The Major “Absurd” Dramatists

This kind of play, according to Esslin, arises from the disillusionment and loss of certitude characteristic of our times and reflected in works like The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) by Albert Camus—where the word “Absurd” appears. The major dramatists of the School of the Absurd, in Esslin’s view, are Beckett, Adamov, Ionesco, and Genet. The senselessness of life and loss of ideals had, of course, been reflected in dramatists like Giraudoux, Anouilh, Sartre, and Camus, but whereas they had presented irrationality in terms of the old conventions, dramatists in the Theatre of the Absurd sought a more appropriate form. They do not argue about absurdity; they “present it in being”. Like the Poetic Theatre, the Absurd Theatre relies heavily on dream and fantasy, but unlike that theatre it rejects consciously “poetic” dialogue in favor of the banal. Although centered on Paris, the Theatre of the Absurd is distinctly international in flavor, as is emphasized by the four leading exponents chosen by Esslin—The Irish Beckett, the Russian Adamov, the Rumanian Ionesco, and the Frenchman Genet. These dramatists are followed, in Esslin’s book, by eighteen contemporary playwrights of whom Pinter and Simpson are the British representatives. All these dramatists partake, in one form or another, of the tradition of the Absurd which is described by Esslin as very far-flung indeed, incorporating devises from the circus, mime, clowning, verbal nonsense, and the literature of dram and fantasy which often has a strong allegorical component. Esslin seems to have overstated his case by including many dramatists whose intentions in the category of the Theatre of the Absurd surprises us. However, the tradition is more obviously pertinent when Esslin approaches such persons as Jarry, Apollinaire, and Dada. In his attempt to show in what way the Absurd Theatre produces something really new, Esslin suggest that is be “the unusual way in which various familiar attitudes of mind and literary idioms are interwoven” and the fact that this approach has met with “a wise response from a broadly based public.”

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