The Theatre of the Absurd
: Théâtre de l'Absurde
) is a designation for particular plays
written by a number of primarily European playwrights
in the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, as well as to the style of theatre which has evolved from their work.
The term was coined by the critic Martin Esslin, who made it the title of a book on the subject first published in 1961 and in two later revised editions; the third and final edition appeared in 2004, in paperback with a new foreword by the author. In the first edition of The Theatre of the Absurd, Esslin saw the work of these playwrights as giving artistic articulation to Albert Camus' philosophy that life is inherently without meaning as illustrated in his work The Myth of Sisyphus. 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". In the first (1961) edition, Esslin presented the four defining playwrights of the movement as Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genet, and in subsequent editions he added a fifth playwright, Harold Pinter–although each of these writers has unique preoccupations and techniques that go beyond the term "absurd." Other writers whom Esslin associated with this group include Tom Stoppard, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Fernando Arrabal, Edward Albee, and Jean Tardieu.
Though the label "Theatre of the Absurd" covers a wide variety of playwrights with differing styles, they do have some common stylistic precursors (Esslin ).
The mode of most "absurdist" plays is tragicomedy
. Besides his multifaceted influence in other areas, Esslin cites William Shakespeare
, the first great playwright to use tragicomedy,, as an influence on the "Absurd drama." Shakespeare's influence is acknowledged directly in the titles of Ionesco's Macbett
and Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
. 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
. Similarly, Esslin cites early film comedians such as Charlie Chaplin
, Laurel and Hardy
, The Marx Brothers
, and Buster Keaton
as direct influences (Keaton even starred in Beckett's Film
As an experimental form of theatre, Theatre of the Absurd employs techniques borrowed from earlier innovators. Writers and techniques frequently mentioned in relation to the Absurdists include the following: 19th century nonsense poets like Lewis Carroll
or Edward Lear
; Polish playwright Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz
; the Russian Absurdists, Daniil Kharms
, Nikolai Erdman
and so on; Bertholt 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 utilized by Realism and playwrights like Henrik Ibsen (Jacobus). According to W. B. Worthen, Six Characters, and other Pirandello plays, use "Metatheater—roleplaying, plays-within-plays, and a flexible sense of the limits of stage and illusion—to examine a highly theatricalized vision of identity" (702).
Another influential playwright was Guillaume Apollinaire whose Les Mamelles de Tirésias was the first work to be called "surreal."
Pataphysics, Dadaism, and Surrealism
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 in Jarry's Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien
(Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician
) was inspirational to many later Absurdists, some of whom joined the Collège de 'pataphysique founded in honor of Jarry in 1948 (both Ionesco and Arrabal were given the title Transcendent Satrape of the Collège de 'pataphysique). The Alfred Jarry Theatre, founded by Antonin Artaud
and Roger Vitrac
, housed several Absurdist plays, including ones by Ionesco and Adamov.
Artaud's "The Theatre of Cruelty" (presented in The Theatre and Its Double) was a particularly important philosophical treatise. Artaud claimed theatre's reliance on literature was inadequate and that the true power of theatre 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 Zurich). Many of the Absurdists had direct connections with the Dadaists and Surrealists. Ionesco, Beckett, Adamov, and Arrabal for example, were friends with Surrealists still living in Paris at the time including Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism, and Beckett translated many Surrealist poems by Breton and others from French into English (Knowlson).
Relationship with Existentialism
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. 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" ("Introduction" ); but Sartre and Ionesco were still at times bitter enemies. Ionesco accused Sartre 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 (Ionesco, Fragments
). 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" ("Beyond Bourgeois Theatre" 6). 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. 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
The "Absurd" or "New Theater" movement was originally a Paris-based (and Rive Gauche
) avant-garde phenomenon tied to extremely small theaters in the Quartier Latin
. Some of the Absurdists were born in France
such as Jean Genet
, Jean Tardieu
, Boris Vian
, and Romain Weingarten
. Many other Absurdists were born elsewhere but lived in France, writing often in French: Samuel Beckett
; Eugene Ionesco
; Arthur Adamov
; and Fernando Arrabal
. As the influence of the Absurdists grew, the style spread to other countries–with playwrights either directly influenced by Absurdists in Paris or playwrights labeled Absurdist by critics. In England
some of whom Esslin considered practitioners of "the Theatre of the Absurd" include: Harold Pinter
, Tom Stoppard
, N. F. Simpson
, James Saunders
, and David Campton
; in the United States
, Edward Albee
, Sam Shepard
, Jack Gelber
, and John Guare
; in Poland
, Tadeusz Różewicz
, Sławomir Mrożek
, and Tadeusz Kantor
; in Italy
, Dino Buzzati
and Ezio d'Errico
; and in Germany
, Peter Weiss
, Wolfgang Hildesheimer
, and Günter Grass
. In India
, both Mohit Chattopadhyay
and Mahesh Elkunchwar
have also been labeled Absurdists. Other international Absurdist playwrights include: Tawfiq el-Hakim
; Miguel Mihura
; José de Almada Negreiros
; Yordan Radichkov
; and playwright and former Czech President Václav Havel
, and others from the Czech Republic
’s The Maids
) premiered in 1947. Eugene Ionesco
’s The Bald Soprano
(La Cantatrice Chauve
) was first performed on May 11, 1950 at the Théâtre des Noctambules. Ionesco followed this with The Lesson
) in 1951 and The Chairs
) in 1952. Samuel Beckett
’s Waiting for Godot
was first performed on the 5th of January 1953 at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris. In 1956 Genet’s The Balcony
) was produced in London at the Arts Theatre. The following year, Beckett’s Endgame
was first performed, and that May, Harold Pinter’s The Room
was presented at The Drama Studio at the University of Bristol. Pinter’s The Birthday Party
premiered in the West End and Edward Albee
’s The Zoo Story
premiered in West Berlin at the Schiller Theater Werkstatt – both in 1958. On the October 28th of that year, Krapp's Last Tape
by Beckett was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Fernando Arrabal
's Pique-nique en campagne
(Picnic on the Battlefield
) also came out in 1958. Genet’s The Blacks
) was published that year but was first performed at the Théatre de Lutèce in Paris on the 28th October, 1959. 1959 also saw the completion of Ionesco’s Rhinocéros
. Beckett’s Happy Days
was first performed at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York on the 17th of September 1961. Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
also premiered in New York the following year, on October 13th. Pinter’s The Homecoming
premiered in London in 1964. Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade
(The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade
) was first performed in West Berlin in 1964 and in New York City a year later. Tom Stoppard
’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966. Arrabal's Le Cimetière des voitures
) was also first performed in 1966. Beckett’s Catastrophe
–dedicated to then-imprisoned Czech dissident playwright Václav Havel
, who became president of Czechoslovakia
after the 1989 Velvet Revolution
–was first performed at the Avignon Festival on July 21
; the film version (in Beckett on Film
) was directed by David Mamet
and performed by Harold Pinter
, Sir John Gielgud
, and Rebecca Pidgeon
Echoes of elements of "The Theatre of the Absurd" can be seen in many later playwrights, from more avant-garde
or experimental playwrights like Susan-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
Most of the bewilderment absurdist drama initially created was because critics and reviewers were used to the Realism
of more conventional drama. In practice, The Theatre of the Absurd departs from realistic characters, situations and all of the associated theatrical conventions. Time, place and identity are ambiguous and fluid, and even basic causality frequently breaks down. Meaningless plots, repetitive or nonsensical dialogue and dramatic non-sequiturs
are often used to create dream-like, or even nightmare-like moods. There is a fine line, however, between the careful and artful use of chaos and non-realistic elements and true, meaningless chaos. While many of the plays described by this title seem to be quite random and meaningless on the surface, an underlying structure and meaning is usually found in the midst of the chaos. According to Martin Esslin, Absurdism is "the inevitable devaluation of ideals, purity, and purpose" (Esslin  24). Absurdist Drama asks its audience to "draw his own conclusions, make his own errors" (Esslin  20). Though Theatre of the Absurd may be seen as nonsense, they have something to say and can be understood" (Esslin  21). Esslin makes a distinction between the dictionary definition of absurd ("out of harmony" in the musical sense) and Drama’s understanding of the Absurd: "Absurd 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" (Esslin  23).
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 (Watt and Richardson 1154). 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 incomprehenisible. 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). 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. 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 (Esslin  26)–make Theatre of the Absurd distinctive. Language frequently gains a certain phonetic, rhythmical, almost musical quality, opening up a wide range of often comedic playfulness. 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. The following exchange between Aston and Davies in The Caretaker
is typical of Pinter:
Much of the dialogue in Absurdist drama (especially in Beckett's and Albee's plays, for example) reflects this kind of evasiveness and inability to make a connection. When language that is apparently nonsensical appears, it also demonstrates this disconnection. It can be used for comic effect, as in Lucky's long speech in Godot when Pozzo says Lucky is demonstrating a talent for "thinking" as other characters comically attempt to stop him:
Nonsense may also be used abusively, as in Pinter's The Birthday Party when Goldberg and McCann torture Stanley with apparently-nonsensical questions and non-sequiturs:
As in the above examples, nonsense in Absurdist theatre may be also used to demonstrate the limits of language while questioning or parodying the determinism of science and the knowability of truth. In Ionesco's The Lesson, a professor tries to force a pupil to understand his nonsensical philology lesson:
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. 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.
Like Pirandello, many Absurdists use meta-theatrical techniques to explore role fulfillment, fate, and the theatricality of theatre. 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 theatre 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.
Plots are frequently cyclical: for example, Endgame begins where the play ended – some lines at the beginning responding to some lines at the end – and it can be assumed that each day the same actions will take place.
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