The stage is set as if for a regular rehearsal. The actors arrive and pretend to prepare to rehearse the second act of a Pirandello play called Mixing It Up. The manager starts going through the various scenes and telling his Property Man what to write down for each. When the Leading Man protests about part of his costume, the manager yells at him concerning the symbolism of the props and asks if he understands. The man replies that he has no idea what he is doing, and the manager likewise admits to ignorance.
The Door-keeper arrives and tells the manager that some people have come to see him, but by the time he finishes the six characters have already come onstage. The father informs the manager that he has an unfinished drama for him to perform and that it only needs an author to complete it. He then claims that he and the other five people are all characters rather than real people. The manager and the other actors burst out laughing.
The manager is on the verge of throwing them out as jokesters, but the father persists and argues that he and the others want to be brought to life by being played by the actors. He informs them that their author only wrote two acts of their play and then left it unfinished. The Step-Daughter comes forward and tells them that they will be amazed by the drama in which the little girl dies and she, the Step-Daughter, is the only character who manages to run off.
The characters finally start to describe their history. The father initially married a peasant woman and had a son with her. However, when he got bored with her, he convinced his wife to run away with his male secretary. She subsequently had three children with the other man, but the son she left behind has become hostile and antagonistic. The father, attracted to the family he has lost, used to watch the Step-Daughter on her way to school. At some point he lost track of the family. After the secretary dies, the mother and her children returned to the city and started working in Madame Pace's dress shop. While the mother was a mender of dresses, the daughter actually worked as a high-class prostitute for Madame Pace.
One day the father apparently went to the shop with the goal of finding a prostitute for himself and started seducing the daughter. The daughter is eager to play the scene where she meets the father again in order to get revenge on him by revealing his shame. Before anything happens between them, however, the mother recognizes him and stops them. The father then indicates that the son plays a role in the drama as well. The Step-Daughter blames the son for keeping her out on the streets, but he blames her for showing up and ruining his comfortable life after so many years. The father tells the manager that their drama ends with the death of the little girl, the suicide of the young boy, and the flight of the step-daughter.
The manager has gotten interested in their story and decides that he can make a play out of it. The father asks him to become the author, telling him that all he has to do is write down whatever they perform for him. The manager agrees and takes them into his office to figure out the best way to do it. The other actors think that he has gone mad and are furious with the way the rehearsal has been interrupted.
Pirandello takes advantage of classical drama to create the division between the characters and actors in the play. The "real" actors are buffoons, the "alazones", who think they know everything about the theater. They will make fun of the characters and be condescending throughout the play. They stand in contrast with the characters, the "pharmakos", who as scapegoats and sufferers are bombarded throughout the play.
The issue of a mask on the face is extended here to include anyone performing in a play. The actors, or the "dramatis personae", literally mean the masks in the play. This will set up one of the conflicts, namely the fact that the characters do not have masks, and in that sense are more real than the actors who try to portray them later.
Pirandello wants his audience to accept the reality of the play, to think this is a real rehearsal of a play, and then to realize it is a joke. This serves as his way of conveying his ideas concerning the artificiality of the theater. It turns the play into a form of meta-theater, in which the audience is incorporated into the play and where the characters contemplate on the nature of theater. The characters for example suffer and reflect on their forms, and since they are cursed with hindsight they can reflect on their actions even without having yet performed them for the audience.
The Mother is the only character unaware of being a character. She is a peasant woman whose main attribute is that she is an emotional rather than a self-reflective character. This helps to explain her inability to come to terms with her existence as a character; she will try to avoid having the drama performed, without realizing that she cannot escape her role.
The silence of children is a wonderful dramatic effect. Their silence is necessary because they are already dead, as we find out when the father informs the manager that they both die in the final scene.
There are three struggles that occur in this play, the first of which is already evident: the struggle between the characters themselves. The characters hate each other with a passion born from their existence as forms in an unfinished play. The step-daughter despises her father for going to a brothel, her brother for keeping her out of the house, and her mother for running away with the secretary. The son despises the entire new family and especially his mother for abandoning him.