Arthur Adamov is best remembered for his plays, despite the fact that his long and checkered career began with the writing of Surrealist poetry as early as 1924. His autobiographical volume L’Aveu (1946; confession) is described by critic Martin Esslin as “among the most terrifying and ruthless documents of self-revelation in the whole of world literature.”
Together with Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and, to a lesser degree, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov helped define and develop new directions in French drama during the early 1950’s. His early works contributed significantly to what Esslin has called the Theater of the Absurd . Drawn in large measure from his own experience of emotional disturbance, informed by his acquaintance with the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Adamov’s earliest and best-known plays were hailed for their striking and memorable imagery, and he was ranked briefly with Ionesco and Beckett as a master of the new, nonrepresentational theater. Around 1956, however, Adamov suddenly and resolutely turned his back on the type of playwriting that had brought him fame and success, preferring instead to follow in the footsteps of Bertolt Brecht. Going so far as to repudiate all his earlier work as irrelevant, Adamov in his fifties devoted his not inconsiderable energy and talents to the further development of a committed, didactic theater—with results that were judged generally inferior to even the lesser works of his earlier mode. Of his later efforts, only the first, Paolo Paoli, in fact a transitional work, bears comparison with such earlier works as Ping-Pong and Professor Taranne. Never able to recover the spirit or momentum of his earlier success, Adamov committed suicide at the age of sixty-one.
Even at the height of his powers, Adamov remained relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, despite the vigorous efforts of such critics as Esslin, George Wellwarth, and Jacques Guicharnaud. Among the few of his works to be translated into English (and performed by university drama groups) were Professor Taranne, Tous contre tous (all against all), and Ping-Pong. Since his death, Adamov’s reputation as a dramatist has dwindled considerably, suggesting that the reputation of his early plays may have been inflated. Today, few critics, even among Adamov’s erstwhile champions, would consider his work to be on a par with that of Beckett, Ionesco, or even Genet. His importance must thus be seen as primarily historical: He helped define the form, shape, and fortune of contemporary drama.
Adamov, Arthur. Man and Child: The Autobiography of Arthur Adamov. Translated by Jo Levy. New York: Riverrun Press, 1991. The playwright’s life, as told by Adamov himself.
Bradby, David. Adamov. London: Grant and Cutler, 1975. A bibliography of works concerning the playwright Adamov.
Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. 3d ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. A classic history of the Theater of the Absurd and the drama associated with it. Index.
Gaensbauer, Deborah B. The French Theater of the Absurd. Boston: Twayne, 1991. An examination of French drama in the twentieth century, focusing on the Theater of the Absurd. Bibliography and index.
McCann, John Joseph. The Theater of Arthur Adamov. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975. A collection of essays on the works of the French playwright. Indexes and bibliography.
Reilly, John H. Arthur Adamov. New York: Twayne, 1974. The first full-length study of Adamov in English, treating all of his plays (and styles) in detail. It also discusses L’Aveu and Adamov’s other occasional writings.
Wellwarth, George E. The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-garde Drama. New York: New York University Press, 1964. Presents an appreciative survey of Adamov’s strengths and weaknesses as a playwright, treating both his absurdist and his polemical periods.