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Who Were the Absurdist Playwrights?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Theater of the Absurd was a mid-20th century theater movement that began as a reaction to the structured formats of realism. Absurdist plays ignored formal conventions, like unity of time and action, and frequently disregarded complicated characters in favor of archetypal or metaphorical figures. Theater critic Martin Esslin, in his essays on absurdism, pointed out several fundamentally absurdist playwrights including Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Adamov and Jean Genet.

Samuel Beckett is perhaps the most well-known of the absurdist playwrights. Born in 1906 and raised in Ireland, Beckett attended Trinity College in Dublin and spent several years as an English teacher and literary critic. After World War II, in which he served as a member of the French Resistance, Beckett began writing plays. Two of his works, Waiting For Godot and Endgame are arguably the best known and most often produced absurdist plays. Beckett plays are characterized by minimalist sets and costumes, repetitive dialogue and plots that lead nowhere.

Like Beckett, Eugene Ionesco did not begin writing plays until late in his career. He wrote poetry and literary criticism before penning his first one-act absurdist play, The Bald Soprano, in 1948. Of the absurdist playwrights, Ionesco is best known for his use of nonsense words and rhymes. He used language to create rhythmic patterns, despite the total incoherence of their meaning. Several of Ionesco’s plays use the same character, named Berenger, who appears as an everyman hero in Rhinoceros,The Killer, and Exit The King.

Arthur Adamov is quoted as saying he was not entirely sure why he wrote plays at all. Though characterized as one of the main absurdist playwrights, Adamov was a student of the surrealist movement, studying fellow playwrights August Strindberg and Bertolt Brecht extensively. His plays, which include La Parodie(1947), Le Professeur Taranne, and Ping-Pong(1953), frequently take place in settings directly inspired by his dreams. Adamov died in 1970 after an accidental overdose of barbiturates.

The first of the absurdist playwrights to have his work widely produced in the United States was Jean Genet. After a childhood spent in foster homes, a brief prison sentence and several years as a thief and prostitute, Genet turned to writing fiction and plays. His absurdist plays are characterized by themes of social injustice, the relationship between tyrants and those they oppress, and overt homosexuality. His third play The Blacks was staged in New York in 1961 and was the longest running, non-musical, Off-Broadway production of the decade. The original cast featured several famous actors, including Maya Angelou, James Earl Jones and Roscoe Lee Brown.

In later writings on Theater of the Absurd, Martin Essin added a fifth writer, Harold Pinter, as one of the primary absurdist playwrights. Harold Pinter was born in 1930 and began working as an actor and writer in the 1950s. Pinter’s absurdist plays, including The Birthday Party and The Caretaker are famous for the use of script-indicated pauses, frequently in the middle of a sentence or thought. Often, all characters will pause, leaving the stage silent for an indeterminate amount of time. Some critics believe that in Pinter’s work there are two distinct plays taking place, the verbal and the nonverbal, and that what the characters do not say is as important as what they do say.

Essin pointed out several subsequent works that classify as absurdism, but these tend to be singular plays by an author who does not primarily work in the genre. Valclev Havel, Tom Stoppard and Edward Albee all have plays considered to conform to absurdist principle. The true absurdist playwrights are distinguished by their frequent or constant use of the form throughout their work, with the five listed above generally considered by experts to provide the best examples of the genre.

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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 Language & Humanities. 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 redstaR — On May 04, 2011

I spent what felt like a lifetime studying the the Theatre of the Absurd in uni, and I think it's just important to stress that the theatre of the absurd also has roots in the philosophy movement of existentialism.

Besides the bypassing of formal conventions, absurdist plays tend to express beliefs about human existence having no meaning, there being no God, problems with human communication, etc. All of these ideas have roots in the idea of absurdism as advocated in the novels and essays of Albert Camus.

By Engelbert — On May 01, 2011

Good article. Until now I've only been familiar with Samuel Becket. Unfortunately I've never gotten to see Waiting For Godot performed, but I did read it. It's kind of hard to get a grip on if you haven't seen too many plays but if you stick with it you can see why it's so popular. Of course it would probably be much better to see it performed life in order to be able to fully appreciate and understand it.

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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