Martin Esslin, a theater critic, coined the term “Theater of the Absurd” to describe a number of works being produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s that defied any traditional genres. The most famous playwright associated with this movement include Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and of course, Harold Pinter.
The term "absurd" was originally used by Albert Camus in his 1942 essay “Myth of Sisyphus,” wherein he described the human condition as “meaningless and absurd.” The key element to an absurdist play is that the main characters are out of sync with the world around them. There is no discernable reasoning behind their strangeness, though a threatening sense of change shakes their existence to the core.
Influences on the absurdist theater go as far back as the Elizabethan tragicomedies of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The tragic plays Macbeth and Hamlet offer segments of comedy that shift the play's perspective, if only for the briefest moments. For example, Hamlet’s wit and the porter scene in Macbeth offer moments of comedy to alleviate the drama's intensity. Other influences on the absurdist playwrights include the work of Sigmund Freud, and the Surrealist movement of the 1920s and 1930s, which introduced the avant-garde to mainstream media.
However, the largest influence was World War II and its aftermath. Like Pinter, who was a child during the war, many Englishmen and women felt disillusioned once the war was over. They were angry and upset with the world, but found it difficult to express their collective opinions. In such a damaged world, it was no longer feasible to use traditional methods of storytelling on stage. The human condition was too complex and fragmented, and the old forms of language were hence inappropriate for exploring it.
To shake audiences from their more conventional viewing habits, the playwrights of the Absurdist Theater used traditional settings to ease the audience into their plays, and then shocked them with surreal imagery, uncommon circumstances, or fragmented language. Language within the Absurdist Theater often transcended its base meaning. As in The Birthday Party, nothing is as it seems and no one speaks the whole truth. Also, the use of silence as language was often utilized in these plays.
The drama of the absurdist theater is dreamlike, almost lyrical. Like the Surrealists before them, the absurdist playwrights use imagery, subtext, mythology, and allegory to express a deeper meaning which is often never fully explained. In fact, the playwrights of the Theater of the Absurd allowed their plays to speak for themselves. Pinter explained this absurdist concept best in his 1962 speech “Writing for the Theatre,” which was presented at the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol. He said, “I suggest there can be no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false.” The thin line between truth and lies is perhaps the defining characteristic of the Theater of the Absurd.