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A DIATRIBE IN FAVOR OF THE THEATRE OF THE ABSURD

The following essay by Jerome P. Crabb was originally published on this web site on September 3, 2006.

There is a tendency among modern theatre artists and patrons alike to think of the Theatre of the Absurd as something outmoded--something that vanished with the likes of the great absurdist playwrights: Ionesco, Beckett, and Genet. Produce an absurdist piece today and you will likely be confronted by well-meaning friends: “Are you sure you want do do that? An absurd piece? Really? Do you think anyone will come?” But produce an ancient Greek play or an Elizabethan piece or a farce by some dead French guy and those same friends will pat you on the back for doing “real” theatre. And yet ... isn’t the Theatre of the Absurd just as relevant today as it was fifty years ago? Has life gotten less absurd? As far as I can tell, the absurdity of modern life is growing exponentially. Maybe it's just me.

Admittedly, the Theatre of the Absurd, like abstract art, is not for everyone. Some theatregoers aren't interested in extracting meaning from a play that presents the meaninglessness of life, just as they are not capable of finding enjoyment in a painting by Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock. Their two-year-old child, they will tell you, could paint just as well. They want all of their art to be easily digestible, whether they are in the art gallery or the theatre. It is easier, I suppose, to recognize oneself in a photographic representation, but such representations only reflect what is on the surface, whereas abstract art, surrealism, expressionism, and yes, the Theatre of the Absurd, attempt to get at something deeper, something closer to real truth--a representation of our inner being, of our fears, our weaknesses, our inadequacies, the archetypal human predicament. It is, of course, more difficult to get one’s mind around the Theatre of the Absurd; we don’t always have pre-programmed templates we can apply to our understanding of it. But should art really be easy? Don’t we get enough mindless entertainment from our TVs? Do we really have to demand that our theatre, too, subscribe to the “don’t hurt my brain” method of entertainment?

Another obstacle, of course, is the fact that many theatre artists are afraid of the Theatre of the Absurd. It’s risky. They’re afraid of looking foolish. If one takes part in a realistic play, it's usually not necessary to move outside of one’s comfort zone, but with the Theatre of the Absurd, actors, directors and designers may be forced to think outside the box—they may find themselves outside that comfort zone, doing something unusual. They may find themselves forced to portray a raging pachyderm or waiting onstage for two hours for someone named Godot who we all know will never come. A director may have to find new ways to communicate with actors and with his audience. A designer may be forced to experiment. But as theatre artists, shouldn't that be an adventure that we embrace?

American dramatist Edward Albee once wrote, “The avant-garde theatre is fun; it is free-swinging, bold, iconoclastic and often wildly, wildly funny. If you will approach it with childlike innocence--putting your standard responses aside, for they do not apply--if you will approach it on its own terms, I think you will be in for a liberating surprise. I think you may no longer be content with plays that you can't remember halfway down the block. You will not only be doing yourself some good, but you will be having a great time, to boot. And even though it occurs to me that such a fine combination must be sinful, I still recommend it.”

Remember as a child when it was fun to use your imagination? When you didn't have any preconceived notions and you were fascinated by the unknown rather than afraid of it? That's what the Theatre of the Absurd should be about. Open your mind to the possibilities. Even that old stick-in-the-mud Sigmund Freud once said that there is a feeling of freedom we can enjoy when we are able to abandon the straitjacket of logic. Sounds good to me. Let’s have some fun!

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