Return to Equinoxes, Issue 1 : Printemps/Eté 2003
Article ©2004, Jenny Philips
Defining the Theater of the Absurd
On Ionesco: Ionesco.Org
Web links on Beckett
On Genet: JeanGenet.Org
Movement is scarce in the Theater of the Absurd. In fact, the static quality of many absurdist plays is palpable; it at once charges the play's atmosphere with the possibility of movement and negates this possibility, eliminating hope for change or progress. Feeble attempts at creating change are constantly denied, building a tension that turns spoken words into physical violence and humanity into something that seems essentially evil. Beings appear less than human in the world of the Absurd because their identity is incomplete, fragmented and often represented in physical disfiguration. Unable to piece together their fragmented identities, these characters are caught in a fixed, changeless world that succeeds in the further fragmentation of the "absurd" self. Reduced to deviant behavior and language that is at once cyclical and static, human characters exemplify the intangible, absurd nightmares of society.
"Sacrées ou non," writes Genet of Les Bonnes, "ces bonnes sont des monstres, comme nous-mêmes quand nous rêvons de ceci ou cela"1. According to Genet, Claire and Solange are indisputably monstrous beings. In contrast to this idea of monstrosity, Philip Thody, in his analysis of Les Bonnes, claims that Claire and Solange "evoke the spectator's sympathy…because their destitution is so absolute and they suffer so intensely from it." He also claims that making "his audience feel sorry for characters whom it would have been easy to present merely as psychological case histories" is "Genet's most extraordinary achievement as a writer."2 However, it is not difficult to argue the contrary; that Claire and Solange embody such nightmarish and monstrous qualities that sympathy is difficult to muster, and that one feels mostly repulsion, despite these two creatures' miserable state. The same could be said of Beckett's pairing of Hamm and Clov in Fin de partie as well as of the violent Professor and his Student in Ionesco's La Leçon. The personalities and actions of each of these characters seem to deviate so far from healthy human behavior (i.e.: non-violent, flexible, changing) that they are, in some ways, unbelievable and therefore lose the audience's sympathy.
In all three plays, each pair is frozen in its situation. For the main characters there is no real awareness of an outer world. There is no gaze toward - or hope for - something beyond the moment in which the play occurs. There is no real past, nor possibility of a future; there is only a kind of infinite present state. None of the central characters is capable of getting up and walking out the door. There are doors through which other characters may enter, but these do not exist as possible escapes from the absurd situation of the play. Furthermore, each of the primary characters within the play is dependent on a monstrous counterpart, equal in monstrosity to him or herself. Martin Esslin notes this dependent, psychological pairing as related to several of Beckett's works, including Fin de partie: "Each of these …pairs…is linked by a relationship of mutual interdependence, wanting to leave each other, at war with each other, and yet dependent on each other" 3.
This is readily apparent in the exchanges between Hamm and Clov in which Hamm demands a response. Clov pauses before answering, and until he does Hamm feels uncertain of his own existence, his own being. Claire and Solange similarly seem to depend on one another in carrying out their macabre ceremony, and their dialogue - despite its apparent absurdity - gives meaning or direction to their existence. The play necessarily ends with Claire's death. In the frozen situation of the Absurd, there would be no possibility of continuation beyond her death, because with her sacrifice, the two sisters' dialogue also dies, and without language, there is no existence. In La Leçon, the Professor is only a Professor because the Student comes to see him, and the Student only exists because the Professor is there to instruct her. Beyond this exchange, they depend on one another linguistically for existence as well, because once the Student is no longer capable of participating (due to her violent murder,) the play must end. In these three plays there is no hope of salvation or of redemption. Violence and the steady disintegration of language are the only evidence of change.
What common aspect of these absurdist plays leads to these monstrous images of humanity? Why this strange, repulsive evil in a world where nothing has essential qualities that tie it to reality, where nothing seems important? In his book The Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Esslin describes the principle qualities of the Theater of the Absurd. He argues that, in general, this genre "relies on fantasy, on dream-reality," and that there is a "devaluation of language." Esslin claims:
The Theatre of the Absurd is not concerned with conveying information or presenting the problems or destinies of characters that exist outside of the author's inner world…it is not concerned with the representation of events, the narration of the fate or the adventures of characters, but instead with the preservation of one individual's basic situation. 4
This individualized, "basic situation" is a key element in each of the three plays discussed in this analysis; I would claim that it is the situation itself, frozen and impossible in each play, that renders the characters monstrous. While Esslin affirms that the Theater of the Absurd is concerned with the "preservation of one individual's basic situation," we could also argue that it is at least equally, if not more concerned with the eventual and total destruction of this situation, given the impossibility of continuance beyond the end of the play.
The idea that situation is key to pathological behavior is not new. Although the Theater of the Absurd may be defined broadly as "antirealistic, antipsychological, antiphilosophical and apolitical," as Deborah B. Gaensbauer states in her book The French Theater of the Absurd, a closer investigation of the psychology of the plays and of reality as portrayed here will define human monstrosity as it pertains to these works5.
In his book, Neurotic Distortion of the Creative Process, situational behaviorist and psychologist Lawrence S. Kubie defines mental health as it relates to situation and to the creative process. If we examine the fictional circumstances of each of the characters in these plays, it becomes apparent that they all attempt to create something out of nothing (through language), that they are seeking to initiate movement of some kind, but this movement never fully develops. Kubie would, no doubt, classify this inability to create change as the perfect breeding ground for mental ill-health. He writes:
The measure of health is flexibility, the freedom to learn through experience, the freedom to change with changing internal and external circumstances, to be influenced by reasonable argument, admonitions, exhortation, and the appeal to emotions…The essence of normality is flexibility in all of these vital ways. The essence of illness is the freezing of behavior into unalterable and insatiable patterns. It is this which characterizes every manifestation of psychopathology, whether in impulse, purpose, act, thought, or feeling. 6
If mental health is inherently tied to flexibility, freedom, and therefore movement, and if mental illness is associated with frozen behavior and "unalterable" patterns, the jump between actual human beings and the monstrous human beings of the Theater of the Absurd is not all that distant. We could say, as a result, that these characters themselves are not absurd. Their situations, as manifestations of the thought process and imagination of their respective playwrights, are absurd, but we could argue that, if Claire and Solange were real humans, that if Hamm and Clov actually existed, and if the Professor and his Student were forced into the situations in which they exist in the plays, they would, by necessity of human nature, be at least as monstrous as they are in these representations. In fact, in his introduction to Les bonnes, Genet indicates that the characters of Claire and Solange are based on real people and a real event. They might behave differently, and express themselves differently, but chances are that they would lean toward violent thought and action, that they would be disdainful and angry, that they would have fatalistic outlooks on life, and that they would see no real possibility for change.
Soon after the opening scene in these plays, it becomes clear that events are cyclical. This is not the first time that Claire and Solange have gone through their ceremony, that Hamm and Clov repeat the same language-games, and that the Professor has had the same violent circle of action with his Student (or students). These are daily occurrences. Nothing is new for any of these characters, with the exception of Claire and Solange, because Claire actually dies at the end. One could almost say that these authors intended, each in turn, to create a kind of fictional human experiment, and that the results of these experiments are horrifying, nightmarish representations of humanity.
Although the message of an absurdist play seems nonexistent because of its absurdity, there is, doubtless, an end goal in this seeming non-message. Through the characters of Claire and Solange, Hamm and Clov, the Professor and his Student, there is certainly some sort of warning about humanity as a whole - concerning, perhaps, the essence of humanity. Marie-Hélène Huet's explanation of the term monster in her book Monstrous Imagination may shed some light on the seemingly monstrous qualities of these characters. She writes:
Several traditions linked the word monster to the idea of showing or warning. One belief, following Augustine's City of God, held that the word monster derived from the Latin monstrare: to show, to display (montrer in French). Monster then belongs to the etymological family that spawned the word demonstrate as well. 7
This idea that the word monster itself is linked to the French montrer agrees rather well with what seems to be an essential quality not only of the Theater of the Absurd, but also of theater in general. What do actors (and through actors, playwrights) do if not show or reveal a character to the audience? The idea of warning or exposition of possible outcomes seems to be somehow inscribed in this word "monster," through its etymology stemming from this idea of "showing." Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to read Genet's, Beckett's and Ionesco's plays as experiments that "show" the possible reactions or behavior of humans placed in so-called "absurd" situations. I think that we can fairly easily imagine that such people might well exist, more or less, in our world, or perhaps, even more pertinent, that these types of monstrous qualities exist within all of us, in our very nature.
A comparison of these plays in their situational similarity will help to determine whether or not "monstrosity" (as I have defined it using Huet's definition in relation to Kubie's ideas on mental health and situation) is an appropriate term where these characters are concerned. In fact, we could say that each suffers from a kind of situational monstrosity; the impossible nature of the situations into which each character is inscribed evokes their most unpleasant tendencies. A closer examination of how the plays devolve into violence, into seemingly meaningless linguistic expression, and an inescapable situation, will determine the validity of this terminology.
In each of these plays, when the setting is initially presented to the audience, the circumstances and the reality of the characters' lives are not immediately apparent. In La Leçon, the scene opens with the maid letting the Student in, for a seemingly typical and ordinary tutorial session. The events that follow continue on for some time in a rather meaningless way, with a believable - if atypical - verbal exchange between the Professor and his Student. Eventually, this seemingly banal dialogue begins to repeat itself and dissolve until it no longer has meaning. However, events progress in such a way that the audience comes to understand this initial conversation between the Professor and the Student. It becomes clear the Student had a predecessor whom the Professor has most likely killed once the language of their conversation dissolved, an act he appears to regret but which he knows will soon repeat itself. The Professor and the Student, caught in the absurdity of the words they are uttering, must do something to get out of the situation. Apparently, the Professor has been here before (39 times as we are told near the end of the play) and knows no solution, other than violence, to break the patterns that emerge from the disintegrating language. The Student knows no other reaction than to respond to the Professor, but when the questions and answers become increasingly ridiculous, she in only more powerless to initiate change, and finally allows herself to be brutally stabbed to death by the Professor. The Professor and his Maid remove her body from the scene when the bell rings, indicating the arrival of another Student. Caught in the cycle of language and situation, the Professor knows no other option than to follow the cycle repeatedly, attempting through violence to break out of it, only to be drawn back in when the bell rings with the arrival of the next Student. These two main characters depend on one another to exist in the frozen situation of the play; without the arrival of a Student, the Professor will not have language to use, a duty to perform, or a cycle to carry out.
In Fin de partie, Hamm and Clov exist in a gray, dim, decaying world. They seem to be waiting for death, or for nothing, and playing a sort of linguistic game that chases its tail around and around throughout duration of the play. Again, Hamm and Clov depend on one another for their very existence, and mostly they depend upon the other's language. Each is the paradoxical counterpart of the other. Hamm is blind and cannot stand, and Clov is unable to sit down. Hamm depends on Clov to bring him things, to tell him about the world, to see for him, and to listen to him. Clov needs Hamm in order to have a purpose. They appear to be in a situation of waiting. As in La Leçon, the audience is not certain at first that this is a closed situation, that Hamm and Clov are repeating their hourly, or daily, or weekly game with one another. The audience expects something to happen, some change to take place, but eventually realizes that all existence weighs upon the interaction of these two characters. Their violent nature is neither as visible nor as bloody as that of the Professor in La Leçon, but it is still apparent in the language that they exchange, in Clov's scowl, in Hamm's disdain for everyone else, in the way in which he throws his "dog" to the ground and fiercely thrusts his walking stick about. Hamm's dialogue with Clov reassures him of his existence, which otherwise might seem uncertain. Throughout the play, this malaise is apparent in his constant repetition of questions whenever Clov fails to respond immediately:
Hamm: Je suis très blanc? (Un temps. Avec violence.) Je te demande si je suis très blanc!
Clov: Pas plus d'habitude. 8
This sort of exchange is part of the pattern that characterizes their situation. Their language is mostly nonsensical, leading them to neither resolution nor resolve, but only back to where they started. They speak in tones of hatred and disgust, in a futile attempt to distance themselves from one another.
Of all these pairs, Claire and Solange would seem the most "realistic". Their setting, like that of the Professor and the Student in La Leçon, is domestic one - that is to say, the action takes place in a home, in a bedroom. As the play opens, Genet drops us immediately into the middle of Claire and Solange's role-playing pattern. As such, the audience is not aware of the situation; that these are sisters, that one of them is not really the mistress of the household, that they are both maids. The charade is undone only when Solange slips and calls herself by her own name (as she is playing the role of "Claire" in their game):
Solange:...Avouez le laitier. Car Solange vous emmerde!
Claire (affolée): Claire! Claire!
Claire (dans un murmure): Claire, Solange, Claire.
Solange: Ah! oui, Claire. Claire vous emmerde!... 9
It is only here that we understand that Claire is not really Madame, and that Solange is not Claire. Their ceremony is suddenly made apparent to the audience. The way in which they speak to one another, both in their role-playing and beyond, is angry, disdainful, repulsive. They hate themselves at least as much as they hate one another and their mistress. Like Hamm and Clov, they depend on one another's language in order to carry out this practice ceremony, to plot the romanticized murder of Madame, hoping without really believing in the possibility of escaping their circumstances and finding something real, some sort of satisfaction. As in the other two plays discussed here, the characters go nowhere. They are powerless to change their situation, and the only way to end it is through death. Ideally, Claire and Solange seem to have wanted Madame's murder, but then neither of them had the strength to make it happen. Or we could say that Genet did not allow them, in his human experiment, to have what it took to get out, to kill Madame and to live in freedom. Their only possibility is death, to put a violent end to the cycle. In fact, the dénouement comes rather quietly, with Claire (in the guise of Madame) voluntarily drinking the poisoned tilleul at the hands of Solange. With this, the play ends - it cannot continue. Just as there is no existence for Hamm without Clov, or for the Professor without his Student, there is no existence for Solange without Claire. They had existed, together, in the language of their game, and once that language dissolves into meaninglessness, the play has nowhere left to go.
Having noted the situational similarity of each of these unhappy pairs, one cannot help but wonder if it is the situation itself that makes these characters monstrous - monstrous in the sense that they cannot find their way into normal human society, that they cannot avoid violence, and that they have nothing to say of any meaning. They are understood by no one, and no one can save them. Masterfully, and sadistically, Genet, Beckett and Ionesco have created, through absurdity, the ideal scenarios for situational monstrosity.
1 Genet, Jean. Les Bonnes. (L'Arbalète: Paris, 1976) 10.
2 Thody, Philip. Jean Genet. (Stein and Day, publishers: New York, 1970) 170.
3 Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. (Anchor Books: Garden City, New York, 1961) 31.
4 Esslin, 294.
5 Gaensbauer, Deborah B. The French Theater of the Absurd. (G.K. Hall and Co.: Boston, 1991) xvi.
6 Kubie, Lawrence S. Neurotic Distortion of the Creative Process. (The University of Kansas Press: Lawrence, Kansas, 1958) 20-21
7 Huet, Marie-Hélène. Monstrous Imagination. (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1993) 6.
8 Beckett, Samuel. Fin de partie. (Les Editions de Minuit: Paris, 1957) 86.
9 Les Bonnes. 24-25.
Beckett, Samuel. Fin de partie. Les Editions de Minuit: Paris, 1957.
Brooks, Peter and J. Halpern, ed. Genet. Prentice-Hall, Inc.: New Jersey, 1979.
Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Anchor Books: Garden City, New York, 1961.
Gaensbauer, Deborah B. The French Theater of the Absurd. G.K. Hall and Co.: Boston, 1991.
Genet, Jean. Les Bonnes. L'Arbalète: Paris, 1976.
Huet, Marie-Hélène. Monstrous Imagination. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1993.
Ionesco, Eugène. La cantatrice chauve suivi de La leçon. Editions Gallimard: Paris, 1954.
Kubie, Lawrence S. Neurotic Distortion of the Creative Process. The University of Kansas Press: Lawrence, Kansas, 1958.
Thody, Philip. Jean Genet. Stein and Day, publishers: New York, 1970.