With the premiere of a new adaptation of Pirandello's 'Six Persons Seeking an Author', a new national theater company under the artistic direction of Michael Rudman presents itself at the Olivier Theatre. It is the seventh independent ensemble belonging to the National Theater, which will play all three stages of the house.
'Six Persons Seeking an Author' by Luigi Pirandello is (as it says in the subtitle) "a play yet to be made". The six characters who appear on the stage of a theater one morning reveal themselves to be characters of an unfinished play, who wish to be freed from the torment of unresolved conﬂicts, which the author, who invented them and thus brought them to life, failed them to do.
The drama, which premiered in Rome in 1921, became the most frequently performed play of the twenties, and its author became world famous as a result. It is still considered a classic work of modern theater, but is rarely performed today. Thus one is grateful that the National Theatre is making use of the performing rights freed up fifty years after Pirandello's death to present a new English version of the 'Six Persons'.
Nicholas Wright, who edited the text, embellished and in a sense angliﬁzed the framing plot. Instead of a Pirandello play, the actors rehearse 'Hamlet' before the six mysterious figures suddenly appear amid a darkened stage and a tremendous rumble of thunder, insisting on being heard. After that, the events take their familiar course. The director is persuaded to stand in for an author in executing the unfinished family drama and redeeming the roles from their semi-existence, in which we witness a thrilling reality shift that makes us feel that the shadowy roles, who want to merge into a meaningful play-whole, are more 'real' than the theatrical world that surrounds them, for their suffering is not an act, but reality.
Pirandello's play about a play that is still to be made, but does not come about, stands and falls with the transparency of its complex structure, whereby we should realize that here no less than four levels of reality are shifted into one another. Max Reinhardt seems to have introduced a fifth level in his famous Berlin production of the play in 1924, because he was able to suggest so credibly the genuineness and liveliness of the characters in their search for an author who could finish their private destinies, that the impression was created that their lives, which at first seemed fragmentary and meaningless, had to seek Zuﬂucht from the poet in order to discover the meaning that could only be ﬁnd in the work of art.
It is one of the weaknesses of the new adaptation of Pirandello's text that it changes the ending for unﬁndable reasons, not only robbing the last scene of its effect, but shortening the whole play by one dimension, because the work as such of art, as an artifact, only brings itself to consciousness when the director discovers the spectators in front of the stage and has us ordered out of the hall.
Seemingly insignificant details, such as why the 'characters' wear mourning clothes, can nevertheless be of great importance to the dramaturgy of the play. The construction is weakened if this is related only to the death of the mother's second husband instead of that of her children, which comes as a surprise to us and occurs only at the end of the piece, but is known by the 'persons' long ago.
Michael Rudman's staging ensures that the structures of the text are blurred rather than clearly worked out, so that many of the questions important for understanding the processes remain open. The blurring of contours helps make the piece seem much ﬂighter than it is. What the London audience, which seemed to be well entertained on the evening of the premiere, admittedly could not have guessed.
And a comparison of the first press reports shows how differently even professional critics react to one and the same idea. "Michael Rudman delivers the most plausible staging of the play that I know of … A perfectly attuned, ravishing performance," said the 'Times'. And in the Financial Times: "The National Theater is content to present the play in a trivialized version as a tasty backstage drama with a strangely melodramatic ending.