TheatreInfluences on Theatre of the Absurd Big feet, stampedingrhinoceroses, and barren sets are typical of the theatre of the absurd. Thedramatic content, symbolism, and spectacles are an amazing thing to see and animpossibility to comprehend. The philosophy of the absurd and the dawn ofmankind influenced these plays in the twentieth century. The main proponents andworks of the theater of the absurd and philosophy were influenced by the chaoticactions of the early and mid-twentieth century. These chaotic actions led themto search for something in literature and drama never seen before. A briefsurvey of the main proponents and works of the absurd philosophy and theater canlead one to an understanding of this epoch of absurdity. The early tomid-twentieth century has been marked by chaos. The four main events or notionsthat inspired the absurd writers of this time are World War I, World War II,liberalism, and epidemics. The two world wars had a devastating influence onEurope’s landscape and people. The two world wars knocked down everyone’sfundamental belief about society. The breakdown of values led to Freud’sdevelopment of psychoanalysis. Freud, basically, liberalized society with hisnew perceptions and thoughts on the human mind. He introduced a liberal idealthat brought homosexuality out into the open in Europe. Slowly, people wentpublic about their homosexuality; society also learned to adapt and accept suchliberal ideas as the new standard norm for a post-war Europe. Another problemthat plagued Europe was the Castro 2 tremendous amount of diseases and epidemicsthat could not be cured or treated until the discovery, development, andproduction of penicillin and anti-biotics. One disease that flourished wastuberculosis. This deadly disease spread quickly to many by air. All theseevents and notions of the early to mid-twentieth century left a scare in thehearts and minds of men about everything. The idea of the absurd grew out of anAlgerian born French writer, Albert Camus. His novels and writings expressed aphilosophy for man in the twentieth century. Due to the wars, factions,assassinations, and political mess, his ideas expressed the lives of many in theearly twentieth century. His life was plagued with death and suffering. He couldrelate to every man in Europe and North Africa. His great work, the Myth ofSisyphus, proposed the philosophy of the absurd he was trying to build up in TheStranger and The Plague. Basically, Camus states that since the gods punishedSisyphus with eternal work, Sisyphus could only be happy in knowing he existedand this displayed the absurdity of modern man and his lifetime of labor. AlbertCamus was influenced by his own absurd life. His father died during hischildhood in the Great War. He grew up with an ill grandmother and illiteratemother. He became ill with the spreading tuberculosis of the early twentiethcentury. Later, he joined the French resistance in World War II. In France, hebecame the editor for Combat, a newsletter for the resistance. Through his job,he was able to make contacts with the leading European writers of his time. Thisproved invaluable to him, because with the help of these authors he gained thefame that won him the Nobel Prize in literature. Many critics believe that hisidea of the absurd grew out of seeing unspeakable acts during the war. InCamus’s Myth of Sisyphus, he actually states that his theory on the absurd is areaction to the disillusionment in Europe after the two world wars: Castro 3 TheMyth of Sisyphus attempts to resolve the problem of suicide, as The Rebelattempts to solve that of murder, in both cases without the aid of eternalvalues which, temporarily perhaps, are absent or distorted in contemporaryEurope. (preface) He drew up the philosophy of the absurd to account for thedevastating actions of World War II. He needed an explanation for the misery inhis life and the world, and until then Christianity and the other absolutephilosophies could provide no valid explanation. The philosophy of the absurd heinitiated has three main points. First, life is absurd, and it is useless tofind any pattern or regularity within it. Second, man must accept life as theabsurd and enjoy the absurdity with happiness. Third, man cannot fight theabsurd, but simply accept that life will never have meaning. These three pointscombine to form the elements in the works he called “the cycle of theabsurd.” These three points are derived from his belief about the absurdhero. A hero that finds happiness in daily labor, like Sisyphus. In Rhein’sAlbert Camus, he complements the mid-twentieth century’s influence on Camusworks: The Stranger and the Myth of Sisyphus corresponded to the atmosphere thatpermeated Nazi-occupied France at the date of their publication…With the dailythreat to humanity that existed amid the European disaster of the 1940’s, it wasdifficult to believe in eternal values or naïve optimism, and human lifebecame a consciously more precise thing. In this time when no one could justafford to exist passively, Camus’ fictive portrayal and philosophical account ofthe absurd hero seemed to express the uncertainty of the Castro 4 war-consciousEuropeans; and Camus, along with Sartre, became the voice of an anxiety-riddenpeople. (pg. 24) The development of the philosophy of the absurd brought aboutthe theatre of the absurd. The theatre of the absurd has severalcharacteristics. First, the main characteristic that all absurd plays have incommon is the sense that there is no meaning in life. This theme of the”meaningless in life” is fundamental to the philosophy of Albert Camus.

Another characteristic of the theatre of the absurd is the belief that no Godexists. This characteristic is best expressed in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

The title has been interpreted as saying “Waiting for God.” A thirdaspect of absurd theatre is the conjunction of unrealistic characters andfantastic situations. The leading writers of this branch of drama were EugeneIonesco, Samuel Beckett, and Jean Genet. Their special attributes andcharacteristics were developed by the same conditions that gave rise to Camus.

The father of the theatre of the absurd is Eugene Ionesco. His whimsical use oflanguage to express the misunderstanding and communication difficulties betweenindividuals has sprung him as father of the theatre of the absurd. He grew up inRomania and then moved to France. He taught French and later traveled back toRomania. His works include the Great Soprano, Rhinoceros, and The Lesson. Theinfluence for his works mainly came from the two world wars. During hischildhood, he grew up in the area that started the Great War. His father was aman that switched sides easily; he would always manage to gain favor from anypolitical power that was in power. He would always join the party andadministration in power, whether bad or good. The corrupt nature of Ionesco’sfather changed him. He rebelled against his Castro 5 father and his beliefs.

Another aspect of his father that changed him was his secret divorce with hismother and his abuse of power to gain custody of Eugene and his sister. Theother main influence for one of Ionesco’s great works is man’s inability to bean individual. In 1938, Eugene traveled back to Romania; he saw his countrymenchange because of the war; they willed to be in the majority, whether bad orgood. The corruption in his own nation changed him and influenced him to writehis anti-Nazi play, Rhinoceros. This play centers on an average man who istempted and tries to resist change, but eventually loses. Ionesco manipulateslanguage to give the audience the sensation of a man in a foreign country. Thecreative use of language creates a sense of misunderstanding, which was one ofthe problems in Europe during the early to mid-twentieth century. Ionesco sawhow the wars were propagated by simple miscommunication between nations. Theplay propagates the sense of loneliness and fascism symbolized by therhinoceros, as being the Nazi influence, and Berenger, the main character, as anordinary man in an extraordinary situation. The chaos of the early tomid-twentieth century influenced Ionesco’s life and work’s greatly. He struggledwith the concept of the absurd and soon became the father of the theatre of theabsurd. He led men such as Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet to a greaterunderstanding of the absurd. Samuel Beckett was one of the greatest names of thetheater of the absurd. He spent a lifetime of hardship and work to overcome thechallenges of his low self-esteem and confidence. He grew up in Dublin, Ireland,in a prominent family. After college, he was employed as James Joyce’ssecretary. Due to Joyce’s bad eyesight, Beckett worked by his side, day andnight. His admiration of Joyce and trouble seeking his own Castro 6 publicationbrought about a long depression. Eventually, he returned to Paris and won famewith his most popular work, Waiting for Godot. His influence comes from twoaspects. His first influence is the death of his first cousin, Peggy. Onvacation, in Germany, he met Peggy and fell in love with her. Their familiesdisapproved their joining and eventually Beckett left. Two years later, Peggydied of tuberculosis. Her influence is clearly seen in all his works as theIrish Studies document points out: Peggy was Samuel’s first love and she isgenerally believed to be the original for the green-eyed heroines who appear inBeckett’s writings. (pg. 2) He wrote her in his plays as an ideal character, butseparate from time and space. His second influence was World War II. DuringWorld War II, he was in Paris. He joined the French resistance, but soon theGerman Gestapo discovered him, so he fled to the countryside in France. It is inthe countryside of France where he wrote Watt while working as a farmer. ForBeckett, World War II was unbelievable. He found death and despair throughoutEurope. In fact, the set for Waiting for Godot looks much like most of Europeduring that time. The set is barren and desolate; the only prop is a skinnytree. This is representative of what the war did Europe. The tanks and planeshad bombed or ravaged Europe and left a scenery of emptiness and with that asense of loneliness and isolation. The depressing scene leaves the stage devoidof all sense of time and place. It represents the universal aspect ofdestruction and war. For Beckett, the war was enough to push him over into hislong depression. Castro 7 The sense of time and timelessness is apparent inBeckett’s works. This influence is seen in Waiting for Godot, the audienceperceives a day has passed, the actors can only guess how many years have passedand are gone. The characters have no place to go and no real time left. In fact,in some of Beckett’s other works he has explicit instructions to finish the playin a certain allotted time. Maybe it was eccentric, or symbolic, epitomizing thesense of timelessness during the war. Every day, battle lines would change anddeath became so common that it corrupted the sense of life. During the war, timewas just a variable; the common goal was victory. This set Europe apart from theUnited States during the war, in the sense that while Americans lived in safety,many Europeans traveled day and night as refugees. After a while, the importanceof time faded and the only objective seen by all in Europe was an end to thewar. The works of Beckett also derive their influence from his life. Naturally,the most memorable moments in his life are tragic such as the death of Peggyfrom tuberculosis and running away from the Gestapo in France. As Gontaskistates: Although in many ways Samuel Beckett is an exemplary twentieth centuryromantic artist (he has all the bohemian credentials) and although his art isbuilt on strongly autobiographical elements and is finally an art of failure,not achievement, much of Beckett’s creative struggle is against those personalelements, and Beckett’s means are, in part, to devalue content in favor of form.

(pgs. 243-244) Another important playwright and novelist during the epoch of theabsurd was a homosexual criminal, Jean Genet. Genet was the outcome of the rapidindustrialization of Europe; his mother was a prostitute and his dad wasunknown. Since childhood, the only life Genet knew was the streets. Eventuallyhe spent time in several penitentiaries for Castro 8 boys. During this time heimmersed himself in the widespread homosexual community active in the newlyreformed prisons. Genet set his success from within prison. In prison, serving alife sentence, he attempted to write a novel, only for it to be destroyed. Hethen rewrote the whole novel, from scratch, Our Lady of the Flowers. Sartre andCocteau lobbied for his release and won. Later, he setup his stage success withhis theatrical masterpieces. His pieces such as The Maids, The Balcony, and TheScreens made him another famous playwright in the theatre of the absurd. Hisservice in the French Foreign Legion brought about his first homosexualrelationship within a context of love. He courted and fell in love with a younghair stylist in Syria while on duty. The rare acceptance of such liberal viewsaccepted by the local townspeople, made him feel comfortable and happy. Later inhis life this acceptance he freely received by the Syrians was repaid by hisconstant lobbying for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. One famous playGenet wrote is The Balcony. This play is about a Madame and her service as shecarries out her client’s outrageous fantasies. His play functions as his outletagainst the bourgeois class that participated in homosexuality but neveradmitted it. His anger for such people are great since they where the ones whosolicited him as a male prostitute. They always would accept him for hishomosexuality but when society rejected Genet for such, they immediatelydisappeared from his back. In general, all of Genet’s plays are criticism of theFrench bourgeois as White explains: Castro 9 Moreover, at a time whenmiddle-class gay authors were promoting the metaphor of homosexuality as illnessand mounting pleas for sympathy and compassion, Genet embraced the only othertwo alternatives- homosexuality as crime or sin, a far stronger positiondesigned to frighten his hapless reader. (pg. 4) He saw them with contempt andanger because they sought sympathy for other homosexuals while being cowardsabout their actions. His position and works are unique because he was notinfluenced as much by the war as other absurd dramatists, but instead, he wasinfluenced by the new liberal ideas traveling through Europe about an opensexuality. Just like Sartre, who was associated amongst people known for theirsexual experimentation; Genet experimented, but he always saw himself first as athief, then whatever else. The early to mid-twentieth century heavily influencedthe artists of the theatre of the absurd. Through the wars, epidemics, andliberalization of values, such artist were able to effectively create worksrepresenting the new sentiment of the modern world, confusion. Such is the basicnotion of absurdity in simple language. For in its effectiveness, lies therealization that we still do not know and probably never will know anythingabout life. These artists: Albert Camus, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, JeanGenet, developed art for confusion based on the sole existence of irrationalityduring the first half of the twentieth century.

BibliographyCamus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus & Other Essays. New York: RandomHouse, 1955. Center for Comparative Cultural Studies. Irish Studies. TheAbsurdity of Samuel Beckett. Online. Internet. 15 March 1999. Gontarski, S.E.

“The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett’s Art.” Modern CriticalViews: Samuel Beckett. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. 227-245Rhein, Phillip. Albert Camus. New York: Twayne, 1969. White, Edmund. “Oncea Sodomite, Twice a Philosopher.” The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review 3.1(Winter 1996): 4 pp. Online. Internet. 3 March 1999.

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