Luigi Pirandello's 1921 play "Six Characters in Search of an Author" ("Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore") has the deserved reputation of being the first existentialist drama and having a profound effect on later playwrights, especially those practitioners of the Theater of the Absurd such as Samuel Beckett ("Waiting for Godot"), Eugene Ionesco ("Rhinoceros"), and Jean Genet ("The Maids"). Pirandello's writing often focuses on elements of madness, illusion and isolation, all of which are inspired by the tragic aspects of his personal life in which his wife went insane and his daugther tried to commit suicide. In 1921 during a five week period Pirandello wrote his two acknowledged masterpieces, "Six Characters in Search of an Author" and "Henry IV." While "Six Characters" was successful when it opened in Rome it was also considered scandalous. However, it soon being performed in Milan, London, New York, and Germany.
The setting for "Six Characters in Search of an Author" is a rehearsal for a play (By Pirandello) that is interrupted by the arrival of six characters. Their leader, the father, tells the manager that they are looking for an author. It seems that the author who created them never finished their story and they are unrealized characters who have not yet been fully brought to life. The father insists that they are not real people but characters, and the manager and his cast can only laugh at the idea. But then they become intrigued by the bits and pieces of the story the six characters have to tell. The manager agrees to produce their story and become the author for whom they have been searching. He tries to stage the scene where the father meets the step-daughter in the dress shop but both characters insist that what the actors are doing is not realistic. The manager allows them to finish out the scene instead. This sets up the basic juxtaposition of "drama" and "reality" for the rest of the play, with the key scenes in the lives of these characters providing more questions than they answer about what happened and what it means. At the point when the manager can no longer tell the difference between acting and reality he becomes fed up with the entire thing and ends the rehearsal, providing an audience that has already been challenged by these changing notions of reality with an abrupt ending to the drama. There may or may not be a real story here, but the ultimate point of this play is that the tradition of reality in the theater no longer holds true.
The radical idea here is that there is an immutability of reality for these six characters. Because they are forms, forced into performing the actions for which they were imagined, there is an inherent conflict with life. This is why the son wants to escape but cannot leave the studio and must play his role, as must the Mother and the rest of the characters. This is just as true of all the other characters besides the six, although the others are less inclined to see the truth, or at least the reality, of their own situation until the end, when the final scene of the drama seeks to dissolve the "stage" reality completely. Where Pirandello succeeds in the end is in having it both ways, for we can interpret what we have seen as being reality or as being acting. Either way, you are left to the same conclusion.