The Theater of the Absurd is a movement in drama that refers to the work of several playwrights of the 1950s and 1960s. The term is credited to the critic Martin Esslin, who in turn derives it from an essay by the French writer Albert Camus. Camus wrote in his 1942 Myth of Sisyphus that human life was essentially meaningless and absurd: "in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and of light, man feels an alien, a stranger. . . This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity." In his essay, Esslin referred to absurdism as "the inevitable devaluation of ideals, purity, and purpose."
The avant-garde dada and surrealist artists of the 1920s and 1930s had already been experimenting with such themes in their visual and literary practices, and Camus's writing gave further legitimacy to the concept, especially as it was perceived in the aftermath of the massive and devastating Second World War. Even earlier predecessors include the plays of Euripides and Aristophanes, the commedia dell'arte works of Italy, and the shocking Ubu plays of Alfred Jarry in 1890s France.
The Theater of the Absurd writers, including Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, and Eugene Ionesco, sought to expound on this belief that life was absurd –that human beings occupied a capricious and meaningless universe in which they were able to play no authentic role. Their work focused on humans trying to control the events in their lives, and the resultant chaos. Many of the characters are clowns or completely helpless and bereft of rationality. They also tend to be of the lower social classes. Overall, they seem menaced and controlled by invisible outer forces, completely unable to attain autonomy. Communication between characters is difficult, if not impossible; language is unable to create human connections. Some characters try to fight back against the stultifying incomprehensibility of their world, but are unsuccessful in their efforts.
The plays in this tradition often try to shake the audience out of apathy and comfort, playing with their expectations about what theater is supposed to be. Audiences had to navigate plots that moved in circles or seemingly nowhere at all, oblique characters, dialogue dependent on slang and wordplay, references to the theater itself, and abrasively funny or bleak moments.
The most prominent Theater of the Absurd playwrights were European, owing to the war's devastation of their homeland, witnessed firsthand. American playwrights in this tradition were reacting more to conformist and consumerist 1950s society rather than the postwar wasteland of Europe. Many modern playwrights in the United Kingdom and the United States are indebted to the work of the playwrights in this tradition.