The Theatre of Absurd | History | Existentialism vs. Theatre of Absurd | Themes and Characteristics |

The Theatre of Absurd is a specific type of drama penned mainly by European playwrights between the 1940s to 1960s. The primary reason for the origin of the Theatre of Absurd perhaps located in the eruption of World War II.

The Second World War created even more demolition of life and land than had the First World War. The killings and destruction that took place in the Second World War caused feelings of loneliness and alienation in the minds of the people. There was an inescapable sense of feeling of losing one’s grasp or hold on the world. People had lost faith in art, science, religion, and politics that had once controlled and organized humanity. Theatre of Absurd originated from such a situation. 

Introduction of the theatre of absurd

Hungarian-born British critic, Martin Esslin invented the term ‘Theatre of Absurd’ in his most famous critical essay “The Theatre of Absurd” which was published in 1960. In this essay, Esslin primarily focused on playwrights like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Arthur Adamov. Esslin points out that their plays have one common identifying characteristic – the “absurd” a word that Esslin elucidates with an excerpt from Ionesco: “absurd is that which has no purpose, or goal or objective.”

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Absurd plays capture the form of man’s response to a universe evidently without meaning, or man as a non-living thing governed and dominated by invisible external powers. Basically, all absurd plays describe man’s existence as irrational, senseless, and meaningless. This belief was a response to people’s loss of faith in science, art, religion, and politics after the destruction and killings of the First and Second World Wars. 

Influence of Existential philosophy in the theatre of absurd

The Theatre of Absurd was massively influenced by existentialism. It coordinates most effectively with the idea in Camus’ essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”. In this essay, Camus employs the mythological reference of Sisyphus, who was doomed to move a boulder up a mountain, only to have that boulder come down. Sisyphus repeats this action forever. Camus ends the essay with a remark that: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”. (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.)

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According to Existential philosophy, we live in a meaningless world and if anyone wants to give meaning to his or her life then he or she can give it himself or herself; no society, political system, or religion can give meaning or control our lives. On the contrary, theatre of the absurd differs from existentialism. The absurd playwrights did not fix the issue of man’s illogical, meaningless, and absurd existence. Absurd dramatist does not provide any solution to problems, according to them, there is no answer to this meaningless and purposeless existence. 

Repeated themes in the theatre of absurd:

The themes that are repeated commonly throughout absurd plays are a purposeless world and the separation or seclusion of the individual. 

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  • A purposeless and meaningless world: 

The depreciation of religious belief in the 20th century was somewhat accountable for the spreading idea that life had no perceptible meaning and purpose. In his play, “The Chairs”, Ionesco emphasizes this purposelessness and meaninglessness. During the entire play, two main characters Old Man and Old Woman collect chairs for the unseen guests who are all turning up to discover the meaning or purpose of life as proclaimed by an orator. But the main characters of the play Old Man and Old Woman kill themselves before he utters and after that spectators find that the orator is a deaf-mute. This kind of purposelessness and meaninglessness is the key to the theatre of absurd. 

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  • The separation or seclusion of the Individual: 

Absurd dramatists foreground the separation or seclusion of the individual or man’s potential to associate with others. Waiting for Godot, a popular drama from the absurdist movement accurately presents this theme. The central characters of the play, Vladimir and Estragon, spend their entire time in an outdoor space away from society. Although they live together, concurrently they are separated from one another. One evidence of this is that they are not for a moment able to sufficiently interact; their exchange or discussions goes in circles. 

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Unreliability of language: 

The absurd playwrights observed that formal language is not sufficient to communicate. That is why the action of the characters on stage frequently differs from their utterance or dialogue. For instance, act one and act two of “Waiting for Godot end with the words “Yes, let’s go” but both Vladimir and Estragon do not move. By this, the absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett wanted to show a discontinuity or disruption between dialogue and action, meaning and reality. Furthermore, the absurd dramatists reveal how inconstant and undependable language is; one can freely utter something and act the opposite. 

Lack of plot in the theatre of absurd:

Lack of plot is an important aspect of absurd dramas. Absurd plays do have a proper plot nor a beginning or a proper end. There is normally a retelling and reiteration of both action and language. For instance, in Waiting for Godot‘ Vladimir and Estragon all the time in motion; they over and over again dig through their pockets and peep into their headpiece. These actions are repeated so many times that the spectators feel that they are seeing the same situation again and again. These actions could be defined as stable actions as these actions add nothing to the progress and development of the play. Most of the time absurd plays ended where they started. The composition of absurd plays is commonly rounded, with the ending point similar to the beginning point. Rational conversation leads to unreasonable and senseless speech and to the eventual ending – silence. 


In the end, we can say that the absurd playwrights attempted to reunite man with the contemporary world. The absurd playwrights were the earliest to communicate this concept of acceptance in defiance of absurdity. Thereby, the absurd dramatist confronted the predispositions of what does and what does not comprise theatre. Actually, they reexamine the act of artistic expression and established a space in which succeeding movements could thrive. 

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