John Elsom*

I knew Martin Esslin. We were friends and colleagues, although he was of an older generation, and I reviewed his book, The Theatre of the Absurd, in London Magazine, when it was published in 1961. But we sometimes disagreed about what was meant by the Absurd, not its dictionary definition, but what it really meant, its true significance. Was it a genre, a style, a spiritual crisis, a political dead-end or all of these things? Was it unique to our times, the twentieth century? Or was it like an ocean that surrounds us, even though we might live on an island and never notice it? These questions were never academic.

Esslin was writing at a time when most British theatres were still offering middle-class comedies and dramas in the tradition of Wilde and Shaw, of which Alan Ayckbourn is a supreme exponent. But Esslin was born in Hungary, studied in Vienna and escaped to Britain on the eve of the Second World War. He had a rare perspective on the Britishness of British theatre, which took into account the possibility that our well-established social system with its liberal values might not be so secure after all. He drew our attention to the broad spectrum of European writers and intellectuals, who had undermined, despised or otherwise exposed the falsely logical structures of Western civilization.

His definition of the Absurd was that it expressed “the sense of the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach”, which is a feeling that many of us share from time to time and may be the bedrock instinct of our spiritual lives. This helped him to demonstrate the unlikely links between Jarry and Beckett, Kafka and Pinter, Artaud and Ionesco, Tristan Tzara and N.F. Simpson. But it was not always helpful as a critical term. It was too broad. It made too little distinction between irreverent fun and Existential despair. Poetic metaphors were tossed into the same barrel, A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Peter Pan, which during the ‘60s fell over our particular Niagara Falls and was dragged along by a swirling flood of dream theories, the Freudian Unconscious, sexual liberation and political revolution. The Absurd was everywhere and could mean anything.

The Theatre of The Absurd Book Cover
The Theatre of The Absurd Book Cover

I wanted a more precise definition. I did not think that the different strands of thought should be tangled together on the grounds that they all ‘disrupted the spectacle’, a popular phrase of the radical ‘60s. Did they all stem from the same feeling of senseless despair?  Did we think that Creation itself was Absurd and how could we make that kind of judgement, if we had nothing to measure it against?

In my case, I thought that there were periods of time when the various nations in Europe, even our whole civilization, seemed to be heading towards a future that was not just disastrous but ridiculous, nonsensical, Ionesco’s world of rhinoceroses. We had to respond to this collective Absurdity and give it some shape and form, if only to shock our way back to a more human reasonableness. The manifestations of the Absurd, such as Dadaism, Surrealism and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, were not a retreat from reality, but a response to it. This was how our conversations progressed, sometimes with agreement, sometimes not, but he and I would always start in the same place, Paris, during la Belle Ėpoque.

In 1896, when Jarry’s Ubu Roi was first performed in Paris, European Royal families were linked by family ties and controlled vast areas of the world’s surface. Queen Victoria was the Empress of India and a country the size of Kenya was administered by less than one hundred British colonial officers. There was a great deal of rivalry between the European empires, which carved up the globe like a carcass in a butcher’s shop. These islands in the Far East were Dutch, this strip of the mainland was French and the Germans were nowhere, ha-ha.

Ubu was not a fanciful creation, this middle-aged man, shaped like a pear, playing war games and invading Po-land to impress his wife. It was a cartoon of the times, drawn as if by a child, but it was less than forty years before the prototype Ubu would strut across the European stage, Adolf Hitler, with his identikit girlfriend, Eva Braun, who loved children and small animals.

Jarry drank himself to death in 1907 when he was thirty four. His Ubu was inspired by his physics teacher and his half-innocent eye sought out the absurdities of the adult world, and presented them as puppets. He now seems like a prophet. He transformed the scientific optimism of the 1890s, which so inspired Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, into Pataphysics, and taught us all how to build a Time Machine. As a mock-theologian, he solved the puzzle of Christ’s Resurrection. The Crucifixion was an uphill bicycle race that went wrong. Where there were eminent persons to upset, he upset them. The first word of Ubu Roi was “Merde!”, “Shit!” which shocked not only Paris but the rest of civilized Europe. It has never recovered.

In Britain, the spirit of Jarry now permeates our cultural climate, from the Edinburgh fringe to the TV comedy quiz shows. Jarry was the unacknowledged inspiration of the satirical puppet shows of the 1980s, such as Spitting Image, and a comparison between Punch, the humorous magazine that lasted for 160 years before it closed in 2002, with Private Eye, the British Charlie Hebdo, reveals the extent of his influence. Punch was the home for such writers as P.G. Wodehouse (Jeeves and Wooster) and A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh) who made affectionate jokes at the expense of the middle classes. But Private Eye is ruthless with the bourgeoisie. Its favourite vein is the jugular.

But did Jarry truly represent the spirit of the Absurd? Surely he was too cheerful. He liked making fun of people. His near-contemporary, Franz Kafka, ten years younger, grew up in Prague and as a Jew saw the darker side to the Hapsburg Empire – its vast bureaucracy, its remote authorities. He linked the arbitrary powers of the state with his own paranoia, a nightmare of the soul, as if one were the projection of the other, although his tyrannical father may have more to blame.

Was K. really guilty in The Trial or did he just want to feel guilty, like the prisoner who falls in love with his captor? Did his crime matter, whatever it was, if the authorities were always determined to shoot him? Kafka wrote in a plain and matter-of-fact style, behind which the threats could always be felt. Harold Pinter was his natural successor, a Jew like Kafka, who grew up at a time when, in London, Oswald Mosley’s Black Shirts were on the march, seeking to defend the purity of the British race against the threat of the Semites.

Unlike Jarry’s, Kafka’s Absurdity had no fun in it at all. It was “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet,” the menace that persisted in apparently civilized situations. The executioners in Pinter’s plays do not quickly kill their victims. As in Kafka, they play with them, torment them, rape and throw them aside to let them die by themselves. Like Jarry’s, Kafka’s fiction was overtaken by real life. The crimes of the Third Reich were so demented that they could be explained only by a group madness. There may be those still in Guantanimo Bay, who would recognise K’s trial with its endless appeals with no chance of release as a modern Absurdity, which even Obama could find no way of bringing to an end.

Was this a characteristic of politics in general?  Was society at large merely a reflection of what goes on in the darker recesses of our minds? The French writer, Jean Genet, thought so. The apparatus of the state was a sexual game, as in The Balcony, with a palace on one side of the city square and a brothel on the other, where the Chief of Police took his place with the Queen, the Judge and the High Executioner as a sadomasochist’s favourite fantasy. Genet was an outsider. He spent much of his early life in prison as a homosexual prostitute with a record of robbery with violence, but his freedom was not an abstract ideal, but a personal transformation in which Art played its part. It was Art’s justification, the elevation of pride above circumstance, but there could be no such redemption in Kafka, who insisted that all his writings should be destroyed. His friend and executor, Max Brod, disobeyed him.

In Genet, the underdog gained his freedom not by being released, but by converting his servitude into a higher glory. The maid, the black and the gay activist gained their pride by elevating their social ‘defects’ into status symbols, which was where the Gay Pride marches began. The Black should “negrify himself” by rubbing black boot polish into his skin, Black as well as Gay Pride. In his case, “ma victoire, c’est verbale”, as he wrote in Le Journal du Voleur, a redemption through literature. Sartre obligingly turned him into a saint.

Jarry, Kafka and Genet were all realists, who were proved right by events, but they were different kinds of writers, who left different legacies.  They were not nonsense writers, like N.F. Simpson, the British Absurdist, who wrote One Way Pendulum in which Speak-Your-Weight machines were taught to sing the Hallelujah Chorus. They were not Zen Buddhists, offering riddles as an aid to meditation, nor were they satirists in the tradition of European satire which dates back at least to Aristophanes. They taught no moral lessons.

What distinguishes George Orwell’s Animal Farm from Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros? In both cases, humans were turned into animals and vice-versa. But Orwell’s novel is like an Aesop fable: it was a warning against the betrayal of socialism. Ionesco was someone whose messages, or lack of them, were contained within vast metaphors, such as the growing corpse in the room next to Amadée’s living room – was it the bedroom? – and the epidemic of  horned, one-toed ungulates in a distant part of the country that grew into a nation-wide infestation. Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros, ended with a cry of protest. Berenger battled to defend his humanity against the social trend to become one of those thick-skinned animals? Why could he himself not become a rhinoceros?

The narrator of a moral fable, like Orwell, is a teacher: he stands apart from the action. But the central character in an Absurdist play was more likely to be the victim or someone trapped within a situation from which there seemed to be no escape. They wrote as underdogs. In Britain, we were slow to sanctify the underdog. We preferred to believe that the British way of life despite its quirks and oddities was still sound and sensible, like the BBC, the nation’s comfort blanket, which we always like to feel is there, even though we may never want to listen to it. There are those in Britain who still look back to the days of the Raj with nostalgia and ask where it all went wrong.

But the absurdities of our Empire were soon overtaken by a more extreme example of Absurdity, one which threatened the very existence of our planet, the Cold War. There were Cruise missiles parked on one side of the Iron Curtain and SS20s on the other, waiting for the opportunity to prove how effective they were. With such a means of defence, who needed an enemy? It was the “Catch 22” of the Cold War. To protect your country from an unexpected nuclear attack, you had to be prepared to press the button first.

Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 appeared within months of Esslin’s book. It was not included, and is still not usually listed, in the books about the Absurd, because it does not feel as if it belongs to that genre
Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 appeared within months of Esslin’s book.
It was not included, and is still not usually listed, in the books about the Absurd,
because it does not feel as if it belongs to that genre

I do not wish to sound moralistic. I did not know what the right answer was or if, under the circumstances, I would have behaved any differently. That was another sign of the Absurd. Whatever you did was equally likely to be wrong. Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 appeared within months of Esslin’s book, and not included in it, and still not usually listed in the books about the Absurd, because it does not feel as if it belongs to that genre. There is no avant-garde nonsense, nothing arty, just US airport fiction about the war in Vietnam in which few Europeans took part. But Catch-22 became the Anglo-American phrase for the Absurdities of the Cold War, the plain man’s Absurdity, caught up in self-contradictory rules, which stopped him/her from even saving his/her own life.

To escape from combat duty in Vietnam, you could plead illness on the grounds that you were insane, but to want to escape was the proof of your sanity. To obtain a job, you have to prove that you have work experience, but to obtain work experience, you had to have a job. Political systems during the Cold War were riddled with Catch 22s. To liberate the masses, you needed to have a government with dictatorial power. To be free, you must learn to do what you are told. In the UK, we are still in the process of being culturally diversified. We fill up forms which ask for our ethnic identities, so that we can prove by statistics that we are equally well or badly treated. Diversification means conformity. This used to be called “chop-logic”, but if you are on the receiving end of chop-logic, even filling out tax forms can feel like an existential Absurdity.

In 1988, there were signs that the frozen animosities of the Cold War were starting to melt. With Esslin’s support, I staged a meeting in London, whose title ended with a question mark, The End of the Absurd? I was the president of the International Association of Theatre Critics and felt, as many of our members did, that the rigid ideologies that sustained the Cold War were slowly collapsing. Nobody believed in them. We all made fun of them. In the Soviet Union, they were making jokes about the Years of Stagnation: “we will pretend to work if you pretend to pay us!” The cost of maintaining weapons of mass destruction was starting to out-strip the benefits of their protection and so the next generation of annihilators had to be placed in the government’s Pending Tray, until the money could be found to pay for them.

In Britain, Mrs. Thatcher concluded that Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was someone with whom she and President Reagan could do business. For a short period of time, perhaps only a few months, it felt as if we were being released from the prison of Absurdity that had kept us captive since the Cold War began. Families from one side of Europe could visit more freely their relatives on the other side. We could invite our friends from Central and Eastern Europe, US, China, South Korea and Japan with normal passports and sometimes no more than tourist visas. The Berlin Wall had not yet collapsed, but it was tottering in the winds of change.

Our meeting was like a sigh of relief. Ionesco joined the party, as did Marin Sorescu, Stanley Eveling, Scottish dramatist and philosopher, Carlos Tindemans, the semiotician, Ken Campbell, the conspiracy theorist from Liverpool, and Esslin himself. There were about fifty of us, representing the range of what we then considered to be the writers and intellectuals of the Absurd. They included psychologists, social workers and anarchists. Sessions were open to the public. Anyone could come along from the population of London, a cosmopolitan city, full of refugees and immigrants, each with his or her own example of Absurdity.

There were exponents from Off-Off Broadway, who knew how to stage “Happenings”. There were devotees of John Cage and Andy Warhol, of random sound, théâtre trouvé and music concrête. We chose titles in the form of riddles – Is God a Watchmaker? and How do you recognise a Black Hole? But we were not looking for answers. There were none. We wanted insights, not facts, and a deeper understanding of man’s condition in the late twentieth century, having escaped from two world wars and the immediate risk of a nuclear catastrophe.

Josef Szajna, the playwright and visual artist, told us a story. He came from Rzeszow in Poland, the home of two other artists of the Absurd, Tadeusz Kantor and Jerzy Grotowski, his friends. As a young man he was sent to Auschwitz, and survived, only to have his mind haunted by the images from the camp. One was in the form of a collage of children’s shoes in a pile, arranged with an eye to their visual effect, as if in a shop window. He showed us the picture. Had he himself arranged the shoes in this immaculate order? His answer was “No.” The camp attendants had done so themselves, as the children took off their shoes to walk into the gas chambers. The attendants just wanted the place to look tidy.

Such Absurdity lies beyond tragedy.

Some anecdotes were harrowing, others comic, but it has to be said that our speakers were mainly optimistic. We wanted to believe that the Absurd was an aberration, something that should not happen, and that, “god willing” (as none of us said), would never happen again. “The sky” in Antonin Artaud’s phrase, had not “fallen on our heads” and might never do so. We were older and wiser and the Cold War was coming to an end.  But one friend was absent, someone with whom the Absurd was most associated, Samuel Beckett. His plays seemed to fit most closely Esslin’s definition of the Absurd – “the senselessness of human existence” – but again, I was inclined to make qualifications. I never knew Beckett well, but I had met him and with his permission, adapted his novel, Malone Dies, for the comic actor, Max Wall, which played with success at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Max Wall in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape
Max Wall in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape

Max died in 1990. He was once a music hall comedian with a world-weary face, a sardonic manner and a deep voice like gravel. He had been an acrobat and comic dancer, and trained with Grock in the 1920s. He was making a career come-back with a one-man show, which revealed his sense of timing, slow and deliberate, waiting for the public to laugh without forcing them to do so. I gave Max a copy of Krapp’s Last Tape, not expecting him even to read it. But he did so and gave a performance at Greenwich Theatre, which earned him the reputation of being one of the rare actors, who seemed to embody the spirit of Beckett’s writing. Wall was a definitive tramp in the BBC’s Waiting for Godot. But his performance came as a surprise, because Beckett was then associated with High Art, not with the music hall or popular entertainment.

In the 1930s, Beckett was linked to a Modernist school, called Stream of Consciousness or ‘automatic writing.’ Its theory was that you should write whatever came into your head, without trying to give it shape or purpose. We needed to be released from the prison of Reason, Freud’s Super-ego. Beckett moulded this theory to his own purposes. His stories express the almost inexpressible states of mind that lie behind whatever we do or say, such as growing old, waiting, remembering, listening to one’s own voice  and dying. Did Beckett express a belief that existence itself was meaningless? I think not. He was not someone to pontificate. But in Britain during the 1950s, he was linked with the poet dramatists, T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry, who could be morbidly pessimistic before revealing that they still believed in God. Was Beckett was another atheist struggling to come to terms with his loss of faith? When Waiting for Godot was first performed in London in 1956, critics assumed that Godot was God, although Beckett insisted that he was not.

The gloss of High Culture disguised Beckett’s love of the music hall and silent cinema, which now seems hard to miss. The cross-talk between the tramps in Waiting for Godot were spoken as if they were extracts from Shakespeare, but Didi and Gogo were more like Laurel and Hardy, the great film comics of the US Depression. Even the routines were similar with the hats, shoes and scraps of food. Beckett transformed their plight into one which applied to all mankind, and Max Wall was someone like Beckett, who saw the funny side to the near-universal despair. They shared a delight in the Irish ‘gallows humour’. Beckett was not a cheeky adolescent like Jarry, a Dadaist, a surrealist or an anarchist. He, like Max was different from them all and the fact that these writers had so little in common made me question whether they should ever be linked together under the label of the Absurd. Was Martin Esslin right to do so? The brief answer is “Yes”. I am now convinced that there was, and is, a connecting link between all these writers of the Absurd. Esslin instinctively knew that there was, although perhaps neither of us appreciated where it came from. I understand it better now, but only with the awful premonition that we are not moving away of the Absurd but penetrating more deeply into it.

For many people, the last decade of the nineteenth century was filled with a high confidence. No century was more eagerly anticipated than the one that was to come, the Twentieth Century. The shelves of the bookshops were stacked with utopian visions. God might be dead, according to Nietsche, but through Science, Man was poised to take over his place. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution might upset Christians, but to agnostics it proved that we were on a spiral of progress, upwards, from ape to man to superman. In every walk of life, science would play its part. Selective breeding would take over from falling in love. It was an intoxicating period; but soon cracks started to appear in the walls of the Enlightenment that gave us such hopes of advancement. Some came from science itself. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity questioned the Newtonian laws of physics. Freud queried the confidence that we placed in Reason. Was it ‘sublimation’? Were we fooling ourselves? In Switzerland, Saussure undermined the reliability of language by asserting that it was little more than a social game. It was our way of focussing the mind upon Reality, nothing more.

These questions were asked before the First World War, which according to scientific optimists should never have happened. Surely we had progressed beyond that stage of violence. Our early weapons of mass destruction, the Bren gun, meant that conventional warfare was self-defeating. What chances of survival did the cavalry have? In Britain, we called it “the war to end all wars.”

But the cracks grew wider. We came to understand that the characteristic feature of the Enlightenment, the separation of Objectivity from Subjectivity – facts from feelings, actions from motives – was impossible and no more than a fanciful idea. Objectivity and Subjectivity cannot be kept apart. It would be absurd to think otherwise. But this Western assumption is so embedded into our culture that we prefer to mould our lives according to what we have inherited from Enlightenment rather than change the theory to suit our lives. We were trapped by our institutions. We still are.The Twentieth Century was the Western century and left its finger prints on every cracked mirror and dusty window sill of the global village. The parade of its achievements stretches along our Appian Way, from the internal combustion engine to the Apple Mac, from the howitzer to the drone, from selective breeding to bio-engineering, and all our lives have been transformed by it, even those who in a generous display of public art now dangle as skeletons by the wayside.

Like all great victories, it came at a cost, for after Two World Wars and a Cold War with its plentiful re-training camps, we have finally succeeded in making conflict more democratic. Out went armies, in came the back packers. Out went the tanks, in came the car-bombs. Out went the Command Posts, in came the Internet, and the right to bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution of the Leader of the Free World. There are no league tables, but the Twentieth Century can confidently claim to be the most blood-soaked in human history.In the cold depths of the ocean, solitary submarines patrol the playground, their only sanction the ultimate one.

The secret of our success lay in science, the faith that has no need of worship. It deciphers Reality through measurement and the application of numbers. It has no conscience. It does not need one. Its theories are right, wrong or speculative.  Its motive are immaterial. Similarly, the tools of science are without fault. They work, do not work or need to be repaired. How they are used is another matter. Technicians cannot be blamed if more is spent on munitions than medicine. That is the way of the world.

The more we have, the more we need to hang on to what we have got. That is the spirit of Brexit, of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, the Ubus of our time
The more we have, the more we need to hang on to what we have got. That is the spirit of Brexit, of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, the Ubus of our time
Drawing: Courtesy of Oleg Dergachov

Paranoia is a deep hunger that feeds even upon silence and there is always a place for it in the market economy. Industries are driven, even whole economies, by the need for security at a time when any bunch of migrants – do not be fooled by their looks! – can conceal a terrorist. Fear builds the barricades, digs trenches and stores wealth away in off-shore accounts. The more we have, the more we need to hang on to what we have got. What is so odd about that? That is the spirit of Brexit, of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, the King Ubus of our time. It staffs the detention centres, the half-way houses and border crossing points, where watchful soldiers upgraded from the ranks, guard the desk clerks, who examine and stamp our papers – or not, as the case might be.

But we in the West who are blocked from the rest of mankind by our prosperity can still hear the sounds from the other side of the barriers, the cries and the curses, and we can still smell the tear gas and urine brought over by a trespassing breeze, and through a CCTV camera, we can safely inspect the suspicious rubbish-bin and the woman who lives inside it with her child, kept not quite warm enough by yesterday’s newspapers, for there are no secrets in today’s wall-to-wall media coverage, only fears and excuses.

In our mind’s eye, we can imagine the vast complexities of the world outside, and recoil from them, for we know that with a flick of a coin, our roles can be reversed, inside out, upside down, as has happened many times before.

And so we wait our turn.



Herbert Blau and Martin Esslin on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Paris, 1987


This paper was originally presented at the Under Cloud International Festival, Bucharest. August, 2016


*John Elsom is a writer, university teacher and company director. He has held posts with Paramount Pictures and the BBC, broadcast widely and taught in universities in Britain and the U.S., including the Department of Arts Management at City University in London, where he started the first MA in Arts Criticism. He has written for many magazines and journals world-wide, including on a regular basis, and was the President of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) (1985-1992), a UNESCO-affiliated non-governmental organization, and is now its Honorary President. His books include Theatre Outside London, The History of the National Theatre, Erotic Theatre, Post-War British Theatre Criticism, Cold War Theatre, and Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary? John Elsom is currently writing a book, titled Brexit and After, which will consider Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and the rise of the far right in Western politics from a cultural perspective. He would be very interested to hear from other AICT/IATC members of their views and, as with previous books (Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary? and Cold War Theatre) that he has edited or written, to credit their contributions. His fiction includes World Without Worship (ten short stories) and six plays, including The Well-Intentioned Builder (London 1966 and Craiova 2004), The Man of the Future is Dead (Edinburgh 2006) and Second Time Round (2008).

Copyright © 2016 John Elsom
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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