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Modes of Realism in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author

Emerging as a subset of Postmodern literature, the tradition of “magical realism” re-imagines the Modernist subjects of identity and truth by depicting mundane details of life alongside fantastic or supernatural elements. In Six Characters in Search of an Author Luigi Pirandello presents such a juxtaposition with his Actors and Characters—or, at least, he appears to. A brief summary of the plot might say something along the lines of “A cast of actors has their afternoon rehearsal interrupted when a group of fictional characters marches into the theater and demands that the producer stage the drama that is their lives”. Based on this description alone, it seems fair to categorize Pirandello’s play as falling under the umbrella of magical realism. Fictional characters do not simply come to life in the “real world”, and the Characters’ surreal appearances add to the sense of the supernatural. The absurdity of the situation can be noted in the stage direction that first introduces the Characters into the action of the play:

Every effort must be made to create the effect that the SIX CHARACTERS are very different from the ACTORS of the company… the most effective idea is to use masks for the CHARACTERS… The masks are designed to give the impression of figures constructed by art, each one fixed forever in its own fundamental emotion; that is, Remorse for the FATHER, Revenge for the STEPDAUGHTER, Scorn for the SON, Sorrow for the MOTHER. Her mask should have wax tears in the corners of the eyes and down the cheeks like the sculptured or painted weeping Madonna in a church. Her dress should be of a plain material, in stiff folds, looking almost as if it were carved and not of an ordinary material you can buy in a shop and have made up by a dressmaker. (Worthen 312-313)

One might infer that such exaggerated appearances are meant to highlight the Characters as fantastical inversions of the actual Actors, but Pirandello makes a point of explaining that this is not the case. Within that same passage, he notes: “This is the way to bring out the deep significance of the play. The CHARACTERS should not appear as ghosts, but as created realities, timeless creations of the imagination, and so more real and consistent than the changeable realities of the ACTORS” (Worthen 313). These notes make it clear that Pirandello’s purpose for dressing the Characters in masks is not to give his play an air of fantasy, but rather to ensure that the audience remains conscious of the fundamental differences between the two groups on the stage.

I’m not saying that Six Characters does not have an air of fantasy about it; the basis of the action is a situation that is definitively impossible, so the play could not exist without at least some elements of the supernatural. That being said, it is not adequate to label Six Characters simply as an example of magical realism. It seems as though Pirandello was interested in exploring the disparities between earlier Modernist notions of realism and the subsequent Postmodern manifestations of realism, and he employs certain elements of magical realism in Six Characters in order to allow himself the freedom to depict two distinct forms of realism simultaneously. According to Worthen: “the Characters want the Actors to produce a play much in the manner of Ibsen’s drama, a realistic drama of hidden crime and its discovery” (Worthen 18). Meanwhile, the frame narrative—that is, the action involving the Actors— is written according to the conventions of realism that Worthen associates with Epic or Constructivist Theater (Worthen 17). According to Worthen:

Rather than claiming to represent reality directly onstage by concealing the workings of the theater, epic theater alerts the audience to the ideological dimension of theater practice by constantly keeping the stage’s ‘means of production’ in view… the stage itself is not unified as a single dramatic locale, but always remains visibly a stage.

Six Characters certainly exemplifies many of these conventions. What makes this play really fascinating is the way in which Pirandello illustrates the complexities involved in comparing various modes of realism. He does not simply pit two opposing conventions against one another and suggest that one is definitively better than the other. Rather, he weaves together multiple issues that result in an “unresolved collision between these two perpsectives” (Worthen 310). Worthen notes: “In the theater, the process of Six Characters insistently disorients the audience from the stable categories of ‘reality’ and ‘illusion’” (Worthen 310). The complications are numerous: the Characters disagree with one another about how their story should be portrayed, the Producer disagrees with the Characters about how he wants to stage the drama, the Actors argue with the Characters, the Actors argue with the Producer. All of these issues are rooted in one fundamental question: What is Truth?


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Response #1

In the PBS video clip posted on Blackboard, Anna Deavere Smith discusses her play Let Me Down Easy with host Tavis Smiley. First performed in 2009, this play is just one of Smith’s series of performance works which she calls On the Road: A Search for American Character. In these one-woman performances, Smith conducts interviews with real people, and then “devises a performance, using minimal props and costumes, in which she interweaves sections from the interviews, performing all of the roles herself” (Worthen 1044). Let Me Down Easy focuses on people who have been impacted by the still-topical controversy surrounding the American health care system. Rather than positioning herself on either side of a debate that she argues is “really just causing more confusion” (PBS 6:40), Smith uses art to encourage her audience to engage in a meaningful dialogue. When Smiley asks her opinion on the debate surrounding health care, Smith explains her position:

I don’t think that the debate is helpful. Debates should be helpful…. So now I will make my plug for art, which is I think we have an opportunity, artists do, you do, anybody who has any bit of public space—we have an opportunity to try to present points of view to the people and ask the people to use that chance to talk about it amongst themselves. It’s very important that we have a real national conversation about this. (PBS 6:25-7:10)

Smiley responds by telling Smith that he and Dr. Cornell West, with whom he had seen the play, wound up spending several hours after the show engaged in a “deep discourse” (PBS 7:23) about the issue of health care. If this was a common occurrence among her audience members, then it would seem that Smith was successful in her goal of using performance to stimulate discussion.

Smith’s style of performance exemplifies many characteristics of the postmodern as it is outlined in Worthen. The introduction to Unit 3 describes “the typical ‘postmodern’ interconnectedness between politics, economics, cultural change, and representation”, and the ways in which this interconnectedness is portrayed in contemporary drama (Worthen 731). One overarching theme of postmodern art is a “fundamental critique of ‘representation’” (Worthen 734). Worthen notes that

postmodern art tends to blur the distinction between signifier and signified, between the ‘real’ sphere of the reader, viewer, spectator and the ‘artificial’ sphere of art… Finally, postmodern art also challenges ‘representation’ in another sense, the sense that art ‘represents’ the world, stands in for it, shows us how it is in an apolitical manner. Much as Western culture has systematically excluded the perspectives and voices of ‘others’—by, for example, treating the expression of straight, white, Western men as ‘universal’, not a partial, specifically empowered perspective, so the arts in the wake of deconstruction have been pivotal in unlocking these marginalized, unrepresented perspectives. (Worthen 734)

Worthen goes on to include Anna Deavere Smith in a list of contemporary performance artists whose work successfully “blurs any settled distinction between the ‘actual’ and the ‘performed’” (Worthen 734-735). I think that Smith’s view of art in general, and her own performance work in particular, as being an integral part of discussions of important contemporary issues, is part of what allows her to straddle that line “between signifier and signified”. By engaging with contemporary issues and encouraging her audience to do the same, Smith, along with other postmodern artists, opens the door for art to move away from the tradition of merely representing the world as it is, and toward being a means of effecting meaningful change.

What solidifies Smith as a “postmodern” artist is not simply her choice of subject matter, but the manner in which she presents it. By crafting performance works out of real-life interviews and playing each of the subjects herself, she presents unique collections made up of various points of view that open the door for discussions of pressing social issues. Worthen describes the effect of such performances in his description of Fires in the Mirror, Smith’s play based on the rioting that occurred in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in the summer of 1991:

Rather than providing a ‘history’ of these events, Smith’s Fires in the Mirror refracts the events through a series of monologues, some by participants—Gavin Cato’s father, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Yankel Rosenbaum’s brother Norman—and some by more distant observers, such as the playwrights Ntozake Shange and George C. Wolfe… Performing the words of her subjects, Smith carefully weaves an elaborate texture of commentary about race and ethnicity in the United States… Fires in the Mirror insistently blurs the boundary between the events and their retelling, presenting a kaleidoscopic re-presentation of events rather than a summary that pretends to a specious objectivity. (Worthen 1045)

As with her engagement with the issue of health care in Let Me Down Easy, Smith’s inclusion of various perspectives in Fires in the Mirror allows her to present an important moment in American history and to invite her audience to participate in an important conversation. I think that by including such diverse and frequently disparate views on such contentious topics, Smith creates an opportunity for her audience to engage in these discussions without coming across as preachy or as someone who purports to have an answer for these complicated issues. Some might argue that Smith is taking the easy way out by refusing to “take a side” in such debates, but I don’t think that’s the case. Based on her interview with Smiley, Smith seems to be someone who is very much interested in being a part of the conversation, not simply some self-proclaimed authority who believes she holds the answers for these ongoing issues.


Works Cited

“Actress-playwright Anna Deavere Smith.” Interview by Tavis Smiley. PBS. PBS, 14 June 2011. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.

Worthen, W. B. Modern Drama: Plays, Criticism, Theory. Volume 2: Units 3 & 4. Cambridge, MA: Heinle & Heinle Pub., 2003. Print.

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Week 1

January 18th: No class

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