Stage School: What Is Theatre of the Absurd?

Feature by Jennifer Chamberlain | 17 Feb 2016

What is Theatre of the Absurd, and why does it speak to us? As a new production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame by Citizens Theatre director Dominic Hill comes to theatres in 2016, we find out more about a genre that holds a mirror up to ourselves.

Come on then, what is it?

The origins of the Theatre of the Absurd are as obscure as the canon of plays associated with it. Emerging in the late 1950s, the Theatre of the Absurd was not a conscious movement and there was no organised school of playwrights who claimed it for themselves.

Many of the European playwrights associated with the absurdist movement, including Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet, rejected the phrase – which was coined by a critic – altogether. Rather, these men saw themselves as individual artists, not members of a collective, and viewed their plays as nothing more than an expression of their personal vision of the world.

So if absurdist playwrights worked independently of each other, how did they produce plays that were so strangely similar in their rejection of the conventions of traditional theatre?

It’s not a coincidence; it’s all in the timing.

Where does absurdist theatre come from?

Born from the ashes of postwar Europe, absurdist theatre reflects an era of spiritual emptiness, a time when the precariousness of human existence was palpable. Following the atrocities of World War Two, to some the world itself had become absurd: a frightening and illogical place in which life had lost all meaning and human existence seemed futile.

The growing popularity of Existentialism in Europe (notably in Paris, where many of the absurdist playwrights lived as exiles), will also have been influential. The philosophy of Albert Camus, who is credited with first using the word absurd in this sense, certainly had a role to play in the creation of this kind of theatre.

It’s important to note, however, that absurdism in theatre was not necessarily an example of playwrights trying to directly translate philosophy into drama but perhaps more of a shared intellectual outlook and a common need to communicate the social situation, through a different form of art.  

How does absurdism work?

When absurdist plays first came to the stage, it was a groundbreaking moment in the history of theatre. Although an exciting and progressive movement, critics didn't know what to make of it and many were outraged. Even by today’s standards, absurdist plays flout all theatrical conventions; everything we know drama to be is turned on its head.

For a start, the whole premise of a plot is subverted. A beginning, middle and end structure, which underpins all conventional narrative, is abandoned in favour of a non-linear – and often cyclical – approach, and there is a deliberate absence of the cause-and-effect relationship used to link scenes. The plays assume a dream-like state, operating in images rather than in coherent dialogue and action. All meaning remains ambiguous.

And if you’re looking for recognisable characters, you’ll be disappointed. Absurdist playwrights deliberately create characters void of motivation or purpose as well as the ability to develop. Instead, characters remain in a state of limbo, out of sync with each other and their surroundings. 

Three absurdists

Samuel Beckett: the big one

As the father of absurdist theatre, no examination of the form can take place without looking to Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright known for Endgame and his most famous and successful play, Waiting for Godot.

Voted as the most significant English-language play of the 20th century, Waiting for Godot (1952) was a game changer in European theatre. A perfect summary of absurdist theatre, the characters spend the entire play waiting for someone named Godot. Needless to say, Godot never arrives.

One of the most notable productions of the play saw Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen take to the stage as Vladimir and Estragon. Two British acting legends, the duo first came together to perform the piece on London’s West End in 2009 before reuniting several years later for a run on Broadway.

Harold Pinter: the adaptable one

The works of the Theatre of the Absurd continue to be embraced by national and fringe theatre companies alike. A modern revival of The Dumb Waiter, written in 1957 by Harold Pinter, recently ran for two consecutive years at Manchester venues.

The production, by Ransack Theatre, opened the Lucy Davis Vaults in the cellars of the King’s Arms in Salford in 2014, before a run at Re:play festival at HOME in 2015.

Like Waiting for Godot, The Dumb Waiter is a two-hander, following hitmen Ben and Gus as they, well, do nothing. Arguing over semantics, the pair await their next assignment, all the while puzzled by incoming food orders.

Edward Albee: the American one

One of the few American exponents of Theatre of the Absurd, Edward Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a perfect example of how realism and absurdism intertwine.

The play, most famous for its 1966 film adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, starts off realistically, presenting a quarrelling couple in their living room, but quickly spirals into the absurd. Through endless small talk and humiliation, the characters eventually strip away the illusions they have created, including the killing of their imaginary child, and are left trapped in a cruel and absurd reality.  

Video: Edward Albee interviewed by Charlie Rose in 2008: "Any good playwright will admit... they have many more questions than answers. So your job [as a writer] is to ask interesting questions and expect the audience to provide some good answers."

Why does Theatre of the Absurd continue to be popular?

What is it about the Theatre of the Absurd, illogical and senseless, that attracts audiences?

Perhaps above all, it’s the form’s ability to evoke emotion without explicitly setting out to do so.

In an imagined world of blurred communication and a total lack of meaning, audiences look for meaning inside themselves.