Theatre of the Absurd

Describing the philosophical school of existentialism, French novelist and playwright Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) wrote, “[I]n a universe suddenly divested of illusions and of light, man feels an alien, a stranger. . . . This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity” (6). A few years later, a number of European playwrights, all writing independently and all witnesses to the atrocities of World War II, transformed Camus’s existentialist philosophy about the purposelessness of human existence into one of the most influential theatrical movements: the Theatre of the Absurd. The main playwrights and plays associated with absurdism are French: Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano (1950), Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953), and Jean Genet’s The Balcony (1957). Other playwrights and plays associated with the Theatre of the Absurd are Englishman Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1958), Spaniard Fernando Arrabal’s Picnic on the Battlefield (1959), Russian-born Frenchman Arthur Adamov’s Ping Pong (1955), and American Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story (world premiere in Berlin 1959; American premiere 1960) and The American Dream (1961).

Camus and World War II were not the absurdists’ only spark. The plays of Euripides and Aristophanes and the Italian theatrical tradition of commedia dell’arte are some of the Theatre of the Absurd’s earliest antecedents. Modern influences include French playwright Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896), dadaism, surrealism, Italian Luigi Pirandello’s plays, and the theatrical theorizings of Frenchman Antonin Artaud and German Bertolt Brecht, as well as circus, vaudeville, and early film comedians, particularly the Marx Brothers.

The absurdists confronted the question of existence in a post-Hiroshima world through an ironic depiction of humanity’s role in the universe. Featuring clownlike, alienated, and aimless antiheroes, these playwrights’ seriocomic works depicted the helplessness and apparent purposelessness of the individual’s existence in a world bereft of Providence. At the same time, they challenged the conventions of the theater by relying on circular plots, abstract characters, metatheatrical references, and dialogue steeped in wordplay.

In American theater, absurdist plays were not as numerous or significant as in Europe. Martin Esslin, who coined the phrase “Theatre of the Absurd,” notes that absurdist theater hinges on disillusionment as well as on an uncertainty about the purposefulness of life; both characteristics were experienced by many Europeans after the war. Having escaped the physical and economic devastation of World War II, the United States experienced a period of remarkable economic growth; many of its citizens were living the American Dream. Hence, the social, economic, and cultural struggles that encouraged the themes of absurdism in the plays of Beckett and others were not present in America. It would not be until the end of the 1950s— a full decade after Ionesco and Beckett wrote their first absurdist plays—that absurdism would appear in American plays. However, the absurdism that did arrive in American theaters was more of a response to the materialistic and progressive streak that defined the United States in the 1950s than an outgrowth of Camus’s existential philosophy.

Two important events helped bring the absurdist influence to American playwrights. First, the publication of The Drama Review, a theatrical journal, introduced the European movement to American theatrical practitioners. Second, Alan Schneider’s American production in 1956 of Waiting for Godot, the most representative work of the Theatre of the Absurd, thumbed its nose at American realistic drama through its circular structure—where nothing happens, twice: the failure of Godot to arrive; the linguistic games between Didi and Gogo; the metatheatrical blurring of the artificial world of the play and the real world of the audience; and the fact that two characters just sit and wait. Its production made manifest the essential tenets of absurdist drama, and within a few years of its American premiere, the first absurdist American plays appeared.

Many critics have noted the influence of Waiting for Godot on Jack Gelber’s The Connection (1959), one of the first and most successful American absurdist plays. The piece depicts a group of heroin addicts waiting, much like Beckett’s characters, for their supplier to arrive. Similar to Beckett, Gelber also blurs the dimensions of reality and the artifice of theater by having the characters seek handouts from the audience during the intermission.

However, the clearest link between Beckett and American absurdism came with Edward Albee, whose first play, the one-act The Zoo Story, was at both its German and American premieres paired with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). In fact, of all the American dramatists to dabble in absurdism, Albee would become the figure most linked to the movement. In The Zoo Story, Albee explores the question of our relationship with and obligation to others as well as our role in the world through a seemingly meandering exchange between Jerry and Peter in a park until Jerry’s shocking suicide. Albee’s more marked absurdist piece is The American Dream, which is considered by many to be the most pure representation of American absurdist theater. Through the characters of Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma, Albee skewers the language, image, and nature of the American family and dream, both of which had become idealized during the 1950s. (The Sandbox [1960] is an earlier, shorter version of the play featuring the same characters.) With Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), Albee captured the same sense of language games found in the European absurdists as he harrowingly depicts an evening’s entertainment between two academic couples and the vituperative, alcohol-fueled linguistic battle between its two main characters, George and Martha, although the play’s psychological thrust also demonstrates its realist influences. In the 1960s, Albee continued to write plays that included some absurdist elements, including Tiny Alice (1964), Box (1968), and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (1968). However, these plays were further removed from the absurdist tendencies of his earlier works.

Other American playwrights and works associated with the Theatre of the Absurd are Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad (1960) and The Day the Whores Came out to Play Tennis (1965); Kenneth Koch’s Bertha (1959) and George Washington Crossing the Delaware (1962); Jack Richardson’s Gallows Humor (1961); and Arnold Weinstein’s Red Eye of Love (1958).

While the Theatre of the Absurd was a short-lived movement in American theater, it has had a remarkable influence on subsequent writers. The early plays of Sam Shepard, including Cowboys (1964) and The Rock Garden (1964), are heavily influenced by Beckett’s absurdist plays, and throughout Shepard’s canon the influence of the Theatre of the Absurd resonates. Numerous other playwrights have acknowledged their influence by the absurdists, including Ed Bullins, Israel Horovitz, Tina Howe, Tony Kushner, David Mamet, and David Rabe. One contemporary playwright still exhibiting absurdist tendencies is Maria Irene Fornés, who has cited Schneider’s production of Waiting for Godot as one of the most significant influences on her writing.

Ultimately, the romance between the Theatre of the Absurd and American playwrights was fleeting. In fact, critics have noted that American absurdist theater reached its peak in 1962, only three years after The Connection premiered. In the process, only one major playwright and a handful of important plays emerged from the movement. However, more significant is that while the Theatre of the Absurd movement quickly ended in the United States, its influence on American contemporary playwrights continues.

Brater, Enoch, and Ruby Cohn, eds. Around the Absurd: Essays on Modern and Postmodern Drama. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990. Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Knopf, 1958. Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1969. Mayberry, Bob. Theatre of Discord: Dissonance in Beckett, Albee, and Pinter. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.
Source: Publishing, I., 2010. The Facts On File Companion to American Drama. New York: Infobase Pub.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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