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Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Theatre of the Absurd


From its earliest beginnings in Greek Tragedy through its history to the modern day, drama has exerted a fascination for philosophical aesthetics. There have been times when drama has responded to this critique and times when it has blithely followed its own course. This series of articles aims to follow some of the continuities and the evolutions in drama - to give a selected overview of the interest that drama has held for aesthetics, whilst examining the idea of an aesthetic experience in the theatre.

5. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Theatre of the Absurd

6. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Silence in the Theatre

Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Theatre of the Absurd

Joan Miró, Ubu Roi, Suites pour Ubu Roi.

The term 'The Theatre of the Absurd' is really a term of convenience: it does not describe a specific approach to writing drama nor a 'school' to which a particular group of playwrights adheres. As the playwright Edward Albee put it:

Unless it is understood that the playwrights of The Theatre of the Absurd represent a group only in the sense that they seem to be doing something of the same thing in vaguely similar ways at approximately the same time – unless this is understood, then the labeling itself will be more absurd than the label. (Albee, 1962, p.66)

Furthermore, absurdist theatre, it can be argued, has existed for as long as there have been plays written. Aristophanes' The Birds, which is not at all atypical of ancient Greek Old Comedy, could quite easily be called absurdist. Indeed, arguably, its dialogue would not sound out of place to a modern theatre audience expecting a modern absurdist play.

The most important driver for the Absurd is satire. However, this is not limited to political satire (which, in fact, may well be absent) but includes satire about all human activity and, in particular, satire about how mankind sees itself. It seems reasonable to suggest that, for the Absurd to work, the audience must be under some illusions about itself, the society it inhabits, and life in general: that is to say, it must hold some things as certain. The audience that has no illusions, no certainties, nor any sense of what is important, will probably see the Theatre of the Absurd as a bald statement of fact.

This is because the Theatre of the Absurd portrays a world in which previously held certainties - about, inter alia, religion, authority, financial structures, history, and existential purpose - have all been lost. Their loss exposes a closed and irredeemable circle: without certainties we are exposed to a meaning-deprived existence, however, in that context, certainties become absurd in themselves and become the very thing that creates the absurdity. It is the famous inability to put the genie back into the bottle. Once the meaning of everything has been found to be empty, it cannot be replenished: any attempt to do so will seem absurd. It is as if the universe has suffered a loss of dignity.

It may be interesting to ask whether this loss of dignity that makes existence appear so absurd is, or has been, self-fulfilling. After all, if it is accepted that the audience must have some illusions and have retained some certainties for the Theatre of the Absurd to succeed, then its success must have to do with the shattering of those illusions and certainties, or at least with showing them to be empty. But, if that is so, then the Theatre of the Absurd can be said to have had some hand in creating that meaninglessness and consequent absurdity.

When Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi [King Ubu] had its first night in Paris in 1896 the audience was thrown into uproar by the play's first word "Merdre!" [Shite!] (Jarry, 1999, p.27). The poet Yeats who attended the performance, and joined the clamour on the side of the play being performed, nonetheless wrote:

"I am very sad ... after our own verse, after all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more is possible? After us the Savage God" (Yeats, 1955, p. 348-9).

Ubu Roi (King Ubu) is perhaps one of the most worthless characters ever to be portrayed on the stage. It is hard to think of a pejorative term that does not apply to him: he is imbecilic, gluttonous, cruel, murderous, unclean, cowardly, lazy, venal, and greedy. At the same time, it is difficult to think of single positive quality that he possesses.

Ubu Roi (1964) by Alfred Jarry

Whilst none of them is so complete a miserable specimen as Ubu himself, most of the other characters in the play, with the possible exception of Bougrelas, share at least some of Ubu's vices and like him they have few redeeming virtues. Mère Ubu is Lady Macbeth to her husband and, although not quite as stupid, she is quite as greedy and murderous. The Polish King Venceslas (who is Duncan to these Macbeth parodies) is the equal of Ubu in stupidity and, if anything, more naive.

The original form of Ubu Roi was penned by Jarry and his fellow students at school at the age of fifteen. Jarry, it would seem, retained, if not intensified this spirit of the ingénue in the drama. The horrifying events in the play are described with childlike simplicity and, in their tone, they are not taken seriously, rather as if a child were inventing them as they went along. Thus, they have a childlike lack of consequence. Ubu is disemboweled and struck by a cannonball at different times in the play but these events seem to have no effect on him. In a single scene, Ubu casts three hundred nobles and fifty magistrates into hole where their brains are removed by the Debraining Machine (an instrument listed amongst the cast of characters) yet this massacre is presented with the feeling of macabre child's play.

Describing his new system of government and taxation, Ubu says "Avec ce système, j'aurai vite fait fortune, alors je tuerai tout le monde et je m'en irai." [In this way, I'll quickly make my fortune, then I'll kill everyone and leave.] (Jarry, 1999, p.27). The statement is shocking but the banality with which it is expressed would, it is easy to imagine, have been even more shocking to a fin de siècle audience. Jarry uses no polemic to satirise the world: he empties it of significance and makes it ridiculous. So too he ridicules the symbols of power (and of certainty): Ubu as King wields the "pistolet à phynances" [phynance-gun], the "croc à merdre" [shite-hook] and his soldiers sing the "Chanson à Finances" [Song of Finances] (Jarry, 1999, p.83). Jarry gives the audience a melange of finance as a physical weapon of war, a blasphemous blend of money and religion, and the scatalogical as a symbol of power.

Elsewhere, Ubu asks "le mauvais droit ne vaut-il pas le bon?" [Isn't injustice worth as much as justice?] (Jarry, 1999, p.31). Mère Ubu impersonates an archangel (Jarry, 1999, p.100) and Ubu claims to kill a bear with prayer (Jarry, 1999, p.93). Toward the end of the play, recounting deaths to each other, they each repeat "Ça m'est bien égal!" [I don't care!] ( Jarry, 1999, p.107). Nothing matters to them. Even their own reversals of fortune hardly seem to bother them for long but the misfortunes of others make absolutely no impression on them at all. They are beyond being callous because their indifference scarcely notices that which they might be callous about.

Basci (2013). Gregory Peters in King Ubu at the Plagiarists.

All of this disregard for authority, sacrilege and profanity, and inversion of social norms as well as a vicious indifference is dressed up in the extraordinary and unique language that Jarry has written into the mouths of his characters, especially King Ubu. This is a language of neologisms, obscenities, word play, surreal phrases, and grotesque allusions. To make matters worse, Jarry implies that this ubuesque (the word has become part of the French vocabulary) condition is universal. Driven out of Poland, the Ubus look forward to returning to France, Spain, Denmark, and visiting Germany.

The audience who attended the first night rioted: there were protests, catcalls, and insults hurled. The uproar that followed the first line lasted fifteen minutes. The audience was so outraged because they had a belief in certainties. This was a time in which authority was still respected and religion practised by the majority. So too, morality followed for the most part a rigid code, the universe was not an empty meaningless place, and people could conceive of a purpose that transcended their daily lives. Whether or not that was entirely true and whether or not there was extensive hypocrisy in the observance of these rules is broadly irrelevant. Those in the audience who opposed the play, believed in the appearance of order and it was an appearance that went largely unchallenged. One might say that an accepted appearance is all any society has to go on. Even those who supported the play on artistic grounds (as Yeats implies), would still have subscribed to many of those contemporary norms.

It is therefore pertinent to ask the question: 'what is the effect of tearing the veil of appearance?'. Did this theatre, amongst other voices, speak absurdity and meaningless into existence? That is to say, did it begin to make of them a new accepted appearance? Much of the world, after all, has a different relationship with meaning, or the lack of it, than it did a hundred years ago. Although the theatre may only constitute a small part of the reason for this, nevertheless, as soon as something is publicly spoken, it encourages the idea that it is permissible to speak about it and, eventually, it may become a self-evident topic.

In Ionesco's Le Roi Se Meurt [usually translated as Exit the King but, literally, The King is Dying] first performed 66 years later, we encounter a different King. King Bérenger is portrayed as a King of once mythical power: he is portrayed variously as having lived for hundreds of years, as Prometheus, as a greater inventor than Icarus, as Shakespeare, as having founded the great cities of the world, as having invented the oceans and mountains, as commanding the weather, and as having created the sun. In short, the King is characterised as having been the Creator and, in all other respects, the creator of human invention.

Annand (2018). Rhys Ifans in Exit the King.

However, as the play opens, he is depicted as having buried his head in the sand and partied instead of preparing for what is to come. Queen Marguerite berates Queen Marie for having enabled this fiddling whilst Rome burns. She says "il fallait vivre avec la conscience de son destin" [one has to live with the knowledge of one's fate] (Ionesco, 1963, p.21). Now, having ignored the signs, he has no more than an hour and a half to live (at the first count, but essentially for the duration of the play: he will die "à la fin du spectacle" [at the end of the show] (Ionesco, 1963, p.37).

The consequence of the King's extinction is expressed by the maid Juliette: "La terre s'effondre avec lui. Les astres s'évanouissent. L'eau disparaît. Disparaissent le feu, l'air, un univers, tant d'univers." [The earth collapses with him. The stars fade. Water, fire, air, the universe, every universe disappears] (Ionesco, 1963, p.116). At the same time so does everybody else. The population of his kingdom once numbered nine billion inhabitants but at the beginning of the play, this has been reduced to less than a thousand. Toward the end of the play, there are only those in the throne room. Then, these start to disappear as well.

Marie says "Je ne suis plus rien s'il m'oublie ... je ne peux plus exister" I'm no more if he forgets me ... I can no longer exist (Ionesco, 1963, p.120).

The play ends with the slow dissolution of everything, every character, the last vestiges of the throne room, the King himself, leaving only a grey light. The simplest interpretation of this disappearance of everything with the fading of the King would be to suggest that this is the fading of the world that the King has known; with his death is lost his knowledge. The King fervently hopes to be remembered which suggests that he will be survived and Marguerite claims the way the universe is being extinguished is the proof that his universe is not unique. When asked to look in the mirror, he says:

LE ROI: Je me vois. Derrière toute chose, je suis. Plus que moi partout. Je suis la terre, je suis le ciel, je suis le vent, je suis le feu. Suis-je dans tous les miroirs ou bien suis-je le miroir de tout?
KING: I see myself. I am behind everything. Just me everywhere. I am the earth, I am the sky, I am the wind, I am fire. Am I in every mirror or am I the mirror of everything?] (Ionesco, 1963, p.126).

Annand. (2018) Exit the King.

There is certainly a vanity and a solipsism in these remarks but equally they express the constitutive knowledge of the mind. Through its interaction with the world, through learning and experience, the mind creates its own universe, it is essentially all it knows, and when the mind dies, that universe is gone. If the mind is no more, then it cannot experience any universe and all the people it has known are lost to it. However, although this is the simplest interpretation, is it the best?

Martin Esslin in The Theatre of the Absurd writes "The Theatre of the Absurd has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being - that is, in terms of concrete stage images." (Esslin, 1991, p.25) and "As the Theatre of the Absurd is not concerned with conveying information or presenting the problems or destinies of characters that exist outside the author's inner world, as it does not expound a thesis or debate ideological propositions, it is not concerned with the representation of events, the narration of the fate or the adventures of characters, but instead with the presentation of one individual's basic situation." (Esslin, 1991, p.403).

Therefore, it may be a better interpretation of Le Roi se meurt to avoid any overly specific interpretation. Just as it is fruitless to try to ascribe an identity or designation to Godot in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, it may be no more fruitful to do try to ascribe a specific significance to the King's extinction in Le Roi se meurt. It is what the spectacle provides and what happens when the spectacle is ended.

The first performance in London of Exit the King in 1963 had an all-star cast and there were no riots. It has gone on to become a respectable classic. Absurdity has become mainstream and has possibly become banalized in the process. There is an equal problem of the absence of certainties becoming, absurdly, the new certainty. This is reflected in many peoples’ view of the world. The parody through which Jarry’s Ubu Roi sought to satirise the world might be said to have been inverted: the world now inhabits that parody. Since 1896, the world has seen all the horrors depicted in Ubu Roi but multiplied into millions and it has discovered that nothing can be taken for certain. Horrors were committed before 1896 and populations were deceived but these things often went unacknowledged or, like King Bérenger, society buried its head in the sand. Jarry’s was one voice that led toward this acknowledgment, this lifting of the head. However, as is often the case, once the revolution has turned full circle, much of its force will have been spent.


Albee, E. (1962). Which Theatre is the Absurd one? (p. 66). na.

Esslin, M. (1991). The Theatre of the Absurd. Penguin.

Ionesco, E. (1963) Le Roi se meurt. Gallimard.

Jarry, A. (1999). Ubu Roi. Flammarion.

Yeats, W. B. (1955) Autobiographies. Macmillan.

Image References:

Annand, S. (2018) Exit the King. Sourced from

Basci, J. (2013). Gregory Peters in King Ubu at the Plagiarists. Sourced from

Joan Miró, Ubu Roi, Suites pour Ubu Roi. Sourced from

Ubu Roi. Sourced from


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Oliver Nicholson

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