One hundred years ago, on May 10, 1921, Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936) presented the debut of his play Six Characters in Search of an Author in Rome. Opening-night reaction was surly. Some likened the atmosphere to a riot; hecklers cried out “Manicomia!”—“Madhouse.” The playwright was sent skittering away by boos. Just two years later, though, an acclaimed Parisian production established the play as a modernist sensation, and it has retained the mantle of a great play ever since. By 1925, in a preface to the published play, Pirandello was boasting that George Bernard Shaw had dubbed Six Characters “the most original and most powerful work of all the theatres ancient and modern in all nations.” Shaw hadn’t actually said that, but allowed that he had “never come across a play so original.” Pirandello, who...


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