes that words cannot communicate his feelings because words cannot penetrate the perceptions others have of him. Similarly, in Ionesco’s drama, language fails to communicate and is reduced to nonsense and cacophony. Absurdist playwright Jean Genet Genet, Jean carried Pirandello’s concept of theatricalism to its ultimate conclusion in Le Balcon (pb. 1956; The Balcony, 1957), Balcony, The (Genet) in which wars, revolutions, and struggles for power are played out through sexual fantasies enacted in a brothel.

In the United States, Pirandello’s influence can be seen in the works of Eugene O’Neill O’Neill, Eugene that deal with doubles, masks, and the impossibility of living in a world without illusions. In The Iceman Cometh (pr., pb. 1946), Iceman Cometh, The (O’Neill) the characters withdraw into drunken stupors in a barroom and tacitly agree to accept one another’s illusions. American playwright Edward Albee Albee, Edward also used Pirandellian themes of illusion and reality. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (pr., pb. 1962), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Albee)[Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?] a husband and wife create a fantasy child and kill it off.

In addition to the works of individual playwrights, other forms of theater reflect the influence of the blurring between art and life that is the focus of Pirandello’s work. These include the “happenings” of the 1960’s as well as later performance art. Postmodern drama focuses on the loss of self in an age of media images. Pirandello’s concept of having an audience watch actors watch characters playing roles is relevant in an age in which characters on television soap operas can become more real than one’s neighbors. By the early twenty-first century, in an era of image consultants, “spin merchants,” and media events, Pirandello’s theatrical ideas remained alive and well. Six Characters in Search of an Author (Pirandello)
Theater;modern drama

Further Reading

  • Bassnett-McGuire, Susan. Luigi Pirandello. New York: Grove Press, 1983. Discusses political and personal influences on Pirandello’s work and presents detailed analyses of the major plays. Includes photographs of international productions and a bibliography that lists not only plays in translation but also periodicals devoted solely to articles on Pirandello.
  • Bentley, Eric. The Pirandello Commentaries. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1986. Series of articles by an eminent critic and theorist of modern drama spans a lifetime’s worth of penetrating insights into Pirandello’s major dramas. Includes a review of Gaspare Guidice’s biography of Pirandello as well as a short biographical profile of Pirandello.
  • Caesar, Ann Hallamore. Characters and Authors in Luigi Pirandello. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Examines the use of character in all of Pirandello’s work, including novels and short stories as well as plays. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Cambon, Glauco, ed. Pirandello: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Diverse collection of critical articles, including an influential analysis of Pirandello’s drama by Adriano Tilgher, discussion of Pirandello’s cubist approach to drama by Wylie Sypher, an essay tracing Pirandello’s influence on French drama by Thomas Bishop, and a dissection of Pirandello’s experimental novels by A. L. de Castris. Features a detailed chronology of Pirandello’s life and a selected bibliography.
  • Dashwood, Julie, ed. Luigi Pirandello: The Theatre of Paradox. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997. Collection of essays focuses on the influence of Pirandello’s work on drama in the twentieth century. Contributions address issues of theory, genre, gender, and language.
  • Giudice, Gaspare. Pirandello: A Biography. Translated by Alastair Hamilton. Rev. ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1975. One of the more comprehensive biographies of Pirandello, even though it is an abridged version of the original. Details much of Pirandello’s personal life, using quotations from personal correspondence and other primary sources. Includes extensive descriptions of Sicilian lifestyles and a good analysis of the political climate in Italy during Pirandello’s lifetime.
  • Oliver, Roger W. Dreams of Passion: The Theater of Luigi Pirandello. New York: New York University Press, 1979. Demonstrates a connection between Pirandello’s theory of humor and his drama. Presents close analyses of five major plays.

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