Simanaitis Says

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WHAT WITH the world seemingly at sixes and sevens, what better time to explore the Theatre of the Absurd? Its mid-20th-century plays by Edward Albee, Samuel Becket, Václav Havel, Eugene Ionesco, Tom Stoppard, and others were responses to that era’s political turmoil and social upheaval, so maybe these works wouldn’t seem all that distant to us today.

Plus, it’s reassuring to cite a comment made by theater critic Martin Esslin: “… the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.”

The Theatre of the Absurd, by Martin Esslin, Vintage, 3rd edition, 2001.

Martin Esslin, 1918–2002, was a Hungarian-born English dramatist, producer, critic, and translator. It was Esslin who named the genre in 1962 when he wrote, “The Theatre of the Absurd strives to express its sense of the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought.”

Not surprisingly, then, its characters are often tragicomical stereotypes who speak in clichés, act irrationally, and find difficulty in relationships. Others in Absurdist plays who behave less extremely are confounded by the incomprehensible world around them as they make heroic attempts to understand it all.

Origins and Influences. Theater scholars suggest the genre can be traced to Elizabethan blends of tragedy and comedy. In fact, two Absurdist plays are homages to Shakespeare. Tom Stoppard’s 1966 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead expands on the careers of these two courtiers in Hamlet.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, by Tom Stoppard, Grove Press, Anniversary edition, 2017.

By the way, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had recent walk-on roles here at SimanaitisSays: They’re the “Claudius henchmen” who were hoist on their own petards.

In Stoppard’s play, the two characters are baffled during their disorderly encounters with the Stoppard play’s intermittent portions echoing the original Hamlet.

Macbett Ionesco (Collection Folio, English and French Edition), by Eugène Ionesco, Editions Gallimard, 1975.

Ionesco’s 1982 Macbett is a satire of the Shakespeare drama, complete with reneged deals, assassination attempts, ghost appearances, and a seductive Lady Duncan.

Other Absurdist theatrical influences are as varied as Commedia dell’Arte and vaudeville. Nor are politics overlooked.

Tomorrow, we’ll examine this through Absurdist plays with political resonance that seems particularly timely. One is written by a playwright/president. The other involves rhinos. Walk-on roles include Orson Welles, Sir Lawrence Olivier—and possibly you and me. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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