Afterlife of the Theatre of the Absurd

The Avant-garde, Spectatorship, and Psychoanalysis

by Lara Cox (Author)
©2018 Monographs 222 Pages
Series: Dramaturgies, Volume 37


In 1961, Martin Esslin named a body of plays that lacked plot, character depth, and details of time and space the "Theatre of the Absurd". Esslin explained that this type of theatre, minimalist in the extreme, constituted a response to the existential crisis of Europe, which was in the midst of recovering from World War II. But the fact that this body of theatre lacked details of time and space means that we may break the ties that anchor the Theatre of the Absurd irremediably to the historical context of post-World War II Europe.
How can the Theatre of the Absurd speak meaningfully to us in the twenty-first century? This book explores this question by combining the avant-garde that Martin Esslin named in 1961 in his signature work The Theatre of the Absurd with gender studies, queer theory, and psychoanalysis, and avant-garde studies. The Theatre of the Absurd is capable of subverting post-millennial institutions and ideologies, including the Prison Industrial Complex and the West’s domination of the Islamic world in a post-9/11 era.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Avant-Garde Exhaustion: An Exhausted Theory
  • The Theatre of the Absurd
  • Methodological Toolkit
  • Chapter Outlines
  • Comedy in Unexpected Places: Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano (1950)
  • When the “Tragedy of Language” became Comedy
  • Parodies of Femininity
  • Re-appropriations of Masculinity
  • Parodies of Gender Norms and Post-Gender Alternatives
  • Remembrance Through Rejection: Active Nihilism, Vietnam, and Adamov’s Off Limits (1969)
  • Audience Anger and Psychosis
  • Foreclosure and Alternative Memories
  • Psychotic recuperations of a multi-racial feminism in Beckett’s Not I (1972)
  • Psychosis and Gender Exceptionalism in Not I
  • Billie Whitelaw at the Royal Court (1973)
  • Jessica Tandy at the Lincoln Center (1972)
  • Lisa Dwan on Tour (2005, 2009, 2014)
  • Genet’s The Blacks: Remixed at the Intersection of Gender and Race
  • Unlearning Gendered Racism
  • Making Sense of the Incomprehensible
  • Queering the Carceral and Assaulting America’s Prison Industrial Complex: Arrabal’s And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers (1969)
  • Destruction of the Myth of the Prison as Protector
  • Alternative Queerness
  • Conclusion
  • Past, Present, Future Absurdist Avant-gardes
  • Works Cited
  • Index
  • Series index

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This book is about the social subversions that are lost when a past experimental theatre movement – the Theatre of the Absurd in this case – becomes stamped with the seal of the “avant-garde”. More particularly, it is about the contemporary form of these lost social subversions and the present-day possibilities for resistant viewing of an avant-garde from the past. I take the Theatre of the Absurd, which hails from a period of post-World War II France, to contest the broader idea that past vanguard movements’ capacity to subvert social norms are eroded with time. The Theatre of the Absurd, “an immensely successful avant-garde” (7) as drama critic Tom Bishop describes, is taken as a case study that is reflective of broader trends about vanguard movements.

Before considering the Theatre of the Absurd further, it is useful to consult a definition of the avant-garde. The Oxford English dictionary defines the avant-garde as “new and experimental ideas and methods in art, music, or literature”. When the term “avant-garde” is employed in conversation, it is usually synonymous with the notion of pushing artistic boundaries, whether in fashion, theatre, dance or poetry or elsewhere. This OED definition usefully indicates that to be vanguard is not just to push boundaries; it is also to center on the idea of creative youth – “new and experimental ideas” (my emphasis). Another synonym for avant-garde is “cutting-edge”, the idea of being at the forefront of artistic norms and patterns. The pursuit of the avant-garde is to push the boundaries of what art is presently capable of. Vanguard movements pose this challenge to artistic norms. However, they also tend to become artistic norms in their own right, when public tastes have adapted to them, in what vanguard theorist Paul Mann describes as “a theory-death of the avant-garde” (15). Any single avant-garde movement, in other words, never lasts for long. It becomes the artistic norm and is constantly replaced by new and improved avant-gardes. A quick look at the long succession of some of the “isms” in European art during the twentieth century elucidates this: Expressionism, Dadaism, and Futurism in the early twentieth century, Surrealism (during the interwar years), and Minimalism and Situationism in the post-war years and the latter half ← 11 | 12 → of the century. While no single avant-garde lasts for long, the vanguard pulse of perpetually defying what art is capable of is one that remains locked in the present.

What gets left behind in this formulation is how avant-gardes of the past, once themselves new and present, might still be capable of subversion and pushing boundaries today. By pushing boundaries, I do not mean challenging current artistic parameters. Each avant-garde of the past fits into the history of an art medium and contributes to aesthetic trends today. It would be impossible to claim that past avant-gardes defy present-day aesthetic patterns. Rather, I mean to signal the capacity of past avant-gardes to spread “experimental ideas”, to recall the first half of the OED’s definition of the vanguard, in our contemporary moment. The avant-garde has never just been about experimentation in form; the capacity to shake up social norms has always been soldered to a definition of the avant-garde too. This is implicit in the OED’s reference to “experimental ideas and methods in art, music, or literature” (my emphasis). Indeed, as prominent critic in vanguard studies Mike Sell observes, in Avant-Garde Performance and the Limits of Criticism (2005), social “antagonism” is always coupled with the idea of aesthetic “innovation” (46) in a notion of the avant-garde.

The central idea of this book picks up on this idea of the vanguard as socially antagonistic. It suggests that simply because an avant-garde hailing from the past can no longer be branded experimental in formal method, it does not follow that the avant-garde’s capacity to spread socially subversive ideas has been erased too. As will be examined shortly, too many critics assume that past avant-gardes have lost their ability to challenge social norms. Aesthetic innovation tends to dominate definitions of a vanguard movement to the extent that once an avant-garde is no longer deemed “new”, it is presumed to have lost the ability to antagonize social norms.

Let us take the case study of this book, the theatrical movement of the “Theatre of the Absurd”, to consider this point more closely. The Theatre of the Absurd was composed of a heterogeneous body of plays by Eugène Ionesco, Arthur Adamov, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Fernando Arrabal among others, which were staged in experimental settings in Paris in the wake of World War II. Martin Esslin, the man who coined the label “The Theatre of the Absurd” in his book of the same name published in 1961, asserted that these playwrights’ work attempted to come to terms with the senselessness of the horrifically bloody war ← 12 | 13 → that had finished and left Europe in a state of devastation in the years following 1945. To convey such senselessness, the Theatre of the Absurd reduced plot and character details to a bare minimum. The Theatre of the Absurd diverged from the classic Aristotelian model of theatre, where a complication (the central “knot” or “nœud”) that would drive the plot would be resolved in the ending or dénouement.

For its never-before-seen minimalism, the Theatre of the Absurd was swiftly stamped as “avant-garde”. Yet the Theatre of the Absurd was also the victim of the highly temporary state of newness that dominates definitions of the avant-garde. Less than a decade after the entry of Ionesco’s and Beckett’s plotless dramas, The Bald Soprano and Waiting for Godot (both 1950), into Parisian theatres, the Theatre of the Absurd’s ability to spread disruptive ideas about society and social norms was considered moribund. In 1956, semiologist Roland Barthes prophesied the “slow death” of Absurdism, “because the bourgeoisie will recuperate it altogether, ultimately putting on splendid evenings of Beckett […] and tomorrow Ionesco” (Barthes 69). For Barthes, the avant-garde may at first be “the parasite” of the bourgeoisie, challenging dominant ideas and attitudes in this privileged social class, but it eventually becomes its “property” (69). Once disruptive of the tastes of the middle classes and the wealthy, the Theatre of the Absurd would be put on for the pleasure of this social group.

Barthes frames the Theatre of the Absurd as a once-destabilizing force on social class that had run out of subversive steam just six short years after Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano – two plays where nothing much happens – rocked Parisian theatregoing audiences. Yet simply because a movement has been recuperated or popularized, this does not mean that theatre cannot continue to disrupt social norms from within its site of its social containment. As proponents of the “cultural turn” from the Birmingham School (Hal Foster, Raymond Williams, etc.) recount, popular art can be subversive despite its function in the marketplace as a commodity of the leisure-pursuing public.1 Indeed, our era of advanced capitalism more or less dictates that no artwork can withstand the pressures of commercialization for long. Art almost always has a market value too, which means that we need to look for the social ← 13 | 14 → politics of art elsewhere than in its ability to stand outside of economic exchange.

Past avant-gardes may thus still be subversive of social norms even if they have become eminently marketable. But we cannot expect an Absurdist play’s disruptions to social patterns to look the same today as in the past. Times change and so too do social norms; vanguard subversions of historically contingent norms will mutate too. An adequate critical tool is required to draw out contemporary social politics from past vanguard work.

Psychoanalysis, the school of thought first pioneered by Sigmund Freud at the turn of the twentieth century, is fruitful here. Freud focused on the idea of the unconscious, the psychical underside that was opposed to conscious, rational life. The unconscious may emerge in dreams, fantasies, slips of the tongue, or other arenas such as contemplating art or watching theatre. Post-Freudian philosopher Michel de Certeau, in The Writing of History (1975), argued that psychoanalysis “locates its veritable meaning not in the elucidations with which it replaces former representations, but in the ever-unfinished act of elucidation” (303). Explorations of the unconscious can keep rewriting our understanding of the past, challenging our assumptions of what we thought history or in this case historicized theatre movements were. The concept of psychoanalytic heuristic interminability, “the ever-unfinished act of elucidation”, may renew our apprehension of past avant-garde movements whose meaning was considered settled long ago. I perform psychoanalytic readings of Absurdist plays to seek out new meaning from them. By placing these readings into dialogue with thought about current social, sexual, gendered and racial norms, I determine how the psychoanalytic “ever-unfinished act of elucidation” may reveal unconscious reactions to the Theatre of the Absurd in the present and in turn how these plays may subvert some of the dominant ideologies that define our present era. In so doing, I anticipate some of the politicizing effects that the Theatre of the Absurd produces in spectators today.

With all this in mind, let me state the mission of this book: five plays by five different writers of the Theatre of the Absurd are examined for their potential to spark subversions in the contemporary moment. Psychoanalysis, a tool that permits the exploration of new life in past work via the unconscious, is applied to each play to theorize how contemporary spectators might view it today. These plays have been chosen doubly for the unconscious form that they evoke and their ← 14 | 15 → content. Indeed, each play’s content evinces a temporal plasticity allowing it to adapt to the current moment. In chapter one, Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano is deemed to challenge the contemporary spectator’s ideas about gender and sexuality. In chapter two, it is the notion of “docile patriotism”, contemporary society’s lack of protest about waging war in Islamic countries, that is disturbed in the spectator’s mind when watching Arthur Adamov’s Off Limits. In chapter three, Samuel Beckett’s Not I entreats present-day viewers to reconsider a current norm of “gender exceptionalism”, which deems that it is up to the Western world and mainstream Western feminism to rescue Muslim women from Islamic patriarchy. In chapter four, Jean Genet’s The Blacks subverts gendered racism, the double form of discrimination that women of color face owing to their gender and their race, which absents black women from the social conversation about US state and police violence against black communities (as seen in the Black Lives Matter movement). In chapter five, spectators of Fernando Arrabal’s And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers, are persuaded to review their unquestioning faith in the present American Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), a for-profit system of incarceration that disproportionately targets people of color and the LGBT community.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (June)
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2018. 222 p., 1 b/w ill., 1 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Lara Cox (Author)

Lara Cox teaches English at Université Picardie Jules Verne (France). She gained her Ph.D. in French theatre from the University of Exeter in 2012. She has published on visual culture (theatre, film, stand-up, art) and gender studies.


Title: Afterlife of the Theatre of the Absurd
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222 pages