Renoir Young Girl Reading

The Theater of the Absurd

Among the major playwrights in the theater of the absurd are Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), Eugene Ionesco (Amedee), Harold Pinter (The Homecoming), and Luigi Pirandello (Six Characters in Search of an Author).

The theater of the absurd emerged in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It accepts the absence of a guiding symmetry in the world. God doesn't exist, nor does any world order. Thus, our existence is reduced to a meaningless morass of confusion. In the theater of the absurd, man is not tragic or heroic. He is comic and pathetic, little more than a clown fumbling his way through an incomprehensible maze. He is observed with both pity and humor by the audience and by the artist who has created him and is now observing him. The theater of the absurd tries to express the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of any rational approach to life. It is different from the Moderns in that the authors of the postwar era, including those working in the theater of the absurd, have accepted a Godless, meaningless universe and are no longer pointing out, with awe and horror, its characteristics. They are simply trying to figure out what to do with it and how to live in it. The writers in the theater of the absurd don't argue absurdity; they just present it.

A common theme of plays in the theater of the absurd is the isolation of human beings. Human relationships are fragile at best, and are often harmful. Little love or comfort derive from sharing time and space with other characters. They stay together from fear of being alone. Physical love is a mere biological urge; characters are often asexual. When it exists, sex is ugly and destructive, reinforcing loneliness rather than banishing it.

Another common characteristic of the theater of the absurd is that values of right and wrong disappear; no moral order exists. The characters are apathetic and passive, allowing horrors to pass unnoticed.

In the theater of the absurd, most of the characters do not fear death. In Waiting for Godot, for example, what frightens Vladimir and Estragon about hanging themselves from the tree is not death, but the idea that one of them might survive, alone. Survival is not a reward--it is a punishment.

In these plays, human life is not sacred. Death is not noble and heroic, but merely a pathetic loss of human power and a passing over from the absurdity of life into nothingness. All that a human being has done is meaningless.

The only redemption offered by the theater of the absurd is in the recognition of the transience, hopelessness, and fragility of life. There lies the only possibility of salvaging any happiness.

"The technique of presenting the meaningless," according to William Barrett, "consists in letting the universal disintegrate into random particulars." Common techniques you will find in the theatre of the absurd are:

Tom Stoppard and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Tom Stoppard, in his plays, takes steps to move beyond the absurdist traditions. You will find most of the trappings of absurdity here, but in addition, you will find characters who are realistic, identifiable figures. The central conflict of most of Stoppard's plays is the struggle of these characters to reconcile themselves to the absurd world in which they find themselves trapped. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for example, reason and order are shown not to exist by the coin game at the beginning. The play becomes an intellectual battle to find a solid footing in a world where events defy reason and occur seemingly without cause--where the powers in charge carry on as though events had purpose, but that purpose eludes the individual citizen. Stoppard's play, therefore, has political overtones, as well.

You can understand this play without having read Shakespeare's Hamlet, but knowing the plot and themes of Hamlet will add to your understanding of this play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters in Hamlet, college friends of Hamlet's. King Claudius has summoned them to Denmark to spy on Hamlet for him, although they are too naive to understand that. Claudius has murdered his brother, Hamlet's father and the former King, and has taken his crown and his wife, Gertrude. Hamlet hates him even before he knows about the murder, and after the ghost of his father appears to him and clues him in, he hates him even more. The ghost of his father demands that Hamlet avenge his death, and Hamlet resolves to do so, but when it comes right down to it, finds it more difficult to kill another human being in cold blood than he thought it would be. He is an intellectual, not a murderer, and no matter how justifiable the cause, he still finds excuses to put off the inevitable. All of this procrastinating leads to ridiculous machinations, among which Hamlet pretends to be insane in order to protect himself from the King while he spies on him. The King, Claudius, thus enlists Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to try to talk to Hamlet; pretending fatherly concern, he tells them they will be helping him get to the bottom of Hamlet's problem, so that he can help Hamlet. Being naive, they believe him, and try to trick Hamlet, thus incurring Hamlet's wrath.

Later in the play, Claudius decides that Hamlet is too much of a threat to him, and sends him to England, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are pathetically grateful to be able to help their old friend. The King gives them a letter to deliver to the King of England. Hamlet secretly breaks open the letter and sees that it contains an order to have him put to death. Even though he knows that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are just pawns of the King, he alters the letter so that it orders that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be put to death.

Later, when his friend Horatio is horrified at what he has done, Hamlet justifies his action by saying, off-handedly, that they deserved what they got because they interfered between him and Claudius, and they should have known better.

In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters who serve only to advance the plot. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, they are, of course, the main characters, and the story of Hamlet looks quite different from their point of view. If you haven't read Hamlet or seen one of the movies, I recommend that you do so if you can; it will deepen your understanding of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Any of the movie versions of Hamlet will do, but the best is Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet.

If you'd like more information on any of the topics covered in this lecture, go to the Links page. Enjoy!

Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Tom Stoppard, Ronald Hayman
2. Beyond Absurdity, Victor L. Cahn
3. The Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Essline