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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Modernism XIII

Pirandello’s assault on naturalism led to the discovery that the imitation of reality is not immediately distinguishable from the imitation of an imitation. He was fascinated by the interpenetration of appearance and reality, of face and mask. And he proclaimed the paradox that man is only able truly to be himself when wearing a mask for only then does he feel free to discard pretence. He wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author, a play which examines countless manifestations of pretence: impersonation, deception, disguise, masquerade, etc. We are shown that all pretence is both a pretended reality and real pretence.

A group of actors with a producer are rehearsing a play when the stage is invaded by a group of characters. These characters wear masks, and have been created by an author, but then for some reason abandoned. One of the characters, the father, in the first act says:

‘This is the real drama for me; the belief that we all, you see, think of ourselves as one single person: but it’s not true: each of us is several different people, and all these people live inside us. With one person we seem like this, and with another we seem very different. But we always have the illusion of being the same person for everybody and of always being the same person in everything we do. But it’s not true! It’s not true! We find this out for ourselves very clearly when by some terrible chance we’re suddenly stopped in the middle of doing something and we’re left dangling there, suspended. We realize then, that every part of us was not involved in what we’d been doing and that it would be a dreadful injustice of other people to judge us only by this one action as we dangle there, hanging in chains, fixed for all eternity, as if the whole of one’s personality were summed up in that single, interrupted action. Now do you understand this girl’s treachery? She accidentally found me somewhere I shouldn’t have been, doing something I shouldn’t have been doing. She discovered a part of me that shouldn’t have existed for her; and now she wants to fix on me a reality that I should never have had to assume for her: it came from a single, brief, and shameful moment in my life.’

Later, in act three, the same character, the father, asks the producer of the play who he thinks he is, and the producer says:

‘Of all the bloody nerve! A fellow who claims he is only a character comes and asks me who I am!’

And the father, with dignity but without annoyance responds:

‘A character, my dear sir, can always ask a man who he is, because a character really has a life of his own, a life full of his own specific qualities, and because of these he is always “someone”. While a man – I’m not speaking about you personally, of course, but man in general – well, he can be an absolute “nobody”.

The father then goes on to argue that he is more real than the producer, because the producer’s reality changes from one day to the next, to which the producer says:

‘But everybody knows that it can change, don’t they? It’s always changing! Just like everybody else’s!’

And the father replies:

‘But ours doesn’t change! Do you see? That’s the difference! Ours doesn’t change, it can’t change, it can never be different, never, because it is already determined, like this, for ever, that’s what’s so terrible. We are an eternal reality.’

Characters are an eternal reality. Pirandello’s characters wear masks to symbolise their immutability. They have been born in the mind of an author, and they have been assigned masks. They will always be “somebody”, but they will never have the freedom to be nobody.

Othello, Scarlet O’Hara and Sam Spade, (name your own fictional hero
or heroine), would all be unbearable in life.

3 Responses to “Modernism XIII”

  1. Travis says:

    I think it’s difficult to place a finger on our identity and say, “this is who I am” for in the following moments ones identity has already changed. However, it may be somewhat accurate to place our finger on “change” itself and say “this is who I am” for change seems to be the only consistant factor in us and life.

  2. nathan anderson says:

    I agree with your insight. Somebody famous said that the only permanent thing is change. I couldn’t agree more. Since there will always be new innovations created in the future, the focus is on change and not on the person.

  3. Jay says:

    So, if we are constantly assuming different roles in different situations, can the roles we assume remain constant? That is, can we wear a personality that reacts to reality in the same way, despite changing circumstances, even though the true self (the creator of the personality) is changing?