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Theater of the Absurd: Definition & Characteristics

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  • 0:01 Theater of the Absurd
  • 1:32 Characteristics
  • 2:40 Humor
  • 3:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Francesca Marinaro

Francesca M. Marinaro has a PhD in English from the University of Florida and has been teaching English composition and Literature since 2007.

This lesson provides a brief overview of Theater of the Absurd. We will learn about the history of the movement, key writers and works, and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Theater of the Absurd: Definition and Background

Theater of the Absurd refers to a literary movement in drama popular throughout European countries from the 1940s to approximately 1989. Absurdist playwrights adhered to the theories of French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus, in particular his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, published in 1942. In this essay, Camus introduced his Philosophy of the Absurd, in which he argues that man's quest for meaning and truth is a futile endeavor; he compares man's struggle to understand the world and the meaning of life to Sisyphus, a famous figure in Greek Mythology condemned to an existence of rolling a heavy stone up a mountain only to watch it roll to the bottom.

Critics believe that Theater of the Absurd arose as a movement from the doubts and fears surrounding World War II and what many people saw as the degeneration of traditional moral and political values. The movement flourished in France, Germany, and England, as well as in Scandinavian countries. Several of the founding works of the movement include Jean Genet's The Maids (1947), Eugene Ionesco's The Bald Soprano (1950), Arthur Adamov's Ping-Pong (1955), and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1953). Beckett's death in 1989 is said to mark the close of the movement's popularity.

Characteristics of the Theater of the Absurd

Plays categorized in this movement typically represent human existence as nonsensical and often chaotic. Absurdist works rarely follow a clear plot, and what action occurs serves only to heighten the sense that characters (and human beings in general) are mere victims of unknown, arbitrary forces beyond their control. Dialogue is often redundant, setting and passage of time within the play unclear, and characters express frustration with deep, philosophical questions, such as the meaning of life and death and the existence of God.

In Beckett's Waiting for Godot, for instance, the entire play consists of two characters waiting indefinitely for a so-called individual (Godot) to arrive, and their lack of information about who Godot is and when he will arrive supposedly comments upon human uncertainty about whether or not God exists.

In Tom Stoppard's 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (a well-known Absurdist revision of William Shakespeare's Hamlet), the constant coin-tossing game between the two friends represents the idea that all things in life are a matter of chance.

Humor and Theater of the Absurd

Absurdist plays typically feature characters and situations in which individuals are the helpless victims of unexplained forces in a godless universe. The redundant dialogue and lack of a clear plot often explore man's struggle to find truth and meaning in life through existential humor - dark, bitter humor about death, disease, and a hopeless existence.

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