“The theatre of the absurd” was a derived from Camus’ philosophy of the absurd and popularized by Martin Esslin’s book The Theatre of the Absurd (1961). Esslin applied the term to the work of mainly four French playwrights which appeared on the stage in Paris in the early 1950s starting with lonesco’s The Bald Prima Donna (1950). The other three playwrights included by Esslin were Beckett, Adamov,and Genet. This kind of drama remained in ascendence till the early 1960s. The theatre of the absurd came to England with the staging in London of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in 1955, the French version of which had already been staged in Paris a couple of years earlier.
The Philosophic Basis of Absurd Drama:
The theatre of the absurd envisaged a radical departure from all kinds of conventional drama. It stood for total revolution rather than a few cosmetic changes. It was for a new content and a new form. The content was largely derived from the philosophical though of Camus and Sartre, which may be called Absurdism and Existentialism respectively.. As regards dramatic technique, the new kind of drama was to be what lonesco, its first exponent, described as “anti-play” or “anti-theatre” which ould discard all conventional notions of plot, characterization, dialogue, setting, etc. dating from the practice of the ancient Greek playwrights and the dramatic theory of Aristotle. The Theatre of the Absurd, in the words of Claude Schumacher, “overturned twenty-five centuries of tradition by rejecting all rules and by facing the chaos head-on.”
Camus and Sartre:
The chaos of existence as conceptualized by Camus and Sartre-is the basis of absurd drama. According to these philosophers the universe and man’s experience in it are meaningless. All attempts by the human mind to understand the world are futile. All philosophical systems and religions which claim that they can enable man to make sense of the world are delusive and useless. The absurd is defined by Camus as the “tension” which arises from man’s determination to discover order and purpose in a world which firmly refuses to show either. This definition of the absurd is to be found in Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). In Greek mythology Sisyphus was a cruel king condemned by the gods forever to roll a huge stone up a hill in Hades, only to have it roll down the hill just before reaching the top. Camus suggests that whatever a man does in this world is as futile and meaningless as Sisyphus’ eternal labour. Camus’ Absurdism looks like a philosophy of defeat and despair; however, there is something bracing and valuable in being freed from illusions to face “the chaos head-on.”
The Technical Aspect of Absurd Drama:
Camus was the first Absurdist and he wrote several plays which propagated this new philosophy. But his own plays do not belong to the theatre of the absurd. It is so because he mostly uses the conventional dramatic form and technique which enable him to convey this Absurdist vision lucidly and effectively. The world may be chaotic and meaningless but a play which tries to convey this truth should not be chaotic and meaningless itself. Chaos cannot be conveyed through chaos but through an ordered form. But the theatre of the absurd thought otherwise. Very correctly lonesco called his first play The BaldPrima Donna as “anti-play” and his kind of theatre “anti-theatre,” suggesting thereby a wholesale subversion of the conventional dramaturgy. Sartre emphasizes what he calls “the three essential refusals” of the new dramatists. These are: “the refusal of psychology, the refusal of plot, and the refusal of all realism.”
The “refusal of psychology” means that characters should not be consistent or fully conceived with a clear past and a fairly predictable future. Claude Schumacher observes in this context: “Characters in contemporary plays are often parodic, grotesque, incomplete, self-contradictory. They do not understand who they are, they do not understand the world around them, they are baffled by all the events that occur while they are on the stage.”
The “refusal of plot” removes what Aristotle considered the most important of the six elements of tragedy. The theatre of the absurd is drama of inaction-a contradiction in terms because “dran,” the Greek root of “drama,” means “action.” Inaction is the action of such drama. Like Sisyphus, characters in this drama do nothing meaningful or well-motivated. Whatever incidents are there do not make up a sensible pattern, not to speak of a coherent plot. Like life, an absurd play is meaningless. lonesco wrote apropos of his play TTze Chairs: “Since I am unable to understand the world, how could I understand my own play ? I hope someone would explain it to me.” The plot of this play is absurd to the last degree. A ninety-five years old lighthouse keeper and his wife invite people so that the old man may deliver his “message” before retiring. The invitees arrive but the chairs remain vacant. The old man asks the “Orator,” whom he has hired for the purpose, to deliver his message on his behalf and then jumps into the sea along with his wife. The “Orator” is dumb and mute and can only make incoherent sounds. Equipped so sorrily, he delivers the message to vacant chairs! Even meaninglessness has a meaning. The meaning of this play, like that of most absurd plays, is the impossibility of communication and yet its necessity. Consider Beckett’s definition of art as: “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”
The “refusal of realism” has two implications. First, that naturalism has become obsolete; and, second, that, to quote Schumacher, “an artistic creation must create its own reality… often fantastic, grotesque, oneiric; the action takes place in non-defined locations, within surrealist, distorted, subjective, dream-like settings; characters behave arbitrarily, without motivation—They are prone to parody themselves or one another. The dialogue follows its own logic and has recourse to interior monologues, streams of consciousness, rhythmic repetitions, flat contradictions, sudden ruptures, logorrhoea interpersed with long aphasia-like silences.”
The British Practitioners: Samuel Beckett (1906—89):
Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter in England and Edward Albee in America are the chief playwrights associated with the Theatre of the Absurd in English. Let us consider the work of the two British playwrights.
Beckett has been one of the boldest and most effective innovators in the fields of drama and novel in the twentieth century. An Irish expatriate settled in France like James Joyce, he wrote both in French and in English. His play Waiting for Godot is the best example of the theatre of the absurd. The vision of life conveyed by his plays is sombre and bleak and yet grotesquely funny.
Waiting for Godot has already become what Esslin describes as “a contemporary classic.” It is a locus classicus of theatre of the absurd. The two Acts of the play have similarity with a little variation. The play opens with two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for one Mr. Godot (God?) with whom they have an appointment. However, it is doubtful if they really have such an appointment and if any time and place have been fixed for the meeting. It is also uncertain if their names are Vladimer and Estragon and not Mr. Albert and Catullus. The two remain talking as if to while away time in both the Acts. In each Act they meet another pair of characters, Pozzo and Lucky. Pozzo is fat and rich while Lucky is weak and poor and looks like Pozzo’s slave who drives him with a whip. At the end of each Act a boy brings the message that Godot will come tomorrow. In the second Act Pozzo goes blind and Lucky, who has been talking volubly about science and philosophy, goes dumb. The futile wait for God represents the human predicament. The whole play is like an abstract painting very difficult to decipher.
Beckett’s other plays are also thought-provoking and built around the themes of identity and existence in a meaningless world which has both fantastic and disgusting aspects. Endgame represents two elderly characters, who are senile and repulsive, placed in dustbins throughout, and yet musing about the time of their honeymoon when they cycled together. In Krapp ‘s Last Tape, Krapp, now very old, listens to the tape of his own voice prepared in his youthful days. In Not the audience is made to see only a mouth trying to give expression to reminiscences. What is evident is that Beckett’s characters are mostly isolated individuals each living in his own world, enclosed and encapsuled, unable to communicate with others.
Harold Pinter (1930):
Pinter shows the influence of Beckett and theatre of the absurd in his earlier plays like The Room (1957), The Birthday Party (1958), and The Caretaker (1960). His later plays are, however, more realistic, straightforward, or politically purposive to be exemplars of absurd drama. His latest plays like One for the Road(\9S5) and Mountain Language (1988) are, in Schumacher’s words, “straightforward political statements, the first dealing with state torture and the second with genocide.”
Pinter is specially good at creating suggestions of an unnamable and unpredictable calamity which terrifies the protagonists who long for security and certainty. The calamity is represented as lurking in the circumambient darkness while security and certainty are represented by a well-lit room or house. Pinter’s first play The Room represents an old woman living in a small, warm room in a big, dark, and mysterious house which terrifies her all the time. Her fears come true when a bl ind black man comes to take her “home.” In The Birthday Party Stanley the hero is similarly led away from his rented lodging, by a Jew and an Irishman, into the darkness outside.
The only other British playwright who shows traces of the absurd is N.F. Simpson (1919— ). Much of what Simpson has written is in grotesquely farcical mode. His best-known play is One Way Pendulum (1959), a bizarre fantasy having elements of the absurd.