The world after the Second World War was a deeply disillusioned one, full of skepticism, and tired of widespread inhumanity and violence. Most people found themselves shocked at the degree of pillage and destruction for what seemed like a fleeting cause. Above all, the dark impulses and apathy within most of the people was brought to the forefront. Born within these dark times was one of the most legendary genres of theater that changed the dynamics of the stage, the actor and the audience completely: absurdism.
The idea behind absurdism needs some exposition and context for it to make sense. The picture of the world after the war was a particularly bleak one, and skepticism was a prevalent attitude. This skepticism extended to all avenues that, in one way or the other, channeled into the war– whether it was in political diplomacy and warfare, or scientific breakthroughs used for catastrophic ends. With the evident futility of humannkind’s own innovations, development, and society, a branch of philosophers steered its thought to ponder upon a world without any meaning of human existence. The entire premise of logic and rationality, society, and polity — one of the central focuses of classical and Renaissance thought — was replaced by the philosophical theory of existentialism.
Absurdism, as a dramatic genre, draws its thematic and structural links from existentialism. The term ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ was first brought into usage by a critic called Martin Esslin in an essay of the same title in 1962. As it turned out, dramatists found a unique way to expose people’s frailties. They completely flouted all the ‘rules’ generally followed in drama: setting, time, place. Absurdist drama brilliantly portrayed man’s response to a world that does not make any sense, that is beyond any understanding. Themes were unclear, plots cyclical and seemingly illogical. They showcased a hypothetical world without any meaning of human existence, absent of logic and rationality, and therefore filled with disjointed and disruptive communication. Dialogue sequences within absurdist plays were often conversations without any goal or purpose, seemingly unconnected.
Characters on stage were very limited, generally restricted to no more than five. The minimalist number, significant emphasis on a repetitive or iconic setting, and symbolic use of props, helped to reflect a true world that is cut off from the general dynamics of a society, and even the man-made concepts of space and time. Clearly, this approach had heavy symbolic meaning attached to it. It could have been seen as the highest form of satire, where the very basis of human existence was mocked and questioned, exposed for what it truly is: nonsensical and artificial.
Absurdism was largely popularized by Samuel Beckett through Waiting For Godot, an originally French drama revolving around a perpetual wait for someone who never comes. Estragon and Vladimir became two of the most known characters in the history of absurd theatre, and Lucky’s gibberish monologue has been celebrated for years hence. Several dramatists followed suit, mostly European, including Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter and Jean Genet. The advent of absurdism among other regions of the world was considerably sparse, but one of the places it did occur was, interestingly, in Bengal. The outflow of literature in the Bengal Presidency during the colonial times saw a hardly noticeable, but certainly present, strand of absurdist drama, led by playwrights Badal Sarkar and Malay Roy Chowdhury.
There was an essential purpose behind absurdist drama that is today rarely recognized and mostly misunderstood. It is not simply a presentation of ‘odd’ things or unreal situations. It is a dramatization of what is the reality about human society- it is artificial- created by us. By tweaking the rules of logic and rationality within the ambit of the play, absurdist playwrights sought to remind us all that the rules of logic and rationality in our ‘real’ world is also man-made and not clad in iron. The very fact that absurdist drama chose to adopt the phrase ‘absurd’ shows that its classification satirized the society’s tendency to feign to be original and real when really since its very inception it has been created for our own convenience, that, in most cases, becomes an inconvenience.
History has always left its mark on philosophy and literature. Absurdism, as a genre of theatre, and eventually literature, became a one of a kind iconic representation of the deeply disturbed and disenchanted mind that found itself unable to understand the world: incomprehensible, undecipherable, and absurd.
– Contributed by Tinka Dubey
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