An overview
The following mini-article by Jerome P. Crabb was originally published on this website on Oct. 7, 2006.

The term “Theatre of the Absurd” was coined by Martin Esslin in his 1962 book by that title. It refers to the work of a loosely associated group of dramatists who first emerged during and after World War II. Esslin saw these playwrights as giving artistic expression to Albert Camus' existential philosophy, as illustrated in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, that life is inherently meaningless. In The Theatre of the Absurd, Esslin states, “The Theatre of the Absurd has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being—that is, in terms of concrete stage images. This is the difference between the approach of the philosopher and that of the poet.” He goes on to say that “The hallmark of this attitude is its sense that the certitudes and unshakable basic assumptions of former ages have been swept away, that they have been tested and found wanting, that they have been discredited as cheap and somewhat childish illusions.” Some common characteristics of absurdist plays include this general existential philosophy coupled with a rejection of narrative continuity and the rigidity of logic, as well as (and perhaps most importantly) a radical devaluation of language which is seen as a futile attempt to communicate the impossible. The general effect is often a nightmare or dreamlike atmosphere in which the protagonist is overwhelmed by the chaotic or irrational nature of his environment. Most absurdists also doggedly resist the traditional separation of farce and tragedy, intermixing the two at will, creating an unpredictable world that mirrors our own, in which the poignantly tragic may come upon the heels of the absurdly funny, or vice versa.

Originally, Esslin identified Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet as the primary playwrights of the absurd. He also named several “parallels and proselytes” including Jean Tardieu, Boris Vian, Dino Buzzati, Ezio d’Errico, Manuel de Pedrolo, Fernando Arrabal, Max Frisch, Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Günter Grass, Robert Pinget, Harold Pinter, Norman Frederick Simpson, Edward Albee, Jack Gelber, Arthur Kopit, Slawomir Mrozek, Tadeusz Rózewicz, and Vaclav Havel. In a subsequent edition of his book, Esslin promoted Pinter to the first tier of absurdist playwrights. Other writers who have sometimes been associated with the Theatre of the Absurd include Tom Stoppard, David Lindsay-Abaire, John Guare, Caryl Churchill, and Gao Xingjian.


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