Theater of the Absurd


The Theatre of the Absurd is a designation for particular plays of absurdist fiction, written by a number of primarily European playwrights in the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, as well as to the style of theater which has evolved from their work. Their work expressed the belief that, in a godless universe, human existence has no meaning or purpose and therefore all communication breaks down.

Logical construction and argument gives way to irrational and illogical speech and to its ultimate conclusion, silence. Plays within this group are absurd in that they focus not on logical acts, realistic occurrences, or traditional character development; they, instead, focus on human beings trapped in an incomprehensible world subject to any occurrence, no matter how illogical. The theme of incomprehensibility is coupled with the inadequacy of language to form meaningful human connections.

Critic Martin Esslin coined the term in his 1960 essay and, later, book of the same name. He related these plays based on a broad theme of the Absurd, similar to the way Albert Camus uses the term in his 1942 essay, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus.’ The Absurd in these plays takes the form of man’s reaction to a world apparently without meaning, and/or man as a puppet controlled or menaced by invisible outside forces. Though the term is applied to a wide range of plays, some characteristics coincide in many of the plays: broad comedy, often similar to Vaudeville, mixed with horrific or tragic images; characters caught in hopeless situations forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions; dialogue full of clichés, wordplay, and nonsense; plots that are cyclical or absurdly expansive; either a parody or dismissal of realism and the concept of the ‘well-made play.’

Though the label ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ covers a wide variety of playwrights with differing styles, they do have some common stylistic precursors, such as the Elizabethan Tragicomedy The mode of most ‘absurdist’ plays is tragicomedy. ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness … it’s the most comical thing in the world.’ Esslin cites William Shakespeare as an influence on this aspect of the ‘Absurd drama.’ Shakespeare’s influence is acknowledged directly in the titles of Ionesco’s ‘Macbeth’ and Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’ Friedrich Dürrenmatt said, ‘Comedy alone is suitable for us … But the tragic is still possible even if pure tragedy is not. We can achieve the tragic out of comedy. We can bring it forth as a frightening moment, as an abyss that opens suddenly; indeed, many of Shakespeare’s tragedies are already really comedies out of which the tragic arises.’

Though layered with a significant amount of tragedy, the Theatre of the Absurd echoes other great forms of comedic performance, according to Esslin, from Commedia dell’arte to Vaudeville. Similarly, Esslin cites early film comedians and music hall artists such as Charlie Chaplin, The Keystone Cops and Buster Keaton as direct influences.

As an experimental form of theater, Theater of the Absurd employs techniques borrowed from earlier innovators. Writers and techniques frequently mentioned include the 19th-century nonsense poets, such as Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear; Polish playwright Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz; the Russians Daniil Kharms, Nikolai Erdman, and others; Bertolt Brecht’s distancing techniques in his ‘Epic theatre’; and the ‘dream plays’ of August Strindberg.

One commonly cited precursor is Luigi Pirandello, especially ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author.’ Pirandello was a highly regarded theatrical experimentalist who wanted to bring down the fourth wall presupposed by the realism of playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen. According to W. B. Worthen, ‘Six Characters’ and other Pirandello plays use ‘Metatheatre—roleplaying, plays-within-plays, and a flexible sense of the limits of stage and illusion—to examine a highly-theatricalized vision of identity.’

Another influential playwright was Guillaume Apollinaire whose ‘The Breasts of Tiresias’ was the first work to be called ‘surreal.’

One of the most significant common precursors is Alfred Jarry whose wild, irreverent, and lascivious ‘Ubu’ plays scandalized Paris in the 1890s. Likewise, the concept of ‘Pataphysics (the science of imaginary solutions),’ first presented by Jarry, who was inspirational to many later Absurdists,

Artaud’s ‘The Theatre of Cruelty’ was a particularly important philosophical treatise. Artaud claimed theater’s reliance on literature was inadequate and that the true power of theater was in its visceral impact. Artaud was a Surrealist, and many other members of the Surrealist group were significant influences on the Absurdists.

Absurdism is also frequently compared to Surrealism’s predecessor, Dadaism (for example, the Dadaist plays by Tristan Tzara performed at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich). Many of the Absurdists had direct connections with the Dadaists and Surrealists. Ionesco, Adamov, and Arrabal for example, were friends with Surrealists still living in Paris at the time including Paul Eluard and André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, and Beckett translated many Surrealist poems by Breton and others from French into English.

The Theatre of the Absurd is commonly associated with Existentialism, and Existentialism was an influential philosophy in Paris during the rise of the Theatre of the Absurd; however, to call it Existentialist theatre is problematic for many reasons. It gained this association partly because it was named (by Esslin) after the concept of ‘absurdism’ advocated by Albert Camus, a philosopher commonly called Existentialist though he frequently resisted that label.

Absurdism is most accurately called Existentialist in the way Franz Kafka’s work is labeled Existentialist: it embodies an aspect of the philosophy though the writer may not be a committed follower. As Tom Stoppard said in an interview, ‘I must say I didn’t know what the word ‘existential’ meant until it was applied to Rosencrantz. And even now existentialism is not a philosophy I find either attractive or plausible. But it’s certainly true that the play can be interpreted in existential terms, as well as in other terms.’

Many of the Absurdists were contemporaries with Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosophical spokesman for Existentialism in Paris, but few Absurdists actually committed to Sartre’s own Existentialist philosophy, as expressed in ‘Being and Nothingness,’ and many of the Absurdists had a complicated relationship with him. Sartre praised Genet’s plays, stating that for Genet ‘Good is only an illusion. Evil is a Nothingness which arises upon the ruins of Good.’

Ionesco, however, hated Sartre bitterly, and accused him of supporting Communism but ignoring the atrocities committed by Communists; he wrote ‘Rhinoceros’ as a criticism of blind conformity, whether it be to Nazism or Communism; at the end of the play, one man remains on Earth resisting transformation into a rhinoceros. Sartre criticized ‘Rhinoceros’ by questioning: ‘Why is there one man who resists? At least we could learn why, but no, we learn not even that. He resists because he is there.’ Sartre’s criticism highlights a primary difference between the Theatre of the Absurd and Existentialism: The Theatre of the Absurd shows the failure of man without recommending a solution.

In a 1966 interview, Claude Bonnefoy, comparing the Absurdists to Sartre and Camus, said to Ionesco, ‘It seems to me that Beckett, Adamov and yourself started out less from philosophical reflections or a return to classical sources, than from first-hand experience and a desire to find a new theatrical expression that would enable you to render this experience in all its acuteness and also its immediacy. If Sartre and Camus thought out these themes, you expressed them in a far more vital contemporary fashion.’

Ionesco replied, ‘I have the feeling that these writers – who are serious and important — were talking about absurdity and death, but that they never really lived these themes, that they did not feel them within themselves in an almost irrational, visceral way, that all this was not deeply inscribed in their language. With them it was still rhetoric, eloquence. With Adamov and Beckett it really is a very naked reality that is conveyed through the apparent dislocation of language.’

In comparison to Sartre’s concepts of the function of literature, Samuel Beckett’s primary focus was on the failure of man to overcome ‘absurdity’; as James Knowlson says in ‘Damned to Fame,’ Beckett’s work focuses ‘on poverty, failure, exile and loss — as he put it, on man as a ‘non-knower’ and as a ‘non-can-er’.’ Beckett’s own relationship with Sartre was complicated by a mistake made in the publication of one of his stories in Sartre’s journal ‘Les Temps Modernes.’ Beckett said, though he liked Sarte’s novel ‘Nausea,’ he generally found the writing style of Sartre and Heidegger to be ‘too philosophical’ and he considered himself ‘not a philosopher.’

Echoes of elements of ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’ can be seen in many later playwrights, from more avant-garde or experimental playwrights like Suzan Lori Parks in ‘The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World’ and ‘The America Play,’ for example, to relatively realistic playwrights like David Mamet in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,’ which Mamet dedicated to Harold Pinter. Irish playwright Martin McDonagh in plays such as ‘Pillowman’ addresses some of the themes and uses some of the techniques of Absurdism, especially reminiscent of Beckett and Pinter.

According to Martin Esslin, Absurdism is ‘the inevitable devaluation of ideals, purity, and purpose.’ Absurdist drama asks its viewer to ‘draw his own conclusions, make his own errors. Though Theatre of the Absurd may be seen as nonsense, they have something to say and can be understood.’ Esslin makes a distinction between the dictionary definition of absurd (‘out of harmony’ in the musical sense) and drama’s understanding of the Absurd: ‘bsurd is that which is devoid of purpose…. Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless.’

The characters in Absurdist drama are lost and floating in an incomprehensible universe and they abandon rational devices and discursive thought because these approaches are inadequate. Many characters appear as automatons stuck in routines speaking only in cliché (Ionesco called the Old Man and Old Woman in ‘The Chairs’ ‘uber-marrionettes’). Characters are frequently stereotypical, archetypal, or flat character types as in Commedia dell’arte.

The more complex characters are in crisis because the world around them is incomprehensible. Many of Pinter’s plays, for example, feature characters trapped in an enclosed space menaced by some force the character can’t understand. Pinter’s first play was ‘The Room’ – in which the main character, Rose, is menaced by Riley who invades her safe space though the actual source of menace remains a mystery – and this theme of characters in a safe space menaced by an outside force is repeated in many of his later works (perhaps most famously in ‘The Birthday Party’).

In Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s ‘The Visit’ the main character, Alfred, is menaced by Claire Zachanassian; Claire, richest woman in the world with a decaying body and multiple husbands throughout the play, has guaranteed a payout for anyone in the town willing to kill Alfred. Characters in Absurdist drama may also face the chaos of a world that science and logic have abandoned. Ionesco’s recurring character Berenger, for example, faces a killer without motivation in ‘The Killer,’ and Berenger’s logical arguments fail to convince the killer that killing is wrong. In ‘Rhinocéros,’ Berenger remains the only human on Earth who hasn’t turned into a rhinoceros and must decide whether or not to conform. Characters may find themselves trapped in a routine or, in a metafictional conceit, trapped in a story; the titular characters in Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead,’ for example, find themselves in a story (‘Hamlet’) in which the outcome has already been written.

The plots of many Absurdist plays feature characters in interdependent pairs, commonly either two males or a male and a female. Some Beckett scholars call this the ‘pseudocouple.’ The two characters may be roughly equal or have a begrudging interdependence (like Vladamir and Estragon in ‘Waiting for Godot’ or the two main characters in ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’); one character may be clearly dominant and may torture the passive character (like Pozzo and Lucky in ‘Waiting for Godot’ or Hamm and Clov in ‘Endgame’); the relationship of the characters may shift dramatically throughout the play (as in Ionesco’s ‘The Lesson’ or in many of Albee’s plays, ‘The Zoo Story’ for example).

Despite its reputation for nonsense language, much of the dialogue in Absurdist plays is naturalistic. The moments when characters resort to nonsense language or clichés–when words appear to have lost their denotative function, thus creating misunderstanding among the characters, making the Theatre of the Absurd distinctive. Language frequently gains a certain phonetic, rhythmical, almost musical quality, opening up a wide range of often comedic playfulness.

Jean Tardieu, for example, in the series of short pieces ‘Theatre de Chambre’ arranged the language as one arranges music. Distinctively Absurdist language will range from meaningless clichés to Vaudeville-style word play to meaningless nonsense. ‘The Bald Soprano,’ for example, was inspired by a language book in which characters would exchange empty clichés that never ultimately amounted to true communication or true connection. Likewise, the characters in ‘The Bald Soprano’–like many other Absurdist characters–go through routine dialogue full of clichés without actually communicating anything substantive or making a human connection. In other cases, the dialogue is purposefully elliptical; the language of Absurdist Theater becomes secondary to the poetry of the concrete and objectified images of the stage. Many of Beckett’s plays devalue language for the sake of the striking tableau. Harold Pinter–famous for his ‘Pinter pause’–presents more subtly elliptical dialogue; often the primary things characters should address is replaced by ellipsis or dashes.

Traditional plot structures are rarely a consideration in The Theatre of the Absurd. Plots can consist of the absurd repetition of cliché and routine, as in ‘Godot’ or ‘The Bald Soprano.’ Often there is a menacing outside force that remains a mystery; in ‘The Birthday Party,’ for example, Goldberg and McCann confront Stanley, torture him with absurd questions, and drag him off at the end, but it is never revealed why. In later Pinter plays, such as ‘The Caretaker’ and ‘The Homecoming,’ the menace is no longer entering from the outside but exists within the confined space. Other Absurdists use this kind of plot, as in Edward Albee’s ‘A Delicate Balance.’

Absence, emptiness, nothingness, and unresolved mysteries are central features in many Absurdist plots: for example, in ‘The Chairs’ an old couple welcomes a large number of guests to their home, but these guests are invisible so all we see is empty chairs, a representation of their absence. Likewise, the action of ‘Godot’ is centered around the absence of a man named Godot, for whom the characters perpetually wait. In many of Beckett’s later plays, most features are stripped away and what’s left is a minimalistic tableau: a woman walking slowly back and forth in ‘Footfalls,’ for example, or in ‘Breath’ only a junk heap on stage and the sounds of breathing.

The plot may also revolve around an unexplained metamorphosis, a supernatural change, or a shift in the laws of physics. For example, in Ionesco’s ‘Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It,’ a couple must deal with a corpse that is steadily growing larger and larger; Ionesco never fully reveals the identity of the corpse, how this person died, or why it’s continually growing, but the corpse ultimately – and, again, without explanation – floats away. In Jean Tardieu’s ‘The Keyhole’ a lover watches a woman through a keyhole as she removes her clothes and then her flesh.

Like Pirandello, many Absurdists use meta-theatrical techniques to explore role fulfillment, fate, and the theatricality of theater. This is true for many of Genet’s plays: for example, in ‘The Maids,’ two maids pretend to be their masters; in ‘The Balcony’ brothel patrons take on elevated positions in role-playing games, but the line between theater and reality starts to blur. Another complex example of this is ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’: it’s a play about two minor characters in Hamlet; these characters, in turn, have various encounters with the players who perform ‘The Mousetrap,’ the play-with-in-the-play in ‘Hamlet.’ In Stoppard’s ‘Travesties,’ James Joyce and Tristin Tzara slip in and out of the plot of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’

Plots are frequently cyclical: for example, ‘Endgame’ begins where the play ended – at the beginning of the play, Clov says, ‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished’– and themes of cycle, routine, and repetition are explored throughout.


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