Understanding the Theater of the Absurd
With the appearance of En Attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot) at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris in 1953, the literary world was shocked by the appearance of a drama so different and yet so intriguing that it virtually created the term "Theater of the Absurd," and the entire group of dramas which developed out of this type of theater is always associated with the name of Samuel Beckett. His contribution to this particular genre allows us to refer to him as the grand master, or father, of the genre. While other dramatists have also contributed significantly to this genre, Beckett remains its single, most towering figure.
This movement known as the Theater of the Absurd was not a consciously conceived movement, and it has never had any clear-cut philosophical doctrines, no organized attempt to win converts, and no meetings. Each of the main playwrights of the movement seems to have developed independently of' each other. The playwrights most often associated with the movement are Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov. The early plays of Edward Albee and Harold Pinter fit into this classification, but these dramatists have also written plays that move far away from the Theater of the Absurd's basic elements.
In viewing the plays that comprise this movement, we must forsake the theater of coherently developed situations, we must forsake characterizations that are rooted in the logic of motivation and reaction, we must sometimes forget settings that bear an intrinsic, realistic, or obvious relationship to the drama as a whole, we must forget the use of language as a tool of logical communication, and we must forget cause-and-effect relationships found in traditional dramas. By their use of a number of puzzling devices, these playwrights have gradually accustomed audiences to a new kind of relationship between theme and presentation. In these seemingly queer and fantastic plays, the external world is often depicted as menacing, devouring, and unknown; the settings and situations often make us vaguely uncomfortable; the world itself seems incoherent and frightening and strange, but at the same time, it seems hauntingly poetic and familiar.
These are some of the reasons which prompt the critic to classify them under the heading "Theater of the Absurd" — a title which comes not from a dictionary definition of the word "absurd," but rather from Martin Esslin's book The Theatre of the Absurd, in which he maintains that these dramatists write from a "sense of metaphysical anguish at the absurdity of the human condition." But other writers such as Kafka, Camus, and Sartre have also argued from the same philosophical position. The essential difference is that critics like Camus have presented their arguments in a highly formal discourse with logical and precise views which prove their theses within the framework of traditional forms. On the contrary, the Theater of the Absurd seeks to wed form and content into an indissoluble whole in order to gain a further unity of meaning and impact. This theater, as Esslin has pointed out, "has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being — that is, in terms of concrete stage images of the absurdity of existence."
Too often, however, the viewer notes only these basic similarities and fails to note the distinctive differences in each dramatist. Since these writers do not belong to any deliberate or conscious movement, they should be evaluated for their individual concerns, as well as for their contributions to the total concept of the Theater of the Absurd. In fact, most of these playwrights consider themselves to be lonely rebels and outsiders, isolated in their own private worlds. As noted above, there have been no manifestoes, no theses, no conferences, and no collaborations. Each has developed along his own unique lines; each in his own way is individually and distinctly different. Therefore, it is important to see how Beckett both belongs to the Theater of the Absurd and, equally important, how he differs from the other writers associated with this movement. First, let us note a few of the basic differences.
One of Samuel Beckett's main concerns is the polarity of existence. In Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Krapp's Last Tape, we have such characteristic polarities as sight versus blindness, life–death, time present–time past, body–intellect, waiting–not waiting, going–not going, and dozens more. One of Beckett's main concerns, then, seems to be characterizing man's existence in terms of these polarities. To do this, Beckett groups his characters in pairs; for example, we have Vladimir and Estragon, or Didi and Gogo, Hamm and Clov, Pozzo and Lucky, Nagg and Nell, and Krapp's present voice and past voice. Essentially, however, Beckett's characters remain a puzzle which each individual viewer must solve.
In contrast to Beckett, Eugene Ionesco's characters are seen in terms of singularity. Whereas Beckett's characters stand in pairs outside of society, but converse with each other, Ionesco's characters are placed in the midst of society — but they stand alone in an alien world with no personal identity and no one with whom they can communicate. For example, the characters in The Bald Soprano are in society, but they scream meaningless phrases at each other, and there is no communication. And whereas Beckett's plays take place on strange and alien landscapes (some of the settings of his plays remind one of a world transformed by some holocaust or created by some surrealist), Ionesco's plays are set against the most traditional elements in our society — the standard English drawing room in The Bald Soprano, a typical street scene in Rhinoceros, and an average academic study in The Lesson, etc.
The language of the two playwrights also differs greatly. Beckett's dialogue recalls the disjointed phantasmagoria of a dream world; Ionesco's language is rooted in the banalities, clichés, and platitudes of everyday speech; Beckett uses language to show man isolated in the world and unable to communicate because language is a barrier to communication. Ionesco, on the other hand, uses language to show the failure of communication because there is nothing to say; in The Bald Soprano, and other plays, the dialogue is filled with clichés and platitudes.
In contrast to the basic sympathy we feel for both Beckett's and Ionesco's characters, Jean Genet's characters almost revile the audience from the moment that they appear on the stage. His theme is stated more openly. He is concerned with the hatred which exists in the world. In The Maids, for example, each maid hates not just her employer and not just her own sister, but also her own self. Therefore, she plays the other roles so as to exhaust her own hatred of herself against herself. Basically, then, there is a great sense of repugnance in Genet's characters. This revulsion derives partially from the fact that Genet's dramatic interest, so different from Beckett's and Ionesco's, is in the psychological exploration of man's predilection to being trapped in his own egocentric world, rather than facing the realities of existence. Man, for Genet, is trapped by his own fantastic illusions; man's absurdity results partially from the fact that he prefers his own disjointed images to those of reality. In Genet's directions for the production of The Blacks, he writes that the play should never be played before a totally black audience. If there are no white people present, then one of the blacks in the audience must wear a white mask; if the black refuses, then a white mannequin must be used, and the actors must play the drama for this mannequin. There must at least be a symbol of a white audience, someone for the black actors to revile.
In contrast to Beckett, Arthur Adamov, in his themes, is more closely aligned to the Kafkaesque, existentialistic school, but his technique is that of the Theater of the Absurd. His interest is in establishing some proof that the individual does exist, and he shows how man becomes more alienated from his fellow man as he attempts to establish his own personal identity. For example, in Professor Taranne, the central character, hoping to prove his innocence of a certain accusation, actually convicts himself through his own defense. For Adamov, man attempting to prove his own existence actually proves, ironically, that he does not exist. Therefore language, for Adamov, serves as an inadequate system of communication and, actually, in some cases serves to the detriment of man, since by language and man's use of language, man often finds himself trapped in the very circumstances he previously hoped to avoid. Ultimately, Adarnov's characters fail to communicate because each is interested only in his own egocentric self. Each character propounds his own troubles and his own achievements, but the words reverberate, as against a stone wall. They are heard only by the audience. Adamov's plays are often grounded in a dream-world atmosphere, and while they are presenting a series of outwardly confusing scenes of almost hallucinative quality, they, at the same time, attack or denounce the confusion present in modem man.
Characteristic of all these writers is a notable absence of any excess concern with sex. Edward Albee, an American, differs significantly in his emphasis and concern with the sexual substructure of society. The overtones of homosexuality in The Zoo Story are carried further until the young man in The American Dream becomes the physical incarnation of a muscular and ideally handsome, young sexual specimen who, since he has no inner feelings, passively allows anyone "to take pleasure from my groin." In The Sandbox, the angel of death is again seen as the muscle-bound young sexual specimen who spends his time scantily dressed and performing calisthenics on a beach while preparing for a career in Hollywood.
Since all of the writers have varying concerns, they also have much in common because their works reflect a moral and philosophical climate in which most of our civilization finds itself today. Again, as noted above, even though there are no manifestoes, nor any organized movements, there are still certain concerns that are basic to all of the writers, and Beckett's works are concerned with these basic ideas.
Beyond the technical and strange illusionary techniques which prompt the critic to group these plays into a category, there are larger and, ultimately, more significant concerns by which each dramatist, in spite of his artistic differences, is akin to the others. Aside from such similarities as violation of traditional beginning, middle, and end structure (exposition, complication, and denouement) or the refusal to tell a straightforward, connected story with a proper plot, or the disappearance of traditional dramatic forms and techniques, these dramatists are all concerned with the failure of communication in modern society which leaves man alienated; moreover, they are all concerned with the lack of individuality and the overemphasis on conformity in our society, and they use the dramatic elements of time and place to imply important ideas; finally, they reject traditional logic for a type of non-logic which ultimately implies something about the nature of the universe. Implicit in many of these concerns is an attack on a society or a world which possesses no set standards of values or behavior.
Foremost, all of these dramatists of the absurd are concerned with the lack of communication. In Edward Albee's plays, each character is existing within the bounds of his own private ego. Each makes a futile attempt to get another character to understand him, but as the attempt is heightened, there is more alienation. Thus, finally, because of a lack of communication, Peter, the conformist in The Zoo Story, is provoked into killing Jerry, the individualist; and in The Sandbox, a continuation of The American Dream, Mommy and Daddy bury Grandma because she talks incessantly but says nothing significant. The irony is that Grandma is the only character who does say anything significant, but Mommy and Daddy, the people who discard her, are incapable of understanding her.
In Ionesco's plays, this failure of communication often leads to even more drastic results. Akin to the violence in Albee's Zoo Story, the professor in The Lesson must kill his student partly because she doesn't understand his communication. Berenger, in The Killers, has uttered so many clichés that by the end of the play, he has convinced even himself that the killers should kill him. In The Chairs, the old people, needing to express their thoughts, address themselves to a mass of empty chairs which, as the play progresses, crowd all else off the stage. In Maid to Marry, communication is so bad that the maid, when she appears on the stage, turns out to be a rather homely man. And ultimately in Rhinoceros, the inability to communicate causes an entire race of so-called rational human beings to be metamorphosed into a herd of rhinoceroses, thereby abandoning all hopes of language as a means of communication.
In Adamov's Professor Taranne, the professor, in spite of all his desperate attempts, is unable to get people to acknowledge his identity because there is no communication. Likewise, Pinter's plays show individuals grouped on the stage, but each person fails to achieve any degree of effective communication. This concern with communication is finally carried to its illogical extreme in two works: in Genet's The Blacks, one character says, "We shall even have the decency — a decency learned from you — to make communication impossible." And in another, Beckett's Act Without Words I, we have our first play in this movement that uses absolutely no dialogue. And even without dialogue, all the action on the stage suggests the inability of man to communicate.
Beckett's characters are tied together by a fear of being left entirely alone, and they therefore cling to one last hope of establishing some kind of communication. His plays give the impression that man is totally lost in a disintegrating society, or, as in Endgame, that man is left alone after society has disintegrated. In Waiting for Godot, two derelicts are seen conversing in a repetitive, strangely fragmented dialogue that possesses an illusory, haunting effect, while they are waiting for Godot, a vague, never-defined being who will bring them some communication about — what? Salvation? Death? An impetus for living? A reason for dying? No one knows, and the safest thing to say is that the two are probably waiting for someone or something which will give them an impetus to continue living or, at least, something which will give meaning and direction to their lives. As Beckett clearly demonstrates, those who rush hither and yon in search of meaning find it no quicker than those who sit and wait. The "meaning" about life that these tramps hope for is never stated precisely. But Beckett never meant his play to be a "message play," in which one character would deliver a "message." The message here is conveyed through the interaction of the characters and primarily through the interaction of the two tramps. Everyone leaves the theater with the knowledge that these tramps are strangely tied to one another; even though they bicker and fight, and even though they have exhausted all conversation notice that the second act is repetitive and almost identical — the loneliness and weakness in each calls out to the other, and they are held by a mystical bond of interdependence. In spite of this strange dependency, however, neither is able to communicate with the other. The other two characters, Pozzo and Lucky, are on a journey without any apparent goal and are symbolically tied together. One talks, the other says nothing. The waiting of Vladimir and Estragon and the journeying of Pozzo and Lucky offer themselves as contrasts of various activities in the modem world — all of which lead to no fruitful end; therefore, each pair is hopelessly alienated from the other pair. For example, when Pozzo falls and yells for help, Vladimir and Estragon continue talking, although nothing is communicated in their dialogue; all is hopeless, or as Vladimir aphoristically replies to one of Estragon's long discourses, "We are all born mad. Some remain so." In their attempts at conversation and communication, these two tramps have a fastidious correctness and a grave propriety that suggest that they could be socially accepted; but their fastidiousness and propriety are inordinately comic when contrasted with their ragged appearance.
Their fumbling ineffectuality in their attempts at conversation seems to represent the ineptness of all mankind in its attempt at communication. And it rapidly becomes apparent that Vladimir and Estragon, as representatives of modern man, cannot formulate any cogent or useful resolution or action; and what is more pathetic, they cannot communicate their helpless longings to one another. While failing to possess enough individualism to go their separate ways, they nevertheless are different enough to embrace most of our society. In the final analysis, their one positive gesture is their strength to wait. But man is, ultimately, terribly alone in his waiting. Ionesco shows the same idea at the end of Rhinoceros when we see Berenger totally alone as a result, partly, of a failure in communication.
Each dramatist, therefore, presents a critique of modern society by showing the total collapse of communication. The technique used is that of evolving a theme about communication by presenting a series of seemingly disjointed speeches. The accumulative effect of these speeches is a devastating commentary on the failure of communication in modem society.
In conjunction with the general attack on communication, the second aspect common to these dramatists is the lack of individuality encountered in modern civilization. Generally, the point seems to be that man does not know himself He has lost all sense of individualism and either functions isolated and alienated, or else finds himself lost amid repetition and conformity.
Jean Genet's play The Maids opens with the maid Claire playing the role of her employer while her sister Solange plays the role of Claire. Therefore, we have Claire referring to Solange as Claire. By the time the audience realizes that the two sisters are imitating someone else, each character has lost her individualism; therefore, when Claire later portrays Solange, who portrays the employer, and vice versa, we gradually realize that part of Genet's intent is to illustrate the total lack of individuality and, furthermore, to show that each character becomes vibrantly alive only when functioning in the image of another personality.
Other dramatists present their attack on society's destruction of individualism by different means, but the attack still has the same thematic intent. In Albee's The American Dream, Mommy and Daddy are obviously generic names for any mommy and daddy. Albee is not concerned with individualizing his characters. They remain types and, as types, are seen at times in terms of extreme burlesque. So, unlike Beckett's tramps, and more like Ionesco's characters, Albee's people are seen as Babbitt-like caricatures and satires on the "American Dream" type; the characters remain mannequins with no delineations. Likewise in Ionesco's The Bald Soprano, the Martins assume the roles of the Smiths and begin the play over because there is no distinction between the two sets of characters.
Perhaps more than any of the other dramatists of the absurd, Ionesco has concerned himself almost exclusively with the failure of individualism, especially in his most famous play, Rhinoceros. To repeat, in this play, our society today has emphasized conformity to such an extent and has rejected individualism so completely that Ionesco demonstrates with inverse logic how stupid it is not to conform with all society and be metamorphosed into a rhinoceros. This play aptly illustrates how two concerns of the absurdists — lack of communication and the lack of individualism — are combined, each to support the other. Much of Ionesco's dialogue in this play seems to be the distilled essence of the commonplace. One cliché follows another, and yet, in contrast, this dialogue is spoken within the framework of a wildly improbable situation. In a typically common street scene, with typically common clichés about weather and work being uttered, the morning calm is shattered by a rhinoceros charging through the streets. Then two rhinoceroses, then more. Ridiculous arguments then develop as to whether they are African or Asiatic rhinoceroses. We soon learn that there is an epidemic of metamorphoses; everyone is changing into rhinoceroses. Soon only three individuals are left. Then in the face of this absurd situation, we have the equally appalling justifications and reasons in favor of being metamorphosed advocated in such clichés as "We must join the crowd," "We must move with the times," and "We've got to build our life on new foundations," etc. Suddenly it seems almost foolish not to become a rhinoceros. In the end, Berenger's sweetheart, Daisy, succumbs to the pressures of society, relinquishes her individualism, and joins the society of rhinoceroses — not because she wants to, but rather because she is afraid not to. She cannot revolt against society and remain a human being. Berenger is left alone, totally isolated with his individualism. And what good is his humanity in a world of rhinoceroses?
At first glance, it would seem obvious that Ionesco wishes to indicate the triumph of the individual, who, although caught in a society that has gone mad, refuses to surrender his sense of identity. But if we look more closely, we see that Ionesco has no intention of leaving us on this hopeful and comforting note.
In his last speech, Berenger makes it clear that his stand is rendered absurd. What does his humanity avail him in a world of beasts? Finally, he wishes that he also had changed; now it is too late. All he can do is feebly reassert his joy in being human. His statement carries little conviction. This is how Ionesco deals with the haunting theme of the basic meaning and value of personal identity in relationship to society. If one depends entirely upon the society in which one lives for a sense of reality and identity, it is impossible to take a stand against that society without reducing oneself to nothingness in the process. Berenger instinctively felt repelled by the tyranny that had sprung up around him, but he had no sense of identity that would have enabled him to combat this evil with anything resembling a positive force. Probably any action he could have taken would have led to eventual defeat, but defeat would have been infinitely preferable to the limbo in which he is finally consigned. Ionesco has masterfully joined two themes: the lack of individualism and the failure of communication. But unlike Beckett, who handles the same themes by presenting his characters as derelicts and outcasts from society, Ionesco's treatment seems even more devastating because he places them in the very middle of the society from which they are estranged.
Ultimately, the absurdity of man's condition is partially a result of his being compelled to exist without his individualism in a society which does not possess any degree of effective communication. Essentially, therefore, the Theater of the Absurd is not a positive drama. It does not try to prove that man can exist in a meaningless world, as did Camus and Sartre, nor does it offer any solution; instead, it demonstrates the absurdity and illogicality of the world we live in. Nothing is ever settled; there are no positive statements; no conclusions are ever reached, and what few actions there are have no meaning, particularly in relation to the action. That is, one action carries no more significance than does its opposite action. For example, the man's tying his shoe in The Bald Soprano — a common occurrence — is magnified into a momentous act, while the appearance of rhinoceroses in the middle of a calm afternoon seems to be not at all consequential and evokes only the most trite and insignificant remarks. Also, Pozzo and Lucky's frantic running and searching are no more important than Vladimir and Estragon's sitting and waiting. And Genet presents his blacks as outcasts and misfits from society, but refrains from making any positive statement regarding the black person's role in our society. The question of whether society is to be integrated or segregated is, to Genet, a matter of absolute indifference. It would still be society, and the individual would still be outside it.
No conclusions or resolutions can ever be offered, therefore, because these plays are essentially circular and repetitive in nature. The Bald Soprano begins over again with a new set of characters, and other plays end at the same point at which they began, thus obviating any possible conclusions or positive statements. The American Dream ends with the coming of a second child, this time one who is fully grown and the twin to the other child who had years before entered the family as a baby and upset the static condition; thematically, the play ends as it began. In all of these playwrights' dramas, the sense of repetition, the circular structure, the static quality, the lack of cause and effect, and the lack of apparent progression all suggest the sterility and lack of values in the modem world.
Early critics referred to the Theater of the Absurd as a theater in transition, meaning that it was to lead to something different. So far this has not happened, but the Theater of the Absurd is rapidly becoming accepted as a distinct genre in its own right. The themes utilized by the dramatists of this movement are not new; thus, the success of the plays must often depend upon the effectiveness of the techniques and the new ways by which the dramatists illustrate their themes. The techniques are still so new, however, that many people are confused by a production of one of these plays. Yet if the technique serves to emphasize the absurdity of man's position in the universe, then to present this concept by a series of ridiculous situations is only to render man's position even more absurd; and in actuality, the techniques then reinforce that very condition which the dramatists bewail. In other words, to present the failure of communication by a series of disjointed and seemingly incoherent utterances lends itself to the accusation that functionalism is carried to a ridiculous extreme. But this is exactly what the absurdist wants to do. He is tired of logical discourses pointing out step-by-step the absurdity of the universe: he begins with the philosophical premise that the universe is absurd, and then creates plays which illustrate conclusively that the universe is indeed absurd and that perhaps this play is another additional absurdity.
In conclusion, if the public can accept these unusual uses of technique to support thematic concerns, then we have plays which dramatically present powerful and vivid views on the absurdity of the human condition — an absurdity which is the result of the destruction of individualism and the failure of communication, of man's being forced to conform to a world of mediocrity where no action is meaningful. As the tragic outcasts of these plays are presented in terms of burlesque, man is reminded that his position and that of human existence in general is essentially absurd. Every play in the Theater of the Absurd movement mirrors the chaos and basic disorientation of modern man. Each play laughs in anguish at the confusion that exists in contemporary society; hence, all share a basic point of view, while varying widely in scope and structure.