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Arthur Adamov 1908–1970
Russian-born French dramatist, essayist, editor, and translator.
Adamov was an important figure in the French theater of his time. Though his plays eventually moved away from the Theater of the Absurd, Adamov, along with Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, originally helped shape this idiom on the stage. Adamov also contributed to the theater the importance of visual impact in expressing a play's meaning. He treated stage space as a visible representation of meaning and physical movement on stage as a language to communicate meaning to the audience. Adamov's dramas, therefore, cannot be easily read and understood; they must be seen.
Three periods are generally observed in Adamov's career but he consistently strove to convey his view of the intensity of human isolation and of the loss of significant human communication. He did so by developing only slight plots and by presenting unrealistic characters who often acted like machines and spoke in a mechanical language laden with clichés. These characters are portrayed as victims of forces beyond their control, driven to withdrawal and eventually, to suicide.
In the early plays, during his "absurdist" period, Adamov is concerned with universal situations that are removed from any specific realistic setting. His characters are nearly symbolic and his plays take place in a dream world, often a nightmare. These plays are said to have arisen from the dramatist's personal fears and obsessions. Le Professeur Taranne (Professor Tarrane) is singled out as the best work of this period. In his middle plays, during his "Brechtian" period, Adamov turned to plays of social realism set in the contemporary world, evidencing a conscience outraged by the social injustices of modern political and socio-economic systems. Critics have noted in these dramas an unusually strident tone, which often detracts from their effect. Le Ping-Pong (Ping Pong), called Adamov's masterpiece, is from this phase. In his final period, Adamov attempted to blend the work of his previous two phases. These plays show his growing disillusionment with social action as an effective way to change social systems and his lack of faith in the individual's ability to create personally meaningful values. Adamov's last play, Si l'été revenait (If Summer Should Return), is seen as a statement of his ultimate despair.
(See also CLC, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vols. 1-2.)
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In an age in which the theatre remains primarily literary, psychological, or philosophical, Arthur Adamov stands almost alone in France—along with Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco—in the effort to renew the ancient tradition of the drama as the imitation of an action and to create a modern art of the theatre appealing to the "histrionic sensibility" through direct means which no other art possesses. (p. 48)
It would be vain to outline the "plot" of an Adamov play or analyze the "psychology" of the characters, for these terms—at least in their conventional meanings—simply do not apply to the "univers créé" which Adamov brings to the theatre. Even the complete printed texts of the plays, with the detailed notes on mise-en-scène, are more like musical scores than traditional "literary" or "psychological" dramas; they can be "read" by anyone with the necessary skill and imagination, but they cannot be fully grasped apart from actual performance. (p. 50)
In La Parodie [The Parody], with its brief prologue and twelve rapid scenes, we are in the anonymous "waste land" of a contemporary European city…. [We] encounter a variety of characters in whom we find the absurd, the tender, the grotesque, the naïve. There is no "story"—these people meet, engage in various activities, speak to one another with apparent conviction, suffer or laugh; there is no order or coherence in their world or their lives, only solitude and the absurd. This play is, of course, the parody of meaningful human life; when it is over, we may suspect that we too are living just such a parody.
The characters in [La Parodie] have a kind of fixed, mechanical rigidity in bearing, action, and speech, which is maintained throughout and which manifests literally the pathetic absurdity of their fate. They meet without really seeing one another, they speak but their language remains opaque, even to themselves. Everything is rendered directly, by the use of the specific, nonverbal "language" of the theatre; in La Parodie we can see for once, as Adamov remarked on the eve of the first performance, "the characters of a play act in keeping with their real situation, exposing before everyone's eyes the shrieking spectacle of their blindness." (pp. 50-1)
La grande et la petite manoeuvre [The Great and the Small Maneuver] …, like La Parodie, takes place in the nightmarish atmosphere of a contemporary police-state city. Here the disorder and brutality are in sharper focus, for the conflict between revolutionary action and dictatorial repressive measures comes close to the center of the stage. Yet this is no political play; we are not asked to take sides as between the brutal agents of authority and the platitude-mouthing revolutionary who sacrifices human sympathy to blind party discipline…. The real protagonist of the play is caught in "la petite manœuvre," that is, the political and social disorder of the day; but above all, he is caught—like the rest of us—in "la grande manœuvre," this is, the human condition itself…. The world of this play is like the world of ancient tragedy, for some of the characters seem to be agents of an implacable, cosmic malevolence, while others are victims. In the end, however, all are victims…. (p. 52)
Of all Adamov's plays, La grande et la petite manœuvre comes the closest, perhaps, to the author's idea of a modern theatre which, by its firmness and clarity, its force and immediacy, would constitute an autonomous art in which every element contributes to the total effect. From the rhythmic handclapping in the darkness and the derisive brutality of the policemen at the beginning to the mocking laughter of Erna as she pushes the armless, legless protagonist in his wheelchair out into the violence of the street at the end, the ten scenes of this play move with the irrational but relentless efficiency of the machine in Kafka's Penal Colony. In La grande et la petite manœuvre, as in Adamov's other works, there are no lyric outbursts, no psychological probings, no metaphysical disquisitions. This theatre is characterized by a kind of rigor in the dramatic progression, by the refusal of rhetorical embellishments, by a certain pure and naked violence rendered in action and in the simple language of everyday life stripped only of its triviality and surface "realism." (pp. 52-3)
Tous contre tous [All Against All], like Adamov's other plays, is a play about victims. Here there is a new note of courage and energy, however, for several of the victims transcend the passive, masochistic, Kafkaesque attitude of the protagonist of La grande et la petite manœuvre by the manner in which they meet death. There are no speeches on revolt or human dignity or love here, but there are simple actions which are directly meaningful in the total context of the play. For the first time, at the end of Tous contre tous, there is a very faint glimmer of light, there is a bit of pure air that we can breathe.
All of Adamov's plays to date rest upon the author's poignant apprehension of man's solitude and on his deep-seated feeling that "whatever he undertakes, man runs head on into the impossible," that "there is … no remedy for anything except for bagatelles." But the word "solitude" is never spoken in the plays, there are no disquisitions on metaphysics, no discursive conclusions. Everything is directly rendered in movement, gesture, sounds, objects, and in words which, as in our own lives, are but imperfect vehicles for communication. These things fill the physical space of the theatre and are grasped by the spectator through his "histrionic sensibility" and his imagination…. (pp. 54-5)
One may feel, however, that in spite of his idea of the theatre as action literally expressed, Adamov's metaphysical "keys" are sometimes a bit too much in evidence and that they unlock a narrow domain which has been too often explored in our age, a dark, Kafkaesque tunnel which may prove to be a blind alley unless Adamov, whose gifts as a dramatist are outstanding, can find a way of widening or breaking out of the narrow passage. (p. 55)
Carlos Lynes, Jr., "Adamov or 'le sens litteral' in the Theatre," in Yale French Studies (copyright © Yale French Studies 1955), No. 14, Winter, 1954–55, pp. 48-56.
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Arthur Adamov has recently turned his back upon the avant-garde and upon his early plays that embodied more than those of any other dramatist the revolutionary principles expressed by Artaud in The Theater and Its Double. Adamov's last play, Paolo Paoli …, indicates a turning to the drama of social implications with a message, written in a quasi-realistic style. (p. 131)
[Adamov's early plays] are in great part an exorcism of private terrors: … [La Parodie, La Grande et la petite manoeuvre, Le Sens de la marche (The Direction of the March), and Tous contre tous] are such plays, long, loosely constructed, almost episodic works revealing the nightmare existence within a frightening and incomprehensible police state.
In an effort to correct certain excesses of his first play, Adamov turned from La Parodie to a work on a more specific subject, with a small cast and a more controlled technique. The result was L'Invasion [The Invasion] …, the first of four plays revealing an equally perplexing, but perhaps less frightening universe than the police state plays [Le Professeur Taranne, Comme nous avons été, and Les Retrouvailles (The Recoveries)]…. (pp. 131-32)
La Parodie is an attempt to embody in a crude and visible manner the themes of solitude and absence of communication suggested by the most common of everyday scenes. Like the other "police state" plays, La Parodie is an outgrowth of a close personal contact with Artaud the man and with his radical criticism of the conventional theater. In spite of Adamov's later skepticism regarding the value of Artaud's ideas, it is quite clear that the author of The Theater and Its Double has exercised an enormous influence on him. Adamov follows Artaud in his rejection of psychology, in his acceptance of the basic idea of a "theatre of cruelty," and in his utilization of the theater above all as a space to be occupied…. A play of Adamov must be seen to be appreciated, for the text is only a scenario, describing in rather great detail the physical movement that is to take place, and will constitute the major impact and the principal means of communicating with the audience. Dialogue has been reduced to dry and frequently dull platitudes without any of the humor or verve of Ionesco, or the naked, suggestive poetry of Beckett. The characters are often ciphers, represented by letters ("N" in La Parodie) or by generic names (The Mother, The Sister, The Happiest Woman, and so on). It is only with difficulty that we become involved in their plight, for they are rarely alive enough to elicit pity or sympathy.
The treatment is episodic rather than linear, and we must sometimes follow many characters with various symbolic values through a series of short tableaux with little apparent connection…. Adamov's works tend to be stillborn because they depend too exclusively upon the visual element, they are moving pictures, but they do not move in any particular direction (and this is, of course, part of the point). Le sens de la marche is nowhere, and we have no sense of beginning, middle, or end. The theater is indeed a scenic space to be filled, but it is much more than that, and by doing away with what Vilar whimsically calls the "lacework of dialogue and plot," Adamov has done away with two essentials of any dramatic production…. [The] spectator is usually not seized by a play of Adamov: there is too great a distance between actor and spectator, no warmth is generated by the characters, no interest fostered by the episodic treatment which lacks the minimum plot required to give form to the action of the play. Although what I have said can be pretty well applied to most of Adamov's theater, it is particularly true of what I have called his police state plays, typifying most radically the anti-theatrical play which renounces traditional dramatic categories. (pp. 132-34)
[The exorcism of Adamov's personal demons through his early plays] no doubt gives a certain immediacy and pathos to these plays, but at the same time it fills them with private symbolism and meanings which are so highly particular that they are not always easily transferable to the majority of spectators. Like the nightmares of others, we can view them objectively without being gripped ourselves. (p. 135)
The police state plays, however,… betray a social awareness and a political turn of mind. No matter how abstract they become, the characters are not inhabitants of the nonpolitical universe of Ionesco, or the asocial one of Beckett. On the contrary, they belong to a state that controls, dominates, and oppresses them, and they are aware of the social relationships existing between the people within the state, whether they be political leaders and refugees, or fathers and sons. (p. 137)
L'Invasion strikes me as one of Adamov's most satisfactory plays, because he has … conserved here the minimal plot that the spectator seems to require, and presented characters who are able to interest us as human beings rather than simply as allegorical figures with no human warmth…. At the same time, L'Invasion does not reject the technique which is Adamov's most original contribution to the avant-garde theater: his preoccupation with the stage as a space to be occupied, filled with visible meaning. In this one long play it seems to me he has hit that happy middle ground where we are both interested and challenged, where there is enough of traditional dramatic technique to keep us going, and enough that is new, or that is mysterious or incomprehensible at first, to keep us from relaxing into a passive attitude.
The reviewer of Tous contre tous in France Illustration sums up quite well the theater of Adamov when he says, "Few dramatists have cared less about pleasing than has M. Adamov." For Adamov during his experimental period and before his defection to the social theater, in protesting against the conventional theater of psychology went so far in the other direction that it was often difficult to join him at any point. Particularly in the police state plays, but also to some extent in the others of the same period, he rejected plot more completely than have either Beckett or Ionesco, spurned characterization, and relegated dialogue to a minor role in his universe where characters rarely say what they mean, and never succeed in really communicating with each other. Instead of cracking and exploding dramatically, as does Ionesco's language, instead of dropping "like leaves, like sand," in an intense lyric overflow as does Beckett's, Adamov's dialogue simply drags along. Stressing the visible resources of the stage, he reminds us that drama is more than literature and that a play is only a play when it is presented on the boards before spectators. But the same may be said of ballet and pantomime, and it has been Adamov's error to deny certain essentials that distinguish drama from other genres in order to stress the importance of an element that is equally essential. Any theatrical revolution based uniquely upon the visible elements of theater will necessarily be a partial (and probably an abortive) revolution, for the simple reason that theater is a great deal more than a physical space to be filled. (pp. 138-40)
Leonard Cabell Pronko, "Theater and Anti-Theater," in his Avant-Garde: The Experimental Theater in France (copyright © 1962 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), University of California Press, 1963, pp. 112-53.∗
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Early in the 1950s any discussion of the current French stage was concentrated on three names uttered in the same breath—Ionesco-Adamov-Beckett—and in tones of surprised delight or indignation. (p. 196)
Today, however, the Ionesco-Adamov-Beckett trinity has lost its meaning…. Adamov defected: after having written a few plays comparable to those of Ionesco, situated in what he himself calls the no-man's-land of the theatre of the absurd, he repudiated the genre and moved in the direction of a Brechtian theatre. He thus set himself up as the head of a new "critical" drama, whose objective is the portrayal of a collective destiny, clearly situated in history. (p. 197)
[The] works of Arthur Adamov consist entirely of plays that surpass one another in a truly dialectical manner. Furthermore, he has written, parallel to his theatre, a body of texts made up of explanations, discussions, political and aesthetic stands—and remorse. His meditations on Strindberg, Chekhov, and Brecht, each of whom influenced him in turn, have the distinction of always being sharply critical, even when they are admiring and enthusiastic. In fact, the debate now dividing French playwrights into Marxists and anti-ideologists would be far more fruitful if Ionesco, in his theoretical texts, displayed as much intelligence as Adamov, who knows how to go beyond invective and self-defense and really come to grips with the basic questions concerning the future and essence of the theatre. What counts more than the debate, however, is the series of theatrical experiments—however unequal in value—that constitute Adamov's theatre.
Having begun with a theatre of dreams, Adamov moved off in the direction of documentary dramas (Le Printemps 71 [Spring 71] being an extreme example) and then reintegrated his dream world, or what he calls "neurosis," into works which "would be forced always to take place on the borders of individual life and collective life" and which would express "everything that … links man to his own ghosts, but also, but as well, to other men and hence to their ghosts, and all of this within a given era, which is not a bit ghostly." Finding the no-man's-land of the plays during the 1950s too limited because it obliged the writers to go round in circles within their eternal common-places, Adamov wanted to give man a more complete and more concrete image—that is, to restore his social and historical dimensions by means of a synthesis of the two visions, thus achieving a total portrayal of man's condition. Obviously, his evolution consists less in repudiating past experiences than in criticizing them, in order to recover them for use on another level.
For this reason, certain constants are characteristic of Adamov's works as a whole. The most striking is the use of fantasies—private fantasies, reconstructed fantasies, or fantasies borrowed from psychiatric works. In Le Printemps 71 … they are replaced by an objective form—political allegories inspired by Daumier's drawings—but this was merely an intellectual detour, reabsorbed into Sainte-Europe [Holy Europe] …, in which allegorical cartoons and the imagination's dreams are synthesized in the nightmarish behavior of characters who are at once Ubuesque monsters, medieval figures, and politicians of the Common Market. Essentially, Adamov's devices are drawn from the realm of dream, obsession, and delirium. (pp. 198-99)
Whether [his] plays belong to the traditional absurd or have some precise political significance, they are always objective representations of fantasy: the absurd, nonsense, nightmares, and madness are free of the blurred effects that would make them "ghostly." As in Ionesco, all that happens on stage is presented naïvely as a solid reality, not as a floating dream. Le Professeur Taranne is based on a shameful and very common fantasy—that of finding oneself suddenly nude or in some obscene posture in public. But the play relates the fantasy in terms of an event experienced in the waking state…. [Beyond] the impression of nightmare, yet because of it, the spectator—who has not been enchanted by any great display of poetic whimsey—is struck by an impression that reflects on the normal world: that of the instability of the real, the possibility of ordinary situations taking unforeseeable directions with the same apparent necessity as they are generally accorded, and the resulting terror.
Neurosis, then, has a double value in Adamov's theatre. Being real, it can be presented in terms that are used for other realities, but it is at the same time a reflection or as it were, a way of living parallel to what is usually considered the normal world. Scenically, it legitimately represents that world, and by transposing a mental image into outer reality, the playwright both remains faithful to reality and presents it with a theatrical distance. Adamov was Brechtian before even meditating on Brecht.
Within this general phantasmagoria one particular motif persists throughout Adamov's works—that of the object. Here again comparisons can be made with the proliferation of things in Ionesco's plays (L'Invasion, for example, where Adamov's characters are drowned in piles of unreadable papers, the archives of a dead man, trying obstinately to give them some meaning), for Adamov is obviously haunted by objects—their unjustified presence, the meaning society gives to them, and questions as to their real meaning. (pp. 199-200)
Thus, while Adamov derided the metaphor in Ionesco's Le Nouveau Locataire, he himself makes use of a similar obsession. He tries, however, to avoid the ontological stalemate created by it. Eliminating the absurd from the substance of his plays if not from the form, he explains the obsession in sociopolitical terms, relating it to a collective state of consciousness created by the modern world. In Ping-Pong, for example, the pinball machine is a product deliberately exploited by a consortium; in other words, if certain men founder in futility and the absurd, it is because they are the indirectly brainwashed victims of profiteers. (p. 201)
On this level, La Politique des restes [The Politics of Waste] is perhaps Adamov's most modern play—not so much in form (the trial of a white South African who has killed a black man is presented through traditional flashbacks) as in his use of an object psychosis, which does not naïvely explain the protagonist's racism but is structurally parallel to it. Little is said during the trial to indicate that one is the cause of the other; there is simply a constant crisscross of the two themes—an obsession with the refuse of the world (cigarette butts, old torn-up tickets, kitchen peelings, and so on) and a fear of the expansion of the black population. It is not until the play is over that the spectator sees the significant relationship between the two and realizes that the racist murderer grasps the accumulation of civilization's refuse and the multiplication or political rise of the blacks in one act of consciousness, feeling equally and identically threatened by them both. Without foundering in a demonstrative discourse, the play is a gripping metaphor of one vision of the modern world, in which a proliferation of refuse and a proliferation of human beings leads to the same terror.
The two motifs also lead to a specific judgment. Most of Adamov's plays clearly establish, deductively or structurally, the equivalence of the profitable exploitation of objects and of man. (pp. 201-02)
The theme of the man-object as a victim is the second constant in Adamov's works. Once again his point of departure is an existential anguish typical of the theatre of the fifties. More expressionistic or Germanic in form than Ionesco's or Beckett's, his plays point up the tragedy of conscious and irreplaceable subjectivity being incomprehensibly massacred, humiliated, or mutilated by the world. The form is more expressionistic because his imagery not only is painted with bold strokes but suggests the world more in terms of social universality than in terms of cosmic universality. In Adamov's absurd plays, as in all the plays of that school, what the spectator sees onstage is at first given as no more than what he sees. The difference comes when the spectator tries to set up a parallel with the perceived reality of his own life…. [With Adamov], one pole of the conflict is a social specificity, the other being the individual, of course, but the individual situated socially. If the individual is a victim, it is because the social system can be maintained only by an anti-Kantian procedure. Adamov's plays are all centered on that blind victimization (La Grande et La Petite Manoeuvre, for example) or on a refusal of it (Le Printemps 71) as well as on an aesthetic revenge: the playwright himself transforms into objects—that is, into puppets—the social forces that feed on the dehumanization of man.
Adamov's theatre is thus committed and openly Marxist—and hence is unacceptable, on principle, to a great number of French critics. Their judgments, however, must be largely dismissed, for what really matters is Adamov's dramatic experimentation—the manner in which he began with the absurd and expressionism, absorbed them, and then went beyond them, without actually repudiating them. For him the absurd, which is concerned only with "eternal" situations, is idealistic in nature and thus futile. What really interests him is that the modern form of his theatre have a practical significance "here and now."… (pp. 202-03)
Adamov's plays are not altogether didactic. They are primarily a theatrical transposition of "mechanisms." In the early plays the universal mechanisms of the dream that paralyzes the individual and the totalitarianism that mutilates people or chooses scapegoats are not linear; their horror comes largely from the dialectic of the fallacious hope and the real despair that they impose on the individual, the better to crush him. At the other extreme, Le Printemps 71, which demonstrates the failure of the first proletarian revolution, is concerned not with a universal mechanism of society but with a specific event unique in history—the Commune. Indeed, all of Adamov's plays are haunted by the workings of human affairs. He shows how, mechanically (and dialectically), the individual is crushed as a Negro is killed, a revolution comes to grief, or a Holy Alliance is formed (an economic alliance, since this is the twentieth century). In fact, Adamov is the theatrical poet of mechanisms.
Adamov has been faced with a serious dilemma, however, for while each mechanism may have dramatic potential, it is primarily an object of science. Reconstruction—boring even during the period of Romanticism and local color …—requires a juxtaposition of details and a fidelity to all kinds of trifling vicissitudes that may be fascinating in a history book but are monotonous on stage. If the playwright transposes or poetizes, his only recourse is allegory, which may charm the imagination but which, since it reflects an intellectual study of the problem, obscures the historical event more than it adds the distance necessary for criticism. Adamov is still hesitant about the means to establish that distance: he has tried the contrast between an imaginary anecdote and the interjection of historical documents (Paolo Paoli), the contrast between a fresco of revolutionaries' daily lives and allegorical interludes (Le Printemps 71), the almost medieval transpostition of a contemporary political mechanism (Sainte-Europe), and, perhaps most successfully, the parallel that may exist between an individual psychosis and a collective attitude (La Politique des restes). In the last case the double game of participation (we who belong to a world that is essentially racist are hypocritically urged to commit racist murder) and distance (the racist murderer in the play is mad by any standards—that is to say, a creature separate from us, who bears the weight of our intellectual and objective judgment) is convincing. Adamov simultaneously dissects two mechanisms, remaining faithful both to his own temperament and to his ideology. Influenced by Brecht—not as a disciple but as a critic—he might create a new and significant committed theatre if, beyond his defection from the no-man's-land of the absurd, he continues to resist copying Brecht and avoids the oversimplified and tortuous intellectualism of Sainte-Europe. (pp. 204-05)
Jacques Guicharnaud, "Dialectic Continued," in his Modern French Theatre (copyright © 1967 by Yale University), revised edition, Yale University Press, 1967, pp. 157-212.∗
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To show in a theatrical event, as largely and visibly as possible, human solitude and the absence of communication—this became Adamov's goal in turning to the theatre. (pp. 110-11)
Adamov's characters do not really communicate with one another. Human understanding is very problematic. He consciously creates a dialogue in [L'Invasion] which makes the characters speak past each other…. In writing for the theatre a dialogue that "drags along," he is thereby intensifying an image which sees man unable to transcend his situation through flights of language. We must also note that it is precisely the language of the manuscript that is so problematic for Pierre [in L'Invasion]. No single word is unambiguously identifiable and thus capable of carrying a precise meaning. A language which does not communicate, which limps along, which is even obscure in being written down, is a language that intensifies Adamov's vision of man who cannot do without language, but who also cannot fulfill his life through language. (pp. 120-21)
Pierre is presented as a member of a group which is engaged with him in the task he personally feels most reponsible for. His sense of reponsibility, with its attendant compulsions and pressures upon Agnés, together with his method of procedure, in time drives a wedge between him and his colleagues. An open question is whether he willingly withdraws from community or whether he is forced into withdrawal by his commitment. While his individuality is heightened in his withdrawal, we do not see much evidence of it because he is in isolation in his room off stage, and eventually completely isolated in death…. He is man in situ, without a history, a future except as his task be pursued. The meaning of his existence is the nonmeaning of the manuscript which has invaded his life, leaving him an "occupied territory" without even a "provisional government" which can administrate within the tension presented by an unfulfillable and inescapable task. (pp. 122-23)
[The Professor in Professor Taranne also] discloses himself to be an exceedingly self-centered man. He has no relationships with anyone which would indicate concern and interest in others. Except insofar as the actions of others directly concern what he thinks is his own welfare, he is totally unconcerned with them. The one possible exception might be his sister, Jeanne. He does relate to her as something of an equal, but her essential relationship to him is merely that of the bearer of his final betrayal as unself-knowing at best, and as carping hypocrite at worst. We know nothing of her as a person; she is the last in a devastating series of mediators of self-knowledge to Taranne. (p 126)
It is by no means clear whether Professor Taranne is a free agent confronted with a monstrous conspiracy of circumstances bent upon his destruction or whether he is a fraud by some inner compulsion, who is at last exposed for what he really is. That he is alone is undoubted. He shares in no meaningful community with anyone…. In the face of an apparently absurd world, he opts to enact his guilt [through indecent exposure], thus becoming guilty existentially. This final gesture of guilt-acceptance grants a kind of tragic stature to Taranne. We are left with an image of isolated man whose only means of asserting his identity is a gesture, and in this case a gesture by which he intensifies his isolation and guilt.
Adamov's man is alone, bewildered by the circumstances of his existence, bound by a sense of responsibility, though incapable of effectively discharging it, unable to achieve significance through language, and finally reduced to a gesture of alienation and withdrawal as the sole means of asserting identity. Both Pierre and Professor Taranne feel a responsibility toward their vocations: deciphering the manuscript in the case of Pierre, and university lecturing in the case of Taranne. In differing ways, they both come to the realization that language fails them. Their final gestures are made in silence and are gestures of self-alienation from their worlds. (pp. 127-29)
In Adamov's vision, man is affirmed as a creature who has responsibility, who is guilty in the face of failure to discharge his responsibility, but who is caught in a metaphysical situation in which neither language nor reason can save him. All efforts come to the same end: radical isolation and death. Man's final act is a gesture of resignation. But this is a theatrical gesture, enacted in an event of the theatre and on a stage taken by Adamov as a space to be filled. Thus man's gesture of resignation takes on both the qualities of an artistic resolution to his envisioned condition, as well as the symbolic values of a metaphysical assertion…. In Adamov's vision, man is revealed as both responsible and guilty, as isolated from his world and finally reduced to a gesture which intensifies his exile. (p. 129)
Richard E. Sherrell, "Arthur Adamov," in his The Human Image: Avant Garde and Christian (© 1969 by M. E. Bratcher: reprinted by permission of the author), John Knox Press, 1969, pp. 110-29.
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With his last play, published posthumously, Adamov has come full circle, Si l'été revenait is primarily an exposition of a psychological nature, not a call to revolutionary action such as we have come to expect. (p. 180)
[While] Adamov's early plays present psychological subjects in something of a vacuum—semi-archetypal characters moving through a dream world that bears little relation to any specific real place—Si l'été revenait attaches the dreams to a quite solid reality—credible individuals moving in the definite and specific context of present-day Sweden. What is constant is the use of dreams to reveal otherwise hidden psychological truths. The vision in the early plays was relatively comprehensible, for the dream was Adamov's own and the distortions imposed by the device were at least consistent. This last play, however, is quite obscure, primarily because we see, in four dreams, events distorted from the points of view of four different dreamers: Lars, a young man who has been expelled from Medical School; his sister Thea, with whom he has an incestuous relationship; his wife Brit, and their friend Alma, whose androgynous nature links her to both Lars and Brit. Three other important characters—Mme Petersen, mother of Lars and Thea; Viktor, a friend somewhat older than the others, and the Rector of the Medical School—remain even more enigmatic because, since they do not dream, we do not see their points of view; they seem almost to exist only on a symbolic level.
Si l'été revenait is not a play of development but one of exposition. Instead of a traditional plot we see different events in jumbled and varying chronological order from the four points of view. All the dreams seem to come long after the facts detailed in them, even after the deaths of two of the dreamers. The only progression in the play is the growing awareness of the multiple facets of the characters and their relationships, the gradual exposition of their ambivalent feelings of love, hate, guilt, gratitude, and dependence. A recurrent image of various characters swinging while others push the swing seems to represent a summer of bliss for which all are nostalgic but which remains unattainable since their complex relationships always destroy the cooperation needed to make the swing work.
The play does contain socio-political elements, underlined by the setting in Sweden, where liberal socialism would seem to provide the best chances for social justice. But each time a character tries to engage in social action he fails, largely because of his own sado-masochistic neuroses. The result is a feeling of bitter disillusionment that perhaps indicates Adamov's own feeling. Si l'été revenait does not represent a total surprise; each of Adamov's plays after Le Printemps 71 shows hints of the return to the beginnings. Psychological elements and the use of dreams appear with increasing frequency in the later plays, accompanied by a growing sense of pessimism and disillusionment with social action. It is significant that Adamov chose to republish L'Aveu, the early exposé of his personal neuros, along with other later tales of desolate eroticism as Je … ils … in 1969 and that the penultimate play Off-limits shows social action resulting in defeat and suicide. In the final analysis, Si l'été revenait, with its disillusionment and multiple suicides, is probably less revealing of the characters in the play than of the final developments of Adamov's own life. (pp. 180-81)
D. M. Church, "Reviews: 'Si l'été revenait'," in The French Review (copyright 1971 by the American Association of Teachers of French), Vol. XLV, No. 1, October, 1971, pp. 180-81.
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In Le Ping-Pong an electric pinball machine holds the diverse strands of the action together. Arthur and Victor, the play's protagonists, waste their lives planning and executing improvements on it. The machine is not, however, a symbol of the complexity of the social system. Rather, it is a source of conversation…. It elicits religious, aesthetic, philosophic, and social response from all those who come in contact with it. The machine is, above all, however, a sexual fetish. Indeed, its magnetic attraction for all the characters in the play has clearly marked sexual overtones. The language with which they discuss its operation, its rods, corridors, flippers, bumpers, the ecstasy of winning, the despair of losing, is a coded language instantly decipherable to the spectator. It is a game which all must play—artist, professional, schoolgirl, old or young, willing or not.
Because the machine is there, the characters in the play must talk about it, and in Adamov's world the word always precedes the act, stimulates it, in fact. But the words at the disposal of the characters are nothing but clichés, stereotypes, and truisms which can only produce mechanical response in mechanically conditioned individuals. The tragedy one feels in Adamov's theatre comes from the fact that its characters mean what they say. Furthermore, like the spectators who watch them, they have a limited vocabulary which must suffice to denote an unlimited reality. The language of a basic mechanism, the sex drive, has long been the one used to designate the social processes of production and consumption of goods and services. A cursory examination of the prose of modern advertising is ample evidence of this fact. Thus the lyrical response of Arthur and Victor to the joys of the machine is a pitiful attempt to say what cannot be said, because the meaning of the words they must use hopelessly oscillates between their essential sexual need and the acquisitive commercial need that has been grafted on to it. (pp. 49-50)
Le Ping-Pong is the first of a series of plays with an essentially political slant. The machine generates around itself a sort of miniature social structure. From a Marxian viewpoint it contains its own antithesis, in that it destroys the strength and enthusiasm of those who might perpetuate it. More importantly, it permits the characters in the play to interract socially, and allows them an existence which is more than a mirror of the psychological struggles within the author.
Moreover, since they interract in a pattern determined by the possibilities latent in the linguistic stimuli generated by the machine, and since these stimuli are both sexually and socially conditioned, the characters behave both psychologically and socially. Adamov obviously intended this dramatic demonstration to force his spectators to respond to the sexual stimuli of the language, while they react intellectually, and therefore politically, to his grotesque tableaux of an essentially trivial game played in dead earnest.
This interaction of mechanically conditioned individuals within a miniature system has of course generic implications. While Adamov's characters were under the control of monstrous and cosmic forces, their actions took on tragic, or at least melodramatic, stature. Their struggles against the forces that controlled them were at best frightening, and at the least, pitiful. But if, as Bergson suggested, the comic is the mechanical grafted upon the human, then these mechanically conditioned creatures are comic…. [Adamov] was aware … that he had moved into the time sequence of comedy in exchanging a closed and deterministic world for one which admits a dialectical movement. Where there is choice and the creatures on stage make choices that the audience perceives as being stupid or silly, then the laughter of superiority and derision will break out at the spectacle on stage. In this play Adamov had begun his breakthrough into the genre of social satire.
In Paolo Paoli Adamov attempted for the first time a political satire of the twentieth-century world…. This play is a new genre for Adamov, tragic farce. For its message is that from such farcical behavior came the tragedy of World War I. In it Adamov treated pre-1914 society as if it were a work of art in which any part must contain the image of the whole. And in a society whose ideal was conspicuous waste, the most conspicuously wasteful activities must have been the most representative.
In structure Paolo Paoli is a transformation of Adamov's early theatre. Although there are aga n two protagonists, Hulot-Vasseur and Paolo Paoli are not two parts of a single consciousness but the necessary poles of a system of exchange…. [The] circular and repetitive actions which we again see portrayed are no longer the activities of a frightened soul repeating fetishistic gestures to ward off an undefined threat. They are the activities of people caught in a network of social demands that forces them to an endless exchange of goods, in which the exchange process itself is its own end. Here the patterns of reaction are meant to reflect outer and not inner reality. Adamov transposed to the stage a lesson which he had recently learned from Mao. Like Mao, Adamov believed that an economic system which pushes each nation to continue to widen its area of exchange must inevitably push it to vie with other nations for the same markets and resources, leading to class struggle and international war. And through the highly selective realism of his play he was trying to use the theatrical form itself to illustrate and persuade…. It is Marxist theatre. (pp. 50-2)
Le Printemps 71 is, as its title suggests, a play about time. Adamov's favorite object, paper—in this case the newspaper Le Cri du peuple—is the focus of the action. In every scene we see it being written, diffused, read, and discussed. It circulates through the Commune as blood circulates through an organism, for the newspaper is an embodiment of the time that provokes this drama, that is to say, the time gap between event and knowledge. (p. 52)
Nine "guignols" or allegorical interludes are interspaced within the twenty-six tableaux which comprise the action. (pp. 52-3)
[These] "guignols" are meant to be such inhuman caricatures of men that no identification can be possible, yet they must retain enough human characteristics so that they cannot be mistaken for superhuman or metaphysical forces beyond the control of men. The audience must see them as grotesquely perverted humans, historical monsters. Thus Adamov's spectators today can at once reject their perversion and learn, as the contemporaries of Thiers and Bismarck did not, ways of controlling their destructiveness. Adamov was thus attempting to modify an avant-garde technique and give it a new function in his theatre. (p. 53)
Technically, the "guignols" are dramatized history lessons which eliminate necessity for lengthy exposition within the narrative portion of the play. The "guignols" are Adamov's answer to the problem of spectator participation in epic drama. The spectator asks nothing better than to identify with the actors on stage; yet it is difficult to identify and still maintain the rational critical stance which Adamov believed is the one that the spectator should be led to take. Therefore Adamov broke his play into a parallel form intended to alternately attract and repel, to permit empathy while provoking judgment. (pp. 53-4)
[With La Politique des restes, Adamov] returned to the type of play he had favored in his "absurd" period. Its plot is double: we enter into the psychological fears of the protagonist, Johnny Brown, whose neurotic terror of the proliferation of dirt and waste has focused on a black man, Tom Guiness, whom he has murdered. We also witness the agony of a society, white society, which sees a threat to its supremacy in the higher birth rate and increasing claims for social justice of the Negro. Thus the Negro is the center of this drama, that point where the psychological and the social intersect. The universe of the play resembles Adamov's old one, where fear is the motor of all activity. But here it is no longer metaphysical dread, but rather the fear of those who realize the precariousness of the structure of their society and the tenuousness of their social domination. In fact, the neurosis of the madman Johnny Brown is different only in intensity from the mental state of the "sane" members of his society. (p. 54)
If we place this play in a structural continuum starting with La Parodie and going on through La Grande et la Petite Manoeuvre and Tous contre tous, we can see how it is the ultimate statement of a series of theatrical essays which progressively seek to investigate the nature of the fear that pervades our society. In the first, the social basis of personal terror is present only in an embryonic state (police whistles, sirens, faceless crowds). In the second, individual and collective conditions are shown as parallel but not necessarily interrelated ("Le Mutilé" is destroyed by interior voices and "Le Militant" by social actions); Tous contre tous shows both psychological and social life to be controlled by a single inexorable mechanism, the circular nature of apparent change. La Politique des restes at last explores the nature of that circularity—and discovers that individual neurosis and collective injustice are mutually reactive, one causing and perpetuating the other. (pp. 54-5)
[Sainte Europe] is an allegory in which places, characters, and ideas shimmer back and forth between the medieval and the modern worlds…. The theme of the crusade against the east, a medieval creation, connects the two time periods, although here it is shown to be a diversionary tactic of the establishment (keep the colonels busy) or part of neocolonial diplomacy (hold on to a market for manufactured goods).
The play has a triadic structure which conforms to Adamov's view of the triple reality of our time. He believed that power, religion, and money are united in a last desperate holding action against the legitimate aspirations of the disenfranchised. (pp. 55-6)
In this play the dream is not so much an expressionistic technique for revealing interiority as a satirical device for pointing out the discrepancy between gesture and motivation, and for provoking in the spectator an awareness of the imprint of objective reality on psychological processes. The dream sequences in Sainte Europe have this in common with the "guignols" of Le Printemps 71: they are distancing devices and allegorical commentaries upon the narrative. They also underline the layers of disguise in which modern political reality conceals itself. For the play is a masquerade superimposed upon a masquerade. The culminating scene of the masked ball shows the characters donning medieval disguises…. (p. 56)
But we are constantly made aware that outside this phony world is a real world, suffering and angry. We hear of floods, fires, murder, cancer, torture, insurrection, strikes. But this world is not primarily threatening to us, as were the noises off stage in Adamov's first plays. Rather, it threatens the monsters on stage. It is a distillation of the anger that Adamov believed would sweep away these grotesque puppets, which we are led to laugh at derisively.
The language of the play is as grotesque as the action. And similarly, it shimmers back and forth between the medieval and the modern…. (pp. 56-7)
But most striking is the way in which the language of the play alternates between … inflated rhetoric and doggerel verse. Here rhetoric is obviously the tool which the establishment uses to prevent others from seeing the social reality it conceals, while the real thoughts of the characters are so degraded that only doggerel can express them.
Thus this is a theatre of indirect reference whose every structure is meant to remind the spectator that he is expected to make a critical judgment of a time, his own. The medieval-modern poles of language, action, and characterization are Adamov's distancing device, his mechanism for provoking thought. (p. 57)
[M. le modéré offers] evidence of Adamov's desire to give new meanings to the techniques of the "avant-garde," which he had come to despise…. M. le modéré is preoccupied with self, not because he is a frightened victim at the mercy of forces beyond his control, but because he is the representative of a social order whose illness is a diseased egotism. His paralysis is both a symbol of his guilt—he has tortured and killed to retain power—and a symptom of his basic uselessness; he contributes nothing to society. His sexual aberration indicates the historical extent of his depravity. (p. 58)
[The] great difference between M. le modéré and the early plays, which it superficially resembles, lies in its point of view. This play is a "clownerie," a parade of clowns, individuals with no interior life, no psychology. It is a masque of fools with whom there can be no spectator identification. M. le modéré's itinerary is not a projection of an inner quest, but an allegorical rise and fall of a petty politician who moves from proprietor of a sleazy hotel to dictator, and ends in the political refuse heap of a London exile. He begins as a cheat, becomes a bully, and ends a sniveling drunk. The geographic signposts along his route underline the fact that this is a political and not a metaphysical journey. In Paris he is a parvenu, in Switzerland the pawn of American imperialism, and in London the impotent spectator of a round of games: tennis, croquet, and archery fill the empty and useless days of his mindless circle. (pp. 58-9)
[Adamov] adapted the characters, language, and generative objects that he first created as projections of his personal anguish to a theatre asking pertinent social questions. (p. 59)
Margaret Dietemann, "Departure from the Absurd: Adamov's Last Plays," in Yale French Studies (copyright © Yale French Studies 1971), No. 46, 1971, pp. 48-59.
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Nearly all [Adamov's] plays are political in one way or another, being derived from his experience as a rootless intellectual who, in a very human way, was subject to terrifying dreams of injustice and persecution. His early work, written and performed around 1950, is undoubtedly his finest achievement, since it springs with such intensity from his personal sufferings and fears. His very first play, La Parodie,… is a depressing but impressively claustrophobic image of modern life…. The play as a whole shows little development (except that N, who had masochistically craved death at Lili's hands, is in fact run over by a car); it is a simple constat d'échec, an intense, personal, rather naked, and perhaps narrow, vision of things. In an understated, unexplicit play such as this, the dramatic power generated arises from the initial situation projected; the problem for the playwright is then to harness this energy and get it to drive the play forward. Like Genet, who is faced with a similar difficulty in some of his work, Adamov does not quite solve the problem in La Parodie, which remains a grey, rather drab play…. (p. 194)
L'Invasion … is clearly better; it has more of a recognisable plot, and is set in a more readily indentifiable milieu. Pierre is editing the papers of his dead brother-in-law, and himself dies in the attempt. His wife runs off with Le Premier Venu (puckishly called so in the play); this, and the chilling presence of Pierre's mother, who insinuates herself between husband and wife and proffers reactionary opinions about the immigrants she reads of in the papers, are the themes which recur in the next two plays, La Grande et la Petite Manoeuvre and Tous contre tous.
Like L'Invasion, they are about fear, about pressure and influence, and about the weakness of the individual who attempts to resist. Whereas, though, L'Invasion was almost a pièce mondaine (not unlike Cocteau's Parents terribles, in fact), with only a hint about politics in the mother's remarks, these works deal explicitly with such menaces as police repression and political chicanery. So far, however, the politics remains undirected…. (pp. 194-95)
[A] play like Tous contre tous, which is one of Adamov's best, constitutes a ruthless exposure of intolerance, cowardice, the abuse of power by racial minorities as well as by racial majorities, and of the dishonest hollowness of the kind of political rhetoric which covers such abuses and blatantly excuses self-interest…. The play, whose title is well-chosen, is in fact about the cruelty of all political life: the 'réfugiés' are alternately harried and courted, with cynical opportunism, according to the political needs of the moment. Adamov projects a world … in which we witness the disgusting treachery of those who are politically afraid, and in which we observe the shifting quicksands of political fortune, of anarchy and disorder, of rhetoric and menace, and the consequential spinelessness of those involved. The conclusion is lucid and detached: in such a climate only the shrewdest opportunists survive, like Darbon; the rest, both the genuine and courageous like Noémi, or the shabby and grovelling like the loathsome Mother and the refugee Zenno, go under. The play ends with one of the most effective codas in all political theatre: the stage is cleared and four shots ring out, the last of which silences the Mother. (pp. 195-96)
Adamov's best work is that which arises from his personal fears and obsessions, and his worst from an over-ambitious if well-meant attempt to write plays that would turn away from those fears to the injustices of the social universe. It is a pity that such an honest and likable man, who exposes himself, without vanity if not without silliness, in Ici et maintenant, was not able to achieve his ambition of writing a committed drama…. The truth is that Adamov was more successful in dealing in broad symbolic terms with the human condition, its miseries, anxieties and acts of self-deceit, than he was in showing up the iniquities of a given politico-economic system.
If Adamov's contribution to the permanent repertoire should in the end turn out to be slender, there is no doubting his historical importance in vitally assisting, at a certain moment in time, in the fixing of the idiom of [a] new theatre…. (pp. 196-97)
What one misses is a certain playfulness …, the conception of his drama is rarely witty. Like all dream plays, Adamov's draw their strength from the power of evocation through unassigned symbols in which universal but vague anxieties are figured in stage action; this is not devoid of a certain ponderous monotony, for which, in the end, one does not feel the originality of the manner and the technical smoothness and efficiency (such as the trick of achieving transitions through a momentary darkening of the stage) really compensate. It now seems clear that for all his intelligence and sensitivity, Adamov was only a relatively minor dramatist. (pp. 197-98)
John Fletcher, "Conclusion: Towards a New Concept of Theatre, Adamov, Beckett and Arrabal," in Forces in Modern French Drama, edited by John Fletcher (copyright © 1972 by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., formerly University of London Press, Ltd), University of London Press, 1972, pp. 188-210.∗
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Adamov's writing is a desperate attempt to relate to the world around him, to find a way of adjusting to the nightmare of living. The dramatist himself is the subject of his plays, and every one of his works, whether a part of his personal theater or of his political commitment, is a representation of the deep and vital concerns of the playwright. Looked at in their totality, his plays are an extraordinary account of a man and his alienation and separation, for, basically, this is a theater of separation. (p. 153)
It is not by accident that his plays … are, in one form or another, dream plays, which come from the world of nightmares, the real world of the dramatist. In all of his writings, the characters are people who have lost or are about to lose the battle with life. In this mélange of masochism, remorse, frustration, and hostility, Adamov's figures continually experience one sentiment: fear, especially fear of death. From his first play to his last, his characters are confronted with and surrounded by death. At times, as in the case of "N," this becomes a sign of the futility and hopelessness of living and simply the final destruction of a life that has already been destroyed. At other moments, it is a means of escape, as in Pierre's suicide or Sally's and Jim's willful death. Death can also be brought about by man's inhumanity to his fellow man as in Spring 71. In the overall context, it is evident that the "incurable" aspect of life [as Adamov calls the anguish of existence] is always at the basis of each one of Adamov's plays. While the "curable" side of existence [as Adamov calls the social and political aspects] provided him with a temporary diversion or a sort of life raft to which to cling, the playwright never forgot his primary image of the helplessness of man adrift in the universe. (pp. 153-54)
[We] can see a pattern in Adamov's writings in which he struggled to cope with life, attempted to achieve a sense of maturity…. All of his plays deal with justice or injustice in one form or another, accompanied by masochistic guilt feelings as well as a desire to blame others. The real development can be seen in the manner in which Adamov handled these feelings and, in that respect, came to limited terms with reality.
In the first plays, the dramatist was concerned with the nameless, frightening forces which prevented him from functioning as a human being. Sometimes these forces came from an indifferent fate, with everybody sharing the same final destiny, death. Other times, as in The Maneuver [or The Great and the Small Maneuver], fate turned out to be man's own psyche, his obsessions and neuroses having taken control. In Professor Taranne, his best play in this early period, Adamov continued to explore this theme: man as the victim of unknown opponents, either within himself or within the universe. Eventually, he tried to trace the responsibility to more specific sources. At first, he placed the blame on the family: Father, mother, sister all share the responsibility. It was probably necessary that he put some of the burden on their shoulders, if only to alleviate the terrible guilt feelings which he felt toward all three…. With the father, mother, and sister figures, the Adamov hero alternates between an almost incapacitating sense of guilt and a rejection of this burden placed upon him, moving from a masochistic acceptance of recrimination to a rebellion against the people responsible.
A similar ambivalent, love-hate relationship applies as well to the playwright's treatment of women. In The Parody, the writer established his concept of the eternal female: faithless, flitting from one man to another, cruel, indifferent. Later, in The Maneuver, the woman becomes as emasculating as the mother, rendering the man helpless and ineffective, inevitably having her share of the responsibility for the central character's incapacity to deal with the adult, mature world. At the same time, however, woman is also the source of most of his hope for the future. While Pierre in The Invasion recognizes that Agnès brings disorder and chaos into his life, he also realizes that she is the basis of his creativity and that a relationship with her is the only means at his disposal to a reasonable, sane acceptance of life. (pp. 154-55)
If his theater is any indication, Adamov did find a period in his life when his personal neuroses were under some sort of control, thereby allowing him to turn his attention to another area of interest—the political and socioeconomic systems of the capitalist enterprise. In effect, however, this new phase was really only a logical extension of the feeling of injustice and persecution which was at the base of all of his works. This time he directed it against the capitalist system…. Paolo Paoli and Spring 71 were strongly and clearly political plays, expressing the author's outrage over social injustices, and indicating his concern for his fellow human beings, notably those of the working class. Curiously, in spite of his proclaimed affection for the workers and his intent to write for them, many of his succeeding plays had little to do with the laboring class, since the dramas were situated in a bourgeois, middle-class atmosphere.
In this second phase of his writing, Adamov had evidently come to more rational terms with himself. The somewhat irritating plaint of the victim had disappeared, but had been replaced with a didactic, strident voice. Now man could find a measure of hope in taking action, committing himself, solving the "curable" problems of life; he was no longer totally the helpless plaything of fate. At the same time, the dramatist was acutely aware that his theater could not ignore life's "incurable" matters. In The Politics of Waste, he began to forge a link between the individual's obsessions and society's neuroses. It was this attempt that led him into his third phase in which he tried to find a balance between the realm of the neurosis and the structure of the world in which one lives, the merger of the personal and the political. (pp. 155-56)
The playwright's personal situation and its expression are the most important aspects of Adamov's theater, but not the only part worthy of consideration. His theater is also an innovative, inventive use of the stage and, while not totally successful in this respect, it is nonetheless a fascinating experiment in drama. If the term "theater of the absurd" can apply to the dramatist at all, it is most appropriately used in referring to his bold use of the acting area…. Like Artaud, Adamov held the view that the stage was a treasure house of unique interrelationships between dialogue, mime, setting, lighting, music. The stage was to be a visual, concrete representation of the theme to be expressed. "N.," lying prone on the floor, can suggest his real situation more clearly than words in this case; the step-by-step mutilation of the Mutilé conveys more stunningly than dialogue the frightening disintegration which the playwright wanted to express; the physical disorder in Pierre's house is a vivid realization of the disorder in his inner being. Objects also assumed a vital importance: The preeminence of the mother's chair in The Invasion powerfully emphasizes her control over her son; the woman's bicycle in The Reunions [or The Recoveries] expresses clearly the protagonist's inability to function as a man; the seesaw in If Summer Should Return is a vivid example of the desire for balance and equilibrium; and the pinball machine in Ping-Pong becomes a major symbol of man's foolishness and wastefulness. (pp. 157-58)
Most of Adamov's plays lack the normal plot structure. From the sketchy, schematic arrangement of The Parody to the nightmarish mosaic of If Summer Should Return, the dramatist never adopted the conventions of the well-made play.
Language was always an important, often major, element in his writings. He never adopted the nonsequitur quality of the theater of Ionesco, for example. In general, his dialogue follows its own inner, but always understandable, logic. Adamov did, however, attempt numerous experiments with language. In The Invasion, he thought that he had developed a new technique when he used indirect dialogue, the characters expressing one idea but really meaning another, only to discover that Chekhov had already preceded him. In Ping-Pong, language was to be played against the action in order to obtain the full value of the pomposity and artificiality of the characters. In Holy Europe and Off Limits, the language varied according to the effect desired, at times involving doggerel verse to express the playwright's contempt and, at other times, approaching a freer, more liberated form of poetry to convey the depths of the soul. No one style dominates, and each individual play has its own particular expression of the author's obsessions. Within all of this, there is an undeniable absurdity, incongruity, and iconoclasm. It would be very difficult, however, to view Adamov's theater as truly humorous or comical; what might pass for humor comes out of the illogical situations and the exaggerated actions. Even in his more "comical" plays, there is too much bitterness, too much hatred. Adamov's satire, which does indeed exist, is too strong to provoke much laughter; it demands reflection and ultimately provokes sadness. (pp. 158-59)
Since Adamov's plays cannot really exist without an understanding of the dramatist, they are consequently often too hermetic to be appreciated, too secretive to be understood. It is probably this quality which requires us to place the dramatist into the ranks of the important, but secondary writers in French literature. Adamov generally did not succeed in taking the step that would move him from the personal to the universal; when he did turn to the world around him, as in Paolo Paoli or Spring 71, he became unnecessarily limited in perspective, partial in view, and strident in tone. Later, when he attempted to combine neuroses and social comment, the potential was present for a truly unique theatrical expression—an expression never realized in a cohesive, fully-developed vision. (pp. 159-60)
Nevertheless, while Adamov will never achieve the ranks of the outstanding writers, he will remain a significant and important figure of his period. Some of his works will stand up relatively well: The Invasion is an effective cry of anguish; One Against Another [or All Against All] is a vivid expression of persecution; and Paolo Paoli, Spring 71, Off Limits, and Holy Europe all contain powerful scenes which, for one reason or another, do not sustain that power in their totality. However, it seems likely that two plays by Adamov will stand the test of time: Ping-Pong and Professor Taranne. The former achieves that difficult balance which the dramatist pursued. It is a careful blend of the personal foolishness of man linked with discreet comments on the oppressive nature of the social system. The connection of the personal and the public is well formulated in the work, the point is subtly made, and the stage becomes a concrete image of man and his folly. Professor Taranne is a truly fine realization of the nightmare and anguish of living. Perhaps because it is a transcription of a dream, the play has ironically a terrifying reality, a reality which comes from the truths of the subconscious. Man's quest for his identity, the confused torment of existence, and man's eventual submission and defeat are made compelling and valid. It is not by chance that both of these works achieve their effectiveness from a carefully-controlled and somewhat restrained expression of theme and structure. The hermeticism and exaggerations which mar the other plays are thankfully nonexistent and, in these two works, Adamov shows the power of his writing.
Curiously, though, the most telling work may very well have been his first, The Confession, the haunting reflections about his life. This revealing work may possibly outlast his theater. In spite of his many innovative theatrical techniques, Adamov never seemed entirely comfortable with the restrictions which the dramatic form imposed. The journal, with its individualistic, less restrictive style of writing seems to have been more suitable for him. In this highly personal form he was often able to achieve the universality that he rarely attained in his theater. (pp. 160-61)
John H. Reilly, in his Arthur Adamov (copyright © 1974 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1974, 177 p.
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The common denominator of Adamov's last five plays [La Politique des Restes, Sainte Europe, M. le Modéré, Off Limits, and Si l'été revenait] … is that their dimensions are essentially social. All five plays are principally concerned with the social systems of alienated modern society, their viciousness, perversions, degradation and inauthenticity. (p. 122)
The five plays are penetrated with the prevailing despair of the times. Their latent thematic identity proceeds from modern man's failure to create a new unifying myth to fill the void in a world of absence, absence of a a priori values, absence of communication, absence of personal dignity, and in these plays most especially, the absence of man's awareness of and concern for his fellow man as they live together in society….
Another unifying factor in this final phase of Adamov's theater is the thrust of these five plays towards a more authentic reconciliation of the divergent forms of his work. Having developed to their fullest in Le Printemps 71 the epic-realist possibilities announced in Paolo Paoli, Adamov's ensuing theater re-examines and re-incorporates certain formal considerations of his earlier work. (p. 123)
[In] abandoning the purely ethical protest of his earlier work in favor of a developing political conscience in the transitional plays. Adamov's theater falls victim in the political plays to a certain timidity of form and conformity in language, an excess of "realism" inimical to his talent. It is a type of strait-jacket self-imposed, a protection against the anarchistic energies of his absurdist view that might impinge upon and obscure the ideology he espouses and wishes to express. (pp. 123-24)
In his final five plays Adamov succeeds in reconciling not only the formal divergencies of "avant-garde" and epic-realist dramaturgy, but the thematic duality of "absurdist" and "political" orientation. He moves, as in his masterpiece, Le Ping-Pong, towards a synthesis of form and content, a union of style and view that is particularly his own, like no other, and that takes into account both man in the universe and man in society. (p. 124)
[Off Limits] is the fullest expression of [Adamov's] vision of the contemporary world and its systems as the "temps de l'ignominic." By using an America sick with imperialistic war and inner conflicts revealed by racism and abuse of drugs as the setting for his play, Adamov succeeds in describing the anguish of a modern society in crisis and its paralyzing effects on a cross section of the people making up and perpetuating that society. (p. 141)
The play is divided into five tableaux and an epilogue. Each tableau represents a party or reception; each tableau repeats with slight variations and increasing intensity the empty frenzy of a group of New York intellectuals, media people, and young drug addicts bent on self-destruction. Whatever revolt they can muster against the established order, with its vacuity, degradation and oppressive war in Vietnam, is smothered by their self-pity, vanity, selfishness, eroticism and alcoholism. Their flirtations, drunken accusations, staged "happenings," petty conceits and enmities vary little from party to party, revealing each participant to be both a victim and perpetrator of a destructive social order which permits only the illusion of escape. The momentary release of their pent-up aggressiveness and frustrated anguish at drunken parties makes them only more aware of their incapacity to act, to break with the system. (p. 142)
Jim and Sally represent a threat to the noisy chaos and changing hostilities that dominate the drunken parties of the first four tableaux. They embody the two constants which are the nuclei of individual and societal redemption: (1) the genuine love they feel for each other, and (2) their intense hatred of the oppressive war in Vietnam. (pp. 142-43)
The structure of Off Limits is one of gradual and then rapid disintegration of the play's universe by the intensification by repetition of the prevailing inauthenticity of values. The sterility, impotency and puerile revolts of the "chic" New York intellectuals exhibited in the first four tableaux contrast sharply with the young couple's genuine love for each other and mutual hatred for the oppression of war. Ultimately these contrasts drive Jim and Sally to their act of defiance and death.
The play's universe further disintegrates in the fifth tableau after the death of the young couple, when the second party at Humphrey's fails to have its usual narcotic effect, fails to dull the minds of the participants and erase Jim and Sally's repudiation of a life to which the others have grown accustomed. Thus they are driven to the final desperation of the Epilogue, an attempt to create for television a false but harmless drama out of defiance and death, to confiscate by falsification an authentic act of revolt. (pp. 146-47)
Off Limits combines, although in a less integrated fashion than Le Ping-Pong, the two dominant directions of Adamov's dramaturgy, the theater of dream, neurosis and futility and the Brechtian theater of realistic social criticism. While the play is principally concerned with the social systems of alienated modern society and their resultant oppressive war, it unites and integrates the personal or individual dramas of Jim and Sally, George and Dorothy, Humphrey and Lisbeth and the others within the general destructive socio-political fabric. Personal neurosis and societal malaise, escapism and war, drugs and racism intermingle to create a nightmarish world.
The play is more than a simple reportage. Not only does it succeed in portraying the inauthentic way of life as lived according to the ethic of evasion and rationalization, but it projects the very vertigo and confusion felt by the characters themselves. By the use of certain avant-garde techniques—images fixes, staged happenings, transitions between tableaux, self-critical Récitatifs in free verse form, symbolic décor, etc.—the play recreates the chaotic nightmare that it seeks to criticize. (pp. 147-48)
Off Limits depicts and condemns the social system of alienated modern society in America, its viciousness, perversion, degradation and inauthenticity. As in the other plays of this final phase of Adamov's theater, the accent is placed here on the absence of man's awareness of and concern for his fellow men as they live together in society. Moreover Adamov reconciles not only the thematic duality of "absurdist" and "political" orientations, but the formal divergencies of "avant-garde" and epic-realist dramaturgy. He moves towards a synthesis of form and content, a union of style and view that is particularly his own, that takes into account both man in the universe and man in society.
Having exposed America in Off Limits as the ultimate expression of contemporary emptiness and inauthenticity, Adamov in his final play Si l'été revenait …, reveals as false the "new myths" of a liberated, socialist Sweden…. [The play] is perhaps Adamov's most desperate image of modern man lost in a maze of selfishness, frustration, guilt, fear and impotency. Having failed to create an authentic unifying myth to fill the void of their existence, the characters of Si l'été revenait are reduced to performing in a dream world that is not always of their own making. It is Adamov's ultimate statement on absence, for in this play the absence of a spiritual dimension leads directly to the absence of life itself. There is no exit save dream or suicide.
Moreover, like the penultimate Off Limits, Adamov's final play depicts a world where socio-political action is continually stifled by the self-pity, vanity, selfishness, eroticism and masochism of its characters. And as in the other plays of this final cycle the accent in Si l'été revenait shifts from the political to the social, specifically to the failure of its characters to maintain the coherent and cooperative interdependence necessary for their survival. The play is a study in complex relationships threatened at their core by the characters' sadomasochism and guilt, by their inability to deal with ambivalent emotions of love and hate, dependence and dominance, faith and fear, gratitude and scorn, devotion and resentment. The play is primarily a psychological exposition, but unlike the archetypes of the early plays, the characters of Si l'été revenait are "realistic," living out their dreams in the specific context of contemporary Sweden. Thus, in its concern for the individual as well as for man's failure to build together as a social unit, Si l'été revenait comes full cycle and bears witness to the consistency of Adamov's theater. (pp. 149-50)
Si l'été revenait is a play about absence. In an advanced socialist country where there is no hunger and practically no crime, man still fails to bridge the gap between himself and others. The "new myths" of the "smiling girl in a bathing suit" are hollow and fail to create the unifying dimension necessary to fill the void in a world of absence, absence of communication, absence of innocence, and especially absence of man's awareness of and concern for his fellow man. (pp. 152-53)
The very title of the play intimates a lost or "absent" summer, a nostalgic longing for a unity that once was but is forever gone. The central image of the play, a recurrent motif of various principal characters riding a swing together while others push, represents a cohesive solidarity no longer attainable because the characters are incapable of cooperating to keep the swing going. (p. 153)
Si l'été revenait is a fitting end-piece to a collection of plays that fused, better than any other contemporary theater, the divergent trends of French drama in the 1950's and 1960's. By mixing realism with fantasy, by superimposing variant dream-sequences for which there is no objective version, the play creates a world where psychological and socio-political elements coalesce into a highly theatrical language of visual as well as auditory images, of psychical distancing as well as direct involvement, of avant-garde as well as epic-realist techniques. The play is a complex metaphor which demonstrates Adamov's consistent vision of the "social" failure of modern man to relate to his fellow travelers as directly resulting from the absence of an interior, unifying spiritual dimension. The void without is a direct result of the void within. (p. 154)
John J. McCann, in his The Theater of Arthur Adamov, Chapel Hill, 1975, 168 p.
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