David Harrower, who adapted Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, gives answers to the questions that needed to be asked….
Six Characters caused riots in the theatre when it was first performed in Rome in 1921. Why do you think it was so shocking to some of the audience then, and is it still as shocking today?
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why the audience rioted at the play's first performance. Some have claimed simply that nothing like it had been seen before on the Italian stage – but this isn't strictly true. Pirandello was writing at a time when the Futurist movement and Theatre of the Grotesque were imprinting themselves culturally on Italian society, and he himself had written earlier plays that questioned, albeit in a less complex way than Six Characters, what dramatic reality was and what truths and 'messages' an audience should expect from it.
It could perhaps have been the subject matter – the story of the Characters touches on poverty, prostitution, children born outside of marriage and sexual interest in young girls – plus a tragic, horrible ending (or is it?) – and it may well have been that the profusion of so many societal themes in one play sparked the audience off.
But on top of this there's also the fact that because of the very nature of the play it's only partly concerned with the story it's telling – it lurches forward in fits and starts, it refers back to itself and argues with itself and questions itself. And all this can lead to the viewer asking: whose story am I watching here? Is it Pirandello talking, or his characters? To what extent do I get emotionally involved? And (it happens, I promise) what kind of cruel metaphysical trick is being played on me by this bloody long-dead Sicilian writer?
Anyhow, back to the question of why the riot..? I'm not sure I know the answer to that question.
The play features a group of 'characters' discarded by their creator yet desperate to 'exist' nonetheless. Have you ever discarded a character during your own writing, and how do you think he or she would react to being rejected by you?
I've lost count of the number of characters I've 'discarded' or 'rejected', though of course I'd prefer to say I left them behind or allowed them to fade away, that sounds more poetic. 'Discarded' seems so harsh though, on reflection, it's the reality. Some characters just never become what they promise to be at the beginning – they never assume an independent voice, they can be tiresomely humourless and demanding. All it takes is a pen to score through them on the page or the Delete key on the keyboard. Click. Out of sight, out of mind.
It depends also on how a writer goes about creating their characters, how they're brought into being. The characters can come first and a story be found around and through them or – and this is the way I've always worked – I'll have the arc of a story and then populate it with a certain number of characters - indistinct, nameless characters but necessary at that time to carry the story for me. And as I go about refining it, the characters will reveal themselves – they'll become distinct and need, indeed demand, naming. And as I do this and gradually find out what the hell it is I'm trying to get across in the play – and which characters I absolutely need to do this. Then there is generally a silent but deadly cull.
I don't think I've ever axed a character to whom I'd given a name – though I probably have and forgotten about it – but what does happen most times is that some aspects of the killed-off characters are usually resurrected in the characters left standing.
Finally, all I'd say to those characters who served and fell at my desk, in my notebooks and upon my computer screen, your sacrifice was necessary for the greater good of the story. Sorry.
A play about theatre and theatricality might be considered slightly insular or closed. What is it about Six Characters that makes it relevant to a wider audience beyond the world of theatre?
I'm not entirely sure how to answer this. I hesitate when it comes to questions of relevance and what an audience should 'get' from a play. In one way, this question is exactly what Pirandello brings to our attention in Six Characters – should something be 'got' from a work of art? Does the necessary artifice of theatre (people inhabiting characters and attempting to make them real to an audience) ultimately rob us of deeper meaning or does what Pirandello would call `play-acting’ actually help us understand better? There are questions here about empathy, compassion, emotion, an audience's relationship to a story, a theatre company, a theatre building, the public funding of art-forms, the list goes on.
What I 'get' from Six Characters will be different from most of the audience because I've read the play several times and have worked on this version twice, first for the Young Vic and now, a revising of that for Mark Thomson's production (and I'll be the first to throw my hand up and say my text for the Young Vic had some glaring mistakes in it). So even I didn't get the play right the first time. It's tough and knotty and unrepentant and infuriating at times. I loved it once, then went through a period of indifference towards it, thinking wrongly it led more from the intellect than from emotion. But then, another re-read, hearing the Scottish actors get to grips with it, seeing light shine on to it from another vantage point and I'm back to loving it again. Is that not how any relationship with a work of art should be? A constant tussle?
Having adapted the likes of Chekhov, Buchner, Schiller and of course Pirandello, how would you feel if one of your own plays were to be adapted by another playwright?
I'd hope that I, like the great Luigi Pirandello himself, were dead.