Absurd, the (absurd, literature or theater of the)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Absurd, the (absurd, literature or theater of the)

Absurd, the (absurd, literature or theater of the): A phrase referring to works that use absurdity as a device to depict the actual absurdity of the modern human condition, often with implicit reference to humanity’s loss or lack of religious, philosophical, or cultural roots. Such works depict the individual as essentially isolated, even when surrounded by others.

The literature of the Absurd is bizarre in both style and subject matter. Familiar conventions, governing everything from plot to dialogue, are routinely flouted, as is the notion that a work of literature should be unified and coherent. The resulting scenes, actions, and dialogue are usually disconnected, repetitive, and intentionally nonsensical. Absurdist works might be comic if not for their obviously and grotesquely tragic dimensions.

The Absurd has its roots in such movements as Dadaism and surrealism. Other influences range from nonsense verse and silent film comedy to Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu roi (Ubu the King) (1896) to the works of August Strindberg, James Joyce, and Franz Kafka. Key ideas underpinning the genre also developed in France during the 1940s in the existentialist works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus depicting the lonely, confused, often anguished individual in an utterly bewildering universe. However, unlike existentialist works, which take a deliberative, rational approach to this sense of disconnection, Absurdist works reject logic, devalue language, and convey their sense of absurdity through absurdity itself.

The theater of the Absurd — a phrase attributed to critic Martin Esslin, whose The Theatre of the Absurd, originally published in 1961, remains the standard study of the genre — established itself in the 1950s with Eugène Ionesco’s La cantatrice chauve (The Bald Soprano) (1950), in which, not surprisingly, there is no soprano, let alone a bald one. Equally influential was Samuel Beckett’s play En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot) (1952), in which two tramps wait in vain for someone who may not even exist — and with whom they are not even sure they have an appointment.

Most Absurdist works have been written as plays, though certain novels, particularly several written during the 1960s, contain Absurdist elements. Harold Pinter was primarily responsible for developing British Absurdist theater; Edward Albee was America’s leading Absurdist playwright.

While the genre peaked in the 1960s, Absurdist works continue to be produced. The Absurdly-named Untitled Theater Company #61, founded in 1992 by playwright Edward Einhorn, identifies its mission as “[p]resenting a modern theater of the absurd.”

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Jean Genet’s Le balcon (The Balcony) (1956), Albee’s The Sandbox (1959), and Pinter’s The Homecoming (1965). Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) is both a popular novel and an Absurdist work. A contemporary example of Absurdist theater is Einhorn’s Linguish (2006), a one-act play The Village Voice described as “an inspired Absurdist comedy” that “follows four strangers infected with a mysterious form of aphasia [a neurological condition that causes loss of language] who are quarantined in a No Exit bunker. Literally at a loss for words, they must invent a new language in order to communicate — or to keep from going crazy.”