Theatre of the Absurd

Explanation of the Absurd
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Characteristics of the movement include illogical situations, unconventional dialogue, and minimal plots in an attempt to reflect the absurdity of human existence. ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ was not the name of the movement to which playwrights such as Beckett and Pinter claimed to be part of, but instead a name given to their work by others. To be part of the ‘anti-theatre’ movement was found more acceptable, as they attacked traditional artforms as no longer being valid in this pointless existence. The ‘absurd’ in this sense refers not to the ridiculous, but to being ‘out of harmony’. While the theatre was shocking to audiences, viewing it as ‘absurd’, Camus argues that it is the world that is absurd. Eugene Ionesco claimed that the ‘Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose…’


The First World War was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’, so the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, along with the atrocities it brought, destroyed all the basic assumptions people had about life. Faced with the horrors of the trench warfare and the holocaust, people began to loose their faith in god. The attitude of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ is perhaps best summarised by Beckett’s character, Clov, who questions ‘…You and I mean something?’

Origins of the Theatre of the Absurd

World War II was the catalyst which set the movement of Theatre of the Absurd into motion but there are a number of predecessors which are thought to have contributed to it. Ancient Greece Theatre of the Absurd is thought to have originated from the theatre of ancient Greece between 550 and 220 BC. From what was named ‘Old Comedy’, particularly from the works of playwrights such as Aristophanes.

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Old Comedy is thought to have come about from songs, mime and improvisation where there was satirical treatment of domestic situations and from myths and commentary on society, politics, literature and the Peloponnesian War that was happening between the Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian league, led by Sparta. Old Comedy was often exaggerated and farcical

-Origins of the Absurd
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Middle Ages Morality plays of the middle ages are also thought to be a precursor to the Theatre of the Absurd. They were allegorical dramas - stories and plays with an underlying meaning as well as a literal one. Often they depicted the contest between various personified virtues and vices for the soul of a man, they were most popular in Europe during the 15th and 16th Centuries The Morality play was often long winded and dull, so interludes were introduces to relieve the tedium, these were often slapstick farces. Allegorical dramas persisted through the ages, and this type of play during the baroque Elizabethan times are also thought to be a contributor to the movement.

-Origins of the Absurd
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Friedrich Nietzsche ‘God is Dead’ In 1883 a revolutionary thesis was published by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who declared that ‘God is dead’. Nietzsche wrote of religion, morality, philosophy and contemporary culture, he has been a great influence in many fields as he radically questioned the value of truth, he sought to bring about a more naturalistic source of value in the impulses of life itself.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Samuel Beckett
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Born in Dublin, in 1906, Beckett believed that war with Germany was justified, as he was so strongly opposed to the brutality and anti-Semitism of NationalSocialism. After the Gestapo became aware of his connections with the French Resistance movement in Paris he was forced to move to to a small town in the French countryside where he wrote the novel ‘Watt.’ It is difficult for an audience to find a single meaning to many of Beckett’s plays, reflecting his despair at being unable to find a meaning to existence.

•Along with the other playwrights within ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, Beckett aims not to illustrate a narrative of any kind, but simply a situation.

-Samuel Beckett

Beckett was noted for writing in French ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘Endgame’ were all written in French. ‘Waiting for Godot’, once described as ‘terrible’ due to the fact that ‘nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes’, is now hailed as ‘one of the greatest successes of the post-war theatre’, and has been translated into over twenty languages. Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.

‘Waiting for Godot’

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter was born in 1930 and frequently comments on the ‘irrelevancy of everyday speech’. Despite having been criticised for not having fully rounded characters, Pinter defends this as being more realistic. He is critical of communication but suggests that people permanently try to avoid it, rather than simply being bad at it.

-Harold Pinter
•Pinter seems to be obsessed with the most basic of theatrical techniques, particularly the traditional idea of suspense. - ‘The Room’ - ‘The Dumb Waiter’

Pinter’s first full-length play, ‘The Birthday Party’ can be seen to comment on conformity, death, and ‘the individual’s pathetic search for security’. Like Beckett before him, in 2005 Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Eugène Ionesco

Born in Romania 18 years before Pinter, Eugène Ionesco also felt a need to break down language, believing it had developed into ‘nothing but clichés’.

- ‘To renew the language is to… renew the
vision of the world’

•Ionesco claims to have felt ‘embarrassed’ by ‘the crude strings of theatre’, and so was almost reluctant to begin writing plays. His first, ‘La Cantratrice Chauve’ (The Bald Prima Donna), was intended to be a very serious piece about ‘the tragedy of language’, but it was perhaps taking this concept too far that led to initial audiences viewing it to be a comedy.

-Eugène Ionesco

Ionesco criticizes our willingness to accept the ideas forced upon us by the media, and our lack of individuality as a result. He agrees that the audience must be confronted to think for themselves, but claims that Brecht doesn’t go far enough with his concept of alienation, which aims to put emotions aside to allow an audience to intellectualize what they see onstage. Ionesco protests that the breaking down of a play into parts is ‘rather artificial’.

Anti- Theatre
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The term ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ was first coined by Martin Esslin in his 1961 book. The playwrights included in this prefer to use the term ‘antitheatre’, which was founded in the 1950s. In 1953, Ionesco used the subtitle ‘anti-play’ for his piece ‘Bald Prima Donna’, which made the term accessible for critics and the media. ‘Anti-Theatre’ combines futurism and surrealism, and illustrates a rejection of the traditional psychological play. It can be characterised by a critical and ironic attitude towards the traditions of society and art. It claims that the stage is no longer able to give an accurate account of the modern world, and embraces illogical action and a rejection of all values. In literary theatre, the emphasis is usually on the language itself, while the language is often contradictory to the action onstage in anti-literary theatre.


The ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ can be seen as a statement of hopelessness, but for this entire movement to have been born out of something as universally depressing as a world war perhaps casts some hope. ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ forces us to face the awful situations we have brought upon ourselves, and so society can choose to do something about it. It has been suggested that the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ was only a product of a very specific point in history and consequently since gone ‘the way of the dinosaur’.

-It could also be claimed, however, that the sense of ‘absurdity’ in theatre
has only disappeared as it has become more acceptable and less shocking to audiences.


Although initial audiences of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ faced problems with understanding it due to its radical ideas, an audience today may face similar problems. Without the backdrop of a horrific world war, a modern audience may not be able appreciate the themes of desperation and hopelessness illustrated in the ‘Absurd’.

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