Arthur Adamov 1908–1970
Russian-born French dramatist, essayist, editor, and translator.
Adamov was an important figure in the French theater of his time. Though his plays eventually moved away from the Theater of the Absurd, Adamov, along with Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, originally helped shape this idiom on the stage. Adamov also contributed to the theater the importance of visual impact in expressing a play's meaning. He treated stage space as a visible representation of meaning and physical movement on stage as a language to communicate meaning to the audience. Adamov's dramas, therefore, cannot be easily read and understood; they must be seen.
Three periods are generally observed in Adamov's career but he consistently strove to convey his view of the intensity of human isolation and of the loss of significant human communication. He did so by developing only slight plots and by presenting unrealistic characters who often acted like machines and spoke in a mechanical language laden with clichés. These characters are portrayed as victims of forces beyond their control, driven to withdrawal and eventually, to suicide.
In the early plays, during his "absurdist" period, Adamov is concerned with universal situations that are removed from any specific realistic setting. His characters are nearly symbolic and his plays take place in a dream world, often a nightmare. These plays are said to have arisen from the dramatist's personal fears and obsessions. Le Professeur Taranne (Professor Tarrane) is singled out as the best work of this period. In his middle plays, during his "Brechtian" period, Adamov turned to plays of social realism set in the contemporary world, evidencing a conscience outraged by the social injustices of modern political and socio-economic systems. Critics have noted in these dramas an unusually strident tone, which often detracts from their effect. Le Ping-Pong (Ping Pong), called Adamov's masterpiece, is from this phase. In his final period, Adamov attempted to blend the work of his previous two phases. These plays show his growing disillusionment with social action as an effective way to change social systems and his lack of faith in the individual's ability to create personally meaningful values. Adamov's last play, Si l'été revenait (If Summer Should Return), is seen as a statement of his ultimate despair.
(See also CLC, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vols. 1-2.)
In an age in which the theatre remains primarily literary, psychological, or philosophical, Arthur Adamov stands almost alone in France—along with Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco—in the effort to renew the ancient tradition of the drama as the imitation of an action and to create a modern art of the theatre appealing to the "histrionic sensibility" through direct means which no other art possesses. (p. 48)
It would be vain to outline the "plot" of an Adamov play or analyze the "psychology" of the characters, for these terms—at least in their conventional meanings—simply do not apply to the "univers créé" which Adamov brings to the theatre. Even the complete printed texts of the plays, with the detailed notes on mise-en-scène, are more like musical scores than traditional "literary" or "psychological" dramas; they can be "read" by anyone with the necessary skill and imagination, but they cannot be fully grasped apart from actual performance. (p. 50)
In La Parodie [The Parody], with its brief prologue and twelve rapid scenes, we are in the anonymous "waste land" of a contemporary European city…. [We] encounter a variety of characters in whom we find the absurd, the tender, the grotesque, the naïve. There is no "story"—these people meet, engage in various activities, speak to one another with apparent conviction, suffer or laugh; there is no order or coherence in their world or their lives, only solitude and the absurd. This play is, of course, the parody of meaningful human life; when it is over, we may suspect that we too are living just such a parody.
The characters in [La Parodie] have a kind of fixed, mechanical rigidity in bearing, action, and speech, which is maintained throughout and which manifests literally the pathetic absurdity of their fate. They meet without really seeing one another, they speak but their language remains opaque, even to themselves. Everything is rendered directly, by the use of the specific, nonverbal "language" of the theatre; in La Parodie we can see for once, as Adamov remarked on the eve of the first performance, "the characters of a play act in keeping with their real situation, exposing before everyone's eyes the shrieking spectacle of their blindness." (pp. 50-1)
La grande et la petite manoeuvre [The Great and the Small Maneuver] …, like La Parodie, takes place in the nightmarish atmosphere of a contemporary police-state city. Here the disorder and brutality are in...
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Arthur Adamov has recently turned his back upon the avant-garde and upon his early plays that embodied more than those of any other dramatist the revolutionary principles expressed by Artaud in The Theater and Its Double. Adamov's last play, Paolo Paoli …, indicates a turning to the drama of social implications with a message, written in a quasi-realistic style. (p. 131)
[Adamov's early plays] are in great part an exorcism of private terrors: … [La Parodie, La Grande et la petite manoeuvre, Le Sens de la marche (The Direction of the March), and Tous contre tous] are such plays, long, loosely constructed, almost episodic works revealing the nightmare existence within a frightening and incomprehensible police state.
In an effort to correct certain excesses of his first play, Adamov turned from La Parodie to a work on a more specific subject, with a small cast and a more controlled technique. The result was L'Invasion [The Invasion] …, the first of four plays revealing an equally perplexing, but perhaps less frightening universe than the police state plays [Le Professeur Taranne, Comme nous avons été, and Les Retrouvailles (The Recoveries)]…. (pp. 131-32)
La Parodie is an attempt to embody in a crude and visible manner the themes of solitude and absence of communication suggested by the most common of everyday scenes. Like the other "police state" plays, La Parodie is an outgrowth of a close personal contact with Artaud the man and with his radical criticism of the conventional theater. In spite of Adamov's later skepticism regarding the value of Artaud's ideas, it is quite clear that the author of The Theater and Its Double has exercised an enormous influence on him. Adamov follows Artaud in his rejection of psychology, in his acceptance of the basic idea of a "theatre of cruelty," and in his utilization of the theater above all as a space to be occupied…. A play of Adamov must be seen to be appreciated, for the text is only a scenario, describing in rather great detail the physical movement that is to take place, and will constitute the major impact and the principal means of communicating with the audience. Dialogue has been reduced to dry and frequently dull platitudes without any of the humor or verve of Ionesco, or the naked, suggestive poetry of Beckett. The characters are often ciphers, represented by letters ("N" in La Parodie) or by generic names (The Mother, The Sister, The Happiest Woman, and so on). It is only with difficulty that we become involved in their plight, for they are rarely alive enough to elicit pity or sympathy.
The treatment is episodic rather than linear, and we must sometimes follow many characters with various symbolic values through a series of short tableaux with little apparent connection…. Adamov's works tend to be stillborn because they depend too exclusively upon the visual element, they are moving pictures,...
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Early in the 1950s any discussion of the current French stage was concentrated on three names uttered in the same breath—Ionesco-Adamov-Beckett—and in tones of surprised delight or indignation. (p. 196)
Today, however, the Ionesco-Adamov-Beckett trinity has lost its meaning…. Adamov defected: after having written a few plays comparable to those of Ionesco, situated in what he himself calls the no-man's-land of the theatre of the absurd, he repudiated the genre and moved in the direction of a Brechtian theatre. He thus set himself up as the head of a new "critical" drama, whose objective is the portrayal of a collective destiny, clearly situated in history. (p. 197)
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To show in a theatrical event, as largely and visibly as possible, human solitude and the absence of communication—this became Adamov's goal in turning to the theatre. (pp. 110-11)
Adamov's characters do not really communicate with one another. Human understanding is very problematic. He consciously creates a dialogue in [L'Invasion] which makes the characters speak past each other…. In writing for the theatre a dialogue that "drags along," he is thereby intensifying an image which sees man unable to transcend his situation through flights of language. We must also note that it is precisely the language of the manuscript that is so problematic for Pierre [in L'Invasion]. No single...
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With his last play, published posthumously, Adamov has come full circle, Si l'été revenait is primarily an exposition of a psychological nature, not a call to revolutionary action such as we have come to expect. (p. 180)
[While] Adamov's early plays present psychological subjects in something of a vacuum—semi-archetypal characters moving through a dream world that bears little relation to any specific real place—Si l'été revenait attaches the dreams to a quite solid reality—credible individuals moving in the definite and specific context of present-day Sweden. What is constant is the use of dreams to reveal otherwise hidden psychological truths. The vision in the early plays...
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In Le Ping-Pong an electric pinball machine holds the diverse strands of the action together. Arthur and Victor, the play's protagonists, waste their lives planning and executing improvements on it. The machine is not, however, a symbol of the complexity of the social system. Rather, it is a source of conversation…. It elicits religious, aesthetic, philosophic, and social response from all those who come in contact with it. The machine is, above all, however, a sexual fetish. Indeed, its magnetic attraction for all the characters in the play has clearly marked sexual overtones. The language with which they discuss its operation, its rods, corridors, flippers, bumpers, the ecstasy of winning, the despair of...
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Nearly all [Adamov's] plays are political in one way or another, being derived from his experience as a rootless intellectual who, in a very human way, was subject to terrifying dreams of injustice and persecution. His early work, written and performed around 1950, is undoubtedly his finest achievement, since it springs with such intensity from his personal sufferings and fears. His very first play, La Parodie,… is a depressing but impressively claustrophobic image of modern life…. The play as a whole shows little development (except that N, who had masochistically craved death at Lili's hands, is in fact run over by a car); it is a simple constat d'échec, an intense, personal, rather naked, and...
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Adamov's writing is a desperate attempt to relate to the world around him, to find a way of adjusting to the nightmare of living. The dramatist himself is the subject of his plays, and every one of his works, whether a part of his personal theater or of his political commitment, is a representation of the deep and vital concerns of the playwright. Looked at in their totality, his plays are an extraordinary account of a man and his alienation and separation, for, basically, this is a theater of separation. (p. 153)
It is not by accident that his plays … are, in one form or another, dream plays, which come from the world of nightmares, the real world of the dramatist. In all of his writings, the...
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The common denominator of Adamov's last five plays [La Politique des Restes, Sainte Europe, M. le Modéré, Off Limits, and Si l'été revenait] … is that their dimensions are essentially social. All five plays are principally concerned with the social systems of alienated modern society, their viciousness, perversions, degradation and inauthenticity. (p. 122)
The five plays are penetrated with the prevailing despair of the times. Their latent thematic identity proceeds from modern man's failure to create a new unifying myth to fill the void in a world of absence, absence of a a priori values, absence of communication, absence of personal dignity, and in these plays most...
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