You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
Writers of fiction often complain of the mysterious agency of their characters, their ability to invade dreams and demand that their stories be told. I love this trope, this strange, Shelleyan idea that the creature can somehow manipulate its creator. But it has not always been so loved. Responding, in a Paris Review interview of 1967, to a comment of E. M. Forster’s that his characters tend to dictate the course of their narratives, Nabokov says contemptuously:
My knowledge of Mr Forster’s works is limited to one novel which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.
This “trite little whimsy” forms the basis of Pirandello’s enduringly wonderful Six Characters in Search of an Author, brought, for three days only, to the Barbican by Paris’ Théâtre de la Ville. All the now-unsurprising surprises of Pirandello’s script remain: the interruption of six angry characters to the rehearsal of another Pirandello play; their search for the end of their tale; the tragedy of their finish. The absurdity of the story is supplemented here with a brilliantly surreal set, a rehearsal space which transforms itself into a prostitute’s parlour, surrounded by floating overcoats, and a garden against which hangs a row of upside down trees. “Life is full of infinite absurdities,” the Husband says – a man with chalk-pale cheeks and a melancholy expression – “which, strangely enough, do not even need to appear plausible, since they are true”. How true his words are – and how absurd.
The lines which divide illusion from reality are battered and blurred in this play in which six tragic characters perform their own story, a story then re-performed by an ensemble of actors and analysed by their director. Six Characters famously closes with the suicide of the quiet son and the confusion of the actors as to the reality of his gunshot: “No, no,” they shout. “It’s only make believe, it’s only pretence!” (It was lovely to discover, on my journey home, a group of teenagers discussing the likelihood of the son’s death: Pirandello’s blurred lines continuing into the night.)
There is plenty to praise in this nuanced production, sensitive to the tragedy in Pirandello’s script, as well as its moments of comedy. Director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota colludes cleverly with Yves Collet (lighting design) and Jefferson Lembeye (music) to create a stage cut into dramatic areas of light and shade, and echoing with sinister, Satie-esque sounds. The six characters are performed particularly well, ghost-like in their pallor and passion. They seemed to have stepped out of another time, another, more melodramatic genre – just as Pirandello intended.
I was impressed by the dexterousness of the set, moved by the passion of the actors, and thrilled, once again, by the cleverness of Pirandello’s concepts. Yet what amazed me the most was the impact of this performance on its audience. Some were gripped by the script’s witticisms and shocked by its cruelty. But others were leaving their seats: defeated, perhaps, by an interval-less two hours of interrupted narratives and philosophical argument. I couldn’t quite believe that this play, written almost a century ago, could compel people to get up and go (as many had done at its first performance at the Teatro Valle in 1921). Perhaps it was surprise that forced these people from the auditorium. It might have been disgust, or disbelief, or just plain boredom. Whatever it was, it was a sentiment strong enough to make them walk out, and this play’s ability to divide opinion so strongly is something which sets it apart.
It is a divisiveness foreseen by Pirandello. He writes in a letter to director Virgilio Talli: “I have always gone out to offend my public and the public knows it. It is my delight and pleasure. All my work has always been and always will be like that: a challenge to the opinions of the public…” In Six Characters he plays with this self-constructed impression of himself, feeding into the mouth of the Director the complaint that his company ‘are reduced to putting on Pirandello’s works, where nobody understands anything, and where the author plays the fool with us all’.
This play, which prompted uproar upon its opening performance, gained notoriety for its daring, earning Pirandello his Nobel Prize in 1934. Over the course of the twentieth century Pirandello has become something of a theatre legend, joining the absurdist ranks of Beckett and Ionesco et al. But today the performance of these playwrights’ works is confined, it seems, to starry Waiting for Godots and Exit the Kings; rarely do we see their lesser-known plays.
Why, now, do we crave familiarity in our theatre? And why does the twentieth century avant-garde (or no longer quite so avant-garde) continue to make us uncomfortable? These are hackneyed questions, of course, but ones worth re-addressing. Where shock is embraced – expected, even – in the work of contemporary artists, it appears to be increasingly discouraged in theatre and fiction (not to mention cinema; just think of the scandalised walk-outs on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice). This has a lot to do with the driving forces behind the production of these art forms, the red pens and lined foreheads of the sales teams that finance them. But beyond all of this lies the audience, that insatiable dictator of art and culture.
What I suppose I’m trying to discover, then, is this: at what point exactly did we, the audience, condone the great reams of Peter Pans, Midsummer Night’s Dreams and Importance of Being Earnests, these tired-to-death theatre favourites, and walk out on the likes of Pirandello?
Six Characters in Search of an Author continues at the Barbican until Feb 7.