Sunday, April 15, 2012

Week 11, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author

Notes on Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author
Traditionally, theater has been theorized as providing distance from “real life” so as to afford us perspective and intelligibility.  Paradoxically, it achieves this distance by means of emotional intensity – dramatic illusion is actually part of the mechanics, I suppose, necessary to the moral and didactic aims of theater.  Aristotle (384-22 BCE) says that of the six elements of a play (plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song), by far the most important is plot, or mythos.  That’s because the plot arranges the incidents of the drama to provide us with the pattern of a single coherent action that rivets our attention, eliciting pity (éleos) and fear or terror (phóbos); the process as a whole leads to catharsis (cleansing, purification, etc.) and, at least in the usual interpretation, teaches us something about ourselves and our relationship to other human beings and to the divine realms.

What Pirandello explores in the present play is not so much the erasure of the usual distinction between art and the rest of life, but rather an experimental alteration in the logic of dramatic illusion.  It has become characteristic of post-modern drama to break this illusion or do other strange things with it, but in Pirandello’s day that was still a novelty (even though you can find it at work in Shakespeare).  We are in fact watching quite a spectacle and we know that that’s what it is, of course – it’s pretty hard to get around Dr. Johnson’s C18 pronouncement, “The truth is, that the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players” and that “If there be any fallacy, it is not that we fancy the players, but that we fancy ourselves unhappy for a moment.”  Still, it seems possible at times to draw in the audience until they feel as if they are something more like participants in a “happening” (to borrow a sixties word) than mere spectators of a dry proceeding on a stage.  Pirandello’s way of doing this is by way of a species of mise en abîme, wherein we behold the preparations for a real play (that Pirandello himself wrote) interrupted and taken over by the realer-than-life imaginative projections of characters from an unfinished novel – these characters astonish and captivate the actors onstage, convince il produttore (who initially sees himself as pretty much what a producer is – not a creative agent like the regista or director but rather as a sort of glorified handyman seeing that everything comes off smoothly) to let things tumble on as they subsequently do: the characters generate chaos on the stage when they insist that their passionate melodrama must be acted out and expressed just as they know it has to go.  It’s their sole purpose in their fictive life, after all – they’re not just actors who have memorized lines that they then have to work up the feeling to speak.  It seems this author had failed them, had failed to round off the necessary actions and give the characters the relief of finality.

In a sense this is absurdist realism: it’s a trick of art to impose order and significance and comforting truisms on the events and emotions that make up life.  One of the most powerful views of art is that it’s a species of illusion or deception that lends clarity to other areas of life, opens up a space for reflection on them.  That view places art on the side of civilization and order, uses art as an instrument for the sake of these things.  The illusion created is usually smooth, even seamless.  But the modern sense of reality is permeated by complexity, incompatibilities of all kinds, and a strong dose of incoherence: in plain English, it’s messy, not an unbroken, polished surface.  In so far as there’s dramatic illusion in this Pirandello play, I suppose, it’s one that tugs us into this messy modern reality: what’s taking place on the stage is supposed to capture our attention and seem real to us or at least as compelling as if it were real, at least at times.  Isn’t that what Coleridge meant by “a willing suspension of disbelief”?  So the question may not have so much to do with illusion but rather with the nature of the reality that we are being led to experience and contemplate.  If the world beyond the play’s confines isn’t one in which people’s passions and actions are easily manageable and ordered to lead to a predictable outcome or a firm set of rules by which to live, perhaps art need not imply such a smooth and satisfying reality.  Modernity tends to construe grand concepts like “civilization” itself a species of pleasant illusion or even delusion.

Not that the play is particularly bleak in what it implies about “real life.”  The Father character insists that what he and the others want to put on is more real than real life or an ordinary play.  His point seems to be that in everyday life, we can squirrel out of being pinned to who we are and in fact we can change somewhat, so our notions about eternal verities always turn out to be premature.  By contrast, the situation he’s in is inescapable and eternal, almost a version of damnation: he must keep reliving his reality, while ours turns out to have been an illusion tomorrow.  At least we can move on.  And this eternal recurrence, to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, isn’t one he or any of them can easily or finally embrace.  I’d say the relationship the play posits between life and art is uneasy, but not necessarily that its vision of life is hopeless.  The possibility of change cuts both ways: we may end up “the puppets of ourselves,” trapping ourselves into various harmful and inauthentic roles, but maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Why do they need an author?  Well, they say they must be allowed to “write” their own actions and passions, but without an author (a figure for God?) there’s no finality, nothing beyond the framework of their “scenes” to give them their ultimate significance, put a cap on everything.  Indeed, asking the producer to become the writer might even be taken as a wish for the death or devaluation of the author, an act of resentment against the original author who abandoned them.

But if one comes to think of civilization itself as a species of illusion or lie, this view of art may be challenged.  Might it not be best to force your audience to participate in a confusing real-time “reality” that doesn’t so easily assert an orderly and coherent world beyond the play’s confines, one in which passions and actions are manageable and predictable?

Artists rearrange events and alter characters or “outline” them to bring out patterns of meaning for themselves and us, the audience.  So at one level, we’re being reminded that art really doesn’t “imitate” life, but only gives us a distanced version of it.  And all the stage references and critical commentary remind us of the fact that we are watching a play

At another level, though, what happens with these struggling “characters” is in fact acted on the stage for us, as a traditional play would do.  At that level, it becomes clear that raw, traumatic events can be conveyed with considerable effect.  After all, the whole thing’s a play put on for us, the audience.  It’s still dramatic illusionism, only with an extra bubble surrounding it.

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