“We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?” – Estragon in Waiting for Godot Existentialism is a movement in twentieth-century philosophy and literature that centres on the individual and his or her relationship to the universe or God. One of the leading exponents of existentialist thought was French novelist and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. His philosophy is articulated in his novels, such as No Exit and Nausea, as well as in his more purely philosophical works (Being and Nothingness, Critique of Dialectical Reason). Among the most famous and influential existentialist propositions is Sartre’s dictum, “existence precedes and rules essence,” which is generally taken to mean that there is no pre- defined essence to humanity except that which we make for ourselves.
Since Sartrean existentialism does not acknowledge the existence of a god or of any other determining principle, human beings are free to do as they choose. Along with this freedom to choose, there is the responsibility for the consequences of one’s choices. With this responsibility comes a profound anguish or dread. Existentialism attempts to describe our desire to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. Unfortunately, life might be without inherent meaning (existential atheists) or it might be without a meaning we can understand (existential theists).
Either way, the human desires for logic and immortality are futile. We are forced to define our own meanings, knowing they might be temporary. The existentialist label has been applied to writers, philosophers, visual artists and filmmakers; the movement flourished in the mid-20th century Europe. Nineteenth-century precursors to this school of thought include Some notable 19th century precursors include Kierkegaard and Nietsche. Other 20th-century notables include Albert Camus, Jean Genet, Andre Gide, Simone de Beauvoir, Franz Kafka, and Beckett.
Theatre of the Absurd
Beckett is considered one of the defining playwrights of Theatre of the Absurd, a style of theatre developed by a number of primarily European playwrights in the 1950s and 1960s. The term was coined by the critic Martin Esslin, who made it the title of a 1962 book on the subject. Esslin saw the work of these playwrights as giving artistic articulation to Albert Camus’ philosophy that life is inherently without meaning, as illustrated in his work The Myth of Sisyphus. Absurdist theatre discards traditional plot, characters, and action to assault its audience with a disorienting experience. Time, place and identity are ambiguous and fluid. Characters often engage in seemingly meaningless or nonsensical dialogue or activities, and, as a result, the audience senses what it is like to live in a universe that doesn’t “make sense.”
The result is a dreamlike or even nightmare-like mood in the audience. Beckett and others who adopted this style felt that this disoriented feeling was a more honest response to the post-World War II world than the traditional belief in a rationally ordered universe. Waiting for Godot remains the most famous example of this form of drama, although Beckett disavowed the label. Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano is another classic of the form. Ionesco’s characters sit and talk, repeating the obvious until it sounds like nonsense— underscoring the inadequacy of verbal communication.
Ionesco drew much of his dialogue from phrasebooks for people learning English as a second language; the nonsensicality is frequently hilarious, but a strong undercurrent of despair is also present. According to Esslin, the four defining playwrights of the movement are Ionesco, Beckett, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov. Other writers often associated with The Theatre of the Absurd include Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Fernando Arrabal, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee and Jean Tardieu. Contemporary playwrights, like Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter, have also been deeply influenced by this style of writing; and many of its conventions have, in recent decades, been absorbed into mainstream theatre.