Adamov, Arthur 1908–1970
A Russian-born French playwright and translator, Adamov wrote absurdist, surrealistic dramas until 1957 and epic, realistic dramas from 1957 to 1970. He is best known for Ping-pong, the finest example of his earlier plays. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
Arthur Adamov's early plays illustrate in their purest form the principles of the avant-garde drama. In all the dramas of the current avant-garde the purpose is protest against the hopelessness of the human condition and against the strictures imposed on the individual by society. The method by which this protest is conveyed is the method of paradox, in which a truth is presented by an exaggerated emphasis on its opposite.
Like most modern dramatists, Adamov has a thoroughly pessimistic outlook on life. His themes are the tyranny of parental love; the innate cruelty of the society in which we are forced to live; and the meaninglessness, futility, and confusion of everyday life….
He protests against the merciless cruelty of the world—a cruelty that is at once inhuman and superhuman, omnipresent in the external and immanent in the individual's inner world, an almost tangible entity in itself and at the same time an emanation of a greater, instinctively malicious entity….
The sense of cosmic cruelty that appears in Adamov's work is accompanied and balanced in most cases by a narrower, specifically human type of cruelty. The sense of helplessness that man experiences when confronted by the metaphysical world is intensified by his confrontation with the same helplessness and thwarted desire when he turns to his fellow men. Man becomes a dumb animal frustratedly bellowing back and forth across a crowded space that seems to him a void….
The theme of cruelty within the social system shows up in Tous contre Tous (All Against All, 1953) and Paolo Paoli (1957). In the earlier play the theme is treated in general symbolic terms; in the later one in specific, individual terms. Tous contre Tous is undoubtedly Adamov's best play. It is about the instinctive mutual enmity human beings display toward each other. The play is not so much an indictment of a social system which forces human beings to act in their habitual dog-eat-dog manner as an implication that the social system is a result of human nature. A social system, Adamov is saying, is no more than a conglomeration of individuals and their traits.
George Wellwarth, "Arthur Adamov: The Way Out of the Void," in his The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1964 by New York University), New York University Press, 1964, pp. 27-36.
Adamov's post-absurd plays have disappointed many of his earlier admirers. Throughout his work there has generally been a lack of human feeling, partly because the author is always the victim of ideas and doctrines: he sometimes seems like Pierre in The Invasion, trying to decipher meaning from heaps of manuscripts. If the plays of Adamov do not hold together in dramatic cohesion with the interrelationship of people and ideas implemented, he has nevertheless provided some fine theatrical moments, as in the terror conveyed in parts of his dramas about dictators.
Harry T. Moore, in his Twentieth-Century French Literature Since World War II (© 1966 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966, pp. 163-64.
Le Ping-Pong, like Adamov's first play, La Parodie, is concerned with the futility of human endeavour. But while La Parodie merely asserted that whatever you do, in the end you die, Le Ping-Pong provides a powerful and closely integrated argument to back that proposition—it also shows how so much of human endeavour becomes futile, and why. It is in losing themselves to a thing, a machine that promises them power, money, influence over the woman they desire, that Victor and Arthur waste their lives in the futile pursuit of shadows. By making a machine, a means to an end, an end in itself, they pervert all those values of their lives that are genuine ends in themselves—their creative instinct, their capacity to love, their sense of being part of a community. Le Ping-Pong is a powerful image of the alienation of man through the worship of a false objective, the deification of a machine, an ambition, or an ideology.
The pinball machine in Le Ping-Pong is more than just a machine; it is the centre-piece of an organization and of a body of thought. The moment the objective—the improvement of pinball machines—becomes an ideal, it embodies itself in an organization with its own struggles for power, its own intrigues and politics, its own tactics and strategies. As such it becomes a matter of life and death for all who serve the ideal…. Adamov achieves the difficult feat of elevating the pinball machine to a convincing image of the objectives of all human endeavour. He does so by the poetic intensity with which he invests his characters when they talk about the most absurd aspects of that absurd apparatus with a conviction and obsessive concentration that sound utterly true….
What is perhaps the most original feature of Le Ping-Pong is the way in which an inner contradiction, a dialectical relationship, is established between the action and the dialogue. This is a play that may well appear completely meaningless if it is merely read. The speeches about improvements in the construction of pinball machines may seem trivial nonsense; the meaning of the play emerges precisely at the moment when the actor delivers these non-sensical lines with a depth of conviction worthy of the loftiest flights of poetry. It is a play that has to be acted against the text rather than with it….
Le Ping-Pong belongs in the category of the Theatre of the Absurd; it shows man engaged in purposeless exertions, in a futile frenzy of activity that is bound to end in senility and death. The pinball machine has all the fascinating ambiguity of a symbol. It may stand for capitalism and big business, but it may equally well stand for any religious or political ideology that secretes its own organization and apparatus of power, that demands devotion and loyalty from its adherents….
The role played by pinball machines in Le Ping-Pong is in Paolo Paoli taken by commodities no less absurd—butterflies and ostrich feathers. Yet these objects of trade and manufacture have far greater reality. As one of the newspaper projections before the first scene points out, ostrich feathers and products manufactured from them formed France's fourth largest export in 1900. Adamov brilliantly shows the far-reaching social and political ramifications and implications of the trade in these absurd articles…. [In] a few strokes, Adamov has shown the connexion between the seemingly absurd object of trade and the penal system of French society, foreign politics, and the workings of the Church. The same is true of Hulot-Vasseur's ostrich feathers in relation to the Boer War, and, as the plot develops, the labour and trade-union troubles of his factory and his fight against German competition are very convincingly made explicit within the narrow circle of the play.
As in Le Ping-Pong, the characters are obsessed with their pursuit of money and power, represented by the absurd commodities they deal in….
It is precisely because it does succeed in maintaining the extremely delicate balance between the incurable and the curable aspects of the human condition that Le Ping-Pong must be regarded as Adamov's finest achievement to date. The pinball machine stands for all illusory objectives, material and ideological, the pursuit of which secretes ambition, self-seeking, and the urge to dominate other human beings. There is no necessity to fall victim to such illusory aims, so there is a social lesson in the play. And yet the absurdity of all human endeavour in the face of death is never quite forgotten, and is finally put before our eyes by a telling and compelling image. Paolo Paoli, on the other hand, is marred not only by the intrusion of oversimplified economic and social theories, but, above all, by the introduction of a wholly positive and therefore less than human character, Marpeaux, and by the even less credible conversion of a hitherto negative character, Paolo, to provide a climax and a solution. This noble character and this noble action are clearly the consequence of the author's special pleading for the curable aspect of things, which leads to an underplaying of the incurable side of the human situation.
Martin Esslin, "Arthur Adamov: The Curable and the Incurable" (copyright © 1961, 1968, 1969 by Martin Esslin; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), in his The Theatre of the Absurd, Doubleday-Anchor, revised edition, 1969, pp. 66-99.
Arthur Adamov's play, Ping-Pong, uses the image of a pinball machine to embody the hazards and caprices of fortune. The players are motivated by the desire to achieve success and gain power, though the game ends inevitably in death. The erratic behavior of the ball, the numbers that light up, the use of the left flipper, the possibility of achieving control, the jamming of the machine—all this makes for ingenious metaphoric implications. The epitome of amusement, the pinball machine offers "Action! Conflict! Participation!" That is how Adamov represents the mysterious element of contingency. How can one learn to master the machine? Why does it regularly fall out of order?…
The last scene, which drops the image of the pinball machine, also drives home the meaninglessness of the game of life. The two close friends in the play, Victor and Arthur, now old and white-haired, engage in playing ping-pong on a table divided into eight black and white squares. The game goes on, though they still have not decided what they are playing for. Victor decides to get rid of the squares. Then they remove the net, after which they throw their paddles away and play with their bare hands. The volleys grow wilder and wilder; the players make spectacular but clumsy leaps in returning the ball. Victor's movements are becoming progressively weaker. When Arthur hits the ball high, Victor leaps for it but falls to the floor, dead. The game is over.
Ping-Pong, like Samuel Beckett's Endgame, reveals the futility of the struggle; the game is ended, though the machine keeps on running. Adamov later abandoned the theater of the absurd and took to writing plays with a markedly social content. He decided to play the game according to rules that were close to the redemptive ideology expressed in Bertold Brecht's epic dramas. By shifting his perspective he arrived at a different version of reality.
Charles I. Glicksberg, in his Modern Literary Perspectivism, Southern Methodist University Press, 1970, pp. 59-61.