Stories Must Have Closure Even When Real Life Doesn’t
On Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Character in Search for an Author”
When “Six Characters in Search for an Author” by Luigi Pirandello was first staged at Teatro Valle in Rome, it did not sit well with the audience. As the play makes it clear from the beginning, everything is random. The play ends the same way it began: leaving the conflict unresolved giving it the impression of having an unfinished plot. This failure to deliver the promise of a resolution unsettled the audience. It was even reported that their quarrel escalated into a fistfight. The same play, however, became a success in Milan, and in 1934, Pirandello won the Nobel Prize Award for Literature. I find it interesting because when I watched a school production of the play, I initially felt like the Roman audience. But upon hearing a lecture of the play, I felt like I had traveled to Milan and arrived at a paradigm shift.
The story is about six characters who barge into a set unannounced, interrupting an ongoing theater rehearsal. They claim to be characters of an orphaned, unfinished novel, and demand that their family tragedy be told so that it would finally have a conclusion. This otherwise cynical and cerebral writer had just presented a problem that could be summed up in the Father’s line: we humans, unlike animals, are only quick to rationalize our suffering, but not our happiness, “as if happiness were our right”. Whether a lot has changed since Pirandello wrote the play remains debatable. The problem of suffering is argued to be the one serious philosophical question out of which different branches of thought emerged offering a variety of responses to choose from. It’s the question that the ancients have grappled with, and at this rate, the world could end before people agree on why it began in the first place.
Pirandello’s answer? Absurdism — and it reflected the spirit of the war-torn age. For him, breaking the rules of drama was not a mere stylistic choice. It was a reflection of his belief that humans live in a purposeless, chaotic universe. Coming out of WWI, people were beginning to consider that perhaps civilization is nothing but a fragile veneer for the chaos humans are ultimately capable of. The irony isn’t lost on Pirandello, who was born in Sicily, in a place aptly named Kaos. But make no mistake about it. “Drama is action, sir, action and not confounded philosophy’’, Pirandello would say.
This is where writer Rodrigo Etcheto would stop him short. He would ask, “Where exactly is the randomness?” He explains that while events and existence may seem random, the laws of physics that make life possible are not random. The distance of the planets from the sun to support life is so specific that our planet is the only one to fit that probability (at least until scientists relocate us elsewhere in space that is). “The universe is highly ordered and law-like, but still exhibits enough chaos to permit freedom”, he says. Instead of rehashing the cliche that everything happens for a reason, Rodrigo Etcheto would point to chaos as the consequence of free will rather than purpose as the justification of all suffering (“What Exists is Not Random”, 2018).
Yet even though the characters were insistent on ending their family tragedy, they made it quite clear that the closure they were aiming for, if it was to be granted at all, was going to be hard-won. It wasn’t enough to know how the story ends, they wanted to tell their story as true to life as could be, interrupting the actors when they weren’t portraying them right. It appears the only logic that the play follows is that the story frames reality. By the same token, it frames our limits which can be deceptive. “Myths become myths not in the living but in the retelling”, wrote journalist David Maraniss.
Still, why would the characters go through the trouble of replaying each painful memory, each scandal? For me, it brings to mind the riddle “If a tree in a forest falls and nobody’s around to hear it, did it even make a sound?” But that is a trick question. One’s experience is ultimately real enough for the one who has to go through it.
Life throws a curveball at us, bringing us to the end of the road. Not only do we want our stories to have closure, even when, let’s face it, real-life doesn’t always have closure, we want it to have a happy ending. But how can we have a happy ending, if we don’t have control of the story because everything is random; if we can’t be the hero, in effect, the author of our story? As the characters relay their story in fragments, it’s as if through the absence of the author, Pirandello makes the audience the author, which is precisely how I found myself to be invested in the story of Six Characters in Search for an Author.
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