Theatre of the Absurd

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  • 0:08 Existentialism
  • 0:39 Historical Context
  • 1:52 Elements of the…
  • 2:41 'Waiting for Godot'
  • 3:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

You've heard the word 'absurd,' but did you know it was a type of theatre? Watch this video to see how the absurdity of World War II helped promote the Theatre of the Absurd.


To understand the absurd in theatre, we have to first understand existentialism. We can compare it to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who spends his eternity pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again. This is the heart of existential thinking - that our very being is a tormented struggle to exist. The existentialists believed that if there was purpose in life, then it was up to each individual to find and fulfill his or her own purpose through free-will choices and actions.

Historical Context

Now, think of the word 'absurd'. When we call something 'absurd', we are just saying that it doesn't make sense, or it's meaningless. The collapse of much of the European economy, the changes of world powers, and the deaths of about 45-60 million people during World War II left the entire world in a state of confusion and depression. The threat of nuclear attack preoccupied thoughts. Human life seemed defenseless and meaningless. This was the catalyst needed to promote the existential view that life was meaningless unless we take charge of our choices and actions to give it some hope.

The Theatre of the Absurd was born from this notion. Instead of reenacting realities, the Theatre of the Absurd wanted to show that the world was unintelligible and meaningless. While its roots took hold in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, it wasn't until after World War II, in Paris during the 1950s and 1960s, that the Theatre of the Absurd began to gain momentum. In 1960, Martin Esslin gave the name to this form of theatre in his work The Theatre of the Absurd.

Elements of the Theatre of the Absurd

So, what makes the Theatre of the Absurd stand out from other forms of drama? To begin, the dialogue in an Absurd play is often full of clichés or is repetitive, resulting in a rather meaningless use of language. Instead of having a linear plot, the story is usually circular, going nowhere, with little to no evidence of real time or place. And even with a little bit of slapstick humor, the characters are quite existential in nature, hoping to find some meaning in their lives. Even though it does seem to be confused and simply gibberish, those who are fans of the Theatre of the Absurd explain that it only reflects man's connection to the universe: 'If we as humans lose the importance of our metaphysical roots, then all of our actions become absurd and pointless.'

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