Absurdism's Short Life as a Formal Movement

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1692

Critic Martin Esslin identified the common elements shared by a number of dramatic works of the 1950s and provided the label “Theatre of the Absurd” to those works. At first, audiences found these works incomprehensible; viewers left the theaters not knowing what to make of these plays that defied all the traditional elements of staged drama. The textbook case, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, had no plot, a setting that consisted of only a bare tree, and two characters whose actions resembled slapstick more than theater. It was produced on stage for the first time in 1953, and for the first time in London in 1955 where critics and audiences alike considered it “completely obscure.” Nine years later, Esslin reports, Godot was revived in London. Although it was generally well received, by this time the work “had one great fault: its meaning and symbolism were a little too obvious.” In an age of mass communication, the revolutionary quality of avant-garde art quickly fades. That which shocks the public one minute bores it the next, and this, in part, accounts for the short life-span of Theatre of the Absurd.

Another reason for the movement’s demise may be that drama must eventually have a plot. If nothing happens in absurdist productions, there are only so many times a theater audience is willing to attend the staging of nothing. What new observations or insights into nothing are available? Once the point has been made that life is meaningless and all effort is futile, what more can be said? If human endeavor amounts to nothing, if as Esslin puts it, “strenuous effort leads to the same result as passive indolence,” then what would be the point of bothering to attend a play or, for that matter, bothering to write one?

Many of the practitioners of Theatre of the Absurd apparently felt the same way since, with few exceptions, they turned to dramas grounded in realist conventions, and to works that offered some possibilities for action. Harold Pinter provides one example. Many of his early works, often associated with Theatre of the Absurd, have been called “comedies of menace,” but the source of the menace in question is mysterious and unmotivated. In Pinter’s later plays, those written in the 1960s and after, the menace often arises from the desire of certain characters to dominate others. While still complex, these later works are more accessible than those he wrote in the 1950s because they provide recognizable character development and motivation.

Arthur Adamov is another playwright whose works are often divided into two distinct periods, with 1957 as the year of demarcation. Plays written before that date exhibit the characteristics of Surrealism and Absurdism; those written after 1957 are realistic and politically committed. Adamov himself made a formal break with the past and publicly rejected his earlier work that treated the individual as hopeless and helpless in favor of characters with free will.

For all these reasons, Theatre of the Absurd as a formal movement began to dissolve by the early 1960s, but its effects on Western culture, particularly popular culture, endured and are still being felt today. Since the 1960s individual elements of Absurdism have been incorporated with increasing frequency into film, television shows, and music videos.

An early example is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1966), a satiric look at the nuclear arms race. The film’s premise is that nuclear weapons have been programmed by both the United States and the Soviet Union in ways that render humans helpless to disarm them. Thus,...

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when an insane American general sets off the signal to attack Russia, the U.S. government is powerless to recall the bombers. Russia, meanwhile, has built a doomsday machine that will automatically retaliate with enough force to destroy the world. The only possible purpose of such a device is deterrence, of course, but the Russians have not quite gotten around to telling the world about it—creating an absurd situation that renders human action futile.

The film’s dialogue, too, is reminiscent of Absurdism, when Merkin Muffley, the American president, and Dimitri Kissoff, the Soviet premier, discuss the impending end of the world like two petulant children arguing over which of them is more sorry about the situation: “Don’t say that you’re more sorry, Dimitri, I’m just as capable of being sorry as you are,” complains the president. He then has to call Information to get the number for Russia’s Air Defense Headquarters in order to provide them with the coordinates to shoot down the B-52s. In yet another absurd situation, when the rogue general has been subdued, the officer who has obtained the code to call off the attack must try to get through to the president on a pay phone. He does not have sufficient change and must call collect; however, the White House refuses to accept the charges. In Dr. Strangelove the fate of the world resides in the hands of ineffectual individuals embroiled in absurd situations.

Theatre of the Absurd often employed elements of farce and black humor, and in this sense, the films of Mel Brooks might also be included in its legacy. The Producers, originally a film and later a successful Broadway play, treats the horrors of World War II as farce, involving the production of a musical called “Springtime for Hitler.” Similarly, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) interrupts a brutal torture scene to threaten the victim with an even worse fate, that is, the loss of his credit rating. Brazil’s absurdity centers on the meaninglessness of language and the individual’s powerlessness against government bureaucracy, much like the plays of Václav Havel. Foolishly optimistic platitudes and double-speak slogans are everywhere in Brazil. Individual agencies of the bureaucracy compete rather than cooperate, resulting in the arrest and murder of an innocent citizen.

Although television rarely treats such dark subjects as the Holocaust or government brutality, Matt Groening’s long-running animated comedy The Simpsons occasionally comes close. Its main character, Homer Simpson, is either ineffectual or farcical, both as a worker and as a family man. Like Beckett’s tramps, he spends most of his time doing nothing. When he does act, the results are usually disastrous, suggesting that the consequences of action are even worse than the consequences of passivity. The fact that Homer works with radioactive materials in his job at a nuclear power plant creates the same doomsday scenario as Dr. Strangelove with the fate of Springfield in the hands of inept or ineffectual workers in absurd situations.

The Simpsons typically features random visual elements, like toasters that become time machines or animals in unusual contexts that possess attributes not usually associated with their species. Reminiscent of Ionesco’s rhinoceros traversing the stage, a huge swordfish lands on the hood of Homer’s car as he drives down the street. On another occasion, the family dog is replaced by a killer badger who disembowels Homer. In a segment involving Homer’s attempt to become a farmer, an elephant is used as a measuring device to determine the height of the corn crop, in an obvious allusion to the musical Oklahoma, however, in this case the elephant is carnivorous. The Simpsons recalls Esslin’s description of Theatre of the Absurd: “grotesque, frivolous, and irreverent,” although the show’s more serious fans might argue that the show is never frivolous.

Another television program that evokes the style and themes of Absurdism is the long-running situation comedy Seinfeld. The show is set in Manhattan and features four characters: Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer, each of whom lives alone. They are less involved in plots than in situations. In fact, Seinfeld’s producers repeatedly described the program as a show about nothing. Little happened to change the characters’ lives over the course of several years; much like Godot’s tramps, the characters seemed to be hanging out waiting for something to happen to them. The farcical element was provided by Kramer, whose bizarre antics were clownish and slapstick.

The world of popular music adapted many of the features of Absurdism even, or perhaps especially, in the names chosen for groups. In the pop group The Bare-Naked Ladies, there are no ladies, much less bare-naked ones—just as there were no sopranos, much less bald ones, in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. The same might be said for the Violent Femmes and the Dead Milkmen. Absurd names are often assumed by individual artists, such as Jello Biafra, or given to album names, like Primus’s Pork Soda.

Music videos have long made use of absurdist elements, from the bizarre, seemingly unconnected images of 1980s videos, usually featuring so-called “alternative music,” to the more recent efforts of Missy Elliot, where the artist calmly removes her head, or the Crystal Method video in which an inflatable doll turns killer (and the witness explaining the situation to the police is another inflatable doll). Many music videos are very conventional. They consist of mini-narratives, concert footage, or vanity pieces featuring the recording artists in a variety of scenes illustrating conspicuous consumption—expensive clothes, expensive cars, and scantily clad members of the opposite sex. In other videos, bizarre elements, such as props, costumes, and images may be featured, but they are usually loaded with sexual symbolism— making them more a part of the surrealist tradition than the absurdist movement. The videos of Madonna or The Red-Hot Chili Peppers might fit into this category. But in a great many other, more sophisticated music videos, elements of Absurdism abound, but they no longer carry the same meaning, which in Theatre of the Absurd was to point out that there was no meaning. A half-century after the movement’s peak, acknowledging life’s absurdity seems to be an accepted part of postmodern life. It is no longer particularly disturbing; it just makes for some interesting visual moments. And the popular culture is only too willing to mine the art of the past in order to create those moments.

Source: Suzanne Dewsbury, Critical Essay on Absurdism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Victims of Duty’? The Critics, Absurdity, and The Homecoming

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2973

Pinter’s Homecoming may be the most enigmatic work of art since the Mona Lisa, an image its main character, Ruth, evokes. At the turning point of the play, Ruth’s professor-husband, Teddy, watches intently as she lies on the living-room couch with one of his brothers while the other strokes her hair. His father, Max, claiming he is broadminded, calls her “a woman of quality,” “a woman of feeling.” Shortly after Ruth frees herself she asks Teddy, out of the blue: “Have your family read your critical works?”

This provokes the smug Ph.D. to a slightly manic assertion: “To see, to be able to see! I’m the one who can see. That’s why I can write my critical works. Might do you good . . . have a look at them . . . see how certain people can view . . . things . . . how certain people can maintain . . . intellectual equilibrium.” His reaction to this intensely disconcerting moment parallels that of Pinter critics who, like Teddy, refuse to let themselves be “lost in it.” This is, of course, the natural reaction for people whose public image depends upon maintaining their intellectural equilibrium. But it is hardly the appropriate reaction either for Teddy, who restricts his protestations to eating his pimp—brother Lenny’s cheese-roll, or for people genuinely experiencing a Pinter play.

Whatever else this response may involve, it must surely involve letting oneself be “lost in it.” The jolt ot one’s intellectual equilibrium—what Bert States has dubbed “the shock of nonrecognition” [see his essay “Pinter’s Homecoming The Shock of Nonrecognition,” Hudson Review, Autumn 1968]—must be acknowledged as a validly evoked response. The urge for rational illumination that so often follows–the nose-tickle crying for a sneeze—must be regarded as an integral second stage of that evolked response. In experiencing these repeated “Pinteresque” moments, we are put precisely in the dilemma of Camus’s “absurd man” described in The Myth of Sisyphus. We are confronted with bewilderment, disruption, chaos, what Beckett referred to as “this buzzing confusion.” In response, we involuntarily reach out for clarity, understanding, Godot: the little explanation that is not there. We become like Ionesco’s Detective in Victims of Duty, who lays its underpinning bare: “I don’t believe in the absurd. Everything hangs together; everything can be comprehended . . . thanks to the achievements of human thought and science.” Camus’s hero, the true believer in absurdity, acknowledges this recurring double take as a poignant byproduct of the absurd human condition, and in so doing, Camus says, reveals his “lucidity.” Moreover, he becomes capable of reveling in the actual impact of the situation: the rich dark comedy of it, if you will. Sisyphus grows happy with his stone.

At these moments, in life or at a Pinter play, bizarre actions and reactions, churning with apparent meaning but inherently unexplainable, trigger the automatic desire for explanation built into us. An earlier pivotal incident in The Homecoming put the idea in the form of a graphic enigma. Before her outright defection, Ruth invites her all-male audience to watch her as she moves her leg, but warns them that even though their minds may stray to the underwear that moves with it, all she is doing is moving her leg. She continues: “My lips move. Why don’t you restrict . . . your observations to that? Perhaps the fact that they move is more significant. . .than the words which come through them.” What do Ruth’s words mean? Be strict phenomenologists! Pay no attention to the inadvertently moving underwear, on which I have taken pains to rivet your attention; consider what I am saying insignificant— though I have made it surge with significance. Her words are of course absurd, since they cancel themselves out logically. But can we resist taking the lure and, on impulse, groping for the significance so deviously implied? Only the dull or jaded could. What we can try to avoid, however, is blurring the moment by detaching ourselves from the play in a face-saving quest for comprehension.

Glance at a more flagrant example. Soon after Ruth meets Lenny in Act I, he abruptly asks her if he can hold her hand. She asks why, and he says, “I’ll tell you why.” He then spins an involved story about being approached under an arch by a lady whose chauffeur, a friend of the family, had tracked him down. Deciding she was “falling apart with the pox,” he spurned her advances, “clumped her one,” and stopped short of killing her only because of the inconvenience. “So I just gave her another belt in the nose and a couple of turns of the boot and sort of left it at that.” A baffling reason for wanting to hold Ruth’s hand! If at this point we care more about recovering our intellectual aplomb than about letting the play carry us along in its inexorable absurd flow, we will wrench ourselves away from its grip on us; assume the pose of the Critic-Detective; and forget that the scene, in spite of its spray of A scene from the absurdist film Brazil, directed by Terry Gilliam beckoning clues (partly because of them, in fact), will finally defy comprehension, and that the play, by its nature, is chuckling at our knee-jerk response to one of its more transparent brain-teasers. In Camus’s terms, the extent to which we avoid the role of public explainer and acknowledge the way the play has “caught” us becomes the genuine measure of our lucidity.

That avoidance and acknowledgement also give us a much better chance to enjoy the play— to relish the delectable, audacious absurdity of such moments. The distinctive power of The Homecoming derives largely from the bizarrely disconcerting quality of the things that happen to characters depicted as real people in the real world. Think of what typical first-nighters probably tell their friends about the play: a professor visits his grubby home after several years abroad and brings his wife, about whom he has not even told his family. The repulsive father calls her a whore, and the two repulsive brothers treat her like one. She does not seem to mind, and after a little bargaining accepts a deal to stay on as the family pet. The husband stands by complacently, smirk on his face, and finally leaves. If these spectators get around to elaborating on the play, they probably recall more and more incidents that involve “absurd” actions and a dazzling variety of reactions: Ruth making Lenny “some kind of proposal” soon after she meets him; Max lurching from extreme to extreme in his treatment of Ruth; Joey emerging after two hours of “not going any hog” with Ruth upstairs; Lenny getting the bright idea of putting her “on the game” in a Greek Street flat and Ruth raising the ante extravagantly before accepting; everyone ignoring uncle Sam’s traumatic revelation—and prone body—at the end. Untutored spectators are not apt to lose sight of what makes the play so eccentric and electric; as they reflect rather idly on their experience, they are more than likely to keep focusing on those bizarre moments that amused, shocked, fascinated, and above all puzzled them.

But what can trained literary analysts do that “mere” playgoers cannot? Some will warp and deface this perspective; others will develop and refine it. Those who take the latter path may begin simply by noting more or less covert instances of bizarre behavior which have to be perceived to be appreciated: when Teddy chats with Lenny in scene one, for example, he does not mention the existence of Ruth (who has gone for a 1:00 a.m. stroll), and he goes to bed before Ruth returns, in effect leaving her to Lenny. An especially profitable avenue is open for critics with a penchant for close analysis: focus on details that lend themselves readily to facile interpretation, such as Max’s stick or Lenny’s comment to Teddy that his cigar has gone out, and demonstrate their immunity to interpretation.

Ruth’s enigmatic farewell to her husband, “Eddie... Don’t become a stranger,” is a manageable example. As Bernard Dukore notes, the fact that Ruth calls him Eddie suggests that “Teddy” is meant as a nickname not for Theodore but for Edward—a suggestion which invites comparisons to the similarly cuckolded stuffed shirt named Edward in A Slight Ache. But she may also be symbolically withdrawing from him by muffing his name; or she may be knocking the “Theo”—the divinity—out of what is left of him; or she may be hinting he is no longer her teddy bear—or Teddy boy, for that matter. The rest of her statement, “Don’t become a stranger,” must be easier; the heavy odds are that she means the opposite of what she says. Or, after all, does she still want to keep a line open to her own children, even though she now has a new set? Or is her pleasantry, as a scholar sitting beside me in the British Museum once assured me, the way a London prostitute says, “So long—come again” to her clients? Surely the play’s obtrusive “homecoming” metaphor must be hiding in there somewhere. Or does Ruth mean, Teddy, don’t make yourself becoming to a stranger! it must be more sensible to grant the incomprehensibility of such conundrums than to flail for “the solution” and thus flout their essential nature. In a play like this, we know—to a certain extent—that we cannot know.

A full-fledged analysis concentrating on the play’s bizarre and disconcerting effects, or at least trying not to dissipate them, might well aim to project what Kelly Morris has deftly termed [in her essay “The Homecoming,” Tulane Drama Review, Winter 1966] “the suction of the absurd.” As the play progresses, characters and audience alike get caught up in this suction. Take as a central example Lenny’s victimization—or manhandling, if you prefer—by Ruth. In Act I she toys frivolously with him, countering his macho moves with audacities that throw him off kilter. From his lightly mocking “You must be connected with my brother in some way. . . . You sort of live with him over there, do you?” and his leering offer to relieve her of her drink, he is reduced by a little seductive bullying to shouting: “What was that supposed to be? Some kind of proposal?” No doubt he is conscious to some degree of having been manipulated, and alert spectators will have observed the Venus’ flytrap in action, so that both he and the audience have a chance to shake off the disconcerting effect of Ruth’s bizarre behavior.

Relief gets harder as the “suction” intensifies in Act II. When Teddy is present, Ruth joins Lenny in ruffling his proud feathers enough to convince him that he had better grab Ruth and flee if he is to avoid being “lost” in the situation. After Lenny prompts him to absurd evasions of a few philosophical basics (“What do you make of all this business of being and not-being?”), Ruth calls attention to the elegant reality of her leg. Then she declares Teddy’s adopted land full of rock, sand, space, and insects. Lenny may believe he has gained an ally, or even a potential filly for his stable, since he pretends to leave with Max and Joey but reappears the instant Teddy goes upstairs to pack. In sharp contrast to his first encounter with Ruth, this time he is low-keyed and conciliatory. Again he digresses about a lady, but he gave this one a flowery hat instead of “a short-arm jab to the belly.” When Ruth reminisces dreamily about her life as a nude model (I assume) before she went off to America, Lenny seems to read her behavior as confirmation that she is making him “some kind of proposal.”

Whether or not Lenny does, when Teddy comes downstairs to take Ruth home, he steps into the most bizarre auction scene in all domestic drama, and it is engineered by Lenny. The jaunty pimp puts on some jazz, asks Ruth for “just one dance” before she goes, receives full compliance, kisses her a few times, hands her over to Joey for a bit of mauling, parts them with a touch of his foot, and pours drinks for all to celebrate the realignment. Though it is Teddy who visibly strains against the pressure of absurdity at this moment, Lenny has actually set himself up for a subtle comic downfall. Ruth’s siege of deep-felt nostalgia—not about “working” as any kind of sex object but about posing for photographers at a genteel country estate— was entirely introspective and self-directed. To put it graphically, Lenny may have gathered that she was showing him her underwear when she was really just moving her leg. By the time she responds to his advances, he is deceived into thinking he has her pegged and will endure no more tremors from her behavior. He is thus a prime candidate for a shake-up.

Ruth administers the shake-up in two salvos, turning Lenny’s cockiness as a shrewd exploiter of women into the sullen acquiescence of a man conned by one. It would be misleading to represent this as a conscious plot on her part, however; view it rather as the effect of her disturbing actions, whatever their roots. First, she somehow manages to play mother-beloved instead of whore to Joey, the test case client Lenny has arranged. Lenny covers up his anxiety quite well when he learns this, but is clearly jolted by the realization that Ruth may be a mere tease. Joey snorts that he can be happy “without going any hog,” but what will the paying customers say? Second, Ruth responds to the idea of paying her way as a prostitute by making exorbitant demands that Lenny thought he could handle but cannot. he had said to the men: “I know these women. Once they get started they ruin your budget.” Ruth reduces him to:

LENNY. We’d supply everything. Everything you need. [Note the qualification—everything you need

RUTH. I’d need an awful lot. Otherwise I wouldn’t be content.

LENNY. You’d have everything. [Qualification dropped.]

Lenny does not squirm perceptibly during his public humiliation, even when it also becomes clear that Ruth will most probably refuse to “pull her weight” inside the house (no Homecoming for Max and Lenny either). But as the final tableau implies, Ruth has effectively thrust him into the background whadow, big bear-enforcer Joey at her side. Whether Lenny becomes a cover-up-at-all-costs stoic or he is rendered catatonic as this barrage of the unmanageable shatters his delusion of firm control, he is certainly caught up in the “suction of the absurd”—no less than Teddy, in fact, and Teddy can at least escape. The audience, caught in the same suction (though with the cushion of aesthetic distance), leaves with heads buzzing: no escape but in the critics’ explanations. Why Ruth carries out these strikingly unexpected acts of apparent self- gratification, by the way, is a wide-open question, but her spate of nostalgia for the best moments of the old life may have served vaguely as the impetus. Or perhaps it was simply her way of thanking Teddy for offering her the opportunity to help him with his lectures when they return.

This brief essay does not pretend to be a fully developed interpretive argument about The Homecoming. It is meant to exemplify the direction that might be taken by critical analysis which tries to be faithful to the genuine absurd experience of the play as it unfolds. The finely crafted progression of bizarre and disconcerting events might be approached from many other points of view. Mine, for example, completely neglects the two crucial offstage presences, Jessie and MacGregor, and fails to address Sam’s important role. Nor does it do justice to one of the most prominent effects on that average first-nighter on whom I stake so much: the raunchy, ugly, gorgeous vulgarity of the piece. “What I mean,” Lenny twits Teddy, “. . . you must know lots of professors, head of departments, men like that. They pop over here for a week at the Savoy, they need somewhere they can go to have a nice quiet poke. And of course you’d be in a position to give them inside information.... You could be our representative in the States.” This excites Max: “Of course. We’re talking in international terms! By the time we’ve finished Pan American’ll give us a discount.” There. I haven’t neglected that.

It seems unfortunate as well as symptomatic that few critics in the past fifteen years have taken an approach that accepts and even relishes the absurdity of Pinter’s depicted world. Precious few have resisted the urge to chase the will-o’-the-wisp of a solution to the mind-bending indeterminacies TheHomecoming in particular exudes. The gradual drift of criticism away from the reality of the play is marked by the actual titles of three early studies: the earliest, “Puzzling Pinter” [Richard Schechner, Tulane Drama Review, Winter 1966]; the others, “A Clue to the Pinter Puzzle” [Arthur Ganz, Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 21, 1969]; and “Not So Puzzling Pinter” [Herbert Goldstone, Theatre Annual, Vol. 25, 1969]. Ionesco’s Detectives have been at work. What they have accomplished often seems dazzling in its perception and profundity. Some of it even seems inevitable when one is immersed in it. But if it violates the inherent nature of the play by trying to defuse its stunningly absurd time bombs, then what it is doing is busily explaining away the chief source of the play’s power and of its richly deserved stature.

Source: Charles A. Carpenter, “‘Victims of Duty’? The Critics, Absurdity, and The Homecoming,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXV, No. 4, December 1982, pp. 489–95.


Critical Overview