THE MODERN ABSURDIST
By: Danny Blanda
In a world of cinematic spectacle, car chases, gun shots and the “well-made play,” where is there room for the absurdist? Is there any room for an absurdist? Audiences of today have been conditioned to have a serial-killer caught in 45 minutes; lovers to end up in one another’s arms as they watch the sunset go down, and for the stereotypical college bully to get his comeuppance in front of the entire student body at the annual school parade. (See CSI, any love story ever made, and Animal House for proof of such things.)
Not saying that there’s anything wrong with the aforementioned scenarios, but is that the end-all, be-all? Shouldn’t there be a balance? What happened to the absurd, to the surreal? When did theatre of the absurd and such become cult entertainment? When did everything have to have a clean-cut ending with no loose ends in order to be deemed good or right?
Years after the style existed, writer and dramatist, Martin Esslin originated the phrase, “theatre of the absurd.” Absurdist writers did not categorize themselves as absurdist, but Esslin coined the phrase in hope to categorize writers who challenged the human condition by making sense of the world through senselessness.
Absurd theatre is not for everyone sure, but it seems that such theatre has acquired a bad “rep” from some typical theatre patrons. “Uh… absurdism…,” is a phrase often muttered. Isn’t the point of absurd theatre to think? Isn’t the point to ponder existence and even to create and play in a nonrealistic world? Yes, I admit absurd theatre isn’t “easy” on the mind. Questions arise that aren’t always easy to digest, but they allow audiences to think critically.
In addition to the scoffs and groans absurdism can draw, the phrase, “It doesn’t make sense” is often mentioned. That’s just it though. It doesn’t have to make sense. Absurdist theatre has the ability to gift us with a “nonsensical” world. However, because the nonsensical is the only world presented to us, the nonsensical becomes sensical. All we have to do is buy into this world. A hard thought to swallow, but reality doesn’t exist in absurdism. Audiences seem to want to make the “nonsense” realistic in hopes to understand everything. You’re not meant to and that’s the beauty of it. It doesn’t make you any less intelligent and it’s not insulting you for not understanding. Absurd theatre isn’t that pretentious and it’s not a form of code. You can’t “crack” it, but you can pull from it so you can draw your own thoughts and ideas. The point of absurd theatre is to not give you an answer, but to propose a question. That question is for you to find and for you to later talk about. For absurd theatre’s primary mission is to start the conversation.
Let’s take a look at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s production of Big Love. The mistake with this play is to view it as realism. Despite being based off ancient Greek theatre, it is far from the “well-made play” that Aristotle proposed years ago in his Poetics. Big Love is a piece of poetry that playwright, Charles Mee has given as a gift (for free online) to both the theatrical and nontheatrical world. From a direct passage from his website, Mee states,
“Please feel free to take the plays from this website and use them freely as a resource for your own work: that is to say, don’t just make some cuts or rewrite a few passages or re-arrange them or put in a few texts that you like better, but pillage the plays as I have pillaged the structures and contents of the plays of Euripides and Brecht and stuff out of Soap Opera Digest and the evening news and the internet, and build your own, entirely new, piece—and then, please, put your own name to the work that results.”
Some may call this man a “coward”, because he won’t take ownership for the works he initially wrote. This is very wrong to think. In fact, he is being generous and brave. How hard must it be to share your work and allow it to be twisted in any form? Handing over one’s work is already enough of a terrifying process.
Conversations surrounded KCACTF with the mention of Big Love. You probably have heard the question, “What did you think?” or “Did you get it?” In a (sometimes) forgiving theatrical environment, conversations arose over this play’s intent and its “lesson.” Many didn’t see eye to eye and often dismissed the play as nonsense. UAB presented their interpretation of a very poetic, symbolic script and it was not intended to be taken literally. You may not have liked this rendition of Big Love, which is fine, but that’s not the point. The point is we were given a piece of theatre that allowed us to draw our own conclusions. Where some may dismiss Big Love as a meaningless nonsensical project, they’re missing the most important reality. It started a conversation.
Whether audiences liked it or not, it made them think. Maybe they didn’t even realize the inception had occurred, but people were talking and debating the play. This is what makes it a successful script. Emotions and ideas were drawn whether you necessarily wanted them to be there or not. Sides were even drawn. You may have not cared for this particular version of the script (it had it faults in its delivery), but the content of the show is not to be blamed.
This is just one example of abstract theatre. Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco, Sam Shepard and others have all helped contribute and compile nontraditional works that “get the ball rolling.” Each of whom has (or had) their own unique style and flair that offers more than just a skin-level conversation.
When did theatre and the arts lose acceptance for such works. Some would argue that the respect is still intact, but I would have to argue. People seem to have a hunger for the glittery spectacle with a preferably happy-ending. Yet again, there is nothing wrong with a Lion King or even Spiderman: Turn off the Dark production. Something can be taken from shows such as those. However, there needs to be a balance between the spectacle and the intellectual conversation. After all, aren’t artists supposed to think, to speculate, to argue, to debate and to question our world in which we live? Are we not free thinkers? Realism doesn’t give us the same ability to do these things like absurdist theatre can. We get the gift of being able to make our own decisions and draw our own conclusions.
When absurdist French playwright, Eugene Ionesco was asked what the moral of one of his plays was, Ionesco responded with, “C’est à vous de la trouver.” When translated into English it means, “It’s up to you to find it.” This means that it isn’t the job of the playwright to tell you what the moral or theme is. He shouldn’t have to feed the audience hand to mouth. It’s the job of the reader and the audience to take what they want/what they can in order to further their ability to think critically, start a conversation, and perhaps even further their lives.