When the lights come up on Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), the first thing the audience sees is a bare stage, with no scenery and only a few folding tables and chairs scattered about. A stage-hand is starting to build a set, but the stage manager interrupts him to say that it is time for rehearsal. The producer and a company of actors arrive and begin reading out stage directions; the actors complain about the script, but the producer (who also serves as director) explains that he “can’t get hold of good French plays any more so that now we’re reduced to putting on plays by Pirandello.” Before the rehearsal can get underway, an attendant comes up the central aisle of the auditorium and announces unexpected visitors. Six characters, wearing masks, and identified only as Father, Mother, Stepdaughter, Son, Boy, and Girl, follow the attendant up the aisle and beg the producer to find them an author who can write a play about them, or to include them in the play he is about to produce.
After some bewilderment, the characters explain that the author who invented them did not complete their play. They tell the rather melodramatic story of their lives. The producer agrees to create a play about them. The professional actors (who are not wearing masks) start playing the roles of the characters, but when they arrive at a crucial scene, the characters intervene, complaining that they are not being fairly represented. The producer thinks that the play will succeed, but decides to change a few details. The company’s leading actress explains that audiences today are not as good as they once were at accepting theatrical illusion. At this word, the characters object again:
FATHER (jumping up suddenly): Illusion? I would ask you not to speak of illusion! I would beg you not to use that word. For us it has a particularly cruel ring!
PRODUCER (astonished): For heaven’s sake, why?
FATHER: Oh, yes, cruel, cruel! You really ought to understand....