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Theatre of the Absurd

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Theatre of the Absurd Empty Theatre of the Absurd

Post  eddie Fri Jan 06, 2012 8:14 am

A is for absurdism

Michael Billington opens a new series on modern theatre with a twentieth-century movement that has lost its momentum in a complex world, Wednesday 14 December 2011 15.34 GMT

Theatre of the Absurd -The-Arsonists-006
Absurdly timeless ... Benedict Cumberbatch (left) in Max Frisch's The Arsonists, a play that is still topical today unlike most absurdist plays. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Back in 1961, Martin Esslin published a seminal book, The Theatre of the Absurd. What Esslin did was define a new theatrical movement: one whose chief exemplars were Beckett, Ionesco, Genet and Max Frisch. "Absurd" didn't, in Esslin's sense, mean "ridiculous". It derived from an idea, articulated by Albert Camus in 1942, that, in a world of shattered beliefs, life was without meaning. As Ionesco succinctly, brutally wrote: "Cut off from his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless." But I would argue that, while absurdism was a fascinating historical phenomenon, it now looks increasingly irrelevant.

I readily concede that absurdism produced several plays that transcend their origins. Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Happy Days are a permanent part of the theatrical landscape. Ionesco's The Bald Prima Donna, and The Chairs – memorably revived by Complicite (paywall)– still delight. And Frisch's The Arsonists (previously known as The Fire Raisers), with its portrait of a middle-class man welcoming a trio of incendiaries into his house, is a timelessly topical satire. But, leafing again through my dog-eared copy of Esslin's book, I am struck by how many of the writers he so earnestly championed, from Arthur Adamov to Slawomir Mrozek, are now largely forgotten except by theatrical specialists.

Absurdism was important in its day. But perhaps we now demand more from drama than a cry of anguish at the absurdity of the human condition. We live in a world confronted by economic recession, social unrest, international terrorism and climate change. And, while dramatists are perfectly free to react to those events in any way they choose, all the evidence suggests that audiences are hungry for information and enlightenment. Much as I value Esslin's book, I also think it ropes in many writers who belong to a different tradition. Harold Pinter is one of Esslin's prime exhibits but, although he owed a debt to Beckett and Kafka, Pinter never saw life as senseless: far from being an absurdist, Pinter, from The Birthday Party to Celebration, created a world that was capable of change. Edward Albee, although often classified as one of the movement, also writes about urban realities rather than private nightmares. And the late, great NF Simpson belonged to a specifically British world of nonsense-humour, which includes Edward Lear and Spike Milligan, rather than a continental tradition of despair.

Don't get me wrong. I'd be delighted to see our theatre explore some of the lesser-known absurdist works: I recently caught, if few others did, an intriguing play by Frisch, Count Oederland, which savagely satirised the Swiss-German belief in what a character called "the madhouse of order". But I think we should see absurdism, a few acknowledged masterpieces aside, for what it is: a movement that has lost its momentum and one that is of little help in explaining to us the complexities of today's world.

Key people: Beckett, Ionesco, Frisch, Genet.

See also: Kenneth Tynan review (paywall) of Esslin's book in Tynan Right and Left (1967).

Not to be confused with: The Goons, Monty Python, The Goodies.
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