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Absurd Drama - Martin Esslin

Introduction to "Absurd Drama" (Penguin Books, 1965)

'The Theatre of the Absurd' has become a catch-phrase, much used and much abused. What does it stand for? And how can such a label be justified? Perhaps it will be best to attempt to answer the second question first. There is no organised movement, no school of artists, who claim the label for themselves. A good many playwrights who have been classed under this label, when asked if they belong to the Theatre of the Absurd, will indigniantly reply that they belong to no such movement - and quite rightly so. For each of the playwrights concerned seeks to express no more and no less his own personal vision of the world.

Yet critical concepts of this kind are useful when new modes of expression, new conventions of art arise. When the plays of Ionesco, Beckett, Genet, and Adamov first appeared on the stage they puzzled and outraged most critics as well audiences. And no wonder. These plays flout all the standards by which drama has been judged for many centuries; they must therefore appear as a provocation to people who have come into the theatre expecting to find what they would recognize as a well-made play. A well-made play is expected to present characters that are well-observed and convincingly motivated: these plays often contain hardly any recognizable human beings and present completely unmotivated actions. A well-made play is expected to entertain by the ding-dong of witty and logically built-up dialogue: in some of these plays dialogue seems to have degenerated into meaningless babble. A well-made play is expected to have a beginning, a middle, and a neatly tied-up ending: these plays often start at an arbitrary point and seem to end just as arbitrarily. By all the traditional standards of of critical appreciation of the drama, these plays are not only abominably bad, they do not even deserve the name drama.

And yet, strangely enough, these plays have worked, they have had an effect, they have exercised a fascination of their own in the theatre. At first it was said that this fascination was merely a succès de scandale, that people flocked to see Beckett's Waiting for Godot or Ionesco's Bald Primadonna merely because it had become fashionable to express outrage and astonishment about them at parties. But this explanation clearly could not apply to more than one or two plays of this kind. And the success of a whole row of similarly unconventional works became more and more manifest. If the critical touchstones of conventional drama did not apply to these plays, this must surely have been due to a difference in objective, the use of different artistic means, to the fact, in short, that these plays were both creating and applying a different convention of drama. It is just as senseless to condemn an abstract painting because it lacks perspective or a recognizable subject-matter as it is to reject Waiting for Godot because it has no plot to speak of. In painting a composition of squares and lines an artist like Mondrian does not want to depict any object in nature, he does not want to create perspective. Similarly, in writing Waiting for Godot Beckett did not intend to tell a story, he did not want the audience to go home satisfied that they knew the solution to the problem posed in the play. Hence there is no point in reproaching him with not doing what he never sought to do; the only reasonable course is to try and find out what it was that he did intend.

Yet, if tackled directly most of the playwrights in question would refuse to discuss any theories or objectives behind their work. They would, with perfect justification, point out that they are concerned with one thing only: to express their vision of the world as best they can, simply because, as artists, they feel an irrepressible urge to do so. This is where the critic can step in. By describing the works that do not fit into the established convention, by bringing out the similarities of approach in a number of more or less obviously related new works, by analysing the nature of their method and their artistic effect, he can try to define the framework of the new convention, and by doing so, can provide the standards by which it will become possible to have works in that convention meaningfully compared and evaluated. The onus of proof that there is such a convetion involved clearly lies on the critic, but if he can establish that there are basic similarities in approach, he can argue that these similarities must arise from common factors in the experience of the writers concerned. And these common factors must in turn spring from the spiritual climate of our age (which no sensitive artist can escape) and also perhaps from a common background of artistic influences, a similarity of roots, a shared tradition.

A term like the Theatre of the Absurd must therefore be understood as a kind of intellectual shorthand for a complex pattern of similarities in approach, method, and convention, of shared philosophical and artistic premises, whether conscious or subconscious, and of influences from a common store of tradition. A label of this kind therefore is an aid to understanding, valid only in so far as it helps to gain insight into a work of art. It is not a binding classification; it is certainly not all-embracing or exclusive. A play may contain some elements that can best be understood in the light of such a label, while other elements in the same play derive from and can best be understood in the light of a different convention. Arthur Adamov, for example, has written a number of plays that are prime examples of the Theatre of the Absurd. He now quite openly and consciously rejects this style and writes in a different, realistic convention. Nevertheless even his latest plays, which are both realistic and socially committed, contain some aspects which can still be elucidated in terms of the Theatre of the Absurd (such as the use of symbolic interludes, guignols, in his play Spring '71). Moreover, once a term like Theatre of the Absurd is defined and understood, it acquires a certain value in throwing light on works of previous epochs. The Polish critic Jan Kott, for example, has written a brilliant study of King Lear in the light of Beckett's Endgame. And that this was no vain academic exercise but a genuine aid to understanding is shown by the fact that Peter Brook's great production of King Lear took many of its ideas from Kott's essay.

What then is the convention of drama that has now acquired the label of the Theatre of the Absurd?

Let us take one of the plays in this volume as a starting point: Ionesco's Amédée. A middle-aged husband and wife are shown in a situation which is clearly not taken from real life. They have not left their flat for years. The wife earns her living by operating some sort of telephone switchboard; the husband is writing a play, but has never got beyond the first few lines. In the bedroom is a corpse. It has been there for many years. It may be the corpse of the wife's lover whom the husband killed when he found them together, but this is by no means certain; it may also have been a burglar, or a stray visitor. But the oddest thing about it is that it keeps growing larger and larger; it is suffering from 'geometric progression, the incurable disease of the dead'. And in the course of the play it grows so large that eventually an enormous foot bursts from the bedroom into the living-room, threatening to drive Amédée and his wife out of their home. All this is wildly fantastic, yet it is not altogether unfamiliar, for it is not unlike situations most of us have experienced at one time or another in dreams and nightmares.

Ionesco has in fact put a dream situation onto the stage, and in a dream quite clearly the rules of realistic theatre no longer apply. Dreams do not develop logically; they develop by association. Dreams do not communicate ideas; they communicate images. And inded the growing corpse in Amédée can best be understood as a poetic image. It is in the nature both of dreams and poetic imagery that they are ambiguous and carry a multitude of meanings at one and the same time, so that it is futile to ask what the image of the growing corpse stands for. On the other hand one can say that the corpse might evoke the growing power of past mistakes or past guilt, perhaps the waning of love or the death of affection - some evil in any case that festers and grows worse with time. The image can stand for any and all of these ideas, and its ability to embrace them all gives it the poetic power it undoubtedly posseses.

Not all the plays of the Theatre of the Absurd can be described simply as dreams (although Adamov's Professor Taranne in this volume actually came to Adamov as a dream, Albee's Zoo Story is clearly far more firmly anchored in reality) but in all of them the poetic image is the focus of interest. In other words: while most plays in the traditional convention are primarily concerned to tell a story or elucidate an intellectual problem, and can thus be seen as a narrative or discursive form of communication, the plays of the Theatre of the Absurd are primarily intended to convey a poetic image or a complex pattern of poetic images; they are above all a poetical form. Narrative or discursive thought proceeds in a dialectical manner and must lead to a result or final message; it is therefore dynamic and moves along a definite line of development. Poetry is above all concerned to convey its central idea, or atmosphere, or mode of being; it is essentially static.

This does not mean, however, that these plays lack movement: the movement in Amédée, for instance, is relentless, lying as it does in the pressure of the ever-growing corpse. But the situation of the play remains static; the movement we see is the unfolding of the poetic image. The more ambiguous and complex that image, the more intricate and intriguing will be the process of revealing it. That is why a play like Waiting for Godot can generate considerable suspense and dramatic tension in spite of being a play in which literally nothing happens, a play designed to show that nothing can ever happen in human life. It is only when the last lines have been spoken and the curtain has fallen that we are in a position to grasp the total pattern of the complex poetic image we have been confronted with. If, in the traditional play, the action goes from point A to point B, and we constantly ask, 'what's going to happen next?', here we have an action that consists in the gradual unfolding of a complex pattern, and instead we ask, 'what is it that we are seeking? What will the completed image be when we have grasped the nature of the pattern?' Thus in Arrabal's The Two Executioners in this volume we realise at the end of the play that the theme is the exploration of a complex image of the mother-son relationship; in Albee's Zoo Story it is only in the last lines of the play that the idea of the entire dialogue between Jerry and Peter falls into place, as an image of the difficulty of communication between human beings in our world.

Why should the emphasis in drama have shifted away from traditional forms towards images which, complex and suggestive as they may be, must necessarily lack the final clarity of definition, the neat resolutions we have been used to expect? Clearly because the playwrights concerned no longer believe in the possibility of such neatness of resolution. They are indeed chiefly concerned with expressing a sense of wonder, of incomprehension, and at times of despair, at the lack of cohesion and meaning that they find in the world. If they could believe in clearly defined motivations, acceptable solutions, settlements of conflict in tidily tied up endings, these dramatists would certainly not eschew them. But, quite obviously, they have no faith in the existence of so rational and well ordered a universe. The 'well-made play' can thus be seen as conditioned by clear and comforting beliefs, a stable scale of values, an ethical system in full working condition. The system of values, the world-view behind the well-made play may be a religious one or a political one; it may be an implicit belief in the goodness and perfectibility of men (as in Shaw or Ibsen) or it may be a mere unthinking acceptance of the moral and political status quo (as in most drawing-room comedy). But whatever it is, the basis of the well-made play is the implicit assumption that the world does make sense, that reality is solid and secure, all outlines clear, all ends apparent. The plays that we have classed under the label of the Theatre of the Absurd, on the other hand, express a sense of shock at the absense, the loss of any such clear and well-defined systems of beliefs or values.

There can little doubt that such a sense of disillusionment, such a collapse of all previously held firm beliefs is a characteristic feature of our own times. The social and spiritual reasons for such a sense of loss of meaning are manifold and complex: the waning of religious faith that had started with the Enlightenment and led Nietzsche to speak of the 'death of God' by the eighteen-eighties; the breakdown of the liberal faith in inevitable social progress in the wake of the First World War; the disillusionment with the hopes of radical social revolution as predicted by Marx after Stalin had turned the Soviet Union into a totalitarian tyranny; the relapse into barbarism, mass murder, and genocide in the course of Hitler's brief rule over Europe during the Second World War; and, in the aftermath of that war, the spread of spiritual emptiness in the outwardly prosperous and affluent societies of Western Europe and the United States. There can be no doubt: for many intelligent and sensitive human beings the world of the mid twentieth century has lost its meaning and has simply ceased to make sense. Previously held certainties have dissolved, the firmest foundations for hope and optimism have collapsed. Suddenly man sees himself faced with a universe that is both frightening and illogical - in a word, absurd. All assurances of hope, all explanations of ultimate meaning have suddenly been unmasked as nonsensical illusions, empty chatter, whistling in the dark. If we try to imagine such a situation in ordinary life, this might amount to our suddenly ceasing to understand the conversation in a room full of people; what made sense at one moment has, at the next, become an obscure babble of voices in a foreign language. At once the comforting, familiar scene would turn into one of nightmare and horror. With the loss of the means of communication we should be compelled to view that world with the eyes of total outsiders as a succession of frightening images.

Such a sense of loss of meaning must inevitably lead to a questioning of the recognised instrument for the communication of meaning: language. Consequently the Theatre of the Absurd is to a very considerable extent concerned with a critique of language, an attack above all on fossilized forms of language which have become devoid of meaning. The converstaion at the party which at one moment seemed to be an exchange if information about the weather, or new books, or the respective health of the participants, is suddenly revealed as an exchange of mere meaningless banalities. The people talking about the weather had no intention whatever of of really exchanging meaningful information on the subject; they were merely using language to fill the emptiness between them, to conceal the fact that they had no desire to tell each other anything at all. In other words, from being a noble instrument of genuine communication language has become a kind of ballast filling empty spaces. And equally, in a universe that seems to be drained of meaning, the pompous and laborious attempts at explanation that we call philosophy or politics must appear as empty chatter. In Waiting for Godot for example Beckett parodies and mocks the language of philosophy and science in Lucky's famous speech. Harold Pinter, whose uncanny accuracy in the reproduction of real conversation among English people has earned him the reputation of having a tape-recorder built into his memory, reveals that the bulk of everyday conversation is largely devoid of logic and sense, is in fact nonsensical. It is at this point that the Theatre of the Absurd can actually coincide with the highest degree of realism. For if the real conversation of human beings is in fact absurd and nonsensical, then it is the well-made play with its polished logical dialogue that is unrealistic, while the absurdist play may well be a tape-recorded reproduction of reality. Or, in a world that has become absurd, the Theatre of the Absurd is the most realistic comment on, the most accurate reproduction of, reality.

In its critique of language the Theatre of the Absurd closely reflects the preoccupation of contemporary philosophy with language, its effort to disentangle language, as a genuine instrument for logic and the discovery of reality, from the welter of emotive, illogical usages, the grammatical conventions that have, in the past, often been confused with genuine logical relationships. And equally, in its emphasis on the basic absurdity of the human condition, on the bankruptcy of all closed systems of thought with claims to provide a total explanation of reality, the Theatre of the Absurd has much in common with the existential philosophy of Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus. (It was in fact Camus who coined the concept of the Absurd in the sense in which it is used here.) This is not to say that the dramatists of the Absurd are trying to translate contemporary philosophy into drama. It is merely that philosophers and dramatists respond to the same cultural and spiritual situation and reflect the same preoccupations.

Yet, however contemporary the Theatre of the Absurd may appear it is by no means the revolutionary novelty as which some of its champions, as well as some of its bitterest critics, tend to represent it. In fact the Theatre of the Absurd can best be understood as a new combination of a number of ancient, even archaic, traditions of literature and drama. It is surprising and shocking merely because of the unusual nature of the combination and the increased emphasis on aspects of drama that, while present in all plays, rarely emerge into the foreground.

The ancient traditions combined in a new form in the Theatre of the Absurd are: the tradition of miming and clowning that goes back to the mimus of Greece and Rome, the commedia dell' arte of Renaissance Italy, and such popular forms of theatre as the pantomime or the music-hall in Britain; the equally ancient tradition of nonsense poetry; the tradition of dream and nightmare literature that also goes back to Greek and Roman times; allegorical and symbolic drama, such as we find it in medieval morality plays, or in the Spanish auto sacramental; the ancient tradition of fools and mad scenes in drama, of which Shakespeare provides a multitude of examples; and the even more ancient tradition of ritual drama that goes back to the very origins of the theatre where religion and drama were still one. It is no coincidence that one of the masters of the Theatre of the Absurd, Jean Genet, regards his plays as attempts at recaturing the riual element in the Mass itself, which, after all, can be seen as a poetic image of an archetypal event brought to life through a sequence of symbolical actions.

It is against this background that we must see the history of the movement which culminates in Beckett, Ionesco, or Genet. Its immediate forebears are dramatists like Strindberg, who progressed from photographic naturalism to more and more openly expressionist representations of dreams, nightmares, or obsessions in plays like the Ghost Sonata, Dream Play, or To Damascus, and novelists like James Joyce and Kafka. A form of drama concerned with dream-like imagery and the failure of language was bound to find inspiration also in the silent cinema, with its dream-like quality and cruel, sometimes nightmare humour. Charlie Chaplin's little man and Buster Keaton's stonefaced stoic are among the openly acknowledged influences of writers like Beckett and Ionesco. These comedians, after all, derive from the most ancient traditions of clowning, as do, in the talking cinema, the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, or Laurel and Hardy, all clearly part of the tradition which leads to the Theatre of the Absurd.

Another direct and acknowledged influence is that of the Dadaists, the surrealists, and the Parisian avant-garde that derives from writers like Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) and Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918). Jarry's Ubu Roi, first performed in 1896, might in fact be called the first modern example of the Theatre of the Absurd. It is a savage farce in which monstrous puppets castigate the greed and emptiness of bourgeois society through a series of grotesque stage images. Apollinaire's play Les Mamelles de Tiresias ('The Breasts of Tiresias') was the first play to be labelled by its author as 'a surrealist drama'. Here too the action proceeds through a series of savagely grotesque images; the hero, or rather the heroine, Thérèse-Tiresias changes sex by letting her breasts float twards the heavens in the shape of two toy balloons. Jarry and Apollinaire were the direct precursors of the Dadaists in Switzerland, France and Germany. Brecht's earliest plays bear the marks of the Dadaist influence and can be regarded as early examples of the Theatre of the Absurd: In the Jungle of the Cities for instance presents the audience with a totally unmotivate struggle, a series of poetic images of man fighting a senseless battle with himself. In France the two leading exponents of surrealism in drama were Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) and Roger Vitrac (1899-1952). Vitrac's play Victor ou Les Enfants au Pouvoir (1924) anticipates Ionesco and Arrabal by showing the world from the point of view of a nine-year-old child of giant size and monstrous intelligence. Artaud, who wrote very little in dramatic form himself, is of immense importance as a theoretician of the new anti-literary theatre: he coined the slogan of the 'Theatre of Cruelty' for his conception of a theatre designed to shock its audience into a full awareness of the horror of the human condition. Jean-Louis Barrault and Roger Blin, two of the leading directors of the contemporary avant-garde theatre, were pupils of Artaud; Arthur Adamov was among his closest friends.

In its present form the Theatre of the Absurd is a post-war phenomenon. Genet's The Maids had its first performance at the Athénée in Paris in 1947; Ionesco's Bald Primadonna and Adamov's earliest plays were first produced in 1950; Beckett's Waiting for Godot in 1952. It will be noticed that all these first performances took place in Paris. And Paris certainly is the fountainhead of the Theatre of the Absurd. Yet it is equally strange and significant that the playwrights themselves are largely exiles from other countries domiciled in Paris: Beckett (born 1906) an Anglo-Irishman who writes in French; Ionesco (born 1912) half-French and half-Rumanian; Adamov (born 1908) a Russo-Armenian. Only Genet is a Frenchman born and bred, but then he is an exile in a different sense: an exile from society itself, a child abandoned by his mother, brought up by foster-parents and drifting from detention centres for juvenile delinquents into an underworld of thieves and male prostitutes, prison and penitentiary. It is in the experience of the outcast or exile that our image of the world seen from the outside assumes a new and added significance: for the exile, from his country or from society, moves in a world drained of meaning, sees people in pursuit of objectives he cannot comprehend, hears them speak a language that he cannot follow. The exile's basic experience is the archetype and the anticipation of twentieth-century man's shock at his realization that the world is ceasing to make sense.

Of the dramatists of the Absurd Samuel Beckett is undoubtedly the profoundest, the greatest poet. Waiting for Godot and Endgame are certainly masterpieces; Happy Days and Play, Krapp's Last Tape, and the two Acts without Words (where language has drained away altogether) are brilliant and profound poetic images; and the radio plays All that Fall, Embers, Words and Music, and Cascando have an equal enigmatic power.

Jean Genet (born 1910) lacks Beckett's discipline, intellect and erudition, but he too is a poet, endowed with the wellnigh magic power of creating beauty from evil, corruption and excrement. If the evanescence of man in time and the mystery of human personality and identity are Beckett's main themes, Genet's chief concern is with the falseness of human pretensions in society, the contrast between appearance and reality, which itself must remain for ever elusive. In The Maids we see the servants bound in a mixture of hatred and erotic dependence to their mistress, re-enacting this love-hate in an endless series of ritual games; in The Balcony society itself is symbolized in the image of a brothel providing its customers with the illusions of power; and in The Blacks we are back with the underdog acting out his hatred for his oppressor (which is also a form of love) in an endless ritual of mock-murder.

Jean Tardieu (born 1903) and Boris Vian (1920-59) are among the best of the French dramatists of the Absurd. Tardieu is an experimenter who has systematically explored the possibilities of a theatre that can divorce itself from discursive speech to the point where language becomes mere musical sound. Vian, a devoted follower of Jarry, wrote a play, The Empire Builders, which shows man fleeing from death and loneliness in the image of a family moving into ever smaller flats on higher and higher floors of a mysterious building.

In Italy Dino Buzzati and Ezio d'Errico, in Germany Günter Grass (known as a novelist for his monumental Tin Drum) and Wolfgang Hildesheimer are the main exponents of the Theatre of the Absurd. In Britain, N. F. Simpson, James Saunders, David Campton, and Harold Pinter might be classed under this heading. N. F. Simpson has clear links with English nonsense literature, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. James Saunders, particularly in Next Time I'll Sing to You, expresses in dramatic form the thought of the existential philosophers. Pinter, who acknowledges Kafka and Beckett among his literary heroes, combines realism with an intuition of the absurdity of human existence. In his later work he has shed some of the allegorical symbolism of his beginnings, but even in seemingly realistic plays like The Collection there is an absense of motivation and solution, a multple ambiguity and a sense of non-communication which transforms the seemingly realistic account of humdrum adultery into a poetic image of the human condition.

Behind the Iron Curtain, where socialist realism is the official creed in the theatre, there would appear to be no room for an avant-garde trend of this type. Yet there is one country where the influence of the Theatre of the Absurd has produced some astonishingly successful plays: Poland, an area of relative artistic freedom since the defeat of the Stalinists by Gomulka in the autumn of 1956. A strong surrealist influence was present in Poland even before the war (Gombrowicz and Witkiewicz are two dramatists who might be regarded as among the most important immediate precursors of the Theatre of the Absurd) so that the soil was fertile for a development which was further fostered by the ability of drama of this kind to express political comment in a suitably oblique form. A number of young dramatists, notably Slawomir Mrozek and Tadeusz Rozewicz, have produced outstandingly original work in the convention of the Absurd.

Three of the playwrights represented in this volume are Parisian exiles. Eugène Ionesco is undoubtedly the most fertile and original of the dramatists of the Absurd, and also, in spite of a streak of clowning and fun for its own sake in his work, one of the most profound. He is moreover the most vocal of the dramatists of the Absurd, the only one who is prepared to discuss the theoretical foundations of his work and to reply to the attacks on it from committed left-wing realists. The critique of language and the haunting presense of death are Ionesco's chief themes in plays like The Bald Primadonna, The Lesson, The Chairs, The Killer, Rhinoceros, and Exit The King. Amédée or How to Get Rid of It (1953) is Ionesco's first full-length play and contains one of his most telling images. It is also characteristic in its alternation between states of depression and euphoria, leaden oppression and floating on air, an image which reappears through his work and which culminates, in this particular play, in Amédée's floating away at the end.

Arthur Adamov today belongs to the camp against which Ionesco directs his harshest polemics, the socialist realists whose organ is the periodical Théâtre populaire, but he started out as a follower of Artaud, a self-confessed neurotic, an alien in a senseless world. Adamov's development from one extreme to the other is a fascinating artistic and psychological case history, in which Professor Taranne occupies a key position. Adamov's progress can be seen as a process of psychological therapy through writing. Unable to face the reality of the outside world, he started out by projecting his oppressions and anxieties on to the stage. Nothing would have induced him, he has since confessed, to mention any element of the real world, such as a place-name in one of his plays; he would have regarded that as a piece of unspeakable vulgarity. And yet, when he committed to paper the dream which is now the play Professor Taranne, he realized that a real place-name, that of Belgium, had occurred in the dream. Truthfulness in transcribing the dream thus forced him to compromise on one of his fundamental artistic principles. And from then onwards reality kept breaking through into his writing in ever more insistent form, until today he is a thorough-going realist of the Brechtian school. That is to say, by writing his obsessions out of his system, Adamov acquired the ability to face and to control the objective world from which he had withdrawn into neurosis. It might be argued that the projection of neurotic obsessions is both more interesting and more illuminating in providing insights into the dark side of the human mind than the accurate transcription of historical events, and that therefore Adamov's absurdist plays are more fascinating, more successful than his later efforts. But this is a matter of taste as well as of ideological bias. The fact remains that Professor Taranne and the somewhat more realistic Ping Pong are undoubtedly among Adamov's best plays.

Fernando Arrabal (born 1932) is a Spaniard who has been living in France since 1954 and now writes in French. He is an admirer of Beckett, but sees his roots in the surrealist tradition of Spain, a country that has always been rich in fantasy and the grotesque (El Greco, Goya) and that in more recent times has produced such outstanding representatives of the modern movement as the painter Picasso (who has himself written two plays in an absurdist vein) and the writers Lorca and Valle Inclàn. Arrabal's own contribution to the absurdist spectrum is a highly original one: his main preoccupation is with the absurdity of ethical and moral rules. He looks at the world with the incomprehemsion of a child that simply cannot understand the logic of conventional morality. Thus, in The Automobile Graveyard there is a prostitute who follows her profession simply because religion demands that one be kind to one's neighbours; how then could she refuse them the ultimate kindness of giving herself to them? And similarly in The Two Executioners the rebel son who objects to the tortures that his mother inflicts on his father is faced with the dilemma of several contradictory moral laws: obediance to one's father, the human goodness that prompts one to save the suffering victim from his torturers, and the need to honour and obey one's mother. These moral laws are here in obvious conflict, as it is the mother who has the father tortured. Clearly the situation in which several moral laws are in contradiction exposes the absurdity of the system of values that accommodates them all. Arrabal refuses to judge; he merely notes the position and shows that he finds it beyond his comprehension.

Edward Albee (born 1928) is one of the few American exponents of the Theatre of the Absurd. An adopted child, he shares with Genet the orphan's sense of loneliness in an alien world; and the image of the dream child which exists only in the adoptive parents' imagination recurs in a number of his plays, notably The American Dream and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The latter, which has earned him an enormous success on Broadway, is undoubtedly one of the finest American plays since the heyday of Eugene O'Neill. It is a savage dance of death reminiscent of Strindberg, outwardly realistic in form, but in fact, as in the case of Pinter's best work, existing on at least two levels apart from the realistic one: as an allegory of American society, a poetic image of its emptiness and sterility, and as a complex ritual on the pattern of Genet. The Zoo Story (1958), one of Albee's earliest dramatic ventures, has a similar complexity: it is a clinically accurate study of Schizophrenia, an image of man's loneliness and inability to make contact, and also, on the ritual and symbolic level, an act of ritual self-immolation that has curious parallels with Christ's atonement. (Note the names Jerry - Jesus? - and Peter).

The plays in this volume, like the plays of the Theatre of the Absurd in general, present a disillusioned, harsh, and stark picture of the world. Though often couched in the form of extravagant fantasies, they are nevertheless essentially realistic, in the sense that they never shirk the realities of the human mind with its despair, fear and loneliness in an alien and hostile universe. There is more human reality in the grotesquely extravagant images of Amédée than in many far longer plays plays in a convention that is a mere photographic copy of the surface of life. The realism of these plays is a psychological, and inner realism; they explaore the human sub-conscious in depth rather than trying to describe the outward appearance of human existence. Nor is it quite correct that these plays, deeply pessimistic as they are, are nothing but an expression of utter despair. It is true that basically the Theatre of the Absurd attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy. It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it. But the challenge behind this message is anything but one of despair. It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity, and to bear it with dignity, nobly, responsibly; precisely because there are no easy solutions to the mysteries of existence, because ultimately man is alone in a meaningless world. The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.

- Martin Esslin, Introduction to "Penguin Plays - Absurd Drama" (Penguin, 1965)

"Martin Esslin was born Julius Pereszlenyi on 6 June 1918 into a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the Great War, he became Austrian by default and in 1920 the family moved to Vienna where he was educated at the Bundesgymnasium II. In 1936 he went to the University of Vienna where he studied Philosophy and English. He also studied directing, acting and dramaturgy at the Reinhardt Seminar of Dramatic Art. He was about to begin his theatrical career in Vienna when the Nazis invaded Austria. He fled, spending a year in Brussels before reaching England where he became a scriptwriter and producer for the BBC’s European Services in 1940. He wrote numerous radio features on political, social and literary subjects and in 1955 was appointed assistant head of BBC European Productions, and in 1961, assistant head of Drama (Sound). In 1963 Esslin was appointed head of BBC Radio Drama. By the mid-1960s the Radio Drama department at the BBC was originating between 400 and 500 plays a year. In 1977 Esslin turned to teaching. He became Professor of Drama at Stanford University, California, for two quarters annually, until 1988, and after that Professor Emeritus. He had also been visiting Professor of Theatre at Florida State University (1969-1976). He achieved much recognition as the author of two of the most influential books dealing with the post-war theatre, Brecht: A Choice of Evils (1959) and The Theatre of the Absurd (1962) — a term coined by Esslin. Esslin was awarded the OBE in 1972."

from austrian cutural forum

Martin Esslin links

Stanford Report - drama professor and theater critic (obit)
Guardian Unlimited - illuminating writer and radio drama producer (obit)
Stanford Magazine - he found meaning in absurdity (obit)
Voy Forums - Martin Esslin, drama critic, teacher, author (obit)
Joanne Karpinski (Regis Univ) - The Theatre of the Absurd (Martin Esslin extract)
Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia - theater of the absurd (Martin Esslin article)

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revised 7 May 2003
Original URL: http://www.venus.co.uk/~weed/writings/jamessaunders/jsesslin.htm

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