Absurd Drama, Not a Regular “Movement”
The phrase “Absurd Drama” or “The Theatre of the Absurd” gained currency as a result of Martin Esslin’s book The Theatre of the Absurd published in 1961. Esslin points out that there is no such thing as a regular “movement” of Absurd dramatists; the term is useful as “a device to make certain fundamental traits which seem to be present in the works of a number of dramatists accessible to discussion by tracing features they have in common.” Esslin’s book deals with a group of plays which incorporate certain beliefs and use certain methods and which, briefly and as a kind of intellectual shorthand, we call Absurd Drama.
Successful Inspite of the Violation of all Dramatic Conventions
The most surprising thing about plays of this group is that inspite of their breaking of the rules they are successful. Says Esslin: “If a good play must have a cleverly constructed story, these have no story or plot to speak of; if a good play is judged by subtlety of characterisation and motivation, these are often without recognisable characters and present the audience with almost mechanical puppets; if a good play has to have a fully explained theme, which is neatly exposed and finally solved, these often have neither a beginning nor an end; if a good play is to hold the mirror up to nature and portray the manners and mannerisms of the age in finely observed sketches, these seem often to be reflections of dreams and nightmares; if a good play relies on witty repartee and pointed dialogue, these often consist of incoherent babblings.”
The Major “Absurd” Dramatists
This kind of play, according to Esslin, arises from the disillusionment and loss of “certitude characteristic of our times and reflected in works like The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) by Albert Camus—where the word “Absurd” appears. The major dramatists of the School of the Absurd, in Esslin’s view, are Beckett, Adamov, lonesco, and Genet. The senselessness of life and loss of ideals had, of course, been reflected in dramatists like Giraudoux, Anouilh, Sartre, and Camus, but, whereas they had presented irrationality in terms of the old conventions, dramatists in the Theatre of the Absurd sought a more appropriate form. They do not argue about absurdity; they “present it in being.” Like the Poetic Theatre, the Absurd Theatre relies heavily on dream and fantasy, but unlike that theatre it rejects consciously “poetic” dialogue in favour of the banal. Although centred on
, the Theatre of the Absurd is distinctly international in flavour, as is emphasised by the four leading exponents chosen by Esslin—the Irish Beckett, the Russian Adamov, the Rumanian lonesco, and the Frenchman Genet. These dramatists are followed, in Esslin’s book, by about eighteen contemporary playwrights of whom Pinter and Simpson are the British representatives. All these dramatists partake, in one form or another, of the tradition of the Absurd which is described by Esslin as very far-flung indeed, incorporating devices from the circus, mime, clowning, verbal nonsense, and the literature of dream and fantasy which often has a strong allegorical component. Esslin seems to have overstated his case by including many dramatists whose mention in the category of the Theatre of the Absurd surprises us. But the tradition is more obviously pertinent when Esslin approaches such persons as Jarry, Apollinaire, and Dada. In his attempt to show in what way the Absurd Theatre produces something really new, Esslin suggests that it is “the unusual way in which various familiar attitudes of mind and literary idioms are interwoven”, and the fact that this approach has met with “a wide response from a broadly based public.” Paris
Facing a Universe Without God and Without Meaning or Purpose
Esslin makes certain important suggestions when discussing the significance of the Absurd. According to him, the number of people for whom God is dead has greatly increased in the present century. The Theatre of the Absurd is one of the ways of facing up to a universe that has lost its meaning and purpose. As such it fulfils a double role. Its first and more obvious role is satirical when it criticises a society that is petty and dishonest. Its second and more positive aspect is shown when it faces up to Absurdity in plays where man is “stripped of the accidental circumstances .of social position or historical context, confronted with basic choices, the basic situations of his existence.”
The Artist’s Individual Vision of the World
Such a theatre is involved in the relatively few problems that remain: life, death, isolation and communication, and it can, by its nature, only communicate “one poet’s most intimate and personal intuition of the human situation, his own sense of being, his individual vision of the world.” This vision receives a form which Esslin sees as similar to a Symbolist or Imagist poem in which, however, language is only one component, and not necessarily the dominant one. For language has suffered its own devaluation, a fact which is very contemporary from the point of view of either the philosopher or the mass media.
The Effect of Alienation
The resulting play, ironically, produces the effect of alienation. We find it very difficult to identify ourselves with the characters in Absurd drama: thus though their situation is often painful and violent, we can laugh at them. This drama speaks, says Esslin, “to a deeper level of the audience’s mind.” It challenges the audience to make sense of nonsense, to face the situation consciously rather than feel it vaguely, and perceive, with laughter, the fundamental absurdity.
Tests of this Theatre
What tests should be applied to assess the quality of such works in the theatre? These tests, according to Esslin, are invention, the complexity of the poetic images invoked, and the skill with which these images are combined and sustained, besides the reality and truth of the vision which these images embody.
The Need to Face Reality
The Theatre of the Absurd presents anxiety, despair, and a sense of loss at the disappearance of solutions, illusions, and purposefulness. Facing up to this loss means that we face up to reality itself. Thus Absurd drama becomes a kind of modern mystical experience. Says Esslin: “Today, when death and old age are increasingly concealed behind euphemism and comforting baby talk, and life is threatened with being smothered in the mass consumption of hypnotic mechanised vulgarity, the need to confront man with the reality of his situation is greater than ever. For the dignity of man lies in his ability to face reality in all its senselessness; to accept it freely, without fear, without illusion—and to laugh at it.”
The Inclusion of Almost all Important Dramatists in the Category of “Absurdists”
In this connection the following adverse comment on Esslin’s survey of what he has called the Theatre of the Absurd is noteworthy: “Tracing the forebears of the Absurd, Mr. Esslin leads us back to the mime plays of antiquity; to the Commedia dell” Arte; to Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll: to Jarry, Strindberg, and the young, Rimbaud-impregnated Brecht; to the Dadaists and Tristan Tzara; to the Surrealists and Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty; to Kafka, and to Joyce. All this is helpful and credible. But when Mr. Esslin ropes in Shakespeare, Goethe, and Ibsen as harbingers of the Absurd, one begins to feel that the whole history of dramatic literature has been nothing but a prelude to the glorious emergence of Beckett and lonesco.” The point of this comment by Kenneth Tynan is that Esslin has included almost every important dramatist in his category of the Absurd playwrights and has thus cast his net too wide.
Lack of Plot and Characterisation, and Limitations of Language
In Waiting for Godot two characters pass the time by playing games on the open road. In his second play Endgame, two characters play the final game shut up in a room. Here a blind old man,
, sits in a wheel-chair (he cannot stand) waited on by a servant Clov (who cannot sit down); in the room also in dust-bins are Hamm ’s legless parents, Nagg and Nell. The world outside is dead, or at least these four people believe that they are the last survivors of the race after some great catastrophe. Although Clov hates Hamm , he must obey his orders, and the basic question of the play is whether or not Clov will muster enough will-power to leave Hamm , who will then die. Like Waiting for Godot this play has been variously interpreted, even as a biographical document embodying the relationship between Joyce and Beckett. Both these plays show a lack of plot and also in the conventional sense, of character, for character presumes that personality matters, just as plot assumes that, events in time have significance—and both these postulates are questioned in the plays. In his subsequent plays for stage and radio, Beckett does not probe quite so deeply, but the themes persist: the difficulty of finding meaning in a world subject to incessant change, and the limitations of language as a means of arriving at or communicating valid truths. Pronko has pointed out that stichomythia suggests here a lack of communication—each man following his own thoughts, while the silences and pauses isolate words and phrases, and the repetitions remind us how monotonous, repetitive, and tedious life is. Yet, if Beckett devalues language, he continues to use it bilingually and to show a mastery of it. For want of a better tool, language has been moulded into an instrument for naming the unnamable; and this recognition of absurdity is once more the starting point of exhilaration and freedom. Hamm