The other day marked the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. I wrote this op-ed, which I could not move.
A play that premiered 100 years ago today provides a valuable lesson in anti-escapism.
When Luigi Pirandello’s radically innovative play, Six Characters in Search of an Author premiered 100 years ago on May 10, 1921, the consensus of audiences was, “Did that guy really just do that?”
I love art when it’s bold and accessible. To me, there is nothing more exciting in the world—not love, connection—because art is a form of these things, and also a better way to understand and procure them.
We’re scared of art a lot, a century after Pirandello’s masterwork. The term gives us pause. We think we won’t be “smart enough,” or partaking of the art will feel like high school homework.
Escapism has replaced art here in 2021. Escapism is built with layers meant to insulate us from reality and ourselves. Art is built with layers that help us better understand who we are, layers that are like ladder rungs, Which we climb, one step at a time. So we can get more out of life. And, put somewhat more crassly, suck less.
Art fosters connection, whereas escapism fragments. With more art in our culture, we might not be so disconnected. But ah, that fear issue. The bogity-bogity of something “intellectual.” Pirandello’s play is a work of modernism, but it’s also as “gettable” as anything gets. Star Wars. Harry Potter.
The premise is simple and clever: the setting of the play is the theater in which it takes place. Six characters are grumbling about needing a proper playwright to tell their stories. Each one wants their narrative to be advanced as they see fit.
It’s a form of pouting, and a proto version of the folly of what we call “my truth,” as if truth was a barista at Starbucks who got your highly specific drink order right, and didn’t serve out uniform coffee in uniform cups. The truth brew.
A couple of the characters are hardly developed at all. Life is this way. We all know people this way. You’re left standing with one of them at a cookout and you think, “Ugh, this is going to be a rough five minutes.”
There’s a bit of tragedy, some quasi-incest—step child variety—but it’s also people going through motions. Scenes that the characters feel don’t come off are given a do-over.
Which is pretty hilarious. All of the artifice is gone. Those layers of escapism, of characters being piled on top of characters, and endless backstories. This is pure, naked theatre.
We connect with it because life is similarly naked. Sure, we can dress it up however we please on social media, but as John Lennon said, ultimately it’s you with your, well, your-you-know-what, in your hand. And cheers to that. Why pretend otherwise?
Six Characters has had a lot of legs since. Orson Welles wrote a sort of nautical version with his play, Moby Dick—Rehearsed, and then there’s that quintessential Twilight Zone episode, "Six Characters in Search of an Exit."
But that immediacy of the Pirandello play is tough to beat. You’re pulled in, but you’re not roped in. There’s a difference. One partakes of the work, and then there’s that compulsion to see “what this has to do with me.”
For me, with art and entertainment—which can be the same thing a lot more than we often think—that’s everything, because all of us are in there, in our different ways.
That’s the stuff. Those are the characters to hang out with. They’re not going to hurt you more than you’d hurt you. And they might help you more than you’re able to help yourself before you met them.