Theater of Absurd

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  • Topic: Theatre of the Absurd, Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee
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  • Published : April 16, 2011
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Theater of the Absurd:


"Theater of the Absurd" refers to particular plays written by European and American playwrights of the post-Second World War period who shared the view of many existential philosophers that life is meaningless, communication impossible, society robotic and inhuman. These playwrights could not express these views within the framework of traditional theatre; they needed new modes of expression, new venues, new dramatic structures and new stage imagery, and thus "Theater of the Absurd" was born.


The term “Theater of the Absurd” is coined in a 1962 book by the Hungarian-born critic Martin Esslin. It refers to a particular type of play which regards the human condition as meaningless. Some argued that as long as people fail to introduce a logical explanation of the reality of the universe, they have to confess that they lead absurd life.

Anyway, this term is used to refer to some dramatic traits discernible in the works of some playwrights including Samuel Becket, Eugène Ionesco, Edward Albee and many others. Such playwrights want to convey their bewilderment and anxiety in the face of the inexplicable universe. A point to be mentioned is that writers of this genre were not comfortable with this term and preferred instead other titles such as the "Anti-Theater" or the "New Theater".

"Theater of the Absurd" and the Ancient Greeks:

Although the "Theater of the Absurd" is often traced back to avant-garde experiments of the 1920s and 1930s, the roots of it can be traced back as early as the ancient Greeks. Absurd elements first made their appearance in the wild humor and buffoonery of Old Comedy and the plays of Aristophanes in particular as well as the use of myth. Also, I’d like to refer to the morality plays of the Middle Ages, too. Some critics consider them a precursor to the Theater of the Absurd. The miracle/mystery (like Noah’s Flood) and morality plays (like Everyman) are religious in intention or serious plays with some comedy in them. Moreover, they speak of existential problems; they depict everyman-type characters dealing with allegorical and sometimes existential problems.


It was WWII that brought the "Theater of the Absurd" to life. The global nature of this conflict and the resulting trauma of living under threat of nuclear annihilation showed vividly the precarious or unstable nature of human life. This catastrophe left behind millions of deaths and injuries; other millions were widowed, orphaned, evacuated from their houses, etc. This made people much afraid of, if not traumatized by, the cruelties of man against man. It opened people’s eyes to the absurdity of our behavior. The experience of absurdity became part of the average person's daily existence. People no longer talk of the serenity, quiet, spill and beauty of our Mother Nature as seen in Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils”; lovers no longer spend time contemplating the beauty of those whom they love as seen in Shakespeare’s “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?”

Hence, one may claim that Shakespeare, Wordsworth and their ilks have been put aside or kept away. The war had shocked everybody on earth. This had driven some to look down on everything: nothing is important; everything is absurd and meaningless. In a word, a ubiquitous state “NOTHINGNESS” spread everywhere. As a result, the realism of Dickens is rejected; traditional art forms and standards for them that had ceased being convincing and lost their validity. So, there has been a rebellion against the conventional theater which, they argue, no longer appeals to people nowadays.

Waiting for Godot

The most famous, and most controversial, absurdist play is probably Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. (1) The characters of the play are strange caricatures who have difficulty communicating the simplest of concepts to one another as they bide their time awaiting the arrival of Godot, a person who...
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