The Shorter Oxford Dictionary (1965) defines ‘absurd’ as follows:
Absurd: 1. Mus. Inharmonious. 1617.
2. Out of harmony with reason or propriety; in mod. use, plainly opposed to reason, and hence ridiculous, silly. 1557.
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, ARTHUR ADAMOV, JEAN GENET, and HAROLD PINTER. What distinguishes these and other, lesser figures (ROBERT PINGET, N. F. SIMPSON, EDWARD ALBEE, FERNANDO ARRABAL, GUNTER GRASS) 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.
This particular application of a current philosophical term to drama was the invention of Martin Esslin in his book The Theatre of the Absurd
(1961) and, since this book more than anything else has made the term familiar to the English reading public, it seems reasonable to begin a discussion of Absurdity
in this context. It has, in fact, become an embarrassingly successful catch-phrase (as Esslin ruefully admits in his introduction to the anthology of plays published by Penguin under the title Absurd Drama
, 1965), but frequently convenience can be allowed to outweigh adequacy in a critical formulation. We can, then, conveniently describe drama in England as recently falling under three headings: first, Poetic, followed by two apparently opposed movements, Angry and Absurd, the fusion of which leads to innumerable sub-divisions so that, by 1968, John Russell Brown, editing a series of essays on Modem British Theatre and Dramatists, could write in an introduction:
The new plays have been given all sorts of labels: ‘kitchen-sink drama’ was one of the first; neo-realist; drama of non-communication; absurd drama; comedy of menace; dark comedy; drama of cruelty. But no cap has fitted for more than a year or two; none has been big enough for more than one or two heads; and often the caps seem more suitable for the journalists who invent them than for the dramatists on whom they are thrust. Perhaps the first thing to say about the new dramatists is that they keep the critics on the run.
(Modern British Dramatists, p. 2)
And, one might add, audiences too, for going to the theatre nowadays is a hazardous occupation. There is a conspicuous lack of a prevailing form so that neither critic nor audience can assume what shape the play will take. If this is confusing for critics (and often shocking for audiences) it does suggest that, as W. A. Armstrong puts it, playwrights ‘have made the theatre a ralling-point in the perennial struggle of the human imagination against religious complacency, moral apathy, and social conformity’ (Preface, Experimental Drama, London, 1963, p. 9).
The poetic drama would seem to have been dead before either Angry or Absurd dramas reached the stage. Its history is explored by Denis Donoghue in The Third Voice
(Princeton, 1959) and he is probably correct in suggesting that poets who come to the theatre are often loath to concede that words are not enough to carry the burden of drama (p. 249). But we should not write off the experiment too casually: without ‘poetic’ plays – the work of Eliot and Fry, for example – the subsequent plays of Anger and Absurdity, both of which rely on language enormously, might not have been possible or as successful.
Of the two succeeding labels, Angry and Absurd, it was the Angry Drama which made the more immediate impact on the English theatre, so much so that John Russell Taylor, in Anger and After (1962), effectively dates his contemporary period from the first performance of Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre on 8 May 1956. The more European-based drama which we call Absurd took longer to percolate into our theatrical experience, but when it did it was ultimately recognized as fulfilling the Ibsenite maxim of ‘poetic creation in the plain unvarnished speech of reality’ (Kenneth Muir, Contemporary Theatre, p. 113) and is frequently discussed, by Esslin and others, in terms of ‘poetic’, just as, in retrospect, the tirades of Jimmy Porter strike us as more important for the manner of saying than for what has been said. Indeed, in retrospect, the success of Look Back in Anger is, as Gordon Rogoff remarks, a cause of wonder:
By what was undoubtedly sleight-of-thought, the play gave all the appearances of being lined up squarely with New Left political positions. It seemed to be about commitment, it seemed to be a protest, it seemed to be political, and it even seemed to be new, though the only startling formal ‘innovation’ was that what seemed to be a five- character play was really a monologue.
(‘Richard’s Himself Again’, TDR, 1966, pp. 30–1)
The division between Anger and Absurd, between, we might say, Brecht and Ionesco, was summed up by Kenneth Tynan: where Ionesco says misery is constant Brecht would argue that some kinds of misery are curable, and after they have been cured there will be time to look at the universal ones (Tynan on Theatre
, Penguin, 1964, pp. 188–91). Committed
literature is itself a vexed question. John Mander in his study of the subject, The Writer and Commitment
(London, 1961) points out that Look Back in Anger
was a vehement play but it was also non-committal, and that in any case commitment cannot merely mean political engagement. Any writer is committed in the sense that his writing seeks value in a valueless world: ‘Commitment is universal: the poet of subjectivity chooses to explore its inner rather than outer face’ (p. 180–1). Our most committed dramatist is probably Arnold Wesker, yet his solution is decidedly that of an artist rather than a moralist or propagandist: namely, that reform can be achieved through education and art. If we were to agree that generally Angry Theatre is topical, particular, and political, whereas Absurd Theatre is timeless, universal, and philosophical, we should then have to account for Theatre of Cruelty which is angry in intention and absurd in impression! We should also have to answer Martin Esslin’s contention in an essay on Harold Pinter that Absurd Theatre concentrating as it does on a basic situation is as relevant socially as plays by social realists, and, since it does not reflect merely topical pre-occupations, more enduring because it is unaffected by the fluctuations of political and social circumstances (‘Pinter and the Absurd’, Twentieth Century
(1961), 169, No. 1008, p. 185). Quot homines, tot sententiae
Nor is the form the plays take helpful in maintaining the useful separateness of our critical terms. The theories of Bertolt Brecht which underpin Committed Drama stem from the two producers who dominated the stage when Brecht was young, Reinhardt and Piscator, who both laid special emphasis on the participation of
the audience in events on the stage. Piscator, in particular, aimed at making a performance in the theatre a demonstration of working-class solidarity (see Ronald Gray, Brecht
, London, 1961, Chapter 4
). From this Brecht formulated his famous A-effect (sometimes called the V or E-effect) which he claims is an artistic technique of great antiquity:
To achieve the A-effect the actor must give up his complete conversion into the stage character. He shows the character, he quotes his lines, he repeats a real-life incident. The audience is not entirely ‘carried away’; it need not conform psychologically, adopt a fatalistic attitude towards fate as portrayed. (It can feel anger where the character feels joy, and so on. It is free, and sometimes even encouraged, to imagine a different course of events or to try and find one, and so forth.) The incidents are historicised and socially set.
(The Messingkauf Dialogues, trans.
John Willett, London, 1965, p. 104)
Such a theatre is, apparently, antagonistic to empathy (though the audience can and does resist this antagonism with remarkable success, as when they make Mother Courage the heroine of the play of that name, and not the villain); it does not seek to intoxicate, supply with illusions, and make the spectator forget the world or reconcile himself to its injuries. But, whereas we can and often do sympathize with Brecht’s characters, in Absurd Drama it is more difficult, for there we have characters whose motives are hidden and whose actions we cannot understand, and thus, ironically, Esslin is once more plausible when he suggests that the A-effect happens in Absurd Drama more completely than in Brecht’s own plays.
It is better not to push the genres too far apart. Brechtian techniques of song and dance bring to socially committed plays an atmosphere of absurdity. It has been argued that John Arden, probably the most complete Brechtian in British Theatre, is not unconnected with Absurd practices (J. D. Hainsworth, ‘John
Arden and the Absurd’, A Review of English Literature
, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Oct. 1966), pp. 42–9) and David J. Grossvogel in Four Playwrights and a Postscript
(1962) finds no difficulty in linking together Brecht, Ionesco, Beckett, and Genet as angry dramatists whose anger is directed as much at the corruptness of the stage as at the corruptness of the world reflected on the stage. If we look at the work of Peter Hall and Peter Brook at Stratford and the Aldwych we shall recognize, in productions of such widely divergent plays as the Marat-Sade
, Henry VI
, and King Lear
, a single image: it is that the world is an existential nightmare from which reason, forgiveness, and hope are absent: a place less to live in than to endure (Rogoff, ‘Richard’s Himself Again’, Tulane Drama Review
34 (1966), p. 37). We shall also note that what John Russell Taylor calls ‘a situation patently rigged for anger’ is another form of the Absurdist’s ‘extreme situation’.
Nor should we be disturbed overmuch by the ephemeral nature of drama. The theatre is always in trouble because, as Eric Bentley puts it, its success depends upon ‘too rare a set of coincidences’:
A poem needs performer and listener. Closer to drama is the symphony, which requires teamwork, co-ordination at the hands of a conductor, a large audience, and a heap of money. The drama, however, boasting of being a meeting place of all the arts, requires a too rare conjunction of economic, social, and artistic elements. Especially in its synthetic manifestations, which include everything in musical-choreographic-spectacular-mimetic-rhetorical theater from the Greeks to Tannhauser and beyond, drama is the most impossible of the arts.
(The Playwright as Thinker, p. 233)
Ten years is good going in an impossible art.
In New English Dramatists 12 (1968) Irving Wardle writes of a body of work known as the theatre of the absurd:
Its characteristics are: the substitution of an inner landscape for the outer world; the lack of any clear division between fantasy and fact;
a free attitude towards time, which can expand or contract according to subjective requirements; a fluid environment which projects mental conditions in the form of visual metaphors; and an iron precision of language and construction as the writer’s only defence against the chaos of living experience.
That Mr Wardle can write that definition so easily is because seven years earlier Esslin wrote a book called The Theatre of the Absurd.
Martin Esslin’s authoritative survey of this kind of drama was published in 1961 (and in England in 1962) and it did not escape criticism. The scepticism of Kenneth Tynan illustrates a very reasonable disquiet:
Tracing the forebears of the Absurd, Mr Esslin leads us back to the mime plays of antiquity; to the Commedia dell’Arte; to Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll; to Jarry, Strindberg, and the young, Rimbaud- impregnated Brecht; to the Dadaists and Tristan Tzara (who called one of his plays ‘the biggest swindle of the century in three acts’); to the Surrealists and Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, to Kafka, and to Joyce.
All this is helpful and credible. But when Mr Esslin ropes in Shakespeare, Goethe, and Ibsen as harbingers of the Absurd, one begins to feel that the whole history of dramatic literature has been nothing but a prelude to the glorious emergence of Beckett and Ionesco. Overstatement and Mr Esslin are not strangers, as may be guessed from the fact that he calls N. F. Simpson ‘a more powerful social critic than any of the social realists’; and I wish I had an ...