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Absurdism through another Eye

January 14th, 2009 No comments

So, the play is done. Now what? I’ve been shuffling around since even before the play ended trying to figure out what to do next. I’m still shuffling. I feel like someone who’s kicked a bad habit: an alcoholic trying to keep his mind off booze, a dieter trying to do anything around the house but dig into a bag of chips. I am both drawn to “the room” where I keep all my materials and am avoiding it like mad. It’s tough to write. Tough to start, tough to keep it running, tough to edit the schlock; tough all around: and I’m avoiding it.

Reading has always been a way to get wound up about something. So, that’s where I’ve started. Over the last several nights I’ve read an article by William I. Oliver entitled “Between Absurdity and the Playwright.”

The article was originally published in 1963 in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Oct., 1963), pp. 224-235, but I found it in a volume entitled Modern Drama: Essays in Criticism. The article is eye-opening to me, as I have been somewhat influenced by absurdist drama of late, and have even flirted with expressionism; yet Mr. Oliver is no fan of this form—or at least, he has some harsh things to say about it.

For instance, I’ll begin with this quote:

“If I’m not mistaken, Mr. Kopit meant Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad to be something of a parody of absurdist drama. Upon close inspection I find this play every bit as sound as many seriously recognized pieces in the absurdist field. Like jazz, or any other extreme artistic expression, absurdist drama will not bear parody, for the parodies often appear as good as the work parodied. I have also been amused by the ease with which my beginning playwriting students can ingeniously concoct plots that would pass for a good absurdist action. The plain truth of the matter is that writing an acceptable absurdist play is not difficult at all.” 231

Ouch. Makes me feel bad for struggling.

On another note, I have found the article to be important to me, if for no other reason than defining absurdist drama a bit differently than I have heard it defined, in drawing a critical eye to not only what it’s doing, but how it’s doing it, and perhaps giving me a broader perspective on how absurdist elements should function in any work I do in the future.

As a start, Oliver defines absurdist drama, and the definition is so absolutely fantastic that I couldn’t help but quote the whole of it, begging your indulgence:

The absurdist playwrights believe that our existence is absurd because we are born without asking to be born, we die without seeking death, we live between birth and death trapped within our body and our reason, unable to conceive of a time in which we were not, or a time in which we will not be–for nothingness is very much like the concept of infinity: something we perceive only in so far as we cannot experience it. Thrust into life, armed with our senses, will and reason, we feel ourselves to be potent beings. Yet our senses give the lie to our thought and our thought defies our senses. We never perceive anything completely. We are permitted to entertain committedly only one perspective of any object, fact, or situation: our own. We labor to achieve distinction and permanence only to find that our assessments are perspectively incomplete and therefore never wholly effective. All of our creations are doomed to decay as we ourselves are doomed to death. We create in order to identify ourselves in some semblance of permanence, but our creations become autonomous facts the instant we have created them and do not identify us except in so far as we pretend what they do. Therefore, the more we strive for definition and permanent distinction, the more absurd we are. Yet, the only value we can affirm with certainty is a self-defeating complex that we do not understand: our life. If we despair of definition, of ever achieving a sense of permanence, and we contemplate suicide, we are put in the absurd situation of sacrificing our only concrete value, life, for a dream of power and permanence that no man on this earth has ever experienced. On the other hand, if in despair we turn to religion or illusion of any sort we betray and deny our only means of perception: our reason. If, in a transport of ecstasy, be it mystical or sensuous, we feel at one with power and permanence we are forced to admit the illusionistic aspect of this transport and we must confess that our sense of power, permanence and definition is achieved at the sacrifice of our reason. If it is impossible for us to act with complete efficacy, to perceive with complete accuracy, to create anything definite and lasting that expresses exactly our intentions, we must also remember that it is impossible for us to cease acting as long as we live. This then is the condition of man that we of the twentieth century call “absurd.” 225

A beautiful definition. Oliver goes on to state that the only escape is if man were to “become a God or an unreflective beast.” I think by reading the mere statement that Oliver makes has in many ways proven to be a catharsis of sorts for me. It has, in some ways, freed me by drawing concrete attention to something I always half-suspected and mistakenly thought was just unique to me: that is, my own reflexive sense of my own silliness. And he has further, with one stroke, laid an axe to my tree of eternal life: the silly (again) notion that somehow I can achieve something lasting and important—something of “distinction and permanence.”

Oliver’s next step is surprising—as is his conclusion, which I’ll get to. His next step is to assert that all the playwrights of all time have dealt with the question of man’s absurdity. There is nothing novel in the ideas put forth by the absurdist dramatists. Oliver points to Oedipus and Hamlet and but two examples and with allusions to many more in between and remarks that absurdity “defines the condition of man, today, in the past, and into the future.” 226 He then looks at both tragedy and farce and sees them as “the double masks of absurdity.” The only distinction with modern dramatists being that they tend to mix the two together rather than leaving them as separate vehicles. Traditionally, that is, tragedy was a vehicle to evoke sympathy and tears; farce “frees our cruelty.” Mixing them together is a pretty realistic definition of what is occurring in an absurdist play, which evokes both at the same time.

Next, Oliver dissects absurdist playwrights: “Of necessity, an absurdist playwright is one who is predominantly thematic in his dramaturgy. That is to say, these are dramatists of a philosophical bent who place the greatest value on their thematic statement.” 226
Specifically, and I have broken them out into bullets:

  • Plays call attention to their intellectual content
  • Works are more “presentational” as they are concerned with universals
  • Are extreme in their desire to be intellectual, ideological, objective, and cerebral—and want their audiences to come along for the ride
  • Can be compared to Medieval allegory
  • Proclaim their independence from the traditional “neo-Aristotelian” structures of imitation and representationalism

Further, “to achieve a level of abstraction sufficiently pronounced to evince such a response from their audiences, the absurdists have resorted to various devices, none of which are new to the theatre.”

  • Every conceivable symbolical device employed in allegory and dramatic expressionism
  • Some have discarded psychology as a control action
  • To demonstrate symbolically the ideas of the playwright and create the “dramatic temperature” necessary to maintain the interest of the audience
  • Author’s thought is expressed symbolically through action
  • Are “not afraid of obscurity in art since they employ it as a direct symbol of the obscurity they find in life.” 227
  • They distrust language: “defining the gulf of misunderstanding that exists between our desire and our definition of it, between our expression of ourselves and its apprehension by others. This certainly is a dramatic concern, but the absurdist expresses the problem by forcing his language to nonsense.” 228

Oliver then launches one of his chief criticisms, (two actually) which is that the “nonsense” in the language (or language games) and the “obscure” symbols used by absurdist dramatists make it virtually impossible for their audiences to understand or comprehend them. Furthermore, the actual message, were it understood clearly, would be so patently offensive to audiences that they would not return to the theatre: “Their [absurdists] picture of the human condition, reasonable though it is, is not a very popular view. If it was clearly put in readily identifiable language, the majority of their audience would find the absurdist’s view to be nihilistic. They would simply say, “Oh no! How dreary! That’s all wrong!” and then make a mental note never to see another play by that horrible author!” 229

Thus, according to Oliver, absurdist dramatists “bury the message” to hide what they’re really saying from direct view: “How then to administer this view to an audience optimistically rooted in the certainty of faith-be it in God, or culture, or even in the potency of their own individuality? The answer is simple: pretend to give them something else. Make the play as amusing and sensational and surprising as possible but bury the message in symbols. Get the audience to swallow the comedy-coated pill of absurdity by letting them believe it is all harmless comedy or sensationalism.” 229

Oliver has a much more appreciative view of Albee and Pinter, whom he says, use both realist elements and absurdist elements. Obviously, writers such as Sheppard do this as well. This mix, Oliver suggests, allows the audience to appreciate the flow of plot and the psychology of character, while at the same time giving a context and meaning to the absurdity of the plight of the characters and thus making the absurdism more relevant. Oliver, here, also points to O’Neill, Sartre, Brecht, Camus, and Ghelderode.

There are other items that Oliver discusses, including the limitations and even failures of some of the absurdists and specific plays: The Chairs, for instance.

I think what is most interesting, though, is Oliver’s sort of “get over it” attitude toward absurdism, and this is what I mentioned earlier as his surprising conclusion: namely,

“Granted, one’s realization of absurdity is a terrible thing, but if this realization doesn’t shock us into suicide we do go on living. We write plays, we build bridges, we run for public office, we fall in love, we raise families, we may even become religious! Granted, no action we take after this confrontation or realization will be enacted with naive and implicit faith in its existential rewards of definition and permanence. The realization of absurdity makes ironists of all of us who undergo it and continue to live in action–but note that it is enlightened action in the sense that the action of Oedipus is enlightened once he has blinded himself to the optimistic vanities of man. One may even love God through disillusion! It was Unamuno who believed that the true saint was the man tortured by his inability to believe in God.” 232-3

Thus, Oliver concludes, “Absurdity is, ironically enough, the only ground upon which man’s reason can stand secure.” 234

In conclusion, Oliver defines his ideal absurdist dramatist. He defines this person three ways:

  • Absurdist as thinker—one who points out absurdity to others, to the audience, but, per the above, does so more altruistically to draw attention to the “ground upon which man’s reason can stand secure;”
  • Absurdist as a social force—“He must present his audience with the need to confront the absurdity of their own existence in order that they may no longer be unnecessarily vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life. He must eventually show them the reasonable advantages of absurd living in order that they may be induced to leave their nests of dogma, illusion and superstition.”
  • Absurdist as a technician—“the absurdist playwright will seek a form and style which, first of all, act as a disguise of his assertions rather than a direct and compatible expression of them. Yet this stylistic and structural disguise must never be so complete as to make it unnecesarily difficult for the audience to chance upon the proper perspective of interpretation that will reveal the true contour of the playwright’s thought.”

I have another of Oliver’s articles on Absurdism. I think I’ll read that next!

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