Pirandello, A Playwright for Our Times: SOULPEPPER THEATRE presents Six Characters in Search of an Author /Updated

UPDATED May 18, 2021: SOULPEPPER presents Six Characters in Search of an Author

By Luigi Pirandello 

Directed by Daniele Bartolini

Translated by Edward Storer

Sound design by Matteo Ciardi

Dramaturgical adaptation on translation by Daniele Bartolini and Luke Reece in collaboration with the cast

Featuring: Beatriz Pizano, Diego Matamoros, Hannah Miller, Moya O’Connell, Gregory Prest, Anand Rajaram, Tom Rooney

Presented as part of Soulpepper’s Around the World in 80 Plays project.

“And what, for a character in a play, constitutes his comedy or tragedy as the case may be? Every creature born of the imagination, every being art creates, must have his own play, that is to say, a play of which he is the hero and for which he is the dominating character. That play is the raison d’etre of that particular character; it is his life process; it is necessary for his existence.”

Luigi Pirandello, Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring issue, 1925.

In 1935 at the height of his fame internationally, the on-again, off-again member of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, Luigi Pirandello, was on a tour of the United States. The playwright, novelist, poet and short story writer had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature the year before and, when confronted by a delegation of American writers led by Clifford Odets, he was asked how it was that he could possibly be supporting Italy’s attack and seizure of Ethiopia. 

“Well, you took America from the Indians didn’t you?”, was his caustic, equivocal reply.

This kind of obfuscated rationalization forms the core of Pirandello’s project as a playwright. Just when you think you are certain in your position and decide to point a finger, be careful because the only thing that is certain over the long term is uncertainty and fallibility. In Pirandello’s work, every time a character starts postulating a claim on objective reality, a giant cloud of aporia starts forming over the stage. If this leads you to doubt whether the iconoclastic writer was a stalwart and loyal party member or a great favorite of the Holy See in Rome, you would be correct.

Six Characters In Search of An Author had its premiere a century ago at the Teatro Valle theatre in Rome. By all accounts, the drama (which Pirandello subtitled “A Comedy in the Making”), with its bewildering pretense of a play within a play that is challenged by its own characters who insist they are not characters at all but real people with real lives, was not a success. On opening night, as the story goes, Pirandello and his daughter slipped out of the theatre by a side door rather than risk public humiliation from distraught audience members.

The reviews were – as they say – mixed. Writing in the socialist newspaper, Avanti!, the young Marxist theatre critic, Antonio Gramsci said impressively: “Luigi Pirandello is a “commando” in the theatre. His plays are like grenades that explode inside the brains of the spectators, demolishing their banalities and causing their feelings and thoughts to crumble.” But the play caught on internationally and enjoyed a good run during Broadway’s 1922 season. G.B. Shaw described it with a somewhat overwrought rave as “the most original and dynamic play ever written in any nation, or at any time, whether ancient or modern.”

Soulpepper’s artistic director, Weyni Mengesha, chose Daniele Bartolini to direct this audio version of the play in a collaborative adaptation of the text provided by Luke Reece and the Soulpepper cast (as well as Bartolini) who “Canadianized” the opening of the play. Rather than using Pirandello’s own self-deprecating conceit by way of a less than motivated cast beginning a rehearsal for a fictitious play entitled The Rules of the Game, what we have in the Soulpepper version is a cast assembled to begin rehearsing David French’s Maritime classic, Salt Water Moon.  

Choosing the third play (of five total) in the Mercer family saga was a stroke of genius. Set in Newfoundland in 1926, the gentle poetry that frames the courtship of French’s own parents could not be further from the harsh reality insisted upon by the half made- up characters who intrude upon the rehearsal in progress with a much darker family saga that they insist on portraying.

Pirandello invested heavily in this opening gambit which, in the stage version, involved 14 actors as “the Company” listed variously as The Manager, Leading Lady, Leading Man, L’ Ingénue, Prompter, Machinist, etc. who, for the most part act mainly as background props rather than fully engaged characters, while the main characters, identified in the script as The Father, The Mother, The Step-Daughter, The Son, The Boy, The Child and Madame Pace press their case for a play that speaks the truth of their story and their story alone that only they can tell.

Here, Bartolini brilliantly conducts a cast of seven Soulpepper ensemble members who vocally create the same illusion aided by Matteo Ciardi’s soundscape that moves the play along at a brisk one hour and forty-five minutes of show.

The decision to present the script as an audio version of the play rather than digital streaming is a wise one. Over the past year, my own feeling is that digital streaming as a stop-gap presentation device in the time of the pandemic has had mixed results and is a poor substitute for the real presence of live actors in a theatre. Unless the actors have done the play before and are “out of book”, the production values are often uneven with actors having to go from script to camera with feigned reactions to another actor in another place. Taking a page from the golden age of radio drama works better and let’s our imagination fill in the gaps.

Although billed as a comedy, the play soon shifts mood to a dark subtext insisting on the portrayal of prostitution, incestuous desires and suicide as part of the real life story of these six characters who have been created by an author and then thrust cruelly into the world without a satisfactory narrative to guide them and tell their story. Led by The Father, they also reference their belief that even if a script was created, no theatre anywhere would want to produce it and no audience would want to witness this sordid tale.

The timeliness of the play, with its shredding of theatrical convention and its insistence that objective reality is just an opinion, cannot be overstated. In an age when the performative Trump and Co., bolstered with a supporting cast of eager players drawn from within the ranks of the Republican Party, daily encourages mass psychosis to advance their own crass political ambitions by offering lethal injections of mendacity and self delusion into the body politic, we have truly entered the Pirandellian mindset. As the playwright himself put it: a man “builds himself up” by creating his own reality in order to avoid defeat and disappointment. 

The title of Pirandello’s plays satirize this premise over and over: Each in His Own Way, Right You Are (If You Think You Are), When One Is Somebody and Tonight We Improvise. Truth is only relative to the perceiver if it conveniently matches the narrative that you want to advance. If you don’t like the facts, find “alternative facts” as one of Trump’s press secretaries once put it. In the play, Enrico IV, a web of lies bolsters a deception that eventually leads to violence precipitated by a madman.

Luigi Pirandello died alone at his home in Rome in December, 1936. He had long ago torn up his Fascist Party membership card in a public display of frustration after being in continual disagreement with the party’s ideology and leadership. Almost a decade later, Benito Mussolini was arrested by Italian partisans near Lake Como in April, 1945, while attempting to flee the country with his mistress. They were both executed a few days later.

And what became of the young theatre critic, Antonio Gramsci? He became a founding member of the Communist Party of Italy and was elected to the Italian parliament representing Veneto in 1924. Although constitutionally guaranteed immunity, Gramsci was imprisoned by Mussolini in 1926 in a crackdown of all opposition party leaders that included many representatives of the PCI.

Already suffering from curvature of the spine that he was born with, Gramsci additionally was beset with arteriosclerosis, tuberculosis, gastric disorders and other ailments that made his harsh imprisonment conditions over 11 years of confinement almost unendurable and despite an international campaign for his release he succumbed to his ailments on April 27, 1937, at the age of 46.

But not before completing a remarkable manuscript entitled, Prison Notebooks (which includes prescient insights into what Gramsci described as cultural hegemony) that is today required reading in history, political science, cultural studies and other academic disciplines. 

Shortly before his death, Gramsci wrote: “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”

Update: An AisleSay.ca Reader Writes:

Terrific article, interesting and well-written. Congratulations. Coincidentally, just last summer I read about Pirandello in the one book I took to read over the holidays, an 800-page biography of Mussolini entitled just “M”. 

Here in Chile, theater companies and music groups, even comedians, are taking full advantage of streaming presentations in these pandemic times. We have become avid consumers: we buy tickets online, get a code, at the appointed time we link up a portable computer to our TV set, and watch plays and concerts sitting in our living room. 

But curiously enough, the most successful form of art to re-emerge in these times is radio drama in the form of podcasts. As a child growing up, radio drama was a major source of entertainment and culture. When I was about 12, I remember the whole country grinding to a halt every day to listen to a one-hour historical drama about the War of 1879. To people my age, radio drama takes us way back, and to younger people it provides a chance to discover something new.

A few local productions have even become international hits in the Spanish-speaking world. One of them was even cited by the Spanish version of The New York Times as the second-best podcast of the year (https://www.nytimes.com/es/2020/12/06/espanol/opinion/lo-mejor-2020.html). 

The write-up says in Spanish: “In our language, the podcast has come of age in 2020. Two sound fictions have stood out: the Spanish Guerra 3, a true mass phenomenon, very well written by José A. Pérez Ledo and directed by Ana Alonso; and the Chilean Caso 63, a time travel story with an excellent script by Julio Rojas and a really disturbing sound design and soundtrack.”

We listened to both of them and they’re enthralling, to say the least. Once the pandemic is over, lots of things will have changed. Hope this is one of them.

Patricio Mason, Santiago, Chile

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