In this paper, my aim is to give a brief introduction of existentialism and to show how the Theatre of the Absurd has derived from and is influenced by the existential philosophy of Sartre and Camus. I have also made an attempt to elucidate the distinctive features of the Theatre of the Absurd by making a passing reference to some of the representative plays that belong to this genre.
Existentialism was formally introduced in the works of philosophers like Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger and can be traced to the late nineteenth/early twentieth century writers like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka. But existentialism as a movement became popular in the mid-twentieth century through the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
Jean-Paul Sartre is perhaps the most well-known existentialist. His version of existential philosophy developed under the influence of the German philosophers Husserl and Heidegger. His Being and Nothingness is a seminal work on existentialism. Sartre’s No Exit, written in 1944, foresees the Theatre of the Absurd. The ‘existentialist theatre’ differs from the Theatre of the Absurd in the sense that the existentialist theatre expresses the incomprehensibility and the irrationality of the human condition in the form of a comprehensible and logically constructed reasoning, whereas the Theatre of the Absurd abandons the old dramatic conventions and goes on to invent a new form to express the new content. In the Absurdist plays, incomprehensibility and irrationality are reflected even in the form. Sartre’s No Exit establishes the philosophy of existentialism as he perceived it. But Martin Esslin notes that many Absurdist playwrights demonstrate the existential philosophy better than Sartre and Camus did in their own plays.
Sartrean existentialism argues that existence precedes essence, i.e. man is born in this world without a purpose and it is he who defines the meaning of his existence in his own subjectivity. The individual consciousness constructs an identity for itself, independent of any guidance from any external agency, including God. For Sartre, the individual consciousness is responsible for all the choices he/she makes, regardless of the consequences; and because our choices are exclusively ours, we are condemned to be responsible for them.
Thus, existentialism proposes that man is full of anxiety and despair, with no meaning in his life; he simply exists until he makes a decisive choice about his own future. Since individuals are free to choose their own path, the existentialists argue that they must accept the risk and responsibility of their actions. For instance, in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir choose to wait without any guidance from anyone else, as Vladimir says- “He didn’t say for sure he’d come” but decides to “wait till we know exactly how we stand”. Also, much of their inactivity stems from the fear of the consequences of their actions. For example, Estragon says- “Don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer.”
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A contradiction that surfaces in the context of the existentialist idea of freedom of choice is that although existentialism emphasizes action, freedom, and decision as fundamental to human existence, it argues against the capability of human beings to take a rational decision. Existentialism asserts that people arrive at a decision based on their subjective interpretation of the world. The existential thought thus concerns itself with the rejection of reason as the source of meaning, while focusing on feelings of anxiety, dread, awareness of death, and freedom of choice. This freedom to choose leads to the notion of non-being or nothingness and the natural corollaries of this theme of nothingness are the existentialist themes of alienation and death. These themes are evident in the Absurdist plays like Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story (1958) which presents the predicament and the plight of Jerry, the outcast in a dehumanizing commercial world, who towards the end of the play provokes Peter into drawing a knife and then impales himself on it.
Sartrean existentialism states that the search for a rational order in human life is a futile passion. In Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir attempt to create some order in their lives by waiting for Godot who never arrives or perhaps who doesn’t even exist. Thus, they continually resign to the futility of their situation, reiterating the lines- “Nothing to be done”, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!” This corroborates (proves as true) the existentialist view that human beings exist in an indifferent and “absurd” universe in which meaning is not generated by the natural order, but an unstable, provisional meaning to life is provided by human beings’ actions and interpretations.
Albert Camus’ The Rebel, The Outsider, and ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ are suffused with existential themes. But like many other writers, he too rejected the existentialist label and considered his works to be absurdist. ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, written in 1942, is an important work in which Camus uses the analogy of the Greek myth to demonstrate the futility of existence. He saw Sisyphus as an “absurd” hero with a pointless existence. Eventually, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ became a prototype (an original model on which later forms are developed) for the Theatre of the Absurd.
Camus believed that boredom or waiting prompted people to think seriously about their own identity, as Estragon and Vladimir do in Waiting for Godot. In the play, waiting induces boredom as a theme. And Beckett succeeds in creating a similar sense of boredom in the audience by means of mundane repetitive dialogues and actions. Vladimir and Estragon constantly ponder and ask questions which are either rhetorical or are left unanswered.
Thus, a close reading of the Absurdist plays would reveal how the existentialist themes have influenced much of the Theatre of the Absurd.
A brief overview of the Theatre of the Absurd would be in place here.
The term Theatre of the Absurd derives from the philosophical use of the term absurd by such existentialist thinkers as Camus and Sartre. This term was coined by Martin Esslin in 1961 and it designates particular plays written by a number of European playwrights primarily between the late 1940s to the 1960s, as well as to the form of theatre derived from their work.
The Theatre of the Absurd draws heavily on the existential philosophy, of Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus, which lays emphasis on the absurdity of the human condition and on the incapability of thought to provide an explanation of reality. But this does not mean that the dramatists of the Absurd simply translated the contemporary philosophy into drama. In fact, they responded to the same cultural and spiritual situation and reflected the same preoccupations as did the philosophers.
The plays grouped under the label the Theatre of the Absurd express a sense of shock at the absence as well as the loss of any clear and well-defined systems of belief. Such a sense of disillusionment and collapse of all previously held beliefs is a characteristic feature of the post- World War II era. Suddenly man confronted a universe that was both frightening and illogical- in a word, absurd. Thus, the main idea of the Theatre of the Absurd was to point out man’s helplessness and meaningless existence in a world without purpose. The Absurdist plays present a disillusioned and stark picture of the world. They are also quite ‘realistic’. The realism of these plays is a psychological and inner realism- they explore the human subconscious rather than simply describing the outward appearance of human existence.
The Theatre of the Absurd came about as a reaction to the Second World War. It took the basic premise of existential philosophy and combined it with dramatic elements to create a form which presented a world that was unexplainable and a life that seemed absurd.
The Theatre of the Absurd has its origins in Dadaism, non-sense poetry, and avant-garde art of the first and the second decades of the twentieth century. Its roots also lie in Camus’ ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. The Theatre of the Absurd tried to come to terms with the traumatic experience of the horrors of the Second World War which revealed the total impermanence of values, shook the validity of beliefs, and exposed the precariousness of human life and its meaninglessness. It also emerged as a response to the monotony of the conventional theatre. Nevertheless, it is also a kind of return to the old, even archaic, traditions. The Theatre of the Absurd thus displays in new and individually varied combinations the age-old traditions of- ‘pure’ theatre; clowning; fooling, and mad scenes; verbal nonsense; and the literature of dream and fantasy (with strong allegorical component).
According to Martin Esslin, the four defining playwrights of the movement are Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov. Beckett is a prime example of an existentialist writer for the Theatre of the Absurd. His plays, Waiting for Godot and Endgame, are perhaps the finest examples of the Theatre of the Absurd. Endgame is a play where ‘nothing happens, once’, whereas in Waiting for Godot, ‘nothing happens, twice’. These plays are read as fundamentally existentialist in their take on life. The fact that none of the characters retain any memory of their past clearly indicates that they are constantly struggling to prove their existence.
Eugene Ionesco is undoubtedly the most profound and original of the dramatists of the Absurd. A critique of language and the haunting presence of death are the chief themes in his plays- The Bald prima Donna, The Lesson, The Chairs, The Killer, Rhinoceros, and Exit the King.
The other major exponents of the Theatre of the Absurd include Jean Tardieu and Boris Vian in France; Dino Buzzati and Ezio d’ Errico in Italy; Gunter Grass and Wolfgang Hildesheimer in Germany; Fernando Arrabal in Spain; Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard in America; Slawomir Mrozek and Tadeusz Rozewicz in Poland; and N. F. Simpson, James Saunders, David Campton, and Harold Pinter in Britain. The playwrights whose works can be considered as precursors to the movement include Alfred Jarry, Guillaume Apollinaire, Luigi Pirandello, the surrealists and many more.
The Theatre of the Absurd follows certain dramatic conventions:
While most of the plays in the traditional convention tell a story, the plays of the Theatre of the Absurd communicate a poetic image or a complex pattern of poetic images which are essentially static.
However, this does not imply that they lack movement. But the situation of the play remains static, whereas the movement we see is the unfolding of the poetic image. For instance, Waiting for Godot does not tell a story; it explores a static situation- that of waiting which emerges as a poetic image and the repetition of this pattern throughout the play leads the reader to the unfolding of this image (i.e. the revelation of the meaning) towards the end of the play. Similarly, in Albee’s The Zoo Story, it is only in the concluding lines of the play that the idea of the entire dialogue between Jerry and Peter falls in place as an image of the difficulty of communication between human beings in our world.
The most important characteristics of the Theatre of the Absurd are as follows:
1. There is often no real story line; instead there is a series of ‘free floating images’ which help the audience to interpret a play.
2. The main focus of an Absurdist play is on the incomprehensibility of the world, or the futility of an attempt to rationalize an irrational, disorderly world.
3. The Theatre of the Absurd is, to a very considerable extent, concerned with a critique of language (which has become devoid of meaning) as an unreliable and insufficient tool of communication.
For instance, in Waiting for Godot, Beckett parodies the language of philosophy and science in Lucky’s speech. Also, the silences that punctuate the conversation between Estragon and Vladimir represent the emptiness that pervades people’s lives. They talk to each other but they fail to comprehend what is being said. They often interrupt and repeat each others’ dialogues.
In other words, the Absurdist drama creates an environment where people are isolated, clown-like characters blundering their way through life because they don’t know what else to do. Though the Absurdist plays seem to be quite random and meaningless on the surface, one can trace an underlying structure and meaning amidst chaos.
Another important feature of the Theatre of the Absurd is that it does not situate man in a historical, social, or cultural context; it is not merely a commentary on the general condition of human life. Instead, it delineates human condition the way man experiences it. For example, in Waiting for Godot, the tramps have a very blurred sense of time and history. This lack of knowledge of one’s own culture and past symbolizes the breakdown of culture and tradition in the twentieth century.
Most of the dramatists whose plays are grouped under the label Theatre of the Absurd resisted and disliked any such classification and categorization of their plays. According to Martin Esslin, a term like the Theatre of the Absurd is just an aid to understanding (and is valid only insofar as it helps to gain an insight into a work of art). It is not a restrictive category. He says that a play may contain some elements that can be best understood in the light of such a label, while other elements in the same play may derive from and can be understood in the light of a different convention.
Thus, on the basis of this brief analysis of existentialism and its influence on the Theatre of the Absurd, I would like to conclude that there is no one-to-one correspondence between the existential philosophy and the Theatre of the Absurd, nevertheless the existential thought is subtly woven into the Absurdist plays. The goal of the Absurdist drama is not to depress the audience with its pessimism, but an attempt to bring them closer to reality and help them understand their own meaning in life or the meaning of their own existence (whatever that may be). That is why the Theatre of the Absurd transcends the category of comedy and tragedy and combines laughter with horror. Beckett has, for example, very aptly called his play Waiting for Godot- ‘A Tragicomedy in Two Acts’.