Absurdist drama arose from the spiritual and physical devastation of World War II, prompted by the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. In Europe, such early proponents as Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter sought to unshackle themselves from the realistic thesis play that had dominated serious theater from Henrik Ibsen’s day forward by creating a new form of drama more suited to a world viewed as being devoid of purpose, legitimate moral authority, or even simple human dignity. By the late 1950’s, the movement had begun influencing American experimental drama in Off-Broadway and Off- Off-Broadway theaters. The effect of the European absurdists on America’s avant-garde playwrights of the 1960’s is more evident in method than in substance. The charnel house nihilism that beset postwar Europe never really fully undermined or overwhelmed American optimism. As a result, many experimental playwrights of the decade, though flirting with absurdist elements and techniques, never succumbed to the devastating ennui and despair that lay beneath them.
Edward Albee probably came closest to the soul of absurdism in his early plays, starting with The Zoo Story (1959), which was first staged with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York. Albee’s early targets were American middle-class complacency and materialism, which he attacked in short works such as The...
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