Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2389
There is a moment in Athol Fugard's poetic drama Boesman and Lena when the desperate, road-weary Lena begs her traveling companion to please listen to her, and to help her remember all the filthy, ramshackle places they have been, and the order in which they visited them. "What difference does it make?’’ the angry Boesman challenges her, ‘‘To anything? You're here now!’’
Their debate—as much a matter of metaphysics as geography—is the central conflict in the play. Lena is on a quest to discover her identity, which has been stolen or masked by a dominant white society that systematically marginalizes and abuses its black and mixed-race citizens. Boesman, on the other hand, has built a shaky identity for himself, based on physical aggression and self-deception, and will do almost anything to avoid facing the truth of his existence. Although Fugard writes intimate, realistic dramas in the style of Anton Chekhov or Henrik Ibsen Boesman and Lena's dilemma—the search for personal meaning in a chaotic, sometimes violent world—is one found more often in the plays of an avant-garde movement of the 1950s and 1960s: the ‘‘Theatre of the Absurd.’’
Theatre scholar Martin Esslin first provided a name for this movement in his 1962 study The Theatre of the Absurd. In this book, Esslin describes similarities in the works of several post-World War II playwrights, most notably Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet Harold Pinter Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett. He examines some of the social and political influences of the twentieth century that he claims have caused playwrights to turn away from more "traditional'' forms of drama and accepted meanings, and turn instead toward plays that seem to lack structure and ask many more questions than they are prepared to answer. The Theatre of the Absurd, Esslin writes, is an expression of mankind's search ‘‘for a way in which they can, with dignity, confront a universe deprived of a generally accepted integrating principle, which has become disjointed, purposeless—absurd.’’
Because the universe lacks meaning, Absurdist plays often do not contain "plots." Instead, audiences are presented with a handful of characters in a situation that begins and ends in more or less the same place. Any attempts to improve this situation, or their lives in general, is doomed to fail, because the human condition itself is viewed as absurd. Characters in Absurdist plays often lack identities, and sometimes do not even have names. Language—the tool most people use to attach meaning to objects and ideas—proves difficult or useless in Absurdist dramas. Time and place—the setting of Absurdist plays—is often unknown, or unreal and unrecognizable.
The best known practitioner of The Theatre of the Absurd is Samuel Beckett whose 1953 ‘‘tragicomedy’’ Waiting for Godot first drew widespread international attention to the new style of drama. The "action" of Waiting for Godot is quite simple. Two tramps, Vladamir and Estragon, are waiting near a bare tree for the arrival of a man named Godot. They argue with each other, consider suicide, chew on carrots and chicken bones, meet up with another odd pair—a master and slave named Pozzo and Lucky who perform a strange routine for them—and are told by a young boy that Godot will not be arriving this day, but the next. When the play ends the tramps are sitting beneath the same tree, which now has sprouted a few leaves, still waiting for Godot. The play has not told a "story'' or drawn any conclusions from its characters' experiences. Rather, it has presented a meditation on the absurdity of life, and left its audience to pull from that its own lessons.
There is no doubt Beckett and The Theatre of the Absurd had a considerable...
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