Theatre of the Absurd

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The dictionary meaning of the word ‘Absurd’ is unreasonable, ridiculous or funny. But it is used in a somewhat different sense when we speak of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, or more commonly known now-a-days as ‘Absurd Drama’. The phrase ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’ was coined by the critic Martin Esslin, who made it the title of his book on the same subject, published in 1961. Esslin points out in this book that there is no such thing as a regular “movement” of Absurd Dramatists. The term was useful as ‘a device to make certain common fundamental traits that were present in the works of a number of dramatists’. Esslin saw in the works of these playwrights as artistic co-relation to Albert Camus’ philosophy that life is inherently without meaning as is described in his work ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. In this essay Camus has described the situation of the human beings as one out of harmony with its surroundings. The Theatre of the Absurd, today, can be considered as a designation for particular plays written by a number of primarily European playwrights in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and also, along with that, to the style and form of theatre which has evolved from their work. A short but true story narrated in the beginning of Martin Esslin’s book The Theatre of the Absurd provides the best commentary on the significance of the Absurd, and also helps in understanding the human values of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, which is famous as an Absurd Drama par excellence. This is the story as told by Mr. Esslin – “On 19th November 1957, a group of worried actors were preparing to face their audience. The actors were members of the company of the San Francisco Actor’s workshop. The audience consisted of fourteen hundred convicts at the San Quentin penitentiary………………………………………………………………………………………………. The curtain parted. The play began. And what had bewildered the sophisticated audiences of Paris, London, and New York, was immediately grasped by an audience of convicts……… The trio of muscle men, biceps overflowing……….parked all 642 lbs on the aisle and waited for the girls and funny stuff. When this didn’t appear they audibly fumed and audibly decided to wait until the house lights dimmed before escaping. They made one error. They listened and looked two minutes too-long-and stayed. Left at the end. All shook. A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle who was present noted that the convicts did not find it difficult to understand the play. One prisoner told him ‘Godot is Society’. Said another ‘He’s the outside’. A teacher at the prison was quoted as saying: They know what is meant by waiting……….and they know if Godot finally came he would only be a disappointment.” This story is helpful in understanding the genre of the Absurd. Playwrights commonly associated with the Theatre of the Absurd include Samuel Beckett from Ireland, Eugene Ionesco from Rumania, Jean Genet from France and Harold Pinter of Great Britain. The Absurd in their plays takes the form of man’s reaction to a world apparently without meaning, or man as a puppet that is controlled or threatened by an invisible outside force. Though the term is applied to a wide range of plays, some characteristics coincide in many of the plays. For instance broad comedy is mixed with tragic images where the characters are caught in hopeless situations and are forced to do repetitive or meaningless action. Even the dialogues are full of specialized jargons, and wordplays and clichés and even nonsense. Even the plots are mostly cyclical or absurdly expansive. Regarding the story, it is either a parody or a dismissal of realism. The Theatre of the Absurd is commonly associated with Existentialism, and Existentialism was an influential philosophy in Paris during the rise of the Absurd Theatre. However, it is not exactly...
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