Understanding the Theater of the Absurd
Even though Albee's Who's Afraid of' Virginia Woolf would not be strictly classified as belonging to the movement known as "The Theater of the Absurd," there are, however, a great many elements of this play which are closely aligned with or which grew out of the dramas which are classified as being a part of "The Theater of the Absurd." Furthermore, the movement emerged on the literary scene just prior to and during the beginning of Albee's formative, creative years. Also, his early plays — The Zoo Story, The American Dream, and Sand Box — which will be discussed later, do belong rather directly with the Absurdist movement and they employ most of the themes, motifs, ideas, and techniques found in the plays of "The Theater of the Absurd." Furthermore, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? also utilizes many of the techniques and ideas of his earlier plays — for example, the lost or non-existent child is a constant factor in many of Albee's plays of all periods. Consequently, in its simplest terms, Albee's early short dramas are essential studies to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? his first full length drama. In addition to a knowledge of Albee's own early plays, an understanding of the entire movement of the Theater of the Absurd and the relationship of Albee's early plays to that movement will, in part, illuminate aspects of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
To begin, even though the 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, it has characteristics which set it apart from other experiments in drama. Each of the main playwrights of the movement seemed to have developed independently of the other. The playwrights most often connected 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 they have also written plays that move far away from the Theater of the Absurd.
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 forget (sometimes) settings that bear an intrinsic, realistic or obvious relationship in 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 drama. 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, 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 world "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 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 thesis within the framework of traditional forms. On the contrary, the Theater of the Absurd seeks to wed form and content into an indissoluble whole, so as to gain a further unity of meaning and impact. This theater has, as Esslin has pointed out, "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 is tempted to note these basic similarities (and others to be later noted) and to dismiss an individual playwright as merely another absurdist writer. Also, too often, the critic fails to note the distinctive differences in each dramatist. Since these writers (dramatists) do not belong to any deliberate or conscious movement, they should be evaluated for their individual concerns as well as 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 world. As noted above, there have been no manifestos, no theses, no conferences and no collaborations. Each has developed along his own unique line; each in his own way is individually and distinctly different. Therefore it is important to see how Ionesco both belongs to the Theater of the Absurd and equally important, how he differs from the other writers. First let us note a few of the basic differences.
One of Samuel Beckett's main concerns is with 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 literally dozens more. Beckett's main concern, then, seems to be to place man and characterize man's existence in terms of these polarities. To do this, Beckett groups his characters in pairs, such as 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 to whom they can communicate. For example, the characters in The Bald Soprano are in society, but 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 his plays remind one of a world already 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, an average study in The Lesson, and so on.
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 a 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; thus in The Bald Soprano, and other plays, the dialogue is filled with clichés and banalities.
In contrast to the basic sympathy we feel for both Beckett's and Ionesco's characters, especially characters like Berenger, Jean Genet's characters almost revile the audience from the moment that they appear on the stage. His theme is more openly stated. He is concerned with the hatred which exists in the world. In The Maids, 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 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. Thus, in Genet's direction 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 Negroes in the audience must wear a white mask; if the Negro refuses, then a white mannequin must be used and the actors must play the drama for this mannequin. Thus there must be a white audience, someone for the Negroes to revile. Since a Negro audience by its color would recognize and prefer the identical images that the actors are creating, there must be the white person to note the distortion of reality.
In contrast to Ionesco, Arthur Adamov, in his themes, is more closely aligned to the Kafkaesque of the existentialist 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 Tarrane, 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 that he does not exist. Language, therefore, 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 circumstances he previously hoped to avoid. Ultimately, Adamov'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 the dream-world atmosphere; and while they are presenting a series of outwardly confusing scenes of almost hallucinatory quality, they, at the same time, attack or denounce the confusion present in modern man.
Characteristic of all these writers is a notable absence of any excess concern over 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 incarnation of the muscular and ideally handsome young homosexual 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 homosexual who spends his time scantily dressed and performing calisthenics on a beach while preparing for a career in Hollywood.
Although 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 were no manifestos, no organized movements, there are still certain concerns that are basic to all of the writers and Ionesco's works are concerned with these basic ideas or concerns.
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 differences, is akin to the other. Aside from such similarities as violation of traditional beginning, middle, and end (or exposition, complication, and denouement) or the refusal to tell a straight-forward connected story with a nice plot, the disappearance of traditional dramatic forms and techniques, they are also concerned over the failure of communication in modern society which leaves man alienated, and they are concerned over a lack of individuality or an over-emphasis on conformity in our society. They use time and place to imply important ideas, and finally they reject traditional logic for a type of nonlogic which ultimately implies something about the nature of the universe. Implicit in many of these concerns is an attack on a society or world which possesses no set standards of values or behavior.
First, let's examine the concern over the lack of communication. In Edward Albee's plays, each character is existing in his own private ego. Each makes a futile attempt to get another character to understand him, but as the attempt is contrived, 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; or 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.
But in Ionesco's plays, this failure of communication leads often to even more drastic results. Like Albee's Zoo Story, the professor in The Lesson must kill the student partly because she doesn't understand his communication. Or Berenger, in The Killers, has uttered so many clichés that by the end of the play, he has even convinced 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 Ionesco's 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. The concern with communication is 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, we have our first play in this movement to use 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 that last hope of establishing some communication with another. His plays give the impression of man totally lost in a disintegrating society, or as in Endgame, of man alone after society has already disintegrated. In Waiting for Godot, the two derelicts are seen conversing in 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? A reason for living? The impetus for dying? No one knows and the safest thing to say is that the two are waiting for someone (something) which will give them the impetus to continue living and waiting or something which will give them meaning and direction to life. And as Beckett clearly demonstrates, those who rush hither and yon in search of meanings find it no quicker than those who sit and wait. But everyone leaves the theater with the realization that these tramps are strangely tied to one another; and yet, 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 others, and they are held by a mystical bond of interdependence. But in spite of this strange dependency, 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 to various activities in the modern world each leading 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 their talk, but throughout their dialogue nothing is communicated; 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 play of 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 lies in their strength to wait. And man is terribly alone in his waiting. Ionesco shows the same ideas in the end of Rhinoceros when we see Berenger totally alone as a result partly of a failure in communication.
Each dramatist has, therefore, presented 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 modern society.
In conjunction with the general attack on communication, the second aspect common to the 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 alien 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 calling or 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, as Claire later portrays Solange, who portrays the employer, and vice versa, we gradually realize that part of Genet's intent was 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, and the characters remain mannequins with no delineations. Thus in Ionesco's The Bald Soprano, the Martins can assume the roles of the Smith's and begin the play over because there is no distinction between the two sets of characters.
As emphasized elsewhere in this volume, lonesco has written most extensively about the failure of individualism most effectively 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. We are further startled because this dialogue is spoken within the framework of a wildly improbable situation. In a typically common street with the typical common clichés about weather and work being uttered, the morning calm is shattered by a rhinoceros as it charges 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; all are 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," "We've got to build our life on new foundations," and so on. Suddenly it almost seems foolish not to become a rhinoceros. In the end, Berenger's sweetheart, Daisy, succumbs to the pressure 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 even to 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, only now he realizes that it is too late. All he can do is feebly reassert his joy in being human. His statement carries little conviction. Thus Ionesco has dealt 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. Thus, 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 for having placed 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 and 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 is in a meaningless world as did Camus or Sartre: it does not offer any solutions: 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 tying his shoe in The Bald Soprano — a common event — is magnified into a fantastic act while the appearance of rhinoceroses in the middle of a calm afternoon is not at all memorable 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 from and misfits in 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 perfect indifference. It would still be society and the individual would still be outside it.
No conclusions or resolutions can ever be offered 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 that 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; thus, thematically, the play ends as it began. Therefore, in all of these playwrights and 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 modern 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 and moreover it is rapidly becoming accepted as a distinct genre in its own right. The themes utilized by these dramatists are not new: thus, the success of the plays must often depend upon the effectiveness of the technique and the new ways by which the dramatists illustrate their themes. But the techniques are still so new that many people are confused by a production of one of these plays. But more important, 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 more absurd; and in actuality, the techniques then reinforce that 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 what the absurdist wanted to do. He was tired of logical discourses pointing out step by step the absurdity of the universe: he began with the philosophical premise that the universe is absurd, and then created plays which illustrated conclusively that the universe is indeed absurd and that perhaps this play is an additional absurdity.
In conclusion, if the public can accept these unusual uses of technique to support thematic concerns, then do we have plays which present, dramatically, powerful and vivid views on the absurdity of the human condition — an absurdity which is the result of society's destruction of individualism, of the failure of communication, of being forced to conform to a world of mediocrity, where no action is meaningful? And 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 mirrors the chaos and basic disorientation of modern man. Each 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.
The Setting of the Play
The setting of the drama is in a university town which in itself gives a special aura to the play. The characters in the drama represent the types of people who have been given the most disciplined training in the best that has been thought and said throughout the history of civilization. Consequently, we are exposed to several very civilized people acting in a way that is at times uncivilized and barbaric.
The name of the town that George and Martha live in is called New Carthage. Carthage is the name of the ancient classical city which was the site of the great love story of Dido and Aeneas and was ultimately destroyed because it was a city of "unholy loves," as St. Augustine referred to it.
The stage setting itself is also significant. Even though the script does not call for it, George and Martha's living room (the only set for the play) usually has a picture of George and Martha Washington displayed somewhere in clear view of the audience. In addition, there is traditionally an American flag on a stand (or otherwise displayed) and/or an American eagle or coat of arms prominently displayed somewhere.
The Title of the Play
On the most basic level, the title is the substitution of the name of the famous British novelist Virginia Woolf for the name of the Big Bad Wolf of the nursery rhyme. The obvious correlation is the homophonic relationship of the last names — Woolf and Wolf. The hilarity which the substitution causes can be accounted for most directly as the result of the drunkenness of the guest who, in a drunken stupor, finds the intellectualizing of a nursery rhyme to be unaccountably comic. The use of the nursery rhyme, however, becomes central to the "fun and games" which characterize so much of the drama.
Other than the obvious similarity of the last names, the title seems to make an oblique comment on the drama itself. In the nursery rhyme which deals with fear of the unknown or possible evil in the person of the big bad wolf, the first two pigs ignore the possibility of the evil of the wolf and, as a result, are destroyed. The third little pig, recognizing the danger of the wolf, makes provisions against destruction and consequently survives.
Characters in the novels of Virginia Woolf can often be characterized as being apprehensive about, if not terrified of, life, and, like the first two little pigs, fail to make (or are unable to make) the proper provisions to cope with life. Virginia Woolf's own life was characterized by periods of madness, and so it is not surprising that she should deal in her novels with the intolerability of life and subsequent madness. The reference, then, to Virginia Woolf could function as a portent because George and Martha are playing a dangerous game which could drive either or both of them into madness since both of their lives are intolerable.