Two days ago one of the pundits on CNN suggested that what is happening in the United States, what with the shutdowns, intransigence and such, is the Theatre of the Absurd. Admittedly there is a sense of absurdity in what is going on, but the use of the term is not correct. It has a very special connotation.
In common usage absurd means ridiculous, but the dictionary defines it further as out of harmony with reason or propriety, incongruous, unreasonable, illogical etc. I will come back to this later. But first, let me tell you a story—the story of Sisyphus.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the founder and king of Corinth. Renowned for his cunning, he was said to have outwitted even Death. For his disrespect of Zeus, he was condemned to eternal punishment in Tartarus, where he toiled vainly trying to push a heavy rock to the top of a hill. Just as he was about to reach the top, his strength failed and the rock came tumbling down to the bottom so that he had to begin all over again.
Sisyphus was a person of interest for the Absurdists (think Albert Camus, philosopher, scholar, poet). The Absurdists saw the meaninglessness of the task of Sisyphus. They further felt that our philosophy, rituals, languages and sciences are nothing but an attempt to hide the absurdity of existence.
“Theatre of the Absurd” was a term coined by Martin Esslin a Hungarian dramatist, journalist, producer and dramaturge. (At the risk of name dropping let me say that he was my professor at Rada; his lecture notes would eventually be published in 1962 as a book The Theatre of the Absurd.) It never developed as a unified school and as such is not a movement. Rather it consists of a group of playwrights who appeared at about the same time around the world and expressed pretty much the same view of life. In one way or the other they conveyed a sense of alienation and of people having lost their bearings in an illogical, unjust and ridiculous world.
The most important playwrights of the absurdist school are Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter and to a certain extent Edward Albee.
I don’t intend to write about all these writers or their plays. But any discussion about this would be incomplete without at least a superficial mention of Samuel Beckett and his seminal play Waiting for Godot. ( Later Beckett would receive the Nobel Prize for literature.)
A very brief description of the play is in order at this point, I think. It is a shortish play in two acts. In the first act we see two tramps waiting by the side of as road for Mr. Godot.
They don’t know who he is or why he is coming. One character says that Godot is coming to “save us”. But when the other asks, “to save us from what?” the first replies, “I don’t know.” They occupy themselves during the waiting with inane chatter, with petty quarrels and occasionally with questions that seem to have some philosophical significance. Later on, a messenger comes and tells them that Godot will not be coming that day, but may be the next day. The second act is almost in the same vein with minor changes. Godot does not come.
One aspect of the human condition that the play focuses on is the act of waiting itself.
All of us, I am sure, spend a great deal of time waiting for things to happen to get better—for the university diploma, a promotion, for the right boy or girl, for the right job, for the windfall in a lottery, for the children to grow up and become some body……
Unquestionably Beckett is the foremost absurdist and that he has influenced the western theatre immensely. However the play had a rather patchy and unexciting run for many years in Paris. People did not understand it. When Beckett was asked what the play was about, he said that he did not know!
The play was written around 1947 and did not get a very rousing reception. And did not for many years. Then on November 19, 1957 something remarkable happened. San Francisco Actors’ Workshop decided to stage the play at the San Quentin penitentiary. It would be an understatement to say that the actors were nervous! The captive (!) audience consisted of 1400 convicts at the prison. No play had been performed there since Sarah Bernhardt appeared there in 1913.
San Quentin News, the prison newspaper would write, “The trio of muscle men, biceps overflowing, parked all of 642 pounds on the aisle to see the girls. When this did not happen, they audibly fumed and decided to wait until the house lights dimmed before escaping. They made one error. They listened and looked two minutes too long—and stayed. Left at the end all shook.”
A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle who was present noted that the convicts did not find it difficult to understand the play. One prisoner told him, “Godot is society’’. Said another, “Godot is society.” A teacher at the prison was quoted as saying, “They knew what is meant to be waiting and they knew that if Godot finally came, it would only be a disappointment.”
What is happening in the United States, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela and other places is absurd. But they have nothing to do with the theatre of the absurd.
To end with a quote. “The Theatre of the Absurd strives to express its sense of the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought.”