Theatre of the Absurd. Term, playwrights, historical context, characteristics

Essay, 2010
11 Pages, Grade: 1,3


The term “Theatre of the Absurd” (TotA) was coined by the critic Martin Esslin in 1961 to describe the works of a number of primarily European playwrights, mostly written in the 1950s and 1960s. Esslin regarded the term “TotA” as a "device" to bring attention to basic characteristics displayed in the works of a variety of playwrights. By explaining the evolution and characteristics of the TotA, I will mainly refer to Esslin (1961), Münder (1976), Hagberg (1972) and Raby (2001).

According to Esslin, playwrights associated with the TotA include Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, Eugène Ionesco, Tom Stoppard, Fernando Arrabal, and Edward Albee among others. Many of these writers were not comfortable with the label and sometimes preferred terms such as "Anti-Theatre" or "New Theatre". It must be stressed, however, that these dramatists do not form part of any self-proclaimed movement. On the contrary, each of the playwrights has his own personal approach to both subject-matter and form. Nevertheless, they also have a great deal in common, as their works reflect the preoccupations, anxieties, emotions and thoughts of many of their contemporaries.

The aftermath of World War II and the alienation of people in the modern world provided the environment that allowed for the development of absurdist world views. In his 1942 essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, the French philosopher Albert Camus described the human condition as essentially meaningless and absurd. According to Camus, the world cannot be explained by reasoning anymore and therefore becomes unfamiliar, leaving people feeling hopeless and like strangers. The divorce between the people and their lives constitutes the feeling of absurdity. According to Esslin, “absurd” originally was a musical term meaning “out of harmony”, while he also states its dictionary definition: “out of harmony with reason or propriety; incongruous, unreasonable, illogical” (Esslin 1961). Ionesco defined “absurd” as “that which is devoid of purpose”.

The plays of the TotA revolve around the theme of absurdity in that they depict life as nonsensical, grotesque and irrational. People are hopeless; overwhelmed by a world apparently without meaning and as a consequence they behave like puppets, controlled by an invisible force. It is debatable whether absurd theatre deals with absurd depictions or with the depiction of absurd elements, i.e. the absurdity of the world.

The TotA fulfils a dual purpose and exhibits/verbalises (presents) a twofold absurdity. On the one hand, it presents, satirically, the absurdity of lives lived unconscious and oblivious of an ultimate reality. This is the feeling of the deadness, the mechanical futility and insignificance of our half-unconscious lives, which Camus describes in The Myth of Sisyphus. On the other hand, the TotA approaches a deeper layer of absurdity – the absurdity of the human condition itself in an environment where the decline of trust and religious belief has deprived man of certainties (Esslin 1961).

The TotA highlights man’s fundamental bewilderment and confusion, stemming from the fact that one has no answers to the crucial existential questions: Why are we alive? Why do we have to die? Why is there suffering and injustice? etc. Ionesco’s plays often present the horror of proliferation (the invasion of the stage by ever-growing masses of people or things), which seems to express the individual’s horror of being confronted with the overwhelming task of coping with the incomprehensible world, his loneliness and inner void (Esslin 1961).

Although t he label “TotA” covers a wide range of playwrights with different styles, they do have some common cultural and historical roots and stylistic forerunners.

According to Esslin, the TotA combines ancient traditions in a new form and echoes other forms of comedic performance. Absurd elements first appeared in the theatre of ancient Greece, in the wild humour and buffoonery of Old Comedy and the plays of Aristophanes in particular. The morality plays of the Middle Ages may also be considered a predecessor to the TotA, presenting archetypal characters and allegorical or existential problems. Likewise, the allegorical dramas of baroque Elizabethan times are thought to be a contributor to the TotA. Other predecessors include the Commedia dell'arte of Renaissance Italy and the pantomime or the music-hall in Britain. Furthermore, the silent film comedy is considered as one of the decisive influences on the TotA. Esslin also cites William Shakespeare as an influential precursor. His tragicomedies are considered as a major impact on absurdist writing, as they often sacrifice logic and realism. Shakespeare’s plays are loaded with a similar type of inverted logical reasoning, false conclusions, free associations, real or pretended madness and the combination of comedy and tragedy we may also find in the plays of Adamov, Ionesco, Beckett or Pinter. Several absurdist plays reference Shakespeare directly, including Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Ionesco’s Macbett.

Another antecedent of the TotA is nonsense literature. Nonsense rhymes, e.g. as nursery rhymes, are a liberation from the constraints of logic. Authors frequently mentioned as literary predecessors of the TotA include not only the 19th-century nonsense poets, such as Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear; but also James Joyce and Bertolt Brecht (with the distancing techniques in his "Epic theatre"). Absurd elements may also be observed in certain plays by Ibsen and, more obviously, the ‘dream plays’ of Strindberg. An important literary antecedent of what would come to be called the TotA is also Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi (1896), which presents a mythical, grotesque, puppet-like figure, set in a world of archetypal images. Similarly, Franz Kafka's works frequently deal with archetypal nightmares and obsessions and illustrate the anxieties and feelings of a human being lost in a world of convention and routine.

As Esslin points out, art movements such as Surrealism, Dadaism and Expressionism influenced the evolution of the TotA as well. The modern movements in painting and the TotA met in their rejection of the discursive and narrative elements, and the focus on the inner realities of the conscious and subconscious mind. After World War I, German Expressionism attempted to convey inner realities and some absurd elements can be recognized in Expressionist theories. There is a focus on the effets of an uncaring society upon the individual and the emotional angst this caused, which was also an important theme in several plays of the TotA. The influence of Dadaism (e.g. the Dadaist plays by Tristan Tzara) can be seen in the irrationality and nonsense dialogues presented in Dadaist art forms. Additionally, the Surrealist world of allegory, myth and dream with its emphasis on the role of the subconscious (->Freud) had an impact on the playwrights of the TotA.

In the absurd world view, we can also find points of contact with the existentialist philosophy of the 30s and 40s in France. The absurdity of the human condition is the same theme in both the TotA and Existentialist theatre. Many of the playwrights were contemporaries with Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosophical spokesman for Existentialism, but a major difference between the TotA and Existentialism is the fact that the TotA shows the failure of man without recommending a solution.

The historical background also played an important role in the development of the TotA. World War II was the mechanism that brought the TotA to life. After both World Wars, there was a breakdown of faith in social progress and a feeling of deep disillusionment, the loss of a sense of meaning and purpose in life. The attitude most representative of the 1950s and 60s, reflected in the TotA, is the unshakable sense of basic assumptions from former ages being swept away and discredited as rather childish illusions. The TotA seems to have been a reaction to the disappearance of the religious dimension from contemporary life. The decline of religious faith had been covered by the faith in progress, nationalism, and various totalitarian fallacies until the end of World War II. All this was suddenly shattered by the war.

The traumatic experience of the horrors of WWII showed the entire impermanence of any values, shook the validity of any conventions, and highlighted the meaninglessness and uncertainty of life. In some countries, there was also disillusionment with the hopes of a radical social revolution as predicted by Marx after Stalin had turned the Soviet Union into a totalitarian state. The trauma of living from 1945 under threat of nuclear annihilation has also been an important factor in the rise of the new theatre and emphasized the essential precariousness of human life. During that time, everyone was able to reflect upon absurdity because the experience of it became part of the average person's daily existence.

Although the term is applied to a wide range of plays, several characteristics coincide in many of the plays, some of which I am going to outline in the following.

The Absurdist play is characterised by a sense of shock at the loss of any clear system of beliefs and values. In the meaningless and seemingly Godless atmosphere after World War II, it was no longer possible to keep using the traditional art forms that had ceased being convincing. The TotA wants to shake man out of his conventional, mechanical and trite existence by employing an unusual, innovative form, directly aiming to startle the viewer. It openly rebelled against conventional theatre. Not surprisingly, the TotA initially met with incomprehension and negative response - the first productions provoked hostile demonstrations and played to empty houses. The playwrights tried to achieve a unity between their central assumptions and the form in which these are presented. Absurdist plays suspend the classical Aristotelian categories of unity (time, place, action): The places are not clearly defined – they appear imaginary and exchangeable. Plots appear purposeless, present confusing situations and lack logical development. Esslin points out that without a fixed belief system or guiding principles, all action becomes absurd and useless and therefore everything that happens is permissible.

In the TotA, the dynamics of action is replaced by statics, repetition and routine (e.g. The Bald Soprano, Waiting for Godot, Endgame). Time is turned into a permanent, fixed and durable state made up of waiting and existing. Frequently, the plot is absurdly expansive or cyclical. This can be illustrated by the excessive repetition of words, sentences and even situations; as well as the seemingly unstructured, aimless dialogues. The world on stage is turned into a permanent vicious circle. Waiting for Godot, for example, ends the same way it began. Similarly, Endgame begins where the play ended and the themes of cycle, routine, and repetition are thematised throughout the play (Kennedy 1989). There are things happening, but these happenings do not constitute a linear plot; they illustrate a static situation. They are an image of Beckett’s intuition that however frantically characters perform, this only emphasises that nothing really happens to change their existence (Culík 2000). His plays demonstrate his understanding of temporality and evanescence and of the continuous quest for reality and reason in a world in which everything is uncertain and there is no borderline between dreams and reality.

The TotA is a theatre of situation in contrast to the more conventional theatre of sequential events. In traditional theatre, a clear beginning and ending is recognisable. An Absurdist play, however, starts at an arbitrary point and seems to end as arbitrarily. The primary concern is not to tell a story, to narrate the adventures of fate of characters or to communicate a moral, so the action does not go from point A to point B but there is rather a gradual unfolding of a complex pattern. The TotA is rather concerned with the illustration of one individual’s basic situation; it presents a pattern of poetic images and shows the situation into which man is ‘thrown’ – hopeless and without resort. Nothingness, unresolved mysteries, emptiness and absence are characteristic features of Absurdist plots. In Waiting for Godot, for instance, the focus is on the absence of this unknown Godot, for whom the characters incessantly wait.


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Theatre of the Absurd. Term, playwrights, historical context, characteristics
University of Cologne
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Theatre of the Absurd, Absurdes Theater, Esslin, Harold, Pinter, Beckettt, Adamov, Genet, Edward Albee, Anti-Theatre, absurd, playwrights, Englisches Theater
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Carina Kröger (Author), 2010, Theatre of the Absurd. Term, playwrights, historical context, characteristics, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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