Absurd, Theatre of the
Ubu Roi, The Myth of Sisyphus, Waiting for Godot, The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter
was a term pioneered by the British critic Martin Esslin and used to characterize the work of certain key playwrights in the 1950s and 1960s. Though its roots may be traced back as far as Jarry's Ubu Roi in 1896, and perhaps to Strindberg's expressionist work, its more immediate inspiration was Camus's essay The Myth of Sisyphus, published during the Second World War, in 1942. This disseminated the idea, soon given greater credibility by Hiroshima and the discovery of the scope of the Holocaust, that man was a stranger in an irrational universe, deprived of ‘illusions and light’, bereft of purpose, and hence subject to a metaphysical and moral anguish, or ‘feeling of Absurdity’. The key attempt to give dramatic definition to this state of mind was Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in which two exemplary derelicts wait helplessly for a salvation that seems highly unlikely ever to materialize; but important contributions, usually emphasizing the irrationality of the world and the illogic of human behaviour, and often harshly comic in tone, also came from Ionesco, Adamov, Vian, Arrabal, and other dramatists, as well as Beckett himself in subsequent years. Attempts were made to claim the lightweight N. F. Simpson and the weightier Harold Pinter of The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter for the Theatre of the Absurd; but it was always more a European than a British phenomenon.