What does it stand for? And how can such a label be justified? Perhaps it will be best to attempt to answer the second question first. There is no organised movement, no school of artists, who claim the label for themselves. A good many playwrights who have been classed under this label, when asked if they belong to the Theatre of the Absurd, will indigniantly reply that they belong to no such movement - and quite rightly so.

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What does it stand for? And how can such a label be justified? Perhaps it will be best to attempt to answer the second question first. There is no organised movement, no school of artists, who claim the label for themselves. A good many playwrights who have been classed under this label, when asked if they belong to the Theatre of the Absurd, will indigniantly reply that they belong to no such movement - and quite rightly so.

For each of the playwrights concerned seeks to express no more and no less his own personal vision of the world. Yet critical concepts of this kind are useful when new modes of expression, new conventions of art arise. When the plays of Ionesco, Beckett, Genet, and Adamov first appeared on the stage they puzzled and outraged most critics as well audiences. And no wonder. These plays flout all the standards by which drama has been judged for many centuries; they must therefore appear as a provocation to people who have come into the theatre expecting to find what they would recognize as a well-made play.

A well-made play is expected to present characters that are well-observed and convincingly motivated: these plays often contain hardly any recognizable human beings and present completely unmotivated actions. A well-made play is expected to entertain by the ding-dong of witty and logically built-up dialogue: in some of these plays dialogue seems to have degenerated into meaningless babble.

A well-made play is expected to have a beginning, a middle, and a neatly tied-up ending: these plays often start at an arbitrary point and seem to end just as arbitrarily. By all the traditional standards of of critical appreciation of the drama, these plays are not only abominably bad, they do not even deserve the name drama. And yet, strangely enough, these plays have worked, they have had an effect, they have exercised a fascination of their own in the theatre.

But this explanation clearly could not apply to more than one or two plays of this kind. And the success of a whole row of similarly unconventional works became more and more manifest. If the critical touchstones of conventional drama did not apply to these plays, this must surely have been due to a difference in objective, the use of different artistic means, to the fact, in short, that these plays were both creating and applying a different convention of drama.

It is just as senseless to condemn an abstract painting because it lacks perspective or a recognizable subject-matter as it is to reject Waiting for Godot because it has no plot to speak of.

In painting a composition of squares and lines an artist like Mondrian does not want to depict any object in nature, he does not want to create perspective.

Similarly, in writing Waiting for Godot Beckett did not intend to tell a story, he did not want the audience to go home satisfied that they knew the solution to the problem posed in the play. Hence there is no point in reproaching him with not doing what he never sought to do; the only reasonable course is to try and find out what it was that he did intend.

Yet, if tackled directly most of the playwrights in question would refuse to discuss any theories or objectives behind their work. They would, with perfect justification, point out that they are concerned with one thing only: to express their vision of the world as best they can, simply because, as artists, they feel an irrepressible urge to do so.

This is where the critic can step in. By describing the works that do not fit into the established convention, by bringing out the similarities of approach in a number of more or less obviously related new works, by analysing the nature of their method and their artistic effect, he can try to define the framework of the new convention, and by doing so, can provide the standards by which it will become possible to have works in that convention meaningfully compared and evaluated.

The onus of proof that there is such a convetion involved clearly lies on the critic, but if he can establish that there are basic similarities in approach, he can argue that these similarities must arise from common factors in the experience of the writers concerned. And these common factors must in turn spring from the spiritual climate of our age which no sensitive artist can escape and also perhaps from a common background of artistic influences, a similarity of roots, a shared tradition.

A term like the Theatre of the Absurd must therefore be understood as a kind of intellectual shorthand for a complex pattern of similarities in approach, method, and convention, of shared philosophical and artistic premises, whether conscious or subconscious, and of influences from a common store of tradition. A label of this kind therefore is an aid to understanding, valid only in so far as it helps to gain insight into a work of art.

It is not a binding classification; it is certainly not all-embracing or exclusive. A play may contain some elements that can best be understood in the light of such a label, while other elements in the same play derive from and can best be understood in the light of a different convention. Arthur Adamov, for example, has written a number of plays that are prime examples of the Theatre of the Absurd. He now quite openly and consciously rejects this style and writes in a different, realistic convention.

Moreover, once a term like Theatre of the Absurd is defined and understood, it acquires a certain value in throwing light on works of previous epochs. What then is the convention of drama that has now acquired the label of the Theatre of the Absurd? A middle-aged husband and wife are shown in a situation which is clearly not taken from real life. They have not left their flat for years. The wife earns her living by operating some sort of telephone switchboard; the husband is writing a play, but has never got beyond the first few lines.

In the bedroom is a corpse. It has been there for many years. All this is wildly fantastic, yet it is not altogether unfamiliar, for it is not unlike situations most of us have experienced at one time or another in dreams and nightmares. Ionesco has in fact put a dream situation onto the stage, and in a dream quite clearly the rules of realistic theatre no longer apply.

Dreams do not develop logically; they develop by association. Dreams do not communicate ideas; they communicate images. It is in the nature both of dreams and poetic imagery that they are ambiguous and carry a multitude of meanings at one and the same time, so that it is futile to ask what the image of the growing corpse stands for.

On the other hand one can say that the corpse might evoke the growing power of past mistakes or past guilt, perhaps the waning of love or the death of affection - some evil in any case that festers and grows worse with time.

The image can stand for any and all of these ideas, and its ability to embrace them all gives it the poetic power it undoubtedly posseses. In other words: while most plays in the traditional convention are primarily concerned to tell a story or elucidate an intellectual problem, and can thus be seen as a narrative or discursive form of communication, the plays of the Theatre of the Absurd are primarily intended to convey a poetic image or a complex pattern of poetic images; they are above all a poetical form.

Narrative or discursive thought proceeds in a dialectical manner and must lead to a result or final message; it is therefore dynamic and moves along a definite line of development. Poetry is above all concerned to convey its central idea, or atmosphere, or mode of being; it is essentially static. But the situation of the play remains static; the movement we see is the unfolding of the poetic image. The more ambiguous and complex that image, the more intricate and intriguing will be the process of revealing it.

That is why a play like Waiting for Godot can generate considerable suspense and dramatic tension in spite of being a play in which literally nothing happens, a play designed to show that nothing can ever happen in human life. It is only when the last lines have been spoken and the curtain has fallen that we are in a position to grasp the total pattern of the complex poetic image we have been confronted with.

What will the completed image be when we have grasped the nature of the pattern? Why should the emphasis in drama have shifted away from traditional forms towards images which, complex and suggestive as they may be, must necessarily lack the final clarity of definition, the neat resolutions we have been used to expect?

Clearly because the playwrights concerned no longer believe in the possibility of such neatness of resolution. They are indeed chiefly concerned with expressing a sense of wonder, of incomprehension, and at times of despair, at the lack of cohesion and meaning that they find in the world. If they could believe in clearly defined motivations, acceptable solutions, settlements of conflict in tidily tied up endings, these dramatists would certainly not eschew them.

But, quite obviously, they have no faith in the existence of so rational and well ordered a universe. The system of values, the world-view behind the well-made play may be a religious one or a political one; it may be an implicit belief in the goodness and perfectibility of men as in Shaw or Ibsen or it may be a mere unthinking acceptance of the moral and political status quo as in most drawing-room comedy. But whatever it is, the basis of the well-made play is the implicit assumption that the world does make sense, that reality is solid and secure, all outlines clear, all ends apparent.

The plays that we have classed under the label of the Theatre of the Absurd, on the other hand, express a sense of shock at the absense, the loss of any such clear and well-defined systems of beliefs or values.

There can little doubt that such a sense of disillusionment, such a collapse of all previously held firm beliefs is a characteristic feature of our own times. There can be no doubt: for many intelligent and sensitive human beings the world of the mid twentieth century has lost its meaning and has simply ceased to make sense. Previously held certainties have dissolved, the firmest foundations for hope and optimism have collapsed.

Suddenly man sees himself faced with a universe that is both frightening and illogical - in a word, absurd. All assurances of hope, all explanations of ultimate meaning have suddenly been unmasked as nonsensical illusions, empty chatter, whistling in the dark. If we try to imagine such a situation in ordinary life, this might amount to our suddenly ceasing to understand the conversation in a room full of people; what made sense at one moment has, at the next, become an obscure babble of voices in a foreign language.

At once the comforting, familiar scene would turn into one of nightmare and horror. With the loss of the means of communication we should be compelled to view that world with the eyes of total outsiders as a succession of frightening images. Such a sense of loss of meaning must inevitably lead to a questioning of the recognised instrument for the communication of meaning: language. Consequently the Theatre of the Absurd is to a very considerable extent concerned with a critique of language, an attack above all on fossilized forms of language which have become devoid of meaning.

The converstaion at the party which at one moment seemed to be an exchange if information about the weather, or new books, or the respective health of the participants, is suddenly revealed as an exchange of mere meaningless banalities. The people talking about the weather had no intention whatever of of really exchanging meaningful information on the subject; they were merely using language to fill the emptiness between them, to conceal the fact that they had no desire to tell each other anything at all.

In other words, from being a noble instrument of genuine communication language has become a kind of ballast filling empty spaces. And equally, in a universe that seems to be drained of meaning, the pompous and laborious attempts at explanation that we call philosophy or politics must appear as empty chatter.

Harold Pinter, whose uncanny accuracy in the reproduction of real conversation among English people has earned him the reputation of having a tape-recorder built into his memory, reveals that the bulk of everyday conversation is largely devoid of logic and sense, is in fact nonsensical. It is at this point that the Theatre of the Absurd can actually coincide with the highest degree of realism.

For if the real conversation of human beings is in fact absurd and nonsensical, then it is the well-made play with its polished logical dialogue that is unrealistic, while the absurdist play may well be a tape-recorded reproduction of reality.

Or, in a world that has become absurd, the Theatre of the Absurd is the most realistic comment on, the most accurate reproduction of, reality. In its critique of language the Theatre of the Absurd closely reflects the preoccupation of contemporary philosophy with language, its effort to disentangle language, as a genuine instrument for logic and the discovery of reality, from the welter of emotive, illogical usages, the grammatical conventions that have, in the past, often been confused with genuine logical relationships.

And equally, in its emphasis on the basic absurdity of the human condition, on the bankruptcy of all closed systems of thought with claims to provide a total explanation of reality, the Theatre of the Absurd has much in common with the existential philosophy of Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus. It was in fact Camus who coined the concept of the Absurd in the sense in which it is used here. This is not to say that the dramatists of the Absurd are trying to translate contemporary philosophy into drama.

It is merely that philosophers and dramatists respond to the same cultural and spiritual situation and reflect the same preoccupations. Yet, however contemporary the Theatre of the Absurd may appear it is by no means the revolutionary novelty as which some of its champions, as well as some of its bitterest critics, tend to represent it. In fact the Theatre of the Absurd can best be understood as a new combination of a number of ancient, even archaic, traditions of literature and drama.

It is surprising and shocking merely because of the unusual nature of the combination and the increased emphasis on aspects of drama that, while present in all plays, rarely emerge into the foreground.

It is no coincidence that one of the masters of the Theatre of the Absurd, Jean Genet, regards his plays as attempts at recaturing the riual element in the Mass itself, which, after all, can be seen as a poetic image of an archetypal event brought to life through a sequence of symbolical actions.

It is against this background that we must see the history of the movement which culminates in Beckett, Ionesco, or Genet. Its immediate forebears are dramatists like Strindberg, who progressed from photographic naturalism to more and more openly expressionist representations of dreams, nightmares, or obsessions in plays like the Ghost Sonata, Dream Play, or To Damascus, and novelists like James Joyce and Kafka.

A form of drama concerned with dream-like imagery and the failure of language was bound to find inspiration also in the silent cinema, with its dream-like quality and cruel, sometimes nightmare humour. These comedians, after all, derive from the most ancient traditions of clowning, as do, in the talking cinema, the Marx Brothers, W.

Fields, or Laurel and Hardy, all clearly part of the tradition which leads to the Theatre of the Absurd. Another direct and acknowledged influence is that of the Dadaists, the surrealists, and the Parisian avant-garde that derives from writers like Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire It is a savage farce in which monstrous puppets castigate the greed and emptiness of bourgeois society through a series of grotesque stage images.

In France the two leading exponents of surrealism in drama were Antonin Artaud and Roger Vitrac


Martin Esslin

What do you know about the theatre of Absurd? Bring out the main characteristics of this school of drama. The key element to an absurdist play is that the main characters and their situations are out of the synchronize with the world around them. There is no discernable reasoning behind their strangeness, though a threatening sense of change shakes their existence to the core. As Martin Esslin defines the theatre of the Absurd was not a cohesive artistic movement. Each dramatist of the Absurd projects themselves as an outsider from the mainstream of both society and the artistic world.


Theatre of the Absurd

What does it stand for? And how can such a label be justified? Perhaps it will be best to attempt to answer the second question first. There is no organised movement, no school of artists, who claim the label for themselves. A good many playwrights who have been classed under this label, when asked if they belong to the Theatre of the Absurd, will indigniantly reply that they belong to no such movement - and quite rightly so. For each of the playwrights concerned seeks to express no more and no less his own personal vision of the world.

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