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‘Absurd’ is a term used originally to describe the violation of the rules of

logic. It has acquired wide and diverse connotations in modem arts, literature,

philosophy and theology. The Absurd indicates man’s failure or the failure of

traditional values to fulfill man’s emotional desires and spiritual needs.

The term ‘Absurd’ was first used with its modem implications in the

work of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who rebelled against

Hegellian ideals. He described Christianity as absurd because no man could

understand or justify it according to rational principles. Existentialism, which

developed in European countries like France and Germany, focussed upon the

meaninglessness of human existence. Martin Heidegger described Christianity as

absurd; Jean-Paul Sartre, the founder of existentialism said there is an apparent

pointlessness in man’s life. He spoke of ‘non-being’ or ‘nothingness.’ Albert

Camus expressed that the disparity between man’s intention and the reality

repeatedly ‘checkmates’ the individual. In Gabriel Marcel’s view ‘absurd’ is the

symbol of the fundamental mystery of human existence.

The ‘Absurd’ in life, art and literature arose due to several reasons. First

of all, industrialization created a sudden acceleration of technical development in

Britain and other European countries. Industrialization transferred the balance of

political power from the landowner to the industrial capitalists, creating an urban

industrial working class. Industrialization gave birth to urbanization. Village

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workers migrated to industrialized areas, creating an imbalance. Mass exodus led

to existential problems. The new problems in towns were lack of enough number

of jobs, houses, food, health safety and hygiene and sanitation. Overpopulation

gave way to survivalistic problems.

Industrialization helped man enormously. The invention of steam engine,

gas, electricity etc., led to the birth and growth of science and technology.

British industrialization spread to the other European countries and to the rest of

the world gradually.

Meanwhile the British scientist Charles Darwin’s founding of the modem

theory of evolution and natural selection led to the discoveries in areas like

fertilization mechanism of plants, the classification of barnacles and the

formation of coral reefs. He showed that evolution had occurred in a long

process (but not as Genesis says) and explained the principles of natural and

sexual selection. His Descent of Man (1871) added fuel to the theological

discussion. Later Neo-Darwinism (with Mendal’s idea) brought immense

awareness in European society, erasing man’s age-old faith.

World War I (1914-1918) which arose between European powers and the

Allies led to the destruction of men and properties. The loss was enormous.

World War II (1939-1945) which arose between Germany, Italy and Japan (the

Axis Powers) on one side, and Britain, the Commonwealth, France, the USA, the

USSR, and China on the other, led to the death of millions of men and a huge

quantity of national properties. It led to man’s isolation, loneliness, frustration,

dread and angst.

Existentialism, as a philosophical trend, arose after World War II. It is a

modem school of philosophy, which influenced European literature greatly. The

philosophy of existence spoke of the primacy of the individual choice and

action. It stressed on the absurdity of the universe. This absurdity caused

anxiety, of course, freeing man. Existentialism saw freedom of choice as the

most important fact of human existence. According to Jean-Paul Sartre,

consciousness of our own freedom is the sign of ‘authentic experience,’ as

opposed to ‘bad faith.’ The investigation of this freedom involves investigation

of the nature of being and this has caused existentialism to form two main

streams: the first, atheistic, which interprets the free individual existence as self-

created, and the second, religious, which interprets individual existence as

dependent on transcending being (God).

The prominent leaders of existentialism have been the philosophers

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) in Germany, Jean-

Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and philosopher and dramatist Gabriel Marcel (1889-

1973) in France. Marcel represented the religious stream whose progenitor was

the 19th century Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855).

Existentialism influenced the field of literature. Irish Murdoch has termed

modem British empiricists as existentialists in her essay “The Sovereignty of

God.” In France authors like Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de

Beauvoir expounded its doctrines. Works such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s trilogy of

novels, Roads to Freedom (1947-49) and his play No Exit (1944) or Albert

Camus’ novel The Outsider (1942) are existentialists in approach. The doctrines

of the philosophy have influenced a number of experimental novelists with

continental affinity. For example, Samuel Beckett depicts existential dilemmas

in his novels as well as plays. Besides, existential doctrines have contributed to

the rise and growth of modem and post-modem ethos. This is explicit in the

works of John Fowles, Iris Murdoch and Muriel Sparks. It is observed:

“Existentialism speaks powerfully to the sense of the 20th century as a chaotic

and even catastrophic era, in which certainties have been lost and man is faced

with the abyss of nothingness, or of his own capabilities for evil. It lays stress on

extreme situation, which produces dread, arising from awareness of freedom of

choice (according to Sartre) or awareness of original sin (according to

Kierkegaard). Extremity and existential dread are important in the works of

William Golding and Patrick White, and, earlier in the century, Joseph Conrad,

who in this respect as in others anticipates the 20th century Zeitgeist.”1

The Absurd arose out of all these forces i.e., industrialization, growth of

science and technology, evil consequences of two world wars, existential

philosophy and the resultant loss of faith. In the evolution of a new vision in

relation to himself, society, biological environment and the universe, one notices

a large number of cross-fertilizing influences. N. Sharada Iyer observes, “Clearly

the idea that man is absurd is by no means new. An awareness of the essential

absurdity of human behaviour has been inherent in the works of many writers.

Aristophanes, Plautus, Terence, Chaucer, Erasmus, Cervantes, Moliere, Swift,

Pope, Butler, Anatole France, Balzac, Dickens, Chesterton, Belloc - to cite only

a few they have all shown an acute sense of man’s comicality.”

Andre Malraux in his La Tentation de l'accident (1926) has dwelt at

length about the human condition and observed that at the centre of European

man dominating the great moment of his life there lies an essential absurdity.

The theme recurs in a number of works by Malraux, and is seen in the works of

Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

In 1942 Albert Camus put the question why man should not commit

suicide, as his life is meaningless. He felt there was an escape in suicide. In his

work The Myth of Sisyphus(l955), Albert Camus tried to diagnose the human

situation in a world, which is devoid of any purpose. He observes: “A world that

can be explained by reasoning, however faulty is a familiar world. But in a

universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger.

His is an irremediable exile, because he is deprived of memories of a lost

homeland as much as he lacks the hope of a promised land to come. This divorce

between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of


Absurd originally means ‘out of harmony’ in a musical context. Its

dictionary definition is “out of harmony with reason or property; incongruous,

unreasonable, illogical.” In common usage, ‘absurd’ may simply mean

‘ridiculous,’ but this is not the sense in which Camus used the word, and in

which it is used when we speak of the Theatre of the Absurd. In an essay on

Kafka, Ionesco defined his understanding of the term as follows: “Absurd is that

which is deprived of purpose...cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and

transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd,

useless.”4 The Absurd involves existentialist thinkers’ nothingness, angst and

dread. It is Jean-Paul Sartre’s bad faith. In Martin Esslin’s view it is the

inevitable devaluation of ideas, purity and purpose. Giraudoux, Anouilh,

Salacrou, Sartre and Camus have dwelt upon all this. The feeling of the absurd

can strike anyone round the comer of any street wrote Albert Camus in The Myth

of Sisyphus, therey putting the term absurd at the centre of philosophical debate

and at the forefront of artistic reflection for years to come. For Camus the feeling

of absurdity springs from the confrontation between man’s conscience, his

consciousness, his thirst for rationality and the inert irrational unknowable

world. Convinced of the ultimate absurdity man strives towards a moral and

ethical value-system, for an understanding and salvation. So human dignity is

achieved through recognition of the absurdity of existence.

N. Sharada Iyer in his article “Theatre of the Absurd” observes thus: “The

Theatre of the Absurd is said to be a reflection of the attitude of the modem west

Europeans. The earlier optimism and dynamism of Western Europe gave way to

doubts and disputations. Traditional religion began to lose its grip. Philosophical

schools and cults were hailed ultimate solutions at one time, soon came to a

shattering end. The dominance of Western Europe was now a myth. The

intellectuals discovered that ‘time was out of joint.’ Artists brought to this a

sharp awareness of evil. The inexorable sense of evils, its immensity and

pervasiveness has sapped up the strength of will. Action has lost meaning both in

life and drama. Camus talks of a world suddenly deprived of illusion and of

light. His has been the premise of the movement or attitude known as absurd. A

radical onslaught on western culture in general and western theatre was launched

by Antonin Artaud in a series of lectures and essays published in 1938 as ‘The

Theatre of the Double.’ His ideas were to become the basic tenets of the ‘New

Theatre’ which from the onset defined itself in total opposition to tradition.”5

The term Absurd is a strange word to many people even today. The

question as to what is absurd is as interesting as the question who is Godot with

reference to Samuel Beckett’s play of that name. According to The Concise

Oxford Dictionary, “‘Absurd’ means 1) (of an idea, suggestion etc.,) wildly

unreasonable, illogical, or inappropriate. 2) (of a person) unreasonable or

ridiculous in manner. 3) (of a thing) ludicrous, incongruous (an absurd hat: the

situation was becoming absurd) absurdly adv. Absurdness n (F absurde or L

absurdus (as AB -, surdus deaf, dull)”6

In The Penguin Dictionary of Theatre (1966) John Russell Taylor writes:

“Absurd, Theatre of the. Term applied to a group of dramatists in the 1950s who

did not regard themselves as a school but who all seemed to share certain

attitudes towards the predicament of man in the universe: essentially those

summarized by ALBERT CAMUS in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942).

This diagnoses humanity’s plight as purposelessness in an existence out of

harmony with its surroundings (absurd literally means out of harmony).

Awareness of this lack of purpose in all we do...produces a state of

metaphysical anguish which is the central theme of the writers in the Theatre of

the Absurd, most notably SAMUEL BECKETT, EUGENE IONESCO,


distinguishes these and other, lesser figures (ROBERT PINGET, N. F.


from earlier dramatists who have mirrored a similar concern in their work is that

the ideas are allowed to shape the form as well as the content: all semblance of

logical construction, of the rational linking of idea with idea in an intellectually

viable argument, is abandoned, and instead the irrationality of experience is

transferred to the stage. The procedure has both its advantages and its

limitations. Most dramatists of the absurd have found it difficult to sustain a

whole evening in the theatre without compromising somewhat.. .Indeed, by 1962

the movement seemed to have spent its force, though as a liberating influence on

the conventional theatre its effects continue to be felt.”7

The Absurd is irrational and illogical. It has been expressed in literature

right from the beginning. Even Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot wrote about it in

their finest plays. Absurd Theatre is timeless, universal and speculative. The

expression of the absurd was distinct in the works of Sartre and Camus. Yet

these writers differ from the dramatists of the Absurd in an important respect as

they depict their sense of the illogical and irrational of the human condition in

the form of highly lucid and logically constructed reasoning but the Theatre of

the Absurd attempts to depict the nothingness of human condition and the

inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational

devices like plot-construction, characterization, dialogue, discussion and other

accessory elements. There is no discursive thought. For example, the existential

thinker-writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus expressed the Absurd making

use of the traditional literary techniques. This is also true of the old writers right

from the beginning. That is to say Sartre and Camus express the new' content and

discontentment in the old convention. On the other hand, the Theatre of the

Absurd goes a step further in trying to achieve a unity between its basic

assumptions and the form in which these are expressed. In Martin Esslin’s view:

“If Camus argued that in our disillusioned age the world has ceased to make

sense, he did so in the elegantly rationalistic and discursive style of an

eighteenth-century moralist, in well-constructed and polished plays. If Sartre

argues that existence comes before essence and that human personality can be

reduced to pure potentiality and the freedom to choose itself anew at any

moment, characters who remain wholly consistent and thus reflect the old

convention that each human being has a core of immutable, unchanging essence

-- in fact, an immortal soul. And the beautiful phrasing and argumentative

brilliance of both Sartre and Camus in their relentless probing still, by

implication, proclaim a tacit conviction that logical discourse can offer valid

solutions, that the analysis of language will lead to the uncovering of basic

concepts - Platonic ideas.”8 What Martin Esslin says is the Theatre of the

Absurd does not argue about the absurd but it merely presents it in being. It

presents it in terms of concrete stage images. So the Theatre of the Absurd is

practical. As Martin Esslin says the Theatre of the Absurd has bridged the gap

between the subject matter and the form in which it is expressed. This separates

the Theatre of the Absurd from the existentialist theatre.

A similar kind of plays is written in the French, dealing with the theme of

absurd in man’s life. This is die poetic ‘avant-garde’ of the French. Its important

practitioners are Michel de Ghelderode, Jacques Audiberti, Georges Neveux,

Georges Schehade, Henri Pichette and Jean Vauthier. What is quite interesting is

that both the Theatre of the Absurd and the ‘poetic avant-garde’ overlap each

other. Both relie upon fantasy and dream. The ‘poetic avant garde’ too

disregards such traditional axioms as that of the basic unity and consistency of

character and plot construction. The basic difference between the two is that the

‘poetic-avant-garde’ is more lyrical as the name suggests. Even it is far less

virulent and grotesque. It is said more important is its different attitude towards

language: the ‘poetic avant-garde’ relies to a far greater extent on consciously

‘poetic’ speech; it aspires to plays that are in effect poems, images composed of

a rich web of verbal associations.

According to Martin Esslin, the Theatre of Absurd devalues the form,

style and language. Symbols are used. By the by language is secondary here. For

example, in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot often sentences are of single

words. People in Ionesco’s play The Chairs speak to an ever-growing number of

empty chairs. So it is observed: “The Theatre of the Absurd is thus part of the

‘anti-literary movement’ of our time, which has found its expression in abstract

painting, with its rejection of ‘literary’ elements in pictures; or in the ‘new

novel’ in France, with its reliance on the description of objects and its rejection

of empathy and anthropomorphism. It is no coincidence that, like all these

movements and so many of the efforts to create new forms of expression in all

the arts, the Theatre of the Absurd should be centred in Paris.”9 It is said the

Theatre of the Absurd is not just a European phenomenon. It is broadly based on

ancient strands of the western tradition and has its exponents in Britain, Spain,

Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Eastern Europe and the United States as well as in

France. In fact, the leading Absurd Theatre practitioners though they lived in

Paris are not Frenchmen. Paris, as a powerhouse of world culture has facilitated

great literary and intellectual movements in the world. That is the secret of Paris

as the capital of the world’s individuals. Here writers live and work with ease

and freedom. So cosmopolitan writers of uncertain origin like Apollinaire;

Spaniards like Picasso or Juan Gris; Russians like Kandinsky and Chagall;

Rumanians like Tzara and Brancusi; Americans like Gertrude Stein,

Hemingway, and E. E. Cummings; an Irishman like James Joyce; and many

others from the four comers of the world could come together in Paris and shape

modem movements in art, literature and philosophy. The Theatre of the Absurd

springs from the same tradition and is nourished from the same roots. An

Irishman, Samuel Beckett; a Romanian, Eugene Ionesco; and a Russian of

Armenian origin, Arthur Adamov lived and worked freely in Paris. They did

what they could. They realized what they wanted. Paris has helped great

personalities like Lugne-poe, Copeau, Dullin to Jean-Louis Barrault, Jean Vilar,

Roger Dhomme, Jean-Marie Serreau and many more to rise to prominence in the

contemporary theatre.

It may be noted that Paris has a highly intelligent theatre-going public

who can understand a new idea or an experiment, and appreciate it accordingly.

Yet the public can criticize the demerits in anything. But fairness prevails. For

example, when absurd plays were staged even in small Paris theatres, they

provoked decent audiences. Criticism was scathing. Yet the public put up with

such new plays as Waiting for Godot, for they convinced the public of life’s

absurdities. The absurd plays so strange and puzzling, so clearly devoid of the

traditional attractions of the well-made drama, reached the stages of the world

from Japan to America, stimulating a large body of work in a similar fashion.

Martin Esslin observes, “The study of this phenomenon as literature, as

stage technique, and as a manifestation of the thinking of its age must proceed

from the examination of the works themselves. Only then can they be seen as

part of an old tradition that may at times have been submerged but that can be

traced back to antiquity. Only after the movement of today has been placed

within its historical context can an attempt be made to assess its significance and

to establish its importance and the part it has within the pattern of

contemporary thought.”10 The very idea of atheism or agnosticism of the west,

pervading after World War II, gave way to a new kind of life. Many persons

called it modem life, referring it to the age of science. The modem age, also

called as space age is based on the doctrines of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The French Revolution of 1879, Industrial Revolution, Darwinism, the two

world wars and the subsequent changes in the world shook the people. Life

changed constantly. Man lost his faith in traditional values. He lost his faith in

God and religion. Philosophers like Nietzesche said God is dead. He said we

have killed him. Jean-Paul Sartre, the founder of a new philosophical trend,

Existentialism said man is his own master. So as a master of himself, he has to

create a future in a purposeless universe. When God was dead, religion lost its

validity. It lost its organizing force and power. In Arnold P. Hinchliffe’s view,

“.. .Absurdity to exist, God must be no attempt to substitute a transcendent Alter

Ego. If, in the last analyses, writers produce as the great truth something which

strikes us as very familiar - such as love or manly fellowship - those virtues

now exist in a God-less context, and their achievement is the more difficult. The

death of God and Transcendence safely eliminates most of the distinguished

predecessors -- such as Kafka or Dostoevsky - and limits the area of historical

description to the last forty years.”11

Though the Absurd existed in literature right from the beginning its

explicit presence is seen only in modem times. Andre Malraux, Pirandello,

Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus are some of the pioneers of the

Absurd Theatre. As for Malraux his works The Conquerors (1928), The Royal

Way (1930) and Man’s Estate^ 1933) show the seeds of the Absurd. In his The

Temptation of the West Europe figures as a ‘great cemetery.’ Sixty-five pages of

the book is full of letters supposedly written between two young men: five by A.

D. — a young European travelling in the East, and the rest by Ling W.—T., a

young Chinese travelling in Europe. “The more this young man sees of Europe

the more convinced he becomes that European thought and culture are based on

confusion and a wrong notion of reality, a conviction expressed in the famous

phrase quoted above and used as an epigraph to this study. A.D. agrees that

western man is a creature of the Absurd, and uses the rest of the book to provide

added reasons, and warn that the disease is spreading to the Orient. Obviously,

for A. D., it is not merely God who is dead, but man also: standing alone under

an empty heaven without remedy.”12

The next important writer is Jean-Paul Sartre. He was bom on June 21,

1905. He graduated from the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1929. He taught

philosophy, mostly in provincial high schools, until he joined the army during

the World War II. Soon he was arrested by the Germans. Of course, he escaped

from their tyranny. Later he led a resistance movement. Once World War II

ended he devoted his full time to writing and political activities. He founded a

monthly literary and political review, Les Temps modernes in 1946. He died in

Paris on April 15, 1980. Sartre’s fame rests upon his literary works as much as

upon his existential philosophy of life. His first novel La Nausee (1938; English

tr., Nausea, 1949) depicts the nothingness of man’s life. His philosophical essay

L Etre et le neant (1943; English tr., Being and Nothingness, 1956) linked this

idea with the concept of man as terrifyingly free and responsible being. Sartre’s

existential philosophy is explicit in his play Les Mouches (1943; English tr., The

Flies, 1946) and in the lecture Existentialism and Humanism (1948). He spoke of

man as a ‘useless passion.’ He did not find Marxism as optimistic. According to

critics aesthetically Sartre’s successful works are his first novel, his short stories

in the volume The Wall (1939) and his drama. His two plays Dirty Hands (1949)

and The Condemned of Altona (1960) deal with the problem of liberty and

responsibility, ending with suicide. His one act play No Exit (1947) is a popular

theatre piece. Sartre’s literary criticism includes essays on William Faulkner,

Charles Baudelaire, Jean Genet and Flaubert. His work What is Literature

(1949) is a useful work. The Words (1964) is his autobiography.

When Gabriel Marcel called Jean-Paul Sartre as an ‘existentialist,’ he

meant that Sartre dramatized the ordinary. Sensible people did not worry of the

ordinary while existentialists cried out in anguish that they are gratuitous in an

impossible world. Existentialism is a philosophical trend. As Walter Kaufmann

argues it is a label for several widely different revolts against traditional

philosophy. The prominent existentialists like Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger

and Jean-Paul Sartre do not agree upon the essentials of existentialism. The

factors that bound them together are man’s pre-occupations with failure, dread

and death. Walter Kaufmann reminds us that it was Rilke’s The Notes ofMalte

Laurids Brigge (1910) which influenced Sartre’s novel Nausea and Kafka’s

writings. In their works and parables the absurdity of man’s condition has found

a classical expression.

Bad faith means evasion of responsibility. It is nausia. Sartre’s novel La

Nausee is the diary of Antoine Roquentin began after his first experience of

what Sartre calls ‘nausea.’ The hero Roquentin lives in Bouville, studying

Marquis de Rollebon. He lives as an outsider. One day when on a shore he feels

nausia, he visits a picture gallery where hang the portraits of all the town’s

notables who had lived an unjustifiable life. Roquentin feels they lived in bad

faith. He uses the word ‘absurdity’ to express the bad feeling: “That root - there

was nothing in relation to which it was not absurd. Oh, how can I put that in

words? Absurd irreducible, nothing -not even a profound, secret aberration of

Nature -could explain that”13 The novel ends with Roquentin abandoning

historical research in favour of a work of art, possibly a novel, which will

convince people of their absurdity. Sartre feels that man does not use language

carefully. Therefore in his work What is Literature? he asks writers to re­

establish language in its dignity.

This image of nausea is useful one. It is like spoiled meat or relations. It

is like ‘viscosity’ as Sartre says, or ‘treacle’ as Mary Wamock says - half liquid

and half solid. It is elusive. In existentialists terms, it is absurdity. It is futility or

superfluousness. It is said, “The perception that we ourselves are basically

nothing and therefore free to choose, is intimately connected with this feeling of

absurdity: what we value is wholly contingent - to pretend otherwise would be

bad faith. We pretend that there are any absolute moral laws to bind us, that any

path of duty is mapped out for us, or that we can have a function or a mission:

‘Human life is absurd, in that there can be no final justification for our

projects.”14 Another work The Flies, a play gives glimpses of existential

absurdity. This is a situation (like sitcom) play where as in absurd play not much

characterization is shown. Sartre writes: “No more character; the heroes are

freedoms caught in a trap like all of us. What are the issues? Each character will

be nothing but the choices of an issue and will equal no more than the chosen

issues. It is to be hoped that all literature will become moral and problematic like

this new theatre.”15 The Flies depicts the return to Argos of Orestes to avenge the

murder of his father, Agamemnon, by killing his uncle Aegisthus and his mother

Clytemnestra. This was an allegory reminding the German occupation of France.

Sartre shows how a man assumes responsibility for an event even though it fills

him with horror. It is observed: “To do right always seems to involve

submission. But avenge his father. He also learns that once man receives the idea

of liberty the Gods are powerless to intervene.”16 In Huis Clos (translated as No

Exit or In Camera) Sartre shows us three characters seeking definition in the

eyes of one another. They feel to bear responsibility. Hence they suffer from bad

faith. So man fails. Sartre seems to feel: “ Man, then, is the sum of his acts. The

idea that he does something because he is that sort of man is replaced with the

idea that a man is or makes himself that sort of man by doing such and such an

act. He is Nothing, and in action is anguish because he can no longer justify

himself through faith or morals. He can, of course, fall back into blindness or

bad faith, or he can assume his acts and his life, fully aware of the world’s

absurdity, and accept the crushing responsibility of giving the world a meaning

that comes from himself alone.”17

The next prominent existentialist thinker-writer is Albert Camus (1913-

1960). He was a great French writer whose writings have influenced the 1950’s

world. The marked changes and diversity of writings show his grand personality.

Exile, revolt, happiness and human responsibility in a meaningless world are the

themes of his writings. Like Jean-Paul Sartre Camus examined the fundamental

dilemmas of modem man who sees human existence as ‘absurd.’ Still he

defined a positive ethic based on happiness, solidarity and a respect for man. He

emphasized upon personal freedom, social justice, self-realization, love and

understanding. For his works he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in


In the 1930’s Camus committed to politics, theatre and writing. He turned

a non-doctrinal socialist. Camus traveled Europe widely. L 'envers et lendroit

(1937) and Noces (1938), his essays show his revolt against the burden of misery

in life. His novel The Outsider (1946) is an example. The Myth of Sisyphus

(1955) symbolizes man’s fate and possibilities in an absurd world. Caligula

(1938) depicts cruelty which causes unavoidable sufferings.

Camus took part in the French resistance movement against the German

occupation. As a journalist he expressed his revulsion to the public’s cynical

acceptance of wholesale violence and murder. The Plague (1948) depicts this

somber mood. Its hero Dr Rieux, an atheist believes only in humanity. His works

The Rebel (1954), The Misunderstanding (1958) and The Just Assassins (1958)

are concerned with post-World War life. His novel The Fall (1957) is a satire on

man’s hypocrisy.

Albert Camus is called an absurd writer, an existentialist and a

philosopher. But he said that he was neither an existentialist nor a philosopher.

In fact, he wrote the collection of essays, The Myth of Sisyphus as a critique of

existentialism. His Noces is about the hopelessness of life and the need to refuse

the world without renouncing it. His The Myth of Sisyphus is just the

philosophization of this. Here he describes the feeling of absurdity. The feeling

of absurdity, Camus says, can strike any man in the face at any street comer. So

absurdity is a universal phenomenon which can be described in any of the

following ways:

1. The mechanical nature of many people’s lives may lead them to

question the value and purpose of their existence; this is an intimation

of absurdity.

2. An acute sense of time passing, of the recognition that time is a

destructive force.

3. A sense of being left in an alien world. Camus suggests that a world

which can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But

in a world from which illusions and insight have been suddenly

removed man feels himself a stranger. As it is most intense his sense

of alienation is carried to the point of nausea, when familiar objects

normally ‘domesticated’ by names - such as stone or tree - are also

robbed of their familiarity.

4. A sense of isolation from other beings.

The Absurd, for Camus, is an absence of correspondence between the

mind’s need for unity and the chaos of the world the mind experiences,

and the obvious response is either suicide or, in the opposite direction, a

leap of faith.”18

Camus says man must accept the feeling of absurdity. The book The Myth

of Sisyphus depicts the myth of a Greek king Sisyphus thus. Though accounts

vary as to the exact misdeeds of this cunning king Sisyphus of the Corinth, the

general impression is that Sisyphus scorned Gods as he loved life. Even he hated

death. But Sisyphus, after his life, was condemned in the underworld to roll a

huge stone uphill, which always fell back before he could reach the top. Camus

calls Sisyphus’s life absurd though it gives him a kind of metaphysical victory.

Camus’s famous novel The Outsider (L' Etranger, 1939) elucidates the

philosophy of absurd in the depiction of Meursault’s life. Mr Cyril Connolly,

who points out that the basic absurdity of the novel is the application of

Christian morality and a European code of justice to a non-European people --

which is to say that absurdity here is social, not metaphysical in its origins.

The story of The Outsider is that the hero Meursault has an ailing mother.

He has, because of his poverty, put her in an orphanage, while he works in a

place called Merango. One day his mother passes away. So Meursault attends

her funeral. Yet he does not mourn his mother’s death in the traditional way.

This is because his vision of life is different. He is rather modem. Later he goes

back to his work place, where he drinks, sleeps with a woman, and befriends a

neighbour. One day, more by chance than by design, he shoots his friend’s

enemy and he is imprisoned. The prosecutor basing his views upon Meursault’s

cold treatment of his mother, argues that he is a hard-hearted criminal. The court

says he must be hanged. The final effort of a chaplain to make him a Christian

and avoid his death fails. Meursault recognizes the worthlessness of the

chaplain’s so called certainties, and the social and religious ideas that he stands

for: “What difference could they make to me, the death of others, or a mother’s

love, or his God; or the way one decides to live, the fate one thinks one chooses,

since one and the same fate was bound to ‘choose’ not only me but thousands of

millions or privileged people who, like him, called themselves my brothers.

Surely, surely he must see that? Every man alive was privileged; there was only

one class of men, the privileged class. All alike would be condemned to die one

day; his turn too, would come like the others. And what difference could it make

if, after being charged with murder, he were executed because he didn’t weep at

his mothers funeral, since it all came to the same thing in the end.. .”19

The criticism on the novel is interesting. Christian readers call Meursault

an atheist. Others call him absurd. Arnold P. Hinchliffe observes, “Maursault is

neither good nor wicked, moral nor immoral, he is what Camus calls ‘absurd.’”20

Jean-Paul Sartre who revived The Outsider says Camus describes absurdity in it.

In Thomas Hanna’s view Meursault shows indifference. It is indifference which

makes him a stranger. He is understood as an ‘outsider (hence the title). So “The

Outsider shows the divorce between the attempts to live honestly in accordance

with the indeterminate nature of human existence and an attempt to impose

general moral values on that indeterminate nature. It is only at the end that the

visit of the chaplain stimulates the response of revolt, freedom and passion.”21

Camus’ plays Caligula and Cross Purpose evince the philosophy of absurd still

further. Caligula depicts the reversal in the character of an emperor. Emperor

Caligula has an incestuous relation with his sietr Dmsila. Once his sister dies he

turns mad, and he wanders. When he returns tired and untidy he assures his

subjects that he is not mad, rather he has never felt so lucid in his life, for he has

discovered a simple truth.”22

The emperor finds Ties and self-deception’ in life. Caligula continues

reigning wickedly. So a rebel Chera fights Caligula as the emperor denied them

a life. Yet Chera finds that the world is not a happy spot to live as its absurdity

transfixes man’s life like a dagger in the heart.

Camus’ next play Cross Purpose (Le Malentendu, 1944) is full of

absurdity. Its story is interesting. The hero Jan like Orestes, returns unrecognized

to his mother and sister who keep an inn. In spite of the doubts of his wife,

Maria, he insists on staying the night alone there so that he can know his

mother’s life. His sister Martin and her mother however, wish to escape from

Europe and have gathered money by murdering visitors to the inn, and though

they feel attracted to Jan, they try not to get to know him. Just as he is prepared

to abandon the experiment he drinks the poisoned tea and he dies. The mother

realizes that the world they live in makes no sense at all, and that only by killing

herself can she prove that she loved him. Cruickshank points out that Camus

describes man’s mistaken response to the discovery of the absurd. In Cross

Purpose it is injustice and misunderstanding built into the world as we know it

which renders individuals helpless and unhappy. Cross Purpose is a pessimistic

play. Thus we find that both Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus are forerunners

of the Theatre of the Absurd. As existentialists writers they were also absurd-

practitioners. In fact, existentialism is a pre-stage of the absurd. The Theatre of

the Absurd followed existentialism closely. Both writers believe that violence,

solitude, nonsense and the like are characteristics of modem life.

The 1920’s is known for its general drama in England and Europe as

much as for its Parisian absurd theatre. The latter is termed ‘The School of

Paris.’ The School of Paris which even attracted a wide audience is based on

existentialists drama of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Here man was seen

more clearly as having if he is honest, no purpose. He is stuck up in a world

which views him as a thing, limits his freedom and deadens his language for

communication. He is in solitude. He is simply the sum of his actions. Such

writers are a heterogeneous group, sharing a few general features of the time. As

Ionesco refused to all these writers the designation as ‘avant-garde theatre’ the

term ‘The School of Paris’ may also be used. Another term is ‘The Theatre of

the Absurd.’

Samuel Beckett is one of the main exponents of the Theatre of the

Absurd. He is so famous an absurd playwright that he is called the father of the

Theatre of the Absurd. His plays particularly Waiting for Godot are great works

that created a trend. In a long series of strange works, he wrote fable after fable

of persons trapped by perfectly logical, demoralizing absurdity.

Samuel Beckett is an Irish writer. He was born in Dublin on April 13,

1906. He studied modem languages at Trinity College, Dublin. He graduated in

1927. He taught at Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. He taught French at

Trinity College from 1931 to 32. He wandered a few years in London, France

and Germany writing poems and stories for periodicals. He settled down in Paris

in 1937.

This time was the World War II. Germany had occupied France. Beckett

took part in the French Resistance movement. When Gestapo discovered him in

it, he flew to a safe place in Roussillon. Once the war was over he returned to

Paris and began writing in earnest. Soon his play Waiting for Godot became

world famous, though he lived in solitude. He was awarded the 1969 Nobel

Prize for literature. He died in Paris on December 22, 1989.

Samuel Beckett is a renowned writer. His first novel, Murphy (1938)

contains all the elements of his later work.: the casual busy world where man

cannot cope up with. His second novel Watt (1942-44) is still strange in its

theme and language. In the trilogy Molly, Malone Dies and The Unnameable

(1947-49) the reader finds bogged in the mystery. Hugh Kenner observes, “In

Beckett’s world, readers are clearly told everything except the things they are

used to knowing.”23 The play Endgame, possibly Beckett’s most remarkable

single work, appears to be about the end of humanity. His later works include the

plays Happy Days (1961), Not I (1973) and That Time (1964). These bleak and

enigmatic works are funny and interesting.

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) in French was first staged at

Paris in 1956. Later Beckett himself translated it into English and the English

play was staged in London. The production was a great success everywhere. It

got translated into most of the languages of the world.

It is a common knowledge that Beckett was a close friend of James Joyce,

a great innovator in fiction; he lived in Paris and he wrote in French. As Martin

Esslin observes Beckett’s Waitingfor Godot does not tell a story. It just explores

a static situation. The play is not a theory but a practical exposition of a

situation. So nothing happens, nobody comes and nobody goes in it Even act II

of the play is just the same as the act I. It is observed, “The dialogue makes the

customary use of music-hall patter and mime, and the title introduces

implications, which cannot be dismissed as accidental. Since Beckett’s care for

language is notorious, he must deliberately have allowed a French nonsense

word, with its implications, to stand in the English translation, and therefore the

suggestion of God-ot is as permissible as is the suggestion that the word could

refer to Godeau, the racing cyclist, that echoes in Simone Weil’s Attente de Dieu

and contain, as Eric Bentley has suggested, an allusion to Balzac’s comedy Le

Faiseur, usually known as mercadet, after the speculator who explains his

financial difficulties by blaming them on his former partner Godeau, who

absconded with their joint capital and who does return at the end of the play with

a huge fortune which, miraculously, saves the situation.”24 There is the story of

two thieves as malefactors. Arnold P. Hinchliffe says a hope of salvation is a

subject of the play. Yet questions like is it a Christian play? haunt us. In the play

characters pass their time waiting by playing games on the open road. In his

second play Endgame characters play the final game shut up in a room. Here is a

blind old man Hamm who cannot stand waited on by his servant Clov who

cannot sit down. Hamm’s legless parents Nagg and Nell are in a dustbin. The

world outside is dead, or these characters think they are the last survivors after a

great disaster. Clov cannot leave Hamm. As Waiting for Godot, Endgame is

variously analyzed even as a biographical treatment representing the relationship

between Joyce and Beckett. The play has a sombre and deadening effect. The

boy of the play seems to think about nirvana or nothingness of life.

Both Waiting for Godot and Endgame have no plot-construction,

characterization, dialogue and description in the traditional sense. It is said,

“Beckett does not probe quite so deeply, but the themes persist: the difficulty of

finding meaning in a world subject to incessant change, and the limitations of

language as a means of arriving at or communicating valid truth.”25 L C. Pronko

points out that “stichomythia, so dynamic as a means of interchange in Comelle,

suggests here a lack of communication - each man following his own thoughts,

while the silences and pauses isolate words and phrases and the repetitions

remind us how monotonous, repetitive and tedious life is.”26 Beckett has

consistently devalued language. His language is prosaic. The expressions are

prosaic. This is to convince us the view that the Absurd should be expressed in

the absurd way. Beckett spoke the following describing a new form of art which

he preferred: “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with

which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire

to express, together with the obligation to express.”27

Beckett did not believe Bourgeois values. For Beckett, as for Ionesco,

science and philosophy have produced a void, and given nothing as the universal

ultimate. So in Arnold P. Hinchliffe’s view, “What significance can art have


unless we can find one that can satisfactorily express nothing?”

Marcel Proust’s influence is also there in Beckett’s writings. Beckett’s

preoccupation with the tyranny of time and language which hinder an awareness

of life as to who one is is exploit. It is about an awareness of self: “How am ‘I,’

an a-temporal being imprisoned in time and space, to escape from my

imprisonment, when I know that outside time and space lies Nothing, and that
‘I,’ in the ultimate depths of my reality, am Nothing also?” Proust’s doubts

about the discontinuity of personality, the necessary solitude of the artist and the

necessity of suffering for the nirvana haunted Beckett. So he put these

perturbation in Murphy:

“What am I, what are time and space, mind and matter? Beckett’s heroes

are determined to answer these questions and not by taking refuge in mysticism.

This insistence on rationalism sets Beckett apart from the Absurdists.”30 As Coe

puts it: “The Absurd is a method which proceeds, by means of annihilation of

rational concepts, to a point where the ultimate reality, irrational by definition,

may be glimpsed through the wreckage. But Beckett, by contrast, cherishes

rationality above all things, but drives it to the point at which.. .reason itself is

transmitted into the still vaster reality of the irrational.”31

The work Watt gives an importance to rationality amidst chaos. When

Arsene communicates with Mr Knott, we notice he helps him for some change.

Wc need rationalism. We cannot avoid it. So in Bcckcttian view, nothing implies

something. So here waiting is also an experience, a kind of work. Those who

wait also serve. Beckett’s critics think the act of waiting is heroic. We wait for

something, so we are. Critics use Heidegger’s term ‘Geworfenheif to describe

waiting. Beckett’s heroes champion the theory that even in a meaningless

situation life has some meaning. Yet all this is human absurdity.

Eugene Ionesco was a Romanian-born French playwright. He is one of

the major exponents of the School of Paris or The Theatre of the Absurd.

Ionesco tried to dramatize the absurdity of human experience and aspirations, the

emptiness of bourgeois conventions, and the failure of communication between

writers and audiences.

Eugene Ionesco was bom in Slatina, Romania, on November 13, 1909.

His father was a Romanian and mother, a French. As a child he lived in Paris

and learnt French as a mother tongue. He studied at the University of Bucharest.

In 1938 he studied at Sorbonne in France. Ionesco published poetry in Romania.

His first staged work La Cantatrice chauve (1948) was a failure. But his next

plays Les Chaises and L'Rhinoceros became classics of the Theatre of the

Absurd. He was elected to the French Academy in 1970. He died in Paris on

March 28, 1994.

Eugene Ionesco is concerned with the tragedy of western man. In his view

only absurd plays can reveal the realities of the mechanical life of modem man.

His La Cantatrice chauve (The Bald Soprano) depicts the banality of life. Les

Chaises (The Chairs) is a tragic farce in which two old people, isolated on a

remote island, prepare for the arrival of distinguished visitors. Here the stage

rapidly fills with chairs to accommodate the invisible guests, and in the end they

are addressed by a deaf-mute narrator. Ionesco’s other important plays translated

into English are The Lesson (1958), The Killer (1960), Rhinoceros (1984),

Macbett (1973) and Journey among the Dead (1984).

In 1938 Ionesco was doing a research in Paris on “The Theme of sin and

death in French literature since Baudelaire.” Soon came his play The Bald Prima

Donna (in England, and The Bald Soprano in America). He gained some

popularity with Amedee (1954). He became an unofficial spokesman of the

movement of the absurd. The famous controversy with Kenneth Tynan in 1958

shows the seriousness of Ionesco’s commitment to drama. R. N. Coe has called

Ionesco “the most characteristic protagonist of the absurd.” In Arnold P.

Hinchliffe’s view as Ionesco’s work progresses the nightmarish quality asserts

very strongly the basic theme of death. He observes, “I have no other images of

the world, aside from those which express evanescence and hardness, vanity and

anger, nothingness or hideous and useless hate. Everything has only confirmed

what I have seen, what I have understood in my childhood.” So Ionesco

worries about human condition and the presentation of it in the theatre. Ionesco

seems to say life has a meaning which is inexplicable. This is absurd.

As existentialists think human life is insensible. So our acts are

purposeless. Even our language is arbitrary, unable to express the exact

knowledge of the reality. Ionesco is also concerned with the illusion in the

theatre. His The Bald Prima Donna is subtitled ‘An Anti-Play.’ There is an odd

conversation between two characters sumamed Smith. Then two guests,

supposedly a couple, the Martins visit them. The guests engage into a non-

sensible conversation. The play ends with a dialogue by Mr and Mrs Martin. Mr

Martin in response to Mrs Martin’s question what is the moral, replies: “It’s for

you to discover it.” The play has a simple plot, dehumanized character and

absurd language. It was an attack on cliche in life. Ionesco comments on the

absurdity of plays: “I have called my comedies ‘anti-plays,’ ‘comical dramas,’

and my dramas ‘’pseudo-dramas,’ or ‘tragical farces,’ for, it seems to me, the

comical spirit is tragic, and the tragedy of man, derisory. For the modem critical

spirit nothing can be taken entirely seriously, nor entirely lightly.” 34 The so

called twentieth century absurd drama is funny and terrifying, compelling man to

discover a meaning in the meaninglessness. The drama itself does not pass any

value judgments. Ionesco feels life leads to two ultimates, death and anguish.

This can be seen in The Chairs (1952) where an old man and woman live

a mediocre life on an island. The old man wants to tell others something very

important before he could die. He invites the people for it. Chairs are arranged

for the ‘invisible’ guests, and the old couple die by leaping into the sea, allowing

the only visible orator to deliver the message. But the orator leaves and for a

long time we watch the stage, full of chairs, listening to the waves washing on

the walls of the house.

Ionesco’s next play The Killer (1957) is concerned with the proliferation

of objects. In this, Arnold P. Hinchliffe thinks, Ionesco fulfils the dictum of

Artaud that the stage is a place to be filled and parodies the theatrical tradition of

Zola and his followers (as naturalists with living objects). So in his The New

Tenant (1953) a victim of duty is submerged beneath a clutter of furniture.

By 1957 with his play The Killer, Ionesco seemed to be taking a new line.

His hero Berenger reminds us Albert Camus’s absurd heroes, such as Meursault.

Ionesco, as a follower of Camus, is concerned with man’s freedom. This is more

explicit in Rhinoceros (1959) where Jean is more concerned with slogans and

fixed ideas. Berenger, keenly aware of the meaninglessness of everyday

existence, seeks a kind of oblivion in alcohol until the end of the play when he

achieves a heroic position. Jean has blind strength, like a rhinoceros, and

argument is impossible with him. The image ‘rheno’ is amusing, creating power

and violence in the theatre. Critics feel the image ‘rhino’ is a denunciation of

Nazi ideology, the world where life is based on logic. Ionesco’s last play Exit the

King (1962) is full of silence.

Jean Genet was a French writer. He was a versatile figure—a novelist,

playwright and poet. Jean Genet was bom on December 19, 1910 in Paris. When

young, Genet was abandoned and he grew up in a family in the Moravan. His

childhood records are bleak, often Genet getting into troubles. In fact, he began

writing first in a prison. He detested the bourgeois society. By 1947 his work had

drawn the attention of such writers as Andre Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, and

Cocteau. Between 1942 and 1948 Genet wrote several autobiographical novels

celebrating thievery and homosexuality. His prose is erotic, scatological and

intensely religious, and the novels resemble extended prose poems. From Our

Lady of the Flowers (1944) through Querelle of Brest (1947), Genet explored the

emotions of society’s outcasts, displaying with each work greater intellectual

detachment and more stylistic control. The Thief’s Journal (1949) is Genet’s


Genet wrote for the theatre. His first play Death Watch (1947) uses the

prison setting of his earlier works. His plays depict a landscape of loneliness and

despair. In David Galloway’s words, “Genet’s theatre is a world of illusions, a

dance of death between appearance and reality. Traditional concepts of

character, plot and motivation are abandoned in favour of concentration on states

of mind, rituals and the fertile search for reality as in The Maids (1946), The

Balcony (1957), The Blacks (1959) and The Screens (1961), in which illusion

and impersonation are both major dramatic devices and central themes.”

As for the depiction of the Absurd, Genet’s The Thiefs Journal makes an

interesting reading. Martin Esslin seizes upon an image drawn from this work of

a man caught in a hall of mirrors, ‘trapped by his own distorted reflections trying

to find the way to make contact with the others he can see around him but being

rudely stopped by barriers of glass.”36 Critics observe such an image exactly

contains and connects isolation, the failure of communication, distortion of

experience and in its mirror effect, the existential situation.

Critics find the themes of social protest in Genet’s plays. In Martin

Esslin’s view we find the abandonment of character, motivation in favour of

states of mind, devaluation of language as a means of communication, the

rejection of didactic purpose, alienation, and finally the search for meaning in his

works. Jean-Paul Sartre in his fine study Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr (1952)

finds in Genet an instance of existential man, who chooses his own self and acts

out the consequences. He observes, “The more horrible their situation, the tighter

their gap. The more absurd the world is today, the more necessary it is to hold

out until tomorrow. Tomorrow, dawn will break. The present darkness is warrant

of the fact. Genet is one of them.”37 Another critic R. N. Coe points out that

Genet’s concept of the independent voices of objects does link him with Camus,

Ionesco and the Pataphysicians, and plunges him into the paradoxes of the

Absurd situation; but Genet arrives there by developing his own first principles.

It is said there are hardly any traces of specially absurdist influences in the

novels or dramas until The Scenes, and yet The Thiefs Journal which develops
this vision are “among the classic documents in any history of the Absurd.”

Arthur Adamov is a French-Russian playwright. He was one of the

leading exponents of the avant-garde theatre in France. He was bom in

Kislovodsk, Russia on August 23, 1908. He was brought up in France and

Germany. In 1924 he settled in Paris, and following World War II he became

editor of a Paris literary review, L 'heure nouvelle.

Adamov began to write for the stage in the mid-1940s, and most of his

works were produced in France in the next decade. His earlier plays which

include La parody, L'invasion, Le professeur taranne and Le ping-pong are

classified as works of the Theatre of the Absurd, for they are imbued with the

sense of the futility and absurdity of life. With Paolo Paoli (1957), however,

Adamov changed course. This work is an epic drama in the tradition of Bertolt

Brecht. Adamov also is noted as a translator and adapter of foreign works for the

French stage, including Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. He died in Paris on

March 16, 1970.

Arthur Adamov is less concerned with the Theatre of the Absurd. Yet his

work The Confession (1938) deals with the absurd. In Martin Esslin’s view: “It

is a brilliant statement of the metaphysical anguish that forms the basis of the

absurd.”39 In his play La Parodie (1945) Adamov avoids the subtleties of plot,

characterization and language, producing a theatre of gesture. The problems of

communication continue to obsess him in his next play L’Invision (1951). He

combines affirmative and negative attitudes. Le Ping Pong is about life and the

futility of human endeavour. It is stated: “But while Le Ping-Pong merely

asserted that whatever you do, in the end you die. Le Ping-Pong provides a

powerful and closely integrated argument to back that proposition - it also

shows how so much of human endeavour becomes futile, and why’”40

Arthur Adamov appears to have lost his interest in Absurd Theatre later.

He developed an interest in Brechtian epic theatre. His play Paolo Paoli is an

example for this. Arnold P. Hinchliffe observes, “ In fact, as we have seen,

Absurdity has its now built-in obsolescence. The thorough-going nature of its

revolt (and it is much more thorough-going than previous revolutionary

movements, such as those of Ibsen and Stindberg) ensures that it must be either a

terminus ad quem or a terminus ab quo. Robert Corrigan has pointed out that, if

a logically motivated hero and well-knit plot give meaning - spurious, illusory,

and absurd, and distorted - to the act which exists - alone and absurd - and rob

it of its elemental importance which is simply absurdity, such absurdity is ill-

suited to the extensiveness of literature, be it novel or drama. Making situation

into the source of absurd drama is exciting because dramatic situation is the

essence of theatre, but it is also seriously limiting, and it is no accident that most

absurd dramas tend to be written in one act.”41

Herold Pinter is an English playwright and director. His plays are

remarkable for their combinations of the commonplace and the bizarre and their

preoccupation with the alienation of the individual, both from himself and from

his fellowmen.

Herald Pinter was bom in London on October 10, 1930. He studied

briefly at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and performed several

plays in England and Ireland. He began writing plays in 1950s.

Pinter’s plays The Birthday Party (1957), The Caretaker (1959), The

Lover (1963), The Homecoming (1965), Old Times (1971), The Collection

(1962) and No Man's Land (1975) have brought him a good name as absurd

plays. Pinter also wrote one actors like The Dumbwaiter and The Room. His

screenplays include The Servant (1963), Accident (1967) and The Go-Between

(1969). He directed the plays The Man on the Gloss Booth (1967) and Butley

(1971). He became even an associate director of the national theatre.

Herald Pinter is a follower of Samuel Beckett. In a way just like Beckett,

Pinter is pre-occupied with self—his basic question being: who or what am I?

Pinter’s quest is Socratician. Like Beckett, Pinter thinks human language is

inadequate for a proper communication. For example, he makes use of rooms

and furniture in the way of Ionesco for some kind of communication. Pinter’s

use of objects suggests both helpfulness and helplessness. The walls of such

rooms are protection and isolation and the failure to communicate stems less

from the inability of language to do so and more from the unwillingness of

people to expose themselves. As John Bowen puts it: “ Mr Pinter’s buses really

run; his observation may be appalled, but it is exact. His characters do not use

language to show that language does not work; they use it as a cover for fear and

loneliness”42 Pinter’s language with its exact repetitions and hesitations is in

tone with the Absurd. The accumulated junk and rubbish of his The Caretaker is

just like Ionesco’s language. Aston’s use of fragmentary language and

trafficking with the Absurd is surprising. John Russell Taylor describes Pinter’s

method as orchestrated/naturalism and it is a style which excluded cosmic

disorders and grotesque fantasy of the kind we associate with the Theatre of the

Absurd. In Pinter’s play absurdity emerges often and again. Pinter verifies the

blindness of man in The Room, the crime of man like Stanley in The Birthday

Party, a match-seller in A Slight Ache, the problems of two gangsters in The

Dumb Waiter. He introduces sex in The Caretaker. He writes of man’s

emotional attitudes. From Night School to The Homecoming he explores the

multiple possibilities of relationships with woman, once more blending the

humorous with the savage. There is a verbal scenery in The Basement and

Landscape. Critics call Pinter a poet of the theatre as he is capable of creating

verbal music in plays. Therefore, Martin Esslin calls Pinter an absurd

playwright. This is seen in Pinter’s mastery of dialogue, accuracy of observation,

originality, fertility and poetical vision.

What is true of classicism and romanticism as being the universal

phenomena, explicit in all ages and times is also true of the absurd. As Martin

Esslin thinks the theatre of the absurd cannot be a literary movement or school,

for it lies in literature in many ways and always. Yet post -Second World War

theatre and to some extent fiction are imbued with existentialists concerns.

Modem age is full of the absurd. Modem dramatists have tried to establish a new

convention. They are making ceaseless experimentation. The writers like Samuel

Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet and Harold Pinter are not

the only absurd playwrights. A number of writers of their generation as well as

the following generation have been writing absurd plays. A critical survey of

them will show a future line of development.

Jean Tardieu (b. 1903) a pre-World War poet is known for his wide range

of experiment in Absurd Theatre. After the war he tried to explore the limits of

the possibilities of the theatre. He was a staff of the French radio and TV.

Tardieu’s dramatic experiments, published in two volumes Theatre de Chambre

(1955) and poems Jouer (1960) are of a wide range, extending from the fantastic

and errie to the purely lyrical, and beyond it into the sphere of wholly abstract

theatre in which language loses all conceptual content and merges into musig,

Tardieu’s play Qui Est La? (1947) is like Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna. It

starts with a similar situation—in which we find a family of father, mother and

son seated around a dinner table. The father enquires his wife and son over

certain things but lie answers himself. For example, “What did you do this

morning? 1 went to school. And you? I went to the market. What did you get?

Vegetables, more expensive than yesterday, and meat, cheaper. Just as well, one

makes up for the other. And you, what did the teacher tell you? That I was

making good progress....”43 Tardieu makes use of mystery, hidden motives and

guilty secrets. Yet his is a plotless theatre. Music is exploited in Theatre de

Chambre, Characters are called A, B, and C. Equally his plays in the volume Les

Amants du Metro {The Lovers in the Undergrounds) have no music and dance.

There is just a kind of word play. The plays display the anonymity and hostility

of mass society. His Les Amants du Metro displays rhythmic language. Tardieu

describes his play A, B, C of our Life as ‘a poem for acting.’ It is a concerto to

look at. His play Une Voix Sans personae (A Voice Without Anyone) has no


Boris Vian is another playwright. Ionesco has influenced him highly. His

L ’equarrissager Pour Tous (1949) is a comic farce. Les batisseurs d’ Empire is

described as a poetic image of mortality, and the fear of death. In act I father,

mother, daughter Zenobie and their maid, Cruche are shown taking possession of

a two-room apartment. In act II they are one floor higher, in a one-room

apartment. The maid leaves them, and their daughter, who has gone to the

landing, cannot return to them when the door mysteriously closes. Only the

father and mother are left. The world becomes narrower and narrower for them.

In the third act the father is seen entering a tiny attic room, so terrified of the

noise that he barricades the entrance before his wife can get to him. He is alone.

But the noise, the terrifying noise of the approach of death, cannot be excluded.

And now there is nowhere the father can escape to. He dies.

If in Les batisseurs d' Empire the flight from death takes the form of

trying to escape upwards, the same appears in the opposite direction in Dino

Buzzati’s play Un Caso Clinico (1953). Albert Camus adapted it for stage in

Paris in 1955. The play is about a businessman hospitalized for his ill-health.

The hospital has seven floors, the floors downward showing hellish atmosphere.

Buzzati shows his hero Giovanni Corte’s descent. The play depicts the death of a

rich man; his gradual loss of contact with reality; and, above all, the

imperceptible manner of his descent and its sudden revelation to him. The

hospital is a miniature society as if in conspiracy with an individual. If Boris

Vian’s Les batisseurs d’ Empire shows man in active flight from death, Un Caso

Clinico depicts him gradually overtaken by old age and illness, while totally

unaware of what is happening. The process of dying convinces the fact that man

loses his personality.

Ezio D’ Errico’s plays criticize the absurdity of modem man. The play II

Formicaio (The Anthill) depicts a dehumanized place in which the herd,

Casimiro ends up by losing not only his individuality but even the natural gift of

speech. The work Temp de cavallette (Times of the Locusts) shows post war Italy

as a mined village inhabited by selfish opportunists. When Joe, the Italo-

American, arrives to share his wealth with the people of his homeland, he is

murdered by a pair of juvenile delinquents. He appears as a Christ-like figure,

but the inhabitants are destroyed in a holocaust - of locusts - which is nothing

but the destruction of the village. Only a boy survives as the hope of the new

world. Martin Esslin says D’Errico’s experimental plays daunted the theatre of

his native Italy. His next play La Foresta (The Forest) symbolizes the modem

mechanical civilization: broken telegraph growing out of a soil of concrete. In

the spring, “the concrete burgeons like a mould, a filthy mould that rises,

stratifies, and invades everything.”44

If D’Enrico’s is a dream world, Manuel De Pedrolo depicts a kind of

geometrical austerity. De Pedrolo’s one-act play Cruma (1957) is a study of

human isolation. De Pedrolo’s second play Homes i No (Humans and No, 1958)

is described as ‘an investigation in two acts.’ Here is a strange inhuman

character called No who sleeps much of the time. And two couples, Fabi and

Selena in one cage, and Bret and Eliana in another try to overpower their jailer.

The couples hope to escape. They think if not they their children will do it. In the

second act, a boy, Feda and a girl, Sorre appear in different cages. They like to

escape, love and live together. Critics view Homes i No as an investigation into

the problem of liberty.

Fernando Arrabal’s first play, Pique-nique en campagne may be

translated as ‘a picnic in the country’ (battlefield) depicts a soldier, Zapo in

isolation of the front line of the fighting. His parents come to visit him. Soon

Zapo captures an enemy and the latter is invited for a picnic. When all go for a

picnic, a machine-gun explodes wiping them all. As a Chaplinesque comedy it

does not have a happy ending. The play has a strange mixture of innocence and

cruelty. In Les Deux Bourreaux (The Two Executioner) conventional morality is

presented as self-contradictory. A woman, Francoise, comes with her two

children Benoit and Maurice, to denounce her husband to the two executioners

of the title. He is guilty of some unspecified crime. Francoise rejoices in her

husband’s suffering. But Maurice protests to her. Finally the mother and children


Max Firisch, like his compatriot Friedrich Durrenmatt writes about

contemporary problems in a vein of disillusioned tragicomedy. They resemble

Bernard Shaw and Bertolt Brecht. Max Firisch’s play Biedermann und die

Brandstifter (1958) is an absurd play. Labelled a ‘didactic play without a lesson,’

it tells a tale of a highly respectable bourgeois. Biedermann means bourgeois.

The bourgeois is a manufacturer of hair lotion whose house is invaded by a trio

of shady characters. Many guests come to his house and village. But they are

incendiaries and one of them sums up their situation. It is observed : “Jocularity

is the third-best kind of camouflage; the second-best is sentimentality...But the

best and safest camouflage is still the pure, naked truth. Funnily enough, no one

believes it...”45 The play is about destruction. The epilogue depicts Biederman

in a hell. The play is a political satire.

Critics say Hitler’s rise and fall gave way to absurdity - in thinking in

Germany. If we believe Martin Esslin, the Theatre of the Absurd is more

successful in Germany than elsewhere.

Wolfgang Hildesheimer (b. 1916), one of the first German dramatists to

take up the idiom of the Theatre of the Absurd, spent the war years abroad and

he is still an Israeli citizen. Originally a painter he started writing fantastic radio

plays—picaresque tales of forgers and grotesque oriental romances. He switched

over to absurd plays. Wolfgang Hildesheimer compares the Theatre of the

Absurd to a theatre of parables. He observes, “The story of the prodigal son is

also a parable. But it is a parable of a different kind. Let us analyze the

difference - the story of the prodigal son is a parable deliberately conceived to

allow an indirect statement (that is, to give the opportunity to reach a conclusion

by analogy), while the ‘absurd’ play becomes a parable of life precisely through

the intentional omission of any statement. For life, too, makes no statement.”46

Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s volumes of plays called Spiele in denen es dunkel

wird (Plays in which darkness Falls) focuses on human absurdity. As each of the

three plays unfolds, the light fades. In Pastorale oder Die Zeit fur kakao

(Pastoral or Time for Cocoa), some elderly characters disport themselves in a

strange syncopation of dialogue concerned with business matters and stock-

exchange deals, with artistic and poetic overtones (a mixture very characteristic

of the tone of West German society today). As the light grows darker, summer

turns into autumn and winter, and death overtakes the president of a big

company, a consul, and a mining engineer.

Robert Pinget’s play Lettre Morte is based on his novel Le Fiston (1959)

which is epistoleric addressed by an abandoned father to his prodigal son. The

father writes letters to his son though he does not know where he has gone. Le

Fiston has a series of endless letters, lacking pagination. The play Lette Morte

puts the character Monsieur Levert on the stage. We see Monsieur Levert in two

situations - in the bar, opening his heart to the bartender, and in the post office,

trying to persuade the clerk behind the counter to have another good look to see

whether there is not somewhere, after all, a letter from his lost son that might

have gone astray. The old man waits in unhope as the two tramps in Waiting for

Godot. He worries as to why his son left him. When he sits in a bar he watches

two street players staging a play The Prodigal Son, depicting the old man’s story


N. F. Simpson’s plays are philosophical. His first play A Resounding

Tinkle (1957) is based on the English class system. If Pinter’s world is one of

tramps and junior clerks, Simpson’s is unmistakably suburban. The action of the

play involving the Paradocks takes place in a suburban lower middle class. The

Paradocks purchase a snake toy for an elephant toy and invite some comedians

to entertain them at home. Their son Don comes home but has turned into a

young woman. Simpson’s second play The Hole (1957) portrays a group of

people reacting differently about a hole in a street. The discussion around the

hole becomes a survey of the fantasy life of an English village. The Hole is a

philosophical fable. In his third play One Way Pendulum a nonsense world is


The trend of the Theatre of the Absurd is explicit in France, Italy, Spain,

Germany, Switzerland and Great Britain. The Theatre of the Absurd is also there

in other parts, especially in America.

According to Martin Esslin there are some reasons for the dearth of

absurd plays in American literature. He observes, “the convention of the absurd

springs from a feeling of deep disillusionment, the draining away of the sense of

meaning and purpose in life, which has been characteristic of countries like

France and Britain in the years after the Second World War. In the United States

there has been no corresponding loss of meaning and purpose. The American

Dream of the good life is still very strong. In the United States the belief in

progress that characterized Europe in the nineteenth century has been maintained

into the middle of the twentieth. It is only since the events of the 1970’s -

Watergate and defeat in Vietnam - that this optimism has received some sharp


Edward Albee is an American practitioner of the Theatre of the Absurd.

Edward Franklin Albee is a playwright who ranks as one of the leading

American dramatists of the 20th century. His plays characterized as the ‘Theatre

of the Absurd’ focus on man’s tendency to torment others and destroy himself.

Edward Albee was bom in Washington, D. C., on March 12, 1928. When

a child, he was adopted by Reid Albee, the son of a vaudeville producer Edward

Albee. He grew up in New York and graduated from Choate in 1946. He settled

down in New York City and held various posts in the 1950’s. Edward Albee

wanted to become a writer. First he wrote poetry and novels. His The Zoo Story,

a one-act drama is about a psychopathic homosexual who induces an innocent

stranger to kill him, won the 1960 Veron Rice award. His next three one-acters

are The Death of Bessie Smith, The Sandbox and The American Dream. The first

depicts tensions between the races and the sexes of Memphis; and the second

and the third plays ridicule American middle class values. Albee’s best play

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolj? (1964)is a savage but witty dissection of two

marriages in an academic setting. His later plays include A Delicate Balance

(1966), Everything in the Garden (1967), Boy and Quotations from Chairman

Mao Tse-Tung (1968), All Over (1971), Seascape (1975) and The Lady from

Bubuque (1980). A Delicate Balance and Seascape won him Pulitzer Prizes. He

also attempted several novels for the stage. Among these are The Ballad of the

Sad Cafe (1963) from Carson McCullers; Malcolm (1966) from James Purdy;

and Lolita (1981) from Vladimir Nabokov are important.


Once the Theatre of the Absurd established itself in the Western Europe,

its influence began to spread in other parts of the world. Soviet bloc and its

neighbors are prominent among them. Kafka’s fiction which spread the theme of

degeneration made it clear. Kafka criticized the tyranny of totalitarianism in

Europe. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, when staged in Poland in 1956, convinced

the people about frustration in life. Poland, a nation that provides enough liberty

to artists and writers created a new climate for the absurd plays to be written.

Slawomir Mrozek’s first play Policja (The Police, 1958) is a Kafkaesque

parable. Policja describes a situation in a mythical country where police crush

the opposition to the tyrannical rule. There remains only one suspect without

confiding with the police. When he joins the ruling regime the police lose its

raison d’etre. The police chief, to see the police forces remain in their jobs,

stimulates a police to commit a political crime.

Tadeusz Rozewicz began as a lyrical poet. An atmosphere of dream and

nightmare pervades his plays. Rozewicz is conscious of the threat to man in our

times. His first play Kartoteka (The Card Index, 1960) presents the life of its

hero changing his memory lane constantly.

These lines depict the grotesque of human existence. Rozewicz’s next

play Grupa Laokoona (The Laocoon Group, 1962) satirizes eastern European’s

taste for holidaying in Western Europe. His third play The Witness is like his

first one in its lyrical vein. Rozewicz is an experimenter. His Smieszny Staruszek

(The Ridiculous Old Man, 1964) is about a bizarre situation. Akt pzerwany (The

Interrupted Act, 1965) shows the author’s mind as the scene of the play.

Vaclav Havel is a famous Czech playwright and political leader. Havel

was bom to well-off parents on October 5, 1936 in Prague. First he worked in a

lab and then got admitted to a technical college where he studied economics for

two years. After some service in army he worked in a Prague theatre. So he

became a playwright. Though Czechoslovakia Government did not allow the

production and publication of his plays, they were published and staged abroad,

bringing him fame. His plays The Garden Party, The Memorandum, Audience

and Protest are absurdist-parables of life under totalitarianism.


Interestingly the Theatre of the Absurd is as old as the play. Only it was

not so explicit as it became in the 19,h centuiy because the traits of it were not so

prominent in ancient drama. Martin Esslin says, “Its novelty lies in its somewhat

unusual combination of such antecedents, and a survey of these will show that

what may strike the unprepared spectator as iconoclastic and incomprehensible

innovation is in fact merely an expression, revaluation, and development of

procedures that are familiar and completely acceptable in only slightly different


According to Martin Esslin the Theatre of the Absurd combines some

peculiar traits of drama. The age old Theatre of the Absurd has the following


“’Pure’ theatre; i.e. abstract scenic effects as they are familiar in the

circus or revue, in the work ofjugglers, acrobats, bullfighters, or mimes

Clowning, following and mad-scene

Verbal nonsense

The literature of dream and fantasy, which often has a strong allegorical


Pure or abstract scenic effects include some anti-literary attitudes. Here

rituals or some non-verbal forms are used. For example, in Genet’s use of

stylized action, the proliferation of things in Ionesco, the music-hall routines

with hats in Waiting for Godot, the extemalization of the characters’ attitudes in

Adamov’s plays. And in Tardieu’s use of sound we find ‘pure’ theatre. It is well-

known that theatre is more than mere language. It is manifest in performance.

Jugglery, acrobatics, processions and the like have abstract theatrical effects.

They are mathematical. As William Hazlitt puts it in his essay “Indian Jugglers”

by using actions man can do strange things. Friedrich Nietzsche also speaks of

the power of actions. Stage has always drawn some strength from clowns. Right

from the beginning mimus (mimes) added much to the sublime of drama. A

stupid clown is used to create absurdity and laughter. Some of the shorter

performance that remained without plot consisted of animal imitations, dances,

or juggling tricks. Fantasies were another kind. Hermann Reich quotes Apuleius:

“We shall have to think not only of the lower meaning of hullucinari as ‘talking

at random, talking nonsense,’ but also of its more elevated meaning of

‘dreaming, to talk and think strange things.’ Indeed, with all its realism, the

mimus not infrequently contained curious dreams and hallucinations, as in the

plays of Aristophanes. In a gloss to Juvenal, the mimes are called paradox. And

in fact everything fantastic is paradoxical, as are also the mimicae ineptiae,

clowning and foolery. The expression probably refers to both these aspects.

Thus, in the mimus, high and low, serious, even horrifying matters are

miraculously mingled with the burlesque and humorous; fat realism with highly

fantasticated and magical elements.”49

Aristophanes’ comedies used a lot of accessory elements for creating

laughter. Folk theatre is another means where the absurd is employed. Such rich

Roman mimes are fooling, clowning and jesting. E. Tietze-Conrat says, “The

long stick he carries was the wooden sword of the comic actor in ancient

times.”50 Both clowns and jesters appear in Shakespeare’s comedies. Inverted

logical reasoning, false syllogism, free association and feigned madness are there

always. So both the fantastic and nonsensical have an accepted tradition. The

low type of moron like Bemardine in Measure for Measure or Bottom’s

transformation into an ass in A Midsummer Night ’s Dream for displaying his

animal nature show the absurdity of human conditions. The following lines of

Troilus and Cresside underlines this:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;

They kill us for their sport.51

Equally important is commedia dell ’arte with its Zanni and Arlecchini in

Italy which is embedded in the Theatre of the Absurd. As Hermann Reich thinks

there is a deep affinity between the Roman mime and commedia dell'arte.

Commedia dell ’arte makes use of simpletons and illogicity. The recurring types

of the sly and lecherous servant, the braggart, the glutton and the senile old man

project man’s absurdity. Moliere and Marivaux in France and Grimaldi in

England have kept the tradition of commedia dell’arte alive. A part of the

harlequinale merged into the tradition of the English music hall and American

vaudeville with its cross talk, comedians, tap-dancers and comic songs. Dan

Leno kind of theatre personalities have improved it. Dan Leno used to ask: “Dan

Leno’s patter sometimes contained passages of almost philosophical nonsense

strongly reminiscent of the Theatre of the Absurd - when for example, he asked,

‘Ah, what is man? Wherefore does he why? Whence did he whence? Whither is

he withering?”’52

Much of the Roman mime and medieval commedia dell ’arte have come

down in the 20 century silent comedy of the Keystone Cops, Charlie Chaplin

and Buster Keaton. Martin Esslin thinks the silent film comedy is one of the

decisive influences on the Theatre of the Absurd. It has the quality of absurdity,

staging wordless and purposeless action. The talkie era however changed this

opening a vista for the old vaudeville tradition. Laurel and Hardy, W. C. Field

and the Marx Brothers influenced Absurd Theatre. Ionesco himself told to the

audience at the American premiere of The Shepherd’s Chameleon that “the

French Surrealists had ‘nourished’ him but that the three biggest influences on

his work had been Croucho, Chico and Harp Marx.”53 Interestingly, the Marx

Brothers and W. C. Field are brilliant Surrealist comedians, skilled jugglers and

musicians. In modem cinema Jacques Tatis Monsieur Hulot is a great figure.

Martin Esslin says the tradition of the commedia dell 'arte reappears in a

number of other guises. Puppet theatre and the Punch and Judy shows are two

examples nearer to the Theatre of the Absurd. Europe’s Pickelherrings and Hans

Wursts who dominated the 17 and 18 centuries folk theatre are another

instance of the Absurd Theatre. Folk theatre in Australia and Vienne are very

rich. Ferdinand Raimund (1813-1837) and Christian Dietrich Grabbe (1801-

1836) were pioneers of projecting the absurd of life. Later antecedents of the

absurd include Wedekind, the Dadaists, German Expressionism and the early


The literature of verbal nonsense is ‘another offshoot of the absurd.

“Delight in nonsense,”54 says Sigmand Freud in his study of the sources of the

comic. Freud added that this nonsense is covered up in serious life almost to the

point of disappearance. Nonsense literature has lightened the burden of life.

There are nonsense rhymes right from the beginning. Nonsense rhymes as that of

‘Humpty Dumpty’ are quite popular and sung in many countries. Martin Esslin

observes nonsense literature expresses more than mere playfulness. When

Francois Rabelais imagined a world of giants with superhuman appetites, he

opened up a glimpse into the infinite. Verbal nonsense has a metaphysical ouere

to it.

The great master of English nonsense verse Lewis Carroll was a

mathematics don. So was Edward Lear, a naturalist. Lear’s song ‘The Dong with

a Luminous Nose,’ speaks of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo who inhabits the ‘coast of

Coromandel’ where the early pumpkins blew. In Lewis Carroll’s Through the

Looking Glass we find Alice forgetting her name in the woods: she encounters a

fawn that has also forgotten its identity. We find a similar kind of absurdity in

German nonsense poet Christian Morgenstem (1871-1914)’s verse. Even Dr

Johnson, Hilaire Beloc and Harry Graham have some elements of the nonsense

universe. Nonsense prose is attempted by Laurence Sterne and Mark Twain;

while Ring Lardner (1885-1933) has written nonsense plays. Gustave Flaubert

and James Joyce have used cliches. So are mythical, allegorical and dreamlike

modes of thought projecting the absurd of life. Myths as collective dreams still

appear in the longings of the modem man. Life is equated with a dream as in

Shakespeare’s plays. After allegories fantasies began dominating. Swift’s

Gullivers Trcrvels is an instance. Goethe attempted it in Faust. The depiction of

dreams in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Strindberg’s To Damascus have a direct source

of the Theatre of the Absurd. James Joyce’s language displays signs of

absurdity. Then Kafka’s adopted play The Trial has much to show the same. His

depiction of the arbitrary world, and irrationality are exceptional.

Next to this Jarry, Apollinaire, the Dadaists, some of the German

Expressionists, the Surrealists and the prophets of a wild and ruthless theatre,

like Artaud and Vitrac matter. When Jarry’s play Ubu Roi(1896) was staged it

created a furor. His is a revolt against the rational well made play of the fin de

siecle. Ubu Roi was originally a prank aimed at a teacher (called Pere Hebe/

Ubu). Ubu is a savage seen through the cruel eyes of a school boy. It is about

man’s cruelty and ruthlessness. Ubu becomes a king of Poland, kills and tortures

all and sundry, is finally chased out of the country. The audience of the

performance included Arthur Simons, Jules Renard, W. B. Yeats and Mallarme.

Yeats recorded that the play marked the end of an era in art. In 1900 Jarry wrote

a sequel Ubu Enchaine in which Ubu arrives in exile in France and in order to be

different in a country of free men, he turns into a slave.

Guillaume Apollinaire’s play Les Mamelles de Tiresias (Tiresuas's

Breasts, 1917) is just like Jarry’s Ubu Roi. It is a grotesque vaudeville. His

Couleur du temps (The Colour of Time) is a verse play in which a group of

aviators escape from the war; arrive at the south pole, where they want to find

eternal peace; discover a beautiful woman frozen into the ice ; and kill each

other fighting for her. It is an allegorical dream.

The Dada movement which began in Zurich during the war among

French, German and other European refuges and conscientious objectors and

which thus merged a Parisian with a central European tradition, also involved

writers, painters and sculptors. The founder-members included Tristan Tzara

(1896-1963), Romanian poet Hugo Ball (1892-1974) and his wife Emmy

Hennings (1885-1948), Richard Huelsenbeck (1892-1974), Hans Arp (1887-

1966) and Marcel Janco (b. 1895). The movement owed its name to a lucky dip

into a French dictionary. The Dadaists destroyed the conventional bourgeois art.

Tzara noted in his diary: “ The performance decided the role of our theatre,

which will leave the direction to the subtle invention of the explosive wind (of

spontaneity), with the scenario in the auditorium, visible direction, and grotesque

means - the Dadaist theatre.”55

The German Expressionism has its own contribution to the rise and

growth of the Theatre of the Absurd. Yvan Goll (1891-1950), as a Jew, made use

of the grotesque to attack the inhuman bourgeois. Goll’s play Der Umterbliche

depicts a musician who loses his mistress to a tycoon and sells his soul to him

for a large sum of money.

Among Goll’s German contemporary, the best one is Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht followed Goll, calling him a Corteline of expressionism. Brecht’s plays

range from anarchic poetic drama to Marxist didacticism. He makes use of

clowning and music hall humour for depicting modem man’s problem of

identity crisis. Im Dickicht de stadte (in the Jungle of Cities, 1921) foreshadows

the Theatre of the Absurd. The play depicts a fight to the death between two

men, Garda and Shlink, who are old friends with a strange relationship of love

and hatred.

Once German expressionism ceased and Dadaism became weak the

Surrealist movement took off. The Surrealism, unlike Dadaism was positive. As

Andre Breton put it, “Surrealism was a pure psychic automatism by which it is

proposed to express, verbally, in writing or in any other way, the real functioning

of thought.”56 Louis Aragon’s L ’ Armoire a Glace un Beau Soir (The Mirror-

Wardrobe one Beautiful Evening) is a fine sketch. Here a soldier meets a nude-

woman, the president of the republic appears with a Negro general and Siamese

twin sisters appeal to the President for permission to marry separately. And

fairies are introduced. Aragon’s second play An Pied duMur (At the Foot of the

Walls) uses the same method. Two good Surrealists to influence the Theatre of

the Absurd are Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) and Roger Vitrac (1899-1952).

Vitrac’s Les Mysteres de I’Amour (The Mysteries ofLove) is a Surrealist play. It

has lovers’ sadistic fantasies. Here past, present and future merge in dreamlike

fashion. Vitrac’s second play Victor, ou Les Enfants au Paouvoir (Victor, or

Power to the Children, 1924) has a boy hero Victor who loves Esther. Victor’s

father loved Esther’s mother. When the young lovers expose their parents’

adultery, Ester’s father hangs himself. When nine years old Victor dies, his

parents commit suicide. It is said Victor anticipates Ionesco.

Antonin Artaud directed Vitrac’s Surrealist plays. Artaud was an actor,

director and even a madman. He was a great stage genius of his age. Artaud

made use of myth and magic to expose the in-depth of man’s mind. His theatre is

known as Theatre of Cruelty. Artaud thinks man has too many indifferent

conflicts in his mind. That is to say he is cruel. The theater restores to us all of

our dormant conflicts.

Martin Esslin thinks Artaud has formulated the basic tenets of the Theatre

of the Absurd by the 1930s. But he did not put it into practice. The only chance

he got to do was when he found backers for the performance of Cenci (which

Stendhal and Shelley exploited). So Artaud became a bridge between the

pioneers and later day’s Theatre of the Absurd. Another poet Robert Desnos

(1900-1945) wrote a Surrealist play La Placede VEtiole (1927) which refers to a

starfish as the symbol of the dreams and desires of its hero. The play anticipated

Ionesco’s anti-piece. Later Raymond Radiguet (1903-1923)’s play Les Pelicans

(The Pelicans, 1921) anticipated Ionesco’s onslaught on the bourgeois. Rene

Daumal (1908-1944) and Roger Gilbert Lecomte (1907-1943) wrote equally

nonsensical plays in Jarryesque spirit. Julien Torma (1902-1933) wrote some

extraordinary nonsensical plays. The hero of his play Coupures (Cuts) is

presented as fate. His next play Le Betroy begins in disaster and ends in chaos.

This kind of nonsense is found in Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and Christian

Morgenstem. Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) who travelled the world was quite

undramatie of the drama. From Apollinaire to the Surrealists and beyond, there

appeared many painters and sculptors who wrote haunting plays. For example,

Kokoschka and Ernst Barlach (1870-1938) made use of mythical feature of the

Theatre of the Absurd. So did Picasso. Stanislaw Witkiewicz (1885-1939)’s

plays are full of dream, madness and parody. Another Polish novelist Witold

Gombrowicz (1904-1969)’s play Iwona (1935) takes us to the fairy world of

Hans Christian Andersen. His play Slub (1963) is a dream play. The Spanish

writer Ramon del Valle-Inclan (1866-1936) wrote Las Galas del Wefunto The

Gala of death) and Los Cuernos de Don friolera (The Horns of Don Friolera),

both caricatures of life. The plays of Federico Garcia Lorca have a similar


In the English speaking theatre Gertrude Stein understood of Dadaism

and Surrealism and wrote the play Four saints in Three Acts. F. Scott

Fitzegerald’s play The Vegetable (1922), as a grotesque nonsense, is an early

example of the absurd. So is E. E. Cumming’s play him (1927). Bentley,

however, quotes Cumming’s dialogue between the Author and the Public, in

which the author says, ‘ far as you are concerned ‘life’ is a verb of two

voices, active, to do, and passive, to dream. Others believe doing to be only a

kind of dreaming. Still others have discovered (in a mirror surrounded with

mirrors) something harder than silence but softer than falling: the third voice of

‘life’ which believes itself and which cannot mean because it is.”57 Finally

Martin Esslin observes, “This, surely, is a perfect statement of the philosophy of

the Theatre of the Absurd, in which the world is seen as a hall of reflecting

mirrors, and reality merges imperceptibly into fantasy.”58


When Nietzsche’s Zaratustra descended from his mountains to preach to

mankind he met a saint. The latter said he could stay with him, praising God. But

Zaratustra refused as he believed God was already dead. Since Nietzsche’s

Zaratustra which appeared in 1883, the number of atheists has increased

manifold. So now there is no organizing force in the world. The world is

deprived of an integrating principle like religion and God and things are falling


The Theatre of the Absurd is an expression of this search. It says since the

art forms of yore, of a religious era have lost their validity, one must try for a

new architectonics. The absurd theatre tries to convince man the ultimate

realities of his condition. The Theatre of the Absurd has two purposes to do so.

Firstly it castigates, satirically the absurdity of life lived unaware and

unconscious of ultimate reality. Albert Camus puts it in The Myth of Sisyphus: “

In certain hours of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of their gestures, their

senseless pantomime, makes stupid everything around them. A man speaking on

the telephone behind a glass portion - one cannot hear him but observe his trivial

gesturing. One asks oneself, why is he alive? This malaise in front of man’s own

inhumanity, this incalculable letdown when faced with the image of what we are,

this ‘nausea,’ as a contemporary writer calls it, also is the Absurd.”59

This is the experience that Ionesco expresses in plays like The Bald Prima

Donna or The Chairs, Adamov in La Parodie, or N. F. Simpson in A Resounding

Tinkle, In Martin Esslin’s view, it represents the satirical, parasitic aspect of a

petty society. In its another aspect, the absurd expresses man’s fears, doubts and

difficulties in view of his deprival of religious certainties. So man must face life

even when he is stripped of accidental benefits (for example by birth as a

Brahmin) and historical positions (for example, privileges of the sons of royal


So man has his own predilections: waiting for a saviour in Beckett’s

plays, climbing high in Vian’s play, or sinking down in Buzzati’s, or man

rebelling against death in Ionesco’s Tueur sans gages, or hiding reality in

Genet’s plays, or trying to establish his position or break out into freedom, or

striking up in his subjectivity. The Theatre of the Absurd makes man aware of

his precarious and mysterious position in the universe. In the absence of

metaphysical value system, it depicts man’s confrontation in the depth of his

personality, his dreams, fantasies and nightmares. It depicts man’s sense of being

and of course, it has its own form to express it. It is observed: “ As the Theatre

of the Absurd is not concerned with conveying information or presenting the

problems or destinies of characters that exist outside the author’s inner world, as

it does not expound a thesis or debate ideological propositions, it is not

concerned with the representation of event, the narration of the fate or the

adventures of characters, but instead with the presentation of one individual’s

basic situation, it is a theatre of situation as against a theatre of events in

sequence, and therefore it uses a language based on patterns of concrete images

rather than argument and discursive speech. And since it is trying to present a

sense of being, it can neither investigate nor solve problems of conduct or


The Theatre of the Absurd does not depict any ideological proposition or

man’s problems. Nor does it tell a story. It communicates a pattern of poetic

images being undramatic that way. For example, the happenings do not

constitute a plot in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. “They are an image of Beckett’s

intuition that nothing really ever happens in man’s existence. The whole play is

a complex poetic image made up of a complicated pattern of subsidiary images

and themes, which are interwoven like the themes of a musical composition, not,

but to make in the spectator’s mind a total, complex impression of a basic, and

static situation. In this, the Theatre of the Absurd is analogous to a Symbolist or

Imagist poem, which also presents a pattern of images and associations in a

mutually interdependent structure.”61 Brecht, Ibsen and others have made use of

dramatic, narrative and lyrical properties to drive home a point, whereas the

Theatre of the Absurd does not. In the conspicuous absence of psychology,

subtlety of characterization and plot, it just uses lyrical inserts giving it great

emphasis. Ibsen, Stindberg and James Joyce with the help of language, tried to

explore the psyche of man. Whereas the Theatre of the Absurd makes use of

language economically. As George Steiner thinks language is reduced in theatre.

He observes, “It is no paradox to assert that much of reality now begins outside

language...Large areas of meaningful experience now belong to non-verbal

languages such as mathematics, formulae, and logical symbolism. Others belong

to ‘anti-languages,’ such as the practice of non-objective art or atonal music. The

world of the word has shrunk.”62

Here language is purely subjective devoid of any objective reality. In

Martin Esslin’s view, “That is why communication between human beings is so

often shown in a state of breakdown in the Theatre of the Absurd. It is merely a

satirical magnification of the existing state of affairs. Language has run riot in an

age of mass communication. It must be reduced to its proper function - the

expression of authentic content, rather than its concealment.”

In the Theatre of the Absurd the audience is confronted with characters

whose motives are ununderstandable. They speak less. So they often appear

comic. Yet the Theatre of the Absurd transcends the category of comedy and

tragedy and combines laughter with horror. It presents the audience a picture of

the disintegrating world which has lost its organizing power. Such a world is an

absurd world. Most of the actions are mysterious and non-sensible.

The Theatre of the Absurd speaks to a deeper level of the audience’s

mind. It sees in motion an active process of integrative forces in the mind of

spectators. Eva Metman observes thus with reference to Beckett: “In times of

religious containment, dramatic art has shown man as protected, guided, and

sometimes punished by archetypal powers, but in other epochs it has shown the

visible tangible world, in which man fulfils his destiny, as permeated by the

demonic essences of his invisible and intangible being. In contemporary drama,

a new, third orientation is crystallizing in which man is shown not in a world

into which the divine or dramatic forces are projected but alone with them. This

new form of drama forces the audience out of its familiar orientation. It creates a

vacuum between the play and the audience so that the latter is compelled to

experience itself, be it a reawakening of the awareness of archetypal powers or a

reorientation of the ego, or both.”64

The Absurd play convinces its audience of the seriousness of life. So they

have to interpret the theme. They need to come to the terms of reality. The

Theatre of the Absurd signifies the fact that modern world has lost its unifying

principle. It is observed: “In the Theatre of the Absurd, the spectator is

confronted with the madness of the human condition, is enabled to see his

situation in all its grimness and despair. Stripped of illusions and vaguely felt

fears and anxieties, he can face his situation consciously, rather than feeling it

vaguely below the surface of euphemisms and optimistic illusions. By seeing his

anxieties formulated he can liberate himself from them. This is the nature of all

the gallows humour and humour noir of world literature, of which the Theatre of

the Absurd is the latest example. It is the unease caused by the presence of

illusions that are obviously out of tune with reality that is dissolved and

discharged through liberating laughter at the recognition of the fundamental

absurdity of the universe. The great the anxieties and the temptation :o indulge in

illusions, the more beneficial is this therapeutic effect—hence the success of

Waiting for Godot at San Quentin. It was a relief for the convicts to be made to

recognize in the tragicomic situation of the tramps the hopelessness of their own

waiting for a miracle. They were enabled to laugh at the tramps - and at


The absurd plays have psychological motifs. The absurdity is not

historical, but universal. It is an ever happening phenomenon. In a play like

Waiting for Godot waiting is not just the event. Nor is it historical. The act of

waiting is omnipresent. Here we are confronted with a projection of a

psychological reality and with human archetypes shrouded in perpetual mystery.

As Martin Esslin thinks this is the element that the Theatre of the Absurd tries to

make the core of its dramatic convention.

As all arts are subjective, the Absurd Theatre is subjective. It is concerned

with the evocation of concrete poetic images designed to communicate to the

audience the sense of wonder that their authors felt when confronted with human

condition. In fact, absurd plays with psychological nonsense characteristic of

modem man, cannot be so easily written. The Theatre of the Absurdity is

concerned with communicating the harsh realities of human existence.

So there is some difference between ‘realistic theatre and the Theatre of

the Absurd. The former deals with the objective external realities whereas the

latter deals with the inner or psychological realities. Yet both theatres are equally

realistic though concerned with different aspects of reality in its vast complexity.

The Theatre of the Absurd is seen as an attempt to communicate the

metaphysical experience. The Theatre of the Absurd expresses the views that

man is in a world of uncertainties. As Camus says in The Myth of Sisyphus: “The

certainty of the existence of a God who would give meaning to life has a far

greater attraction than the knowledge that without him one could do evil without

being punished. The choice between these alternatives would not be difficult.

But there is no choice, and that is where the bitterness begins.”66

This is in the absence of Godhead. There is no God. Laotzu said, “It was

from the nameless that heaven and earth sprang, the named is but the mother that

rears the ten thousand creatures each after its kind.”67 St John of the Cross spoke

of the soul’s intuition that “it cannot comprehend God at all,”68 In Meister

Eckhart’s view “The Godhead is poor, naked, and empty, as though it were not;

it has not, wills not, wants not, works not, gets not....The Godhead is as void as

though it were not.”69 As per Zen Buddhism there exists a kind of negative

philosophy in the world:

The denying of reality is the assuring of it,

And the asserting of emptiness is the denying of it.70

The rise of interest in Zen Buddhism in the west supports the Theatre of

the Absurd. Finally the Theatre of the Absurd reflects that modem man has to

come to terms with the world of harsh realities. As Martin Esslin thinks man’s

dignity lies in his ability to face realities in all its senselessness; to accept it

freely without fear or fever and to laugh at it.

Often literature needs innovation and new approaches to language,

character and plot construction. If Brecht contributed a valid vocabulary for

presenting the external reality of the world, the Theatre of the Absurd

contributes an internal psychological reality. Martin Esslin observes: “ For those

who experience them, dreams, daydreams, fantasies, nightmares and

hallucinations are realities as significant, as terrifying, as decisive for their lives

as any external realities. And insights into the working of other people’s dreams

and fantasies can be as emotionally satisfying, as fascinating and as cathartic as

insights into the external circumstances of their lives.”

The Theatre of the Absurd has enriched the mainstream drama. Most of

the post Theatre of the Absurd has been written in the vein of Beckett and

Ionesco. Secondly Brecht’s epic tradition and the absurdist elements characterize

the younger generation playwrights. For example, Edward Bond’s Lear (1971)

has the epic sweep of a Brechtian parable play but its treatment is of the absurd

tradition. The plays of Tom Stoppard show the impact of the Theatre of the

Absurd. His Rosencrantz and Guldens tern are Dead (1966) uses structural

elements of Waiting for Godot. In America Israel Horovitzand Sam Shepard

writes absurd plays. In France Romain Weingarten and Roland Dubillard and in

Germany Peter Handke, Wolfgang Bauer and Thomas Bemahard follow the

same tradition.


1. Marion Wynne -Davies, Guide to English Literature, Bloomsbury

Publishing Limited, London, 1989, p. 214-215.
2. N. Sharada Iyer, “Theatre of the Absurd,” Studies in Literature in
English, ed by Mohit K. Ray, Atlantic Publishers, New Delhi, 2005, p.
3. Albert Camus, The Myth ofSisyphus, Paris, Gallimard, 1942, p. 18.
4. Eugene Ionesco, Dans les armes de la ville,’ Cahiers de la Compaignie
Madeleine Renaud-Jean-Louis Barrault, Paris, no. 20, October 1957.
5. N. Sharada Iyer, “Theatre of the Absurd,” op. cit., p. 102.
6. Concise Oxford Dictionary, OUP, New Delhi, 1990, p. 6.
7. John Russell Taylor, The Penguin Dictionary of Theatre, London,
8. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Penguin, London, 1991, p.
9. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, op. cit., p. 26.
10. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, op. cit., p. 28.
11. Arnold P. Hinchliffe, The Absurd, op. cit., p. vii.
12. Arnold P. Hinchliffe, The Absurd, op. cit, p. 16.
13. Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, Penguin, London, 1965, p. 185
14. Mary Wamock, The Philosophy of Sartre, p. 30.
15. Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature?, p. 217.
16. Arnold P. Hinchliffe, The Absurd, op. cit., p. 32.
17. Jacques Guichamand, Modern French Theatre, New Haven, 1961.
18. Arnold P. Hinchliffe, The Absurd, op. cit., p. 36.
19. Albert Camus, The Outsider, pp. 118-119.
20. Arnold P. Hinchliffe, The Absurd, op. cit., p. 39.
21. Arnold P. Hinchliffe, The Absurd, op. cit., p. 40.
22. Camus, Caligula, qt by Arnold P. Hinchliffe, The Absurd, op. cit., p,

23. Hugh Kenner, Samuel Beckett, Encyclopaedia America, p. 427.
24. Arnold P. Hinchliffe, The Absurd, op. cit., p. 64-65.
25. Arnold P. Hinchliffe, The Absurd, op. cit., p. 66.
26. L. C. Pronko, Avant-Garde, Univ. of California Press, 1962, p. 57.
27. Samuel Beckett, qt by Arnold P. Hinchliffe, The Absurd, op. cit., p.
28. Arnold P. Hinchliffe, The Absurd, op. cit., p. 67.
29. R. N. Coe, Beckett, Edinburgh, 1964, p. 18.
30. Samuel Beckett, Murphy, qt by Arnold P. Hinchliffe, The Absurd, op.
cit., p. 69.
31. R. N. Coe, Beckett, Edinburgh, 1964, p. 20.
32. R. N. Coe, ‘Eugene Ionesco: “The Meaning of Unmeaning,” Aspects
ofDrama and the Theatre, Edinburg, 1951, p. 15.
33. Eugene Ionesco, qt by L. C. Pronko, Avant-Garde, University of
California Press, 1902.
34. Ionesco, Discovering the Theatre, p. 86.
35. American Encyclopedia, p. 392.
36. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, op. cit., p. 195.
37. Jean Paul Sartre, Saint Genet, p. 49.
38. R. N. Coe, The Vision of Jean Genet, p. 144, qt by Arnold P.
Hinchliffe, The Absurd, op. cit., p. 75.
39. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, op. cit., p. 89.
40. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, op. cit., p. 110.
41. Corrigan, Introduction to Theatre in the Twentieth Century, qt by
Arnold, op. cit., p. 81.
42. John Bowen, “Accepting the Illusion,” Twentieth Century, February,
1961, p. 162.
43. Jean Tardieu, Theatre de Chambre, Paris: Gallimard, 1955, p. 10.
44. Ezio d’Errico, La Foresta, in II Dramma, Turin, no. 278, p. 9.

45. Max Firisch, Biedermann und die Brandstifter, Berlin and Frankfurt,
Suhrkamp, 1958, p. 78.
46. Wolfgang Hildesheimer, ‘Erlanger Rede uber das absurde theater,
Akzente, Munich, no. 6, 1960.
47. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, op. eit., p. 311.
48. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, op. eit., p. 328.
49. Hermann Reich, DerMimus, vol. 1, Berlin, 1903, p. 459.
50. E. Tietze-Conrat, Dwarfs and Jesters in Art, London, Phaidon, 1957,
p. 7.
51. Shakespeare, Troilus and Cresside.
52. Qt by Colin Mclnnes, Spectator, London, 23 December 1960.
53. Ionesco, Time, New York, 12 December 1960.
54.Sigmand Freud, Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten
1905, Frankfurt: Fischer, 158, p. 101.
55. Tristan Tzara, Chronique Zurichoise, Die Geburt des dada, p. 173.
56. Andre Breton, qt by Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, op. cit.,
p. 378.
57. e. e. cumming, qt by Bentley, p. 487 ???.
58. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, op. cit., p. 398.
59. Albert Camus, The Myth ofSisyphus, Paris, Gallimard, 1942, p. 29.
60. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, op. cit., p. 403.
61. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, op. cit., p. 403-404.
62. George Steiner, “The retreat from the word,” I,’ Listener, London, 14,
July 1960.
63. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, op. cit., p. 409.
64. Eva Matman, ‘Reflections on Samuel Beckett’s Plays,’ Journal of
Analytical Psychology, London, January, 1960, p. 43.
65. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, op. cit., p. 414-415.
66. Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, p. 94.

67. Laotzu, qt by Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, London,
Chatto and Windus, 1946, p. 33.
68. St John of the Cross, qt by Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, op. cit.,

69. Meister Eckhart, qt by Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, op. cit., p.
70.Seng-t’san, ‘On believing in mind,’ qt in Suzuki Manuel of Zen
Buddhism, London, Rider, 1950, p. 77.
71. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, op. cit., p. 432.