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The Theatre of the Absurd, the Grotesque and Politics

A Study of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard


Jadwiga Uchman

The monograph deals with chosen aspects of modern drama based on the output of three playwrights. It discusses the works of Beckett, Pinter and Stoppard in reference to their employment of the grotesque and the theatre of the absurd. Elements of the grotesque appear in political dramas of all three playwrights. While Beckett does not shy away from absurdity in his plays, some of the early dramas of Pinter and Stoppard present a general existential condition of man, even though their strictly political plays are basically realistic in respect to form, yet satirical in their content. Most of the political plays discussed portray the absurdity of totalitarian countries, stemming from the tragicomic discrepancy between what the authorities are saying they are doing and their actual actions.

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Numerous critics have tried to classify the output of Tom Stoppard, to point out its affinities with concrete groups of playwrights or dramatic trends. So, for instance, both Taylor (1979) and Wiszniowska (1985) analyse his output in their books devoted to the Second Wave. The term itself, coined by the former, does not pertain to the quality of the plays discussed, but results from a chronological approach, and, as the latter critic argues “the phenomenon of the Second Wave reveals a confusing variety of forces and influences” (Wiszniowska 1985, 10). While discussing Stoppard’s output these two critics stress its different aspects. Wiszniowska notes the playwright’s affinities with the theatre of the absurd, especially with N. F. Simpson and Harold Pinter while Taylor does not refer to the absurd. Hůrková makes the relevance of the genre quite clear when she compares the dramas of Stoppard and Havel (2000). A number of other critics discuss especially his first famous play in reference to the theatre of the absurd.119 The playwright himself has spoken about this matter, arguing: “I don’t think of myself as the author of absurd plays” (Gussow 1995, 12). He also conceded: “I must say that I didn’t know what the word ‘existential’ meant until it was applied to Rosencrantz. And even now existentialism is not a philosophy I find either attractive or plausible” (Hudson 1974, 9).

It is true that Stoppard’s oeuvre (with the exception of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) cannot be classified as presenting...

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