Influence of Existentialism on Theatre of Absurd

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Influence of Existentialism on Theatre of Absurd

The term “Theatre of the Absurd” comes from literary critic Martin Esslin’s book The Theatre of the Absurd, published in 1961. In this book, he examined the works of a number of European playwrights of in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. According to him, these playwrights gave dramatic articulation to Albert Camus’s philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. He named four playwrights as the pioneers of this surge of absurdness in theatre- Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genet. He added Harold Pinter to this list in the later editions of his book.

Theatre of the absurd was initially Avant garde, i. e.experimental theatre. It is said to have borrowed from a no. of artistic movements, Surrealism, its precursor Dadaism and Shakespeare’s tragic comedy to name a few. In most absurd plays, the content is tragic but the treatment is comic. The dialogues between the characters are funny on the surface level they indicate deep-seated fear and psychological disturbance. Hamlet’s real or feigned madness, his dilemma and unexplained inaction and his tortured self-critical soliloquies show early signs of absurdum. Tom Stoppard wrote the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, based on the two minor characters of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

It shows influences of the most celebrated absurdist work, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett where again the characters are in pairs. To emphasise the tragic-comedy element of absurd theatre, Esslin emulates famous comedians like Charlie Chaplin (his work The Great Dictator is about Hitler and the holocaust), Laurel and Hardy and The Marx Brothers. If we have to take a slightly modern example, we could say the popular cartoon series Tom and Jerry that chronicles the encounters of greedy and dim-witted cat, Tom and a tiny and smart mouse, Jerry is absurd tragic comedy.

It contains visuals of exceeding violence where Tom vacillates between being flattened like a plate and at times reddening to vermillion instead of his grey colour but the absurd part is that we laugh at it. Lewis Carroll’s linguistic nonsense contributed to the absurdist mistrust of language as a means of communication. Strindberg’s “dream plays” had an element of surrealism in them that can be considered as a precursor to absurd works. Herrik Ibsen was considered as a predominantly realist and satirist but he too indulged into absurdum.

Antonin Artaud’s concept of “theatre of cruelty” expressed in the book Theatre and its Double (1938) was a definite impetus to absurd drama. Artaud propagated the use of “cruelty”, meaning violent, physical determination to shatter the facade of false reality around us. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an example of Americanisation of absurd theatre. Relationship with Existentialism Existentialism was a very popular philosophy in the Paris circles during the 1930s to the 1950s and thus inspired the rise of theatre of the absurd.

However, the two terms cannot be used interchangeable because the existentialists were a very loosely held group of writers and philosophers with little common consent on any subject. Theatre of the absurd associates itself most closely with the kind existentialism that Camus propounded though it some of the plays bear resemblance to other brands of the philosophy. Existentialism is a term applied to the works of various nineteenth and twentieth century writers and philosophers who chose to write on the subject of human existence in the modern world, which according to them was confusing and essentially meaningless.

The basic tenet of existential thought is a belief that all our efforts end in “nothingness” and therefore there is no point in striving to lead a better life. This implies that there need not be any moral judgements passed on people and their actions because eventually it all ends in nothingness. Thus, crime is looked upon with an amoral perspective and justice with indifference by existentialists. In Albert Camus’s novel, The Outsider, the protagonist Meursault has committed murder but the court and the jury try him for his lack of emotion. He fails to show any regret for his crime and states that he is more annoyed

with himself for committing murder than repentant. The lack of public display of grief on his mother’s death is also held as evidence against him. So he is guillotined for not mourning his mother’s death instead of the murder. This kind of dispassionate view of life, death and the concept of justice is characteristic of existentialism. The forerunners of existentialism in the nineteenth century were philosophers Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche and authors, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka who described existential themes in their literary works.

Nietzsche treated life and death with the same callousness in his philosophical manifesto, Beyond Good and Evil. He says that most people don’t have the will to live therefore how does it matter if the powerful exterminate them to gain more power because in the end everything comes to nothing, so the concepts of good and evil are no longer valid. Hitler based his theory for the exterminating the Jews on a misinterpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Another defining element of existential thought was the assertion of human will.

Here it would be prudent to note that the so called “existentialists” differed widely with each other on the dogmatic level. Camus did not even wish to be classified as an existentialist. Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosophical spokesperson of existentialism supported suicide in this book, Being and Nothingness on the pretext that it is the only way to assert human will. He believed that human beings are geworfenheit i. e. “thrown into being” and had no control or opportunity to assert their individuality. Humans merely exist and are condemned to live and therefore the only way to assert your will is to end your existence.

Camus and many of the absurdist writers did not agree with Sartre brand of fatalism. Camus believed that once man accepts, that life is basically absurd and meaningless, there is no need for self emulation. In his essay Myth of Sisyphus, which lays the foundation of absurd drama, Camus compares the man’s condition with the predicament of the Greek hero Sisyphus. Sisyphus is a mythological character belonging to the ancient Greek civilisation, which is condemned by the gods to continue performing the same meaning less task of rolling a stone up the mountain only to see it roll down again.

Camus’s answer to the meaninglessness of life is “revolt”. According to him, we must keep struggling with this absurdity of life. Thus, Camus says, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy. ” Camus also wrote an essay called L’Homme revolte i. e. The Rebel that was published as a book. It chronicles the history of revolution and revolt in the Western European civilisation. He draws references from diverse authors and poets like Dostoevsky, Hegel (political theoritian), Charles Baudelaire (controversial French poet) and various others.

He uses an integrated amalgam of their works to draw out certain facts about revolution, its nature, its causes and effects. The most basic point of existential influence on theatre of the absurd is the concept of absurdity itself. It is not as if absurdity did not exist before the existentialists. Life was always absurd. In the Introduction to this paper the root of absurdity have been traced all the way back to Shakespeare and can be possible traced further back into literary tradition.

The Second World War brought this absurdity out in the public sphere, existentialism gave voice to the idea and absurd theatre gave it an artistic interpretation. Absurdity comes from the existential concept of nothingness, which is the same thing as the notion of meaninglessness. Both existentialism and theatre of absurd are based on the constant assumption that life is basically meaningless. That is why the absurd plays are described as “a play where nothing happens”. This is because the absurdist dramatists like Beckett believed that “change is only an illusion”.

If everything is to eventually end in nothingness then what is the relevance of change. In Waiting for Godot, both the protagonists wait for Mr Godot but in the heart of their hearts they don’t want him to come because then they won’t have anything to look forward to. It would kill hope for change. Idea behind the plot is that we only hope for change but do not really want change thus change is impossible and perhaps irrelevant because even change is meaningless like the rest of life’s experiences.

The other point of dissent among absurdists is the assertion of free will, which is very important for all existentialists and some absurd dramatists. Genet mostly echoes Sartre’s point of view that human will cannot be exercised except for suicide. Beckett makes a mockery of this view in Waiting for Godot. He portrays that human beings are incapable of exercising free will even in choosing their end. The two characters contemplate suicide as an option but are scared to try it because they fear the possibility that one of them will die and the other would have to be alone.

Harold Pinter in this regard adheres more to Camus’s idea of constant revolt with meaninglessness of life. In his play, The Birthday Party the character Petey says, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do! “. Pinter proclaimed that this was the most important line he ever wrote. It is symbolic of that undying spirit of revolt like Sisyphus. Camus’s other non-fiction work, The Rebel also supports his idea of revolt. In this essay, Camus says that revolt and then revolution arise out of discontent and a desire for justice. However, being an existentialist he makes it very clear that “justice” is an ambiguous term.

“Justice” in this context is dissatisfaction with the existing requisites of justice at a given time. The idea that he explores in this essay is that when a revolution is successful it becomes a tyranny. The new order is often more oppressive that the one it replaces. This is with special reference to the French revolution which became a blood bath but also holds true in case of Cuba, Russia and various others. Idealism in that way is very dangerous because to enforce ideals of utopia, the perpetrators justice the use of violence. But revolution is the single biggest force in shaping the history of mankind.

Camus believes that revolution is a necessary evil. Even if change is an illusion it helps human beings contend with the meaninglessness of life by providing a cause. Conclusion We may conclude that Camus has a very dispassionate attitude towards “change” though he deems it unavoidable and this is also true of Pinter. In most of Pinter’s plays there is a change in the situation at the end though it may not be overt. In his play, Homecoming, the wife decides to stay back to take care of her husband’s father and brothers as part whore part mother. There is an intrusion into a completely male household by the coming of a woman.

It disturbs the status quo but the conflict is resolved and the change is accepted. In The Birthday Party, again Meg does not know that her two boarders have probably taken Stan away but her husband Petey is aware of it. There is a change in Stan, he becomes a vegetable by the end of the play, who can neither think nor respond. Whether is desirable or not is debatable but there is change nevertheless. This shows that though fleeting and imaginary it helps us deal with life’s confusion. INFLUENCE OF EXISTENTIALISM ON THEATRE OF ABSURD PAPER 1. 2 SEMESTER 2 FERGUSSON COLLEGE ENGLISH DEPARTMENT By ANWESHA BARARI ROLL NO. -208.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 9 November 2016

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