Big feet, stampeding rhinoceroses, and barren sets are typical of the theatre of the absurd. The dramatic content, symbolism, and spectacles are an amazing thing to see and an impossibility to comprehend. The philosophy of the absurd and the dawn of mankind influenced these plays in the twentieth century. The main proponents and works of the theater of the absurd and philosophy were influenced by the chaotic actions of the early and mid-twentieth century. These chaotic actions led them to search for something in literature and drama never seen before. A brief survey of the main proponents and works of the absurd philosophy and theater can lead one to an understanding of this epoch of absurdity.
The early to mid-twentieth century has been marked by chaos. The four main events or notions that inspired the absurd writers of this time are World War I, World War II, liberalism, and epidemics. The two world wars had a devastating influence on Europe’s landscape and people. The two world wars knocked down everyone’s fundamental belief about society. The breakdown of values led to Freud’s development of psychoanalysis. Freud, basically, liberalized society with his new perceptions and thoughts on the human mind. He introduced a liberal ideal that brought homosexuality out into the open in Europe. Slowly, people went public about their homosexuality; society also learned to adapt and accept such liberal ideas as the new standard norm for a post-war Europe. Another problem that plagued Europe was the
tremendous amount of diseases and epidemics that could not be cured or treated until the discovery, development, and production of penicillin and anti-biotics. One disease that flourished was tuberculosis. This deadly disease spread quickly to many by air. All these events and notions of the early to mid-twentieth century left a scare in the hearts and minds of men about everything.
The idea of the absurd grew out of an Algerian born French writer, Albert Camus. His novels and writings expressed a philosophy for man in the twentieth century. Due to the wars, factions, assassinations, and political mess, his ideas expressed the lives of many in the early twentieth century. His life was plagued with death and suffering. He could relate to every man in Europe and North Africa. His great work, the Myth of Sisyphus, proposed the philosophy of the absurd he was trying to build up in The Stranger and The Plague. Basically, Camus states that since the gods punished Sisyphus with eternal work, Sisyphus could only be happy in knowing he existed and this displayed the absurdity of modern man and his lifetime of labor.
Albert Camus was influenced by his own absurd life. His father died during his childhood in the Great War. He grew up with an ill grandmother and illiterate mother. He became ill with the spreading tuberculosis of the early twentieth century. Later, he joined the French resistance in World War II. In France, he became the editor for Combat, a newsletter for the resistance. Through his job, he was able to make contacts with the leading European writers of his time. This proved invaluable to him, because with the help of these authors he gained the fame that won him the Nobel Prize in literature. Many critics believe that his idea of the absurd grew out of seeing unspeakable acts during the war. In Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, he actually states that his theory on the absurd is a reaction to the disillusionment in Europe after the two world wars:
The Myth of Sisyphus attempts to resolve the problem of suicide, as The Rebel attempts to solve that of murder, in both cases without the aid of eternal values which, temporarily perhaps, are absent or distorted in contemporary Europe. (preface)
He drew up the philosophy of the absurd to account for the devastating actions of World War II. He needed an explanation for the misery in his life and the world, and until then Christianity and the other absolute philosophies could provide no valid explanation.
The philosophy of the absurd he initiated has three main points. First, life is absurd, and it is useless to find any pattern or regularity within it. Second, man must accept life as the absurd and enjoy the absurdity with happiness. Third, man cannot fight the absurd, but simply accept that life will never have meaning. These three points combine to form the elements in the works he called “the cycle of the absurd.” These three points are derived from his belief about the absurd hero. A hero that finds happiness in daily labor, like Sisyphus. In Rhein’s Albert Camus, he complements the mid-twentieth century’s influence on Camus works:
The Stranger and the Myth of Sisyphus corresponded to the
atmosphere that permeated Nazi-occupied France at the date of their publication?With the daily threat to humanity that existed amid the European disaster of the 1940’s, it was difficult to believe in eternal values or na?ve optimism, and human life became a consciously more precise thing. In this time when no one could just afford to exist passively, Camus’ fictive portrayal and philosophical account of the absurd hero seemed to express the uncertainty of the
The development of the philosophy of the absurd brought about the theatre of the absurd. The theatre of the absurd has several characteristics. First, the main characteristic that all absurd plays have in common is the sense that there is no meaning in life. This theme of the “meaningless in life” is fundamental to the philosophy of Albert Camus. Another characteristic of the theatre of the absurd is the belief that no God exists. This characteristic is best expressed in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The title has been interpreted as saying “Waiting for God.” A third aspect of absurd theatre is the conjunction of unrealistic characters and fantastic situations. The leading writers of this branch of drama were Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, and Jean Genet. Their special attributes and characteristics were developed by the same conditions that gave rise to Camus.
The father of the theatre of the absurd is Eugene Ionesco. His whimsical use of language to express the misunderstanding and communication difficulties between individuals has sprung him as father of the theatre of the absurd. He grew up in Romania and then moved to France. He taught French and later traveled back to Romania. His works include the Great Soprano, Rhinoceros, and The Lesson.
The influence for his works mainly came from the two world wars. During his childhood, he grew up in the area that started the Great War. His father was a man that switched sides easily; he would always manage to gain favor from any political power that was in power. He would always join the party and administration in power, whether bad or good. The corrupt nature of Ionesco’s father changed him. He rebelled against his
The other main influence for one of Ionesco’s great works is man’s inability to be an individual. In 1938, Eugene traveled back to Romania; he saw his countrymen change because of the war; they willed to be in the majority, whether bad or good. The corruption in his own nation changed him and influenced him to write his anti-Nazi play, Rhinoceros. This play centers on an average man who is tempted and tries to resist change, but eventually loses. Ionesco manipulates language to give the audience the sensation of a man in a foreign country. The creative use of language creates a sense of misunderstanding, which was one of the problems in Europe during the early to mid-twentieth century. Ionesco saw how the wars were propagated by simple miscommunication between nations. The play propagates the sense of loneliness and fascism symbolized by the rhinoceros, as being the Nazi influence, and Berenger, the main character, as an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.
The chaos of the early to mid-twentieth century influenced Ionesco’s life and work’s greatly. He struggled with the concept of the absurd and soon became the father of the theatre of the absurd. He led men such as Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet to a greater understanding of the absurd.
Samuel Beckett was one of the greatest names of the theater of the absurd. He spent a lifetime of hardship and work to overcome the challenges of his low self-esteem and confidence. He grew up in Dublin, Ireland, in a prominent family. After college, he was employed as James Joyce’s secretary. Due to Joyce’s bad eyesight, Beckett worked by his side, day and night. His admiration of Joyce and trouble seeking his own
His influence comes from two aspects. His first influence is the death of his first cousin, Peggy. On vacation, in Germany, he met Peggy and fell in love with her. Their families disapproved their joining and eventually Beckett left. Two years later, Peggy died of tuberculosis. Her influence is clearly seen in all his works as the Irish Studies document points out:
writings. (pg. 2)
He wrote her in his plays as an ideal character, but separate from time and space. His second influence was World War II. During World War II, he was in Paris. He joined the French resistance, but soon the German Gestapo discovered him, so he fled to the countryside in France. It is in the countryside of France where he wrote Watt while working as a farmer.
For Beckett, World War II was unbelievable. He found death and despair throughout Europe. In fact, the set for Waiting for Godot looks much like most of Europe during that time. The set is barren and desolate; the only prop is a skinny tree. This is representative of what the war did Europe. The tanks and planes had bombed or ravaged Europe and left a scenery of emptiness and with that a sense of loneliness and isolation. The depressing scene leaves the stage devoid of all sense of time and place. It represents the universal aspect of destruction and war. For Beckett, the war was enough to push him over into his long depression.
The sense of time and timelessness is apparent in Beckett’s works. This influence is seen in Waiting for Godot, the audience perceives a day has passed, the actors can only guess how many years have passed and are gone. The characters have no place to go and
no real time left. In fact, in some of Beckett’s other works he has explicit instructions to finish the play in a certain allotted time. Maybe it was eccentric, or symbolic, epitomizing the sense of timelessness during the war. Every day, battle lines would change and death became so common that it corrupted the sense of life. During the war, time was just a variable; the common goal was victory. This set Europe apart from the United States during the war, in the sense that while Americans lived in safety, many Europeans traveled day and night as refugees. After a while, the importance of time faded and the only objective seen by all in Europe was an end to the war.
The works of Beckett also derive their influence from his life. Naturally, the most memorable moments in his life are tragic such as the death of Peggy from tuberculosis and running away from the Gestapo in France. As Gontaski states:
Although in many ways Samuel Beckett is an exemplary twentieth century romantic artist (he has all the bohemian credentials) and although his art is built on strongly autobiographical elements and is finally an art of failure, not achievement, much of Beckett’s creative struggle is against those personal elements, and Beckett’s means are, in part, to devalue content in favor of form. (pgs. 243-244)
Another important playwright and novelist during the epoch of the absurd was a homosexual criminal, Jean Genet. Genet was the outcome of the rapid industrialization of Europe; his mother was a prostitute and his dad was unknown. Since childhood, the only life Genet knew was the streets. Eventually he spent time in several penitentiaries for
boys. During this time he immersed himself in the widespread homosexual community active in the newly reformed prisons.
Genet set his success from within prison. In prison, serving a life sentence, he attempted to write a novel, only for it to be destroyed. He then rewrote the whole novel, from scratch, Our Lady of the Flowers. Sartre and Cocteau lobbied for his release and won. Later, he setup his stage success with his theatrical masterpieces. His pieces such as The Maids, The Balcony, and The Screens made him another famous playwright in the theatre of the absurd.
His service in the French Foreign Legion brought about his first homosexual relationship within a context of love. He courted and fell in love with a young hair stylist in Syria while on duty. The rare acceptance of such liberal views accepted by the local townspeople, made him feel comfortable and happy. Later in his life this acceptance he freely received by the Syrians was repaid by his constant lobbying for the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
One famous play Genet wrote is The Balcony. This play is about a Madame and her service as she carries out her client’s outrageous fantasies. His play functions as his outlet against the bourgeois class that participated in homosexuality but never admitted it. His anger for such people are great since they where the ones who solicited him as a male prostitute. They always would accept him for his homosexuality but when society rejected Genet for such, they immediately disappeared from his back.
Moreover, at a time when middle-class gay authors were promoting the metaphor of homosexuality as illness and mounting pleas for sympathy and compassion, Genet embraced the only other two alternatives-
He saw them with contempt and anger because they sought sympathy for other homosexuals while being cowards about their actions. His position and works are unique because he was not influenced as much by the war as other absurd dramatists, but instead, he was influenced by the new liberal ideas traveling through Europe about an open sexuality. Just like Sartre, who was associated amongst people known for their sexual experimentation; Genet experimented, but he always saw himself first as a thief, then whatever else.
The early to mid-twentieth century heavily influenced the artists of the theatre of the absurd. Through the wars, epidemics, and liberalization of values, such artist were able to effectively create works representing the new sentiment of the modern world, confusion. Such is the basic notion of absurdity in simple language. For in its effectiveness, lies the realization that we still do not know and probably never will know anything about life. These artists: Albert Camus, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, developed art for confusion based on the sole existence of irrationality during the first half of the twentieth century.
Online. Internet. 15 March 1999.
Gontarski, S.E. “The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett’s Art.” Modern Critical Views:
Samuel Beckett. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. 227-245
Rhein, Phillip. Albert Camus. New York: Twayne, 1969.
White, Edmund. “Once a Sodomite, Twice a Philosopher.” The Harvard Gay & Lesbian
Review 3.1 (Winter 1996): 4 pp. Online. Internet. 3 March 1999.