Theatre of the Absurd
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Theatre of the Absurd, or Theater of the Absurd (French: "Le 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 1962 book on the subject. Esslin saw the work of these playwrights as giving artistic articulation to Albert Camus' philosophy that life is inherently without meaning, and so one must find one's own meaning as illustrated in his work The Myth of Sisyphus.
The 'Theatre of the Absurd' is thought to have its origins in Dadaism, nonsense poetry and avant-garde art of the 1910s – 1920s. Despite its critics, this genre of theatre achieved popularity when World War II highlighted the essential precariousness of human life.
The expression "Theater of the Absurd" has been criticized by some writers, and one also finds the expressions "Anti-Theater" and "New Theater". According to Martin Esslin, the four defining playwrights of the movement are Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov, although each of these writers has entirely unique preoccupations and techniques that go beyond the term "absurd". Other writers often associated with this group include Tom Stoppard, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Fernando Arrabal, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee and Jean Tardieu. Playwrights who served as an inspiration to the movement include Alfred Jarry, Luigi Pirandello, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Guillaume Apollinaire, the surrealists and many more.
The "Absurd" or "New Theater" movement was, in its origin, a distinctly Paris-based (and Rive_Gauche) avant-garde phenomenon tied to extremely small theaters in the Quartier Latin; the movement only gained international prominence over time. 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.
The New York based theater company Untitled Theater Company #61 purports to present a "modern theater of the absurd," consisting of new plays in the genre and classic plays interpreted by new directors. Among their projects were the Ionesco Festival, a festival of the complete works of Eugène Ionesco, and the Havel Festival, the complete works of Václav Havel.
- Samuel Beckett
- Edward Albee
- Eugène Ionesco
- Arthur Adamov
- Václav Havel
- Jean Tardieu
- Harold Pinter
- Tom Stoppard
- Sławomir Mrożek
- Jean Genet
- N.F. Simpson
- Matei Visniec
- Sam Shepard
- Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz ("Witkacy")
- Tadeusz Kantor
- Alfred Jarry
- Tawfiq al-Hakim
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:
- ASTON. More or less exactly what you...
- DAVIES. That's it ... that's what I'm getting at is ... I mean, what sort of jobs ... (Pause.)
- ASTON. Well, there's things like the stairs ... and the ... the bells ...
- DAVIES. But it'd be a matter ... wouldn't it ... it'd be a matter of a broom ... isn't it?
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:
LUCKY. Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment...
- GOLDBERG. What do you use for pyjamas?
- STANLEY. Nothing.
- GOLDBERG. You verminate the sheet of your birth.
- MCCANN. What about the Albigensenist heresy?
- GOLDBERG. Who watered the wicket in Melbourne?
- MCCANN. What about the blessed Oliver Plunkett?
- GOLDBERG. Speak up Webber. Why did the chicken cross the road?
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:
- PROFESSOR. ... In Spanish: the roses of my grandmother are as yellow as my grandfather who is Asiatic; in Latin: the roses of my grandmother are as yellow as my grandfather who is Asiatic. Do you detect the difference? Translate this into ... Romanian
- PUPIL. The ... how do you say "roses" in Romanian?
- PROFESSOR. But "roses", what else? ... "roses" is a translation in Oriental of the French word "roses", in Spanish "roses", do you get it? In Sardanapali, "roses"...