Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894
Absurdity is the most obvious theme explored in Absurdism. Absurdity characterizes a world that no longer makes sense to its inhabitants, in which rational decisions are impossible and all action is meaningless and futile. Absurdity also describes many situations and events that take place in plays associated with the movement, such as orators who speak in gibberish (The Chairs), a clock that strikes seventeen (The Bald Soprano), or a rhinoceros that walks across the stage (Rhinocéros).
Cruelty and Violence
Beneath the nonsense and slapstick humor of Absurdism lurks an element of cruelty, often revealed in dialogue between characters but occasionally manifested in acts of violence. Pinter’s plays are noted for the latter. In The Room, a blind man is brutally beaten; in The Birthday Party, the celebration becomes an interrogation and eventually an abduction; and in The Dumb Waiter, a pair of assassins are involved in an apparently random murder. Similarly, in Ionesco’s The Lesson, a professor frustrated by his students’ inability to understand his meaningless lessons, savagely kills them one after another. The seemingly innocent, child-like characters created by Arrabal engage in unspeakable acts of torture, even murder. On a less physical level is the cruelty hiding behind the apparently humorous dialogue in Beckett’s Endgame, which features a master/servant relationship in which Hamm dominates Clov. Hamm, in turn, has suffered from the cruelty of his parents when he was a child. His father recounts how the youngster would cry because he was afraid of the dark, and their response, according to the father, was “We let you cry. Then we moved out of earshot, so that we might sleep in peace.”
Several well-known absurdist works feature pairs of characters in which one is the dominator and the other the dominated. Some of these are quite literally master/servant relationships, such as in Genet’s The Maids or Beckett’s Endgame. Others reproduce the master/slave relationship within marriage, as in Albee’s The American Dream where Mommy dominates the spineless Daddy character or within the traditional teacher/student dynamic, as in Ionesco’s The Lesson.
Futility and Passivity
The futility of all human endeavor characterizes many absurdist works, such as Adamov’s Ping- Pong in which two promising students abandon their studies and devote their lives to the appreciation of pinball machines. Adamov’s earlier play La Parodie (1947) shares the idea that individuals are powerless to direct their own lives; it does so by presenting two characters, one who refuses to live and one who embraces life with joy. The fate of both is ultimately exactly the same. Havel’s early plays, such as The Garden Party, deal with the inability of even the most ambitious individual to make any headway against a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot suggests that human effort is meaningless and leads to nothing in the end. Beckett’s characters are so ineffective and doomed to failure that they are unable even to commit suicide successfully despite two attempts. Their passivity, established by their interminable waiting, is even more famously illustrated by the closing scenes of both first and second acts, in which each stands rooted to his spot on the stage despite having made the decision to leave.
The failure of language to convey meaning is an important theme in the literature of Absurdism. Language is either detached from any interpretation that can be agreed to by all characters, or it is reduced to complete gibberish. A play entitled The Bald Soprano, for example, has nothing to do with a soprano, much less a bald one. The standard philosophical discourse is mocked by the nonsensical dialogue in Godot; although it is meaningless, it bears a strong resemblance to the structure of the real thing. The language of religious fervor is employed by Adamov in Ping-Pong, but the object being venerated is a pinball machine. The characters in Havel’s plays speak in clichés and slogans, from which all real meaning has been drained.
Loneliness and Isolation
Many absurdist works illustrate the loneliness and isolation of individuals, resulting from the nature of modern life and, in some cases, from the impossibility of effective communication between humans. Albee’s The Zoo Story offers a prime example of this theme, featuring a character so eager to make a connection with a complete stranger that he is willing to die in order to do so. If the two men are unable to achieve contact in life, at least the man is able to involve the stranger, however unwillingly, in his death. Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano explores the same theme with a husband and wife who are so isolated from each other that they fail to recognize their connection in a social setting and have only a vague sense of having met before.
Materialism is criticized in Albee’s The American Dream, where even relationships between family members are subject to the terms of profit and loss statements. A woman marries a man she does not love simply because he is wealthy, and they buy a baby to complete their family. The baby dies, leaving them to mourn their financial loss rather than their emotional loss. Adamov’s characters in Ping-Pong devote their lives to the worship of a thing, which some critics consider a critique of capitalism and materialism.