It if took the Russian Revolution to drive theatre into Realism, then it
could be argued that the dropping of the bombs Hiroshima and Nagasaki -the
abdication of reason - brought Absurd theatre to the fore. Absurd
Theatre presented life as meaningless, and one that could simply end in casual
This was reflected in the society of the time where:
a) the mechanical nature of many peoples lives, lead them to question the
purpose of their existence.
b) time was recognised as a destructive force.
c) one had a sense of being left in an alien world. [A world that can be explain
even with bad reasoning is a familiar world. But a world from which logic
and insight have been removed is a strange world].
d) one sensed being isolated from other beings.
This sense of meaninglessness became a critical insight in the philosophical
movement of the era "Existentialism"
We, proclaimed the existentialists, are the sum of our acts. The idea that
we do something because we are that sort of person, was replaced by the idea
that we make ourselves that sort of person by doing such and such an act.
As one of the high princes of existentialism, Jean Paul Sartre said: "we
are nothing and in action become conscious of that original nothingness".
eg: "Huis Clos" [In Camera] by Jean Paul Sartre
Set in hell
..one on earth.
Three Characters. Two females, one male. Each is unable to bear the complete
responsibility for their own acts and wishes to seen by the others as having
"character/essence"-being of worth. This makes each dependent on
the others, and when two of them come to some sort of agreement, this agreement
is immediately distroyed by the presence of the other. Hell is literally other
people! And in the words of the final line of the play.. "lets get on
Within this consciousness all we can do is resume our acts and our life,
fully aware of the world's absurdity, happy in accepting the crushing responsibility
of giving the world a meaning, that comes solely from ourselves.
eg: "The Myth of Sisyphus" Albert Camus
Sisyphus was, according to Homer, a wise mortal who scorned the Gods, loved
life, hated death and was absurdly punished -to a life in the Underworld,
where he was given the task of spending eternity pushing a ball of dung up
a hill ..seeing it getting bigger and bigger, and when he finally reached
the top, only to have it roll back down, and his task start again. It didn't
take him long to realise that this was absurd
but the knowledge that
all of life's tasks were equally as absurd,because they were all subject to
Death, gave Sisyphus victory. We must imagine Sisyphus as happy
he has escaped the dilemma of his existence and is to be seen as heroic.
If Existentialism was the philosophical model of a universe that has lost
its meaning and purpose
-then the Theatre of the Absurd was one way of facing up to that universe.
If there is a sin of life "it is not perhaps so much to despair of life,
as to hope for another life and to lose sight of the implacable grandeur of
In order to begin an understanding of any artistic movement it's always useful
to try and locate it historically.
Absurd Theatre emerged during a moment of crisis in the literary and artistic
movement of Modernism -which itself began in the closing years of the last
century, becoming most prominent in the early decades of this century, and
going into decline in the 30's and 40's. Economic and political upheaval,
lasting roughly from the rise of Hitler to the Death of Stalin forced the
movement to almost disappear. However it was to re-emerge in the 50's through
the 60's and even into the early 70's -at which time the prosperity that developed
countries had enjoyed since the end of the Second World War was to be threatened
by another protracted era of strife that was to have a profound impact on
the arts. This was to become know as post-modernism and was probably responsible
for the end of the second phase of Modernism. It was during the 50's and 60's,
with its drugs, sexual revolution, anti-war protest, student up-risings, sit
-ins, ban the bomb marches, Oz Magazine, Feminism, Performance Art, The Black
Panther Movement, the Hippies, and existentialism, that the Theatre of the
If Elizabethan Theatre [Shakespeare] explored the political and moral dilemmas
of the Renaissance, and Naturalism gave expression to the ghosts which haunted
the bourgeoisie of Capitalism, then Absurdism found the means of exposing
the metaphysical doubts that tormented our existence. Doubts that at first
surprised us then began to seem natural and inevitable.
At the beginning of Modernism, specifically in the theatre of Hendrik Ibsen
[ turn of the century -"Hedda Gabbla", "The Wild Duck"]
the plays were performed just as if an audience were not watching; indeed
it needed to be so performed if the desired tension was to be achieved; any
hint of a gesture towards the audience would destroy the illusion.
It is precisely this illusion that the political and social theatre of Bertolt
Brecht [30/40's] seeked to destroy. However he did not attempt to make the
stage and auditorium one continuous space
this would have simply created
Brecht's innovations opened the way to the Theatre of the Absurd [50/60's]
which self-consciously employed the auditorium as part of the plays'ontology.[time
The resulting theatre, ironically, produced the effect desired by Brecht
from his theatre: ALIENATION. We find it difficult to identify with the characters
in Absurd Drama, but, where Brecht hoped to "activate the audience's
critical, intellectual capacities, Absurd Drama spoke to a deeper level of
the audiences awareness -its staging was usually very funny and very terrifying,
pushing the audience forward, then confusing them, compelling a personal assessment
of their reactions, and offering opposites that multiply in their minds -IT
CHALLENGED THE AUDIENCE TO MAKE SENSE OF NON-SENSE, TO FACE THE PREDICAMENT
OF LIFE CONSCIOUSLY RATHER THE FEEL IT VAGUELY, AND PERCEIVE, WITH LAUGHTER,
ITS FUNDAMENTAL ABSURDITY.
"Absurdity presents humanity "stripped of the accidental circumstances
of social position or historical context, confronted with basic choices"
Such a theatre was involved in the relatively few problems that remained:
LIFE, DEATH, and the ISOLATION we feel through lack of COMMUNICATION.
.and presented them as only one person's personal intuitive vision
of the world.
We are born, and the one thing we know is that we will die
else we do is just a diversion from our "destiny" and since all
our actions are directed against the inevitable [death], they are absurd,
and because we sense this absurdity we experience "irrationality. We,
in the West, hopelessly committed to making sense of the world can not accept
the world does make sense, "God does not
play dice" [Einstein]
The absurd has as it's underlying premise the irrationality of experience.
"You can't be rational in an irrational world, it's not rational"
[Joe Orton ]
The Absurdist's response to Death is far from nihilistic: it is a contented
call for furious action
once we accept the feeling of absurdity, it becomes
the springboard for action, giving us the feeling of freedom and passion
absurd is not a beginning and not and end, it is the representation of that
which is in between. What can we do, given the inescapable nature of death
rendering everything as unimportant??
we could do nothing!![ not make
any choices], under the misguided belief that we have no choice, but that
would simply be what Jean Paul Sartre would called "Bad Faith".
Bad Faith consists in pretending to ourselves and others that things could
not be otherwise, that we are bound to our way of life, that there is no escape.
However we are free to choose to do all things and to choose not to do them.
eg: a the man who, while trying to commit suicide by drowning, is unfortunately
at the scene of a crime. He is arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced
to death, despite his protestations -not of his innocence but of being denied
his right to choose
1] The experience of this world [of the absurd] is never debated, it is simply
shown in action;
Eg: Ionesco: was once criticised because he had no message -to which he replied
"No, I am a writer, I am not a postman"
2] it presents humans "stripped of the accidental circumstances of social
3] it satirises a society that is petty and dishonest;
4] it substitutes an internal [mental] landscape for the outer world;
5] it deliberately lacks of any clear division between fantasy and fact;
6] it has a healthy disrespect for the constraints of time, which can expand,
back fold on itself according to subjective requirements;
7] it constructs environment which can depict/project mental conditions in
the form of
8] it employs a precise use of language, constructed by an writer as their
against the chaos of the experience of living.
9] it uses meta-theatricality:
a) all the world a stage
b) life is a dream
-signifying a medium totally aware of itself and involving the audience in
a searching act of self-awareness.
eg: Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" Clov asks of Hamm what there is to
keep him there? Hamm, while considering the audience replies: "the dialogue".
Having been spoken to directly from the stage we, as audience, are implicated
in it and the metaphor of the all the world's a stage is confirmed.
10] it has a preference for tragicomedy [black comedy] rather than the classical
tragedy or comedy
.. this gives rise to a reality distinguished by a
knowingness shared with and by the spectator, who becomes genuinely implicated
in the construction of the drama.
11] it uses silence as a metaphor
never before had moments of the fragmentary,
inarticulate, the incoherent and the non-verbal been so extensively employed.
that not only remained part of the play but commented upon it.
eg: "Breath" by Samuel Beckett
12] it deliberately employs ambiguity as a device. What is reality, what
sucessfully destroying of our confidence in familiar things and places.
Eg: "Amedee"by Ionesco. He peopled a middle class apartment with
an expanding corspe and covered its carpets in mushrooms until the real occupants
of the apartment chose to leave.
13] it explores antagonism and violence, particularly on the psychological
14] It tends towards a radical devaluation of language, towards a poetry
of images. What
happened on the stage often contradicted the words spoken by the characters.
eg: the end of "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett.
BORN [FRIDAY 13] 1906 - 1989
Beckett has consistently refuse to explain his work -one of his rare utterances
was the expression:
"nothing is more real than nothing" for to know nothing is nothing,
not to want to know anything likewise, but to be beyond knowing anything,
that is when peace enters into the soul of the incurious seeker.
The nature of his work could best be described as enigmatic and pessimistic.
His plays exhibit a lack of plot and character
CHARACTER -presumes that personality and individuality matter
PLOT -assumes that events in time have significance
Beckett rejects learning and sees language as part of the failure to know
where and what we are. Language has failed us. Thus, Beckett's heroes not
only deny that they are philosophers, they flaunt an ignorance of philosophy
while remaining transfixed by philosophical questions that have troubled us
since Socrates: the nature of Self, the world, and God.
Beckett is an agnostic. "Even if God were to exist", says Beckett,
"he would make no difference: he would be as lonely and as enslaved,
and as isolated as man is, in a cold, silent, indifferent universe".
It is an undeniable fact that we must sooner or later die, and many people
are doubtful whether anything lies behind death. Beckett's works are not statements
on this theme, but meditations upon it.
"I am not interested in any system. I can't see any trace of any system
"Waiting For Godot" is a play/poem about a world without any divinity,
a world in which man waits and hopes for something to give a meaning to his
life, and relieve him of the absurdity of a death that will terminate all.
But he waits in vain, and so our life is as meaningless as our deaths.
It is a monstrous paradox that an individual's life is an eternity while it
lasts, but it is less than an instant in regard to cosmic time. Consciousness
of the paradox is all important-but the consciousness by which we are aware
of our individual existence is continually at risk from heart failure or mental
breakdown. At best our consciousness is held in the prison of "time".
In the prison, only forward motion is possible, and we delude ourselves that
we progress towards some sort of ultimate goal
.this ultimate goal [
in the case of "Waiting for Godot"] becomes anything that helps
us bear our existence.
Beckett's plays avoid any definition of these goals, because he believes
that "art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear,
and does not make clear". All a writer can do is to attempt to distil
in words, however imperfect, an intuitive vision or experience [rather than
a systematic set of beliefs] of the misery and desperation of life.
Desire is the source of our misery; such happiness as is possible can only
be obtained by the removal of all desire
Beckett's people have collapsed under the burden of choice, responsibility
and anguish, as they struggle to answer the questions:
What am I?
What are time and space?
What are mind and matter?
.and they are determine to answer these questions rationally [without
taking refuse in mysticism]
they drive reason to a point where reason
itself becomes irrational
and generally very comical.
"Do not come down the ladder, I have taken it away"
What Beckett is saying here is that one can only affirm that meaning does
not exist in terms that imply that it does.
This idea is reflected in Beckett's heroes; they believe that even in a meaningless
situation life must have meaning. Beckett's plays present an inability in
anyone to be nihilistic, not nihilism.
Beckett has left us with a final bleak image of life in the universe: that
of a woman giving birth astride a grave.
AN ABSURD FEW
Albert Camus "The Outsider"
Jean Paul Sartre "In Camera"
Arthur Adamov "Professor Teranne"
Jean Genet 'The Maids"
Samuel Beckett "Waiting for Godot"
Harold Pinter "The Caretaker"
N.F.Simpson "A Resounding Tingle"
David Campton "The Lunatic View"
James Saunders "Next Time I'll Sing to You"
Tom Stoppard "Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead"
Edward Albee "The Zoo Story"
Arthur Kopit "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma Hung You in the Closet,
I'm Feeling So Sad"
Eugene Ionesco "The Bald Prima Donna"
Luigi Pirandello "Seven Characters in Search of an Author"
Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Penguin, New York,
Hinchliffe, Arnold, The Absurd -from a series The Critical Idiom, Methuen,
Kenner, Hugh, A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett, Thames and
Hudson, London, 1973
Webb, Eugene, The Plays Of Samuel Beckett, Peter Owen, London,
Abbot, H. Porter, The Fiction of Samuel Beckett: Form and Effect,
Methuen, Berkeley, 1973.
Abel, Lionel, Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form, Penguin,
New York, 1963.
The Aesthetics of Noh and its
reverberations in "back to becket"
Noh is sometimes thought of as Japan's "most classical" dramatic
form and often compared with Greek tragedy. And like Greek tragedy, had its
origins not in theatre, in the strict sense, but rather in religious ritual.
With Noh it was a ritual centred on the miraculous appearance of old gods,
who could release the participants from the sufferings of this life into the
pure land of the spirit world.
Noh begins with the belief that drama must be expressed in pure form.
The purpose of Noh is neither narrative nor moral
but simply the expression
The highest ideal or purpose of Noh is expressed in the Zen term:
YUGEN = beauty that is felt.
The energising ingredient of Noh is the artistic insight that true art is
felt, not understood.
In the tradition of drama that we are probably most familiar with
happens [in order for the story to be told]
In Noh something appears [in order for the story to be told]
[reference to "Waiting for Godo" where nothing happens twice, but
things and people(!) appear]
In many theatre traditions dramatic climax is sought in crescendo,
In Noh the climax is sought in stillness/silence
not an empty space but
a dynamic one. [no physical movement BUT the heart and mind is working at
Noh emerged from its ritual beginnings around, 1380 and 1420, largely through
the efforts of a father and son, Kannami (1333-1384) and Zeami (1363-1443).
Both men came from a rural and rustic environment but they brought Noh into
the palaces of Japan's civil, military and clerical aristocracies. By the
late fifteenth century Noh had become a popular and at the same time sophisticated
form of entertainment enjoyed by all social classes.
So Noh's recorded/historical roots are sunk six hundred years into Japan's
past -but it has even deeper roots in the minds of its characters, and in
deepest levels of being itself.
BEING = a way of being present.
Let us consider a being that can only move in a straight line. This world
of the straight line is a one-dimensional space and can be easily measured.
Lets us consider a being that can move in any direction on a flat plane.
This world of the flat plane is a two-dimensional world and can be measured
by two straight lines that intersect at a point.
The world in which human beings move is a three dimensional world and can
be measured by three straight lines that intersect at a point.
Now if we limit the length of the straight line the one-dimensional being
will be trapped.
If we draw a circle around the two-dimensional being, they cannot escape.
If human being are locked in a room we are also trapped.
Let us consider a being that can freely move in and out of an enclosed room
-this is a being who lives in the fourth dimension. We cannot actually see
a being that has this four-dimensional characteristic, but we can imagine
This is the ontology of Noh.
THE NOH COSMOS
Noh recognises that the reality of the theatre is entirely a matter of the
mind and imagination of the audience. In so doing retains its connection to
ritual by prioritising the role of the spectator. The sparseness of the staging
leaves the audience's imagination to freely turn chairs, rocks, sticks and
pieces of cloth into palaces, jewels, swords and costumes needed for their
Noh drama is often referred to as the drama of dreams. Not simply because
of its "symbolic" structure or the surreal logic of its texts, or
the otherworldly music to which it is performed, but because at the very centre
of Noh is the dream.
The central figure in most Noh plays is not a living person, but rather a
ghost or spirit who appears to other characters, as well as the audience in
a dream or vision or hallucination.
Their first appearance on the Noh stage will usually be as an old man, for
even as Noh is a theatre of dreams, it is also a theatre of transformations.
The old man you see in the first part of a play may become something altogether
different in the last part.
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