Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Six Characters in Search of an Author (Book Review)

After it took me such a shamefully long time to make my way through my last literary sojourn, I decided I needed something short to get my reading glasses back into that proverbial saddle.

Something quick; and yet, something I've always wanted to read.

So I consulted my pathetically long MUST READ list. Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author screamed up at me from the page, having been a neglected member of said list for more than a decade.

This 1921 play is up there with Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1952) in regards to scripts frequently cited as having changed the face of theatre. And though I promptly added it to my "list" after taking a Drama I class back in high school, I figured I'd be assigned it eventually, so I never stopped to read it on my own. And yet, no matter to which echelon of academia I climbed, no one ever assigned Six Characters. Instead, I read from Beckett's repertoire over and over (not that I mind — he's a personal favorite), whereas the Italian playwright was simply mentioned in passing.

And now that I've finished Six Characters, I can understand why teachers and professors alike prefer Beckett to Pirandello. And yet, even still, I regret that I didn't read Pirandello sooner. I don't find his absurdism (technically, I know, we can't call it that) to be as existentially poetic as is Beckett's, but the idea behind Six Characters is so... original... that I think any member of the Theatre of the Absurd would be hard-pressed to say they weren't influenced by it.

But that's not to say Six Characters is lacking in existentialism — or even absurdism, for that matter. Rather, the play centers both on the tragedy of man's existence, as well as the inability of an author to accurately capture the essence of living. This realization serves to exacerbate the characters' sense of futility and — ultimately — their anxiety.

Allow me to explain: Six Characters in Search of an Author is a brilliant example of meta-theatre, with the main players being wholly aware of their existence not as "people" or even "actors" — but as "characters" in a tragedy.

The play begins with these six characters interrupting a dress rehearsal for a yet another work by Pirandello. Several actors have convened for the rehearsal, and they're most confused when these six "characters" make a dramatic entrance, demanding that their story be told.

What ensues is a brilliant exchange between the characters, the actors who eventually concede to play them, and the director who wants to bowdlerize it all.

Point being, the characters bring with them a real tragedy that the actors cannot even begin to fathom. And the characters articulate concerns that their story can only be told by them, as no actor or director can interpret their experiences without distortion:
How can we understand each other... if in the words I speak, I put the sense and value of things as they are inside me, whereas the man who hears them inevitably receives them in the sense and with the value they have for him, and the sense and value of the world inside him? We think we understand each other but we never do. (20)
Not only is it impossible to truly feel the suffering of characters, played by actors, but even in daily human interactions, we can never wholly convey our feelings. Every attempt at doing so is hampered by the limitations of speech.

And you understand this further as the characters tell their story — as they act out bits and pieces of their true experience for the actors. Or as the Father later quips, they have "no reality outside of this illusion" (59).

He continues, to the director: "You should distrust your reality because, though you breathe it and touch it today, it is destined like that of yesterday to stand revealed to you tomorrow as an illusion" (61). Conversely, the characters are bound to a fate that recurs time and time again, reliving their heartache with the same veracity as the first time the scene was ever played.

Even more telling is the anxiety they feel whenever an actor or actress tries to recreate the scene after them, or the anxiety they feel when the setting cannot be exactly as it was, as when the Stepdaughter bursts into laughter while watching the "leading lady" play her role.

The Father aids her defense.

"It has such a strange effect..." he says to the director. "I admire your actors, sir, I really admire them... but assuredly... well, they're not us..." (51).

In both instances, the actors are forced to confront the futility inherent in their theatrics. That is to say, no matter how good the performance, the actors will never be able to truly capture the characters' experience.

Pirandello probably didn't know it at the time, but I'd wager he touched upon something that fuels our 21st century thirst for reality television. Why pay actors and actresses to act out scenes, when you can throw real people into a pit and see which one is eaten by the lions first?

He also alludes to one of the central dilemmas of stage acting, by way of the Stepdaughter, in that you can only show one scene at a time: "But to play [the entire scene] in the garden, as you want to, won't be possible.... because [the Son] stays shut up in his room" (58).

It is difficult, as the director articulates in his response, to show two places at once even though events — ones crucial to the final outcome — are occuring simultaneously throughout the home.

Once again, television (and cinema) are able to remedy this, in a way, though I think Pirandello would argue (and I agree) that nothing — even still — captures the experience of living.

In this and countless other regards, life is its own tragedy. And we all play a part that, try as we might, can never be recaptured. Not by artists, not by writers. Not even by photographers or memory.

And so, even as I mark Six Characters in Search of an Author from my MUST READ list, I'm adding another item elsewhere: see Six Characters performed on stage.

Bet it'll be nothing like I expect.

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