Theatre of the Absurd

In the essay 'The Myth of Sisyphus' (1942), Albert Camus (1913-1960) talks about the Greek mythical figure Sisyphus who is condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill, which falls down as soon as he reaches the top. So, Sisyphus starts again, only to keep doing it over and over. The 'Myth of Sisyphus' is one of the foundational texts of Absurdism as a philosophy. 

Theatre of the Absurd Theatre of the Absurd

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    From the absurdist point of view, life is a habitual repetition of mundane tasks you do every day. If you stop to think about it, there is no inherent meaning or purpose to anything we do. Absurdism is a philosophical framework as well as a literary and artistic style characterised by the enquiry into the meaning of life. Theatre of the Absurd was a theatrical style and tradition that attempted to portray the Absurd in life.

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    Before we delve into the theatre of the absurd examples, characteristics, and history, let's have a peek at the definition of the philosophy of the Absurd.

    The Absurd

    We can find the first discussions of the Absurd in the works of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The idea of the Absurd was central to the works of philosophers and writers like Jean-Paul Sartre (1905- 1980), Franz Kafka (1883-1924), and Albert Camus. Absurdism suggests that life does not necessarily have absolute meaning. Therefore, it is difficult to escape the absurdity of life. On the other hand, you are capable of ascribing meaning to it by embracing the Absurd.

    Theatre of the Absurd: history

    The Theatre of the Absurd began around 1948 in Europe and continued until 1953. Paris is considered to be the epicentre of this theatrical tradition. The Theatre of the Absurd was among the literary movements that arose in reaction to the devastations of World War II. It is important to note that the theatrical absurd was not a unified movement that took place at a consistent pace throughout these years. However, the most popular works of the theatre of the Absurd were performed in Paris during this time.

    The name 'Theatre of the Absurd' was coined by British dramatist and critic Martin Esslin (1918-2002) in a 1960 essay of the same name. Esslin discusses Adam Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett to evaluate the popularity their plays enjoy despite their unconventional nature.

    Theatre of the Absurd History StudySmarterFig. 1 Theatre of the Absurd first became popular in Europe, especially in Paris

    Theatre of the Absurd: summary

    The Theatre of the Absurd comes under the umbrella of Literature of the Absurd, which is now applied to a number of works in drama and prose that discuss the idea that the human condition is essentially absurd. The unconventional nature is justified by the assertion that the absurd in life can only be satisfactorily represented in works that are absurd themselves. The Theatre of the Absurd, as we know it now, developed as a rebellion against essential beliefs and values of traditional culture and traditional literature in a world ravaged by war, where rationality and logic ceased to make sense.

    The rise of existential philosophy through the works of Sartre and Camus led to the view that human beings are isolated individuals who are forced to occupy a strange world. The Theatre of the Absurd is a visual portrayal of this quest for meaning which is predestined to fail.

    The Theatre of the Absurd sought to visualise the divorce between human beings and their life, the actor and his setting, and how this contributes to the element of absurdity in general. Absurdism perceives the world as possessing no inherent truth, value, or meaning. The Theatre of the Absurd, and the literature of the Absurd as a whole, sought to represent life as characterised by nothingness and our futile search for a universal truth or purpose.

    Keep in mind that the writers and playwrights associated with the Literature of the Absurd were not a part of a self-defined movement. As with most literary movements, it was attributed to them by academic categorisation.

    Theatre of the Absurd: characteristics

    The characteristics of the Theatre of the Absurd varied, but these can be identified as common features of the Theatre of the Absurd.

    • The Theatre of the Absurd acts as a parody of the traditions and conventions of Western culture and of generic forms of traditional drama.
    • Plays in this tradition tend to be comic by including the irrational and inconsequential in the plot.
    • The language in the plays is often incoherent and made of pointless dialogues full of puns and repetitions.
    • The dialogues in Theatre of the Absurd are purposefully made to sound ridiculous and eccentric to point out the inadequacy of language in communication.
    • Different types of slapstick are used to capture the alienation and anguish of being human.
    • The characters continue to struggle despite not having a purpose or meaning, trying to find sense in the senseless and to communicate the uncommunicable.
    • The playwrights of the Absurdist theatre devaluate language to make it comic, unsettling, and of course, absurd.

    Slapstick: a dramatic performance that relies on exaggerated, humorous physical comedy to evoke laughter.

    Theatre of the Absurd: examples

    The Theatre of the Absurd thus captures different moods in spite of having similar themes revolving around the absurd.

    The plays associated with this movement have a tendency to adopt black comedy or black humour that uses naive and incompetent characters stuck in fantastic or terrifying circumstances.

    A tragic farce, in Eugene Ionesco's definition, is a play that deals with a tragic situation but still contains the comic characteristics of a farce.

    Tragicomedy is a work of fiction that contains the features of both comedy and tragedy. Popular non-theatrical examples of tragicomedy might be the films of Charlie Chaplin, who combined slapstick comedy and tragic stories.

    Farce is a dramatic work containing comic portrayals that use buffoonery and crude visualisation.

    The plays of Tom Stoppard (b. 1937), such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) and Travesties (1974), use the devices of Absurdist theatre to achieve comic effect in the play.

    Jean Genet (1910-1986)

    Genet is a French novelist and playwright who was one of the pioneers of experimental drama. Genet came from a criminal background and later became a prominent figure in the Theatre of the Absurd. He was considered an anarchist who rejected all notions of structure. Genet started writing plays about his experiences in prison and later moved on to more philosophically nuanced plays surrounding the theme of identity and society. His most notable works includeThe Maids (1947), The Balcony (1956), and The Screens (1961).

    Eugene Ionesco (1909- 1994)

    Ionesco was among the dramatists that Martin Esslin included in his first study of the Theatre of the Absurd. Ionesco was a Romanian-French playwright who preferred French as his creative language, like his contemporary Samuel Beckett.

    His plays The Bald Soprano (1949) and The Lesson (1951) are examples of the Theatre of the absurd. In The Bald Soprano, characters repeat the obvious until it starts to sound like nonsense. Rhinoceros (1959), in which the characters transform into rhinoceros, is a critique of the rise of Fascism and is often studied as a prime example of avant-garde drama.

    Avant-garde theatre: experimental theatre that began in the nineteenth century in opposition to conventional theatrical styles. It uses radical techniques surrounding language and physical performance to influence audience perception.

    Fascism (with a capital F) is a political movement and system of government based on the political far-right ideology called fascism. Adolf Hitler (Germany) and Benito Mussolini (Italy) are among the most notorious Fascist dictators in history.

    The Theatre of the Absurd in English literature

    The English playwright Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) is among the most discussed playwrights of the Absurdist theatre in English, even though Beckett often wrote in French. Other famous playwrights associated with the Theatre of the Absurd include Sam Shepard (1943-2017), Harold Pinter (1930-2008), and Edward Albee (1928-2016).

    Samuel Beckett

    Beckett is the most popular and influential writer in the Theatre of the Absurd. As an Irishman living in Paris, he often wrote in French and translated his works into English himself. Beckett spent most of his adult life in Paris writing plays and dabbled in other creative formats such as the novel too. His two-act plays such as Waiting for Godot (1954) and Endgame (1958) are great examples of the Theatre of the Absurd.

    Theatre of the Absurd Examples StudySmarterFig. 2 Beckett's Waiting for Godot is among the most widely discussed plays in the Absurdist theatre

    In Waiting for Godot, we see two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, in a wasteland, hopelessly waiting for a person named Godot. Godot never shows up despite his repeated promises. At the end of the play, we cannot really tell if Godot is an actual person. Scholars have come up with different ways in which Godot might be a symbol for something larger than the literal character in the plot.

    Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful.

    Estragon in Act I, Waiting for Godot (1954)

    Edward Albee

    Influenced by Samuel Beckett, the American playwright Albee is a humanistic playwright within the Theatre of the Absurd. Albee’s plays tend to be journeys of self-realisation through reason under difficult and absurd circumstances.

    A feature of Albee's writing is that the audience is simultaneously made to take their own journey of self-realisation along with that of the characters in the play. The exploration of language and how language shapes our reality are important thematic concerns in Albee's works.

    Albee’s award-winning plays include Seascape (1975), The Zoo Story (1959), A Delicate Balance (1966), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), and Three Tall Women (1994).

    Harold Pinter

    The British playwright and director Harold Pinter rose to fame after the success of his play The Caretaker (1960). Other notable works written by Pinter include The Birthday Party (1959), The Servant (1963), and The Homecoming (1965). Although his plays align with the Theatre of the Absurd, Pinter's success as a dramatist rests on his unique style of dramaturgy. Pinter's plays tend to have ambivalent plotlines and characterisation. Pinter used vernacular and informal language in his dialogues, which came to be referred to as 'Pinteresque'. Pinter received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2005.

    Did you know that the Theatre of the Absurd is considered by many a male-dominated genre because of the absence of women playwrights in this tradition?

    Theatre of the Absurd - Key takeaways

    • Theatre of the absurd is a dramatic style popular during the mid-twentieth century, predominantly in Europe and America.
    • It highlights the philosophical viewpoint called the Absurd, which enquires about the relationship between human beings, the world and the meaning of life.
    • The name 'Theatre of the Absurd' was coined by dramatist Martin Esslin.
    • On stage, Theatre of the Absurd combines the elements of tragicomedy and farce to show the absurd circumstances people go through in life.
    • The most popular plays in this tradition include the plays of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Edward Albee and Harold Pinter.


    1. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, 1954
    2. Fig. 2 Merlaysamuel, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Theatre of the Absurd

    What is the Theatre of the Absurd?

    Theatre of the absurd was a theatrical tradition that emerged in the post-World War II era. It developed in conjunction with the philosophical position called absurdism. 

    Who coined the term the Theatre of the Absurd?

    The term 'Theatre of the Absurd' was coined by Martin Esslin in an essay of the same name, published in 1960.

    What is an example of Theatre of the Absurd?

    The most popular examples of the Theatre of the absurd are the plays by Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco.

    What are the 3 characteristics of Theatre of the Absurd?

    Theatre of the Absurd uses elements like tragicomic portrayals on stage and visual cues that point out ideas of the absurd, as well as meaninglessness, or breakdown of language and meaning. 

    When did the Theatre of the Absurd begin?

    The Theatre of the Absurd began around 1948 and was popular until 1953.

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