Adamov, Arthur (Vol. 25)
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.)
Carlos Lynes, Jr.
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...
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Leonard Cabell Pronko
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...
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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)
[The] works of Arthur Adamov consist entirely of plays that surpass one another in a truly dialectical manner. Furthermore, he has written, parallel to his theatre, a body of texts made up of explanations, discussions, political and aesthetic stands—and remorse. His meditations on Strindberg, Chekhov, and Brecht, each of whom influenced him in turn, have the distinction of always being sharply critical, even when they are admiring and enthusiastic. In fact, the debate now dividing French playwrights into Marxists and anti-ideologists would be far more fruitful if Ionesco, in his theoretical texts, displayed as much intelligence as Adamov, who knows how to go beyond invective and self-defense and really come to grips with the basic questions...
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Richard E. Sherrell
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 word is unambiguously identifiable and thus capable of carrying a precise meaning. A language which does not communicate, which limps along, which is even obscure in being written down, is a language that intensifies Adamov's vision of man who cannot do without language, but who also cannot fulfill his life through language. (pp. 120-21)
Pierre is presented as a member of a group which is engaged with him in the task he personally feels most reponsible for. His sense of reponsibility, with its attendant compulsions and pressures upon Agnés, together with his method of procedure, in time drives a wedge between him and his colleagues. An open question is whether he willingly withdraws from community or whether he is forced...
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D. M. Church
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 was relatively comprehensible, for the dream was Adamov's own and the distortions imposed by the device were at least consistent. This last play, however, is quite obscure, primarily because we see, in four dreams, events distorted from the points of view of four different dreamers: Lars, a young man who has been expelled from Medical School; his sister Thea, with whom he has an incestuous relationship; his wife Brit, and their friend Alma, whose androgynous nature links her to both Lars and Brit. Three other important characters—Mme Petersen, mother of Lars and Thea; Viktor, a friend somewhat older than the others, and the Rector of the Medical School—remain even more enigmatic because, since they do not dream, we do not see their...
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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 losing, is a coded language instantly decipherable to the spectator. It is a game which all must play—artist, professional, schoolgirl, old or young, willing or not.
Because the machine is there, the characters in the play must talk about it, and in Adamov's world the word always precedes the act, stimulates it, in fact. But the words at the disposal of the characters are nothing but clichés, stereotypes, and truisms which can only produce mechanical response in mechanically conditioned individuals. The tragedy one feels in Adamov's theatre comes from the fact that its characters mean what they say. Furthermore, like the spectators who watch them, they have a limited vocabulary which must suffice to denote an unlimited...
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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 perhaps narrow, vision of things. In an understated, unexplicit play such as this, the dramatic power generated arises from the initial situation projected; the problem for the playwright is then to harness this energy and get it to drive the play forward. Like Genet, who is faced with a similar difficulty in some of his work, Adamov does not quite solve the problem in La Parodie, which remains a grey, rather drab play…. (p. 194)
L'Invasion … is clearly better; it has more of a recognisable plot, and is set in a more readily indentifiable milieu. Pierre is editing the papers of his dead brother-in-law, and himself dies in the attempt. His wife runs off with Le Premier Venu (puckishly called so in the play);...
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John H. Reilly
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 characters are people who have lost or are about to lose the battle with life. In this mélange of masochism, remorse, frustration, and hostility, Adamov's figures continually experience one sentiment: fear, especially fear of death. From his first play to his last, his characters are confronted with and surrounded by death. At times, as in the case of "N," this becomes a sign of the futility and hopelessness of living and simply the final destruction of a life that has already been destroyed. At other moments, it is a means of escape, as in Pierre's suicide or Sally's and Jim's willful death. Death can also be brought about by man's inhumanity to his fellow man as in Spring 71. In the overall context, it is evident that the "incurable"...
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JOHN J. McCANN
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 especially, the absence of man's awareness of and concern for his fellow man as they live together in society….
Another unifying factor in this final phase of Adamov's theater is the thrust of these five plays towards a more authentic reconciliation of the divergent forms of his work. Having developed to their fullest in Le Printemps 71 the epic-realist possibilities announced in Paolo Paoli, Adamov's ensuing theater re-examines and re-incorporates certain formal considerations of his earlier work. (p. 123)
[In] abandoning the purely ethical protest of his earlier work in favor of a developing political conscience in the transitional plays. Adamov's theater falls victim in the political plays to...
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