Influences on Theatre of the Absurd Big feet, stampeding
rhinoceroses, and barren sets are typical of the theatre of the absurd. The
dramatic content, symbolism, and spectacles are an amazing thing to see and an
impossibility to comprehend. The philosophy of the absurd and the dawn of
mankind influenced these plays in the twentieth century. The main proponents and
works of the theater of the absurd and philosophy were influenced by the chaotic
actions of the early and mid-twentieth century. These chaotic actions led them
to search for something in literature and drama never seen before. A brief
survey of the main proponents and works of the absurd philosophy and theater can
lead one to an understanding of this epoch of absurdity. The early to
mid-twentieth century has been marked by chaos. The four main events or notions
that 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 on
Europe’s landscape and people. The two world wars knocked down everyone’s
fundamental belief about society. The breakdown of values led to Freud’s
development of psychoanalysis. Freud, basically, liberalized society with his
new perceptions and thoughts on the human mind. He introduced a liberal ideal
that brought homosexuality out into the open in Europe. Slowly, people went
public about their homosexuality; society also learned to adapt and accept such
liberal ideas as the new standard norm for a post-war Europe. Another problem
that plagued Europe was the Castro 2 tremendous amount of diseases and epidemics
that could not be cured or treated until the discovery, development, and
production of penicillin and anti-biotics. One disease that flourished was
tuberculosis. This deadly disease spread quickly to many by air. All these
events and notions of the early to mid-twentieth century left a scare in the
hearts and minds of men about everything. The idea of the absurd grew out of an
Algerian born French writer, Albert Camus. His novels and writings expressed a
philosophy for man in the twentieth century. Due to the wars, factions,
assassinations, and political mess, his ideas expressed the lives of many in the
early twentieth century. His life was plagued with death and suffering. He could
relate to every man in Europe and North Africa. His great work, the Myth of
Sisyphus, proposed the philosophy of the absurd he was trying to build up in The
Stranger and The Plague. Basically, Camus states that since the gods punished
Sisyphus with eternal work, Sisyphus could only be happy in knowing he existed
and this displayed the absurdity of modern man and his lifetime of labor. Albert
Camus was influenced by his own absurd life. His father died during his
childhood in the Great War. He grew up with an ill grandmother and illiterate
mother. He became ill with the spreading tuberculosis of the early twentieth
century. Later, he joined the French resistance in World War II. In France, he
became 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. This
proved invaluable to him, because with the help of these authors he gained the
fame that won him the Nobel Prize in literature. Many critics believe that his
idea of the absurd grew out of seeing unspeakable acts during the war. In
Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, he actually states that his theory on the absurd is a
reaction to the disillusionment in Europe after the two world wars: Castro 3 The
Myth of Sisyphus attempts to resolve the problem of suicide, as The Rebel
attempts to solve that of murder, in both cases without the aid of eternal
values which, temporarily perhaps, are absent or distorted in contemporary
Europe. (preface) He drew up the philosophy of the absurd to account for the
devastating actions of World War II. He needed an explanation for the misery in
his life and the world, and until then Christianity and the other absolute
philosophies could provide no valid explanation. The philosophy of the absurd he
initiated has three main points. First, life is absurd, and it is useless to
find any pattern or regularity within it. Second, man must accept life as the
absurd and enjoy the absurdity with happiness. Third, man cannot fight the
absurd, but simply accept that life will never have meaning. These three points
combine to form the elements in the works he called “the cycle of the
absurd.” These three points are derived from his belief about the absurd
hero. A hero that finds happiness in daily labor, like Sisyphus. In Rhein’s
Albert Camus, he complements the mid-twentieth century’s influence on Camus
works: The Stranger and the Myth of Sisyphus corresponded to the atmosphere that
permeated Nazi-occupied France at the date of their publication…With the daily
threat to humanity that existed amid the European disaster of the 1940’s, it was
difficult to believe in eternal values or naïve optimism, and human life
became a consciously more precise thing. In this time when no one could just
afford to exist passively, Camus’ fictive portrayal and philosophical account of
the absurd hero seemed to express the uncertainty of the Castro 4 war-conscious
Europeans; and Camus, along with Sartre, became the voice of an anxiety-ridden
people. (pg. 24) The development of the philosophy of the absurd brought about
the theatre of the absurd. The theatre of the absurd has several
characteristics. First, the main characteristic that all absurd plays have in
common 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 God
exists. This characteristic is best expressed in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

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The title has been interpreted as saying “Waiting for God.” A third
aspect of absurd theatre is the conjunction of unrealistic characters and
fantastic situations. The leading writers of this branch of drama were Eugene
Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, and Jean Genet. Their special attributes and
characteristics 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 of
language to express the misunderstanding and communication difficulties between
individuals has sprung him as father of the theatre of the absurd. He grew up in
Romania and then moved to France. He taught French and later traveled back to
Romania. His works include the Great Soprano, Rhinoceros, and The Lesson. The
influence for his works mainly came from the two world wars. During his
childhood, he grew up in the area that started the Great War. His father was a
man that switched sides easily; he would always manage to gain favor from any
political power that was in power. He would always join the party and
administration in power, whether bad or good. The corrupt nature of Ionesco’s
father 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 his
mother and his abuse of power to gain custody of Eugene and his sister. The
other main influence for one of Ionesco’s great works is man’s inability to be
an individual. In 1938, Eugene traveled back to Romania; he saw his countrymen
change because of the war; they willed to be in the majority, whether bad or
good. The corruption in his own nation changed him and influenced him to write
his anti-Nazi play, Rhinoceros. This play centers on an average man who is
tempted and tries to resist change, but eventually loses. Ionesco manipulates
language to give the audience the sensation of a man in a foreign country. The
creative use of language creates a sense of misunderstanding, which was one of
the problems in Europe during the early to mid-twentieth century. Ionesco saw
how the wars were propagated by simple miscommunication between nations. The
play propagates the sense of loneliness and fascism symbolized by the
rhinoceros, as being the Nazi influence, and Berenger, the main character, as an
ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. The chaos of the early to
mid-twentieth century influenced Ionesco’s life and work’s greatly. He struggled
with the concept of the absurd and soon became the father of the theatre of the
absurd. He led men such as Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet to a greater
understanding of the absurd. Samuel Beckett was one of the greatest names of the
theater of the absurd. He spent a lifetime of hardship and work to overcome the
challenges 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’s
secretary. Due to Joyce’s bad eyesight, Beckett worked by his side, day and
night. His admiration of Joyce and trouble seeking his own Castro 6 publication
brought about a long depression. Eventually, he returned to Paris and won fame
with his most popular work, Waiting for Godot. His influence comes from two
aspects. His first influence is the death of his first cousin, Peggy. On
vacation, in Germany, he met Peggy and fell in love with her. Their families
disapproved their joining and eventually Beckett left. Two years later, Peggy
died of tuberculosis. Her influence is clearly seen in all his works as the
Irish Studies document points out: Peggy was Samuel’s first love and she is
generally believed to be the original for the green-eyed heroines who appear in
Beckett’s writings. (pg. 2) He wrote her in his plays as an ideal character, but
separate from time and space. His second influence was World War II. During
World War II, he was in Paris. He joined the French resistance, but soon the
German Gestapo discovered him, so he fled to the countryside in France. It is in
the countryside of France where he wrote Watt while working as a farmer. For
Beckett, World War II was unbelievable. He found death and despair throughout
Europe. In fact, the set for Waiting for Godot looks much like most of Europe
during that time. The set is barren and desolate; the only prop is a skinny
tree. This is representative of what the war did Europe. The tanks and planes
had bombed or ravaged Europe and left a scenery of emptiness and with that a
sense of loneliness and isolation. The depressing scene leaves the stage devoid
of all sense of time and place. It represents the universal aspect of
destruction and war. For Beckett, the war was enough to push him over into his
long depression. Castro 7 The sense of time and timelessness is apparent in
Beckett’s works. This influence is seen in Waiting for Godot, the audience
perceives a day has passed, the actors can only guess how many years have passed
and 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 play
in a certain allotted time. Maybe it was eccentric, or symbolic, epitomizing the
sense of timelessness during the war. Every day, battle lines would change and
death became so common that it corrupted the sense of life. During the war, time
was just a variable; the common goal was victory. This set Europe apart from the
United 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 importance
of time faded and the only objective seen by all in Europe was an end to the
war. 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 Peggy
from tuberculosis and running away from the Gestapo in France. As Gontaski
states: Although in many ways Samuel Beckett is an exemplary twentieth century
romantic artist (he has all the bohemian credentials) and although his art is
built on strongly autobiographical elements and is finally an art of failure,
not achievement, much of Beckett’s creative struggle is against those personal
elements, 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 the
absurd was a homosexual criminal, Jean Genet. Genet was the outcome of the rapid
industrialization of Europe; his mother was a prostitute and his dad was
unknown. Since childhood, the only life Genet knew was the streets. Eventually
he spent time in several penitentiaries for Castro 8 boys. During this time he
immersed himself in the widespread homosexual community active in the newly
reformed prisons. Genet set his success from within prison. In prison, serving a
life sentence, he attempted to write a novel, only for it to be destroyed. He
then rewrote the whole novel, from scratch, Our Lady of the Flowers. Sartre and
Cocteau lobbied for his release and won. Later, he setup his stage success with
his theatrical masterpieces. His pieces such as The Maids, The Balcony, and The
Screens made him another famous playwright in the theatre of the absurd. His
service in the French Foreign Legion brought about his first homosexual
relationship within a context of love. He courted and fell in love with a young
hair stylist in Syria while on duty. The rare acceptance of such liberal views
accepted by the local townspeople, made him feel comfortable and happy. Later in
his life this acceptance he freely received by the Syrians was repaid by his
constant lobbying for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. One famous play
Genet wrote is The Balcony. This play is about a Madame and her service as she
carries out her client’s outrageous fantasies. His play functions as his outlet
against the bourgeois class that participated in homosexuality but never
admitted it. His anger for such people are great since they where the ones who
solicited him as a male prostitute. They always would accept him for his
homosexuality but when society rejected Genet for such, they immediately
disappeared from his back. In general, all of Genet’s plays are criticism of the
French bourgeois as White explains: Castro 9 Moreover, at a time when
middle-class gay authors were promoting the metaphor of homosexuality as illness
and mounting pleas for sympathy and compassion, Genet embraced the only other
two alternatives- homosexuality as crime or sin, a far stronger position
designed to frighten his hapless reader. (pg. 4) He saw them with contempt and
anger because they sought sympathy for other homosexuals while being cowards
about their actions. His position and works are unique because he was not
influenced as much by the war as other absurd dramatists, but instead, he was
influenced by the new liberal ideas traveling through Europe about an open
sexuality. Just like Sartre, who was associated amongst people known for their
sexual experimentation; Genet experimented, but he always saw himself first as a
thief, then whatever else. The early to mid-twentieth century heavily influenced
the artists of the theatre of the absurd. Through the wars, epidemics, and
liberalization of values, such artist were able to effectively create works
representing the new sentiment of the modern world, confusion. Such is the basic
notion of absurdity in simple language. For in its effectiveness, lies the
realization that we still do not know and probably never will know anything
about life. These artists: Albert Camus, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean
Genet, developed art for confusion based on the sole existence of irrationality
during the first half of the twentieth century.

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

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