The literary movement of Theatre of the Absurd is a type of drama that accentuates the absurdity of the existence of human by exercising incoherent, repetitive, and irrelevant dialogues, illogical and bewildering circumstances while the plot has no genuine or reasonable growth. This theatre portrays the world as an unintelligible place that spectators are watching without taking much understanding of the events taking place.
It was after WWII and in the late 1950s that European playwrights came up with some very distinctive ideas that they started portraying via their plays. The main reason behind elevation of this literary movement of Theatre of the Absurd was due to the terror and uncertainty amongst people after the World War II. It was a collapse of political and ethical values. There was a trauma of coming across nuclear obliteration all the time that gave a hike to this new theory. It was a Paris-based “new theatre” or “absurd” that was primarily taking place in the very small theatres around. The Absurd playwrights Jean Genet, Jean Tardieu were from France. Other writers moved to France to pursue writing on absurd. The theatre actually originated from their writing style. This literary movement spread across the European countries of Germany, France, England, etc. The well known works of Theatre of the Absurd are Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, Jean Genet’s The Balcony, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and many others. The Bald soprano by Eugene Ionesco was the first play in 1950 where this theme was applied. These dramas were based on the idea of Existentialism that was actually the concept behind absurd.
The Concept of Existentialism
Existentialism is a philosophical concept that focuses on the study of the existence of human and the way they exist in this irrational universe. It centres on the human looking meaning of their life via free will, making a choice, and take responsibility of it. This is kind of same idea that we find in the literary movement of Theatre of the Absurd. The existentialists search for their meaning of life, purpose of their presence while they are making choices as per their experiences and beliefs. Just like Sartre proposed it that the ‘existence precedes essence’ means that none of the person comes into this world with their personality rather they have to make it by following objectives in life and through the values that they choose to have. Well known existential thinkers are Nietzsche, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Camus, Jasper and many others.
Approaches towards Existentialism
There are two approaches towards the existentialism. That is, via Christian existentialism and other is atheist existentialism. Kierkegaard presented the idea that human must come back to the basic idea of Christianity. Human and God must develop a personal relationship. He connects god and love that when a person is involved in the action of love, he is devoted to God. He also gave a concept that human must leave themselves over to the scrutiny of God once they are done with their act. The Christian existentialism says that humans are more liable and dismal than any ideology of cynicism could show it, the only way to resolve it is by seeking closeness to Him and diminish the distance between.
Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Nietzsche are the well-known names who proposed the atheist existentialism. This existentialism concept denounces the idea of an afterlife or God saves human beings after death or on the Day of Judgment. Sartre believes that man is what he will make himself to be. He shows up and becomes that he wants to be. He gave an idea that human are meant to be free and there is no creator. Sartre said, ‘Existence precedes Essence’, means the person is responsible for his on acts and not to hold anyone else responsible.
Friedrich Nietzsche is also known as the Father of Existentialism. He divides morality into two kinds, which are master morality and slave morality. In which he associated slavery with religion, specifically in the context of Christianity. He emphasizes on the conviction that religion does not teach you any morality.
In the 19th century, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard came up with the absurdity of the world and the situation of the human in it. The idea of the absurd is a struggle about seeking value and sense in life while human is unable to discover any of this meaning in this aimless, muddled and illogical universe. It is the conflicting nature of the human mind and the universe that cause the Absurd and not that it happens separately, but both of them are involved in calling for absurdity. It was all related to how the surroundings of man control him while he reacts by going with the flow. The absurd theme can be found in his works of the Sickness unto Death in 1849, and also in Fear and Trembling in1844.
The Algerian-French philosopher Albert Camus wrote the Myth of Sisyphus in 1942, in which he argued about the meaninglessness of life and how human looks for the answers of his existence while these questions continue to be unanswered. The allusion of Sisyphus is used by the Camus, who was damned by the gods to roll a boulder up to the hill so that it could roll back down. It is an allegory as an individual’s struggle in life contrary to the absurdity of life. Camus argued that a man can only survive when he takes a joy in his struggle and accept it. Recognising the absurdity and encountering with it usually leave man with either suicide or back off from his faith in the form of leap of faith. Attempting suicide was never a solution for the Sisyphus rather he must accept his fate by enjoying the boulder rolling acts.
The literary movement of Theatre of the Absurd is highly influenced by this as well.
Eugene Ionesco explains the absurd as:
The absurd has no aim. A man loses himself and his existence when he is away from religion, transcendental, and metaphysical origins.
In the 1960s, the critic Martin Esslin coined this term of the theatre of the absurd. Esslin gathered all those plays who were revolving around the Absurd theme. The absurd factor present in these plays was about the reaction of man towards the world without any concrete meaning. There was an unseen outside force which controlled or endanger the man. The situation of man in these plays is greatly worthless and absurd.
The Theatre of the Absurd
The literary movement of Theatre of the Absurd was highly influenced by the philosophy of existentialism. As discussed earlier, the absurdness in these theatre plays was about how man reacts towards the world with a meaningless approach and how the other forces control him like he is some puppet. The characteristics of these plays were about tragic images, characters present in the desperate situations, confusing dialogues, plot making zero sense, no outcome apparently etc.
Esslin on literary movement of Theatre of the Absurd
According to Esslin, in the Theatre of Absurd, you can barely recognize any human. The actions of these humans are absolutely indifferent. Dialogues are nothing more than babble. The distance from religion in the 20th century was also the cause that people started perceiving that life has no recognisable reason.
The work of these plays was greatly focused on the existentialism. There is nothing logical, realism or usual characters to be found in these plays. They used to show that there is no sense or determination of human presence and this leads to nil communication later. You will find illogical conversations, question answers, silence and irrational conclusion to the things. These plays have the same beginning and end point. The drama of the absurd would rather ask you to come up with your own conclusion and be wrong with it. The overall drama happening on the stage leaves audience into a perplexity, but then they get to see themselves that it matches with our illogical existence.
Esslin said in his book Absurd drama that this theatre is about attacking the relaxed conviction of religion or political ideas. They had the objective to make people see the reality around them instead of sitting there in a comfy. These plays were not about putting the audience into more desolation rather to challenge them to accept the absurd situation and stand with utter responsibility, virtue, because there is going to be no way out of this mystery of life. Man is present here alone and he has to deal with everything.
Man is lost in these dramas. As per the literary movement of The Theatre of the Absurd, they are unable to speak or comprehend with the rationality. These characters are usually working on a routine formula. The characters are flat and stereotypical. No antagonist that could contradict with the others. No hero who will change over the time or whose fate would be decided. There is no development occurring in the characters and they are same from start to end. You will find the complex characters to be trapped in some crisis because the world around them is incoherent. You will also find these characters going through the disarray that are left by science and logic. Characters will be seen trapped in something monotonous and nothing will move forward or backward. Usually, the characters in these plays are comprised of two male or female and they are dependant on each other just like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot.
You will not find the traditional structure of plot in the theatre of absurd. Having a no plot is a strict condition in the absurd play. There will be repetition and routine going on in the plot. The illogical happenings around these characters or story are usually unknown. You will see that this annoyance is not coming anywhere from the outside of the story, rather it is present only in that restricted place. Nonexistence, blankness, uncertain mysteries are the main features of any absurd plot. Same in the Godot, we see men waiting for a god like character named Godot.
Failure of Communication
Another well observed feature in these plays is a failure of communication amongst the characters. We can see the characters repeating dialogues or words in a most natural way. There is never a true communication taking place that could tell us a true connection. Most of the communication in these plays is making no sense and can be seen as a comical effect too. When Lucky makes his speech in the play. The loss of memory also shows that how communication has broken here. Some of the questions in the play are asked several times. The ambiguity in communication is very much visible in the absurd plays and one does not understand that what actually happening at first place is.
Absurdism in Waiting for Godot
When we look at the famous play under the light of the literary movement of Theatre of the Absurd, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, who is known as the Father of Absurd, we can assess that there are all the aspects of theatre of absurd to be found in this play. We see that how the protagonists are waiting the whole time for someone to appear, but actually no one has ever appeared. This situation nullifies the characteristics of the classic drama that requires having unity of time, action and place. Rather, there are illogical discussions, actions, and scenes with no actual meaning that had mixed effects on the audience. Some think that it is absolutely futile while others thinks about it as an exemplary work that is apparently doing nothing but actually giving out some message.
From the very start of the waiting for Godot, we see two men standing beside the tree with no leaves on it and they are apparently waiting for someone called Godot and they are quite uncertain about that person or whoever. Then from somewhere a man Pozzo with his servant lucky comes up, a boy shows up later. Lucky and Pozzo departs after some time. The boy who showed up with the message from Godot also leaves. People seem to be passing out their time till the arrival of Godot. The Vladimir and Estragon also decide to go, but never moves on. As at one place, ESTRAGON said, Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!
It is noticeable that how things are so much vague in that play that one can hardly comment on all the ongoing process. The characters, action and place are not making any progress and the things are kind of static. In the overall play, the Vladimir and Estragon decide to go but they never move from that place. They wait for someone, but that person never arrives. Neither they are offering much information about him.
Example from Text
He didn’t say for sure he’d come.
And if he doesn’t come?
We’ll come back tomorrow.
And then the day after tomorrow.
And so on.
The play closes as it was open. As they said in the end, Well, shall we go// yes, lets go. And then they do not move. After waiting for the several days, no one has visited that place. This portrays that Beckett, who was an existentialism believer, does not agree with the concept of God. (Iqbal, I. Rehman, A)
Therefore, the literary movement of Theatre of the Absurd is highly influenced by the idea of absurdism that has its roots from existentialism. The main aim is to reflect the situation of man in this hollow world.
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