An Essay on “Theatre of the Absurd”: What is the “Theatre of the Absurd”?

The “Theatre of the Absurd” , a term coined by Hungarian-born critic Martin Esslin in his  1962 book The Theatre of the Absurd, refers to a particular type of play which first became popular during the 1950s and 1960s and which presented on stage the philosophy articulated by French philosopher Albert Camus in his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he defines the human condition as basically meaningless. Camus argued that humanity had to resign itself to recognizing that a fully satisfying rational explanation of the universe was beyond its reach; in that sense, the world must ultimately be seen as absurd.

Esslin regarded the term “Theatre of the Absurd” merely as a "device" by which he meant to bring attention to certain fundamental traits discernible in the works of a range of playwrights, who did not regard themselves as a school but who all seemed to share certain attitudes towards the predicament of the man in the universe. The playwrights loosely grouped under the label of the absurd attempt to convey their sense of bewilderment, anxiety, and wonder in the face of an inexplicable universe. According to Esslin, the five defining playwrights of the movement are Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, although these writers were not always comfortable with the label and sometimes preferred to use terms such as "Anti-Theater" or "New Theater.” The Theatre of the Absurd originated in France; Jean Genet from France, Arthur Ade,mov bom in Russia, Fernando Arrabalfrom SpanishMofocco, Samuel Beckett from Dublin and Eugene Ionesco from Rumania were the leading figures.

Although the Theatre of the Absurd is often traced back to avant-garde experiments of the 1920s and 1930s, its roots, in actuality, date back much further. Absurd elements first made their appearance shortly after the rise of Greek drama. The modern  origins of the Theatre of the Absurd are rooted in the avant-garde experiments in art of the 1920s and 1930s. At the same time, it was undoubtedly strongly influenced by the traumatic experience of the horrors of the Second World War, which showed the total impermanence of any values, shook the validity of any conventions and highlighted the precariousness of human life and its fundamental meaninglessness and arbitrariness. The trauma of living from 1945 under threat of nuclear annihilation also seems to have been an important factor in the rise of the new theatre. Suddenly, one did not need to be an abstract thinker in order to be able to reflect upon absurdity: the experience of absurdity became part of the average person's daily existence.

The absurdist dramatists believe that our existence is absurd because we are born without seeking to be born, we die without seeking death. We live between birth and death trapped within our body and our reason, unable to conceive of a time in which we were not or a time in which we will not be. Thrust into life , armed with our senses ,will and reason, we feel ourselves to be potent beings. Yet our senses give the lie to our thought and our thought defies our senses. We never perceive anything completely. The absurd theatre openly rebelled against conventional theatre. It was, as Ionesco called it “anti-theatre.” It was surreal, illogical, conflictless and plotless. The dialogue often seemed to be complete gibberish. And, not surprisingly, the public’s first reaction to this new theatre was incomprehension and rejection.

Whereas traditional theatre attempts to create a photographic representation of life as we see it, the Theatre of the Absurd aims to create a ritual-like, mythological, archetypal, allegorical vision, closely related to the world of dreams. The focal point of these dreams is often man's fundamental bewilderment and confusion, stemming from the fact that he has no answers to the basic existential questions: why we are alive, why we have to die, why there is injustice and suffering. Ionesco defined the absurdist everyman as “Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots … lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless.” The Theatre of the Absurd, in a sense, attempts to reestablish man’s communion with the universe.

One of the most important aspects of absurd drama is its distrust of language as a means of communication. Language, it seems to say, has become nothing but a vehicle for conventionalized, stereotyped, meaningless exchanges. Words fail to express the essence of human experience, not being able to penetrate beyond its surface. The Theatre of the Absurd constituted first and foremost an onslaught on language, showing it as a very unreliable and insufficient tool of communication. Absurd drama uses conventionalised speech, clichés, slogans and technical jargon, which it distorts, parodies and breaks down. By ridiculing conventionalised and stereotyped speech patterns, the Theatre of the Absurd tries to make people aware of the possibility of going beyond everyday speech conventions and communicating more authentically.

The action of the absurd plays is typically intended to demonstrate symbolically the ideas of the playwright and to create the dramatic temperature necessary to maintain the interest of the audience. At first glance some of their plays appear to be utterly illogical until we realize that the logic of the author’s thought is not directly expressed but rather symbolically stated in action. The absurdists are not afraid of obscurity in art since they employ it as a direct symbol of the obscurity they find in life.

The absurd plays seek to explore the spiritual loneliness, complete isolation, and anxiety of the down-and-outs of society, of those who are social failures and social outcasts.

The first and more obvious role of absurd plays is satirical when these plays criticize a society that is petty and dishonest. The theatre of the absurd presents anxiety ,despair and a sense of loss at the disappearance of solutions, illusions and purposefulness. Other features include-the life is essentialy meaningless,hence miserable;there is no hope because of the inevitable futility of man’s efforts; reality is unbearable unless relieved by dreams and illusions;man is fascinated by death which permanently replaces dreams and illusions.

Samuel Beckett, the pioneer of the absurd theatre, also contributed to the other fields of literature- poetry,Fiction and criticism. He wrote his major works in French language. Samuel Barclay Beckett was born on 13th April, 1906 at Foxrock, near Dublin. He was a brilliant student as well as an outstanding sportsman. He completed his Bachelor of Arts at the Trinity College in 1927. He stood first and won the gold medal. He was selected to represent Trinity College in an exchange programme with Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, where he met James Joyce and becoming part of his intimate circle; Joyce became a major influence on his literary style.

During World War II, Beckett stayed in Paris-even after it had become occupied by the Germans. He joined the underground movement and fought for the resistance until 1942 when several members of his group were arrested and he was forced to flee with his French-born wife to the unoccupied zone. In 1945, after it had been liberated from the Germans, he returned to Paris and began his most prolific period as a writer. In the five years that followed, he wrote Eleutheria, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, the novels Malloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, and Mercier et Camier, two books of short stories, and a book of criticism.

Samuel Beckett's first play, Eleutheria, mirrors his own search for freedom, revolving around a young man's efforts to cut himself loose from his family and social obligations. His first real triumph, however, came on January 5, 1953, when Waiting for Godot premiered at the Théâtre de Babylone. In spite of some expectations to the contrary, the strange little play in which "nothing happens" became an instant success, running for four hundred performances at the Théâtre de Babylone and enjoying the critical praise of dramatists as diverse as Tennessee Williams, Jean Anouilh, Thornton Wilder, and William Saroyan who remarked, "It will make it easier for me and everyone else to write freely in the theatre."

His plays are concerned with human suffering and survival, and his characters are struggling with meaninglessness and the world of the Nothing. Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. In his writings for the theater Beckett showed influence of burlesque, vaudeville, the music hall, commedia dell'arte, and the silent-film style of such figures as Keaton and Chaplin.

Beckett is an iconoclast and an image-breaker. He has shattered conventions and pioneered a new kind of drama. His drama is avobe categories of tragedy and comedy,avobe classification of traditional divisions, avobe message and avobe entertainment. It does not teach lessons, it does not preach, it does not do any propaganda. His plays show the situations in which we all are;they expose us in our existential predicament. 

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is the most famous, and most controversial play in the  absurd tradition. The characters of the play are strange caricatures who have difficulty communicating the simplest of concepts to one another as they bide their time awaiting the arrival of Godot. The language they use is often ludicrous, and following the cyclical patter, the play seems to end in precisely the same condition it began, with no real change having occurred. In fact, it is sometimes referred to as “the play where nothing happens.” Its detractors count this a fatal flaw and often turn red in the face fomenting on its inadequacies. It is mere gibberish, they cry, eyes nearly bulging out of their head--a prank on the audience disguised as a play. The plays supporters, on the other hand, describe it is an accurate parable on the human condition in which “the more things change, the more they are the same.” Change, they argue, is only an illusion.

Eugene Ionesco

In an essay about Kafka, Eugene Ionesco says: ≪Every-thing which does not have a purpose is absurd... Cut off from his religious or metaphysical roots, man is lost, all his approach becomes reckless, useless, suffocating.≫1

Along side Beckett in the theatre genre of absurdity, is playwright Eugene Ionesco, the most introspective -and, at the same time, the most explicitplaywright of the absurd. Ionesco's main focus is on the futility of communication, so the language of his plays often reflects this by being almost completely nonsensical. He approaches the absurdity of life by making his characters comical and unable to control their own existence. Ionesco was born in Romania, but grew up in Paris with his mother. After thirteen years in Paris, he returned to Romania where he had to learn his native language. He attended the University of Bucharest, then taught high school French, then in 1936 got married. It was completely by accident that Ionesco became a playwright, while learning to speak the English language, he took the illogical phrases he found in the primer he was using and these phrases became the dialogue for The Bald Soprano, his first play. It is a little strange to think that Ionesco found his calling in playwrighting because at the time, he was known to dislike theatre because of the contradiction presented by the reality of the performers and the fiction of the stage. After The Bald Soprano, Ionesco went on to write other absurd works such as Rhinoceros in 1959, and Journeys to the Home of the Dead in 1981.

In Eugene Ionesco’s theatre we are that abandoned man who cannot escape from a threatening universe. The new structures, which are disordered, chaotic - at least apparently -with a confusing discontinuity always unpredictable, always surprising in their development, creatively destroy the old structures of a world which dozes with contentment among the meanings which it thinks that it still has. Eugene Ionesco “revolutionizes” the theatre not by new themes- which could never renew literature radically-, but by a new language, because of which even the themes of the absurd become really new, that is for the first time they acquire a real, efficient, active presence. As he admits in several metatexts, Eugene Ionesco writes his plays in a way somehow similar to the one in which a modern poet, especially one who belongs to the surrealist modality, writes his poems:”

His most brilliant absurd plays are The Chairs and The Lesson. In The Chairs, the inanimate chairs crowd out the imaginary world of the too old people. He uses empty chairs to show man’s empty existence.


Although Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco are two of the most famous absurdist playwrights, Harold Pinter is also the leading English language playwright in the genre. Harold was born on 10 October 1930 in Hackney, a working-class suburb in East London. Despite his work as a poet, an actor, a director, and a writer for films, Pinter’s reputation rests squarely on his full-lenght plays. The best known of these are probably The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming, No Man’s Land, and Betrayal. It is fashionable to talk of Pinter’s works in terms of comedies of menace and social comedies. This division has arisen because of what can appear to be quite a marked division between an early play ,such as The Birthday Party, and a later one such as No Man’s Land. In the early plays , the audience are made to laugh , but at the same time are threatened by a violent, hostile presence that often destroys one or more of the central characters. In the later plays there is less violence, rather more subtle comic effects and much less obscurity. Pinter, who admitted that Beckett was a major influence on his writing, portrayed such absurdist themes as the sense of rootlessness, loneliness and isolation. The similarities between Waiting for Godot and The Birthday Party and The Caretaker are also clear: the latter are comic, leave audience confused about the origins of characters and the truth of what they say, show behaviour that can appear absurd and pointless, and are open to many different interpretations.  

In his plays, Pinter never finds in necessary to explain why things occur or who anyone is, the existence within the play itself is justification enough. In general, lack of explanation is what characterizes Pinter's work, that and the interruption of outside forces upon a stable environment. What seems to set him apart though is that unlike Beckett and Ionesco, Pinter's world within the drama seems to be at least somewhat realistic.

Jean Genet

Jean Genet is, 'biogıraphically, the most spectacular author of the twentieth century'.10Be was bom İn Paris in 1910. His mother, Gabrielle Genet, was a prosı:itute;.and his father is not known. Genet
was abandoneçl by his müther to an. orphanage, then he was sent near his' peasant foster parents and was brought up by them. Genet leamt about  his real family when he go't his birth ,certificate at the age of twenty-one.  Though he started as a poet and prose writer, he  decided to turn to the theatre in 1947 and look for 'the logic of the theatre' and aehieved his greatest fame in the theatre.

His plays are coneerned with expressing his own feeling of helplessness and solitude when confronted with the despair and loneliness of man eaught in the hall of mitrors of the human eondition, inexorably trapped by an endless progression of images that are merely his own distorted reflection-lies eovering lies, fantasies battening upon fantasies, nightmares'nourished by nightmares within nightmares)?

The characters try to brüıg back the reality of the universe but they always fail, for Genet's message is that reality is unattainable for he has no control over it. The play represents 'a world of fantasy about a world of fantasy'Zl which seems absurd. Genet's The Balcony  is an example of the Theatre of the Absurd as well as the theatre as ritual. The ritual in the play is 'the regular repetition of mythical events and, as such, dosely akin to sympathetic magic'. This' is Genet's basic dilemma.  His major dramatic works include Deathwatch, The Maids, The Balcony ,The Blacks, and The Screens.

To Genet theater should present the vu1gar, the horrib1e and the obscene, through rich and rhythmic language and gestures within the framework of Black Mass., 'The greatest hero for him is the greatest crimina1, the greatest, rebel against society. He uses language as a means to communicate the spectator  the harsh facts of this cruel world and his own isolation. For Genet, theatre assumes a religious role, and turns out to be a Dionysian nightmare. He 1ived and died 1ike the hero of such a nightmaıe, a committed antagonist.

Arthur Admov

A Russian-born French playwright and translator, Adamov wrote absurdist, surrealistic dramas until 1957 and epic, realistic dramas from 1957 to 1970. He is best known for Ping-pong, the finest example of his earlier plays. He came to Paris at the age of fifteen and has lived there ever since. In Paris Adamov met surrealists and edited the surrealist journal Discontinuité.  In Arthur Adamov’s career, creative dramatic composition was to begin just after the liberation of France when he was yet under forty.  Today, the list of Arthur Adamov’s dramatic works include  La Parodie (The Parody, 1950), L'Invasion (The Invasion, 1950), La Grande et la Petite Manoeuvre (The Grand and Small Manoeuvre, 1950), Le Sens de la Marche (The Way to Go, 1953), Tous contre tous (All against all, 1953), Le Professeur Taranne (Professor Taranne, 1953),  Le Ping-Pong (Ping Pong, 1955) and  Paolo Paoli (1957).

As a maker of plays he attacks with rigor the so-called absurdities of society. Vacillations of public authority are held up to ridicule as is also the alleged futility of the established order. The world is represented as deceptive. From his early work that focused on the concerns of the individual, to his political theatre that took inspiration from Brechtian theatre theory and underscored the preoccupations of the collective, Adamov's theatre must be noted for its plasticity and experimental nature.

Edward Albee: Albee is supposed to be one of the greatest absurdist playwrights after the Second World War in American literature. By the early 1960s, Albee was widely considered to the successor of Williams and Miller. Albee was the first and perhaps the only one of his theatrical generation to move from YAM (Young American Playwright) to FAM (Famous American Playwright). Albee came up with the series of successful works like The Zoo Story; a play written in Absurdist style; The American Dream; a play that attacks on the false values which have destroyed the real values in American society ; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The most famous book having the theme of emptiness, and so on. 

Most of Albee’s dramas lack specific setting. Audiences never know the situation and the place where things are happening in play. This is the important feature of absurdist drama. Most of the characters presented by Albee in his works are restless and uncomfortable in their own self. The characters in Albee’s plays seem to suffer from loneliness because they cannot or will not make any connection with each other. Through such an image of the characters, it can be assumed that Albee’s view about human condition is that it is always overpowered by separateness and loneliness, which according to him may be the result of a collapse of values on the western world in general and in the United States in particular. Love is also presented in his plays but not in the way of romantic situation but in the way of lost, decay, fall and failure. Albee’s plays are full of violence both physical violence like in The Zoo Story or verbal like in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is taken as a metaphor to the 1960s American society. The character in the drama like George and Martha are husband and wife; whose life is very much frustrated. They only argue all the time. The violence could not let them to continue their partnership. They seem to be tired of arguing. This shows the common whole American life style.