‘Six characters in search of an author’ (or the unexpected virtue of ignorance)

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Luigi Pirandello’s Six characters in search of an author is the 1921 selection for the 100 year book club. The Italian play is about a family seeking a theatre company and a writer, so that the company might take the family’s drama and act it out, thus absolving them of it. Are you following? Through the play the family reveals its crimes; adultery, incest, abandonment, to the theatre manager and his actors until the full truth of their anger and sorrow is revealed.


It’s a play that reads like a novel, with elaborate stage directions that reveal each character’s frame of mind. Much of this novel-like quality stems from a foreword that was added in the play’s third edition by the author. Without the foreword, audiences complained that the play was illogical. Even with the added explanation from the author, the play on stage can seem nutty and nonsensical; it hasn’t been staged on Broadway since 1963.

Though it is called a seminal theatrical work, it Pirandello doesn’t have the name recognition of, say, Beckett or Coward. That aside, his play has has left a cultural impression, most recently in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman. In both, the characters are looking to write their way to absolution, there is a blurry line between fact and fiction on the stage, people are looking to shed their drama so they might be just people again, and a gunshot ends it all. If you are looking to draw a parallel between Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson and one of Pirandello’s characters, look not to the father character but to the stepdaughter. Like Riggan, the stepdaughter possesses a truth that the other characters cannot see. She has been the most degraded, and she most needs to be seen by the audience.

Lastly, it is only 75 pages and available for free online so there is no reason you shouldn’t read it. Today.

Bonus Content: Speaking of reading plays, check out this Vulture feature “The Toughest Scene I Wrote” on the composition of the motel room scene from Birdman. It helps if you’ve seen the film but it is a fascinating discussion of how they wrote a scene that had to play three times with three different meanings.

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