The Absurd Theatre


The theatre of the Absurd seems to question the nature of human existence or to explore the meaninglessness of life and present a world without logic or morals without using conventional dramatic language, plot or narration. Essentially, each play renders man's existence as illogical, and moreover, meaningless. This idea was a reaction to the collapse of moral, religious, political, and social structures following the two World Wars of the Twentieth Century.

The most important dramatists of the Absurd movements

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)

Arthur Adamov (1908-1970)

Eugene Ionesco (1909-1994)

Jean Genet (1910-1986)

Edward Albee (1928)

Harold Pinter (1930-2008)

Tom Stoppard (1937)

 

Influences

Absurdist Theatre was heavily influenced by Existential philosophy. It aligned best with the philosophy in Albert Camus' essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). In this essay, Camus attempts to present a reasonable answer as to why man should not commit suicide in face of a meaningless, absurd existence. To do so, he uses the Greek mythological figure, Sisyphus, who was condemned to push a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down. He repeats this futile cycle for all of eternity. At the end of the essay, Camus concludes that, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy" (Camus 123). He means that the struggle of life alone should bring one’s happiness. Essentially, we can find meaning in living even without knowing why we exist.

The absurd dramatists, however, did not resolve the problem of man's meaningless existence quite as positively as Camus. In fact, they typically offered no solution to the problem whatsoever, thus suggesting that the question is ultimately unanswerable.

 

Themes

Two themes that re-occur frequently throughout absurdist dramas are a meaningless world and the isolation of the individual.

 

A World without Meaning

The decline of religious faith in the Twentieth Century is partly responsible for the growing notion that life had no identifiable purpose. Whereas one who believes in the afterlife sees life as a means of getting there, one who does not believe is left to either conclude that there is no purpose or to find an alternative justification for his or her life.

Without the guidance of the religion, the man is lost having nothing to guide their life in the correct path. So, life becomes a vague journey without destination creating moral distraction in the individual leading a society to a chaos.  

 

The Isolation of the Individual

The most of the plays emphasize the isolation of the individual, or man's inability to connect with others. Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1952), the most well-known play from the absurdist movement, features this idea. The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are both tramps who spend the entirety of the play on the outskirts of society. Though they have each other, they are at the same time isolated from one another. One indication of this is that they are never able to adequately communicate; their conversation goes in circles.

The lack of communication is a common feature in absurd theatre. This reality makes the man isolated even with a company.

 

Devaluation of Language

One characteristic of absurd theatre form was the devaluation of language. The absurd dramatists felt that conventional language had failed man- it was an inadequate means of communication. As a result, the movement of the characters on stage often contradicts their words or dialogue. Another common way in which they presented the uselessness of language was by having their characters constantly speak in clich├ęs, or overused, tired expressions.

 

Lack of Plot

Another poetic aspect of absurdist plays is that they lack a plot or a clear beginning and end with a purposeful development in between. There is usually a great deal of repetition in both language and action, which suggests that the play isn't actually going anywhere. Therefore, the plot deviates from the conventional linear plot to a circular one.   

In Waiting for Godot, the stage directions indicate that Vladimir and Estragon are constantly moving. For example, they repeatedly "rummage" through their pockets and "peer" into their hats (Beckett 4-9). These actions are so frequent, however, that the audience begins to feel as if they are watching the same thing over and over again. They could even be called static actions as they contribute nothing to the flow of the play. Yet this lack of purposeful movement in Waiting for Godot and most other absurdist dramas is intentional. Therefore, if one does not view the play as a story, but rather as a single idea being acted out, this supposed lack of plot becomes irrelevant.

 

Non-recognizable characters

The characters in absurd dramas are not clear-cut. It is hard to differentiate the protagonist or the antagonist. The characterization cannot be properly mapped as the characters lack in consistency. The characterization changes at multi-dimensional level.

 

You may read the summary of The Dumb Waiter here:  

 

Absurdist does not provide logical discourses pointing out step-by-step the absurdity of the universe: he begins with the philosophical premise that the universe is absurd, and then creates plays which illustrate conclusively that the universe is indeed absurd and that perhaps this play is another additional absurdity.

Therefore, the absurd theatre is about the desperate experience of human beings. They often struggle with regard to the power and meaning of the life. Though the absurd plays are seemingly confusing and absurd, they are a profile of the modern world which shows the struggle of their live to live a meaningful life.

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