Tap to Read ➤

History of the Theatre of the Absurd

Mary Anthony
Post World War II, human emotions were centered around a barren Godless universe, humanity silenced by suffering, and life faced with bleak reality. All these feelings were captured by playwriters who took up these fragile pieces and created masterpieces through dramatic art called the Theatre of the Absurd.
The "absurdist" plays were primarily influenced by the aftermath of World War II, the Elizabethan tragicomedies of Shakespeare, the works of Sigmund Freud, and the avant-garde Surrealist movement of the 1920s and 1930s.
Theatre of the Absurd is often said to have sprung from the realist movement in the drama. Its concepts are a far cry from real life, and ambiguous of the time and setting with metaphorical or archetypal characters.
This genre is also referred to as an "Anti-theatre" as the plays contrast the traditional methods of dramatics and rely on surreal, illogical, and plot-less settings. The outside world is portrayed as the big bad wolf which is menacing, cold, and frightful but with a touch of poetic vagueness and inconsistency.
Therefore, the Theatre of the Absurd was not associated with positive drama nor does it propose any solution to a human's meaningless existence, instead, it manifests the folly of humanity.

Historic Background

➔ The roots to absurdist plays originated from the Greek tragic dramas and the allegorical plays of Elizabethan times. During the 1920s and 1930s surrealists experimented with the ideologies of the subconscious mind proposed by Sigmund Freud and wrote surreal dramatic pieces.
But the major catalyst which promoted trauma of living through the eyes of the abstract thinkers was World War II.
➔ The atrocities of the war encouraged existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus to produce literary works that stated the absence of God and how man's life is worth nothing but only made up of acts of human obligations which make him the creator of his own destiny.
However, this destiny inescapably ends with death. French playwright Albert Camus uses this term as a theme for his sadistic plays and has described it well in his 1942 essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus."
➔ During the 1940s, 1950s, and 60s, American and European dramatists were greatly influenced by the philosophical works of Albert Camus and accorded with his pessimistic style of writing thus starting a series of plays that were steeped in pessimism.
The movement distinctly developed from Paris-based small theaters in the Quartier Latin. Even after the movement gained momentum in other countries, the plays were originally written in French. Thus giving rise to Theatre of the Absurd or absurdism or Théâtre de l'Absurde.
➔ The first major production of an absurdist play was Jean Genet's "The Maids" in 1947. Ionesco's iconic "The Bald Soprano" was first enacted in 1950, and the epic "Waiting For Godot" by Samuel Beckett, premiered in January 1953.
Theatre critic Martin Esslin, first coined the term "Theater of the Absurd" to describe these genre of plays written in the mid-20th century. The movement expanded in France, Germany, England, and the Scandinavian countries. Its popularity waned after French playwright Samuel Beckett's death in 1989.


Theatre of the Absurd: a genre of conventional dramatic form that portrays the futility of human struggle by using disoriented, repetitious, and meaningless dialog, superfluous and confusing situations, and plots that lack naturalistic or logical development.

Characteristics of Absurdist Plays

➔ The usual characteristics of absurdist plays include existential philosophy, rejection of storytelling, the inflexibility of logic, a radical decrease of language, a nightmare or surreal atmosphere in which the protagonist is overpowered by the chaotic or irrational existence.
And also an unpredictable world that reflects our own, in which the tragedy touchingly follows absurdity or sarcasm.
The Language is satiated with repetitions, rhythmic, typical clichés, puns, monotonous, and almost nonsensical dialogs. The characters perform with epic comic timing due to these senseless dialogs through which the audience get the underlying message of distress. The Mood and Atmosphere of these plays are melancholic and grave.
The Plot is normally inexplicable, ridiculous, anti-realistic, against the assumed norms of conventional theatre, a measured absence of the cause and effect between scenes, non-linear plot developments, and cyclical ending which keeps the audiences hooked.
Acting is dramatic but lacks presentation, mimetic mode of acting, without character development, ludicrous and frequently blurred characters who are out of harmony or out of sync.

Famous Absurdist Playwrights

➔ The five influential playwrights of this era are Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, and Harold Pinter. Other playwrights linked with this type of genre include Tom Stoppard, Arthur Kopit, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Fernando Arrabal, Edward Albee, N.F. Simpson, Boris Vian, Peter Weiss, Vaclav Havel, and Jean Tardieu.
Samuel Beckett is credibly the most well-known of the absurdist playwrights and also known as the Father of Absurd.

Examples of Absurdist Plays

Waiting for Godot (1953) - Samuel Beckett

The play portrays two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for a mysterious figure name Godot (pronounced God-oh) since a long time. To kill time, they desperately engage in shrewd, quick-witted dialog.
This play displays religious intentions of humanity waiting for the subtle return of the savior. Dramatic reviewers suggest the play is politically underlined as a tussle between capitalists and labors as well with a Marxist twist. It also stands as an allegory for Franco-German relations.

The Balcony (1955) - Jean Genet

Jean Genet's works are determined by his contempt for society, politics, and sex. And this is well depicted in his play. The setting is a brothel which is the seat of political power mixed with sexual fantasies. Meanwhile, outside its walls, an uprising is being staged, one of the protagonist who is a prostitute assumes the role of the revolution leader.
In a turn of events, the supreme heads of the society the Chief of Police, the Bishop, and the General are killed in the uprising and the residents of the brothel ironically take up their places in the society. Complicated as it seems the play is a satire on the social systems of the society.

The Dumb waiter (1960) - Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter was greatly influenced by the works of Simon Beckett. On the same lines, he staged "The Dumb Waiter" which is his marvelous take on the Absurd. The story is about two hitmen who are also lower-class criminals awaiting their next assignment in a grim cellar.
The tension escalates between them with the presence of a dumb waiter (food elevator) designated to take exotic food orders. Their shame over class emerges in interactions with those on a higher floor via the dumb waiter, and much of this shame is related to language. Both pretend to impress those upstairs by mentioning the brand names of their street food.
They assume that the person upstairs is of higher social status or perhaps their Wilson who is secretly delivering them messages through the food elevator. The mysteriousness of the third character is never revealed and the play signifies the broken communication of the two men with the third entity.
Harold Pinter describes this revolutionary "absurdist" idea best in his 1962 speech: "Writing for the Theatre," which was staged at the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol.

"I suggest there can be no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false." .
Hence blurring the thin line between truth and lies is perhaps the determining feature of the Theater of the Absurd.