Six Characters in Search of an Author

Six Characters in Search of an Author Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Luigi Pirandello

Born to a wealthy and politically active merchant family near the Sicilian city of Girgenti (now called Agrigento), Luigi Pirandello quickly rejected the idea of following in his father’s footsteps and, inspired by the ghost stories told to him by one of the servants who worked in his house, began writing fiction at a young age. After moving with his family to the Sicilian capital of Palermo at age 13, he turned to poetry. He definitively turned down the opportunity to join his father’s business a few years later, choosing instead to study Philology at the Universities of Palermo, Rome, and Bonn (Germany), where he finished his degree in 1891 with a dissertation on his hometown’s Sicilian dialect. At his family’s behest, in 1894 he married Maria Antonietta Portulano, the daughter of another family of Agrigento sulfur merchants. He returned to Rome, where he taught Italian and began writing and publishing fiction, including a number of novellas and his first play. In 1903, his and his wife’s families suffered a financial disaster when an important sulfur mine flooded. Pirandello began teaching more lessons to compensate, but the catastrophe’s most significant legacy was the mental collapse it precipitated in Pirandello’s wife Antoinetta, who never fully recovered and became increasingly violent and jealous over the following decade. During this period, however, Pirandello first tasted fame with the publication of his novel The Late Mattia Pascal and his essay L’Umorismo, published in English as On Humor. He published a number of important stories, novellas, and especially plays in the 1910s, including Right You Are (if you think so) and The Rules of the Game. Antoinetta’s mental illness, likely in part exacerbated by Pirandello’s numerous affairs, is a recurring influence on Pirandello’s work during this period; in 1919, she went to a mental asylum that she would ultimately never leave. The public’s reaction to the controversial Six Characters in Search of an Author and the success of Pirandello’s Henry IV launched the author to international renown. He briefly affiliated with the ruling Fascist Party during the 1920s, which got him a position at the helm of the Teatro d’Arte di Roma, but then publicly rejected the Fascists in 1927, and then seemed to waffle back and forth for the rest of his life. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934 “for his bold and ingenious revival of dramatic and scenic art,” and he died two years later in Rome.
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Historical Context of Six Characters in Search of an Author

Although the events of Six Characters in Search of an Author conspicuously lack any specific setting in terms of place or time, Pirandello deliberately alludes to important trends in the history of Italian theater. His most prominent reference is to the influential, longstanding tradition of commedia dell’arte, in which masked actors playing archetypal characters improvised scenes based on rough outlines—indeed, in Six Characters in Search of an Author, the Manager tries to turn the Characters’ drama into a play of his own, and in the second version of his play, Pirandello suggested the Characters wear masks referencing their dominant emotions.

Other Books Related to Six Characters in Search of an Author

Luigi Pirandello remains best remembered for his plays, including Right You Are (if you think so) (1917), about two people who both insist a third person is their relative and believe the other person to be insane, and Henry IV (1921), about a mad aristocrat who is convinced that he is the titular emperor. However, Pirandello did not focus primarily on drama until his 50s, and the majority of his prolific output consisted of novels and (many hundreds of) short stories. These stories are collected in fifteen Italian volumes, each of which covers a year from 1922-1937. However, only some of these have been translated into English—a collection has been published as Tales of Madness (2014). Of Pirandello’s six novels, the most significant are The Late Mattia Pascal (1904), The Old and the Young (1916), and One, None and a Hundred Thousand (1926). He expressed his artistic philosophy in letters and essays, most prominently the early On Humor (L’Umorismo, 1908), and also wrote extensive collections of poetry, especially in his youth, much of which was translated and published in the dual-language edition Selected Poems (2016). Pirandello’s works have also been adapted into dozens of films. Other prominent Italian modernist writers include Italo Svevo, who remains best known for the psychological novel Zeno’s Conscience (1923), and the equally prolific Sardinian novelist and fellow Nobel Prize winner Grazia Deledda. Deladda and Pirandello’s relationship was controversial, particularly because Pirandello wrote a novel, Her Husband (1911), parodying her life and marriage. Deledda’s most important works include The Flower of Sardinia (1892), After the Divorce (1902) and Reeds in the Wind (1913). Finally, Pirandello’s work, particularly Six Characters in Search of an Author, is widely seen as anticipating the post-World War II Theater of the Absurd, an extensive genre whose most prominent practitioners included Jean Genet, Eugène Ionesco, Fernando Arrabal, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard, and Edward Albee. Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano (1950) and The Chairs (1952), Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) and Happy Days (1961), and Albee’s The Zoo Story (1958), The American Dream (1961), and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) exemplify the genre’s existential and psychological focus.
Key Facts about Six Characters in Search of an Author
  • Full Title: Six Characters in Search of an Author: A Comedy in the Making
  • When Written: 1921
  • Where Written: Rome, Italy
  • When Published: May 10, 1921 (first performance)
  • Literary Period: Italian Modernism
  • Genre: Play, Theater of the Absurd, Metatheater, Tragedy
  • Setting: A theater, the family garden
  • Climax: At the very end of the play, the Child drowns, the Boy commits suicide, and (in some versions) the Step-Daughter runs out of the theater, fulfilling their predictions and leaving the Actors and the Manager baffled.
  • Antagonist: The author, the Actors, the Manager, Madame Pace, the Characters’ own drama (or fate)
  • Point of View: Dramatic point of view

Extra Credit for Six Characters in Search of an Author

Reaction, Revision, and Preface. After the first performance of Six Characters in Search of an Author in Rome, the baffled audience responded by jeering the actors and playwright, shouting insults including “Madhouse” (which is notable as commentary on the play, during which the Father and the Manager debate whether theater or reality is really “madness”). Pirandello snuck out of the theater to avoid the angry audience and riots broke out in the streets. In order to clarify his ideas, Pirandello revised the play and wrote a lengthy, now-famous Preface to it in 1925. In his revised version, he suggested the six Characters wear masks representing their essential emotions.