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Sisyphus Smiles - Tips for Studying Absurdist Drama

Updated on January 9, 2015
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Existence Antecedent Essence

Perhaps no other modernist style than Absurdism baffles students of dramatic literature. Its circumstances, embedded plots and seemingly random dialogue often flummox readers that have no foundational understanding of its aims and milieu. Nevertheless, to fully appreciate the strides undertaken by the avant-garde in the latter twentieth century, one must first arrest and absorb the quintessential features of this dramatic epoch, including philosophical underpinnings, conventions and major contributions to the legacy of theater history. As dramatic theorist Martin Esslin records in his seminal work, "Theater of the Absurd":

Concerned as it is with the ultimate realities of the human condition, the relatively few fundamental problems of life and death, isolation and communication. The theater of the absurd, however grotesque, frivolous or irrelevant it may appear, it represents a return to the original, religious function of the theater—the confrontation of man with the spheres of myth and religious reality.

The boon of capturing Absurdism's essential qualities affords the reader a visceral, primal understanding regarding the purpose of dramatic art. Below are only several plenary observations for more carefully studying this dramatic tradition.

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Existential and Philosophical Roots

While Absurdist drama does not exhibit a perfect ratio with existentialism, it is virtually impossible to appreciate the works of Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter without at least cursory knowledge of this philosophical tradition. One of the twentieth-century's most profound philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, informally defined the hearts blood of existentialism with the maxim, "existences precedes essence."For Sartre, humans are born into a world they neither manufactured or fully desired, leaving the pursuit of meaning to each individual. For existentialists like Sartre, the pursuit of personal meaning eclipsed its acquisition, since achievement and contentment often surmised the revelation of an empty, ultimately meaningless cosmos. For this reason, Sisyphus, the Greek deity consigned to chronically push a boulder up a mountain in Hades. As Sartre himself opines:

If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of this wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.

The paradox of the Sisyphus myth, according to the above passage, lies in the contradiction of finding meaning in a seemingly eternal punishment. The distraction of labor, however futile, allows both Sisyphus (and by proxy humankind) to draw meaning from an existential void. Absurdism echoes this sentiment in many of its principal dramas. Beckett's compositions, for example, prove replete with roles that find themselves in a seemingly incoherent and untenable realm, forced to manufacture their own purpose on a daily basis.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Theatrical Conventions

Foremost, Abusrdism rejects the realistic style that pervades the hallmarks of modern drama. As its existential antecedents reject the notion of an objective, empirical reality, the dramatic movement find little credence in pursuing verisimilitude. The evasion of realism also extends to a breakdown in traditional systems of logic, including a conspicuous devaluation of language and traditional institutions. Often, this devaluation take to form of stage actions directly contradicting dialogue or a premium placed upon the value of silence and its constituent revelations. Even the word play of Absurdist drama belies a seemingly confounding subtext:

Gogo – (sententious). To every man his little cross. (sighs.) Till he 
dies. (Afterthought.) And is forgotten
Didi – In the meantime let us try to converse calmly, since we are 
incapable of keeping silent.
Gogo – You’re right, we’re inexhaustible.
Didi – It’s so we won’t think.
Gogo – We have that excuse.
Didi – It’s so we won’t hear.
Gogo – We have our reasons.
Didi – All the dead voices.
Gogo – They make a noise like wings.
Didi – Like leaves.
Gogo – Like sand.
Didi– Like leaves.

In the above passage, Vladimir and Estragon admit their conversation holds no meaning even though it serves a purpose; to stave off interminable silence. Neckett here suggests that the point of language is not to communicate so much as perpetuate an evasion of truth; in this case, the despair derived from encountering a meaningless existence.

Catastrophe by Samuel Beckett

Send In The Clowns

Given the depth of such ideas, it is perhaps no accident that Absurdist drama typically features comical or clown like figures. Indeed, many of Absurdism's roles may trace from the French "moros" or "stupidus" tradition, more commonly associated with the "hobo" or "Grimaldi" clown. Traditional clown sequences rely on a master - servant dyad to catalyze comedic conflict. However, the "hobo" clown has no employment, hence no master. Like the existential seeker in a meaningless cosmos, the clownish figures - fearless optimists - continue their revels without master or genuine hope.

Pile of Ruins

Know any other online resources for studying Absurdist drama? I look forward to your comments and thank you in advance for any kind words. Check out my other Hub Pages for additional suggestions for navigating college assignments by working smart instead of merely working hard.

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