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MARTIN ESSLIN (1918-2002)

The following article by Jerome P. Crabb was originally published on this web site on October 7, 2006.

Theatre critic and scholar Martin Esslin was born in Budapest, Hungary on June 6, 1918. He moved to Vienna with his family at a young age and grew up there, eventually majoring in English and philosophy at the University of Vienna. He studied directing at the Reinhardt Seminar of Dramatic Arts, but in 1938, just as he was about to embark upon his theatrical career, the Nazi occupation of Austria forced him to flee the country. He spent a year in Brussels before moving to England, where he became a script-writer and producer for the BBC. Esslin was eventually promoted to head of radio drama, and during the 1960s he set out to bring his dream of a “national theater of the air” to life. During this period, the BBC produced hundreds of radio plays, many of them by foreign writers whom Esslin and his team translated into English for the first time.

In spite of this significant contribution to modern drama, however, Esslin is best known for his book The Theatre of the Absurd (1962), which coined the phrase that would come to define the work of such playwrights as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter. In an introduction to Absurd Drama (1965) Esslin wrote, “The Theatre of the Absurd attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy. It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it. But the challenge behind this message is anything but one of despair. It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity, and to bear it with dignity, nobly, responsibly; precisely because there are no easy solutions to the mysteries of existence, because ultimately man is alone in a meaningless world. The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.”

Esslin’s other books include Brecht: A Choice of Evils (1959), The Anatomy of Drama (1965), The Peopled Wound: The Work of Harold Pinter (1970), Artaud (1976) and The Age of Television (1981). He also was a prolific writer of essays, articles and reviews.

Martin Esslin died on February 24, 2002, in London after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 83.

  • Theatre of the Absurd - A history and analysis of this dramatic movement, which includes the work of such dramatists as Beckett, Ionesco, Genet and Pinter.
  • Theatre of the Absurd: Essential Reading List - A must-read list for anyone interested in absurdist theatre.
  • Three Plays of the Absurd - In this collection of plays, Walter Wykes creates a series of modern myths, tapping into something in the strata of the subconscious, through ritualism and rich, poetic language. The worlds he creates are brand new and hilarious, yet each contains an ancient horror we all know and cannot escape and have never been able to hang one definitive word on.
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