‘Theatre of the Absurd’ is not absurd
'Theatre of the Absurd' became a catch-phrase in the latter part of the twentieth century and continues to be much used and much abused. It is a term used to identify plays written primarily in France from the mid-1940s through the 1950s. The works that fall under this category usually employ illogical situations, unconventional dialogue, and minimal plots to express the apparent absurdity of human existence. I wonder, human life being what it is-ephemeral, temporal, transitory, uncertain, unpredictable, incomprehensible, is it justified to label ‘absurdist’ playwrights or their creation as ‘absurd’ when what they offer is simply a portrayal of life as it appears to them?
The term ‘absurd’ became fashionable after the French thinkers like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre used the term ‘absurd’ in the 1940s to describe their inability to find any rational explanation for human life. The ‘absurd’, according to them, described what they understood as the fundamentally meaningless situation of humans in a confusing, hostile, and indifferent world. Camus proclaimed in 1942 in his philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, that “in a universe suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels an alien, a stranger. His is an irremediable exile. . . . This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity”. A contemporary of Camus, the Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994), one of the foremost figures of the French Avant-garde theatre defined his understanding of the term as, "Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose. . . . Cut from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless."
The phrase “theatre of the absurd” was coined and first used by the British academic scholar and professor of drama, Martin Esslin in 1961 in his work, Theatre of the Absurd (1961), a critical study of several contemporary dramatists, including Irish-born playwright Samuel Beckett and the French playwrights Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov. These writers reacted against traditional Western theatrical conventions, rejecting assumptions about logic, characterisation, language, and plot. For example, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot 1953) portrays two tramps waiting for a character named Godot. They are not sure who Godot is, whether he will show up to meet them, and whether he actually exists, but they spend each day waiting for him and trying to understand the world in which they live. Beckett often reduced character, plot, and dialogue to a minimum in an effort to highlight fundamental questions of human existence. Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano (La cantatrice chauve, 1950) portrays a group of characters who are incapable of true communication and who have no apparent purpose in their lives. The play has a circular structure, ending in the same way that it began.
For the sake of clarity, a word about the general atmosphere of the time that made Camus conclude, ‘In a universe . . . suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger’ — the holocaust during the World War II and then the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki –the abdication of reason – which brought the Absurd theatre to the fore. Absurd Theatre presented life as meaningless, and one that could simply end in casual slaughter. This was reflected in the society of the time where, i) the mechanical nature of many person’s lives, lead them to question the purpose of their existence; ii) time is recognised as a destructive force; iii) one has a sense of being left in an alien world with the feeling that a world that can be explained even with bad reasoning is a familiar world. But a world from which logic and insight have been removed is a strange world; and iv) one senses being isolated from other beings.
This sense of meaninglessness became a critical insight in the philosophical movement of the era, "Existentialism". We, proclaimed the existentialists, are the sum of our acts. The idea that we do something because we are that sort of person, was replaced by the idea that we make ourselves that sort of person by doing such and such an act. As one of the high princes of existentialism, Jean Paul Sartre said: "we are nothing and in action become conscious of that original nothingness" well illustrated in his play, Huis Clos (No Exit, 1944). Set in hell the play is a depiction of the afterlife in which three deceased characters -- two females, one male are punished by being locked into a room together for eternity. Each is unable to bear the complete responsibility for their own acts and wishes to be seen by the others as having "character/essence"-being of worth. makes each dependent on the others, and when two of them come to some sort of agreement, this agreement is immediately destroyed by the presence of the other. Hell is literally other people! And in the words of the final line of the play, "let’s get on with it". It is the source of Sartre's especially famous and often misinterpreted quotation "L'enfer, c'est les autres" or "Hell is other people". The original title is the French equivalent of the legal term in camera, referring to a private discussion behind closed doors; English translations have also been performed under the titles In Camera, No Way Out, Vicious Circle, Behind Closed Doors, and Dead End.
Since Existentialism was an influential philosophy in Paris during the rise of the ‘theatre of the Absurd’ it is commonly associated with existentialism. However, to call it Existentialist theatre is problematic for many reasons. It gained this association partly because it was named by Martin Esslin after the concept of "absurdism" advocated by Albert Camus who was commonly called existentialist though he himself always resisted that label. Absurdism is most accurately called existentialist in the way Franz Kafka's work is labeled existentialist-for embodying an aspect of the philosophy although the writer is not 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 Guildenstern Are Dead (play by Stoppard published in 1966). 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 of Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosophical spokesman for Existentialism in Paris, but few Absurdists were 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. Ionesco, a prominent absurdist playwright, hated Sartre bitterly. He accused Sartre of supporting Communism but ignoring the atrocities committed by the 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 criticised 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 Nausea, he generally found the writing style of Sartre and Heidegger to be "too philosophical".
The "Theatre of the Absurd" offers its audience an existentialist point of view of the outside world and forces them to consider the meaning of their existence in a world where there appears to be no true order or meaning. Inching ever closer to a realistic representation of life, the evolution of absurdist drama from Samuel Beckett to Tom Stoppard brings a new focus to absurdism and expands the role of philosophy and metaphor in theatrical drama.
Many theatre historians and critics label Alfred Jarry's French play, Ubu Roi as the earliest example of Theatre of the Absurd. In fact, ‘Absurdism’ also has origins in Shakespearean drama, particularly through the influence of the Commedia dell'Arte. The movement of absurdism, however, emerged in France after World War II, as a rebellion against the traditional values and beliefs of Western culture and literature. It began with the existentialist writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and eventually included other writers such as Eugene Ionesco, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard, and Harold Pinter, to name a few. Briefly, its three main features are:
- There is no real story line, instead there are a series of "free floating images" which influence the way in which an audience interprets the plot of the play; it relies on fantasy and dream reality and also disregards such traditional axioms as that of the basic unity and consistency of each character or the need for a plot;
- There is a focus on the incomprehensibility of the world, or an attempt to rationalise an irrational, disorderly world; it creates an environment where people are isolated, clown-like characters blundering their way through life because they don't know what else to do. Oftentimes, characters stay together simply because they are afraid to be alone in such an incomprehensible world.
- It tends toward a radical devaluation of language, toward a poetry that is to emerge from the concrete and objectified images of the stage itself. The element of language still plays an important part in this conception, but what happens on the stage transcends, and often contradicts, the words spoken by the characters. In Ionesco's The Chairs, for example, the poetic content of a powerfully poetic play does not lie in the banal words that are uttered but in the fact that they are spoken to an ever-growing number of empty chairs.
Despite this negativity, however, absurd theatre is not completely nihilistic. The recognition that there is no simple explanation for all the mysteries of the world will appear to be a source of despair only to those who still feel that such a simplified system can provide an answer. The moment we realise that we may have to live without any final truths the situation changes; we may have to readjust ourselves to living with less exulted aims and by doing so become more humble, more receptive, less exposed to violent disappointments and crises of conscious - and therefore in the last resort happier and better adjusted people, simply because we then live in closer accord with reality. Therefore, the goal of absurdist drama is not solely to depress audiences with negativity, but an attempt to bring them closer to reality and help them understand their own "meaning" in life, whatever that may be. Samuel Beckett's understanding of this philosophy best characterises how we should perceive our existence as he says, "Nothing is more real than Nothing."
Building on these components of absurdism, we can analyse the way in which absurdist drama has evolved. The two dramatists who best reveal this process of evolution are Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard. In comparing and contrasting these two dramatists' works, specifically the changes in structure and metaphorical intent, the evolution of absurdism ventures beyond its original borders into a new and distinct realistic theatre. The three plays which clearly reveal this evolution are, Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot and Endgame, and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. All of these plays metaphorically address the issue of "ending" or "dying" and through such a focus offer us a clear example of one way in which absurdism has evolved.
Written and first performed in French in 1954, Waiting For Godot had an enormous impact on theatregoers due to its strange and new conventions. Consisting of an essentially barren set, with the exception of a virtually leafless tree in the background, clown-like tramps, and highly symbolic language, Godot challenges its audience to question all of the old rules and to try to make sense of a world that is incomprehensible. At the heart of the play is the theme of "coping" and "getting through the day" so that when tomorrow comes we can have the strength to continue.
Structurally, Godot is a two-act play which is primarily cyclical. It begins with two lonely tramps on a roadside who are awaiting the arrival of a figure referred to as Godot and ends with the same premise. Many critics have concluded that Act Two is simply a repeat of Act One. In other words, Vladimir and Estragon may forever be "waiting for Godot." We are never given an answer to their predicament. As the audience, we can only watch them do the same things, listen to them say the same things, and accept the fact that Godot may or may not come. Much like them, we are stuck in a world where our actions dictate our survival. We may search for an answer or a meaning to our existence, but we most likely will never find it. A critic, Anthony Jenkins writes, "there can be no answers; Godot may or may not exist and may or may not arrive; we know no more about him than do Vladimir and Estragon". Thus, this play is structurally arranged in such a way as to make us believe that Godot will probably never come, and that we must accept the uncertainty of life.
The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, spend their days reliving their past trying to make sense of their existence, and even contemplate suicide as a form of escape. As characters, however, they are the prototypical absurdist figures who remain detached from the audience. They essentially lack identities and their vaudeville mannerisms, particularly when it comes to contemplating their suicides, have a more comic effect on the audience than a tragic one. This is perhaps best observed in the beginning scene of the play when they contemplate hanging themselves:
VLADIMIR: What do we do now?
VLADIMIR: Yes, but while waiting.
ESTRAGON: What about hanging ourselves?
VLADIMIR: Hmm. It'd give us an erection.
ESTRAGON: (highly excited). An erection!
What follows is a discussion of who should hang himself first. Vladimir suggests Estragon go first since he is lighter and therefore won't break the bough and leave the other one alone and alive. The conversation continues:
ESTRAGON: (with effort). Gogo light- bough not break- Gogo dead. Didi heavy- bough break- Didi alone. Whereas-
VLADIMIR: I hadn't thought of that.
ESTRAGON: If it hangs you it'll hang anything.
VLADIMIR: But am I heavier than you?
ESTRAGON: So you tell me. I don't know. There's an even chance. Or nearly.
VLADIMIR: Well? What do we do?
ESTRAGON: Don't let's do anything. It's safer.
VLADIMIR: Let's wait and see what he says.
ESTRAGON: Good idea.
This comical scene, replete with the image of death, ends up making the audience laugh rather than take the two tramps seriously. And, the fact that Estragon and Vladimir choose to not hang themselves suggests a much more existentialist, absurdist view of death and a less tragic one. What remains archetypal in Godot concerning the absurdist metaphor is the way in which each character relies on the other for comfort, support, and most of all, meaning. Vladimir and Estragon desperately need one another in order to avoid living a lonely and meaningless life. The two together function as a metaphor for survival. Like the characters who preceed and follow them, they feel compelled to leave one another, but at the same time compelled to stay together.
When we compare and contrast the plays Godot, Endgame, and Rosencrantz, we can list many ways in which they are alike in their absurdist tendencies and many ways in which they are different. What remains essentially important is not so much that they are different, but the degree to which they are different. Beckett's treatment of death as something to come, something always on the horizon out of reach, is probably more happily acceptable to the viewer than Stoppard's view. But despite the negative connotations death holds, both Beckett and Stoppard use the metaphor of death to help us understand how our lives are absurd and how, once we accept this, we can be happier, healthier individuals. The evolution of absurdism is most clearly represented by the degree to which Stoppard uses the linear metaphor of death to bring us closer to his characters and closer to ourselves. He goes beyond absurdism by breaking the distance between the audience and the actors. We feel more for his characters and we sympathize with their inability to completely change their fates, as we ourselves struggle with the same problem. It compels us to see our role in life. As Esslin says in The Theatre of the Absurd (1961):
The Theatre of the Absurd, in all of its intellectual complexities and intricacies The human condition being what it is, with man small, helpless, insecure, and unable ever to fathom the world in all its hopelessness, death, and absurdity, the theatre has to confront him with the bitter truth that most human endeavor is irrational and senseless, that communication between human beings is well-nigh impossible, and that the world will forever remain an impenetrable mystery. At the same time, the recognition of all these bitter truths will have a liberating effect: if we realize the basic absurdity of most of our objectives we are freed from being obsessed with them and this release expresses itself in laughter.”
Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, another major figure in the Theatre of the Absurd, is a captivating, critically acclaimed commentary on what is absurd about human nature. Like the abstract artists of the early 20th century, Ionesco abstracts reality to comedic and terrifying effect. His unusual language, stylised structure, and grand symbolism give him a premiere place among the ‘absurdist’ playwrights. The play begins in a very ordinary setting with very ordinary characters. We meet Berenger and Jean, two friends whose outward appearance and inner identities contrast greatly. Berenger looks messy with an untucked shirt and unkempt hair. He drinks every day, he cannot make appointments on time, and he feels as if he is drowning in the chaos of life itself. Jean, by contrast, is immaculately well dressed with combed hair and shiny shoes. He prides himself on the order and structure that he maintains. As they sit at a cafe in the town square, Jean attempts to help Berenger get his act together. He suggests that his friend visit museums to culture himself and notes that Berenger must make an effort to improve his situation. Berenger, somewhat depressed, does not believe he can make such improvements but says he will try. While Jean and Berenger discuss life and its challenges, several other conversations proceed around them. These conversations are banal and evoke the sense of "everyday life" in any town. The characters themselves represent the stock townspeople: the Waitress of the cafe, the proprietor of the restaurant and his wife, as well as a housewife with a cat. Of all the other characters in this act, the two who deserve most note are the Logician and the Old Gentleman. Their conversation, at least, revolves around logic, one of the central themes of the play. They discuss how many paws a cat has and deduce that anything with four paws is a cat, which leads the audience to start noticing the general pattern of false reasoning within this town—and in the human experience overall.
As the conversations go on, a rhinoceros unexpectedly barges through the town. They do not know what to make of the event, and before they are done discussing the event, it happens again. This time, the rhinoceros kills the housewife's cat. The characters react to the strange events by obsessing over the details and using logic to purportedly resolve (but actually muddle) the issue. Was there one rhinoceros or two? Did it have one horn or two? Which kinds of rhinoceroses have one horn, and which have two? The act closes with an unsettling feeling that something is not right with this town or the people in it. Act Two begins in Berenger's office. We meet his co-workers, Dudard and Botard , and his boss, Mr Papillon. Daisy, Berenger's love interest (she walked by the cafe in the previous scene), also works here. Together, the characters discuss the newspaper article that has come out regarding the rhinoceros incident of the day before. Botard cannot believe that the event happened, despite Daisy's and Berenger's personal testimony to it. Like the Logician, Botard uses false logic to understand but muddles the issue and confuses the others. Meanwhile, one co-worker has not arrived to work. Just as his tardiness is becoming unacceptable, his wife, Mrs. Boeuf, arrives in hysterics. Her husband, Mr. Boeuf, has turned into a rhinoceros! He followed her to the office and, indeed, is waiting downstairs. The characters do not know what to make of this absurd event and harp on strange details. They suggest that she get a divorce. They wonder how she can collect insurance from such an event. Finally, Mrs. Boeuf decides she will stay with her husband after all. She jumps out the window onto his back. The scene closes with firemen rescuing the office workers.
Next, Berenger visits his friend Jean in his apartment. Feeling guilty about the conversation in the cafe, he starts to apologize but notices that Jean is acting differently. Berenger cannot recognize his voice. Jean acts aloof and apathetic, and he has a bump on his forehead. As Berenger relates the current rhinoceros situation, he notices that the lump on Jean's head is getting larger until before his very eyes. Jean turns into a rhinoceros. Terrified, Berenger runs for help.
Act Three takes place in Berenger's room when Dudard comes to visit him. Several days have passed, and by now, rhinoceroses have been cropping up all over town. Dudard reveals that Mr. Papillon, their boss, decided to "join" the rhinoceros crew. Daisy arrives, and the three characters appear to bond in a mutual desire to remain human. But as they discuss the situation further, Dudard begins to use false logic to defend the rhinoceroses. He becomes more and more entranced by their calls until finally he jumps out the window and becomes one himself.
Daisy and Berenger appear to be in love. Berenger realises that they are the only two humans left on earth and sees their duty to repopulate the planet. But Daisy starts to doubt their position. Like Dudard before her, she becomes charmed by the rhinoceroses and eventually joins them. Left alone on stage, Berenger grapples with his own sanity. For the first time, he contemplates becoming a rhinoceros himself, but he snaps out of it decisively. He ends the play with a strong commitment to his humanity, his individuality, and his morality: "I'm not capitulating!"
Spearheaded by Samuel Beckett and other dramatists living in Paris the Theatre of the Absurd emphasized the absurdity of a world that could not be explained by logic. The Absurdists’ other major themes focused on alienation, the spectre of death, and the bourgeois mores that had displaced the significance of love and humanity into work. In the character of Berenger, a semi-autobiographical persona who figures in several of his plays, Ionesco portrays the modern man trapped in an office, engaged in shallow relationships, and escaping with alcohol from a world he doesn’t understand. Yet this is all presented in the Theatre of the Absurd’s characteristic morbid wit, an often self-conscious, comic sensibility that makes us laugh at the most horrific ideas—death, alienation, evil—in an effort to understand them. The Chairs, premiered in 1952 but was overshadowed that year by Beckett’s Godot which infused its similar themes—repetition, boredom, loss of memory—with a greater sense of comedy and empathy.
The movement of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ is often linked to Dadaism, a cultural movement that developed in Europe after World War I and celebrated chaos and irrationality. The absurdist playwrights reveal similar concerns as they develop characters who are often lost in incomprehensible worlds. Scenes often repeat (as in Ionesco’s Bald Soprano), and often the language repeats (as in his Rhinoceros). Many works also center around unresolved mysteries or the idea of nothingness itself. In Ionesco’s The Chairs, for example, an elderly couple throws a party in their house for guests who are invisible to the audience. In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, two characters spend an entire play waiting for someone to arrive–but he never does. Without the traditional dramatic techniques that depend on a plot in forward motion, a play can hardly survive, so the plays do have at least some direction and connections. Even so, the absurdist plays confuse the audience by destroying most of the basic theatrical expectations.
Although absurdist elements continue to arise in modern theatre, critics tend to tie the first generation of such plays together as a movement in a particular time and place. Centered in Paris and generally concluded by 1970, the movement was a remarkably innovative period of theatre when playwrights discomforted their audiences, dismantled traditions, and deconstructed their own form of art. While the atrocities of the world wars and the anxiety of the Cold War have been fading in Western memory, the issues of understanding and meaning that humans face are no less critical.
The first absurdist plays shocked audiences at their premieres, but their techniques became common in avant-garde theatre and in some mainstream works. Contemporary playwrights whose work shows the influence of the theatre of the absurd include American dramatists Edward Albee and Sam Shepard, British dramatists Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, German dramatists Günter Grass and Peter Weiss, Swiss dramatist Max Frisch, and Czech dramatist Václav Havel.
Echoes of the elements of "The Theatre of the Absurd" can also be heard 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 (1990) and The America Play (1994) for example—to relatively realistic playwrights like David Mamet—in Glengarry Glen Ross which Mamet dedicated to Harold Pinter. The Irish playwright Martin McDonagh addresses some of the themes and uses some of the techniques of Absurdism, especially reminiscent of Beckett and Pinter in plays such as Pillowman.
Influence of the Theatre of the Absurd is also noted across the continent, namely in the plays by the Marathi writer, Mahesh Elkunchwar and the Bengali poet and playwright, Mohit Chattopadhyaya; and the contemporary Pakistani writer Mujtaba Haider Zaidi. His play, Mazaron Ke Phool that is, Graveyard Flowers (2008) reportedly, contains only two characters who converse both in poetry and in prose, somewhat in the manner of Waiting for Godot by Beckett.
Mohit Chattopdhyaya is frequently referred to as an influential exponent of Indian Absurd theatre although he himself always refuses to be labeled as one.