Beckett and the Theatre of the Absurd

One thing to consider about an artist in exile is not just what the writer brings to a new environment, it is how the new country changes the artist. Critical acclaim for Beckett did not come until he gave up the traditional writing styles of Britain and Ireland and embraced the ideological framework of existentialism. It was in Paris that he first became acquainted with the existentialist philosophers and one of his early works was published in Jean-Paul Sarte’s magazine Les Temps Modernes. Although he always resisted having his work classified as existentialist he has been inexplicably tied to the movement when he was labeled a member of the Theatre of the Absurd by the critic Martin Esslin. The theory of absurdism, closely related to existentialism and nihilism, developed in the destructive aftermath of World War II. While the broader theory was based on the works of the philosopher Kierkegaard and the writer Camus, it best known through the plays of the Theatre of the Absurd. Besides Samuel Beckett, other writers prominent in the Theatre were Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee and Eugene Ionesco. The works of absurdism are characterized by a tragicomic storyline, word play, nontraditional narratives and broad comedy. The absurd in the title is different from the modern colloquial usage and instead means that humanities quest to find meaning is pointless life is a collection of meaningless events. Lee Jacobus from the University of Conneticut writes in Samuel Beckett and the Birth of Modern Drama about existentialism and by extension absurdism:

The postwar French philosophy of existentialism insisted that it was up to the individual to fashion his or her own meaning out of a world of meaningless events. Considering how much unreasonable horror there had been in the world up to then, it was not a great stretch to suggest that life in the middle of the twentieth century was in part absurd, irrational, accidental, and not endowed with meaning.

A more humorous interpretation can be found in this cartoon history of the Theatre of the Absurd by an acting troupe:

The existentialist meaninglessness of life is especially apparent in the abstract setting of Beckett's plays, stranding the characters in a world with no context, turing them into exiles both physically and spiritually. The plays are generally presented without context, reinforcing the detached nature of humanity and with only the barest of sets. The sparse stage set up of Waiting for Godot, for which Beckett provides the direction of A country road. A tree. Evening creating a suitably meaningless setting for a play about repetition and endless waiting.

In Endgame all of the action takes place in a single room filled with a sparse set of a chair, two trash cans and two windows. While Clov occasionally looks outside into the gray, all he reports is " zero," suggesting that this room really is all that is left. It has been suggested by some that the original stage direction,

Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn. Front right, a door. Hanging near door, its face to wall, a picture. Front left, touching each other, covered with an old sheet, two ashbins. Center, in an armchair on castors, covered with an old sheet, Hamm.

creates an image of a skull, symbolizing the death that seems to exist outside the windows as well as the characters own unreachable desire to end their lives.

This could be considered lavish however to the unnerving anti-set from his later play Not I, a lone beam of light focused on an actresses mouth, with all other light, including light from the theaters exit signs, extinguished. The extreme lack of context sends the audience adrift in a sea of darkness, unable to connect with the traditional signifiers of the theatre: the stage, the movement of actors and even the feeling of the other audience members around them. When these reliable aspects of a play are taken away so to is the audiences ability to live a life without examination. We are all exiles, in one form or another but that does not mean we should despair. Beckett's plays have always been tinged with dark humor, providing a small relief from such discouraging works. I find that this quote from Nell in Endgame provides a suitable description of the humor that is always present amidst the despair,

Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. ... Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it's always the same thing. Yes, it's like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don't laugh any more.