TIe AIsuvdilv oJ lIe AIsuvd

AulIov|s)· Mavlin EssIin
Souvce· TIe Kenvon Beviev, VoI. 22, No. 4 |Aulunn, 1960), pp. 670-673
FuIIisIed Iv· Kenyon College
SlaIIe UBL· http://www.jstor.org/stable/4334078 .
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COMMENT
Martin Esslin
THE ABSURDITY OF THE ABSURD
A Note on Ward Hooker's essay on "Irony and Absurdity in the Avant-
Garde Theatre." (Kenvon Review, Summer,
1960.)
MR. WARD HOOKER'S ESSAY CONTAINS SOME PENETRATING OBSERVATIONS ON
the comic element in the French theatre from Marivaux to Beckett. His
exegesis of Waiting for Godot in particular is an illuminating piece of
criticism. Yet I should like to take issue with him on his use of the terms
irony and
absurditv'.
I do not want to suggest that he uses these terms
wrongly. In fact he follows common usage. My point however is that
common usage is different from the meaning given to these terms by the
practitioners of the French avant-garde theatre themselves. There is there-
fore a considerable danger of confusion here between the meaning of these
terms as generally understood in English-speaking countries and the sense
in which they are used by writers like Beckett and Ionesco. And surely in
critical writings about these authors it is dangerous to use the key term of
their theatre in a sense widely differing from their own understanding of it.
Mr. Hooker says: "Dramatic irony is usually defined as speech or action
which is more fully understood, or differently understood, by the audience
than by the speaker." He quotes the example of Malvolio. Another example
would be Schiller's Wallenstein, of whom the audience knows that he is
about to be murdered, and who retires to bed with the words, "I intend to
have a long sleep." Dramatic irony can thus be meant to be funny as well
as deeply tragic. Yet in the course of his essay Mr. Hooker tends to use the
term "ironical" as generally synonymous with "funny."
He regards the meaning of absurd as an intensification, a superlative
of "ironical." "If [the difference in understanding] is great enough, the
resulting phenomenon may be called 'absurdity.'" Mr. Hooker is aware of
the fact that this use of the term is at variance with its use by the French
avant-garde. He says, "This term has acquired a new connotation since
Albert Camus has taught us to find absurdity in actions and institutions
that had been taken seriously before." (My italics.) From the juxtaposition
of absurdity and seriousness it is clear that Mr. Hooker understands
671
"absurd" as being synonymous with
"very funny" or
"grotesquely funny."
He goes on to say: "But for the ordinary playgoer
it
may
still be taken
to
mean the extremely incongruous, inadequate, or irrelevant."
As I have already said, Mr. Hooker's definition is fully justified by
common usage in the English-speaking countries. The New
English Dic-
tionary, after mentioning the origin of the term from its use in
music,
where it means "inharmonious," defines it as follows: "Out of harmony
with reason or propriety; incongruous, unreasonable, illogical. In modern
use especially plainly opposed to reason and hence ridiculous, silly." In
French, however, the meaning of ridiculous does not arise. The Petit
Larousse defines absurde merely as contraire 2 la raison, 2 sens commun.
Here seems to me the source of the confusion of terms. In English absurd
can mean ridiculous. In French it means merely contrary to reason.
That is the meaning of the term in the French avant-garde theatre,
which has been called a Theatre of the Absurd. Camus' brilliant essay
"Le Mythe de Sisyphe" ascribes absurdity not only to "actions and institu-
tions" but to the human condition itself. And not because the human
condition is funny, but because it is deeply tragic in an age when the loss
of belief in God and human progress has eliminated the meaning of
existence and has made human existence essentially purposeless and hence
plainly opposed to reason.
The "absurdity" of the French avant-garde dramatists thus does not
spring from their use of irony. It springs from the subject matter of their
plays. In fact it is the subject matter of their plays. Both Ionesco and
Beckett are concerned with communicating to their audiences their sense
of the absurdity of the human condition. As lonesco puts it in an essay
on Kafka: "Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose . . . Cut off from
his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his
actions become senseless, absurd, useless. In another essay Ionesco
describes his sense of existence from his earliest childhood as one of vertigo
at the thought of the transitoriness of the world: "I have known no other
images of the world apart from those which express evanescence, hardness,
vanity, rage, nothingness and hideous, useless hatred. That is how existence
has appeared to me ever since . . .
"
That is why the picture of the human
condition in a play like The Bald Primadonna is cruel and absurd (in the
sense of devoid of meaning). In a world that has no purpose and ultimate
reality the polite exchanges of middle-class society become the mechanical,
senseless antics of brainless puppets. Individuality and character, which are
related to a conception of the ultimate validity of every human soul, have
lost their relevance (hence as Mr. Hooker rightly points out, Professor
Grossvogel's criticisms of these plays as lacking individuality in character-
ization completely miss the terms of reference of this kind of avant-garde
672 COMMENT
theatre). Nor can I see any irony in the example quoted from The Bald
Primadonna. The audience knows no more about the mcaning of the
mechanically senseless dialogue than do the characters themselves. What
is involved is a savage satire (which is by no means the same as irony)
on the dissolution and fossilization of the language of polite conversation
and on the interchangeability of characters that have lost all individuality,
even that of sex. Such characters lead a meaningless, absurd existence.
Mr. Hooker rightly observes that the audience nevertheless finds them
extremely funny. My contention is that the source of this laughter is not
to be found in any irony but in the release within the audience of their
own repressed feelings of frustration. By seeing the people on the stage
mechanically performing the empty politeness-ritual of daily intercourse,
by seeing them reduced to mechanical puppets acting in a complete void,
the audience while recognizing itself in this picture can also feel superior
to the characters on the stage in being able to apprehend their absurdity-
and this produces the wild, liberating release of laughter-laughter based
on deep inner anxiety, as Mr. Hooker has observed it in The Lesson.
This is analogous to the liberating hysterical hilarity produced by the release
of aggression and sadistic impulses in the old silent film comedy by the
throwing of custard pies, or in contemporary cartoon films by the hideous
cruelties inflicted on the mechanically conceived human and animal char-
acters. Such laughter is purgative-but deep down the things laughed about
are of the utmost seriousness.
The absurdity of the human condition is also the theme of Beckett's
Waiting for Godot. The play portrays characters in the act of purposeless
waiting. It is indeed a religious allegory; it deals with the elusiveness of
meaning in life and the impossibility of ever knowing the divine purpose,
if it exists at all.
This is the theme of all of Beckett's published works. And Beckett
also uses the term absurdity in the sense of purposelessness-as opposed to
necessity. He does so even in those of his works which were originally
written in English. In Watt for example, the chief character, who serves
a master almost as elusive as Godot, Mr. Knott, thus meditates about his
situation: ". . . he had hardly felt the absurdity of those things, on the
one hand, and the necessity of those others, on the other (for it is rare that
the feeling of absurdity is not followed by the feeling of necessity) when he
felt the absurdity of those things of which he had just felt the necessity
(for it is rare that the feeling of necessity is not followed by the feeling
of absurdity)."
In the London performance (and I believe even more so in the New
York production) of Waiting for Godot the play was as far as possible
acted for laughs-with great success, for as with lonesco, the recognition
MARTIN ESSLIN 673
of hidden fears causes liberating gusts of
hilarity.
But it is known that
Samuel Beckett himself preferred the Paris performance which was taken
far more slowly, seriously and solemnly. There can be no doubt that for
Beckett the absurdity (i.e., the senselessness) of the human condition is
anything but funny.
Nor, by Mr. Hooker's own definition, can I see any irony at all in
Waiting for Godot. If irony implies that the audience knows more about
the meaning of what is going on on the stage than the characters involved,
then there is a complete absence of irony in a play in which to the very
last moment the audience is kept in complete ignorance of the meaning of
the action as a whole. As Mr. Hooker points out, even the parallelism of
the two acts is designed to show that things do not change for Vladimir
and Estragon. Cunningly the audience is led to hope that subtly the second
act will provide a variation on the first which will reveal the meaning of
the play and the identity of Godot. But this precisely does not happen.
If there is any irony involved it is at the expense of the audience, which
is put into the position of Malvolio who is led to expect things which do
not happen.
I do not think that it is possible to establish a continuity in the use of
irony and absurdity as between Marivaux, or even Giraudoux and Anouilh,
and lonesco, Beckett, Adamov and their ever more numerous followers in
England, Germany and Italy. For these dramatists are a real avant-garde
in the sense that they are trying to evolve a new kind of theatre, to establish
a new theatrical convention, a theatre which will no longer deal with moral
problems, social conditions or social conventions but with the human
condition itself. In the view of these dramatists the conventional theatre
has lost contact with reality by being too rigidly rational in insisting that
every conflict is fully motivated in the first act and neatly solved in the
final scene according to a fixed scale of values of one kind or another.
Their contention is that life in our age has lost any such readily identifiable
rationale, that reality itself has become multidimensional and problematical.
What, they ask in fact, is reality? What is verifiable? What is the meaning
of existence? Can language itself be still used to communicate between
human beings? Is there such a thing as character, personality,
individuality?
By confronting their audiences with the senselessness of the human condi-
tion they are trying to make them aware of the avenues of liberation from
the narrowness of their lives and perceptions. That is why the avant-garde
theatre of our time is concerned with the Absurd-the Absurd in its
metaphysical sense.

" "If [the difference in understanding] is great enough. WARD HOOKER'S ESSAY CONTAINS SOME PENETRATING OBSERVATIONS ON the comic element in the French theatre from Marivaux to Beckett. Another example would be Schiller's Wallenstein. Yet in the course of his essay Mr. or differently understood. Summer. And surely in critical writings about these authors it is dangerous to use the key term of their theatre in a sense widely differing from their own understanding of it. "I intend to have a long sleep.) From the juxtaposition of absurdity and seriousness it is clear that Mr. "This term has acquired a new connotation since Albert Camus has taught us to find absurdity in actions and institutions that had been taken seriously before. the resulting phenomenon may be called 'absurdity. Hooker tends to use the term "ironical" as generally synonymous with "funny.COMMENT Martin Esslin THE ABSURDITYOF THE ABSURD A Note on Ward Hooker's essay on "Irony and Absurdity in the AvantGarde Theatre. He says. a superlative of "ironical.) MR. In fact he follows common usage. There is therefore a considerable danger of confusion here between the meaning of these terms as generally understood in English-speaking countries and the sense in which they are used by writers like Beckett and Ionesco. Hooker says: "Dramatic irony is usually defined as speech or action which is more fully understood." He quotes the example of Malvolio." (Kenvon Review. by the audience than by the speaker. My point however is that common usage is different from the meaning given to these terms by the practitioners of the French avant-garde theatre themselves. of whom the audience knows that he is about to be murdered. Hooker is aware of the fact that this use of the term is at variance with its use by the French avant-garde. Yet I should like to take issue with him on his use of the terms irony and absurditv'.'" Mr. and who retires to bed with the words." (My italics." Dramatic irony can thus be meant to be funny as well as deeply tragic." He regards the meaning of absurd as an intensification. 1960. His exegesis of Waiting for Godot in particular is an illuminating piece of criticism. Hooker understands . Mr. I do not want to suggest that he uses these terms wrongly.

.incongruous. Here seems to me the sourceof the confusion of terms." as He goes on to say: "But for the ordinaryplaygoerit may still be taken to mean the extremelyincongruous. . Mr. 2 sens commun. And not because the human condition is funny. Professor Grossvogel's criticisms of these plays as lacking individuality in characterization completely miss the terms of reference of this kind of avant-garde vanity. senseless antics of brainless puppets. In a world that has no purpose and ultimate reality the polite exchanges of middle-class society become the mechanical. but becauseit is deeply tragic in an age when the loss of belief in God and human progress has eliminated the meaning of existenceand has made human existenceessentiallypurposelessand hence plainly opposedto reason. which has been called a Theatre of the Absurd. The "absurdity" the French avant-gardedramatiststhus does not of spring from their use of irony. Hooker's definition is fully justified by common usage in the English-speaking countries.or irrelevant. As lonesco puts it in an essay on Kafka: "Absurdis that which is devoid of purpose . after mentioning the origin of the term from its use in music. . have lost their relevance (hence as Mr. where it means "inharmonious.inadequate." As I have already said. silly. That is the meaning of the term in the French avant-gardetheatre. Hooker rightly points out. has appeared to me ever since . In English absurd can mean ridiculous. useless hatred. It springs from the subjectmatterof their plays. rage.In French it means merely contraryto reason.The New English Dic- tionary. Camus' brilliant essay "Le Mythe de Sisyphe"ascribesabsurditynot only to "actionsand institutions" but to the human condition itself. man is lost. Cut off from his religious. " That is why the picture of the human condition in a play like The Bald Primadonna is cruel and absurd (in the sense of devoid of meaning). That is how existence . In another essay Ionesco describeshis sense of existencefrom his earliestchildhood as one of vertigo at the thought of the transitoriness the world: "I have known no other of images of the world apart from those which expressevanescence. Both Ionesco and Beckett are concernedwith communicatingto their audiences their sense of the absurdityof the human condition.absurd. which are related to a conception of the ultimate validity of every human soul.671 "absurd" being synonymouswith "very funny" or "grotesquelyfunny." defines it as follows: "Out of harmony with reason or propriety. nothingness and hideous. In fact it is the subject matter of their plays. useless. however. The Petit Laroussedefines absurdemerely as contraire2 la raison. all his actions become senseless. In modern use especially plainly opposed to reason and hence ridiculous." In French. hardness. the meaning of ridiculous does not arise. Individuality and character. . metaphysicaland transcendentalroots.unreasonable. illogical.

the recognition . and on the interchangeability characters even that of sex. Hooker rightly observes that the audience neverthelessfinds them extremelyfunny.He does so even in those of his works which were originally written in English. In Watt for example.who serves a masteralmost as elusive as Godot. My contentionis that the source of this laughter is not to be found in any irony but in the release within the audience of their own repressedfeelings of frustration.The audience knows no more about the mcaning of the mechanicallysenseless dialogue than do the charactersthemselves. and the necessityof those others. the chief character. Mr. liberatingrelease of laughter-laughter based on deep inner anxiety. as Mr.672 COMMENT theatre). . Such characterslead a meaningless.What is involved is a savage satire (which is by no means the same as irony) on the dissolutionand fossilizationof the language of polite conversation of that have lost all individuality. This is the theme of all of Beckett'spublished works. by seeing them reducedto mechanicalpuppets acting in a completevoid. Mr. if it exists at all. Nor can I see any irony in the example quoted from The Bald Primadonna. . The absurdityof the human condition is also the theme of Beckett's in Waiting for Godot. he had hardly felt the absurdityof those things." In the London performance(and I believe even more so in the New York production) of Waiting for Godot the play was as far as possible acted for laughs-with great success. hilarityproducedby the release This is analogousto the liberatinghysterical of aggressionand sadistic impulses in the old silent film comedy by the cartoonfilms by the hideous throwing of custardpies. on the one hand. thus meditatesabout his situation: ". absurd existence. And Beckett also uses the term absurdityin the sense of purposelessness-asopposedto necessity. it deals with the elusivenessof meaning in life and the impossibilityof ever knowing the divine purpose. Hooker has observed it in The Lesson. The play portrayscharacters the act of purposeless waiting. Knott. It is indeed a religious allegory.Such laughteris purgative-but deep down the things laughedabout are of the utmostseriousness.on the other (for it is rarethat is the feeling of absurdity not followedby the feeling of necessity)when he felt the absurdityof those things of which he had just felt the necessity (for it is rare that the feeling of necessityis not followed by the feeling of absurdity).for as with lonesco.By seeing the people on the stage of mechanicallyperforming the empty politeness-ritual daily intercourse. or in contemporary cruelties inflictedon the mechanicallyconceived human and animal characters. the audience while recognizing itself in this picture can also feel superior on to the characters the stage in being able to apprehendtheir absurdityand this producesthe wild.

the senselessness)of the human condition is anything but funny. by Mr. then there is a complete absenceof irony in a play in which to the very last moment the audienceis kept in complete ignoranceof the meaning of the action as a whole. personality. of That is why the avant-garde theatre of our time is concerned with the Absurd-the Absurd in its metaphysical sense. Germany and Italy.. they ask in fact. and lonesco. Hooker's own definition. social conditions or social conventions but with the human condition itself. If irony implies that the audience knows more about the meaningof what is going on on the stage than the characters involved. For these dramatistsare a real avant-garde in the sense that they are trying to evolve a new kind of theatre. If there is any irony involved it is at the expense of the audience. Nor. even the parallelismof the two acts is designed to show that things do not change for Vladimir and Estragon.Cunninglythe audienceis led to hope that subtlythe second act will provide a variationon the first which will reveal the meaning of the play and the identity of Godot.Adamov and their ever more numerousfollowers in England. Beckett.to establish a new theatrical convention. But it is known that Samuel Beckett himself preferredthe Paris performancewhich was taken far more slowly. is reality?What is verifiable?What is the meaning of existence? Can language itself be still used to communicatebetween human beings? Is there such a thing as character. There can be no doubt that for Beckett the absurdity (i.a theatrewhich will no longer deal with moral problems. As Mr. individuality? By confrontingtheir audienceswith the senselessness the human condiof tion they are trying to make them awareof the avenuesof liberationfrom the narrowness their lives and perceptions. seriouslyand solemnly. But this preciselydoes not happen.MARTIN ESSLIN 673 of hidden fears causes liberating gusts of hilarity. .or even Giraudouxand Anouilh. Hooker points out. Their contentionis that life in our age has lost any such readilyidentifiable rationale. I do not think that it is possibleto establisha continuityin the use of irony and absurdityas betweenMarivaux.e. can I see any irony at all in Waiting for Godot. which is put into the position of Malvolio who is led to expect things which do not happen. In the view of these dramatiststhe conventionaltheatre has lost contact with reality by being too rigidly rational in insisting that every conflict is fully motivated in the first act and neatly solved in the final scene according to a fixed scale of values of one kind or another.that realityitself has becomemultidimensional and problematical. What.

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