Although the roots of Absurdism can be traced to the beginning of the twentieth century, the movement reached its peak in the years immediately following World War II, a war of catastrophic proportions that saw the armies of fascist Germany overrun most of Europe and the Japanese attack the United States at Pearl Harbor. An estimated 48 million people in Europe were killed and millions more became refugees. Bombs turned cities to rubble. As the Allied Forces liberated the concentration camps at the end of the war, Europeans and Americans were confronted by the enormity of the Holocaust, Germany’s final solution for Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and political prisoners. Faced with the evidence of evil on such a grand scale, people were often overcome by feelings of pessimism and helplessness. At the same time, the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 introduced the reality of nuclear war and the possibility of a future nuclear disaster that could potentially eliminate all human kind. The change to using nuclear weapons ushered in the Cold War of the 1950s as the United States and the Soviet Union, former allies against Germany, became enemies. The two sides entered into an arms race and began stockpiling nuclear weapons. Thus, the achievement of peace after World War II was clouded by the specter of an even more horrific war to come, and this sense of the future led to feelings of hopelessness and futility.
The continental United States, however,...
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Absurdism often abandons traditional character development to offer figures who have no clear identity or distinguishing features. They may even be interchangeable, as are the supporting characters in Waiting for Godot who appear as master and servant in the first act and trade places when they return for the second act. Role playing causes confusion among the characters in Genet’s The Maids where the audience initially thinks the figure onstage is the lady of the house being served by her maid Claire, but then realizes that Claire is impersonating the mistress and the other maid, Solange, is impersonating Claire. These exchanges continue throughout the play which deprives the audience of any stable sense of character identity.
In conventional literature or drama, the denouement serves to tie up the loose ends of the narrative, resolving both primary and secondary plot conflicts and complications. Since so little happens in most absurdist works, the denouement has little to resolve. Thus endings tend to be repetitious, such as the nearly identical ending of both acts of Waiting for Godot. Such repetitive actions reinforce the idea that human effort is futile, which serves as a prominent theme of Absurdism. In Ionesco’s The Lesson, which features the murder of a student by a professor, the audience learns that it is the fortieth such murder that day. Since the ending of the play...
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Absurdism is often linked to Existentialism, the philosophical movement associated with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, among others. Although both existentialists and absurdists are concerned with the senselessness of the human condition, the way this concern is expressed differs. The philosophers explored the irrational nature of human existence within the rational and logical framework of conventional philosophical thought. The absurdists, however, abandoned the traditional elements of literature in general and theater in particular— setting, plot, character development—in order to convey a sense of absurdity and illogic in both form and content.
In general, the two movements also differ in the conclusions each seems to draw from the realization that life is meaningless. Many absurdist productions appear to be making a case for the idea that all human effort is futile and action is pointless; others seem to suggest that an absurd existence leaves the individual no choice but to treat it as farce. The existentialists, however, claimed that the realization that life had no transcendental meaning, either derived from faith or from the essence of humanity itself, could (and should) serve as a springboard to action. An individual’s life, according to the existentialists, could be made meaningful only through that individual’s actions.
Politics and Social Change
Because many absurdist works have no...
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Compare and Contrast
1950s: In the midst of the Cold War, Americans are fearful of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Fallout shelters are designed and built, and school children regularly practice “duck and cover” procedures in the event of an air raid.
Today: After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., many Americans live in fear that terrorists may strike again at any time, anywhere in the country. Security firms offer classes for civilians in how to disarm a potential terrorist on an airplane.
1950s: The Soviet Union and the United States engage in a Cold War as two enemies with nuclear capability, each stockpiling weapons in an attempt to achieve nuclear superiority.
Today: The Soviet Union has separated into individual countries; the largest of these, Russia, is now an ally of the United States in the space program and in the war against terrorism.
1950s: Soldiers returning from World War II are eager to resume a normal life by marrying and starting families, leading to the postwar baby boom. Prosperity and family life are celebrated in popular culture, particularly television shows like I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver, all of which feature stable, nuclear families.
Today: As women have delayed marriage to concentrate on careers and as the divorce rate skyrockets, television situation...
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Topics for Further Study
Some critics have referred to situations in absurdist works as “Kafka-esque.” Read Franz Kafka’s The Trial or view the 1962 film adaptation by Orson Welles and determine whether the work fits the category of Absurdism.
Absurdist works were avant-garde, even shocking, in the 1950s. By the 1980s, however, elements of Absurdism had found their way into music videos, television commercials, and print ads. Find examples of these elements in two or three music videos and/or advertisements and discuss the way the features of Absurdism are being used today.
The French surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel teamed up with surrealist artist Salvador Dali to produce the 1928 film Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog), featuring a scene in which a man drags a pair of pianos filled with dead donkeys across a room. Try to obtain a copy of An Andalusian Dog from a public or university library or read about Buñuel’s film in The Branded Eye: Buñuel’s Un chien andalou, by Jenaro Talens, University of Minnesota Press, 1993. How do such surrealistic film scenes compare with Theatre of the Absurd?
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The American Dream A long one-act play by Edward Albee, The American Dream (1961) targets the artificial values of family life and features plot events that are not only absurd, but grotesque. The main characters are Daddy, who is weak and ineffectual, and Mommy, who is domineering and cruel. All relationships in the play are governed by material considerations. When the couple adopts a baby, or their “bumble of joy” as they call him, they are actually buying him. Mommy and Daddy gradually destroy the baby as they discover he is less than perfect, depriving him of eyes, hands, tongue, sexual organs— every possible means of communicating with others. When the baby dies, the couple frets over the loss of their investment, regretting that he’s already been paid for. Albee also uses humor in The American Dream to attack the phony language and stage clichés of sentimental theatrical productions. For example, Mommy, describing the cause of Grandma’s death, says “It was an offstage rumble, and you know what that means.” The play, along with Albee’s other early one-act plays (Zoo Story and The Sandbox), was successful both commercially and critically, although some critics believe all three are too heavily influenced by the work of Ionesco. The three plays were especially well received on American college campuses during the 1960s.
The Bald Soprano The Bald Soprano, written...
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A video recording of Waiting for Godot, featuring Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel and directed by Alan Schneider, was made for Grove Press Film Division, 1971.
Eugene Ionesco’s The New Tenant was filmed for Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corporation, 1975.
Jean Genet’s Balcony is available on videocassette from Mystic Fire, 1998.
Edward Albee’s Zoo Story is available on audio CD, Universal Records, 2001.
Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, is available on audiocassette, featuring a performance by Joe Dinicol for CBC Radio, 2000.
A website on the Theatre of the Absurd can be found with links to other sites and a chat room at http://vzone.virgin.net/numb.world/rhino. absurd.htm.
A useful web site on Beckett is “The Samuel Beckett On-Line Resources and Links Page” at http://www.samuel-beckett.net/ which contains numerous reviews and scholarly articles on Beckett’s life and work, as well as reviews of books about Beckett.
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What Do I Read Next?
Just as the playwrights of Absurdism rejected existing theatrical traditions, the poet e. e. cummings departed from the norms of traditional poetry with his unconventional use of grammar, syntax, and punctuation. His collection 100 Selected Poems, published in 1989 by Grove Press, contains such poems as “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” “next to of course god america i,” and “my sweet old etcetera.”
Some of the most famous images of artist René Magritte, like the green apple or the black bowler hat, are often described as absurdist. Robert Hughes’s The Portable Magritte, Universe Publishers (2001), provides an illustrated study of Magritte’s work.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Dell Publishing (1969), draws on the author’s own experiences as a prisoner of war in the German city of Dresden during the World War II Allied firebombing that killed hundreds of thousands of German civilians. In many ways, the novel shares Absurdism’s sense of futility in the wake of mass destruction.
Many music videos employ the elements of Absurdism, and a number of books are available on music video as a popular art form. Among them are: Thirty Frames per Second: The Visionary Art of the Music Video by Steven Reiss, Neil Feineman, and Jeff Ayeroff, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers (2000); Rocking Around the Clock: Music Television, Postmodernism, and Consumer Culture by E. Ann Kaplan,...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Albee, Edward, The American Dream, Coward, 1961.
Banarjee, R. B., “The Theatre of the Absurd,” in The Literary Criterion, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1965, pp. 59–62.
Banker, B. K., “The Theatre of the Absurd and Existentialism: An Overview,” in Indian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer 1996, pp. 45–49.
Beckett, Samuel, Endgame, Grove Press, 1958.
—, Waiting for Godot, Grove Press, 1954.
Campbell, Matthew, “Samuel (Barclay) Beckett,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 233: British and Irish Dramatists Since World War II, edited by John Bull, The Gale Group, 2001, pp. 35–49.
Cohn, Ruby, “Introduction: Around the Absurd,” in Around the Absurd: Essays on Modern and Postmodern Drama, edited by Enoch Brater and Ruby Cohn, University of Michigan Press, 1990, pp. 1–9.
Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Overlook Press, 1969.
MacNicholas, John, “Edward Albee,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 3–23.
McMahon, Joseph H., and Megan Conway, “Jean Genet,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 72: French Novelists, 1930–1960, edited by Catharine Savage Brosman, Gale Research, 1988, pp. 170–86.
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