7 junio, 2024

Theater of the absurd: origin, characteristics, authors, works

He theater of the absurd It is a dramatic style developed in the 1950s and 1960s around Europe. The term was implemented by Martin Esslin, a critic of Hungarian origin who defined this style of theatrical texts in this way in his book entitled theater of the absurd.

This is how a large number of dramaturgical works were grouped that projected the human condition as an aspect devoid of meaning. Part of this concept of the absurd is based on the philosophical work of Albert Camus. The myth of Sisyphus (1942), an essay in which he states that human life is insignificant and its value only resides in what arises from creation.

Esslin uses the word «absurd» using its pure meaning, which expresses that absurd is everything contrary and opposed to reason, which has no meaning. It can thus be seen as something shocking, contradictory, arbitrary, irregular, crazy and even extravagant. Within these characteristics the theater defined as absurd usually develops.

Generally, this type of dramaturgy resorts to the questioning of human existence, establishes a gap, unevenness or an impossibility of concrete and effective communication. It also proposes characters whose existence, context or situation, within the piece, is observed as devoid of purpose or meaning.


Origins of the theater of the absurd

The beginnings of the theater of the absurd occur in the decades after World War II, specifically during the 50s and 60s around the European continent. The content of plays of this style, their themes and characters, are usually described as a product that arises from the moral, religious, political and social collapse caused by the two great world wars of the 20th century.

It was the work of Martin Esslin that gave its name to this theater movement. Among the most recognized playwrights of the time are Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet. His theatrical texts were part of the main references that Esslin used to write his work on the theater of the absurd.

Esslin took it upon himself to establish some movements as the main precursors. Among them he mentions the influence of the comedy of art and also the content of the tragicomedy. In the latter he notes the presence of the comic element within the unhappiness of the tragic.

Among other influences, he also mentions pataphysics, which is a discipline that studies imaginary solutions. He also figures in Dadaism, a movement that opposed the codes and systems of art at the beginning of the 20th century. This is opposed to the eternity of principles, laws, beauty and logic and instead moves in favor of the spontaneous, random, contradictory and imperfect.

Surrealism is also mentioned for its relationship with the fact of transcending the real, the pre-established and seeking the irrational impulse.


The theater of the absurd has characteristics that distinguish it from other forms of art. The dramatic structures within the written work, the construction of the characters, the situations and other resources have certain particular details. Among the most outstanding characteristics of the theater of the absurd are:

At the level of structure, the absurd text is not the same as texts with a traditional logical structure.

-The dramatic actions are usually short and the development of the story, as for example in the work «Waiting for Godot» by Samuel Beckett, can have a circular character in which neither the initial situations nor the characters are modified or transformed towards the end of the story.

The time factor does not follow a strict linear order. It does not imply a chronology of events.

Language can be dislocated, it includes hackneyed phrases, puns, repetitions, and it even tends to break with the continuity at some point.

The ridiculous and the absence of meaning, are resources aimed at showing a comic layer but that in turn allow a glimpse of a underlying message.

The background content within the absurd generally encompasses topics such as politics, religion, morality, and social structures.

The characters in the world of the absurd are located in an incomprehensible universe and lack a completely rational speech.

Among other aspects, the characters can be in a frenzy state and neither the environment nor the situation that surrounds them usually generates a final transformation.

Among other features, the characters are drawn from predefined stereotypes or archetypes. They can also be seen as flat, similar to the construction of characters in the commedia dell’arte.

There is no concrete conflict within the absurd work.

-LThe action does not spin the story from a logical way, however, it allows the progression of the work.

Within some analyzes of the theater of the absurd, there is talk of a type of dramaturgy that tends to reflect a mechanical and automatic existence of man.

Authors and works

– Eugene Ionesco (1909 – 1994)

Franco-Romanian playwright remembered as one of the main representatives of the theater of the absurd. He was widely recognized and in 1970 he became a member of the French Academy. Among his most notable works are The Bald Singer and The lesson.

the bald singer

PPublished in 1950, it was Ionesco’s first creation. It is inspired by an English study guide used by Ionesco during his time learning the language. He relied on the nonsensical topics and situations within the book for the foundation of his work. In this piece he draws the model of the bourgeoisie of the time.

The lesson

First presented in 1951, it tells the story of a young woman who receives private lessons from an elderly teacher. Over the course of the play, the lessons taught become increasingly complex until they reach the point where the student fails to understand.

The girl who is initially enthusiastic becomes weak and despondent, while the shy teacher becomes downright aggressive. Finally, the old man ends the life of the young woman and later receives his student number 41 of the day, with whom the same story will be repeated.

–Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)

He was an Irish-born writer, playwright and critic, widely recognized for his plays. He was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. Among his most outstanding works is the work Waiting for Godoticonic piece within the theater of the absurd and of great worldwide relevance.

Waiting for Godot

Premiered in 1953, a piece divided into two acts in which the story of two characters known as Vladimir and Estragon is narrated, who meet near a tree and remain waiting for a person named Godot. Over the course of the wait, both characters have a variety of discussions and bump into other characters.

First, they meet a man with his slave, who goes to the market to sell the latter. Later they meet a boy who claims to be Godot’s messenger and notifies that he will not come tonight but the next day. Both Vladimir and Estragon decide to leave but neither leaves.

During the second act the encounters are repeated with the difference that neither the man with his slave nor the young man remember having run into Vladimir and Estragon the day before. The boy again gives the message that Godot will not arrive and the two main characters decide to leave, but again they never leave.

–Jean Genet (1910-1986)

Writer and playwright of French origin who, before being a renowned author, was a criminal on the margins of his society. He grew up as an illegitimate child in a peasant family.

He was caught at age 10 in acts of shoplifting and attended reform school during his teens. In his autobiographical text Journal du voleur (1949) narrates in detail multiple events of the dark moments of his life.

He began writing in 1942 during his stay in prison, where he wrote a novel known as Our lady of the flowers.

Shortly after, he would draw the attention of the writing community who appealed to the president so that he was not sentenced to life imprisonment. Later he would be recognized for his contribution to the theater of the absurd through his theatrical pieces.

The Maids

From 1947, it is one of his most emblematic pieces. It tells the story of two maids, Claire and Solange, who have mixed feelings towards their mistress. During her absence they play at assuming the role of their boss.

Within this game they denounce the lady’s lover who is later released due to lack of evidence. Fearing discovery, they plan the murder of their mistress. After the failure of their plan, one of them commits suicide and the other awaits the fate that it already presupposes.


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