Theatre of the Absurd

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Theatre of the Absurd
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The Theatre of the Absurd ( {{IPA-fr|teɑtʁ(ə) də lapsyʁd|}}) is a post–World War II designation for particular plays of absurdist fiction written by a number of primarily European playwrights in the late 1950s, as well as one for the style of theatre which has evolved from their work. Their work focused largely on the idea of existentialism and expressed what happens when human existence has no meaning or purpose and therefore all communication breaks down. Logical construction and argument give way to irrational and illogical speech and to its ultimate conclusion, silence.The Hutchinson Encyclopedia, Millennium Edition, Helicon 1999.


Critic Martin Esslin coined the term in his 1960 essay "Theatre of the Absurd".BOOK, The Theatre of the Absurd, Martin, Esslin, 1961, 329986, He related these plays based on a broad theme of the Absurd, similar to the way Albert Camus uses the term in his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus.WEB,weblink THE THEATRE OF THE ABSURD: THE WEST AND THE EAST, Jan, Culík, 2000, University of Glasgow,weblink" title="">weblink 2009-08-23, The Absurd in these plays takes the form of man's reaction to a world apparently without meaning, or man as a puppet controlled or menaced by invisible outside forces. This style of writing was first popularized by the Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot (1953). Although 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". These plays were shaped by the political turmoil, scientific breakthrough, and social upheaval going on in the world around the playwrights during these times.{{citation needed|date=September 2018}}While absurdists believed that life is absurd, they also believed that death and the "after life" were equally absurd if not more so, and that whether people live or not, all of their actions are pointless, and everything will lead to the same end (hence the repetitiveness in many of these absurdist plays).{{citation needed|date=September 2018}}In his book Absurd Drama (1965), Esslin wrote:... the Theatre of the Absurd attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy. It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it. But the challenge behind this message is anything but one of despair. It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity, and to bear it with dignity, nobly, responsibly; precisely {{em|because}} there are no easy solutions to the mysteries of existence, because ultimately man is alone in a meaningless world. The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.Playwrights commonly associated with the Theatre of the Absurd include Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, Harold Pinter, Luigi Pirandello, Tom Stoppard, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Miguel Mihura, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Fernando Arrabal, Václav Havel, Edward Albee, Malay Roy Choudhury, Tadeusz Różewicz, Sławomir Mrożek, N.F. Simpson, and Badal Sarkar.{{citation needed|date=September 2018}}


In the first edition of The Theatre of the Absurd, Esslin saw the work of these playwrights as giving artistic meaning to Albert Camus's philosophy that life is inherently without meaning, as illustrated in his work The Myth of Sisyphus. In the first (1961) edition, Esslin presented the four defining playwrights of the movement as Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet, and in subsequent editions he added a fifth playwright, Harold Pinter—although each of these writers has unique preoccupations and characteristics that go beyond the term "absurd."Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961). (Subsequent references to this ed. appear within parentheses in the text.)Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, 3rd ed. (New York: Vintage [Knopf], 2004). (Subsequent references to this ed. appear within parentheses in the text.) Other writers associated with this group by Esslin and other critics include Tom Stoppard,Terry Hodgson. The plays of Tom Stoppard: for stage, radio, TV and film.Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. {{ISBN|1-84046-241-8}}, {{ISBN|978-1-84046-241-8}}.pg.181. Friedrich Dürrenmatt,Joel Agee. Dürrenmatt, Friedrich: Friedrich Dürrenmatt.University of Chicago Press, 2006. {{ISBN|0-226-17426-3}}, {{ISBN|978-0-226-17426-6}}. pg. xi Fernando Arrabal,Felicia Hardison Londré, Margot Berthold. The history of world theater: from the English restoration to the present. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1999. {{ISBN|0-8264-1167-3}}, {{ISBN|978-0-8264-1167-9}}. pg. 438 Edward Albee,Barbara Lee Horn. Edward Albee: a research and production sourcebook. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003. {{ISBN|0-313-31141-2}}, {{ISBN|978-0-313-31141-3}}. pg. 13, 17 29, 40, 55, 232. Boris Vian,Neil Cornwell. The Absurd in Literature. Manchester University Press ND, 2006. {{ISBN|0-7190-7410-X}}. pg. 280. and Jean Tardieu.

Significant precursors

Though the label "Theatre of the Absurd" covers a wide variety of playwrights with differing styles, they do have some common stylistic precursors (Esslin [1961]). These precursors include Elizabethan tragicomedy, formal experimentation, pataphysics, surrealism, Dadaism, and most importantly existentialism.

Elizabethan – tragicomedy

The mode of most "absurdist" plays is tragicomedy.Esslin, pg. 323–324J. L. Styan. Modern Drama in Theory and Practice. Cambridge University Press, 1983 {{ISBN|0-521-29629-3}}, pg. 125 As Nell says in Endgame, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness … it's the most comical thing in the world".Samuel Beckett. Endgame: a play in one act, followed by Act without words, a mime for one player. Grove Press, 1958. {{ISBN|0-8021-5024-1}}. pg. 18–19. Esslin cites William Shakespeare as an influence on this aspect of the "Absurd drama."Esslin, pg. 321–323 Shakespeare's influence is acknowledged directly in the titles of Ionesco's Macbett and Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Friedrich Dürrenmatt says in his essay "Problems of the Theatre", "Comedy alone is suitable for us … But the tragic is still possible even if pure tragedy is not. We can achieve the tragic out of comedy. We can bring it forth as a frightening moment, as an abyss that opens suddenly; indeed, many of Shakespeare's tragedies are already really comedies out of which the tragic arises."Friedrich Dürrenmatt. "Problems of the Theatre". The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi. Grove Press, 1964. {{ISBN|978-0-394-17198-2}}. pg. 30–31.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 to vaudeville.Styan, pg. 126 Similarly, Esslin cites early film comedians and music hall artists such as Charlie Chaplin, the Keystone Cops and Buster Keaton as direct influences. (Keaton even starred in Beckett's Film in 1965.)Esslin, pg. 325

Formal experimentation

As an experimental form of theatre, many Theatre of the Absurd playwrights employ techniques borrowed from earlier innovators. Writers and techniques frequently mentioned in relation to the Theatre of the Absurd include the 19th-century nonsense poets, such as Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear;Esslin, pg. 330–331 Polish playwright Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz;Esslin, pg. 382–385 the Russians Daniil Kharms,Neil Cornwell. The absurd in literature. Manchester University Press ND, 2006. {{ISBN|0-7190-7410-X}}. pg. 143. Nikolai Erdman,John Freedman. The major plays of Nikolai Erdman: The warrant and The suicide. Routledge, 1995.{{ISBN|3718655837}}. xvii. and others; Bertolt Brecht's distancing techniques in his "Epic theatre";Esslin, pg. 365–368 and the "dream plays" of August Strindberg.J. L. Styan. The dark comedy: the development of modern comic tragedy. Cambridge University Press, 1968. {{ISBN|0-521-09529-8}}. pg. 217.One commonly cited precursor is Luigi Pirandello, especially Six Characters in Search of an Author.Annette J. Saddik. Ed. "Experimental Innovations After the Second World War". Contemporary American Drama.Edinburgh University Press, 2007. {{ISBN|0-7486-2494-5}}.pg. 28 Pirandello was a highly regarded theatrical experimentalist who wanted to bring down the fourth wall presupposed by the realism of playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen. According to W. B. Worthen, Six Characters and other Pirandello plays use "Metatheatre—roleplaying, plays-within-plays, and a flexible sense of the limits of stage and illusion—to examine a highly-theatricalized vision of identity".Worthen, pg. 702Another influential playwright was Guillaume Apollinaire whose The Breasts of Tiresias was the first work to be called "surreal".Allan Lewis. "The Theatre of the 'Absurd' – Beckett, Ionesco, Genet". The Contemporary Theatre: The Significant Playwrights of Our Time. Crown Publishers, 1966. pg. 260Rupert D. V. Glasgow. Madness, Masks, and Laughter: An Essay on Comedy. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1995. {{ISBN|0-8386-3559-8}}. pg. 332.Deborah B. Gaensbauer. The French theater of the absurd. Twayne Publishers, 1991. {{ISBN|0-8057-8270-2}}. pg. 17

Pataphysics, surrealism, and Dadaism

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)Jill Fell. Alfred Jarry, an imagination in revolt. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 2005. {{ISBN|0-8386-4007-9}}. pg. 53 was inspirational to many later Absurdists, some of whom joined the Collège de 'pataphysique, founded in honor of Jarry in 1948Esslin, pag. 346–348 (Ionesco,Raymond Queneau, Marc Lowenthal. Stories & remarks.U of Nebraska Press, 2000{{ISBN|0-8032-8852-2}}, {{ISBN|978-0-8032-8852-2}}. pg. ix–x Arrabal, and VianDavid Bellos. Georges Perec: a life in words : a biography. David R. Godine Publisher, 1993. {{ISBN|0-87923-980-8}}, {{ISBN|978-0-87923-980-0}}. pg.596 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.Esslin, pg. 373.Cornwell, pg.170Artaud'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.Antonin Artaud The Theatre and Its Double. Tr. Mary Caroline Richards. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1958., pg. 15–133.Styan, Modern pg. 128Saddik, pg. 24–27. Artaud was a Surrealist, and many other members of the Surrealist group were significant influences on the Absurdists.Esslin, pg. 372–375.Mel Gussow. Theatre on the edge: new visions, new voices. Hal Leonard Corporation, 1998. {{ISBN|1-55783-311-7}}. pg. 303.Eli Rozik. The roots of theatre: rethinking ritual and other theories of origin. University of Iowa Press, 2002. {{ISBN|0-87745-817-0}}. pg. 264.Absurdism is also frequently compared to Surrealism's predecessor, Dadaism (for example, the Dadaist plays by Tristan Tzara performed at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich).Richard Drain. Twentieth-century theatre: a sourcebook. Routledge, 1995. {{ISBN|0-415-09619-7}}. pg. 5–7, 26. Many of the Absurdists had direct connections with the Dadaists and Surrealists. Ionesco,Eugène Ionesco. Present past, past present: a personal memoir. Da Capo Press, 1998. {{ISBN|0-306-80835-8}}. pg. 148.Lamont, pg. 41–42 Adamov,Esslin, pg. 89Justin Wintle. Makers of modern culture. Routledge, 2002. {{ISBN|0-415-26583-5}}. pg. 3 and ArrabalC. D. Innes. Avant garde theatre, 1892–1992.Routledge, 1993. {{ISBN|0-415-06518-6}}. pg. 118. for example, were friends with Surrealists still living in Paris at the time including Paul Eluard and André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, and Beckett translated many Surrealist poems by Breton and others from French into English.James Knowlson. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. London. Bloomsbury Publishing, 1997. {{ISBN|0-7475-3169-2}}., pg. 65Daniel Albright. Beckett and aesthetics.Cambridge University Press, 2003. {{ISBN|0-521-82908-9}}. pg. 10

Relationship with existentialism

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".Jean-Paul Sartre. "Introduction to The Maids; and Deathwatch" The Maids; and Deathwatch. Grove Press, 1962. {{ISBN|0-8021-5056-X}}. pg. 11.Ionesco, however, hated Sartre bitterly.Eugène Ionesco. Present Past, Past Present. Da Capo Press, 1998. {{ISBN|0-306-80835-8}}. pg. 63. 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 rhinocerosEugène Ionesco. Fragments of a Journal. Tr. Jean Stewart. London: Faber and Faber, 1968. pg. 78.Rosette C. Lamont. Ionesco's imperatives: the politics of culture. University of Michigan Press, 1993. {{ISBN|0-472-10310-5}}. pg. 145. 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" 6Lewis, pg. 275. 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.Lamont, pg. 67. 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".Claude Bonnefoy. Conversations with Eugène Ionesco. Trans. Jan Dawson. Holt, Rinehard and Winston, 1971. pg. 122–123.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" - or the repetition of life even though the end result will be the same no matter what and everything is essentially pointless - 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' ."Knowlson, pg. 319 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.Knowlson, pg. 325. Beckett said, though he liked Nausea, he generally found the writing style of Sartre and Heidegger to be "too philosophical" and he considered himself "not a philosopher".Anthony Cronin, Isaac Cronin. Samuel Beckett: the last modernist. Da Capo Press, 1999. {{ISBN|0-306-80898-6}}. pg. 231.


The "Absurd" or "New Theater" movement was originally a Paris-based (and a Rive Gauche) avant-garde phenomenon tied to extremely small theaters in the Quartier Latin. Some of the Absurdists, such as Jean Genet,Peter Norrish. New tragedy and comedy in France, 1945–1970.Rowman & Littlefield, 1988. {{ISBN|0-389-20746-2}}. pg. 107 Jean Tardieu,Felicia Hardison Londré, Margot Berthold. The history of world theater: from the English restoration to the present. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1999. {{ISBN|0-8264-1167-3}}. pg. 428. and Boris Vian.,Bill Marshall, Cristina Johnston. France and the Americas: culture, politics, and history : a multidisciplinary encycopledia. ABC-CLIO, 2005. {{ISBN|1-85109-411-3}}. pg. 1187. were born in France. Many other Absurdists were born elsewhere but lived in France, writing often in French: Samuel Beckett from Ireland; Eugène Ionesco from Romania; Arthur Adamov from Russia; Alejandro Jodorowsky from Chile and Fernando Arrabal from Spain.David Thatcher Gies. The Cambridge companion to modern Spanish culture. Cambridge University Press, 1999. {{ISBN|0-521-57429-3}}. pg. 229 As the influence of the Absurdists grew, the style spread to other countries—with playwrights either directly influenced by Absurdists in Paris or playwrights labelled Absurdist by critics. In England some of those whom Esslin considered practitioners of the Theatre of the Absurd include Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard,Gabrielle H. Cody, Evert Sprinchorn. The Columbia encyclopedia of modern drama. Columbia University Press, 2007. {{ISBN|0-231-14424-5}}. pg. 1285. N. F. Simpson, James Saunders,Randall Stevenson, Jonathan Bate. The Oxford English Literary History: 1960–2000: The Last of England?. Oxford University Press, 2004. {{ISBN|0-19-818423-9}}. pg. 356. and David Campton;Stevenson, pg. 358. in the United States, Edward Albee, Sam Shepard,Don Shewey. Sam Shepard. Da Capo Press, 1997. {{ISBN|0-306-80770-X}}. pg. 123, 132. Jack Gelber,C. W. E. Bigsby. Modern American drama, 1945–2000. Cambridge University Press, 2000. {{ISBN|0-521-79410-2}}. pg. 124 and John Guare;Bigsby, pg. 385. in Poland, Tadeusz Różewicz, Sławomir Mrożek, and Tadeusz Kantor;Cody, pg. 1343 in Italy, Dino Buzzati;Gaetana Marrone, Paolo Puppa, Luca Somigli. Encyclopedia of Italian literary studies. CRC Press, 2006. {{ISBN|1-57958-390-3}}. pg. 335 and in Germany, Peter Weiss,Robert Cohen. Understanding Peter Weiss. Univ of South Carolina Press, 1993. {{ISBN|0-87249-898-0}}. pg. 35–36. Wolfgang Hildesheimer, and Günter Grass. In India, both Mohit ChattopadhyayMarshall Cavendish. World and Its Peoples: Eastern and Southern Asia. Marshall Cavendish, 2007. {{ISBN|0-7614-7631-8}}. pg. 408. and Mahesh Elkunchwar have also been labeled Absurdists. Other international Absurdist playwrights include Tawfiq el-Hakim from Egypt;William M. Hutchins. Tawfiq al-Hakim: a reader's guide. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003. {{ISBN|0-89410-885-9}}. pg. 1, 27. Hanoch Levin from Israel;Linda Ben-Zvi. Theater in Israel. University of Michigan Press, 1996. {{ISBN|0-472-10607-4}}. pg. 151. Miguel Mihura from Spain;Gies, pg. 258 José de Almada Negreiros from Portugal;Anna Klobucka. The Portuguese nun: formation of a national myth. Bucknell University Press, 2000. {{ISBN|0-8387-5465-1}}. pg. 88. Mikhail Volokhov Mikhail Volokhov from Russia; Yordan Radichkov from Bulgaria;Kalina Stefanova, Ann Waugh. Eastern European Theater After the Iron Curtain.Routledge, 2000. {{ISBN|90-5755-054-7}}. pg. 34 and playwright and former Czech President Václav Havel, and others from the Czech Republic and Slovakia.{{Citation needed|date=March 2008}}

Major productions

File:Angelique Rockas and Okon Jones (The Balcony).jpg|thumb|Angelique Rockas and Okon Jones in Jean Genet's The Balcony, Internationalist TheatreInternationalist Theatre
  • Jean Genet's The Maids (Les Bonnes) premiered in 1947.Gene A. Plunka. The Rites of Passage of Jean Genet: The Art and Aesthetics of Risk Taking. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1992. {{ISBN|0-8386-3461-3}}. pg. 29, 304.
  • Eugène 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 (La Leçon) in 1951 and The Chairs (Les Chaises) in 1952.Allan Lewis. Ionesco. Twayne Publishers, 1972. pg. 33Lamont, pg. 3
  • Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot was first performed on 5 January 1953 at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris.Lawrence Graver, Raymond Federman. Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage. Routledge, 1997. {{ISBN|0-415-15954-7}}. pg. 88
  • In 1957, Genet's The Balcony (Le Balcon) was produced in London at the Arts Theatre.Plunka, pg. 29, 309
  • That May, Harold Pinter's The Room was presented at The Drama Studio at the University of Bristol.Ian Smith, Harold Pinter. Pinter in the theatre. Nick Hern Books, 2005. {{ISBN|1-85459-864-3}}. pg. 169.WEB,weblink - Plays,, Pinter's The Birthday Party premiered in the West End in 1958.Smith, pg. 28–29
  • Edward Albee's The Zoo Story premiered in West Berlin at the Schiller Theater Werkstatt in 1959.Barbara Lee Horn. Edward Albee: a research and production sourcebook. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003. {{ISBN|0-313-31141-2}}. pg. 2
  • On October 28, 1959, Krapp's Last Tape by Beckett was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London.Graver, xvii
  • Fernando Arrabal's Picnic on the Battlefield (Pique-nique en campagne) came out in 1958.David Bradby, Maria M. Delgado. The Paris jigsaw: internationalism and the city's stages. Manchester University Press, 2002. {{ISBN|0-7190-6184-9}}. pg. 204Styan, Modern pg. 144
  • Genet's The Blacks (Les Nègres) was published that year but was first performed at the Théatre de Lutèce in Paris on 28 October 1959.Plunka, pg. 29, 30, 309
  • 1959 also saw the completion of Ionesco's Rhinoceros which premiered in Paris in January 1960 at the Odeon.Lamont, pg. 275
  • Beckett's Happy Days was first performed at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York on 17 September 1961.Graver, pg. xviii
  • Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? also premiered in New York the following year, on October 13.
  • Pinter's The Homecoming premiered in London in June 1965 at the Aldwych Theatre.Peter Raby. The Cambridge companion to Harold Pinter. Cambridge University Press, 2001. {{ISBN|0-521-65842-X}}. pg. xv.WEB,weblink - The Homecoming,,
  • 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.Peter Weiss, Robert Cohen. Marat/Sade; The investigation; and The shadow of the coachman's body. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998. {{ISBN|0-8264-0963-6}}. pg. xxvi.
  • Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966.Anthony Jenkins. The theatre of Tom Stoppard. Cambridge University Press, 1989. {{ISBN|0-521-37974-1}}. pg. 37.
  • Arrabal's Automobile Graveyard (Le Cimetière des voitures) was also first performed in 1966.
  • Lebanese author Issam Mahfouz's play The Dictator premiered in Beirut in 1969.JOURNAL, Myers, Robert, Saab, Nada, 2014-12-16, Revolutionary Theatre of the Absurd from the Arab World,weblink PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 37, 1, 94–96, 10.1162/PAJJ_a_00249, 1520-281X,
  • 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, 1982.Knowlson, pg. 741.Enoch Brater. Beyond Minimalism: Beckett's Late Style in the Theater. Oxford University Press US, 1990. {{ISBN|0-19-506655-3}}. pg. 139. The film version (Beckett on Film, 2001) was directed by David Mamet and performed by Harold Pinter, Sir John Gielgud, and Rebecca Pidgeon.Chris Ackerley, S. E. Gontarski. The Grove companion to Samuel Beckett: a reader's guide to his works, life, and thought. Grove Press, 2004. {{ISBN|0-8021-4049-1}}. pg. 44


Echoes of elements of "The Theatre of the Absurd" can be seen in the work of 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 and The America Play,Enoch Brater. "After the Absurd". Around the Absurd: Essays on Modern and Postmodern Drama. Ed. Enoch Brater and Ruby Cohn. University of Michigan Press, 1990. {{ISBN|978-0-472-10205-1}}. pg. 293–301. for example—to relatively realistic playwrights like David Mamet—in Glengarry Glen Ross, which Mamet dedicated to Harold Pinter.David Mamet. Glengarry Glen Ross. Grove Press, 1984. {{ISBN|0-394-53857-9}}. pg. 2Michael Hinden. "After Beckett: The Plays of Pinter, Stoppard, and Shepard". Contemporary Literature. Fall 1986, Vol. 27, Issue 3. pg. 408. {{Citation needed|date=March 2008}} Irish playwright Martin McDonagh in plays such as PillowmanNeil Cornwell. The absurd in literature. Manchester University Press ND, 2006. {{ISBN|0-7190-7410-X}}, 9780719074103. pg. 296. addresses some of the themes and uses some of the techniques of Absurdism, especially reminiscent of BeckettKlaus Stierstorfer. Beyond postmodernism: reassessments in literature, theory, and culture. Walter de Gruyter, 2003 {{ISBN|3-11-017722-6}}, {{ISBN|978-3-11-017722-0}}. pg. 294. and Pinter.Richard Rankin Russell. Martin McDonagh: a casebook. Routledge, 2007. {{ISBN|0-415-97765-7}}, {{ISBN|978-0-415-97765-4}}. pg. 3.Lisa Fitzpatrick. "Language Games: The Pillowman, A Skull in Connemara, and Martin McDonagh's Hiberno-English". The Theatre of Martin McDonagh: A World of Savage Stories. ed. Lilian Chambers and Eamonn Jordan. Dublin: Craysfort Press, 2006. {{ISBN|1-904505-19-8}}. pg. 141, 150–151In addition, the absurd drama has also found its way in Urdu literature, Mazaron Ke Phool [i.e. Graveyard Flowers] (2008) by contemporary Pakistani writer, poet and columnist Mujtaba Haider Zaidi is the first absurd drama in the history of Urdu literature. Created in the pattern of ancient Greek tragedies, the drama contains only two characters, and carries both poetry and prose in it, and hence fulfills all the requirements necessary for a perfect Absurd drama.{{Citation needed|date=December 2013}}

Theatrical features

Plays within this group are absurd in that they focus not on logical acts, realistic occurrences, or traditional character development; they, instead, focus on human beings trapped in an incomprehensible world subject to any occurrence, no matter how illogical.Styan, Dark 218Saddik, pg. 29Norrish, pg. 2–8. The theme of incomprehensibility is coupled with the inadequacy of language to form meaningful human connections. According to Martin Esslin, Absurdism is "the inevitable devaluation of ideals, purity, and purpose"Esslin, pg. 24 Absurdist drama asks its viewer to "draw his own conclusions, make his own errors".Esslin, pg. 20 Though Theatre of the Absurd may be seen as nonsense, they have something to say and can be understood".Esslin, pg. 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".Ionesco in Esslin, pg. 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").Lamont, pg. 72WEB,weblink Open access journal for Film and Television Studies, Characters are frequently stereotypical, archetypal, or flat character types as in Commedia dell'arte.Anthony Cronin, Isaac Cronin. Samuel Beckett: the last modernist. Da Capo Press, 1999. {{ISBN|0-306-80898-6}}. pg. 424.Dave Bradby. Modern French Drama: 1940–1990. Cambridge University Press, 1991. {{ISBN|0-521-40843-1}}. 58.Esslin, pg. 402The more complex characters are in crisis because the world around them is incomprehensible. 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 mysteryKatherine H. Burkman. The dramatic world of Harold Pinter: its basis in ritual. Ohio State University Press, 1971 {{ISBN|0-8142-0146-6}}, {{ISBN|978-0-8142-0146-6}}. pg. 70–73. – 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). In Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit, the main character, Alfred, is menaced by Claire Zachanassian; Claire, richest woman in the world with a decaying body and multiple husbands throughout the play, has guaranteed a payout for anyone in the town willing to kill Alfred.Roger Alan Crockett. Understanding Friedrich Dürrenmatt.Univ of South Carolina Press, 1998. {{ISBN|1-57003-213-0}}, {{ISBN|978-1-57003-213-4}}. pg.81 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.Leonard Cabell Pronko. Avant-garde: the experimental theater in France. University of California Press, 1966. pg. 96–102. In Rhinocéros, Berenger remains the only human on Earth who hasn’t turned into a rhinoceros and must decide whether or not to conform.Harold Bloom. Bloom's Major Dramatists: Eugène Ionesco. 2003. Infobase Publishing. p106-110.Robert B. Heilman. The Ghost on the Ramparts. University of Georgia Press, 2008 {{ISBN|0-8203-3265-8}}, {{ISBN|978-0-8203-3265-9}}. pg. 170–171. Characters may find themselves trapped in a routine, or in a metafictional conceit, trapped in a story; the title 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.Bradby, Modern pg. 59Victor L. Cahn. Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom Stoppard. London: Associated University Presses, 1979. pg. 36–39. Cahn asserts that though Stoppard begain writing in the Absurdist mode, in his increasing focus on order, optimism, and the redemptive power of art, Stoppard has moved "beyond" Absurdism, as the title implies.The plots of many Absurdist plays feature characters in interdependent pairs, commonly either two males or a male and a female. Some Beckett scholars call this the "pseudocouple".Ackerley, pg. 334, 465, 508Alan Astro. Understanding Samuel Beckett. Univ of South Carolina Press, 1990{{ISBN|0-87249-686-4}}, {{ISBN|978-0-87249-686-6}}. pg. 116. The two characters may be roughly equal or have a begrudging interdependence (like Vladimir 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 LessonHinden, pg. 401. or in many of Albee's plays, The Zoo StoryLeslie Kane. The language of silence: on the unspoken and the unspeakable in modern drama. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1984. {{ISBN|0-8386-3187-8}}. pg. 159–160Lisa M. Siefker Bailey, Bruce J. Mann. Edward Albee: A Casebook. 2003. Routledge. pg. 33–44. 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—make the Theatre of the Absurd distinctive.Esslin, pg. 26 Language frequently gains a certain phonetic, rhythmical, almost musical quality, opening up a wide range of often comedic playfulness.Edward Albee, Philip C. Kolin. Conversations with Edward Albee. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1988. {{ISBN|0-87805-342-5}}. pg. 189. Jean Tardieu, for example, in the series of short pieces Theatre de Chambre arranged the language as one arranges music.Leonard Cabell Pronko. Avant-Garde. University of California Press, 2003. pg.155–156 Distinctively Absurdist language ranges from meaningless clichés to vaudeville-style word play to meaningless nonsense.Jeanette R. Malkin. Verbal Violence in Contemporary Drama: From Handke to Shepard. Cambridge University Press, 1992. {{ISBN|0-521-38335-8}}. pg. 40. 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.Styan, Dark pg. 221Erich Segal. The Death of Comedy. Harvard University Press, 2001. {{ISBN|0-674-01247-X}} pg. 422. 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.Saddik, pg. 30Guido Almansi, Simon Henderson. Harold Pinter. Routledge, 1983. {{ISBN|0-416-31710-3}}. pg. 37. 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.Kane, pg. 17, 19 Many of Beckett's plays devalue language for the sake of the striking tableau.Saddik, pg. 32 Harold Pinter—famous for his "Pinter pause"—presents more subtly elliptical dialogue; often the primary things characters should address are 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?Harold Pinter. The Caretaker. DPS, 1991.{{ISBN|0822201844}}, pg. 32
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...David Bradby. Beckett, Waiting for Godot. Camberidge University Press, 2001. {{ISBN|0-521-59510-X}}, pg. 81.
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:
GOLDBERG. What do you use for pajamas? 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?Harold Pinter. The Birthday Party and The Room: Two Plays. Grove Press, 1994. {{ISBN|0-8021-5114-0}}. pg. 51.
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.Raymond Williams. "The Birthday Party: Harold Pinter". Modern Critical Views: Harold Pinter. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. {{ISBN|0-87754-706-8}}. pg. 22–23.Marc Silverstein. Harold Pinter and the language of cultural power. Bucknell University Press, 1993 {{ISBN|0-8387-5236-5}}, {{ISBN|978-0-8387-5236-4}}. pg. 33–34.Richard Hornby. Drama, Metadrama and perception. Associated University Presse, 1986 {{ISBN|0-8387-5101-6}}, {{ISBN|978-0-8387-5101-5}}. pg. 61–63. 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"...Eugène Ionesco. The Bald Soprano and Other Plays. Grove Press, 1982. {{ISBN|0-8021-3079-8}}. pg. 67.


Traditional plot structures are rarely a consideration in The Theatre of the Absurd.Claude Schumacher. Encyclopedia of Literature & Criticism. 1990. Routledge. pg. 10. Plots can consist of the absurd repetition of cliché and routine, as in Godot or The Bald Soprano.Sydney Homan. Beckett's theaters: interpretations for performance. Bucknell University Press, 1984. {{ISBN|0-8387-5064-8}}. pg. 198. 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.Kane, pg. 132, 134 In later Pinter plays, such as The CaretakerKatherine H. Burkman. The dramatic world of Harold Pinter: its basis in ritual. Ohio State University Press, 1971. {{ISBN|0-8142-0146-6}}, {{ISBN|978-0-8142-0146-6}}. pg. 76–89 and The Homecoming,Marc Silverstein. Harold Pinter and the language of cultural power. Bucknell University Press, 1993.{{ISBN|0-8387-5236-5}}, {{ISBN|978-0-8387-5236-4}}. pg. 76–94. the menace is no longer entering from the outside but exists within the confined space. Other Absurdists use this kind of plot, as in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance: Harry and Edna take refuge at the home of their friends Agnes and Tobias because they suddenly become frightened.Stephen James Bottoms. The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. Cambridge University Press, 2005. {{ISBN|0-521-83455-4}}. pg. 221. They have difficulty explaining what has frightened them:
HARRY: There was nothing … but we were very scared. EDNA: We … were … terrified. HARRY: We were scared. It was like being lost: very young again, with the dark, and lost. There was no … thing … to be … frightened of, but … EDNA: WE WERE FRIGHTENED … AND THERE WAS NOTHING.Edward Albee. A delicate balance: a play in three acts. Samuel French, Inc., 1994. {{ISBN|0-573-60792-3}}. pg. 31.
Absence, emptiness, nothingness, and unresolved mysteries are central features in many Absurdist plots:Les Essif. Empty figure on an empty stage: the theatre of Samuel Beckett and his generation. Indiana University Press, 2001. {{ISBN|0-253-33847-6}}. pg. 1–9 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 are empty chairs, a representation of their absence.Alice Rayner. Ghosts: death's double and the phenomena of theatre. U of Minnesota Press, 2006. {{ISBN|0-8166-4544-2}}. pg. 120. 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,Morris Beja, S. E. Gontarski, Pierre A. G. Astier. Samuel Beckett—humanistic perspectives.Ohio State University Press, 1983. {{ISBN|0-8142-0334-5}}. pg. 8 for example, or in Breath only a junk heap on stage and the sounds of breathing.Alan Astro. Understanding Samuel Beckett. Univ of South Carolina Press, 1990. {{ISBN|0-87249-686-4}}. pg. 177.Ruby Cohn. A Beckett Canon. University of Michigan Press, 2001. {{ISBN|978-0-472-11190-9}} pg. 298, 337.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.Lamont, pg. 101Justin Wintle. The Makers of Modern Culture. Routledge, 2002. {{ISBN|0-415-26583-5}}. pg. 243. In Jean Tardieu's "The Keyhole" a lover watches a woman through a keyhole as she removes her clothes and then her flesh.Pronko, pg. 157.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 mistress; 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-within-the-play in Hamlet.June Schlueter. Metafictional Characters in Modern Drama. Columbia University Press, 1979. {{ISBN|0-231-04752-5}}. pg. 53. In Stoppard's Travesties, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara slip in and out of the plot of The Importance of Being Earnest.Peter K. W. Tan, Tom Stoppard. A stylistics of drama: with special focus on Stoppard's Travesties. NUS Press, 1993. {{ISBN|9971-69-182-5}}, {{ISBN|978-9971-69-182-0}}.Plots are frequently cyclical: for example, Endgame begins where the play endedKatherine H. Burkman. Myth and ritual in the plays of Samuel Beckett. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1987. {{ISBN|0-8386-3299-8}}. pg. 24. – at the beginning of the play, Clov says, "Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished"Samuel Beckett. Endgame: a play in one act, followed by Act without words, a mime for one player.Grove Press, 1958. {{ISBN|0-8021-5024-1}}. pg. 1. – and themes of cycle, routine, and repetition are explored throughout.Andrew K. Kennedy. Samuel Beckett. Cambridge University Press, 1989. {{ISBN|0-521-27488-5}}. pg. 48.

See also



Further reading

  • Ackerley, C. J. and S. E. Gontarski, ed. The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett. New York: Grove P, 2004.
  • Adamov, Jacqueline, "Censure et représentation dans le théâtre d’Arthur Adamov", in P. Vernois (Textes recueillis et présentés par), L’Onirisme et l’insolite dans le théâtre français contemporain. Actes du colloque de Strasbourg, Paris, Editions Klincksieck, 1974.
  • Baker, William, and John C. Ross, comp. Harold Pinter: A Bibliographical History. London: The British Library and New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll P, 2005. {{ISBN|1-58456-156-4}} (10). {{ISBN|978-1-58456-156-9}} (13).
  • Bennett, Michael Y. Reassessing the Theatre of the Absurd: Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. {{ISBN|978-0-230-11338-1}}
  • Brook, Peter. The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate. Touchstone, 1995. {{ISBN|0-684-82957-6}} (10).
  • Caselli, Daniela. Beckett's Dantes: Intertextuality in the Fiction and Criticism. {{ISBN|0-7190-7156-9}}.
  • Cronin, Anthony. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist. New York: Da Capo P, 1997.
  • Driver, Tom Faw. Jean Genet. New York: Columbia UP, 1966.
  • Esslin, Martin. The theatre of the absurd. London: Pelican, 1980.
  • Gaensbauer, Deborah B. Eugène Ionesco Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1996.
  • Haney, W.S., II. "Beckett Out of His Mind: The Theatre of the Absurd". Studies in the Literary IMagination. Vol. 34 (2).
  • La Nouvelle Critique, numéro spécial "Arthur Adamov", août-septembre 1973.
  • Lewis, Allan. Ionesco. New York: Twayne, 1972.
  • McMahon, Joseph H. The Imagination of Jean Genet. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963.
  • Mercier, Vivian. Beckett/Beckett. Oxford UP, 1977. {{ISBN|0-19-281269-6}}.
  • Youngberg, Q. Mommy's American Dream in Edward Albee's the American Dream. The Explicator, (2), 108.
  • Zhu, Jiang. "Analysis on the Artistic Features and Themes of the Theater of the Absurd". Theory & Practice in Language Studies, 3(8).

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