When Michael Billington began his “A to Z of modern drama” series for the Guardian late last year, he began with a look at Absurdism. I responded shortly after it was posted; the below originally appeared here on 15 December 2011.
recently launched a welcome series called “Michael Billington’s A to Z of modern drama”
with Billington’s comments
on Martin Esslin’s 1961 book The Theatre of the Absurd
. “Absurdism” was perhaps the first great -ism of postwar theatre and drama after “Social Realism” (“Postmodernism” might be the next), and Esslin’s book is of course of more historical interest now than it was then — inevitable for a work a half-century old. But I think Mr. Billington goes too far when he says that “while absurdism was a fascinating historical phenomenon, it now looks increasingly irrelevant.” I perceive here something of a disconnect between form and content; the formal qualities of the absurd theatre were at any rate not new in 1961, but were borrowed primarily from the pre-war forms of Dada and surrealism as well as more varied historical antecedents, as the chapter “The Tradition of the Absurd” makes abundantly clear. It is this content — the umbrella concept of absurdist philosophy as identified by Esslin in a variety of writers — that Mr. Billington seems to find irrelevant.
In defining the concept, Mr. Billington cites Ionesco’s “succinct, brutal” formulation: “Cut off from his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless.” With only a little stretching, M. Ionesco’s thematic statement takes in a far greater swathe of drama than post-war continental theatre and accommodates plays as old as Oedipus and King Lear, and I doubt that anyone, even Mr. Billington, would argue that either of these tragedies can be considered irrelevant even now. They’re certainly staged frequently enough, and they quite readily draw large audiences: there have been three productions of King Lear alone in the past two years here in New York, so the play must seem relevant to those spectators.
I’ll concede the Guardian critic’s point that capital-a Absurdism has its creakers if he’ll concede that capital-r Realism has its creakers too, even capital-s Social Realism — or, for that matter, State-of-the-Nation-ism. True, nobody has much interest today in Adamov and Mrozek, but social realist plays by Sidney Howard and John Galsworthy haven’t stood the test of time either, except perhaps as quaint curiosities of by-gone days. And it’s also true that Esslin “ropes in many writers who belong to a different tradition,” though in writing about Pinter and Albee Mr. Billington makes it clear that they really don’t belong to any tradition except their own (as do most of the other Absurdists, Vaclav Havel, the future president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, especially). This would be damning, though just faintly, if Esslin hadn’t already acknowledged and responded to Mr. Billington’s criticism in his 2001 foreword to the third edition of his book (a later edition than Mr. Billington’s dog-eared copy) — a pre-emptive strike, in a way, from beyond the grave:
In fact, anyone who actually has read it [Esslin's being a bit unfair; Mr. Billington has read it several times I'm sure] will know that the book tries to avoid rigid definitions and interpretations. … The category suggested by the book’s title had merely been intended to draw attention to certain features the works discussed had in common, different and diverse as they were; certain techniques in the handling of exposition, delineation of character, use of dream and hallucination, etc.: in fact, elements that arose from the zeitgeist, the atmosphere of the time, rather than from deliberate theoretical considerations. … [The book's main function in 2001] now becomes, I believe, to provide an example of how, in its time, an emergent new tendency was recognized, described, discussed, located within a tradition as an attempt to present it to … a largely uncomprehending public. It thus simply stands for itself, a milestone on the long road along which the art of drama travels through history … 
In declaring Absurdism moribund, though, Mr. Billington slips through his own conception of an instrumental and social dramatic practice. This is especially clear in the conclusion of his essay:
Absurdism was important in its day. But perhaps we now demand more from drama than a cry of anguish at the absurdity of the human condition. We live in a world confronted by economic recession, social unrest, international terrorism and climate change. And, while dramatists are perfectly free to react to those events in any way they choose, all the evidence suggests that audiences are hungry for information and enlightenment. … Don’t get me wrong. I’d be delighted to see our theatre explore some of the lesser-known absurdist works … But I think we should see absurdism, a few acknowledged masterpieces aside, for what it is: a movement that has lost its momentum and one that is of little help in explaining to us the complexities of today’s world.
Audiences may be hungry for information and enlightenment, but Mr. Billington cites no authority for this statement — when haven’t audiences been that way, after all? And these days there are many more, better places to get this information about a world confronting all these evils. Theatre and drama need not offer the same information and enlightenment that can be found in the newspapers or non-fiction books (at a fraction of the cost, too), and it may be in fact one of the most inefficient and unreliable sources of that information.
I’m afraid I really don’t have much more of a response to this statement, because I myself have no idea what audiences are hungry for. But I do know that when I go to the theatre, I seek not information and enlightenment, but experience and new consciousness of the human condition — an experience and consciousness that newspapers, books, films, music, and even social realist drama can’t provide. After all, both Hamlet and Oedipus got all the information and enlightenment they were searching for, and look where that got them. Darkly, I consider that in this 21st century, after all the social and political progressiveness of the last 300 years, the status of “a world confronted by economic recession, social unrest, international terrorism and climate change” leads me to no other conclusion than that “Cut off from his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless.” Far from irrelevant, the Absurdist vision may tell us more about our condition now than it did fifty years ago.