Saturday, August 20, 2011

Martin Esslin's The Theatre of the Absurd

Anchor Books of Doubleday & Company, Inc., stationed in Garden City, New York, publishes Martin Esslin’s work entitled The Theatre of the Absurd. Originally published in 1961, the book gets a revised and updated treatment in its 1969 second edition. Anchor numbers this book as volume A279. The purpose of this book is to show that “the Theatre of the Absurd is concerned essentially with the evocation of concrete poetic images designed to communicate to the audience the sense of perplexity that their authors feel when confronted with the human condition” (368). Esslin first follows meticulously the biography, history, and dramaturgy of four prominent playwrights: Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet. Second, he investigates the working of minor playwrights that carry on elements found in the Theatre of the Absurd. Finally, he makes predictions, analyses, and suggestions for understanding the tradition, the movement, and the significance of the Theatre of the Absurd. Esslin concludes that the elemental absurdity in the works he cites shows the predicaments humans face in a world without meaning or value.

Before I even started reading this book, I thought about the title of the book and I asked myself, “What was the most absurd play you have ever read or seen?” I remembered my English teacher in high school showing us a video of two bums loitering at the side of the road and talking nonsense. They meet even stranger characters as the play progresses. The play was so frustrating for me that I wanted to yell at the two bums, “Just leave already!” To answer my own question, I thought, “Yep, Waiting for Godot takes the cake!” It came as no surprise when Esslin included an extended commentary extolling the virtues of this quintessential play in the chapter regarding Samuel Beckett.

The book not only delves into the absurdity of Waiting for Godot, but it also looks into other numerous plays that come out during the 1950s and 1960s. These plays, stripped of formal plot and narrative, revolutionize the way theatre presents its particular art in the twentieth century. Esslin believes that “The avant-garde of the theatre today is, more likely than not, the main influence on the mass media of tomorrow” (xiii). It would be interesting to see if this observation has been correct in its prediction. The mass media has changed significantly, at least for those who look to the Internet for their entertainment. And even television has changed insofar as to integrate elemental absurdities into its advertising and programming. Any research into this phenomenon would be very interesting.

One would think that theatre would be long dead by now, but Esslin asserts that theatre is the laboratory where these trends can develop, despite the low number of patrons: “So, however restricted the theatre and its audience may be, it is on the living stage that the actors and playwrights of the mass media are trained and gain their experience, and the material of the mass media is tested” (xiii). If I understand correctly, this means Hollywood will always have a need for Broadway.

Because of the Theatre of the Absurd’s relationship with the avant-garde, surrealist, and other movements, I pay particular attention to any reference to Spanish contributions. Manuel de Pedrolo, a Catalan playwright, has written plays about the futility of escaping the human condition (213-17). Fernando Arrabal has also contributed many ideas to theatre (217-22). Surrealism in Spanish plays has also influenced the movement in remarkable ways (346-47). I also like the anecdote in which Eugène Ionesco stages a play for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, despite potential backlashes from Lord Chamberlain, and how “Salvador Dali, another of the privileged number of guests, merely remarked, ‘It was most moving’” (143).

The book also discusses how other playwrights see real life as the true source of the absurd. Esslin observes Robert Pinget’s plays and elaborates how life does not reflect the structure, grammar, or outcomes of the general theatre. He sees how the fascination of the mystical or the metaphysical in real life has sharply declined under the microscope of reason. Entities and beliefs that have needed this foundation have virtually disappeared or been seriously weakened. Real life is actually the venue of absurdity and Pinget’s plays reflect this reality: “In a world that has become absurd, transcribing reality with meticulous care is enough to create the impression of extravagant irrationality” (230).

This line of thinking may be correct. I experience absurd moments in my daily life. Often, my family, my friends, and I cannot articulate well what we want to communicate to each other. I may hear something completely different than what my interlocutor actually says. When I repeat back what I just heard, in order to clarify that I have indeed understood what I just heard, my interlocutor laughs at my inability to hear correctly and repeats what he or she said. It is so embarrassing. In the context of Harold Pinter’s modus operandi, Esslin writes, “There are also the misunderstandings arising from inability to listen; incomprehension of polysyllabic words used for show by the more articulate characters; mishearings; and false anticipations. Instead of proceeding logically, Pinter’s dialogue follows a line of associative thinking in which sound regularly prevails over sense” (240). This inability to communicate highlights the fears that people have when relating to others, fears that speech actually enables them to become intimate with other people in a significant way. Therefore, focusing on the sounds of words than on their senses prevents people from developing valuable relationships.

Esslin’s discussion of the theatre then shifts to the idea of the disintegration of language. In a world that is losing its sense of meaning and purpose, language is also affected and becomes more meaningless and without purpose. The Theatre of the Absurd also tries to distance itself from the printed word that wants to keep its strong hold on theatre. Theatre is meant to be seen, not read, reasons Esslin. “Theatre is always more than mere language. Language alone can be read, but true theatre can become manifest only in performance. The entry of the bullfighters into the arena, […] the state drive of the sovereign through the streets of his capital, the meaningful actions of the priest in celebrating the Mass–all these contain powerful elements of pure, abstract theatrical effects” (283). I figure that is why I like Cirque du Soleil’s O so much ever since I took my youngest sister to see it at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Nevada. Hardly any word is spoken, except for the clowns’ gibberish and grunts. A pageant of abstract creatures and performers stuns the audience in elaborate costumes and makeup. A ship does not float in the watery stage, but levitates over it and swings back and forth for the crew (trapeze artists) to do their tricks. The play is even flexible enough when a performer bungles a move and falls into the water. In the performance that my youngest sister and I went to, a crew member missed the bar and fell into the water. Unharmed, he swam to the platform at the back of the stage, sat at its edge, and drooped in abject dejection. Then, a creature from offstage came out hissing, harassing, and punishing the trapeze artist with wordless jeers until the end of the act. These abstract actions done impromptu made for a memorable time at the theatre and the performers did not have a rigid text to conform to.

One of the last points that Esslin makes about the disintegration of language is its political implications. Esslin uses the example of a bourgeois boss in relation to his subordinate proletarian employee. In a system that does not allow for any compromise to be submitted by any member of the bourgeoisie, the proletariat must necessarily view the bourgeois as an enemy, no matter what the bourgeois says or does. Even if the bourgeois boss says that he sympathizes with the proletarian worker, it does not matter. Esslin writes, “In its devaluation of language, the Theatre of the Absurd is in tune with the trend of our time. […] Language appears more and more as being in contradiction to reality. […] Language here belongs to the realm of the purely subjective, and is thus devoid of objective reality” (357-58). There is a current trend among the politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington that falls into the same predicament. Compromise becomes harder and harder to reach over time when the effects of doublespeak leave politicians and their constituents in doubt. When political ideologies restrict their members from consorting with outsiders and make them kowtow to their agendas, they end up dehumanizing the people they are supposed to work with. If the Theatre of the Absurd only reflects this type of reality, then there is a serious need to bring significance and meaning back into existence. However, if there is significance and meaning in our daily lives, then we must not allow the Theatre of the Absurd to demonstrate its narrow point of view.

I cannot say that I actually enjoyed reading this book. Esslin, although articulate and intelligent in his writing, could have truncated his work in half without losing its scholarly impact. I am surprised how often he quotes from the plays and by the sheer number he interprets. I take it that he had access to almost all the performances in Europe, but I do not find it obligatory to mention, in detail, every single play that a playwright has written or every performance a critic has attended. I wonder if Esslin is the reason why professors today do not want students to write plot summaries in their essays and papers. Esslin’s use of plot summaries and historical backgrounds verge on the weariness. Had I specialized in theatre in my academic program, I may have felt differently than I do now, but because I do not expect to specialize in theatre in the future, this book almost makes me not want to see another play ever again. So, unless you are fanatically into drama, treat this book like an encyclopedia: read only the section you need to read and leave the rest to somebody else. There is a thin line between passion and insanity.



  1. Thanks for this. I love theatre of the absurd. And Beckett. And Waiting for Godot.

    I wonder about the unreality of reality shows. If there wasn't so much heavy editing and forcing things into a linear plot structure (so to speak), would we witness more of the absurd that occurs in every day life?

    That being said, reality TV is certainly absurd in its own right, but not in quite the same way. :P

  2. I really love Esslin and had a very different impression from his Theatre of the Absurd. Of course, this may be simply because I do specialize in theater. If you want to give Esslin a fair shake, I really recommend his The Field of Drama. It's perhaps one of the clearest books I have ever read on the topic.

    As per the book you reviewed, I in fact really appreciated his "plot summaries and historical backgrounds." As far as I can tell, Esslin is doing something very novel for its time: attempting to describe a new mode of theatrical performance, based almost exclusively on philosophical models.

    I have been exploring the absurd over the course of the last two years and insist that the term exceeds its usual connotation (strange, ridiculous, etc.). There is an intriguing philosophical paper trail of the word itself, ranging as far back as Kierkegaard (at least, that is where I first found it being used) and reaching a head with Camus.

    I don't mean to bore you with all of the philosophy. My main point is to express my opinion that what Esslin does in The Theatre of the Absurd is make concrete, understandable, and connectable some extremely abstract, convoluted, and nigh incomprehensible ideas.

  3. Thank you rantipoler and Jared Blanco. Come to think of it, yes, reality television does have a lot of absurd things in it. Thank you Blanco for recommending The Field of Drama. Maybe that book would be more to my liking. Then again, I'm not into theater. And you're right, Esslin does make something convoluted understandable. I just wonder why Esslin's plot summaries" are acceptable and graduate students' are not.


Have you read this book? What did you think of it?


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