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Research Question: Which methods could a theatre company use while performing Jean Anouilh’s ‘Antigone’, keeping true to and supporting the style of the Theatre of the Absurd?
Theatre of the Absurd is a term that was coined by Hungarian-born theatre critic Martin Esslin, who made it the title of his 1962 book on the subject. It is refers to a particular style of theatre and the work of a number of mainly European playwrights, mostly written in the 1950s and 1960s. These plays are all related through the theme of the Absurd, first presented in this way by the French philosopher Albert Camus in his 1942 essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” in which he deals with the meaninglessness and absurdity of the human existence and states the belief that life has no purpose. Subsequently he poses the question if the realization and acceptance of this fact must necessarily result in suicide.
You can see a clear reflection of this thought in Esslin’s definition of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ as that which “strives to express its sense of the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought.” The most well-know absurdist playwrights are Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter and Arthur Adamov.
It is believed that the uprising of this philosophical movement during this specific time period was triggered by the death, grief and pure misery brought upon the people by World War II, which demonstrated the total brevity of any values and emphasized the precariousness and arbitrariness of human life. The population of Europe had been experiencing terror, hunger and disease on such a traumatizing level of the trench warfare and the holocaust, that they lost all hope in humanity and faith in their god. That’s why this philosophy of meaninglessness developed because people failed to see any reason in life anymore. The psychic trauma of living under the threat of nuclear annihilation has probably also had a great effect on the development of this new form of theatre.
Although World War II is thought to have been the catalyst for his movement there are a number of predecessors which are thought to have contributed to its development. Theatre of the Absurd is thought to have originated from the ancient Greece between 550 and 220 BCE from what was know as ‘Old Comedy’, particularly from playwrights such as Aristophanes. In ‘Old Comedy’ there was a satirical treatment of domestic situations and myths on society, politics, literature and the Peloponnesian War that was happening between Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian league, led by sparta.
The Absurdist plays share many of these most important characteristics: extensive comedy, mixed with horrific or tragic images; unconventional dialogue full of clichés, wordplay, and nonsense; characters caught in hopeless and illogical situations forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions; plots that are cyclical or absurdly expansive and either a parody or dismissal of realism, in attempt to reflect the absurdity of human existence.
The aim of absurd plays is to startle, confuse and shock the viewer, waking him up from his boring and conventional life of everyday concerns. The Theatre of the Absurd was something completely new and rebellious to the viewers and was indeed, like some of the playwrights liked to call it, ‘ anti-theatre’. It was surreal, illogical, conflictless and plotless. The dialogue was total baloney and seemingly without meaning. Unsurprisingly, it was first received with disapproval and lack of understanding.
Jean Anouilh’s play ‘Antigone’, originally produced in Paris in 1942, is a tragedy inspired by and adapted from the ancient greek classic ‘Antigone’ by Sophocles which was first performed in Athens in the 5th century B.C. The changes he made to the plot, may seem slight in some cases, but create a very different work and theatrical experience with a new taste of political and moral criticism.
The main difference is that in Anouilh’s version, from the very beginning, a member of the chorus steps forward to perform the prologue, ‘introducing’ the audience to the plot and the characters of the play. Anouilh’s chorus has a very different purpose though than Sophocles’ had and is of vital significance for the play, ceating a detachment from the play at times in order to address the audience directly. At one point he indicates the difference between melodrama and tragedy, suggesting that Antigone be part of the latter, meaning that her fate is clear and unavoidable.
Walter Ince, asks the following philosophical question with an absurd feeling, responding to Anouilh’s tragedy: “If life evokes such complete hopelessness, where is the tragedy in leaving it?”. When performing this play while applying absurdist theatre techniques, we want to keep this feeling of hopelessness alive and demonstrate the absurdity of life. Anouilh has already created a slight absurd feeling making things easier already. His sophisticated distancing of the plot and constant reminder to the audience of the fact that they are merely watching actors in a play seems to me very absurd and “anti-theatrical”.
I imagine this would confuse the viewer and alienate, maybe even irritate and annoy the viewer, as it definitely did in the time of the original performance. Additionally, applying some of the standard absurdist techniques such as having the characters repeat meaningless actions or make the situations seem hopeless absurd. Especially aspects from the play that already seem slightly absurd should be promoted, such as Queen Eurydice knitting until she goes to her room and dies or the three guards that play cards, completely oblivious to the tragedy enrolling before them.
On that point, the director would have to decide if he wants to stay true to Anouilh’s original text or if he wants to change the dialogues, in which case one could take the meaning out of conversations or insert nonsensical sentences, make the characters talk past each other, without completely losing the plot. The stage setting could be either overly surrealistic, further contributing to the audiences confusion or completely simplistic going as far as not having a setting at all, further emphasizing the anti-theatrical aspects and adding to the alienation of the viewer.
Carlson, Marvin. 1993. Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey from the Greeks to the Present. Expanded ed. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press
Ince, Walter. 1968. Forum for Modern Language Studies: ‘Prologue and Chorus in Anouilh’s Antigone’ IV, pp. 277 – 84
Freeman, Ted. 2000. Antigone: Commentary, Anouilh’s Antigone. Methuen Drama Student Edition, London, Methuen Publishing