You’ve heard the word ‘absurd,’ but did you know it was a type of theatre? Watch this video to see how the absurdity of World War II helped promote the Theatre of the Absurd.
To understand the absurd in theatre, we have to first understand existentialism. We can compare it to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who spends his eternity pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again.
This is the heart of existential thinking – that our very being is a tormented struggle to exist. The existentialists believed that if there was purpose in life, then it was up to each individual to find and fulfill his or her own purpose through free-will choices and actions.
Now, think of the word ‘absurd’. When we call something ‘absurd’, we are just saying that it doesn’t make sense, or it’s meaningless. The collapse of much of the European economy, the changes of world powers, and the deaths of about 45-60 million people during World War II left the entire world in a state of confusion and depression. The threat of nuclear attack preoccupied thoughts. Human life seemed defenseless and meaningless.
This was the catalyst needed to promote the existential view that life was meaningless unless we take charge of our choices and actions to give it some hope.The Theatre of the Absurd was born from this notion. Instead of reenacting realities, the Theatre of the Absurd wanted to show that the world was unintelligible and meaningless. While its roots took hold in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, it wasn’t until after World War II, in Paris during the 1950s and 1960s, that the Theatre of the Absurd began to gain momentum. In 1960, Martin Esslin gave the name to this form of theatre in his work The Theatre of the Absurd.
Elements of the Theatre of the Absurd
So, what makes the Theatre of the Absurd stand out from other forms of drama? To begin, the dialogue in an Absurd play is often full of clichés or is repetitive, resulting in a rather meaningless use of language. Instead of having a linear plot, the story is usually circular, going nowhere, with little to no evidence of real time or place. And even with a little bit of slapstick humor, the characters are quite existential in nature, hoping to find some meaning in their lives. Even though it does seem to be confused and simply gibberish, those who are fans of the Theatre of the Absurd explain that it only reflects man’s connection to the universe: ‘If we as humans lose the importance of our metaphysical roots, then all of our actions become absurd and pointless.
Waiting for Godot
Written in 1949, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is often argued to be the most important European play since World War II. This French play, where two vagrants wait for someone called Godot to arrive to bring meaning to their lives, is the epitome of this genre. The two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, have trouble communicating their ideas to one another because of their strange use of language. Nothing actually happens in the play as the two men wait.
While some argue that it was gibberish, those who support the play read many different messages. Mostly, supporters see the existential themes embedded in the chaos and nonsense.The characters passively wait for Godot to bring them meaning, because they are uncertain what will happen if they consciously make their own choices.
They do not have to fear or take responsibility for the consequences of their actions if they simply wait for Godot. What they fail to see is that waiting for Godot is in and of itself a choice, and by making their own, conscious choices, they give meaning to the world through their actions. This creates purpose in life.
The Theatre of the Absurd’s foundations lie in existentialism – that if there was purpose in life, then it is up to each individual to find and fulfill his or her own purpose through free will and actions. After World War II, human life seemed defenseless and meaningless, and the Theatre of the Absurd both reflected and battled these feelings.
Its purpose was to show us that if we as humans lose the importance of our metaphysical roots, then all of our actions become absurd and pointless. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the most famous absurd drama, shows us that by making our own, conscious choices, we can give meaning to the world through our actions, thus creating purpose in our lives.
Once you have completed this lesson, you should be ready to:
- Define existentialism and understand its relation to the Theatre of the Absurd
- Describe the Theatre of the Absurd and the historical context from which it emerged
- Summarize Waiting for Godot and discuss its theme