Last updated: March 26, 2019
Topic: ArtTheatre
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Absurdism is often linked to Existentialism, the philosophical movement associated with Jean Pual Satre and Albert Camus, among others. Although both existentialists and absurdists are concerned with the senselessness of the human condition, the way this concern is expressed differs. The philosophers explored the irrational nature of human existence within the rational and logical framework of conventional philosophical thought.

The Absurdists, however, abondoned the traditional elements of literature in general and theatre in particular— setting, plot, character development— in order to convey a sense of absurdity and illogic in both form and content. In general, the two movements also differ in the conclusions each seems to draw from the realization that life is meaningless. Many absurdist productions appear to be making a case for the idea that all human effort is futile and action is pointless; others seem to suggest that an absurd existence leaves the individual no choice but to treat it as farce.

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The existentialists, however, claimed that the realization that life had no transcendental meaning, either derived from faith or from the essence of humanity itself, could(and should) serve as a springboard to action. An individual’s life, according to the existentialists, can be made meaningful only through that individual’s actions. Life is no more dreadful punishment than a futile and hopeless labor. This very idea of Albert Camus in his essay “The myth of Sisyphus” suggests the concept of absurdity defined by the group of people became the part of this theatrical movement.

Absurdism is a term first coined by Martin Esslin in his book “The theatre of the absurd” in 1961, in which he discussed the comprehensive details regarding the term and the great literary figures associated with it. The roots of absurdism dates back to early 20th century i. e. the post World War II, time when the world was going through great depression and the aftermaths of war was drawing the bleakest picture of the future world. No hope was left and every effort to survive seemed useless and futile in that harsh and cruel time of fascism. During that time artists of the age, decided to depict the same scenario in their work.

Absurdity characterizes a world that no longer makes sense to its inhabitants , in which rational decisions are impossible and all action is meaningless and futile. The main characteristic of absurd play is that it gives no clear notion of time or place in which the action occurs. Characters are often nameless and seem interchangeable. Events are completely outside the realm of rational motivation and may have a nightmarish quality commonly associated with Surrealism (a post-World War I movement that features dream sequences and images from the unconscious, often sexual in nature).

At other times, both dialogue and incidents may apear to the audience as completely nonsensical, even farcical. The work explores themes of lonliness and isolation, of the failure of the individuals to connect with others in any meaningful way, and of the senselessness and absurdity of life and death. To develop such kind of plays, it is obvious for the playwright to become completely conscious of the reality he is about to stage in front of the unconscious audience.

Features of the plays that seemed completely new and mystifying to audiences in the 1950s when absurdist works first appeared, soon became not only understandable, but even commonplace and predictable. To grasp the theme of absurdity, its existence can only be figured by the death of God. Absurdist says that this world is meaningless and the human race is struggling against the hopeless and never changing reality. They don’t believe in eternity, neither any reward nor punishment on doing any deed in this futile world.

Beneath the nonsense and slapstick humor of Absurdism lurks an element of cruelty, often revealed in dialogue between characters but occasionally manifested in acts of violence. Pinter’s plays are noted for the latter. In The Room, a blind man is brutally beaten; in The Birthday Party, the celebration becomes an interrogation and eventually an abduction; and in The Dumb Waiter, a pair of assassins are involved in an apparently random murder. Similarly, in Ionesco’s The Lesson, a professor frustrated by his students’ inability to understand his meaningless lessons, savagely kills them one after another.

Later, they also criticized language, as it cannot derive any meaning out of life which itself is a severe and ruthless punishment for humanity to live. The failure of language to convey meaning is an important theme in the literature of Absurdism. Language is either detached from any interpretation that can be agreed to by all characters, or it is reduced to complete gibberish. The standard philosophical discourse is mocked by the nonsensical dialogue in Waiting for Godot; although it is meaningless, it bears a strong resemblance to the structure of the real thing.

These plays are usually apolitical in subject, mostly concerned with human plight. Because many absurdist works have no temporal or spatial setting, they are often considered apolitical, that is, they are neither criticizing nor endorsing any country’s culture, society, or political system. There are, however, exceptions. Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros could be considered political, since the author claimed that the inspiration for the play was the gradual acceptance of Nazi fascism by an antifascist friend. Based on a 1940 entry in Ionesco’s journal, the play opens with a rhinoceros charging past as two friends converse.

Although everyone ignores the rhinoceros at first, eventually most of the characters accept its presence, and one by one they even decide to become rhinoceroses themselves. A lone individual is determined to fight the growing herd. Ironically, Ionesco’s play varies from the usual plotless, apolitical style of most absurdist dramas to offer a powerful critique of mob mentality and conformity. The individual who decides to fight rather than join the herd is also unusual, since most absurdist characters are anonymous, passive, and ineffectual— certainly not given to heroic actions.

The only positive thing in them is that it never pushes its characters towards suicidal note. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot suggests that human effort is meaningless and leads to nothing in the end. Beckett’s characters are so ineffective and doomed to failure that they are unable even to commit suicide successfully despite two attempts. Their passivity, established by their interminable waiting, is even more famously illustrated by the closing scenes of both first and second acts, in which each stands, rooted to his spot on the stage despite having made the decision to leave.

The futility of all human endeavors characterizes many absurdist works, such as Adamov’s PingPong in which two promising students abandon their studies and devote their lives to the appreciation of pinball machines. Adamov’s earlier play La Parodie (1947) shares the idea that individuals are powerless to direct their own lives; it does so by presenting two characters, one who refuses to live and one who embraces life with joy. The fate of both is ultimately exactly the same. Though the element of unconscious present in human nature saves the haracter from taking his own life, stead, it gives courage and determination to survive and struggle hard against the rock solid world of emotionless moments. These partial moments of unconsciousness help humanity not to think about life with disillusioned vision. There are many great names of literary world, who have contributed some of the finest works based on absurdism. Some great playwrights are Samual Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee. These artists worked on several aspects of absurdism, such as Domination.

Sereval well-known absurdist works feature pairs of characters ion which one is the dominator and the other the dominated. Some of these are quite literally master/servant relationship within Genet’s The Maids or Beckett’s Endgame. Others reproduce the master/slave relationship within marriage, as in Albee’s The American Dream in which Mommy dominates the spineless Daddy character or within the traditional teacher/ student dynamic, as in Ionesco’s The Lesson. Loneliness and Isolation is also witnessed at many places.

Many absurdist works illustrate the loneliness and isolation of individuals, resulting from the nature of modern life and, in some cases, from the impossibility of effective communication between humans. Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano explores the same theme with a husband and wife who are so isolated from each other that they fail to recognize their connection in a social setting and have only a vague sense of having met before. Theme of Materialism connects absurdism with the social condition of the world.

Materialism is criticized in Albee’s The American Dream, in which even relationships between family members are subject to the terms of profit and loss statements. A woman marries a man she does not love simply because he is wealthy, and they buy a baby to complete their family. The baby dies, leaving them to mourn their financial loss rather than their emotional loss. Adamov’s characters in Ping-Pong devote their lives to the worship of a thing, which some critics consider a critique of capitalism and materialism. Marin Esslin, who in 1961 identified and labeled the movement, begins with Waiting for Godot and many critics follow his lead.

Written in 1950 but not staged until 1953, Beckett’s most famous drama is also considered by many scholars to be the most representative to the movement. Esslin originally identified three other practitioners of Absurdism: Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov, as well as a number of lesser-known playwrights. The Theatre of Absurd, Esslin elevated Harold Pinter from minor to major figure and devoted an entire chapter to his plays. As the scholar who defined the movement Esslin takes pains to point out that the writers he discusses would not necessarily associate themselves with Absurdism.

Many of them, in fact, rejected the label completely; Ionesco preferred Theatre of Derision, and Arrabal chose Theatre of Panic to describe his plays. Esslin acknowledges that of the playwrights he discusses “each has his own personal approach to both subject matter and form; his own roots, sources, and background. ” There is a certain amount of overlap among these categories, and individual playwrights employ the separate elements in different ways, but all employ them in ways that differ from older theatrical traditions and in ways that made Theatre of the Absurd “shocking and incomprehensible” to its earliest audiences.

That ability to shock theatre goers resulted from the movement’s abandonment (or rejection) of traditional plot, character development, setting, dialogue, and denoument. For Esslin, this departure amounts to innovation and experimentation and is an indication of an art form’s vitality, necessary in a changing world. “Under such conditions no art can survive that complacently falls back on past traditions and standards. Least of all the theatre, which is the most social of the arts and most directly responds to social change. Where Esslin sees vitality, however, other critics have seen decadence. Avadhesh K. Srivastava considered Theatre of the Absurd excessively concerned with inward reality” without the stabilizing influence of a moral prespective” and, therefore, decadent. Although they were initially considered incomprehensible, they soon became familiar and highly acclaimed. While absurdism itself was short-lived as a movement, its influence, particularly in the realm of popular culture, continued into the twenty-first century.