The term is applied to a number of works in drama and prose fiction which have in common the view that the human condition is essentially absurd, and this condition can be adequately represented only in works of literature that are themselves absurd. Both the mood and dramaturgy of absurdity were anticipated as early as 1896 in Alfred Jarry’s French play Ubu roi (Ubu the king).
The literature has its roots also in the movements of expressionism and surrealism as well as in the fiction, written in the 1920s, of Franz Kafka The Trial, Metamorphosis.
The current movement however emerged in France after the horrors of World War II (1939-45) as a rebellion against basic beliefs and values in traditional culture and literature. This tradition has included the assumptions that human beings are fairly rational creatures who live in an at least partially intelligible universe, that they are part of an ordered social structure, and that they may be capable of heroism and dignity even in defeat. After the 1940s, however, there was a widespread tendency, especially prominent in the existential philosophy of men of letters such as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, to view a human being as an isolated existent who is cast into an alien universe, to conceive the human world as possessing no inherent truth, value, or meaning and to represent human life- in its fruitless search for purpose and significance, as it moves from the nothingness whence it came toward the nothingness where it must end – as an existence which is both anguished and absurd. As Camus said in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942),
In a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a
stranger. His is an irremediable exile… . This divorce between man and his life,
the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of absurdity.
Or as Eugène Ionesco, French author of The Bald Soprano (1949), The Lesson (1951), and the other plays in the theatre of absurd, has put it: “ Cut of from his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots, man is lost, all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless.” Ionesco also said, in commenting on the mixture of moods in the literature of the absurd : “ People drowning in meaninglessness can only be grotesque, their sufferings can only appear tragic by derision.”
Samuel Beckett (1906-89), the most eminent influential writer in this mode, both in drama and in prose fiction, was an Irish man living in Paris who often wrote in French and then translated his works into English. His plays such as Waiting for Godot (1954) and Endgame (1958), project the irrationalism, helplessness, and absurdity of life in dramatic forms that reject realistic settings, logical reasoning, or a coherently evolving plot. Waiting for Godot two tramps in a waste place, fruitlessly and all but hopelessly waiting for an unidentified persons, Godot, who may or may not exist and with whom they sometimes think they remember that they may have an appointment, as one of them remarks, “ Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.” Like most works in this mode, the play is absurd in the double sense that it is grotesquely comic and also irrational and non-consequential, it is a parody not only of the traditional assumptions of Western Culture, but of the conventions and generic forms of traditional drama, and even of its own inescapable participation in the dramatic medium. The lucid but eddying and pointless dialogue is often funny, and pratfalls and other modes of slapstick are used to give a comic cast to the alienation and anguish of human existence. Beckett’s prose fiction, such as Malone Dies (1958) and The Unnamable (1960), presents an antihero who plays out the absurd moves of the end game of civilization in a nonwork which tends to undermine the coherence of its medium, language itself. But typically Beckett’s characters carry on, even if in a life without purpose, trying to make sense of the senseless and to communicate the incommunicable.
Another French playwright of the absurd was Jean Genet ( who combined absurdism and diabolism).
Some of early dramatic works of the Englishman Harold Pinter and the American Edward Albee are written in a similar mode. The early plays of Tom Stoppard, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) and Travesties (1974), exploit the devices of absurdist theatre more for comic than philosophical ends. There are also affinities with this movement in the numerous recent works which exploit black comedy or black humor: baleful, naive or inept characters in a fantastic or nightmarish modern world play out their roles in what Ionesco called a tragic farce, in which the events are often simultaneously comic, horrifying and absurd. Examples are Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), Thomas Pynchon’s V (1963), John Irving’s The World According to Garp (1978) and some of the novels by the German Günter Grass and the Americans Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., And John Barth. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) is an example of black comedy in the cinema. Some playwrights living in totalitarian regimes used absurdist techniques to register social and political protest.