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What is the theatre of the absurd?
In its essence, the movement boils down to few crucial aspects. Lack of plot and temporal structure, parts of the play that make sense only to highlight the nonsensical rest and breakdown of what we could call the “glue of drama”—communication. In other words, absurdist plays challenge both the rules and function of Classical Greek drama, its unity of time, space, and action (known as Aristotelian unities) as well as its community building function. Importantly, the theatre of the absurd frees itself from symbolic framework such as the need of a resolution, an ending that provides the spectator with emotional catharsis. Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot is pivotal in that sense—it demonstrates the problematic nature of concentrating on the play’s end, the wait for the outcome of things, to the extent that all the preceding parts of a play that lead to it are pointless.
It is absurd but what is it good for?
The absurdist movement has great potential for a whole lot of reasons. I will address a number of them. Being conscious of it or not, we all enter the theatre with the impulse to have certain expectations from it. Waiting for Godot playfully uses the word “Salvation,” simply meaning the ‘ending’. In its inability to achieve or bring about a conclusion of any kind, the play fails to meet that requirement. However, the lack of “Salvation” or an ending is a conclusion itself—it articulates the loss of humanity and hope. In fact, the lack of symbolic framework of the play opens space for attaching any meaning to it. Then, ideally, theatre of the absurd is there to liberate the spectator with all the implications which that process involves—a completely different experience of time, language, and form.
Why is it still important today?
"Plays are events to be experienced, not literary documents to be analyzed" states another central protagonist of the absurdist theatre—the playwright Tom Stoppard whose play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead marks an evolutionary moment of the absurdist movement. The title references the most famous play in history, that is, Shakespeare's Hamlet adopting two of its minor characters. Despite offering the spectator a conclusion, the play is still rather ambiguous and to a certain extent meaningless. Opening with an end, the title conveys what is going to happen to the main characters. The play is an elaboration on Waiting for Godot, this time showcasing that at last, "Godot comes". Once again, language is crucial and it fails to shed any light on the reason the characters have to die in the end: "I am afraid it isn't your day", "I am afraid it is" exchange the two protagonists. Communication this time is clear yet insufficient in conveying any truth at all. The only satisfactory aspect left for the audience is the comic one.
Conclusion (as absurd as it may sound)
Ultimately, among the number of vague messages that absurdist plays rely on, one seems to shine brightest in the storm—the call for suspending the constant urge for reaching if not meaningful then any kind of resolution. Stoppard, for example, achieves that in a genuine way by engaging with influential playwrights and thus manages to expand his own creative horizon far beyond the constraints of commonplace theatre by creating a realm of the absurd where the audience could explicitly experience the action happening on stage. And by becoming fully aware from the very beginning of what is about to happen in the end (here, end also wittingly referring to “death”), theatre of the absurd makes room for enjoying the rest. Or completely hate it—doesn’t matter as long as the spectators become conscious of the provoked emotional response and ultimately, of their own selves. Maybe in the end it is not us waiting for Godot but Godot waiting for us.
Stoppard, Tom, and Henry Popkin. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Grove Press, 2017.