Why and How He Wrote “Six Characters in Search of an Author”
I had to, to escape from … well, that is what I am going to explain. As I have written elsewhere, the lively little maidservant who for years and years now (though it seems as though it were only since yesterday) has been waiting on my writing, is for all that not so new at her work. She is often of a somewhat scornful and jesting humor, this Fantasia of mine. If, now and then, she is of a humor to dress in black, there is no denying that her solemn apparel is often extremely odd. But if you think that this is her usual style of dress, you are very much mistaken. Time and time again I’ve seen her put her hand in her pocket and pull out a fool’s cap, red as a cox-comb, and all a-jingle with its tiny bells. This she claps on her head, and off she goes! Here today, and somewhere else tomorrow!—And she persists in bringing back with her the most disgruntled beings imaginable and filling up my house with them—men, women and children, all involved in the most extraordinary and complicated situations—their plans frustrated, their hopes deluded—in short, people it is often very uncomfortable to deal with.
Well, a few years ago Fantasia was unfortunately inspired—or it may have been just an unlucky whim on her part—to unload a whole family on me. I don’t know where in the world she had fished these people up from, but she insisted that they were material for a perfectly gorgeous novel.
A man of about fifty, in black coat, light trousers, his eyebrows drawn into a painful frown, and in his eyes an expression mortified yet obstinate; a poor woman in widow’s weeds, leading a little girl of about four by one hand and a boy of ten or so by the other; a pert, bold young miss, also in black, but an equivocal and brazen black it seemed, as she moved about in a constant flutter of disdainful biting merriment at the expense of the older man; and a young fellow of twenty-odd who stood apart from the others, seemingly locked within himself, as though holding the rest in utter scorn … in short, the Six Characters just as they appear on the stage at the beginning of my play. At once they began telling me their misfortunes, first one, then another, each in turn silencing all the rest, as each in turn shouted out his story; and there they were flourishing their scattered passions in my face, just as in the play they flourish them in the face of the thoroughly misunderstanding Manager.
Can an author ever tell how and why his imagination gives birth to a certain character? The mystery of artistic creation is the mystery of birth itself.
A woman may desire a child, but the desire, however intense it may be, does not suffice to create; and then one fine day she discovers that her desire is to be realized, but she cannot tell at what precise moment the life within her came into being. And in just the same way the artist, who gathers within himself innumerable germs of life, can never say how, or why, or at what precise momen: one of these particles of life has lodged in his imagination, there to become a living creature inhabiting a plane of life superior to our voluble and vain daily existence.
Well, all I can say is that, without my having sought them at all, there they were, those six characters you now can see on the stage, so alive you could touch them, so alive you could fairly hear them breathe. And there they stood, each with his secret torment, but bound to all the others by birth and by the tie of events experienced together, waiting for me to let them into the world of art by making of their persons, their passions, and their vicissitudes, a novel, a play, at the very least a short story.
They had come into the world alive and they wanted to live. Now no matter how strikingly individualized a character may be, I have never represented man, woman, or child, for the mere pleasure of representation. I have never related a single experience for the mere pleasure of relating it; I have never described a landscape for the mere pleasure of describing it.
There are authors—and they are not so few—who do write for the pleasure they take in the writing alone, and who look for no other satisfaction. Such writers one might describe as historical.
But there are others who, in addition to deriving the pleasure I have described, feel a spiritual need that will not permit them to use characters, events, or scenes which are not impregnated, so to speak, with a special sense of life that gives them a universal significance and value. Such writers are, properly speaking, philosophical. And to this latter group I have the misfortune to belong.
I hate symbolic art, for it makes a mechanical structure, an allegory, out of all representation, destroying its spontaneity, reducing the creative impulse to an empty and short-sighted effort; for the mere fact of giving an allegorical meaning to what is being represented indicates that the representation proper is held in low esteem, as having in itself no truth, whether real or imaginary. Such a representation has been prepared simply for the purpose of demonstrating some moral truth. But the spiritual need I referred to a moment ago cannot be satisfied by allegorical symbolism, except in the rare instances where, as in Ariosto, the motive is lofty irony. For the latter derives from a concept, or rather is a concept that is trying to become an image; but the former, on the contrary, tries to find in the image itself, which should be alive and spontaneous in every aspect of its expression, a meaning that will give it significance.
Now, for all my prying and searching, I could not succeed in finding any such meaning in these “characters.” And I concluded therefore that there was no particular obligation on my part to give them the life for which they were clamoring.
“I have already tormented my readers with hundreds and hundreds of stories,” I thought to myself. “Why should I bother them with an account of these six unfortunates, and their wretched plight?”
And acting on this feeling, I pushed them out of the way. Or rather, I did everything I could to get them out of the way.
But one doesn’t give life to a character for nothing!
These creatures of my brain were not living my life any longer: they were already living a life of their own, and it was now beyond my power to deny them a life which was no longer in my control.
Persisting in my intention of driving them out of my mind, I found to my consternation that almost completely detached as they were now from any supporting narrative, emerging miraculously from the pages of the book containing them, they went right on living their own lives; from which at certain moments during the day they would turn aside to confront me in the solitude of my study. Now one, now another, now two of them together, would come to tempt me and propose scenes that I was to set down in dramatic form or simply describe; and they were always at great pains to point out the effects to be derived from their suggestions, and the singular and novel turn that some unique situation might take and the interest it would arouse, and so on, and so on.
For a moment I would give in; and this momentary weakening, this brief surrender, was enough for them to draw out of me additional life, and naturally with every particle of life that they thus acquired they grew all the better able to convince me, their powers of persuasion growing with their life, increasing as the life in them increased. And so it became more and more difficult for me to get rid of them in proportion as it became easier for them to appear before me and tempt me. Finally, as I have already suggested, they became an obsession—until suddenly I thought of a means of getting out of my predicament.
“Why not,” thought I, “represent this unique situation —an author refusing to accept certain characters born of his imagination, while the characters themselves obstinately refuse to be shut out from the world of art, once they have received this gift of life? These characters are already completely detached from me, and living their own lives; they speak and move; and so, in the struggle to live that they have persistently maintained against me they have become dramatic characters, characters who can move and speak of their own initiative. They already see themselves in that light; they have learnt to defend themselves against me; they will learn how to defend themselves against others. So why not let them go where the characters of a play usually go to attain full and complete life—on a stage? Let’s see what will happen then!”
Well, that’s what I did. And of course things turned out just as they had to turn out: there was a mixture of the tragic and the comic, of the fantastic and the real, in a situation as humorous as it was novel and complicated. The play all of itself, by means of the breathing, speaking, moving characters in it, who carry the action and suffer its conflicts and clashes in their own persons, demands to be acted at any cost. It is the vain attempt to improvise on the stage the carrying out of this demand that constitutes the comedy.
First, the surprise of the company of actors who are rehearsing on a stage littered with sets and properties, a surprise mixed with incredulity at seeing those six characters appear on the stage and announce that they are looking for an author; then the mother’s sudden faint and the instinctive interest of the actors in the tragedies they sense in her and in the other members of that strange family; then the confused, ambiguous conflict that unexpectedly takes possession of that empty stage so little prepared to receive it; and, finally, little by little, the rising tide of that interest as the conflicting passions.of father, step-daughter, son, and mother, break out and try to dominate each the other with tragic and lacerating fury.
And, lo, those six characters who had of their own initiative stepped up on the stage, suddenly find in themselves that sense of universal significance which I had at first sought in vain; they find it in the excitement of the desperate struggle each character carries on with the others and in the struggle that all of them together carry on with the Manager and the Actors who fail to understand them.
Unintentionally, without knowing it, each one of them, in defending himself against the accusations of the others, under the pressure of his agitation gives out as his own vivid passion and torment, passions and torments that for years have been those of my own being; the impossibility (we take it as a heart-rending deception) of establishing a mutual understanding on the empty abstractions of words; the multiple personality of every one of us, a composite with as many faces as there are possibilities of being in each of us; and finally the tragic conflict between Life, which is forever fluid, forever in flux, and Form, which hardens Life * into immutable shapes from which Life itself withdraws.
Two of those characters in particular, the Father and the Daughter, recur again and again to the frightful and unchangeable fixity of their form in which both see the essence of their being perpetually imprisoned; for the one that unalterable shape is punishment, for the other vengeance; and this form, which is themselves, they defend against the vapid jests and the meaningless chatter of the actors, trying to make the commonplace Manager accept it, while he of course is intent on changing it and adapting it to the so-called requirements of the theatre.
The six characters an; not seemingly all in the same stage of formation. This is not because some of them are of first, and some of secondary, importance, finished pictures and studies in the rough. That would be nothing more than the most elementary sort of perspective, necessary to any architectural composition of scene or narrative. Neither is it because they are not all completely formed for the purposes they serve. All six are at the same stage of artistic realization and all six are on the same plane of reality—and this is the strange part of the play. Yet the Father and the Step-Daughter, and also the Son, are realized as mind, while the Mother is nature; and the Boy who looks on and makes gestures, and the Child, both absolutely inert, are no more than onlookers taking part by their presence merely. This creates a perspective of another sort. Unconsciously I had felt that I must realize some of the characters (artistically speaking) more completely, others less so, barely suggesting others still as elements of a story to be narrated or represented; those who are most intensely alive, the Father and Step-Daughter, naturally come forward and direct and drag along the almost dead weight of the others; of whom one, the Son, is reluctant, while the Mother, like a resigned victim, stands between those two small creatures, the children, who have scarcely any being except that of appearance, and who need to be led by the hand.
And that is just how they ought to appear—in the stage of creation arrived at in the author’s imagination at the moment he attempts to drive them away from him.
When I stop to think of it, to understand this artistic necessity, and then unconsciously to comply with it and resolve it by means of this perspective seem to me nothing short of a miracle. The truth of the matter is that the play was conceived in one of those moments of illumination when the imagination acts with untrammelled spontaneity, and when, for a wonder, all the faculties of the mind are working together in a superb harmony. No human brain, coldly attacking this problem, could ever have succeeded, no matter how hard it tried, in grasping and satisfying all the necessities of this form. Therefore whatever I may say in order to throw light on its significance and importance should not be interpreted as something I thought out before I set to work—as a defence of that work in short; but as a progressive discovery which little by little I have been able to make and which I shall certainly never complete in the brief span of my mortal life.
I have tried to represent six characters in search of an author. Their play does not take shape precisely because the author they are looking for fails them; and the play actually presented consists of their vain attempt to induce him to satisfy their wishes—by giving them a play, a comedy, to act; but the play is a tragedy also, because these six characters fail of attaining their purpose. The author turns them down!
But can an author represent a character even while he is refusing to deal with him? It seems clear enough that, in order to represent a character, an author must first welcome him into his imagination before he can “express” him. And that is what I did. I took those six characters in and realized them; but I took them in and realized them as having been turned down.
But let us understand precisely what it was that was turned down; not the characters evidently, but their play— the very thing that interested them above all else, of course. But it didn’t interest me at all, for the reasons I have pointed out.
And what, for a character in a play, constitutes his comedy or tragedy as the case may be? Every creature born of the imagination, every being art creates, must have his own play, that is to say, a play of which he is the hero and for which he is the dominating character. That play is the raisoti d’etre of that particular character; it is his life process; it is necessary for his existence.
So far as the six were concerned, I accepted their existence: but I refused the reason for their existence; I accepted the organism as it had developed but in place of its own function I assigned to it another more complex function in which its own original function scarcely figured at all. A terrible and desperate situation for both of them, Father and Step-Daughter, for of all the six it was they who were most eager to live, who were most fully conscious of being characters, that is to say, absolutely dependent on a play, on their own play, since that is the only one they are capable of imagining. Yet that is the play that is turned down! An impossible situation in short, a situation they must get out of at any cost for it is a matter of life and death. True, I did give them another raison d’etre than their own, another function-—nothing less than the “impossible” situation, the dramatic situation, which consists of being turned down and in search of an author; but they cannot even suspect—since they already have a life of their own-that this has now become their real reason for being, and a sufficient cause for their existence. If anyone should tell them so they wouldn’t believe it;— how is it possible to believe that the only reason for one’s existence resides wholly in a ceaseless torment that seems as unjust as it is unex-plainable?
I cannot imagine therefore why I was found fault with because the character of the Father, instead of remaining what he should have been, went beyond his own characteristics and role as a character, at times trespassing on the author’s own activities and adopting them as his own. I, who can understand those who do not understand me, see plainly enough that the blame comes from the fact that this character gives out as his own a work of the spirit that is recognized as being mine. That he does so is perfectly natural and of no significance whatever. This travail of spirit in the character of the Father derives from causes and reasons which have nothing to do with the drama of my personal experience—a consideration which of itself would rob the criticism in question of all semblance of consistency. However, I wish further to make it plain that the inherent activity of my mind—an activity that I have every right to let one of the characters reflect provided I make it organic—is one thing; while the activity my mind carries on for the purpose of realizing this work, the activity which succeeds finally in giving shape to the play of those six characters in search of an author, is quite another. If the Father participated in this activity, if he helped to form the play the essence of which is the authorlessness of those six characters, why then—then only!—would one be justified in saying that the Father is at times the author himself, and is therefore not what he should be! But the Father exists as a character in search of an author: he suffers that destiny, he does not create it; he endures it as an inexplicable fatality, and the situation in which he finds himself is one against which he rebels with all his strength, trying to remedy it; he is therefore really a character in search of an author and nothing more, even though he does express as though it were his own the activity of my mind. If he really did share in the author’s activity that fatality would be easily explained; that is to say he would be admitted—as an unadmitted character—into the very centre and core of the poet’s creative imagination, and would no longer have any cause to feel despair; because he could not find anyone to affirm and compose his life as a character; I mean that he would accept willingly enough the raison d’etre given him by the author and would without a moment’s hesitation throw his own overboard, promptly consigning the Manager and the Actors, to whom he had appealed as his only recourse, to the devil. There is one character, the Mother, on the other hand, to whom the mere fact of having life, considered as an end in itself, is not of the slightest importance. For she never doubts for a moment that she is already alive, nor does it ever occur to her to inquire in what respect and why she is alive. In other words she is not aware of being a character, for she is never, not even for a single moment, detached from her “part.” She doesn’t even know she has a “part.”
This makes her perfectly organic. In fact, her role as mother does not permit her to be mentally active. And she has no “mind;” she lives in a stream of feeling that never ceases, so that she cannot become conscious of her own life, that is to say, of her being a character. But for all that, even she, in her own way and for her own ends, is searching for an author. At a certain moment she seems pleased at being brought before the Manager. Because she hopes to gain more life through him? No; but because she hopes the Manager will give her a scene to act with her son, a scene into which she would put a large part of her own life. But the scene does not exist: it has never nor could it ever have taken place. That shows to what a degree she is unaware of being a character, unaware that is, of the life she may possess, fixed and determined moment by moment in every gesture and in every word she speaks.
She comes on the stage with the others, but she does not know what she is being made to do. Apparently she imagines that the mania for life which is constantly assailing her husband and daughter, and on account of which she too is dragged on to a stage is nothing more than another of the usual incomprehensible eccentricities of that cruelly tormenting and cruelly tormented husband of hers, or—and this is what for her makes it so frightful—another questionable move on the part of her poor erring daughter. She is entirely passive. The circumstances of her life and what they have come to mean in her eyes, her own nature, are all given by the other characters, never by herself, and only once as her natural instinct rises up rebelliously in her does she contradict them to make it clear that she had no intention of abandoning either her husband or her son; but that the child was taken away from her and that her husband forced her to abandon him. She is able to set you right on questions of fact, but she does not know and she cannot explain anything else.
Briefly, she is nature, nature fixed in the form of a mother.
As to the new kind of satisfaction I found in this character, I must say a word. Nearly all my critics, instead of defining the Mother as un-human—this seems to be the peculiar and incorrigible nature of all my characters without exception—have been good enough to note “with unaffected pleasure” that at last my imagination had given birth to an extraordinarily human character. This unlooked for praise I explain in this fashion: my poor Mother is tightly bound to her natural function as mother, and cannot possibly function mentally or spiritually; that is to say, being hardly more than a piece of flesh living completely in the functions of bearing, suckling, nursing and loving her progeny without ever needing to use her brain, she realizes in herself the perfectly typical “human being!” Of course! For nothing is more superfluous in the human organism than the mind!
My critics expected with this praise to dismiss the Mother and made no attempt to penetrate to the kernel of poetic values this character possesses in the play. A “most human” figure, yes, since the character entirely lacks mental activity, that is to say, is unaware of being what she is and takes no interest in explaining to herself how it happens that she is as she is. But the fact that she does not know she is a character in a play does not prevent her from being one. That is her dramatic situation in my “Six Characters.” And the most vivid expression of this situation flashes out in her cry to the Manager when he tells her to pause and consider that as all these things she is relating have already occurred they should not cause her to weep afresh. “No, it is happening now, it is always happening! My torture is not feigned! I am alive, I feel every moment of my torment. My torment too is alive and in every breath I draw!”—She feels all this, without understanding it, as something inexplicable therefor: but she feels it with such terrible force that it does not even occur to her that it could be explained to her or to the others. She feels it—that suffices. She feels it as grief, and this grief at once cries out. And that is how she reflects the hardening of her life in a form—the same thing that in quite another fashion torments the Father and the Daughter. With them it is mind; with her, nature. The mind rebels and tries to draw whatever advantage it can from its torment; but nature, unless stimulated by the senses, can ortly weep.
The conflict between Life and Form is inexorably a condition of the spiritual order; it is also inherent in the natural order. Life, which abandons its fluidity in order to become fixed in our bodily form, little by little kills its form. In the irreparable and continuous aging of our bodies the nature fixed in those particular forms has an eternal cause for complaint. The Mother’s plaint is both passive and perpetual. Revealed through three different faces, made significant in three distinct and simultaneous conflicts, it is in this play that the dramatic struggle between Life and Form finds its most complete expression. Moreover, in that poignant outburst of hers to the Manager, the Mother also brings out the particular significance of the form of life created by the human spirit: that is to say, the artistic form—a form which does not congeal, which does not kill, its own life and which life does not devour. If the Father and the Daughter were to begin their scene a hundred thousand times, invariably, at the appointed moment, in the second when the life of the work of art is to be expressed by the Mother’s cry, that cry would resound—unchangeable and unchanging in form, not as a mechanical repetition is unchanging, a repetition required by external forces, but alive and as though new each time, and each time suddenly born to live forever—embalmed alive in imperishable fixity! Always, when we open the comedy, we find the living Francesca confessing her sweet sin to Dante; and though we should read that passage a hundred thousand times in succession, Francesca will still a hundred thousand times repeat her words, not mechanically, but as though each time were the first, and with such vivid and sudden passion that the poet each time will turn faint with his emotion!
All that lives, by the sheer fact of living, has a form and so must die; all except the work of art which, on the contrary, lives forever insofar as it is form.
The birth of a creation of the human imagination, that step across the threshold from nothingness to eternity, can occur suddenly, when some necessity has served as its matrix. In a play that is imagined a character does and says whatever is necessary, he is born just the character he ought to be. That is how Madame Pace comes to life among the six characters, with all the effect of a miracle or a surpassingly clever trick realistically portrayed. But it isn’t a trick. That is a real birth, and the new character is alive, not because the character was alive before, but because successfully ushered into life, as required by the very fact of her being a character—she is obliged to be as she is. As she steps on the scene there is a break therefore, a sudden change in the planes of reality on the stage, because a character can come to life that way only in the imagination of the poet and not on the boards of the stage itself. Without anyone’s noticing it, I suddenly changed the nature of the scene; at that precise moment I took it back into my imagination but without removing it from the sight of the audience; that is to say, instead of the stage, I showed them my imagination in the act of creating, as though it were a kind of stage. The sudden and uncontrollable transformation of some form of appearance from one plane of reality to another is a miracle of the same kind as that accomplished by the Saint who animates his statue, which for that moment is certailny neither of wood nor of stone. But it is not an arbitrary kind of miracle. That stage, since it receives the imagined reality of the six characters, does not exist of itself as a fixed and immutable fact, just as nothing in the play exists in advance—everything is actually in the making, everything about it moves and changes, always impromptu, always tentative. Even the plane of reality in which all this formless life moves and flows in its eager search for form is thus organically displaced. When I conceived of having Madame Pace come to life then and there on that stage, I felt sure I could carry out my conception, and I did so; if I had noticed that this sudden birth suddenly and in a twinkling broke in upon and gave another shape to the plane of reality of the scene, I would certainly never have attempted it, for I would have been appalled by its apparent lack of logic, which would thus have inflicted an unfortunate injury on the beauty of my play. But the fervor of my imagination saved me; because, in the face of a deceptive logic, that fantastic coming to life is demanded by an artistic necessity that is mysteriously and organically correlated with the life of the whole work.
When anyone tells me that my play is not as good as it might be because, instead of being smooth and stately, it is chaotic in expression, and sins by its romanticism, I am forced to smile.
I can understand of course why this criticism is made. As I have written this play, the dramatic presentation of the six characters appears tumultuous and unruly. It never proceeds in an orderty fashion: it lacks logical development—there is no stringing together of events. True enough! Had I gone out to look for it with a lantern I could not have found a more disorderly, eccentric, capricious and complicated manner, a more romantic manner, in short, of presenting the drama in which the six characters are involved. True again! But as it happens, that is not the play I have presented. The play I am dealing with is quite another play—I need not repeat what that play is! But aside from the various excellences to be found in it according to one’s taste, it contains a sustained satire of romantic methods; for while my characters are in such a fever to outdo themselves in the parts each of them has in one play —their play, I am presenting them as characters in another play—my play! This they neither know nor suspect. As a result the extreme agitation their passions cause in them— a trait of romantic treatment—is humorously superimposed on sheer void. And the play of the six characters, represented not as it would have been composed by my imagination if my imagination had accepted it, could not have a place in my work except as a “situation” to be developed somehow or other, and could not come out except in eruptive, incoherent commands, in violent short-cuts, chaotically, in short, perpetually interrupted, led off the track, contradicted, actually denied by one of its characters, and not even seen by two of them!
One of the characters—the Son, who denies the conflict which makes him a “character”—derives his importance, his “substantiality,” from the fact, not that he is a character in the play-in-the-making,—for he scarcely appears at all in that capacity—but that he is a character in my representation of the play-in-the-making. He is in short the only one who lives as a “character in search of an author” and nothing else; to such a degree that the author he is looking for is not a dramatic author. This too could not very well be otherwise. Moreover, not only is the attitude of this character completely organic in my conception, but he heightens the general confusion and disorder, besides being another element of romantic contrast.
It was precisely this organic and natural chaos that I had to represent. But to depict chaos does not mean that one must proceed chaotically, romantically! The method I have used is the very opposite of chaotic. It is clear, simple, and orderly, as is evident from the way the plot, the characters, the several planes of reality, imaginary and real, the dramatic and comic values, have all been accepted by the play-going publics of the world; and for those who have eyes to see further the play contains still other values, by no means the usual values, and of no mean scope. Great is the confusion of tongues among men if there are words in which criticisms of this nature can find expression. The confusion is the confusion of the law of order itself which this play of mine observes in every particular, and which makes it a classical and typical play, while at the same time forbidding its ultimate catastrophe to find expression in a single word. It is made clear to everyone witnessing the play that Life cannot be created by artifice, that the play of the six characters, lacking as it does an author to nourish it in the womb of his spirit, cannot be represented for the vulgar satisfaction of someone who wishes merely to know how an event developed. This event is recorded by the Son in the material succession of its moments, but it is entirely devoid of meaning and therefore does not need even a human voice to express it; but, with its own material voice, and for the simple reason that the event had happened before, it happens again. Ugly and useless, catastrophe swoops down with the detonation of a weapon—a piece of mechanism—on the stage, shattering and throwing to the four winds the sterile attempt of characters and actors to make their play without the help of the poet.
If I dare not heed the statement which G. B. Shaw has seen fit to make—that “Six Characters in Search of an Author” is the most original and dynamic play ever written in any nation, or at any time, whether ancient or modern— I can at least feel in all conscience that the appearance of the “Six Characters” marks a date in the history of the Italian theatre which it will not be possible for the supporters of the “old” drama to ignore.