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Theatre of the Absurd

Updated on August 1, 2016


Theatre of the Absurd is a term that was coined by Martin Esslin in 1961 in his book by the same name. In this book, he associated this term with four dramatists – Samuel Beckett (Irish), Eugene Ionesco (Romanian), Arthur Adamov (Russian), and Jean Genet (French) – who displayed similar attitudes toward the predicament of the modern man in their plays.

The philosophical foundation of the Theatre of the Absurd

Man’s predicament arises from his position in this absurd universe, in which, try as he may, his plan to impose an order is constantly thwarted. He continually searches for a living purpose, but it is all in vain. Man has been placed in a universe that has lost its centre, and has become disjointed, purposeless, and absurd. One must note that Theatre of the Absurd evolved post the absurdity of the Second World War, during which time Camus wrote “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942), a major philosophical influence on this theatre. In this landmark essay, Camus explains the consciousness of absurd, which is also a philosophical paradigm of Theatre of the Absurd.

Theatre of the Absurd as the theatre of situation

Theatre of the Absurd flourished in Europe and America in the 1950s and 1960s. Various dramatists associated with Theatre of the Absurd met with reactions of bewilderment by the audience when their plays were first staged. It was because conventional criticism could not be applied to these plays. Yet they appealed to the masses. It is true that these plays do not tell a coherent story to communicate any moral or social lessons. Also, in these plays, dramatic suspense is not created so much by questions such as “What will happen next?” than by the simple question “What is happening?” To approach the meaning of the play, the spectator is challenged by the dramatist to formulate such a question. Moreover, Theatre of the Absurd is a theatre of situation; it strips man of the accidental circumstances of social position or historical context, and confronts him with the basic situation of existence, such as waiting between birth and death (as witnessed in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot). It makes the audience aware of man’s precarious and mysterious position in an arbitrary universe where nothing makes sense. Therefore, many plays in Theatre of the Absurd have a circular structure in which time is elastic, and fact and fantasy intermingle. Just like Camus’ myth of Sisyphus, man too undergoes meaningless routine tasks that are of no ultimate purpose.

A scene from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot


Characterization in the Theatre of the Absurd

The purposelessness of human experience is transformed on stage through the depiction of characters’ motiveless actions, which are largely incomprehensible. It is hard to identify with such characters. So the audience sees what happens to them from outside; it does not share their point of view. For this reason, these characters appear mostly comical to the audience. In fact, the figure of clown is very important in Theatre of the Absurd. But its appearance is a mere projection of the real situation of humanity that acts like a clown as it has shed all logic. Also, it is said that Theatre of the Absurd has kinship with farce. It is true that absurdist plays are mercilessly comic, until we are confronted with profound sadness in their subject-matter. Thus, Theatre of the Absurd combines laughter with horror.

Influences on the Theatre of the Absurd

Theatre of the Absurd also combines several elements from earlier aesthetic traditions – Dada, Expressionism, and Surrealism – to create both the content and the form of the play. Even as it breaks away from the naturalistic theatre, it also borrows from older theatrical traditions the elements of verbal nonsense, juggling, and miming. In fact Ionesco incorporated several grotesque elements from Alfred Jarry’s plays into his plays. A more twentieth-century influence on Theatre of the Absurd is that of the silent movies depicting bizarre situations through gestures. These gestures become quintessential in Theatre of the Absurd as they use all the above-mentioned elements to break away from logical connections and communicate the arbitrariness of life. The importance of all these theatrical devices is also accentuated by the fact that language is no longer the predominant medium of communicating the complete truth. So it appears more and more in contradiction to reality. Therefore, instead of using language as argument or discursive speech, Theatre of the Absurd uses language of concrete poetic images. In this way, Theatre of the Absurd is a significant attempt at re-evaluating language that is easily played around by the media of our times to appropriate truth.


In conclusion, Theatre of the Absurd becomes an important development in the aesthetics of modern times, reflecting the loss of modern man cut off from exterior comfort. Its influence can be felt in the liberal theatre of our time. Owing to this, it is often said that we are children of Godot.

Lucky's famous monologue in Beckett's Waiting for Godot


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