The Theatre of the Absurd is a term for a distinct style of drama written largely by European playwrights in the 1940s–1960s, though it has become something of a tradition that lives on. On the whole, the Theatre of the Absurd rebelled against theatrical traditions and expressed a confusing, seemingly meaningless world where people encounter bizarre or absurd circumstances. It changed the way comedy was expressed in the theatrical tradition, often combining broad comedy with horrific situations to produce tragicomedy in the line of, say, Shakespeare, the Marx Brothers, and Charlie Chaplin. Arguably, the Theatre of the Absurd found a way to hit the audience hard with both the tragedy and the comedy, discomforting the audience and withholding the catharsis.
English critic Martin Esslin coined the term in his 1961 book Theatre of the Absurd, and the style came to be associated with such playwrights as Eugène Ionesco, Arthur Adamov, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett. Other playwrights came to be known as “absurdist,” including Edward Albee, Jean Tardieu, and Tom Stoppard. Although each one unquestionably maintains a distinct voice and theatrical style, their collective work shares particular concerns.
Although critics consider the Theatre of the Absurd separate from existentialism, the two movements (if one can call them that) share a concern with a philosophical understanding of the purpose of life and what meaning (if any) life might have. The absurdist plays employ nonsense to suggest such fundamental questions in surprising, unusual ways. Most of the time, most people are not living in the horrific circumstances of, say, the world wars, and they go about their normal lives without confronting the fundamental questions very often. The absurdist plays often shake us up and tend to remind individuals of our strange isolation despite our being surrounded by society and culture.
In Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, for example, what begins as a humorous phenomenon of men turning into rhinoceroses becomes unsettling, even horrifying, as every human being (save one) turns into a vicious animal. In traditional comedies or tragedies, the audience stays in the mood or laughing or crying. But Rhinoceros and other absurdist works leave the audience hovering somewhere in between, more alert to the strange complexity of life but not sure what to do or to think about it.
The Theatre of the Absurd also rejects traditional plot structures, following an artistic trend in the early 20th century (even though untraditional plot structures were not new in that generation). Theatre of the Absurd further confuses the audience by reveling in the idea of nonsense. The movement is often linked to Dadaism, a cultural movement that developed in Europe after World War I and celebrated chaos and irrationality. The absurdist playwrights reveal similar concerns as they develop characters who are often lost in incomprehensible worlds. Scenes often repeat (as in Ionesco’s Bald Soprano), and often the language repeats (as in his Rhinoceros).
Many works also center around unresolved mysteries or the idea of nothingness itself. In Ionesco’s The Chairs, for example, an elderly couple throws a party in their house for guests who are invisible to the audience. In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, two characters spend an entire play waiting for someone to arrive–but he never does. Without the traditional dramatic techniques that depend on a plot in forward motion, a play can hardly survive, so the plays do have at least some direction and connections. Even so, the absurdist plays confuse the audience by destroying most of the basic theatrical expectations.
Although absurdist elements continue to arise in modern theatre, critics tend to tie the first generation of such plays together as a movement in a particular time and place. Centered in Paris and generally concluded by 1970, the movement was a remarkably innovative period of theatre when playwrights discomforted their audiences, dismantled traditions, and deconstructed their own form of art. While the atrocities of the world wars and the anxiety of the Cold War have been fading in Western memory, the issues of understanding and meaning that humans face are no less critical.