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During a time of the utmost rationality, when the serious nature of man was exposed in its most raw form, Samuel Beckett– author of Endgame — tackled subject matters that stepped out from under the issue of war and the tangible problems of his era, and instead chose to focus on more abstract topics, oftentimes with an emphasis on existentialist ideals. Beckett, as influential as any writer of his time period, played a vital role in the formation of the avant-garde movement know as the Theatre of the Absurd, an unincorporated group of playwrights whose work mainly took place from the late 1940’s through the 1960’s. Among those who are also classified as “absurdists” are Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter, men with similar styles and equally comparable philosophies, intellectuals that believed, “man is inhabiting a universe with which he is out of key. Its meaning is indecipherable and his place within it is without purpose. He is bewildered, troubled and obscurely threatened” (Esslin.43). This existentialist view is found throughout Endgame, and echoed in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, in which, similarly to Beckett, the author writes dialogue in a repetitive, purposeless, nonsensical manner, proving the ineffectualness of verbal communication.
While the constituents the Theatre of the Absurd may have shunned the standard spoken communication of our traditional society, artists through the decades have likewise struggled to convey the message these visionaries worked so hard to get across. One artist, however, who has made an attempt to express the true sentiments of their work, and who has done a valiant job, is Nesreen Nabil, who in 1999 painted Waiting, self-described as “Stage set design for the Theatre of the Absurd, this one is for Waiting for Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett”(Esslin.136). Also representative of the time and period discussed thus far, interpreted by a small Repertory Company, is a playbill from a performance of The Bald Soprano, featuring four sets of silent, observant eyes. These four pieces represent a thought process of a bygone era, a time in which brilliant writers could separate themselves from the norms of the masses and write as they chose, without fear of persecution or low box-office returns. They wrote on what they felt, and asked permission from nobody. In return for this complete autonomy, they have given us great pieces of literature, which have withstood the test of time, and even today stand as shining examples of the finest work man has to offer.
Samuel Beckett was born in Foxrock, Ireland in 1906, to a lower middle class Protestant Family. Unhappy even to his earliest recollection, Beckett worked his way through the education system, graduating from Trinity College of Dublin with a BA. Soon after his graduation, Beckett, a discontented boy transformed into a discontented man, moved to Paris, where he joined a growing number of expatriate artist in France, eager to explore the rebellious avant-garde. Shortly after his arrival in Paris, a mutual friend introduced the aspiring writer and playwright to a fellow Irishman, James Joyce. Immediately attracted to Joyce’s style and intellect, Beckett quickly joined the inner circle of the seminal Irish author. After several years of studying under James in France, Beckett again moved on, and traveled for nearly half a decade throughout Europe, gaining practical knowledge at every stop. In 1937, he returned to Paris, and settled down, ready to begin his writings. However, the impending commencement of World War II led Beckett to join the radical anti-war movement in Paris, and he remained to protest the fighting even as the Germans invaded France. When several members of his group were arrested and prosecuted by the invading Third Reich, however, Beckett fled the country to an unoccupied territory, where he remained with his girlfriend (and future wife) until the conclusion of the war. In 1945, with France restored to order, Beckett returned to his favored Paris, and embarked on what evolved into one of the most prolific writing careers of the twentieth century.
Derived from the “Myth of Sisyphus”, written in 1942, French philosopher Albert Camus broaches the subject of absurdity in dramatic theatre, incorporating ideas that define the human situation as meaningless and absurd. While Camus offers the most concrete source from which the notion of absurdity is taken, the foundation for the Theatre of the Absurd may have originally been drawn from Danish philosopher Sren Kierkegaard, who is the first to use the term “absurd” in its current context, explaining the incomprehensible and unjustifiable nature of Christianity, and in turn illustrating the fragmented, illogical, chaotic reality of society. Former Stanford professor and author Martin J. Esslin, expounding on the ideas of Camus, Kierkegaard, and Sarte, amongst others, coined the phrase “Theatre of the Absurd”, in an attempt to classify a group of expatriate writers residing and working in Western Europe and America in the middle of the twentieth century. His book, considered the premiere authority on the authors of the time period in the genre in question, and titled The Theatre of the Absurd, brought much international attention to the previously misunderstood and largely ignored subsection of drama. The ideas infused in the plays of the period, particularly those of Beckett, also dictate their structure, or lack thereof. Absurdist playwrights, therefore, did away with most of the logical structures of traditional theatre, opting instead to utilize a more open, free flowing dialogue. There is little dramatic action as had conventionally been seen; however frantically the characters perform, their busyness serves to underscore the fact that nothing happens to change their existence. In addition, their conversations seem to have no foreseeable beginning or end; instead, circular patterns of banter are noticeable in many of the works.
Undoubtedly, playing a crucial role in the development of absurd theatre was World War II, a devastating battle that enveloped nearly an entire decade and influenced every aspect of life, particularly for those living in Europe and involved in even the most minor aspect of the war, be it offering support, or in the case of many of the authors of the era, engaging in actively protesting the military action. Of those authors who did choose to dispute World War II, including Beckett and Ionesco, the protest served to fuel the already smoldering embers of rebellion, further fanning the flames of discontent by illustrating a disturbing lack of any values, subsequently exposing the precarious nature of human life and its fundamental lack of meaning. To the authors of the period, this armed aggression signaled the increasingly downward spiral of society, reconfirming the disillusionment and skepticism we see expressed in their ensuing works. While examining some of the first plays put out directly following the conclusion of the Second World War, we come to understand there is a strong suspicion on the part of the authors that a devaluation of language is driving humanity towards a pit of despair.
One of those early works– and an important piece in the evolution of absurd drama—is Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, a play written by the Romanian that firmly entrenches the Theatre of the Absurd as a respectable, enjoyed form of theatre. As one of the fathers of the genre, Ionesco was once quoted as saying, “It’s not a certain society that seems ridiculous to me, it’s mankind”, a sentiment that concisely sums up his distaste for popular culture and the dumbing down of humankind ( ). In The Bald Soprano, the playwright uses his forum to satirize the monotony and absurdity of the daily life of a bourgeois society petrified in the meaningless formalities of the time. Interestingly enough, Ionesco came about his profession by chance; having moved from his native Romania to Paris to complete his doctoral thesis, he took on the task of learning English, using a translation guide as one of his chief teaching tools. It is here that Ionesco first discovers the emptiness and clichs of daily conversation, many of which appear in his phrase book2E Ionesco intends for The Bald Soprano to dramatize the pedestrian communication of daily existence as a reflection of the basic emptiness of life, a cornerstone tenant of the Theatre of the Absurd. In addition, he finds the conformity of society’s words of utmost humor, not to mention more than a little bit ridiculous the majority of the time. Ionesco is also adept at picking at the arbitrary peculiarities of language—words used more to mask and conceal reality than to inform and enlighten.
When compared with the works of Ionesco, Samuel Beckett’s plays come off as morose and depressing at first, although after more careful analysis, it is clear that behind every pessimistic comment lies a clever double entendre, carefully concealing the true wit of the author. On the other hand, the joviality of The Bald Soprano is evident from the very beginning, and the reader is easily swept up in the frivolous world of Mr. And Mrs. Smith as they entertain their friends the Martins. Adding to the levity of the surreal setting are Mary the Maid and The Fire chief, both of whom add an offbeat, nonsensical air to the whole proceedings.
While The Bald Soprano is a silly, free-spirited lark, Endgame is something completely different, a fatalistic view of the world as only Beckett can write it. The two main protagonists, Hamm and Clov, go about their everyday duties as if they were a married couple, sniping back and forth, despondent and depressed. Hamm, slowed by old age and his complete blindness, is unable to survive on his own, and relies on Clov to assist him with even the most menial of tasks. He is a cynical, bitter old man, and makes his displeasure felt on a regular basis, contributing to the unhappiness of his caretaker, as well as his parents, Nagg and Nell. The routine that is essentially the basis for the entire play is very representative of Beckett’s work, not to mention the works of many of the members of the Theatre of the Absurd. Regardless of how futile said routine is—and it is indeed futile—it is Beckett’s contention that humans need such a regimented way of living to pass the days, rationalizing to themselves that death is not just around the corner. However, in a twist of irony that is purely “absurd”, these tedious schedules are what bring the end closer, day after day.
Though both men are clearly unhappy with their respective lives, they push forward, complaining with each step. Beckett’s cyclical view of the world and our time spent here is perfectly phrased in the opening lines of the play, as Clov says to Hamm, “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap”(2473). Through Clov, Beckett is stating his own ideals, that life is one repetitive step after another, a mundane existence that is only finalized with ones own death. Each grain can be considered an individual day, a singular moment in time that, over the years, accumulates to form a “heap.” At the end of all those minutes and days and years, after all those experiences have been finalized, when that heap is finally ready to topple over, that is when death arrives, and the moments of life are finalized. Again, the despair and basic existential nature characteristic of the Theatre of the Absurd is reconfirmed, as Clov says, “It may end. All life long the same questions, the same answers” (2474). This quote is just another testament to the sentiments of the author on the lack of meaning life has to offer, and again demonstrates the circular nature of human life.
The authors of absurd theatre, as a whole, attempt to snap the viewer out of their comfort zone, to startle them into understanding a new, genuine reality. In order to achieve this unstated goal, the playwrights implement an unconventional, innovative form unseen in any form before World War II. The Theatre of the Absurd openly rebelled against conventional theatre, fighting the long established tropes that were no longer valid in the post-war society. Instead, the new form of dramatic art was surreal, illogical, lacking both conflict and plot, the complete polar opposite of everything society expected from the theatre. One of the most important aspects of absurd drama was its distrust of language as a means of communication. Language had long been established as a vehicle in which people could engage in conventional, meaningless exchanges of little importance and even less validity. When Hamm asks, “We’re not beginning to…to…mean something”, Clov’s immediate reply is to dismiss this as madness, answering, “Mean something? You and I, mean something? Ah, that’s a good one” (2483)! While this is standard fair for “absurdists”, this line would have been rare in conventional drama. Many characters found in the Theatre of the Absurd were portrayed as introspective, capable of grasping how meaningless everything truly is.
While playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd flourished for nearly thirty years, other forms of art were not nearly as prolific when trying to associate their work with that of the famous authors. One piece, however, that fits perfectly with the ideals of these “absurdists” is Waiting, by Nesreen Nabil, a work that seamlessly matches the thoughts of the Theatre of the Absurd. In Waiting, Nabil is portraying a stage set design, and the stage is utterly barren, with the exception of a number of chairs in the center. This illustrates the importance of dialogue in the works of Beckett and his compatriots, in addition to reconfirming the lack of action that takes place in many of the plays, a distinct departure from the conventional forms of drama of the first half of the twentieth century. The style Nabil chooses to use also perfectly compliments the sentiments depicted in Endgame, with a dark, brooding, colorless canvas, with only a spot of bright light in the middle of the stage; this spotlight represents Hamm, and his desire to move into the light, not to mention his predilection for being in the middle of the room at all times.
When considering the most important aspect of The Bald Soprano, the first thing that immediately comes to mind is the four main characters and their interaction with one another. That being said, there is no better way to gain an understanding of someone’s character faster than by looking into their eyes; after all, “the eyes are the window to the soul.” Keeping that in mind, the attached playbill, from a small theatre company, flawlessly idealizes the importance of the characters themselves in Ionesco’s play, with their personalities and intricacies exposed for all to see, through the windows that are their eyes. Again, this allows us to visualize the importance of human interaction and dialogue in the works of the Theatre of the Absurd2E
In a short period of less than thirty years, a small contingent of foreign expatriates converged upon Western Europe, and in short order created a brand new type of drama, which was in turn titled the Theatre of the Absurd2E This avant-garde movement was predicated on abstract, existentialist ideals, including the belief that man is living in a world out of balance, its meaning indecipherable and confusing. Characteristics of this revolution in drama include the use of repetitive, often meaningless dialogue, and a lack of action that creates a far different feel from the conventional theatre of the first half of the twentieth century. At the forefront of this movement were two visionaries, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, men who saw a world torn apart by war and drowning in a sea of ambiguity. They also foresaw a breakdown in language, and a society whose ability to communicate via the spoken word was decreasing exponentially. However, with works such as Endgame and The Bald Soprano, Beckett and Ionesco, respectively, were able to take the ineffective communication skills of their era and turn them completely around, mocking the cyclical nature of mankind and illustrating the importance of verbal skills by mocking our deficiencies. To writers who fell under the umbrella of the Theatre of the Absurd, life was impossible to explain, and unexplainable and without logic. With their vision, however, at least those of us still living in a society full of confusion and dismay can still enjoy the theatre.
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