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Modern Drama 101: Existentialism and The Absurd


As a philosophical and art form, modernism arose as a result of upheavals in Western society during the late 19th and 20th centuries. In the face of a rapidly changing, urbanised culture, artists strove to self-consciously break away from traditional forms of art and to express themselves freely. From a theatrical perspective, modernism oversaw a dramatic shift that challenged the established representations of Romanticism, melodrama, and well-structured plays. Influenced by the findings of prominent psychologists, artists began to prioritise the inner workings of their characters and how to best represent them on the stage. This struggle for realism came to dominate British and American theatre in the 20th century and would foreground dramaturgy’s fidelity to real life. By mid-century, the violent disruption of society brought about by the world wars, propelled a counter art movement that rejected realism and focused primarily on symbolism and existentialism. Although opposing in many ways, these two art movements both fall under the category of modernism and would simultaneously search for innovative artistic forms to exteriorise a changed world view.

Modern Drama 101 will be divided into seven chapters:

4. Modern Drama 101: Existentialism and the Absurd

5. Modern Drama 101: Mid-Century British Theatre

6. Modern Drama 101: American Theatre and Tennessee Williams

Modern Drama 101: Existentialism and The Absurd

Absurdism as a literary movement is closely linked to modernism, as evidenced by the works of Samuel Becket and his seminal play Waiting for Godot. By the midpoint of the twentieth century, absurdism come to be characterised as modernist literature permeated with a distinct sense of pessimism. Stylistically, absurdist writers “renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition”, their work merely “presents it in being — that is, in terms of concrete stage images” (Esslin, 1968, p.25). Playwrights writing absurdist works were not contemplating or debating the possibility of an absurd world, they are simply presenting an absurd world up for reflection.

Absurdism developed amidst a specific set of social and historic conditions. The cataclysmic events of the Second World War gave rise to the development of a literature of “futility” (Scott, 2013). The philosophy of technological rationalism generated as a result of the Enlightenment and industrial advancements led to the “rationalised mass production of murder” in the event of the Second World War (Scott, 2013). People’s theological guides were held in disrepute and consequently all philosophical facets of hope and purpose, such as religion, lost their credibility. This loss of transcendental and spiritual moorings was pivotal for the advent of absurdism. The ensuing sense of “metaphysical anguish” at the absurdity of the human condition, pre-empted by the destruction of the war, characterised the absurdist fiction of the period (Esslin, 1968, p.23).

Figure 1: Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in a production of 'Waiting for Godot'

The phrase ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ was coined by theatre critic Martin Esslin in his 1961 novel of the same name. In the book, Esslin defines the hallmark of absurdist theatre as “its sense that the certitudes and unshakable basic assumptions of former ages have been swept away, that they have been tested and found wanting, that they have been discredited as cheap and somewhat childish illusions” (Esslin, 1968, p.23). For the definition of ‘absurd’, Esslin turns to a quote from Ionesco “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” (Esslin, 1968). From his definition, absurdism and subsequently the Theatre of the Absurd is understood to be works which emphasise the purposelessness of life.

The philosophy behind absurdism, according to Esslin, is derived from Albert Camus’ best-known essay: The Myth of Sisyphus. In the essay, Camus compares the absurdity of human nature with the Greek mythological figure of Sisyphus. As a punishment for angering the gods, Sisyphus is condemned to eternally push a boulder up a mountain, and perpetually compelled to repeat this action when the boulder inevitably rolls back down. The essay was understood to surmise that humanity is essentially meaningless, and our actions have no impact. Additionally, Camus’ philosophies conjectured why, since life had lost all meaning, man should not seek escape in suicide (Esslin, 1968). Esslin posits that Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus recognised the human situation in a world of shattered beliefs.

Figure 2: "Sisyphus" painted by Titian

Theatre of the Absurd confronts its audience with the inane madness of the human condition, enabling them to recognise and resultantly laugh at the fundamental absurdity of humanity. There are three fundamental cornerstones of the Absurdist Theatre according to Grace Whistler in her article Absurd Theatre: Caligula and Beyond, which are: a contemplation of mortality, a break between language and meaning, and an intertwined relationship between tragedy and comedy. Absurdist writers abandon conventional plot and character in their plays, often in their desire to “break free from the cliches of language and art into something more authentic” (Whistler, 2020). Their main aim is to express the senselessness of the human condition, and the ultimate inadequacy of rational devices and discursive thought (Whistler, 2020).

Samuel Becket is one of the notable writers associated with The Theatre of the Absurd. His plays combine tragedy and comedy to wholly depict the spectrum of human suffering: “dismay at life’s brevity” as well as “frustration at absurdity” (Newton, 2008, p.145). He suffuses comedy into his tragic subject matter — in Waiting for Godot, Beckett includes in his character descriptions the use of Charlie Chaplin-like costumes amidst the dismal ambiance. Although Beckett employs tragic techniques, he refuses to write any plot sequence involving catharsis — therefore denying the audience an “inauthentic emotional consolation” (Newton, 2008, p.146).

Figure 3: Portrait of Samuel Beckett

Whereas most plays involve an exposition, a climax and a denouement, Becket’s plays have a cyclical structure — one which Michael Worton classifies as a “diminishing spiral” (Worton, 1994). His plays never reach a final closure, and his characters are forced to “take refuge in repetition”, repeating their actions and words in order to pass the time (Worton, 1994). The play follows conversations between Vladimir and Estragon, who are waiting for the arrival of the mysterious Godot, who continually sends word that he will appear but who never does. Time is constantly suspended by the characters’ waiting, and the narrative is rendered “shapeless and directionless by its non-eventuality” (Ackerman, 2012, p.112). Endings and beginnings, structurally vital in any piece of fiction, lose their importance in the directionless narrative. The last lines of the play are as trivial as they are inconsequential:

“Estragon Well? Shall we go?

Vladimir: Pull on your trousers.

Estragon: What?

Vladimir: Pull on your trousers.

Estragon: You want me to pull off my trousers?

Vladimir: Pull ON your trousers.

Estragon: (realizing his trousers are down). True.

He pulls on his trousers.

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

They do not move. Curtain. “ (Beckett, 1982, p.109)

According to Esslin, the play lacks a conventional plot because this can only exist on the presumption that events in time are significant. Similarly, the play lacks dimensional characters with agency because that relies on the presumption that individuality is real and meaningful. The play calls these assumptions into question and presents us with a wayward plot structure and unrecognisable characters (Esslin, 1968, p.75). Beckett consequently bares his own anxieties, exhibiting his despair at the inability to find a meaning in existence.

Figure 4: Poster for 2001 film production of "Waiting for Godot"

Beckett’s characters in Waiting for Godot explicitly feel the absurdity of time: “We don’t manage too badly, eh Didi, between the two us . . . We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?” (Beckett, 1982, p.77). They see all action as meaningless and view suicide as the sole action with notable repercussions. In doing so, they echo Camus’ philosophical dilemma in The Myth of Sisyphus — whether or not to commit suicide. However, whilst Camus posits the question calmly, Vladmir and Estragon struggle ambivalently. They oscillate between disarming humour and nonchalance to grave fear at the thought of leaving the other alone.

Beckett also makes it clear in his play that language as a medium is futile; it is unable to express the absurdity of the human condition and therefore loses its meaning entirely, losing its role as a vehicle for direct communication. He employs devices to manifest the disintegration of language, including cliches, misunderstandings, repetitions, losses of syntax, as well as numerous forms of orthographical nonsense.

“Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? [. . .] We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause.) I can’t go on! (Pause.) What have I said?” (Beckett, 1982, p.104-5).

Figure 5: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in an illustration for “Waiting for Godot"

Founded on the philosophy of Camus, the Theatre of the Absurd strove to concretise the helplessness felt by the middle of the twentieth century. As one of the movement’s main proponents, Beckett’s work exposed the artificiality in theatrical representation as well as the devices that sustain this illusion. Simultaneously, his work also strove to depict the concurrent artificiality of life and his non-realistic techniques aided him in authentically portraying the dilemmas of human existence. His plays, such as Waiting for Godot portray an absurd world, questioning the very meaning of time and existence as well as demonstrating the inability of language to interpret the metaphysical dilemma.

Bibliographic References

Ackerman, A. (20120). Reading Modern Drama. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Retrieved from : https://search-ebscohost-

Beckett, S. (1982). Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove Press.

Esslin, M. (1968). The Theatre of the Absurd. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Newton, K. M. (2008) Modern Literature and the Tragic. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Scott, A. (2013). 'A Desperate Comedy: Hope and Alienation in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot"'. Educational Philosopy and Theory, 44(4), 448-460.

Whistler, G. (2020). 'Absurd Theatre: Caligula and Beyond.' Camus' Literary Ethics. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Worton, M. (1994). 'Waiting for Godot and Endgame: Theatre as Text.' The Cambridge Companion to Beckett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Megan Maistre

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