Introductory Lecture about Absurd Theatre By

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Introductory Lecture about Absurd Theatre


Hameed M. Daikh

Dept. of English

College of Education

Al-Qadisiyah University

The term “Theatre of the Absurd” was coined by Martin Esslin in his 1962 book by that title. It refers to the work of a loosely associated group of dramatists who first emerged during and after World War II. Esslin saw these playwrights as giving artistic expression to Albert Camus' existential philosophy, as illustrated in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, that life is inherently meaningless. In The Theatre of the Absurd, Esslin states, “The 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. This is the difference between the approach of the philosopher and that of the poet.” He goes on to say that “The hallmark of this attitude is its sense that the certitudes and unshakable basic assumptions of former ages have been swept away, that they have been tested and found wanting, that they have been discredited as cheap and somewhat childish illusions.” Some common characteristics of absurdist plays include this general existential philosophy coupled with a rejection of narrative continuity and the rigidity of logic, as well as (and perhaps most importantly) a radical devaluation of language which is seen as a futile attempt to communicate the impossible. The general effect is often a nightmare or dreamlike atmosphere in which the protagonist is overwhelmed by the chaotic or irrational nature of his environment. Most absurdists also doggedly resist the traditional separation of farce and tragedy, intermixing the two at will, creating an unpredictable world that mirrors our own, in which the poignantly tragic may come upon the heels of the absurdly funny, or vice versa.Originally, Esslin identified Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet as the primary playwrights of the absurd. He also named several “parallels and proselytes” including Jean Tardieu, Boris Vian, Dino Buzzati, Ezio d’Errico, Manuel de Pedrolo, Fernando Arrabal, Max Frisch, Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Günter Grass, Robert Pinget, Harold Pinter, Norman Frederick Simpson, Edward Albee, Jack Gelber, Arthur Kopit, Slawomir Mrozek, Tadeusz Rózewicz, and Vaclav Havel. In a subsequent edition of his book, Esslin promoted Pinter to the first tier of absurdist playwrights. Other writers who have sometimes been associated with the Theatre of the Absurd include Tom Stoppard, David Lindsay-Abaire, John Guare, Caryl Churchill, and Gao Xingjian.

Absurd theatre come as a reaction to:

a) the mechanical nature of many people's lives, lead them to question the purpose of their existence.

b) time was recognised as a destructive force.
c) one had a sense of being left in an alien world. [A world that can be explain even with bad reasoning is a familiar world. But a world from which logic and insight have been removed is a strange world].
d) one sensed being isolated from other beings.

This sense of meaninglessness became a critical insight in the philosophical movement of the era "Existentialism"

We, proclaimed the existentialists, are the sum of our acts. The idea that we do something because we are that sort of person, was replaced by the idea that we make ourselves that sort of person by doing such and such an act. As one of the high princes of existentialism, Jean Paul Sartre said: "we are nothing and in action become conscious of that original nothingness". Within this consciousness all we can do is resume our acts and our life, fully aware of the world's absurdity, happy in accepting the crushing responsibility of giving the world a meaning, that comes solely from ourselves.

"The Myth of Sisyphus" Albert Camus

Sisyphus was, according to Homer, a wise mortal who scorned the Gods, loved life, hated death and was absurdly punished -to a life in the Underworld, where he was given the task of spending eternity pushing a ball of dung up a hill ..seeing it getting bigger and bigger, and when he finally reached the top, only to have it roll back down, and his task start again. It didn't take him long to realise that this was absurd…but the knowledge that all of life's tasks were equally as absurd,because they were all subject to Death, gave Sisyphus victory. We must imagine Sisyphus as happy….for he has escaped the dilemma of his existence and is to be seen as heroic. -then the Theatre of the Absurd was one way of facing up to that universe. If there is a sin of life "it is not perhaps so much to despair of life, as to hope for another life and to lose sight of the implacable grandeur of this one".[Camus]


In order to begin an understanding of any artistic movement it's always useful to try and locate it historically. Absurd Theatre emerged during a moment of crisis in the literary and artistic movement of Modernism -which itself began in the closing years of the last century, becoming most prominent in the early decades of this century, and going into decline in the 30's and 40's. Economic and political upheaval, lasting roughly from the rise of Hitler to the Death of Stalin forced the movement to almost disappear. However it was to re-emerge in the 50's through the 60's and even into the early 70's -at which time the prosperity that developed countries had enjoyed since the end of the Second World War was to be threatened by another protracted era of strife that was to have a profound impact on the arts. This was to become know as post-modernism and was probably responsible for the end of the second phase of Modernism. It was during the 50's and 60's, with its drugs, sexual revolution, anti-war protest, student up-risings, sit -ins, ban the bomb marches, Oz Magazine, Feminism, Performance Art, The Black Panther Movement, the Hippies, and existentialism, that the Theatre of the Absurd emerged.

If Elizabethan Theatre [Shakespeare] explored the political and moral dilemmas of the Renaissance, and Naturalism gave expression to the ghosts which haunted the bourgeoisie of Capitalism, then Absurdism found the means of exposing the metaphysical doubts that tormented our existence. Doubts that at first surprised us then began to seem natural and inevitable.

At the beginning of Modernism, specifically in the theatre of Hendrik Ibsen [ turn of the century -"Hedda Gabbla", "The Wild Duck"] the plays were performed just as if an audience were not watching; indeed it needed to be so performed if the desired tension was to be achieved; any hint of a gesture towards the audience would destroy the illusion.

It is precisely this illusion that the political and social theatre of Bertolt Brecht [30/40's] seeked to destroy. However he did not attempt to make the stage and auditorium one continuous space…this would have simply created another illusion.

Brecht's innovations opened the way to the Theatre of the Absurd [50/60's] which self-consciously employed the auditorium as part of the plays'ontology.[time and space]

The resulting theatre, ironically, produced the effect desired by Brecht from his theatre: ALIENATION. We find it difficult to identify with the characters in Absurd Drama, but, where Brecht hoped to "activate the audience's critical, intellectual capacities, Absurd Drama spoke to a deeper level of the audiences awareness -its staging was usually very funny and very terrifying, pushing the audience forward, then confusing them, compelling a personal assessment of their reactions, and offering opposites that multiply in their minds -IT CHALLENGED THE AUDIENCE TO MAKE SENSE OF NON-SENSE, TO FACE THE PREDICAMENT OF LIFE CONSCIOUSLY RATHER THE FEEL IT VAGUELY, AND PERCEIVE, WITH LAUGHTER, ITS FUNDAMENTAL ABSURDITY.

"Absurdity presents humanity "stripped of the accidental circumstances of social position or historical context, confronted with basic choices" [Martin Esslin]

Such a theatre was involved in the relatively few problems that remained:
LIFE, DEATH, and the ISOLATION we feel through lack of COMMUNICATION.

We are born, and the one thing we know is that we will die…everything else we do is just a diversion from our "destiny" and since all our actions are directed against the inevitable [death], they are absurd, and because we sense this absurdity we experience "irrationality. We, in the West, hopelessly committed to making sense of the world can not accept "irrationality"…the world does make sense, "God does not play dice" [Einstein]

"You can't be rational in an irrational world, it's not rational"
[Joe Orton ]

The Absurdist's response to Death is far from nihilistic: it is a contented call for furious action…once we accept the feeling of absurdity, it becomes the springboard for action, giving us the feeling of freedom and passion….the absurd is not a beginning and not and end, it is the representation of that which is in between. What can we do, given the inescapable nature of death rendering everything as unimportant??…we could do nothing!![ not make any choices], under the misguided belief that we have no choice, but that would simply be what Jean Paul Sartre would called "Bad Faith".

Bad Faith consists in pretending to ourselves and others that things could not be otherwise, that we are bound to our way of life, that there is no escape. However we are free to choose to do all things and to choose not to do them.

eg: a the man who, while trying to commit suicide by drowning, is unfortunately at the scene of a crime. He is arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to death, despite his protestations -not of his innocence but of being denied his right to choose….suicide.

Characteristics of Absurd Theatre:
1] The experience of this world [of the absurd] is never debated, it is simply presented,
shown in action;
Eg: Ionesco: was once criticised because he had no message -to which he replied "No, I am a writer, I am not a postman"
2] it presents humans "stripped of the accidental circumstances of social position or
historical context";
3] it satirises a society that is petty and dishonest;

4] it substitutes an internal [mental] landscape for the outer world;

5] it deliberately lacks of any clear division between fantasy and fact;

6] it has a healthy disrespect for the constraints of time, which can expand, contract or

back fold on itself according to subjective requirements;

7] it constructs environment which can depict/project mental conditions in the form of

visual metaphors;

8] it employs a precise use of language, constructed by an writer as their only defence

against the chaos of the experience of living.

9] it uses meta-theatricality:

a) all the world a stage
b) life is a dream
-signifying a medium totally aware of itself and involving the audience in a searching act of self-awareness.
eg: Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" Clov asks of Hamm what there is to keep him there? Hamm, while considering the audience replies: "the dialogue".
Having been spoken to directly from the stage we, as audience, are implicated in it and the metaphor of the all the world's a stage is confirmed.

10] it has a preference for tragicomedy [black comedy] rather than the classical genres of

tragedy or comedy….. this gives rise to a reality distinguished by a sense of
knowingness shared with and by the spectator, who becomes genuinely implicated in the construction of the drama.

11] it uses silence as a metaphor…never before had moments of the fragmentary, the

inarticulate, the incoherent and the non-verbal been so extensively employed. Moments
that not only remained part of the play but commented upon it.
eg: "Breath" by Samuel Beckett

12] it deliberately employs ambiguity as a device. What is reality, what is illusion….thus

sucessfully destroying of our confidence in familiar things and places.
Eg: "Amedee"by Ionesco. He peopled a middle class apartment with an expanding corspe and covered its carpets in mushrooms until the real occupants of the apartment chose to leave.
13] it explores antagonism and violence, particularly on the psychological plane.

14] It tends towards a radical devaluation of language, towards a poetry of images. What

happened on the stage often contradicted the words spoken by the characters.
eg: the end of "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett.

BORN [FRIDAY 13] 1906 - 1989

Beckett has consistently refuse to explain his work -one of his rare utterances was the expression:

"nothing is more real than nothing" for to know nothing is nothing, not to want to know anything likewise, but to be beyond knowing anything, that is when peace enters into the soul of the incurious seeker.
The nature of his work could best be described as enigmatic and pessimistic.

His plays exhibit a lack of plot and character

CHARACTER -presumes that personality and individuality matter
PLOT -assumes that events in time have significance

Beckett rejects learning and sees language as part of the failure to know where and what we are. Language has failed us. Thus, Beckett's heroes not only deny that they are philosophers, they flaunt an ignorance of philosophy while remaining transfixed by philosophical questions that have troubled us since Socrates: the nature of Self, the world, and God.

Beckett is an agnostic. "Even if God were to exist", says Beckett, "he would make no difference: he would be as lonely and as enslaved, and as isolated as man is, in a cold, silent, indifferent universe".

It is an undeniable fact that we must sooner or later die, and many people are doubtful whether anything lies behind death. Beckett's works are not statements on this theme, but meditations upon it.

"I am not interested in any system. I can't see any trace of any system anywhere"

"Waiting For Godot" is a play/poem about a world without any divinity, a world in which man waits and hopes for something to give a meaning to his life, and relieve him of the absurdity of a death that will terminate all. But he waits in vain, and so our life is as meaningless as our deaths.

It is a monstrous paradox that an individual's life is an eternity while it lasts, but it is less than an instant in regard to cosmic time. Consciousness of the paradox is all important-but the consciousness by which we are aware of our individual existence is continually at risk from heart failure or mental breakdown. At best our consciousness is held in the prison of "time". In the prison, only forward motion is possible, and we delude ourselves that we progress towards some sort of ultimate goal….this ultimate goal [ in the case of "Waiting for Godot"] becomes anything that helps us bear our existence.

Beckett's plays avoid any definition of these goals, because he believes that "art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear, and does not make clear". All a writer can do is to attempt to distil in words, however imperfect, an intuitive vision or experience [rather than a systematic set of beliefs] of the misery and desperation of life.

Desire is the source of our misery; such happiness as is possible can only be obtained by the removal of all desire

Beckett's people have collapsed under the burden of choice, responsibility and anguish, as they struggle to answer the questions:

What am I?
What are time and space?
What are mind and matter?
.….and they are determine to answer these questions rationally [without taking refuse in mysticism]…they drive reason to a point where reason itself becomes irrational…and generally very comical.

"Do not come down the ladder, I have taken it away"

What Beckett is saying here is that one can only affirm that meaning does not exist in terms that imply that it does.
This idea is reflected in Beckett's heroes; they believe that even in a meaningless situation life must have meaning. Beckett's plays present an inability in anyone to be nihilistic, not nihilism.

Beckett has left us with a final bleak image of life in the universe: that of a woman giving birth astride a grave.

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