WHAT IS THEATRE OF THE ABSURD?
Theatre of the Absurd was a movement that started in the 1950s, influenced by the events of the 40s. For this reason, many absurdist plays are about Hitler and the Nazism, like Rhinoceros by Eugène Ionesco, which many believe is an allegory for the French response to the Nazis. Theatre of the Absurd was a broad style of theatre that many playwrights partook in pretty much independently, until critic Martin Esslin noticed and wrote an essay about it. This essay would give birth to a whole theatrical genus, or more accurately, identify one.
Theatre of the Absurd is another style of theatre that rejects realism. Absurdism, like Dadaism and Surrealism, is predicated on the idea that life doesn’t really make sense. So, theatre shouldn’t make sense either. Unlike existentialism, which has the goal of creating one’s essence or purpose, absurdism is just about embracing the ‘absurd’ or meaningless of life and simultaneously rebelling against it and embracing what life can offer us. Albert Camus believed that absurdism and existentialism are very similar. He believed absurdism shares some concepts and a common theoretical template, with existentialism and nihilism.
Absurdism in theatre does not refer to the kind of thing you see in shows like Rick and Morty or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Instead it is more of a questioning, dissatisfied kind of absurd. Plots are disordered, nothing happens, or if things do, it’s usually unmotivated. Words don’t express meaning in the usual way and characters aren’t consistent. Mysteries don’t get solved and order doesn’t get restored. Esslin thought the Theatre of the Absurd could help its audience to accept life as meaningless and not be so depressed about it. One example of absurdism is the play The Bald Soprano by Eugène Ionesco. Born in Romania in 1909, Ionesco moved between Romania and France several times, and when he was almost 40, he decided to learn English by memorizing simple sentences. Those sentences made their way into the play The Bald Soprano, in which one nice couple, the Smiths, invites over another nice couple, the Martins. The Martins think the Smiths are strangers to each other and then discover they’ve been married for years. One excerpt of the play is this:
Mrs Martin: Bazaar, Balzac, Bazooka!
Mr Martin: Bizarre, Beaux-Arts, Brassières!
Mrs Smith: A,E,I,O,U, A,E,I,O,U, A,E,I,O,U, I!
Mrs Smith: CHOO, CHOO, CHOO, CHOO, CHOO, CHOO, CHOO, CHOO, CHOO, CHOO, CHOO!
The director Nicolas Baitalle was unsure how to stage the play, and initially it was a flop. But other writers and intellectuals championed it and Ionesco kept going. A lot of his work is about the desire to access some other, better, and probably unreachable world. He is best known for a cycle of plays centred on a naïve everyman figure called Berenger, who pops up in different times and situations. Such plays are The Killer, Rhinoceros, Exit The King, and A Stroll in the Airs - some of these plays are political in some ways but others aren’t. Berenger is always struggling with the problem of human endeavour and free will in a seemingly random universe. Ionesco's plays are written in simple language but this disguises serious preoccupations and serious despair caused by death and randomness.
Ionesco believed by making the plays unrealistic, it would help the audience lose themselves in the story instead of thinking critically about what they are watching. He believed thinking critically about what you are watching makes it difficult to explore serious issues. Non-realistic theatre distances the audience from the story by reminding them it is not real. This is believed to encourage the audience to focus on the play’s message. Not all agree with this view on theatre – some rather on the contrary. Bertolt Brecht, a contemporary of Ionesco, formulated ‘Epic Theatre’ and used the ‘alienation affect’ or ‘V-Effect’ to constantly remind audiences they were watching a play. He did this through techniques such as; the use of narration, breaking the fourth wall and using a non-linear structure to his plays that alter time and place. His plays usually utilised minimal scenery and props and contained characters that weren’t fully developed because he did not want the audience to have any emotional attachment to the characters. He believed emotions would distract them from the political message of the play, while Ionesco thought that total immersion led to exploration of complex issues.
Perhaps the most famous Absurdist playwright was Samuel Beckett, who is often referred to as the ‘father’ of the Theatre of the Absurd. He is most famous for his play Waiting for Godot, which many have interpreted as a brutally realistic picture of the human condition. The absurdism in Beckett's work is an echo of the atmosphere which engulfed Europe during the Second World War. A prominent theme with Beckett is the passage of time. There are many different aspects of time that he explores, some being its inevitability, its end, and the overlap of past and present.
Theatre of the Absurd helped people with questions they had after the Second World War. After those hellish six years, many were shocked by the atrocities of war and were left asking questions which no one could answer. For example, what is the meaning of life? The world seemed orderless and entirely unexplainable. The plays written by absurdists like Ionesco and Beckett told people not to worry about these questions and that there is no meaning, yet this is not a reason to despair. They demonstrated how random and absurd life is and how not everything has or needs an answer. Before the 20th century, most of these questions were thought about by philosophers. After the exposure people had to such a tragedy as World War II, everyone found themselves asking these questions and the absurdist movement helped show there is no answer, and that is nothing to fear.