Some critics trace the roots of Absurdism back to the beginning of the twentieth century, but for most, the movement itself began at mid-century. Ruby Cohn, for instance, makes a claim for 1950—the year Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano first appeared on the French stage—as the starting point of Theatre of the Absurd. Martin Esslin, who in 1961 identified and labeled the movement, begins with Waiting for Godot and many critics follow his lead. Written in 1950 but not staged until 1953, Beckett’s most famous drama is also considered by many scholars to be the most representative of the movement. Esslin originally identified three other practitioners of Absurdism: Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov, as well as a number of lesser-known playwrights. In later editions of his landmark study, The Theatre of the Absurd, Esslin elevated Harold Pinter from minor to major figure and devoted an entire chapter to his plays.
As the scholar who defined the movement, Esslin takes pains to point out that the writers he discusses would not necessarily associate themselves with Absurdism. Many of them, in fact, rejected the label completely; Ionesco preferred Theatre of Derision, and Arrabal chose Theatre of Panic to describe his plays. Esslin acknowledges that of the playwrights he discusses “each has his own personal approach to both subject-matter and form; his own roots, sources, and background.” He maintains, however, that at the same time they “in spite of themselves, have a good deal in common.” Those common elements are, for Esslin:
“Pure” theatre; i.e. abstract scenic effects as they
are familiar in the circus or revue, in the work of
jugglers, acrobats, bullfighters, or mimes
Clowning, fooling, and mad-scenes
The literature of dream and fantasy, which often
has a strong allegorical component
There is a certain amount of overlap among these categories, and individual playwrights employ the separate elements in different ways, but all employ them in ways that differ from older theatrical traditions and in ways that made Theatre of the Absurd “shocking and incomprehensible” to its earliest audiences.
That ability to shock theatergoers resulted from the movement’s abandonment (or rejection) of traditional plot, character development, setting, dialogue, and denouement. For Esslin, this amounts to innovation and experimentation and is an indication of an art form’s vitality, necessary in a changing world. As he puts it: “Under such conditions no art can survive that complacently falls back on past traditions and standards. Least of all the theatre, which is the most social of the arts and most directly responds to social change.” Thus, Esslin views Absurdism as a positive development in the history of the theater.
Where Esslin sees vitality, however, other critics have seen decadence. Avadhesh K. Srivastava in “The Crooked Mirror: Notes on the Theatre of the Absurd,” considers Theatre of the Absurd excessively concerned with inward reality “without the stabilizing influence of a moral perspective” and, therefore, decadent. The playwrights identified with the movement, Srivastava claims, have nothing in common with each other except their rejection of traditional theatrical conventions. Their agreement is based on a negative, therefore, “runs counter to the text-book aims of drama. It is neither cathartic nor edificatory; neither suspense nor spectacle.” As such, Srivastava suggests that a certain amount of fraud and manipulation is involved. By calling itself theater, Theatre of the Absurd is setting up its audiences to expect something which it then fails to deliver.
Esslin acknowledges that the play that started it all was “scorned as undramatic” originally, but he points to its overwhelming popularity with audiences all over the world and its eventual acceptance by critics, dramatists, and scholars. The same could be said for other plays associated with the Theatre of the Absurd. Although they were initially considered incomprehensible, they soon became familiar and highly acclaimed. While Absurdism itself was short-lived as a movement, its influence, particularly in the realm of popular culture, has continued into the twenty-first century.