Historical Context

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Although the roots of Absurdism can be traced to the beginning of the twentieth century, the movement reached its peak in the years immediately following World War II, a war of catastrophic proportions that saw the armies of fascist Germany overrun most of Europe and the Japanese attack the United States at Pearl Harbor. An estimated 48 million people in Europe were killed and millions more became refugees. Bombs turned cities to rubble. As the Allied Forces liberated the concentration camps at the end of the war, Europeans and Americans were confronted by the enormity of the Holocaust, Germany’s final solution for Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and political prisoners. Faced with the evidence of evil on such a grand scale, people were often overcome by feelings of pessimism and helplessness. At the same time, the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 introduced the reality of nuclear war and the possibility of a future nuclear disaster that could potentially eliminate all human kind. The change to using nuclear weapons ushered in the Cold War of the 1950s as the United States and the Soviet Union, former allies against Germany, became enemies. The two sides entered into an arms race and began stockpiling nuclear weapons. Thus, the achievement of peace after World War II was clouded by the specter of an even more horrific war to come, and this sense of the future led to feelings of hopelessness and futility.

The continental United States, however, was untouched physically by the war. Returning soldiers were more optimistic than their European counterparts and were anxious to pursue the American Dream. They married in record numbers and began having children, producing the well-known postwar baby boom, lasting from 1946 to 1964. Cities and schools became overcrowded and many urban families, aided by the prosperity of the postwar years, eventually moved to the suburbs.

Women had worked in a variety of jobs during the war, filling in for the men who were fighting overseas and contributing to the war effort by producing weapons and supplies for the troops. The idea of women working in factories was popularized by the poster image of Rosie the Riveter as a capable worker doing her patriotic duty. After the war, however, these same women were encouraged to return to their homes and care for their husbands and children, thereby giving up their places in the job market to the returning soldiers. The nuclear family of husband, stay-at-home wife, and small children living in a single-family home in the suburbs became the 1950s idealization of the American Dream.

In the arts, the social and community concerns of the Depression years and the war years gave way to introspection and individual visions. In some cases, artists began to concentrate on form rather than content. Abstract art—Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism—with its emphasis on individual expression replaced artistic modes tied to political themes. In Hollywood, the optimistic and patriotic films of the war years were replaced in the late 1940s and early 1950s by film noir, a dark, gritty, urban genre that exposed the menacing underside of American life. The Cold War also inspired a host of monster and horror films that served as allegories for potential invasion by a foreign enemy; perhaps the most famous of these was The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955).

Literary Style

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Absurdism often abandons traditional character development to offer figures who have no clear identity or distinguishing features. They may even be interchangeable, as are the supporting characters in Waiting for Godot who appear as master and servant in the first act and trade places when they return for...

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the second act. Role playing causes confusion among the characters in Genet’sThe Maids where the audience initially thinks the figure onstage is the lady of the house being served by her maid Claire, but then realizes that Claire is impersonating the mistress and the other maid, Solange, is impersonating Claire. These exchanges continue throughout the play which deprives the audience of any stable sense of character identity.

In conventional literature or drama, the denouement serves to tie up the loose ends of the narrative, resolving both primary and secondary plot conflicts and complications. Since so little happens in most absurdist works, the denouement has little to resolve. Thus endings tend to be repetitious, such as the nearly identical ending of both acts of Waiting for Godot. Such repetitive actions reinforce the idea that human effort is futile, which serves as a prominent theme of Absurdism. In Ionesco’s The Lesson, which features the murder of a student by a professor, the audience learns that it is the fortieth such murder that day. Since the ending of the play consists of yet another student arriving for yet another lesson, the audience has every reason to believe the newly arrived student will meet the same fate.

Since the ability of language to convey meaning is called into question by Absurdism, dialogue is of special importance in absurdist works. Artificial language, empty of meaning, consisting of slogans and clichés, is a hallmark of the movement. Many of the texts contain dialogue that appears to be meaningless but that mimics the style of educated or sophisticated speech. Often there is a marked contradiction between speech and action, as in Godot when the characters claim they are leaving but actually stay.

Absurdism at its most extreme abandons conventional notions of plot almost entirely. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot has been described as a play in which nothing happens. Its opening line is “Nothing to be done,” and the characters proceed to do just that—nothing. Although the characters do engage in various actions, none of those actions is connected in any meaningful way, nor do the actions develop into any sort of narrative or logical sequence of events.

The use of setting is one of the most unconventional stylistic features of Absurdism. Typically, an absurdist play will be set in no recognizable time or place. Stage settings tend to be sparse, with lots of vacant space conveying the sense of emptiness associated with characters’ lives. The empty chairs of Ionesco’s The Chairs serves as an example, as does Waiting for Godot’s nearly bare stage with a single spindly tree as the only prop. But the setting can also be cramped and confining, such as the claustrophobic single room of Beckett’s Endgame.

Movement Variations

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Absurdism is often linked to Existentialism, the philosophical movement associated with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, among others. Although both existentialists and absurdists are concerned with the senselessness of the human condition, the way this concern is expressed differs. The philosophers explored the irrational nature of human existence within the rational and logical framework of conventional philosophical thought. The absurdists, however, abandoned the traditional elements of literature in general and theater in particular— setting, plot, character development—in order to convey a sense of absurdity and illogic in both form and content.

In general, the two movements also differ in the conclusions each seems to draw from the realization that life is meaningless. Many absurdist productions appear to be making a case for the idea that all human effort is futile and action is pointless; others seem to suggest that an absurd existence leaves the individual no choice but to treat it as farce. The existentialists, however, claimed that the realization that life had no transcendental meaning, either derived from faith or from the essence of humanity itself, could (and should) serve as a springboard to action. An individual’s life, according to the existentialists, could be made meaningful only through that individual’s actions.

Politics and Social Change
Because many absurdist works have no temporal or spatial setting, they are often considered apolitical, that is, they are neither criticizing nor endorsing any country’s culture, society, or political system. There are, however, exceptions. Václav Havel’s plays, for example, are concerned with the dehumanizing effects of government bureaucracy, particularly within Communist Czechoslovakia. The works apparently hit their target, since the government banned them and imprisoned the playwright. Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinocéros could also be considered political, since the author claimed that the inspiration for the play was the gradual acceptance of Nazi fascism by an antifascist friend. Based on a 1940 entry in Ionesco’s journal, the play opens with a rhinoceros charging past as two friends converse. Although everyone ignores the rhinoceros at first, eventually most of the characters accept its presence, and one by one they even decide to become rhinoceroses themselves. A lone individual is determined to fight the growing herd. Ironically, Ionesco’s play varies from the usual plotless, apolitical style of most absurdist dramas to offer a powerful critique of mob mentality and conformity. The individual who decides to fight rather than join the herd is also unusual, since most absurdist characters are anonymous, passive, and ineffectual—certainly not given to heroic actions.

The failure of most absurdist works to call for any meaningful action may also account for the almost total absence of women playwrights involved in the movement. Toby Silverman Zinman, in “Hen in a Foxhouse: The Absurdist Plays of Maria Irene Fornes,” suggests that although female dramatists shared the “deep disillusionment” common to most practitioners of Absurdism, most of them were committed to changing the conditions that led to that disillusionment. While they may have employed some of the formal elements associated with Absurdism, they rejected its bleak vision that human effort is futile.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s: In the midst of the Cold War, Americans are fearful of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Fallout shelters are designed and built, and school children regularly practice “duck and cover” procedures in the event of an air raid.

Today: After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., many Americans live in fear that terrorists may strike again at any time, anywhere in the country. Security firms offer classes for civilians in how to disarm a potential terrorist on an airplane.

1950s: The Soviet Union and the United States engage in a Cold War as two enemies with nuclear capability, each stockpiling weapons in an attempt to achieve nuclear superiority.

Today: The Soviet Union has separated into individual countries; the largest of these, Russia, is now an ally of the United States in the space program and in the war against terrorism.

1950s: Soldiers returning from World War II are eager to resume a normal life by marrying and starting families, leading to the postwar baby boom. Prosperity and family life are celebrated in popular culture, particularly television shows like I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver, all of which feature stable, nuclear families.

Today: As women have delayed marriage to concentrate on careers and as the divorce rate skyrockets, television situation comedies are more likely to focus on single life rather than on families consisting of father, mother, and young children. Some examples are Seinfeld, Friends, and Will and Grace.

Representative Works

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The American Dream A long one-act play by Edward Albee, The American Dream (1961) targets the artificial values of family life and features plot events that are not only absurd, but grotesque. The main characters are Daddy, who is weak and ineffectual, and Mommy, who is domineering and cruel. All relationships in the play are governed by material considerations. When the couple adopts a baby, or their “bumble of joy” as they call him, they are actually buying him. Mommy and Daddy gradually destroy the baby as they discover he is less than perfect, depriving him of eyes, hands, tongue, sexual organs— every possible means of communicating with others. When the baby dies, the couple frets over the loss of their investment, regretting that he’s already been paid for. Albee also uses humor in The American Dream to attack the phony language and stage clichés of sentimental theatrical productions. For example, Mommy, describing the cause of Grandma’s death, says “It was an offstage rumble, and you know what that means.” The play, along with Albee’s other early one-act plays (Zoo Story and TheSandbox), was successful both commercially and critically, although some critics believe all three are too heavily influenced by the work of Ionesco. The three plays were especially well received on American college campuses during the 1960s.

The Bald SopranoThe Bald Soprano, written originally in French (La cantatrice chauve) in 1950 and translated into English in 1958, was Eugène Ionesco’s first play. It features such absurdist elements as a clock that strikes seventeen and a married couple who fail to recognize each other in a social situation. The Martins are guests at the home of the Smiths. They engage in polite conversation, each feeling they have met before. A series of questions and answers between the two reveals that they live in the same house and are, in fact, husband and wife. Although the dialogue of The Bald Soprano has been de- scribed as hilariously funny, the play as a whole is considered a tragedy as Ionesco attacks the stilted, artificial quality of language that hinders communication between individuals.

The Chairs Written in 1952, Eugène Ionesco’s The Chairs features the breakdown of language as well as one of the playwright’s most famous metaphors for absurdity: the multiplication of inanimate objects. As an elderly couple sets up chairs for an invisible audience arriving to hear an important speech, the chairs begin to multiply until they fill the entire stage. Meanwhile, the orator delivering the speech, which the old man has written to convey an important message to the world, is unable to produce anything except guttural sounds. The Chairs makes the point that language and communication are illusions; it is one of Ionesco’s most highly acclaimed plays.

Samuel Beckett’s one-act play Endgame (1957) is not as famous as Waiting for Godot, but is an even darker work dealing with the master/slave relationship. The setting is sparse and claustrophobic, the dialogue is often comic, and the activities of the characters resemble slapstick comedy. Yet overall, the interaction of the principles is characterized by cruelty and bitterness, and the tone of the work, despite its humorous moments, is grim and pessimistic. Endgame made its U.S. debut at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre in 1958. The play’s reception was mixed; many critics who had praised Waiting for Godot were disappointed in the bleak view of humanity Beckett seemed to be presenting in Endgame.

The Garden Party
Originally Zahradni slavnost (1964), Václav Havel’s The Garden Party (1969), targets the nature of bureaucracy and its dehumanizing effect on individuals. Havel creates a world where language is not a tool in the service of the individual but rather acts as weapon by which the individual is controlled. The play’s main character speaks in clichés and slogans and is unable to accomplish anything within a bureaucratic system that perpetuates itself and defies humans’ attempts to intervene in its operation. The Garden Party was Havel’s first play, and while it was a critical success, it was banned in Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion of 1968.

The Homecoming
Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, written in 1965, was the playwright’s third full-length drama. The story involves a London working-class family whose eldest son has lived in the United States for several years where he is a professor of philosophy at a university. He returns, along with his wife Ruth, to his father’s home, but when he later goes back to the United States, she refuses to accompany him. Instead, she plans to stay behind and care for her husband’s father, uncle, and brothers, and to earn her living as a prostitute. The play features several absurdist elements but is also characterized by violence, both emotional and physical, between the family members. The Homecoming has generated a great deal of controversy because of the shocking nature of the plot. Critical debate has usually centered on the possible motivation for Ruth’s bizarre decision. The Homecoming was revived on Broadway in 1991.

The Maids
In Jean Genet’s second play, The Maids, the writer for the first time explores a world outside the prison, a setting he used in all of his earlier works. The characters are Claire and Solange, maids to an elegant lady who mistreats them. They take turns playacting the roles of mistress and servant whenever the real mistress is away. Fearful that their plot to have their mistress’s lover imprisoned is about to be discovered, they determine to poison the lady, but she leaves before they carry out their plan. The two maids lapse into their usual role-playing, and Claire, assuming the part of the mistress, takes the poison and dies in her place. The world represented in the play has been likened to a hall of mirrors, where identities and perceptions are reflected back and forth between characters switching roles between master and servant. Questions of identity and impersonation were further complicated by Genet’s insistence that all of the female parts be played by young men. The Maids was commissioned and produced by Louis Jouvet in 1947, making it one of the earliest dramas to be associated with the Theatre of the Absurd.

Critics consider Arthur Adamov’s Ping-Pong, originally produced in French in 1955 and translated into English in 1959, the masterpiece of his early absurdist plays, with its emphasis on futility. The play’s two characters are young students, Victor and Arthur. Although they are initially studying medicine and art respectively, they become obsessed with every aspect of pinball machines, from the mechanics of their operation to the details of their distribution and maintenance. Reality, including personal relationships, is viewed through possible associations to pinball. At play’s end Victor and Arthur appear as old men, close to death, who have wasted their entire lives on their obsession. Although Adamov typically refused to assign a temporal or spatial setting to his early plays, he was more or less forced to do so by the subject matter in this work. Choosing a contemporary pastime like pinball as the centerpiece of the drama necessarily called for a contemporary urban setting. Critics praised Ping-Pong, but Adamov himself ultimately rejected it, along with his other absurdist plays. Towards the end of his career, he began writing realist dramas concerned with social and political issues.

Waiting for Godot
The most famous and most critically acclaimed work associated with Absurdism is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, produced in 1953 in Paris as En Attendant Godot and translated into English a year later. The setting is sparse, almost vacant, and the characters are two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, who do little except wait, on two successive nights, for someone who never appears. While waiting they engage in a series of apparently random discussions, some involving philosophy, and a variety of antics—from taking off their shoes to eating a carrot—that seem vaguely reminiscent of a comedy routine or a vaudeville act. They also attempt suicide twice but fail each time. At the end of the play, when Godot has still not appeared, the characters agree to leave, at least according to their limited dialogue, but the stage directions contradict their words by insisting that “they do not move.” One of the most important productions of Waiting for Godot took place in San Quentin prison in 1957, performed by the members of the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop. Several critics have commented on the enthusiastic reception the prisoners gave the play, suggesting that they seemed to instinctively grasp its meaning at the same time audiences apparently more educated and more sophisticated were confused by the play’s unconventional nature. Many critics believe Waiting for Godot is Beckett’s most important work, citing its influence on the Theatre of the Absurd and on contemporary drama in general.

The Zoo Story
Edward Albee wrote his first drama The Zoo Story
(1959), in three weeks. Uncluttered, even sparse, the play features two characters, workingclass Jerry and middle-class Peter, who meet in Central Park. Jerry pours out his life story to Peter, and it is a life characterized by loneliness, alienation, and failure. Peter refuses to connect with Jerry and does not want to hear any more of his tale. Provoking Peter into a fight, Jerry kills himself on a knife he gave to Peter, thus involving him, despite his objections, in another’s death if not in his life. Albee employs the diction of small children in The Zoo Story, a device he used in many of his later plays. The one-act play won an Obie Award in 1960 and established its author as a promising American playwright.

Media Adaptations

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A video recording of Waiting for Godot, featuring Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel and directed by Alan Schneider, was made for Grove Press Film Division, 1971.

Eugene Ionesco’s The New Tenant was filmed for Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corporation, 1975.

Jean Genet’s Balcony is available on videocassette from Mystic Fire, 1998.

Edward Albee’s Zoo Story is available on audio CD, Universal Records, 2001.

Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, is available on audiocassette, featuring a performance by Joe Dinicol for CBC Radio, 2000.

A website on the Theatre of the Absurd can be found with links to other sites and a chat room at http://vzone.virgin.net/numb.world/rhino. absurd.htm.

A useful web site on Beckett is “The Samuel Beckett On-Line Resources and Links Page” at http://www.samuel-beckett.net/ which contains numerous reviews and scholarly articles on Beckett’s life and work, as well as reviews of books about Beckett.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Albee, Edward, The American Dream, Coward, 1961.

Banarjee, R. B., “The Theatre of the Absurd,” in The Literary Criterion, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1965, pp. 59–62.

Banker, B. K., “The Theatre of the Absurd and Existentialism: An Overview,” in Indian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer 1996, pp. 45–49.

Beckett, Samuel, Endgame, Grove Press, 1958.

—, Waiting for Godot, Grove Press, 1954.

Campbell, Matthew, “Samuel (Barclay) Beckett,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 233: British and Irish Dramatists Since World War II, edited by John Bull, The Gale Group, 2001, pp. 35–49.

Cohn, Ruby, “Introduction: Around the Absurd,” in Around the Absurd: Essays on Modern and Postmodern Drama, edited by Enoch Brater and Ruby Cohn, University of Michigan Press, 1990, pp. 1–9.

Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Overlook Press, 1969.

MacNicholas, John, “Edward Albee,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 3–23.

McMahon, Joseph H., and Megan Conway, “Jean Genet,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 72: French Novelists, 1930–1960, edited by Catharine Savage Brosman, Gale Research, 1988, pp. 170–86.

Srivastava, Avadhesh K., “The Crooked Mirror: Notes on the Theatre of the Absurd,” in Literary Criterion, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1974, pp. 58–62.

Zinman, Toby Silverman, “Hen in a Foxhouse: The Absurdist Plays of Maria Irene Fornes,” in Around the Absurd: Essays on Modern and Postmodern Drama, edited by Enoch Brater and Ruby Cohn, University of Michigan Press, 1990, pp. 203–20.

Further Reading
Banker, B. K., “The Theatre of the Absurd and Existentialism: An Overview,” Journal of American Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer 1996, pp. 45–49. Banker’s article discusses the influence of the Existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus on Absurdism.

Beckett, Samuel, Waiting for Godot, Grove Press, 1954. Beckett’s two-act play about two tramps who wait in vain by the side of the road for Godot to arrive is perhaps the most famous example of Absurdism.

Cohn, Ruby, Casebook on “Waiting for Godot,” Grove Press, 1967. Cohn’s book features reviews and interpretations of Beckett’s most famous play and offers an assessment of its impact.

Lamont, Rosette C. Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1973. Lamont presents a collection of scholarly essays ranging from an interpretation of The Chairs to an analysis of the structure of The Bald Soprano and The Lesson.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide