Absurdity and ambiguity in the theatre can be confusing as well as entertaining but in real life they are deadly. It is OK to have people on stage behaving unreasonably or irrationally in the context of an intriguing storyline, but to suggest that the life of an individual has no meaning or purpose in a meaningless universe can contribute to the already ubiquitous human suffering. We can view the playwrights that we will meet in this essay as allies of the Simple Reality Project because clearly, one of the goals of what has come to be called Theatre of the Absurd is to shock the audience. The playwrights of the 20th century avante-garde form of theatre noted for puzzling their audiences include Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Jean Anouilh and Jean Genet.
Ambiguity in drama has been around longer than absurdity. Remember how puzzled many of us were in trying to explain Hamlet’s behavior? But is it true that plays like Pinter’s Caretaker are really ambiguous? Ironically, he may just be trying to wake up his audience using an unconventional approach. Suppose Pinter wanted to convey the message that P-B wasn’t working and that our failure to create a sustainable human community was, in fact, self-destructive. His mise-en-scene displayed for one audience a frame without a picture, a disconnected stove, a rusty lawn mower, a collection of empty suitcases and a toaster with a broken plug. That’s one way to convey that civilization is breaking down and perhaps with more impact than had he tried a more conventional play.
After more than a half century of watching these plays many of us are bewildered about what the playwrights are trying to say. That’s probably because we have no rational worldview, no wholesome sense of self or a life wherein our daily behaviors are truly satisfying. These plays, however, are moving in the right direction toward identifying some of humankind’s most profound challenges even though the playwrights and the audience are not yet able to grasp the full meaning of the human condition.
Paradigm A is noted for its simplicity and what was called the avant-garde theatre were plays that were also simple and often short. Several plays ranged from 8 to 20 minutes repeating the same simple themes. Were the playwrights advocating simplicity? A few simple and recurring themes seemed to indicate they were. Let’s look at the content of some of these plays sometimes called anti-drama.
Eugene Ionsesco focused on the unreality of human communities as revealed by their social life and social thought. On one occasion he “defined the subject of his play The Chairs as ‘the absence of people, the absence of the emperor, the absence of God, the absence of matter, the unreality of the world, metaphysical emptiness. The theme of the play is nothingness.’” A mystic would say, “Sure, I get it. The phenomenal world, the world of form, is an illusion feeding on the energy of humankind resisting reality.” But there are precious few genuine intuitives in the average theatre audience who could reach such a conclusion.
If Ionesco was right, then what else should “Absurd” plays be revealing in addition to the emptiness or “nothingness” of phenomena? In the context of Simple Reality, we call for a paradigm shift. In their own way these playwrights have been moving toward a similar conclusion. Theatre critic Walter Kerr saw the need for radical change in the world of theatre and in the world in general in a piece he wrote in 1962. “As long as we seem to see the destructive work [of absurdist playwrights] as a clearing away of rotted superstructures, with a promise or at least the possibility that new foundations may be laid, the appetite surges. Yes, it is time for examinations of conscience, and the exploration of fresh terrain, at every turn in our lives.”
We could not go so far as to say that this break from traditional drama aims at transforming society, but it certainly is iconoclastic and even prophetic. “Listening with one ear, we seem to hear prospects for the future: in announcing plans for a festival of Absurd plays [l962], the producer Richard Barr insisted that the plays offer ‘a distorted picture of a world that has gone mad’ in order to ‘break the old mold of language and narrative sequence in the theatre and to emphasize its mystery and truth.’” Can the professionals in the world of the theatre find the courage to ask the question: What is the truth concerning the human condition? The answer to this question remains to be seen.
Another common theme beloved by anti-drama playwrights is communication. The actors often find connecting with each other difficult or impossible. Simple Reality makes clear that profound human connection is not an intellectual process expressed orally but rather originates in a heartfelt expression of compassion. No one who has seen Beckett’s Waiting for Godot would say that the characters engaged in meaningful communication. “‘Godot’ takes place in the absence of any meaningful stories. In its world, life holds nothing beyond the present moment [emphasis added]—a moment redeemed, if at all, by humor and companionship, not art.”
Perhaps Beckett was foreshadowing the irony that our modern communications technology would only widen the gap between humans searching for connection. Olivia Laing in her book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone hints at the absurdity inherent in today’s social media which she sees as magnifying loneliness and suffering. “You can reach out or you can hide; you can lurk and you can reveal yourself, curated and refined. [It took only] a few missed connections or lack or likes for the loneliness to resurface, to be flooded with the bleak sense of having failed to make contact.”
Conformity was a behavior that obviously stuck in the craw of absurdist playwrights because they seemed to find it nauseating. Thoreau, Emerson and the American Transcendentalists warned about the dangers of conformity in an unconscious society and the importance of self-reliance. We are all born into an ongoing drama and given a script and identity that we are expected to perform according to the dictates of our director, the false self. Actually, we have an array of directors assuming the authoritarian role of ensuring that we stay in character.
To express our authentic True self, to “be” as the depth psychologists put it, requires self-reliance or self-direction. Failure in this leads to another popular theme found in Absurd plays, loss of identity. Orpheus in Jean Anouilh’s Legend of Lovers refuses the counterfeit currency offered by the illusion of P-B which requires that he accepts a false-self identity. “It has been said that his [Anouilh’s] heroes refuse happiness when it is offered to them. That is not strictly true. What they refuse is a happiness made up of petty resignation, of mean compensations snatched from life with humiliating eagerness.”
The theater is a perfect metaphor for life in the sense that we are all born into an ongoing play, handed a script and a role to play. There are painful sanctions for those refusing to conform to the wishes of the other actors on the stage. “We are funny; we are gay and inconsolable; selfish and brutal as insects; perpetual dreamers capable, sometimes of a little love—all of us baffled and betrayed by an ironic fate that hands us a “part” to play. Here theatre and life coincide: it is the playwright who distributes the parts in a play; it is he, too, who decides how they will be played and how it will all end for the participants. In a sense, therefore, the characters are innocent. There are really no villains in Anouilh’s theater.” There are only hapless actors enslaved in a false-self driven melodrama. It would indeed be absurd to claim that anyone so unconscious of the forces driving their behavior is a “sinner” or somehow morally culpable for their behavior. “He has been cast in his role and he must play it to the end.”
Anouilh is certainly contained in a deterministic worldview not unlike the creators of the great Greek tragedies. We can compare Anouilh’s Antigone to that of Sophocles. “But little mention has been made of the basic assumption in the play, characteristic of Anouilh and certainly closer to the Greek than to the Christian version of life: fate has prepared Antigone’s role and she must play it out, no matter how or why. The Greek Antigone can perhaps rationalize it as the will of the gods. Anouilh’s Antigone has no recourse but to accept the part and play it: she cannot escape. All of Anouilh’s plots are based on the game that an ironic fate—benevolent in the pieces roses, malevolent in the pieces noires—plays with the characters.” We will not find characters in Anouilh’s plays that are in anyway self-reliant with choices to respond or react to life’s experience thus at least having the option to create suffering or not. Nor will we find many such people in the global village—but there are some—and that should command the attention of our most adventuresome playwrights.
In Anouilh’s Becket we can see just how dark his worldview is when it becomes not only necessary to play one’s assigned role faithfully but it is a matter of honor that one do so; it is the way we honor God. “In no other play has Anouilh’s ‘burning passion for justice’ so clearly expresses itself, or his concern for the ever-sacrificed honor of humanity. “Honor” is a word that his Joan of Arc and his Antigone also understand; it is fidelity to the role one is designated to play, the acceptance of oneself in a given part, whatever its essential absurdity.” We can plainly see that Anouilh could be called the anti-Simple Reality playwright.
Paradigm A is also noted for its indictment of the intellect especially when it becomes loquacious. When a homo sapien becomes wordy—look out. Or as the Zen Buddhists often say: “open mouth, already big problem.” “In many plays, for instance, much is made of the fact that words are slippery, unstable tools, not to be trusted as tokens of true meaning.”
The way we have defined Theatre of the Absurd sheds light on the identity of the playwrights themselves. They are not poets, they are philosophers. Precision of language and brevity are important and what is communicated may be done in an unorthodox manner but it must be the truth as they see it. Since truth and beauty are two sides of the same coin, beauty is found on the flip-side of avante-garde theatre. The coin and the conventional world itself are turned upside-down. This often challenges the audience with what is, in effect, a paradigm shift. The very future of humankind will be determined by whether the audience is up to that challenge.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.