Elements of the Theatre of the Absurd in Alfred Hitchcock’s "North by Northwest"

Hausarbeit, 2014

19 Seiten, Note: 1,7


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Existentialism
2.1 General Ideas of Existentialism
2.2 Albert Camus’s Notion of Existentialism and the Absurd

3 The Theatre of the Absurd
3.1 The Origin of the Theatre of the Absurd
3.2 The Spectator’s Experience
3.3 Harold Pinter’s Comedy of Menace

4 Existentialism in North by Northwest
4.1 Roger Thornhill and Existentialism
4.2 Roger Thornhill and Death

5 Theatricality in North by Northwest
5.1 The Role of the Theatre
5.1 Elements of the Theatre of the Absurd

6 Conclusion

7 Bibliography

1. Introduction

Human beings are used to constantly make sense of things. If logic is somehow endangered, the mind is forced to re-adjust again. This allows for a new process of evaluation which is necessary in order to be able to cope with life’s incongruities. Despite the fact that logic is widely encouraged in our Western world, it often keeps us from realising what there still is when logic ends. The definition of the absurd as something “completely stupid or unreasonable” (Longman s.v. “absurd”) makes it the perfect counterpart to logic. Alfred Hitchcock’s film North by Northwest serves as an example for a film largely lacking this logical sense. It instead consists of a wide range of absurdities. The purpose of this paper is not only to review how the protagonist Roger Thornhill copes with this lack of a logical frame of reference, but also how this recurring confrontation with the absurd in daily life is absolutely crucial in order for both the protagonist’s and the spectator to genuinely engage with one’s inner fears and desires.

So as to better illustrate the aforementioned film’s underlying themes, this paper includes several subsections that will help us to gain insights into the foundation of the absurd. Firstly, a section on the general ideas of Existentialism will provide us with an overview of the major points often denoted in the context of Existentialism. Secondly, I included a subsection on Albert Camus’s notion on the way the absurd is intertwined with Existentialism. Following this, I started to address the key element of this paper, the Theatre of the Absurd. The first subsection goes back to the very roots of the absurd theatre and this shall help us to elaborate its predominant elements more thoroughly. A further subsection will focus in the spectator and his experience during the observation of such plays. Moreover, I included a subsection on Harold Pinter’s comedies of menace, a more specific junction of the Theatre of the Absurd.

In order to finally exert the theoretical framework to the film, I included a section on Existentialism in North by Northwest. While the first subsection deals with the protagonist Roger Thornhill and Existentialism in general, the second subsection will give us the opportunity to delve into the character’s innate fears of death as I provided an analysis of these. Furthermore, I added a section of theatricality because it describes one of the main themes in the film. A first subsection of the role of theatre focuses on specific scenes which distinctly reveal this stage-like atmosphere. A section subsection on the elements of the Theatre of the Absurd will investigate the crop duster scene and the driving scene in which Thornhill is intoxicated against his will as these include various elements of the Theatre of the Absurd. Lastly, I added a final subsection, the conclusion, in which I discuss the different arguments and sum up the findings.

2. Existentialism

2.1 Existentialism

To put it in the words of Maurice Natanson, when it comes to Existentialism, “the sense of mystery never quite vanishes; [rather,] it transposes itself instead into an almost eschatological expectancy, the awaiting of a resolute answer to the jocular yet desperate question, “Well, what exactly is existentialism?”” (Natanson 1968: 116). Maurice Natanson, who is author of the essay “Existential Categories In Contemporary Literature”, embraces the subject of Existentialism through an elaboration of what he calls “man’s being in reality” (Natanson 1968: 118). He offers various elucidations on this phrase, but the most conclusive is that “being in reality is the location of the self as there in any moment of the flow of temporal consciousness” (Natanson 1968: 118). “There [in this case] refers to an awareness of the self in reality as such” (Natanson 1968: 118), it is by Natanson regarded as “an underived and irreducible datum given directly to consciousness” (Natanson 1968: 118). Natanson gives an example in order to clarify this and states that even though we “see ourselves as we are engaged in an activity […] [, for example] the concert goer fleetingly aware of himself as a concert goer [, we yet] never place the whole of our common-sense attitude itself in question” (Natanson 1968: 120).

However, according to Natanson, “it is exactly that absolute awareness of the style of our being in common-sense life which must be made an object for inspection if the datum of being in reality is to be gotten” (Natanson 1968: 120). He critises that “there is a built-in mechanism of protection in the stream of daily life which guards against this awareness” (Natanson 1968: 120). However, “by trying to focus upon the general character of […] the total range of existence” (Natanson 1968: 121) without using “causal-genetic categories of explanation” (Natanson 1968: 121), the author finds himself “confronting reality in a completely fresh, original way” (Natanson 1968: 122). He goes on and describes a process of the breaking away of a frame of reference:

The world in this sense can no longer be explained by giving its history, the scientific laws which describe its behaviour, or by tracing out the why and how of its development; and I have no discipline or system or person to count on for my understanding. I am now directly confronted with reality and I find myself in this world with its complex horizons; I find myself as a being in reality (Natanson 1968: 122).

2.2 Albert Camus’s Notion of Existentialism and the Absurd

The philosopher and journalist Albert Camus is often “regarded as an existential moralist” (Braun 1974: 13). According to Lev Braun, Camus’s “ethics are not derived from a preestablished set of values, but are based on a special kind of experience for which he claims universal validity [...] [, an] experience he sums up in the word absurdity” (Braun 1974: 13).

This fascination for the concept of absurdity is something that reflects itself very well in the era Camus found himself living in. Braun claims that “if ever a time created the impression that the universe was absurd, it was indeed that period” (Braun: 1974: 30). Camus wrote “just before, during, and after the Second World War, the Nazi occupation of France, the horrors of Stalinism, and the Algerian war” (Solomon 2006: 5), a time which was regarded “a traumatic and difficult time in modern history and contemporary philosophy” (Solomon 2006: 5). To put it in the words of Braun, Camus “entered the intellectual and political life of France in one of its darkest periods” (Braun: 1974: 30), a time in which “events seemed beyond control” (Braun: 1974: 30).

In order to approach this topic of absurdity, it makes sense to not only include the circumstances of the time, but also to take a closer look at the facts Camus regards as necessary in order to come to terms with life’s absurdities. According to Camus, there are “three consequences [that lead] to [the] total acceptance of the absurd” (Rhein 1969: 28). He names the consequences “revolt” (Rhein 1969: 28), “freedom” (Rhein 1969: 28) and the “passion to exhaust that which is provided by the present moment” (Rhein 1969: 29). As far as revolt is concerned, Camus states that it is only through a “constant confrontation between man and his obscurity, [and] an ongoing struggle with the absurd” (Rhein 1969: 28), that one is able to “extend[…] awareness to the whole of existence” (Rhein 1969: 28), the requirement for such a revolt. The only way for Camus to grant freedom is “through [the] privation of hope and future which the absurd implies” (Rhein 1969: 28). The individual is able to experience a new kind of freedom if “death is there as the only reality” (Rhein 1969: 28). Lastly, Camus ascribes importance to the passion as a consequence of the absurd and by that means that if these specifications are adhered to, “each moment assumes a precious quality, for man is aware of his approaching death” (Rhein 1969: 29).

In addition, another fact Camus attached utmost importance to is the matter of choice which also describes a major theme of Existentialism. Scott says that Camus’s conviction was that “man must give himself his own directions: it is up to him, and to him alone, to decide where he shall go” (Scott 1962: 13). “If we accept our situation as absurd, Camus argues, and do not try to believe that there is meaning and purpose where there is none, then we can revolt against the absurd and can create meaning and purpose for ourselves” (Bennett 2012: 57). Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. states in his essay “Albert Camus and W.G. Sebald: The Search for Home” that “individuals do not possess preordained essential qualities or traits that somehow define them as individuals. Rather, each person must make choices regarding his or her actions and thus define himself or herself through these actions” (Carrigan 2012: 68). This matter of choice and individuals being responsible for her or his own actions describes a major conviction of Camus. He “sees the human voyager as utterly alone and with nothing to rely upon except the compass of his own mind and heart” (Scott 1962: 13). This aspect of responsibility and the matter of choice become especially important when “Camus recalls his experience as a traveler” (Scott 1962: 15) in some of his essays. “Strangeness and alienation” (Scott 1962: 15) denote the major themes of these and “what he finds most characteristic of that experience is the special kind of self-dislocation which is induced by one’s passage into new scenes and places that are without familiar signs and landmarks” (Scott 1962: 15).

3. The Theatre of the Absurd

3.1 The Origin of the Theatre of the Absurd

Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd specifies a period of time, which allows for a broad temporal classification of the Theatre of the Absurd. He states that “the major dramatists dealt with in this book emerged into the theatre in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s; by the late fifties and early sixties they had become famous, successful and established and exerted considerable influence on younger playwrights” (Esslin 2001: 430).

As far as the general emergence of the Theatre of the Absurd is concerned, Christoph Krüger says that it “is closely related to former literary and dramatic modes, such as [...] Existentialism and Surrealism” (Krüger 2009: 11). While section 2.1 offers an overview of the formers basic philosophical ideas underlying Existentialism, Surrealism is annotated further in Krüger’s The Plays of Harold Pinter: From Absurdism to Political Drama?. Krüger predicates that Surrealism “stresses the role of the unconscious and even imputed a healing potency” (Krüger: 2009: 18). He furthermore mentions the different methods employed in Surrealism, for example “those of surprise, unexpected combinations, dreams, hallucinations and other states of mind” (Krüger 2009: 19). Further elementary items of the Theatre of the Absurd are “abstract scenic effects as they are familiar in the circus or revue, in the work of jugglers, acrobats, bullfighters, or mines” (Esslin 2001: 328). Even “clowning, fooling, [...] mad-scenes” (Esslin 2001: 328) and “verbal nonsense” (Esslin 2001: 328) serve as examples for ancient traditions that can be found as elements in the Theatre of the Absurd.

These elements in this new type of theatre caused a lack of acceptance that predominantly came from “established critics” (Esslin 2001: 21). Since these were confronted with a “new and still developing stage convention that has not yet been generally understood and has hardly ever been defined” (Esslin 2001: 21), it often prompted them to “condemn” (Esslin 2001: 22) such plays. Esslin substantiates this harsh criticism through the statement that “habit and fossilized convention have [...] narrowed the public’s expectation[s]” (Esslin 1001: 328). The consequence of this was that this caused many of them to rate the absurd drama as “impertinent and outrageous impostures” (Esslin 2001: 21). Esslin mentions further features which can be made responsible for these feelings of unease amongst many critics, for example the “reflections of dreams and nightmares” (Esslin 2001: 22) and “incoherent babblings” (Esslin 2001: 22).

3.2 The Spectator’s Experience

The observation an absurd drama often involves a confounding experience for the spectator. As Anja Easterling says in her dissertation Shakespearean Parallels and Affinities with the Theatre of the Absurd in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, “the absurd drama [...] reflects man’s tragic sense of loss at the disappearance of the comforting certainties of generally known and universally accepted metaphysical systems” (Easterling 1982: 6). The spectator of an absurd drama is thereby confronted with a “heightened picture of disintegration” (Easterling 1982: 7) and has two opportunities to deal with this incongruity. She or he is compelled “either to reject it or to make an effort at interpretation and integration” (Easterling 1982: 7-8).

If it is integration which is intended, Easterling asserts the possibility of a “therapeutic effect” (Easterling 1982: 7) which is especially powerful in a world like ours; a schizophrenic world, which exhibits side by side a large number of unreconcilable beliefs and attitudes” (Easterling 1982: 7).

The positive effect Easterling supposes is also supported by Esslin. First, it is important for the spectator to become aware of the senselessness of the world. In Esslin’s own words, it is “by being made to see that the world has become absurd, in acknowledging that fact takes the first step in coming to terms with reality” (Esslin 2001: 413). If the spectator surrenders and defers to the play instead of rejecting it, she or he is, according to Esslin, now “forced to make a creative effort on his own” (Esslin 2001: 413) since “the stage supplies him with a number of disjointed clues that he has to fit into a meaningful pattern” (Esslin 2001: 413). The absurd drama therewith “sets in motion an active process of integrative forces in the mind of each individual spectator” (Esslin 2001: 412).

Nevertheless, “the Theatre of the Absurd does not appeal to the audience’s critical, intellectual faculties, but operates at a deeper level, activating psychological forces and releasing hidden fears and repressed aggressions” (Easterling 1982: 7). This bringing to awareness suppressed emotions is certainly not a simple process. The spectator is for the first time able “to see his situation in all its grimness and despair” (Esslin 2001: 414) because she or he is finally “stripped of illusions and vaguely felt fears and anxieties” (Esslin 2001: 414). However, this is according to Esslin yet the finest solution, because only “by seeing his anxieties formulated he can liberate himself from them” (Esslin 2001: 414). Esslin rates the ability of a direct confrontation with nonsensical being highly. It is not necessary anymore to find illusionary clarifications for the meaning of life if one is able to face these directly. According to Esslin, “the dignity of man lies in his ability to face reality in all its senselessness; to accept it freely, without fear, without illusions – and to laugh at it” (Esslin 2001: 429).

3.3 Harold Pinter’s Comedy of Menace

Arnold P. Hinchliffe states in his book Harold Pinter that the playwright, actor and poet Harold Pinter is not only “quintessentially the English representative of Absurd Theater” (Hinchliffe 1967: 13), his name especially became representative for another genre which can be considered as a subgenre of the Theatre of the Absurd. This genre of the comedy of menace gained relevance for the interpretation of Pinter’s plays because the idea of menace in a comedy repeatedly occurs in his plays and can be adapted to it more aptly. The term “comedies of menace” (Hinchliffe 1967: 38) was “first applied to Pinter by Irving Wardle in an article which appeared in Encore in September, 1958” (Esslin 2000: 42). The term developed out of the “comedy of manners” (Esslin 2000: 42), which “refers to a comedy form reflecting the life, thought, and manners of upper-class society, faithful to its traditions and philosophy” (Sawyer 1969: 3).

The pervasive idea of a comedy of menace, however, is a “commonplace situation that is gradually invested with menace, dread, and mystery” (Esslin 2001: 235). Especially in his earlier plays, Pinter managed for the spectator to brace for the “potential terrors of the situation where a victim waits for a door to open and menace to enter” (Sykes: 1970: 2).

There is an unaccustomed combination of humorous instances and threat, which often causes feelings of bewilderment in the spectator throughout the observation of such a play (Esslin 2001: 42-43). According to Esslin, it is possible that the spectators expresses this bewilderment through laughter. Esslin regards the spectator’s laughter during the observation of such a play as a sort of “precaution against [her or his very own] panic” (Esslin 2001: 42). He compares it to the “whistling in the dark of people who are trying to protect themselves against the menace” and thereby gives a demonstrative example for this kind of laughter by the spectators (Esslin 2001: 42). This laughter is an obvious attempt of self-protection in order to prevent fright and therewith “the horror, which lies at the core of the action they are witnessing” (Esslin 2001: 42).

4. Existentialism in North by Northwest

4.1 Roger Thornhill and Existentialism

Despite the fact that the philosophical approach of Existentialism is hard to encapsulate, it is yet fairly obvious to perceive its basic ideas in Alfred Hitchcock’s film North by Northwest. As we are introduced to the protagonist Roger Thornhill, we find him in his daily routine that he masters with a self-evidence that does not allow for a calling into question one’s own existence. As he is dictating to his secretary, at the same time walking at a hurried pace, expressing superficial greetings, one can easily sense the habitualness that lies in this daily routine of Roger Thornhill (North by Northwest: 2-3). After queue jumping over a pedestrian who was waiting for a taxi, Thornhill justifies his behaviour through saying to his secretary that “I made him a happy man. I made him feel like a good Samaritan” (ibid. 0:03:12-0:03:15). This comment of Thornhill reflects not only his imprudence, but also alludes to his usage of a defence pattern deriving from his subconscious. The argumentation of him provides his being in the world with a purpose as he views himself to possess the competency to improve the feelings of others. This defence mechanism serves his psyche insofar as it prevents him from having to face the purposelessness of his existence in this universe.


Ende der Leseprobe aus 19 Seiten


Elements of the Theatre of the Absurd in Alfred Hitchcock’s "North by Northwest"
Universität Hamburg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Advanced Methods of Literary and Cultural Analysis
ISBN (eBook)
Theatre of the Absurd, Hitchcock, North by Northwest, Existentialism
Arbeit zitieren
Annika Kelm (Autor:in), 2014, Elements of the Theatre of the Absurd in Alfred Hitchcock’s "North by Northwest", München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/905832


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