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What is Theater of the Absurd?

Jessica Ellis
Updated Feb 17, 2024
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Theater of the Absurd, or absurdism, is a term coined by theater critic Martin Esslin to describe set of particular plays written in the mid-20th century, as well as later plays that were written in the same tradition. Esslin pointed to these plays as illustrative of a philosophy by Albert Camus, which says that life has no inherent meaning. Plays associated with this movement generally share several characteristics, including nonsense dialogue, repetitive or meaningless action, and non-realistic or impossible plots.

In his 1961 essay, Esslin classified four playwrights as leaders of the movement: Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Adamov and Jean Genet. Later, Esslin also included British playwright Harold Pinter to this group, and classified some of the works of Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee and Jean Tardieu as also belonging to absurdist theater as well.

The Theater of the Absurd movement began as experimental theater in Paris. As a result, even after the spread of the form to other country, absurdist plays were often written in French. The first large major production of an absurdist play was Jean Genet's The Maids in 1947. Ionesco's The Bald Soprano was first performed in 1950, and Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, probably the best known of all such plays, premiered in January 1953.

Several important theatrical styles are considered to be precursors to this movement. Shakespeare’s tragicomedies, such as The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are considered major influences on absurdist writing, as they frequently sacrifice realism and logic to bring about a desired ending. Several famous plays reference Shakespeare directly, including Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Broad comedy style, such as that used in the work of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is also considered an influence. Surrealist philosopher Antoinin Artaud is cited as well, as he theorized that the importance of theater was not the literature it produced but the visceral effect it had on its audience.

Theater of the Absurd is often called a reaction to the realism movement in the theater. Rather than try to conform as closely as possible to a concept of real life, absurdists sought to provide an unmistakably unreal experience. In an absurdist play, time and settings are generally ambiguous, if they are even defined at all. Characters are not meant to mimic real people, but instead are often metaphorical or archetypal.

The guiding principle of this movement is to look at the world without any assumption of purpose. Esslin suggests that without a fixed belief system or guiding principle, all actions become useless and absurd; therefore, anything that happens is permissible. In Ionesco's Rhinoceros, all of the inhabitants of a French village are turned into rhinos except the protagonist, Berenger. The play ends when Berenger, although deciding that the rhinoceroses are far more attractive than humans, decides he must fight against them.

Rhinoceros is a classical example of Theater of the Absurd. While its plot is intentionally ridiculous, the play explores concepts of conformity and morality. In realistic theater, a similar themed play might involve invasion of the Nazis, or peer pressure in a high school. The usefulness of absurdism is that it exists without prejudice or specificity; while joining the Nazis is a topic many people have specific viewpoints on, being turned into a rhinoceros is an impossible thing to personally experience. As it is equally alien to everyone, it is meant to be accessible to everyone.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for LanguageHumanities. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By anon291158 — On Sep 12, 2012

How do the Absurdists bring their ideas to the stage?

By anon273433 — On Jun 07, 2012

Where is the absurdisim from?

By sherlock87 — On Dec 18, 2010

@aaaCookie, you bring up a good part of why Absurdism works. In waiting for Godot, one of the most famous modernist/absurd pieces, for example, they spend the entire play waiting, and strange things happen, but that is not what bothers the characters- what bothers them is that Godot is not there

Additionally, the article mentions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a great absurdist piece, the main characters go in and out of the play Hamlet as though they almost seem to know what will happen...but they can't stop it; towards the end, they even seem to know that leaving the stage means they will die, but again they treat this as something that makes sense.

Absurdism works on the principle that we take the ridiculous seriously.

By aaaCookie — On Dec 15, 2010

One of the common misconceptions of theater of the absurd plays is that nothing in them makes sense or is taken seriously. On the contrary, characters in absurdism tend to behave in a serious way, reacting realistically to the bizarre occurrences around them.

In Rhinoceros, for example, the play works because as strange as the idea of everyone turning into rhinos is, Berenger generally behaves as though this is something that really could happen, and solves the problem that way, exposing, as the article says, deep themes in an unbiased way.

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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