Luigi Pirandello’s Contribution to Modern Theatre: A Study of Six Characters in Search of an Author and Henry IV

Dina Nabil Abdel Rahman Ibrahim, Alexandria University, Egypt

Born in Sicily (Italy), Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) was initially a novelist, short story writer and poet. Later in life he turned to drama and wrote forty-four plays, Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author) and Enrico IV (Henry IV) being the most well-known of them. Owing to his outstanding contribution to theatre in particular and literature in general, Pirandello earned the Noble Prize in literature in 1934. His plays contribute to postmodernism not only by questioning the stable norms about the binary oppositions, but also by shattering the distance between the dichotomies and blurring the previously laid basics about ‘truth’ in life. As he wrote most of his plays after the end of World War I, the presence of certain themes in them such as the bankruptcy of social norms, disappointment, spiritual emptiness and fluidity of reality is quite understandable.

Pirandello presented an original view of the modern stage through his unique theories and techniques. According to Robert Brustein, his “influence on modern drama of the twentieth century is immeasurable. In his agony over the nature of existence, he anticipates Sartre and Camus; in his insights into the disintegration of personality and isolation of man, he anticipates Samuel Beckett, in his war on language, theory, concepts, and the collective mind, he anticipates Eugene Ionesco, in his approach to the conflict of truth and illusion, he anticipates Eugene O’Neill, and later, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee” (316). Moreover, he paved the way for the experimental theatre of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and George Bernand Shaw in reaction against constraints of realism. The three great dramatists decided to break from the moralistic, often sensational and melodramatic forms for stimulation of the intellect through the open-ended “discussion play.” However, “whereas Ibsen and Shaw and the other philosophical dramatists were concerned with the problems of conduct confronting the individual in society, Pirandello was concerned with a problem he thought deeper and more puzzling, namely, what is the individual?” or, to elaborate, what is the significance of man in a collapsed chaotic world? (Watson 248).

Crisis of identity strikes the twentieth century with some existential questions such as ‘who am I?’, ‘what do I want?’ and ‘what is real or unreal?’ Pirandello addresses such inquiries via characterization in his play Six Characters in Search of an Author. The play is about six abandoned characters strikingly addressing an acting company while in search of an author. The six characters have no names and are defined by their functions only such as the Father, the Step-Daughter, and so forth. Each character has a fixed role to play, e.g. the Father acts like a father only and he cannot be anyone else. When the Father introduces the Mother to the company, he says: “[S]he isn’t a woman, she is a mother” (8). Characters seem to be truer than human beings who change by the course of time and space. The Father goes further when while convincing the Manager he avers that

“a character, sir, may always ask a man who he is. Because a character has really a life of his own, marked with his especial characteristics; for which reason he is always ‘somebody.’ But a man—I’m not speaking of you now—may very well be ‘nobody’ ” (43).

This crisis of identity takes a more developed silhouette in the eponymous character of Pirandello’s Henry IV. As the events unfold, Henry IV, the protagonist, imagines himself as the eleventh century German Emperor after having a plotted accident causing him brain damage. Characterization is divided into two parts—Henry’s family and counselors on one hand and Henry himself on the other. All the characters except Henry IV have a double identity and therefore two names; on the contrary, the hero has a character-name only and his real name is never told. Despite being insane, he is the only character who has a fixed identity which paradoxically parades him the only real character in the play and prevents him from oscillating between double identities. By keeping moving between sanity and insanity, Henry epitomizes Pirandello’s point of view regarding the deconstruction of the rigid opposites, reality and illusion. The dramatist leaves the audience mulling over the questions: Is Henry IV, in his present state in the play, a real man or an unreal character? Is his character as Henry IV the only signal that justifies his identity? What is sanity and insanity? How could insanity be a refuge for a man while seeking a fixed identity?

All these questions result in stylistic offshoots embodied in Pirandello’s use of Commedia dell’arte. Being an Italian popular traditional theatre, Commedia was a nonliterary theatre that focused on the impromptu skills of the actor behind her ‘mask.’ Pirandello perceived Commedia as an inheritance of Roman comedy, for it “was the form of theatre closest to life and was in that sense the purest theatre” (Bassnett 8). Nonetheless, it was seen “less as the first professional theatre of Europe than as ‘pure’ and ‘original’ theatre, a form of national folk art: ‘pure’ because improvisation meant that there was no intervening text, folk art because of the masked characters and use of dialect” (8). Applying techniques of Commedia dell’arte to Six Characters in Search of an Author, the traditional order of the conventional play, naming and the script before the performance is reversed upside down, for here the performance precedes the script as the six characters improvise their roles and the property man takes down the script while they act. Another feature of the Commedia dell’arte is the use of masks. It is true that no character wears a real mask to hide her identity; however, they, by acting as mere functional characters stripped of everything but their function-roles, illustrate a figurative sort of mask. According to the Commedia, the physical mask would stir the impression of figures with eternal determined emotions, that is ‘Remorse for the Father,’ ‘Revenge for the Stepdaughter,’ ‘Scorn for the Son,’ and ‘Sorrow for the Mother.’ Therefore, every column of Pirandello’s collected plays is called ‘Maschere nude’ (‘Naked Masks’) as he wished to tell the audience that the individual is and must remain eternally a riddle.

Echoes of Pirandello’s Commedia dell’arte could be perceived in Henry IV too. On the contrary to Six Characters in Search of an Author, ‘mask’ has an absolute implementation in Henry IV. The protagonist, Henry IV, appears throughout the play with a mask on his face. Despite its ancient use since the Greeks, the notion behind wearing a mask in Henry IV is two folded: the mask conceals and reveals at the same time. The mask conceals man’s face, especially when he wants to escape some unsolicited assumptions. Henry, though appears mad and acts mad in the play, the mask is his sole solution to have an immortal soul, which is not his, but the real Henry IV’s. Therefore, Henry seeks the stability and eternity of character-function rather than the human beings’ short-course life. Needless to say, Henry, in this way, will always look in his twenty-sixth year of age though he is over fifty, that is to say he attempts to triumph over time span. Moreover, Henry will always be in control with everybody around and make fool of them as he says: “Miserable, frightened clowns that they are! And you (addressing the valets) are amazed that I tear off their ridiculous masks now, just as if it wasn’t I who had made them mask themselves to satisfy this taste of mine for playing the madman” (61). More, the ‘mask’ reveals the identity crisis when Henry, after recovering from his madness, realizes that he cannot cope with the new world unless he puts the mask to hide the loss of his love and youth. In addition to this, having the mask on while pretending being mad is his sole means to take revenge on Baron Tito Belcredi who had plotted his accident twenty years ago causing him the loss of mind and his beloved Matilda. The face, then, represents the maze of inner human sufferings, while the mask is what is created by the outside world to be a mere reflection of how the society wants man to look like.

The use of ‘mirror’ and its metaphoric expression in Pirandello’s plays is another important technique to present the issue of the identity crisis in the desired manner. Pirandello says: “When a man lives, he lives and does not see himself. Well, put a mirror before him and make see himself in the act of living, under the sway of his passions” (qtd. in Watson 248). The mirror is a means, according to Pirandello, of self-confrontation and provides a chance for man to reflect upon himself. Pirandello uses this technique in Six Characters in Search of an Author in order to let man contemplate upon his image in the mirror of theatrical ‘characters,’ since this play is generated out of theatrical elements. The actor and the character stand opposing each other, like in a mirror, to set for a dialectic question: which one is real and which is a mere reflection of the other? The Son says: “Haven’t you perceived that it isn’t possible to live in front of a mirror which not only freezes us with the image of ourselves, but throws our likeness back at us with a horrible grimace?” (50). The actor is the physical embodiment of the character, but at the same time the character reflects what lies deeply within the actor as a human being. Therefore, Pirandello presents life and art not as opposing components but as fulfilling one another into a single melting pot, i.e. the theatre. Hence, Pirandello was able to demolish the fourth wall between the audience and the stage. He lowered the stage, removed the curtains and let the actors mingle with the spectators to give the audience a transforming experience through identifying themselves with the actors.

The use of mirror along with valets and life-size portraits is crucial in Henry IV too. Landolph, one of the counselors, explains the function of the mirror as follows: “That one there represents himself, as he is in the throne room, which is all in the style of the period. . . . If we put you before a mirror won’t you see yourself, alive, but dressed up in ancient costumes?” (9). The life-size portraits of Matilda and Henry in their youth stand in opposition to the real figures of Frida, Matilda’s daughter and a mirror image of her and Henry: “In his portrait Henry stands frozen in his past, eternally and frustratingly twenty-six but the beautiful young woman displayed in Matilda’s portrait has moved from the frozen form to the vital life in Frida” (Bassanese 85). His life is, thus, reborn and returned to his lost self. It functions as a joint between the past and the present. Seeking time and space to exist, Henry escapes to an eternal masquerade: his mask, the castle, the costumes and the new borrowed identity.

Pirandello goes further in exploiting the mirror-technique by presenting the play-within-a-play formula. Looking like the Chinese boxes or the Russian matryoshka dolls, each fitting inside the larger one, “the play within a play is a common form of the mise-en-abyme in theatre. The internal play takes up the theme of theatrical acting. . . . The device is generally used to frame or relativize the performance, as in the use of puppets miming the action of the play and representing the theatre of the world” (Pavis 215). Thus, each of the six characters presents a full play of her/his point of view ending up having six plays in one embedding tableau in the rehearsal of Mixing It Up which enhances the irony of perplexity. From the very beginning, Pirandello takes the audience beyond the scenes. He puts theatre, processes and elements on stage, and that is why the play could be considered an allegory of the theatre itself. Henry IV is also produced in the style of the meta-theatre as the play, which was supposed to be a show about Henry IV—the German Emperor, turns out to be a part of the medical treatment of the actor starring Henry.

Six Characters in Search of an Author and Henry IV are the key examples of what Pirandello terms ‘Il teatro dello specchio’ or ‘the mirror theater’—a play that turns a mirror onto the theater itself. The result then is not a reflection but a shattering. Pirandello generates his works through the fracturing of the dramatic spectacle itself. “Meta-theatre, thus defined, becomes a form of antitheatre, where the dividing line between play and real life is erased” (210). The mirror, the looking glass, the portraits and the screen are important props of the theatre with the purpose of visualizing the subtle relationship between the real, which could be illusive, and its reflection. Another major feature of the mirror theatre is its open-endedness, as the plays could be repeated over and over again. Six Characters in Search of an Author ends with a drowning and a shooting; it is not a closed end for those six characters may gather themselves once again and the dead will come back to life to resume their journey in search of an author. Likewise, Henry IV ends with the killing of Belcredi, but this is not the real end. Henry has to go on with his madness, since it is his only way to justify his avenge and control on the others.

Thus, Pirandello’s theories and techniques have exerted an enormous impact on the trends in modern theatre, particularly the Theatre of the Absurd. His handling of the theme of identity in both the plays under discussion is the departure point from where his style and techniques generate. He can undoubtedly be called to be a credit to the bold and ingenious revival of the dramatic and scenic art.


Bassanese, Fiora A. Understanding Luigi Pirandello. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1997. Print.

Bassnett, Susan, and Jennifer Lorch, eds. Luigi Pirandello in the Theatre: A Documentary Record. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Brustein, Robert. The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to the Modern Drama. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964. Print.

Pavis, Patrice. Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis. Trans. Christine Shantz. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1998. Print.

Pirandello, Luigi. Henry IV: A Tragedy in Three Acts. Trans. Edward Storer. N.p.:, 2012. Print.

Pirandello, Luigi. Six Characters in Search of an Author. Trans. Edward Storer. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1998. Print.

Watson, Bradlee E., and Benfield Pressey. Contemporary Drama: Fifteen Plays. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959. Print.

Born in 1984, Dina Nabil Abdel Rahman Ibrahim is doing her Masters in English Literature at Department of English, Faculty of Arts, Alexandria University, Egypt. She is a member of the Narratives Lab at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and has published short stories and critical articles in Egyptian and Arabic periodicals.