The Theatre of the Absurd, the Grotesque and Politics

A Study of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard

by Jadwiga Uchman (Author)
Monographs 234 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • 1. The Theatre of the absurd
  • 2. The grotesque
  • 1. The vision of human existence
  • 2. The theatre of the absurd and the grotesque
  • 3. Political involvement
  • 4. Catastrophe
  • 5. What Where
  • 1. Pinteresque dialogue
  • 2. The theatre of the absurd and the grotesque
  • 3. The man, the citizen and the artist
  • 4. The Hothouse
  • 5. The Birthday Party
  • 6. The Dumb Waiter
  • 7. Precisely
  • 8. One for the Road
  • 9. Mountain Language
  • 10. The New World Order
  • 11. Party Time
  • 12. Ashes to Ashes
  • 13. Press Conference
  • 1. The theatre of the absurd and the grotesque
  • 2. The “convergence of different threads”: intertextuality
  • 3. Politics and “the moral matrix”
  • 4. “A perfect marriage”
  • 5. Jumpers
  • 6. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour
  • 6. Professional Foul
  • 8. Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth
  • 9. Squaring the Circle
  • Concluding remarks
  • Index of Names


1. The Theatre of the absurd

The aim of this study is to analyse the political plays of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard in the context of the theatre of the absurd and the grotesque, which seems to be one of the features characterising this literary genre. It was Martin Esslin who coined the phrase, in 1962, when he published his book entitled The Theatre of the Absurd. Since then this critical idiom has been widely used (and abused). Several critics have made attempts to specify what it denotes exactly. In his book Esslin argues:

The Theatre of the Absurd […] can be seen as the reflection of what seems to be the attitude most genuinely representative of our own time.

The hallmark of this attitude is its sense that the certitudes and unshakeable basic assumptions of former age have been swept away. (1974, 4)

By 1942, Albert Camus was calmly putting the question, why, since life had lost all meaning, man should not seek escape in suicide. In one of the great, seminal heart-searchings of our time, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus tried to diagnose the human situation in a world of shattered beliefs:

“A world that can be explained by reasoning, however faulty, is a familiar world. But in a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and light, man feels like a stranger. His is an irremediable exile, because he is deprived of memories of lost homeland, as much as he lacks the hope of a promised land to come. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity.” (1974, 5).1

Furthermore, Esslin quotes Ionesco’s definition of the absurd: “Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose […] Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless”2 (1974, 5). He also argues that “The Theatre of the Absurd has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being – that is, in terms of concrete stage images” (1974, 6). Moreover, he defines the difference between the Theatre of the Absurd and Existentialist theatre, arguing that the latter is “more lyrical, and far less violent and grotesque” (1974, 7). Additionally, they vary in terms of the language which is used. While the ←9 | 10→ language of Existentialist drama is to a great extent, consciously “poetic,” the Theatre of the Absurd

tends toward a radical devaluation of language, toward a poetry that is to emerge from the concrete and objectified images of the stage itself. The element of language still plays an important part in this conception, but what happens on the stage transcends, and often contradicts, the words spoken by the characters. (1974, 7)

In 1968, when the second, enlarged and revised addition of the book was published, it was preceded by a preface in which Esslin specifies the changes introduced, and also includes some insightful remarks concerning the nature of the genre. In the book, among others, he discusses the works of Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Günter Grass, Max Frish, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Jack Gelber, Arthur Kopit and some representatives of the genre from Eastern Europe: Sławomir Mrożek, Tadeusz Różewicz and Vaclav Havel. He also tries to explain the controversies concerning the vagueness of the term:

In fact the term, coined to describe certain features of certain plays in order to bring out certain underlying similarities, has been treated as though it corresponded to an organised movement, like a political party or hockey team, which made its members carry badges and banners. […]. The artists of an epoch have certain traits in common, but they are not necessarily conscious of them. […] A term like Theatre of the Absurd is a working hypothesis, a device to make certain fundamental traits which seem to be present in the works of a number of dramatists accessible to discussion by tracing the features they have in common. (1974, X)

In 1970, in an article “The Theatre of the Absurd Reconsidered,” Esslin further explains the misunderstandings concerning the use of this critical idiom, arguing that for some people, including some drama critics, it assumed a specific and concrete reality (219). In the article he contends that “what these writers express is not an ideological position but rather their bewilderment at the absence of a coherent and generally accepted integrating principle, ideology, ethical system, call it what you will, in our world” (220). He goes on to concede:

What is far more important to the Theatre of the Absurd is the form in which this form of bewilderment and mystery expresses itself: the devaluation or even downright dissolution of language, the disintegration of plot, characterisation, and final solution which had hitherto been the hallmark of drama, and the substitution of new elements of form – concrete stage imagery, repetition or intensification, a whole new stage language. (220)

Pondering what the innovations of the absurdists are, he comes to the conclusion that these are “ new modes of vocabulary and syntax.” “Poetry in the theatre […] is not merely a matter of language, but the theatre itself is a form of ←10 | 11→ poetry: concretized metaphor, complex imagery on multiple planes of meaning and association, from the most earthily concrete to the most esoterically abstract” (1974, 221–222). Trying to illustrate what he means, Esslin provides different readings of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: for the convicts of San Quentin it was the awaited release from prison, and during the production of the play in Algeria, which was still a French possession, it referred to the distribution of land to peasants. Whereas for a Polish delegate at a meeting of theatre personalities, in Vienna in March 1965, from east and west of the Iron Curtain, it was “a parable of the ever promised but never forthcoming national independence of Poland from the Russians” (1974, 222).3

Esslin also claims that “By placing the main burden of the action on the physical happenings on the stage, the absurdists have increased the poetical potential of language in the theatre; its rhythm, sound and tonal quality again become important autonomous elements.” Furthermore, arguing that Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a play in which nothing happens and the language does not serve the function of storytelling, he adds that the language in the play makes it “a masterpiece as an infinitely rich symphony of poetic sound and subtly varied symphonic patterns” (1974, 224–225). Summing up his discussion of the theatre of the absurd, he concludes “Hence its formal pattern must embody the very essence of the action. And so, in the theatre of the absurd, form and content not only match, but they are also inseparable from each other” (1974, 226).

As mentioned earlier, many critics in numerous articles and books have tried to redefine the term “the theatre of the absurd” by providing a more specific and concrete definition. It is worthwhile devoting some time to two books written by Michael Y. Bennett. The first of these, Reassessing the Theatre of the Absurd. Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet and Pinter was published in 2011 and contains a thorough, yet not altogether convincing discussion of Esslin’s assumptions. This critic starts by rejecting some ideas voiced by Esslin. Having quoted recent interpretations of Albert Camus’ essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Bennett contends that “Esslin’s view on Camus was well justified, as many of his contemporary scholars likewise pigeonholed Camus as an existentialist. However, recent scholarship has taken a second look at Camus and has come to the conclusion that he actually revolted against nihilistic existentialism” (2001, 13). However, it may be conceded that, while Esslin argues that man finds himself in a hopeless situation because of the discrepancy between his desires and the absurd quality of his ←11 | 12→ existence, he never states that man in such a situation should remain passive and simply accept his fate. Similarly, Bennnet suggests the “thematic label ‘Theatre of the Absurd,’ should be jettisoned and the term ‘parabolic drama,’ which suggests merely a structural reading should be offered as an alternative” (2001, 3). As noted earlier, while discussing the views of Esslin about the theatre of the absurd, Bennett did not only present a thematic reading of the genre, but, on the contrary, postulated an integration between the content and the form. Bennett concludes by presenting his own way of interpreting the plays of the absurd as “ethical parables” whilst also providing his own definition of “parabolic drama”:

1). Parabolic drama is created through the metaphor. […] 2) Parabolic drama is also performative in that it has an agenda of transformation, to play off Bert O. States’ idea.4 […] 3) Gestural and linguistic metonymic paradoxes are used frequently. […] 4) There is a move toward disorder5 that results in a hanging dilemma that needs to be interpreted by an audience. […] 5) Working off Paul Ricoeur’s description that a parable orients, disorients, and reorients the audience.6 […] 6) The world of parabolic drama is heterotopic. We see a clash of viewpoints […] 7) Parabolic drama is not contradictory, but contemplates contradictions. (2001, 22–23)

There seems to be a lot of truth in this definition, the main doubts being connected, however, with the very use of the word “parable” which is usually defined as an allegory, and thus assumes the one to one, generally accepted reading of the metaphors and symbols. This, however, is not a feature of the theatre of the absurd, as many varied, but justifiable interpretations of the dramas are possible and acceptable. one feature of drama being its open form, leaving space for the receivers to look for their own individual, subjective readings.

In his second book, The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre and Literature of the Absurd, published in 2015, Bennett supplies yet another definition of the genre, enumerating the four “common threads” found in absurd literature, generally written between the 1950s and 1970s:

(1) experimentation with language (generally working against ‘realistic’ language); (2) tragicomedy is the genre; (3) frequently, though not always, experimentation with non-Aristotelian plot lines (where, often, the plots take the structure of a parable); and maybe mostly outwardly noticeable (4) the literary works are set in “strange” (i.e. Kafkaesque, surreal and ridiculous) situations. (2015, 19)

←12 | 13→

It is worth noting that while Bennett argued in his first book that the use of parable is the main characteristic feature of the theatre of the absurd, four years later he mentions that the parabolic structure of the plot is not an essential element of the genre. So, even though it is often used, it is not necessarily a distinguishing characteristic of the genre. On the whole, his second definition of the theatre of the absurd seems more adequate, since it is more general and less specific than the first. This might arise because a characteristic feature of modern times is that many critical terms, in the past so useful for distinguishing various kinds, genres and literary epochs, nowadays seem inadequate for describing efficiently the great variety of modern art, literature included.

Many critics discussing the theatre of the absurd have stressed its connections with existential philosophy. For instance, Felicia Londré notices

The forerunners of theater of the absurd can be readily identified: Alfred Jarry and his Père Ubu, the surrealists and the existentialists. Existential philosophy, first formulated by the nineteenth century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, takes as its fundamental concern the nature of existence, as opposed to the search for transcendental essences. (1999, 438)

Similarly, Anna Krajewska traces the sources of this genre through different kinds of existential philosophy and, in this context, mentions Kierkegaard, Camus and Sartre (2008, 31–32). It can be reasonably argued that one of the thematic sources for the inspiration of the theatre of the absurd is existential philosophy.7 However, at the same time, it must be remembered that, as Kaufman contends, “Existentialism is not a philosophy but a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy” (1975, 11). The label “existentialism,” like that of the “theatre of the absurd,” is thus, an often-used phrase, despite being imprecise and vague.

Yet another definition of the theatre of the absurd is provided by Patrice Pavis, who mentions its varieties, and enumerates three “strategies”:

the nihilistic absurd, in which it is practically impossible to draw any conclusions about the world view or philosophical implications of the text or the acting (Ionesco, Hildesheimer)


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (June)
Beckett Pinter Stoppard the theatre of absurd political dramas the grotesque
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 234 pp.

Biographical notes

Jadwiga Uchman (Author)

Jadwiga Uchman is professor emeritus at the Institute of English Studies, University of Łódź. She specialized mainly in modern drama, not only in the theatre of the absurd and poetic drama but also film and theatre adaptations of plays. She published over 60 articles and three books.


Title: The Theatre of the Absurd, the Grotesque and Politics