The following article by Jerome P. Crabb was originally published on this web site on September 3, 2006.
The “Theatre of the Absurd” is a term coined by Hungarian-born critic Martin Esslin, who made it the title of his 1962 book on the subject. The term refers to a particular type of play which first became popular during the 1950s and 1960s and which presented on stage the philosophy articulated by French philosopher Albert Camus in his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he defines the human condition as basically meaningless. Camus argued that humanity had to resign itself to recognizing that a fully satisfying rational explanation of the universe was beyond its reach; in that sense, the world must ultimately be seen as absurd.
Esslin regarded the term “Theatre of the Absurd” merely as a "device" by which he meant to bring attention to certain fundamental traits discernible in the works of a range of playwrights. The playwrights loosely grouped under the label of the absurd attempt to convey their sense of bewilderment, anxiety, and wonder in the face of an inexplicable universe. According to Esslin, the five defining playwrights of the movement are Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, and Harold Pinter, although these writers were not always comfortable with the label and sometimes preferred to use terms such as "Anti-Theater" or "New Theater". Other playwrights associated with this type of theatre include Tom Stoppard, Arthur Kopit, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Fernando Arrabal, Edward Albee, N.F. Simpson, Boris Vian, Peter Weiss, Vaclav Havel, and Jean Tardieu.
Although the Theatre of the Absurd is often traced back to avant-garde experiments of the 1920s and 1930s, its roots, in actuality, date back much further. Absurd elements first made their appearance shortly after the rise of Greek drama, in the wild humor and buffoonery of Old Comedy and the plays of Aristophanes in particular. They were further developed in the late classical period by Lucian, Petronius and Apuleius, in Menippean satire, a tradition of carnivalistic literature, depicting “a world upside down.” The morality plays of the Middle Ages may be considered a precursor to the Theatre of the Absurd, depicting everyman-type characters dealing with allegorical and sometimes existential problems. This tradition would carry over into the Baroque allegorical drama of Elizabethan times, when dramatists such as John Webster, Cyril Tourneur, Jakob Biederman and Calderon would depict the world in mythological archetypes. During the nineteenth century, absurd elements may be noted in certain plays by Ibsen and, more obviously, Strindberg, but the acknowledged predecessor of what would come to be called the Theatre of the Absurd is Alfred Jarry's "monstrous puppet-play" Ubu Roi (1896) which presents a mythical, grotesque figure, set amidst a world of archetypal images. Ubu Roi is a caricature, a terrifying image of the animal nature of man and his cruelty. In the 1920s and 1930s, the surrealists expanded on Jarry’s experiments, basing much of their artistic theory on the teachings of Freud and his emphasis on the role of the subconscious mind which they acknowledged as a great, positive healing force. Their intention was to do away with art as a mere imitation of surface reality, instead demanding that it should be more real than reality and deal with essences rather than appearances. The Theatre of the Absurd was also anticipated in the dream novels of James Joyce and Franz Kafka who created archetypes by delving into their own subconscious and exploring the universal, collective significance of their own private obsessions. Silent film and comedy, as well as the tradition of verbal nonsense in the early sound films of Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers would also contribute to the development of the Theatre of the Absurd, as did the verbal "nonsense" of François Rabelais, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and Christian Morgernstern. But it would take a catastrophic world event to actually bring about the birth of the new movement.
World War II was the catalyst that finally brought the Theatre of the Absurd to life. The global nature of this conflict and the resulting trauma of living under threat of nuclear annihilation put into stark perspective the essential precariousness of human life. Suddenly, one did not need to be an abstract thinker in order to be able to reflect upon absurdity: the experience of absurdity became part of the average person's daily existence. During this period, a “prophet” of the absurd appeared. Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) rejected realism in the theatre, calling for a return to myth and magic and to the exposure of the deepest conflicts within the human mind. He demanded a theatre that would produce collective archetypes and create a modern mythology. It was no longer possible, he insisted, to keep using traditional art forms and standards that had ceased being convincing and lost their validity. Although he would not live to see its development, The Theatre of the Absurd is precisely the new theatre that Artaud was dreaming of. It openly rebelled against conventional theatre. It was, as Ionesco called it “anti-theatre”. It was surreal, illogical, conflictless and plotless. The dialogue often seemed to be complete gibberish. And, not surprisingly, the public’s first reaction to this new theatre was incomprehension and rejection.
The most famous, and most controversial, absurdist play is probably Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The characters of the play are strange caricatures who have difficulty communicating the simplest of concepts to one another as they bide their time awaiting the arrival of Godot. The language they use is often ludicrous, and following the cyclical patter, the play seems to end in precisely the same condition it began, with no real change having occurred. In fact, it is sometimes referred to as “the play where nothing happens.” Its detractors count this a fatal flaw and often turn red in the face fomenting on its inadequacies. It is mere gibberish, they cry, eyes nearly bulging out of their head--a prank on the audience disguised as a play. The plays supporters, on the other hand, describe it is an accurate parable on the human condition in which “the more things change, the more they are the same.” Change, they argue, is only an illusion. In 1955, the famous character actor Robert Morley predicted that the success of Waiting for Godot meant “the end of theatre as we know it.” His generation may have gloomily accepted this prediction, but the younger generation embraced it. They were ready for something newsomething that would move beyond the old stereotypes and reflect their increasingly complex understanding of existence.
Whereas traditional theatre attempts to create a photographic representation of life as we see it, the Theatre of the Absurd aims to create a ritual-like, mythological, archetypal, allegorical vision, closely related to the world of dreams. The focal point of these dreams is often man's fundamental bewilderment and confusion, stemming from the fact that he has no answers to the basic existential questions: why we are alive, why we have to die, why there is injustice and suffering. Ionesco defined the absurdist everyman as “Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots … lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless.” The Theatre of the Absurd, in a sense, attempts to reestablish man’s communion with the universe. Dr. Jan Culik writes, “Absurd Theatre can be seen as an attempt to restore the importance of myth and ritual to our age, by making man aware of the ultimate realities of his condition, by instilling in him again the lost sense of cosmic wonder and primeval anguish. The Absurd Theatre hopes to achieve this by shocking man out of an existence that has become trite, mechanical and complacent. It is felt that there is mystical experience in confronting the limits of human condition.”
One of the most important aspects of absurd drama is its distrust of language as a means of communication. Language, it seems to say, has become nothing but a vehicle for conventionalized, stereotyped, meaningless exchanges. Dr. Culik explains, “Words failed to express the essence of human experience, not being able to penetrate beyond its surface. The Theatre of the Absurd constituted first and foremost an onslaught on language, showing it as a very unreliable and insufficient tool of communication. Absurd drama uses conventionalised speech, clichés, slogans and technical jargon, which it distorts, parodies and breaks down. By ridiculing conventionalised and stereotyped speech patterns, the Theatre of the Absurd tries to make people aware of the possibility of going beyond everyday speech conventions and communicating more authentically.”
Absurd drama subverts logic. It relishes the unexpected and the logically impossible. According to Sigmund Freud, there is a feeling of freedom we can enjoy when we are able to abandon the straitjacket of logic. As Dr. Culik points out, “Rationalist thought, like language, only deals with the superficial aspects of things. Nonsense, on the other hand, opens up a glimpse of the infinite.”
What, then, has become of this wonderful new theatrethis movement that produced some of the most exciting and original dramatic works of the twentieth century? Conventional wisdom, perhaps, suggests that the Theatre of the Absurd was a product of a very specific point in time and, because that time has passed, it has gone the way of the dinosaur. In a revised edition of his seminal work, Martin Esslin disagrees: “Every artistic movement or style has at one time or another been the prevailing fashion. It if was no more than that, it disappeared without a trace. If it had a genuine content, if it contributed to an enlargement of human perception, if it created new modes of human expression, if it opened up new areas of experience, however, it was bound to be absorbed into the main stream of development. And this is what happened with the Theatre of the Absurd which, apart from having been in fashion, undoubtedly was a genuine contribution to the permanent vocabulary of dramatic expression…. [it] is being absorbed into the mainstream of the tradition from which … it had never been entirely absent … The playwrights of the post-Absurdist era have at their disposal, then, a uniquely enriched vocabulary of dramatic technique. They can use these devices freely, separately and in infinite variety of combinations with those bequeathed to them by other dramatic conventions of the past.” In a New York Times piece entitled “Which Theatre is the Absurd One?”, Edward Albee agrees with Esslin’s final analysis, writing, “For just as it is true that our response to color and form was forever altered once the impressionist painters put their minds to canvas, it is just as true that the playwrights of The Theatre of the Absurd have forever altered our response to the theatre.”
The Theatre of the Absurd will always have its detractors. But it lives on.