Theatre of the Absurd Conventions

The theatre of the absurd was a short-lived yet significant theatrical movement, centred in Paris in the 1950s. Unusual in this instance was the absence of a single practitioner spearheading the form. Largely based on the philosophy of existentialism, absurdism was implemented by a small number of European playwrights. Common elements included illogical plots inhabited by characters who appeared out of harmony with their own existence. The typical playgoer had never seen anything like this on the stage before. The theatre of the absurd will be remembered in history for many things, the most significant of these being Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece Waiting for Godot, one of the great plays of the 20th century. Absurdism is commonly studied in senior high school and university drama and theatre courses. Below are the main conventions of the theatre of the absurd.

Background

  • not a conscious movement
  • exponents of the form were a disconnected group of playwrights
  • the term theatre of the absurd was first coined by scholar Martin Esslin in his 1961 text The Theatre of the Absurd
  • true absurdist playwrights are few in number: Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet (with some scholars including Arthur Adamov).
  • other playwrights whose selected works have been labeled absurdist by others include Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard, Fernando Arrabal, and Peter Weiss (though most deny the label of absurdist playwright)
  • the beginnings of absurdism lie in avant-garde experiments of the 1920s and 30s, while some argue absurdist elements exist in plays such as Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896) and even in ancient Greek dramas

Theory

  • theatre of the absurd is otherwise referred to as absurdism
  • absurd originally means “out of harmony” (in a musical context) – its meaning in the theatre of the absurd is different to the everyday meaning of the word as “ridiculous”
  • absurd in the context of absurdism can mean:
    • without purpose
    • illogical
    • out of harmony
    • useless
    • devoid of reason
    • meaningless
    • hopeless
    • chaotic
    • lacking order
    • uncertain
  • lying in the background to absurdism is the notion of existentialism
  • existentialist philosophers who influenced absurdist playwrights were Frenchmen Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960) – both also playwrights themselves

Existentialism refers to a particular view of the nature of man’s existence. The existentialist believes that man starts life with nothing. His life is made up of acts; through the process of acting man becomes conscious of his original nothingness. By choosing to act, man passes into the arena of human responsibility which makes him the creator of his own existence. However, the existence inevitably ends with death. Man returns to his original state of nothingness. This existential notion eliminates the Western concept of man’s exalted nature. Life becomes meaningless and useless – a condition which is in essence “absurd”. Man’s only freedom in this condition is the exercise of his conscious mind. However, consciousness means conflict – between man’s awareness of the absurdity of his existence and his need for justification of his human action. (J. L Crawford: Acting In Person and in Style)

  • the atrocities of World War II are considered influential events to the movement, highlighting the precariousness of human existence
  • Sartre denied the existence of a God, seeing humans with no choice but to create their own standards and moral code in life (instead of accepting standards offered by the Church, the State, or society)
  • Camus’ book-length essay The Myth of Sisyphus sees Sisyphus endlessly pushing a boulder to the top of a mountain, only to see it roll to the bottom again – this futile labor is an analogy for man’s meaningless existence, a quality seen in many characters and plots of absurdist plays

For Camus, the legendary figure of Sisyphus was the prototype of an ‘absurd’ hero, condemned by the gods forever to roll a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down again by its own weight. He represented the epitome of futile labor and pointless existence. Although Camus denied any connection with Sartre’s existentialism, the book (Sartre’s The Myth of Sisyphus) became a manifesto for the new existentialist drama, and later for the theatre of the absurd. In it, Camus asserted that it was legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life had any meaning. He described how man felt himself to be a stranger in an alien world, and believed that this divorce between man and life was properly ‘le sentiment de l’absurdite’, the feeling of absurdity. (J. L. Styan: Modern Drama in Theory and Practice 2)

Plot and Structure

  • anti-realistic, going against many of the accepted norms of conventional theatre
  • labeled by some critics as ‘anti-theatre’
  • often characterised by a deliberate absence of the cause and effect relationship between scenes
  • non-linear plot developments, sometimes cyclical – ending where they began
  • occasionally appearing as though there is no plot at all to speak of
  • deliberate lack of conflict

… a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.

On the plot of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot – Vivian Mercier, The Irish Times, 18 February, 1956.

Acting and Characterisation

  • both presentational and representational modes of acting
  • sometimes stereotypical
  • often an absence of character development
  • absurd characters lack the motivation found in characters of realistic dramas, highlighting their purposelessness
  • time, place and identity are frequently blurred with characters often unsure about who or where they are
  • characters are often out of harmony or out of sync with the world in which they live

Movement

  • mixture of realistic and non-realistic
  • elements of circus, vaudeville and acrobatics
  • ritualistic
  • slow
  • illogical
  • repetitive
  •   action sometimes defies logic or easy understanding
  • one extreme to the other without notice
  • often sombre and serious, then highly comical

… the absurdists, while for the most part accepting Sartre’s philosophical outlook, tended to concentrate upon the irrationality of human experience without suggesting any path beyond. By employing a succession of episodes unified merely by theme or mood instead of a cause-to-effect arrangement, they arrived at a structure parallelling the chaos which was their usual dramatic subject. The sense of absurdity was heightened by the juxtaposition of incongruous events producing seriocomic and ironic effects. (Oscar G. Brockett: History of the Theatre)

Dialogue

  • language was devalued as a communication tool (unreliable and distrusted)
  • often illogical
  • sometimes telegraphic and clipped
  • long pauses
  • clichéd
  • repetitive
  • rhythmical
  • frequent use of silence
  • monotone
  • slow dialogue sometimes accompanied by a frenzied, fast-paced monologue (extremes)

Stagecraft

  • often simple and minimalist use of stagecraft
  • barren set pieces barely denoting a location (e.g. a tree and a country road in Waiting for Godot)

Key Plays

  • Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
  • Endgame by Samuel Beckett
  • Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco
  • The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco
  • The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco
  • The Bald Prima Donna / The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco
  • Exit The King by Eugene Ionesco
  • The Balcony by Jean Genet

Other Notable Works

  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
  • The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter
  • The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter

Sources

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24 comments on “Theatre of the Absurd Conventions

  1. Just a note, my lecturer at University used to point at the language of Beckett as ‘poetic’, especially in Waiting for Godot.

  2. Thanks, really useful summary!

  3. This is an excellent summary brings back memories of undergraduate Theatre study. I really enjoy reading the entries from this blog, thank you again

  4. 👍👍👍

  5. Hi this was a true inspearimiration to me.

  6. Thanks for your work! Very helpful.

  7. Nice study 🙂

  8. Nice piece of work !

  9. I am doing w thesis of master degree about Absurd Theatre (the zoo story / who is afraid of virgenia woolf written By Edward Albee ) i’ll be thankful if you can help me bye some resources . thanks a lot

  10. Thank you so much…. it is really helpful

  11. Very useful informative, motivated

  12. Brilliantly succinct summary. Thanks!

  13. A big thanks. It helped me for my notes.

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