Theatre of the Absurd [Theater of the Absurd]

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

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In a historical sense, Theatre of the Absurd can be seen to have arisen in Greek drama (in the so-called Old Comedy, and then in the plays of Aristophanes in particular). The idea that “the world's a stage” was an ancient concept, later taken up by Shakespeare. Varronian satire was developed in the late classical period by Lucian (in Greek), and Petronius and Apuleius (Latin). Mikhail Bakhtin, in the twentieth century, highlighted Menippean satire in a tradition of carnivalistic literature, depicting “a world upside down”. Northrop Frye also linked such forms to his conception of the “anatomy”. Such scandalous and parodic elements were particularly prominent in Rabelais. Buffoonery and performance art led to forms of European popular theatre: thence pantomime, music hall and vaudeville.

Subsequent comedy evolved towards farce. Absurd elements are noted here and there in plays by Ibsen and Strindberg, and later Pirandello, but the acknowledged predecessor of what came to be called Theatre of the Absurd is Alfred Jarry's “monstrous puppet-play” Ubu Roi (1896). Further foundations were laid by Futurism, Dada and Surrealism. In Soviet Russia, something similar was created, in the inhospitable pre-war Stalin years, by a group calling itself OBERIU (Society for Real Art); performance was curtailed and the principal members (Daniil Kharms and Aleksandr Vvedensky) were suppressed, remaining undiscovered for several decades. Mention should also be made of plays written in the inter-war period by Vladimir Maiakovsky in Soviet Russia and Stanislaw Witkiewicz in Poland.

So much for the historical absurd. What has now come to be known as Theatre of the Absurd arose and flourished, largely in Paris, in a period that stretched from soon after World War Two into the 1970s. However, it is not totally confined to that period, as absurdist drama of one sort or another has continued since; moreover, the phenomenon by no means remained confined to the Parisian stages. The term as such became established through Martin Esslin's seminal volume The Theatre of the Absurd (1962; third edition, 1982), a study that has been added to, but has not been superseded.

Esslin's 1982 edition devotes chapters to five major dramatists of the absurd: Beckett, Adamov, Ionesco, Genet and Pinter (in Pinter's case, going up to Betrayal, 1978). In addition to treatments of “Tradition” and “Significance” thereof, Esslin proceeds further to deal briefly with seventeen writers, ranging from Edward Albee and Arthur Kopit in America; through N.F. Simpson, Fernando Arrabal, Boris Vian and other West Europeans; to Mrozek, Rózewicz and Havel in Eastern Europe. Esslin indicates the French, indeed Parisian avant-garde, base of his Theatre of the Absurd, but stresses its cosmopolitan nature and spread, and the fact that, indeed, its leading figures, living in Paris and writing in French, were not in fact Frenchmen (Adamov, Arrabal, Beckett and Ionesco being respectively by origin Russo-Armenian, Spanish, Irish and Romanian). First performances took place across a range of theatres, under a variety of directors. The term “Theatre of the Absurd” (also called anti-théâtre) was seen initially by Esslin as “a working hypothesis”, not denoting any movement as such (given, indeed, that there never was one). He thus regarded the term as merely a “device”, bringing attention to certain fundamental traits discernible in the works of a range of playwrights.

Absurdist plays, according to drama historian J.L. Styan, “fall within the symbolist tradition” in their lack of conventional plot and characterisation. Moreover, he elucidates: “Camus's existentialist use of the term ‘absurd' in The Myth of Sisyphus [1942] was ten years later vastly narrowed to connote man trapped in a hostile universe that was totally subjective, and made to describe the nightmare that could follow when purposelessness, solitude and silence were taken to the ultimate degree”. Similarly, Esslin contends that Theatre of the Absurd “has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being – that is, in terms of concrete stage images”. Elements from mime, the music hall, circus and commedia del arte were appropriated, particularly in early plays by Beckett; monotony and repetition are emphasised, along with the methods of farce and laughter – with dialogue that seemingly amounts to little more than a series of pointless statements and inconsequential clichés.

These qualities are especially evident in the dramas of Eugène Ionesco, and these same ideas are reinforced in his theoretical commentaries, Notes et contre-notes [Notes and Counternotes, 1962]. He thus explicates his dramatic projections: “So there is no plot, no architectural construction, no puzzles to be solved, only the inscrutable enigma of the unknown”. “There is only one true way of demystifying”, he proclaims: “by means of humor, especially if it is ‘black'; logic is revealed by our awareness of the illogicality of the absurd”, while “the comic alone is able to give us the strength to bear the tragedy of existence”. Ionesco's first play, La Cantatrice chauve [The Bald Soprano, 1950; or The Bald Prima Donna], apparently owes its inspiration to an Asimil textbook of conversational English. Ionesco himself spoke of the ingredients of parody, banality and “the hollowest clichés”. To this are added: the pointless, the bizarre, as well as the glaringly obvious, and the repetitious – amounting to what has been called “tormented puppetry”. Conversation primers provide truisms and clichés, leading to pseudo-truisms and caricature, resulting in eventual disintegration into disjointed verbal fragmentation – yet acted in deadly seriousness, as though a play by Ibsen. In addition came the chance qualities (in rehearsal) of the accidental stumbling upon the title, and the inspired (if pragmatic) decision to end the play by starting it over again from the beginning, but with the secondary couple, the Martins, assuming the roles of the Smiths. One commentator has isolated some thirty-six “recipes of the comic” in this play alone – something approaching a full gamut of comic devices.

Regarding three further early Ionesco plays, we may note that Les Chaises [The Chairs, 1952] has what Ionesco terms a theme of “the ontological void, or absence”, embodied by the chairs themselves, representing the absent, or at least invisible, audience invited to the old couple's apocalyptic non-soirée. There is absence too of the message promised for the end of the play, or at least of any meaningful means to deliver it. Ionesco found it “difficult to say whether some of the characters exist or not”; at the same time, he affirms, “the tightly-packed crowd of non-existent beings should acquire an entirely objective existence of their own”. La Leçon [The Lesson, 1951] presents a manically repetitive and literally murderous system of pseudo-academic discourse, developing through routines of arithmetical confusion and phoney philology. In Amédée ou Comment s'en débarrasser [Amédée or How to Get Rid of It, 1954], an enormous corpse that has been growing for fifteen years in a married couple's bedroom may symbolise the couple's dead love, the power of death, or indeed much else. Amédée is writing a play “in which I am on the side of the living against the dead”. The question of the status and identity of the corpse bears a certain alogical comparison to the purported situations in Kharms's absurdist play Yelizaveta Bam (1927) and his novella Starukha [The Old Woman, 1939].

Arthur Adamov's first two plays, La Parodie [The Parody] and L'Invasion [The Invasion], written in the late 1940s, were published in 1950, successfully provoking a first performance. While perhaps lacking the overtly comic qualities found in Ionesco, The Invasion presents what is seen as a similarly hopeless search for meaning, and for message amid a disintegrating language – in this case located (or rather not located) in unreadable and fading (and in any event probably meaningless or incomprehensible) manuscripts. Again in common with Ionesco's theory, Adamov, who at first thought he was innovating an indirect dialogue of oblique reference, subsequently realised that he had really just reinvented an already established technique (from the repertoire of Chekhov, among others). Another early play, Le Professeur Taranne [Professor Taranne, 1953], based on an actual dream of Adamov's, features a protagonist accused of indecent exposure, plagiarism and other heinous offences, who may appear to be simultaneously an exposed fraud and/or an innocent victim. More ambitious is Le Ping-Pong (1955), considered by Esslin one of the masterpieces of Theatre of the Absurd, depicting two men over a lifetime of obsession with pinball machines, in which technology invades and takes over their entire existence in a display of corporate and machine domination that must retain a prescient significance. From Paolo Paoli (1957), Adamov moved further away from the absurd to embrace a more Brechtian type of epic theatre. Like Ionesco, Adamov disliked the term Theatre of the Absurd. “Life is not absurd”, he claimed, “only difficult, very difficult”. The French, indeed, appeared to prefer Ionesco's alternative expression, “théâtre de dérison”.

There is no shortage of “cruelty”, or brutality, in the “Panic theatre” (Théâtre Panique: a combination of “panic” and the god Pan) of Fernando Arrabal, a form of theatre designed to administer shock treatment to the senses of the audience. In Les Deux bourreaux [The Two Executioners, 1958], a woman delivers her husband to a torture chamber and literally proceeds to rub salt in his wounds. L'Architecte et l'empereur d'Assyrie [The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, 1967] is directly inspired by comments of Antonin Artaud (the instigator of the so-called “Theatre of Cruelty”) on the cruelty of “Assyrian emperors” with a penchant for mutilation.

Ritual, erotic fantasy, violence, betrayal, the sacramental and the excremental – though this time with a more explicit concentration on the French homosexual and criminal outcasts and under-classes – pervade too the works of Jean Genet. Equally well known (as is Arrabal for his novels) for his prose narratives written in the 1940s, Genet made his name publicly first as a dramatist of the absurd (or what was called “theatre of the possessed”). His artistic reputation was also boosted by his being the subject of a monograph by Sartre. Genet's theatre, like his prose, according to Esslin “in a very real sense, is a Dance of Death”. Tortuous visions of mirror reflection and the switching of identities (of role, sex or race), and play within the play within dreamlike fantasies of power and sex, Genet's more absurdist dramas – notably Les Bonnes [The Maids, 1947], Le Balcon [The Balcony, 1956] and Les Nègres [The Blacks, 1958] – turn to grotesque ritual, violent abuse, and ceremonial death. In The Maids, the eponymous duo alternate in playing power games, assuming the role of their mistress and of each other, to the extent of one taking poisoned tea intended for the hated and feared lady. Genet's original intention, that the parts should be acted by men, was fulfilled in a Berlin production in 1965. In The Blacks, featuring the ritual murder of a white woman, some of the cast of black actors masquerade as whites, as do (in intention at least) members of the play's supposedly black audience. The illusion of The Balcony is to transform the auditorium into a virtual brothel, doubling as a sacristy, amid an environment of violent revolution. Genet has been taken by some as the true heir to Artaud; but Styan places him closer to the “Pirandellian theatre-game”.

Early in 1947, Beckett – already an established fiction writer – began, almost suddenly it seems, to write for the theatre. The jump made from his first play Eleutheria (unpublished within his lifetime) to Waiting for Godot (written a mere eighteen months on, in 1948-49) would be hard to over-stress. Beckett plunges us into an almost primeval wasteland, introducing his first theatrical perpetual vagrants. In 1953, with the first production of what is now regarded as perhaps the twentieth-century dramatic masterpiece, according to his first director Roger Blin, Beckett knew nothing about the stage. Later, however, Beckett was to devote very considerable time to the theatre.

Beckett “has written a play in which nothing happens, twice”, wrote Vivian Mercier of Waiting for Godot (Irish Times, 1956). Preferable, as a curt summation, is John Fletcher's appreciation of “a witty and moving dramatic symbol: that of two tramp-clowns waiting on a country road for someone who fails to keep the appointment”. The main pair of characters, Vladimir and Estragon are (variously or similarly) seen as vagabonds, wayfarers, men of the road, hoboes, drop-outs – Beckett's “wanderers”, seeking to “go on” (as they put it), as they decline into “moribunds” – although, it has been remarked, neither “tramp” nor “clown” are ever mentioned in the text. The pair's antics, along with snatches of their music-hall-type repartee, are suggestive of the carnival effect seen to permeate the whole atmosphere and construction of the play – an effect only enhanced by entertaining actor Jack McGowran's notion of a role-reversal between Vladimir and Estragon – just as, in another view, the two acts can be read in reverse. As a variant of no-man's land, some commentators relate Beckett's work largely to war-torn France. Declan Kiberd, however, relates Beckett's characters rather to the tramps, masters and servants (or slaves) of Anglo-Ireland. This approach seems to apply particularly to the other linked pair, Pozzo and Lucky, initially added to the play, according to Beckett, “to break the monotony”. Pozzo postures as the [absentee?] landlord, clothed like the English gentry. Lucky, in some sense a former mentor to Pozzo, takes on something of the aspect of a degenerate and enslaved academic, reduced to inglorious porterage; indeed, he is considered by Erich Segal a modern version of the learned professor gloriosus, whose nonsensical pronouncements make mockery of pompous philosophers. “Godot” is not infrequently seen as a diminutive of the deity; the Gaelic go deo, meaning “forever”, has also been suggested, while for others the name represents a “nullity” (death), or is even equated with sexual potency. It has been remarked that Waiting for Godot draws on Greek theatre: with its small number of actors, its off-stage crises, and its absent divinity. The ingredients of Noh theatre, commedia dell'arte, twentieth-century experimental theatre, vaudeville, circus and burlesque have also been noted.

The setting of Fin de partie (1955-56) [English version: Endgame, 1958] is a domicile seemingly surrounded by a bare, it is often assumed devastated, landscape: “endgame” is often taken here to signify “end of the world”. However, it may equally be taken as “stalemate” (or in “eternal check”), in which case a familiar Beckettian stasis would pertain. Endgame was eventually confined to one act, and the play, as L.A.C. Dobrez puts it, “is contracted to the room-skull milieu of [Beckett's] novels”. From Endgame onwards, and by various means, Beckett's characters are reduced to ever smaller spaces. We have here again two pairs of characters: Nagg and Nell (the parents of Hamm) are confined to ashbins; Hamm and Clov are another symbiotic master-slave coupling (Hamm being seen as the king piece in this chess stalemate and Clov his pawn). Only Clov “enjoys” (so-to-speak) any real mobility. Hamm's comments display an awareness that he is “no more than a chess piece in the endgame of language” (Richard Kearney), while Jan Kott regards Endgame as a King Lear repeated in skeletal form. Theatre of the Absurd, as applied to Beckett's plays, has been seen as a somewhat restrictive label – and a tag which Beckett himself (like other supposed theatrical absurdists) disliked. An alternative, suggested this time by Segal, is “Beckett's theatre of inadequacy”.

European playwrights of the absurd apart, this brand of theatrical writing was developing by the late 1950s in America and in the British Isles. Edward Albee's The Zoo Story (1958), in which a chance Central Park conversation between two men leads to the self-impalement of one, an apparent schizophrenic, on the knife he has provoked the other into picking up. Similar on a smaller scale to Albee's later full-length Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), termed by Esslin “a savage dance of death reminiscent of Strindberg”, The Zoo Story comprises a lengthy dialogue of non-communication and also includes the nearest thing we have in drama to a literal shaggy-dog story: a rambling monologue announced as “The Story of Jerry and the Dog!”. Another shorter piece, The American Dream (1961), is reminiscent of Ionesco in its forceful exposure of hollowness behind the cliché.

In England, N.F. Simpson's A Resounding Tinkle was first produced, in its shortened form, in 1957. This play is closer to the Ionesco of The Bald Soprano than to examples of the theatrical cruelty or violence noted above – and actually, this time, is deriding the mores of the English middle classes. In addition to its suburban social satire, it presents a farrago of nonsense, paradox (the married couple are named Paradock), wordplay (“the small of my back is too big, Doctor”) and pedantry. In a theatrical equivalent to novelistic metafiction (or “metatheatre”), in the full-length version, the devices of absurd drama are laid bare and commented on by a succession of subsidiary characters, ranging from a pair of comedians (engaged for home visits), the supposed author (excusing himself that most of the play came to him in Portuguese, a language he barely knows), a technician, a team of critics, the producer and a sceptical audience member. The comedians, who see themselves as “metaphysically the Marx Brothers, ... [p]resenting the custard pie comedy of the abstract”, discuss Bergson's theory of laughter with the Paradocks. A hilarious mock-service is broadcast over the radio in voices “of cultured Anglican fatuity”; comic theorising, religious debunking and pseudo-science all represent entanglements of illusion and distortion, lunacy and sanity, falsehood and truth. The critical brains-trust delivers such shattering aperçus as: “It is, basically, a parody of a skit on satire that [the author] is burlesquing, and the farce is so to speak a by-product of that”. The full text of A Resounding Tinkle may be theatrically unwieldy, but in its shorter form it remains a classic absurdist exercise – as one “critic” (in the play) terms it: “The Comedy of Errors rewritten by Lewis Carroll to provide a part for Godot or somebody”.

Harold Pinter is famed as the supreme master of dialogue of incoherence and silence, set among the English lower or criminal classes (The Birthday Party, performed 1958; The Dumb Waiter, 1959; The Caretaker, 1960; The Homecoming, 1965). However, like Simpson, he is equally at home dissecting the foibles and discourse of the middle classes (A Slight Ache, 1959; The Collection, 1961, The Lover, 1963; and so on); or combining these registers in grotesque forms of upward (and downward) mobility (Night School, 1960; The Homecoming). He is also famed for his explorations of the personal dynamics arising out of territorial conflict in a confined space (The Room, 1957; The Caretaker; The Basement, 1967). Power and sex, both personal and institutional, are vital ingredients from the beginning (witness The Hothouse, with its “staff” and “understaff”, written 1958; performed only in 1980). Possession, occupation or control of any sanctum invites hostility. Menace and violence (threatened or actual) constitute the other famed Pinteresque hallmarks of so many of his works, from The Room up to later parables of political repression (such as One for the Road, 1984; Mountain Language, 1988; and The New World Order, 1991). For Pinter, “horror and absurdity go together” (interview of 1960).

In addition to incoherence and silence, Pinter's dialogue employs an all too natural (and paradigmatically absurd-sounding) recapture of realistic speech patterns, bringing into relief ambiguity, irrelevance, redundancy, non-sequiturs, cross-purpose exchange (whether heard or heeded, unheard or unheeded), mutterings, repartee, rhythm, garrulity and verbose outbursts (often hilariously convoluted, inappropriate or pretentious). One of Pinter's declared aims is “to get to this recognizable reality of the absurdity of what we do and how we behave and how we speak”. Much, if not all, depends on memory, which is shown to be at variance, unreliable and, of course, subject to lack of verification. Apparent inconsequentiality and other such absurdist trappings are presented against a backdrop of mystification, dreamscape or even, in certain of the early plays at least, a suspicion of the supernatural. Context is depleted, limited or just not provided.

A number of commentators point out that Pinter's work from (approximately) 1957 to 1963 forms the group of plays often referred to as “comedies of menace” (a term apparently coined for early Pinter by the theatre critic Irving Wardle back in 1958), or “theatre of the absurd”. From 1968 to 1975 comes a second period, that of the “memory plays”, from Landscape (1968) and Silence (1969) to No Man's Land (1975). The view suggested here, though, is that absurdity remains a constant factor, representing a strong ingredient of the intervening The Homecoming and perhaps even reaching a peak in No Man's Land (regarded as Pinter's harshest vision of the human predicament). It re-surges again, albeit with differing emphases, in the later political plays and in Moonlight (1993).

Joe Orton, known as “the master farceur of his age” and “a connoisseur of chaos”, in a meteoric dramatic career that stretched only from 1964 to 1967, produced a total of seven plays that have given him an assured place in what might now be considered as “English absurdism”. Affinities are not hard to spot between Orton's plays (or at least elements therein) and works by Ionesco and Genet on the one hand, and Pinter and Simpson on the other, as well as ploys or motifs recognisable from Greek (and indeed Jacobean) tragedy. The Ruffian on the Stair (1964) seems, with certain reversals, to match Pinter's The Room; and particularities of Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964) correspond with The Birthday Party. Loot (1966) and What the Butler Saw (1967) develop Orton's black comic talents. In Orton's plays, the (speakable or unspeakable) colloquial is finely laced with the ironic, the poetic and the epigrammatic, to further his (surely eminently absurdist) declared aesthetic aim of achieving “the ridiculous” through “a combination of elegance and crudity”. Dubbed in his time “the Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility”, Joe Orton was perhaps rather an authentic Oscar Wilde for the iconoclastic kitchen-sink sixties.

What became accepted, then, as “British Absurd” assimilated into itself, in the wake of Pinter and Orton, the early plays of Tom Stoppard, beginning with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967). In addition to his purported British predecessors, Stoppard was seen to display echoes of Sartre, Beckett and Kafka, as well as, in a more specifically theatrical European sense, Ionesco and Pirandello (as well as Beckett – in addition here to Shakespeare). Stoppard's second play, The Real Inspector Hound (1968) parodies the detective genre (particularly Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap). Travesties (1974) makes hay with Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest, James Joyce and Dadaism (not to mention Leninism). In Dogg's Hamlet (1979), Stoppard writes dialogue largely in “Dogg language”, a code of verbal substitution, based on the exchanges of building workers, as derived from Wittgenstein's language games, juxtaposed with a greatly compressed version of Hamlet – an exercise in reduction repeated in Cahoot's Macbeth (1980). Indeed, the second portion of this presumed double-bill amounts to an absurdist mélange of reduced Macbeth, contagious Dogg-language, detective foolery, English lorry deliveries and post-Dubcek Czechoslovak normalization. The Czech-born Stoppard, indeed, went on to deliver (in 1987) an English version of Havel's Largo Desolato (1984).

Towards the later end of the epoch of “classic” Theatre of the Absurd, we encounter contributions from Eastern Europe: the earlier plays of Slawomir Mrozek and Václav Havel. Mrozek 's early dramas adapted cabaret humour and absurdist techniques to the cultural and political situation of Poland post-socialist realism. In his following plays, such as Vatzlav (1970), Mrozek departs somewhat from absurdist poetics with political undertones, although Emigranci [Emigrants, 1974) is seen to contain echoes of Waiting for Godot. However a return towards earlier patterns is discerned in at least two of the later plays. In Letni dzien [A Summers Day, 1984), audiences are brought back to the structures, circularity, and the metaphysical despair of Theatre of the Absurd in an early twentieth-century setting. Later still, Wdowy [The Widows, 1992] is described as a black comedy in which two females and two males try to avoid a confrontation with death – personified as a mysterious silent figure sitting at a coffehouse table.

The “Thaw” years in Czechoslovakia, leading up to the Soviet invasion of 1968, also saw an absurdist influx. Features of the grotesque, farce and dream had earlier pervaded plays by the Capek brothers (Josef and Karel), the science-fiction robot saga R.U.R. (1920) and the satirical Entomological Review drama Ze zivota hmyzu [The Insect Play, 1921). Similar elements are discerned in Josef Topol's Konec masopustu [End of the Carnival, 1963], and Slavík k veceri [Nightingale for Supper, 1967]. The Theatre on the Balustrade in Prague staged at this time key plays by Jarry, Ionesco and Beckett, as well as Jan Grossman's adaptation of Kafka's The Trial, and the plays of Havel. Ivan Klíma's play The Castle (Zámek, 1964), of course, derives its title and its central character (one Josef Kahn) from Kafka. The absurdist implications located in this Czech theatre of the mid-1960s, obviously, were inspired by Czechoslovak life, but they may easily relate to any technocratic society. The intent was political, but not merely political. Grossman (Balustrade's director) said: “Absurd theatre takes on the function of devil's advocate . . . in order to reveal the devil”.

And the devil was not necessarily confined to matters political. Kafkaesque depths are discernible in the work of Havel, who tended to deny that absurdism was part of this theatre's programme, but added: “I have the feeling that if absurd theatre had not been invented before me, I would have had to invent it”. Vyrozumní-Protokoly [The Memorandum, 1966], which remains probably Havel's best known play, features the introduction of a new bureaucatic language (“Ptydepe”, maximising the difference between words) designed to introduce precision and order into office terminology. Ludicrously complex as the new language is, it cannot function, and soon has to be replaced with another synthetic tongue (“Chorukov”, minimising the difference between words), based on opposite philological principles, which of course has an equally remote prospect of efficacy. In the process, sycophancy, ruthless office politics and a constant preoccupation with lunch seem to rule the roost. Even through translation, Havel shows himself a master of wordplay and repartee, in which inversion and repetition try conclusions with redundancy and other elements seemingly drawn from information and communication theory, plus Wittgensteinian wordgame.

Havel claims to have grown up, “from a bourgeois background ... in a communist state” with the advantage of “seeing the world ‘from below'”. In addition to his view from below, Havel capitalised on “the experience of Franz Kafka and the French theatre of the absurd”, being also, he adds, “somewhat obsessed with a tendency to elaborate on things rationally to the point of absurdity”. In 1988 he wrote (anonymously) a semi-documentary historical comedy about the founding (in 1918) of the Czechoslovak state; a year later he found himself repeating aspects of the play in real life. In 1990, having in the wake of the Velvet Revolution been elected president of the Czechoslovak – and subsequently the Czech – Republic (surely the most improbable fate ever to befall an absurdist!), Havel has admitted to “a sensation of the absurd: what Sisyphus [guiding light, courtesy of Camus, to all absurdists] might have felt if one fine day his boulder stopped, rested on the hilltop, and failed to roll back down”.

Absurdist theatre has continued after its flourishing epoch. Alan Bennett's Kafka plays serve as one example, as, in a different tone, might works by Sarah Kane. The plays of Dario Fo are frequently considered absurdist. One clear case is Giuseppe Manfidi's “Theatre of Excess” work Zozòs (1992) [Cuckoos, London production 2000], in which the two main characters spend the entire play locked in anal intercourse under a parachute, as outrageous black comedy turns into Oedipan melodrama. Playwrights have gone, arguably, “beyond the absurd”: more into politics (Edward Bond; later works by Pinter and Stoppard); back to the Greeks (Manfridi); or engaging with the “higher” randomness of quantum and chaos theory (Stoppard again, in Hapgood and Arcadia; Michael Frayn in Copenhagen).

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Edited and translated by Caryl Emerson. University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
Dobrez, L.A. C. The Existential and its Exits: Literary and Philosophical Perspectives on the Works of Beckett, Ionesco, Genet and Pinter. Bloomsbury Academic, 1986.
Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Anchor Books, 1962; third edition, 1982.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton University Press, 1957.
Ionesco, Eugène. Notes et contre-notes. Gallimard, 1962.
Kiberd, Declan. Samuel Beckett. John Wiley, 1988.
Mercier, Vivian. “The Uneventful Event”, The Irish Times. 18 February 1956.
Styan, J. L. Modern Drama in Theory and Practice: Symbolism, Surrealism and the Absurd. Cambridge University Press, 1981.

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Citation: Cornwell, Neil. "Theatre of the Absurd [Theater of the Absurd]". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 05 January 2005 [, accessed 30 September 2023.]

12 Theatre of the Absurd [Theater of the Absurd] 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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