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UNIVERSITY OF BAGHDAD
A Thematic Study in Selected Plays of Edward Albee
SUBMITTED TO THE COUNCIL OF THE
COLLEGE OF ARTS
THE UNIVERSITY OF BAGHDAD
IN PARTIAL FULFULLMENT OF THE REQUIRMENTS
FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTERS OF ARTS
IN ENGLISH LITERATURE
As. Pro. Saad F. Al Hasani
Salman Adil Salman
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
قُل لو كان البَحُر مَدَادَاِ لكَِلمَاتِ َربي لَنِفَد البَحُر قَبلَ أن َتنَفد كلماتُ رَبيِ وَلوَ جِئنَا بِمِثلهِ مَدَدَا
صدق الله العظيم
الكهف : ۱٠۹
In the name of Allah,
Most Gracious, Most Merciful
"Say : if the ocean were ink (wherewith to write out) the words of my Lord Sooner would ocean be exhausted than would the words of my Lord, even if we added another ocean like it, for its aid."
To my Mother and Father…
I am indebted to my supervisor Mr. Sa'ad Al Hasani for his invaluable guidance, patience and precious remarks in writing this thesis.
I would also like to thank Mr.Wisam Khalid and Mr. Hamid Khedir
Special thanks are due to the staff members of the Department of English Library: Wedad Salman, Ma’ani Adnan. Mr. Jeffery Khalel, Timothy Kelly of Yale University and Mr. Patrick Byers of Connecticut University for their constant help throughout the course of writing this thesis.
The present study is an attempt to trace the development of the concept of reality and illusion in a number of plays by Edward Albee through investing certain myths and values that constitute the American society and its culture.
The European experimental influence on Albee's mindset makes critics accuse him of ambiguity in theme and style; the culturally diverse and interwoven symbols invested in one work make his works something hard to perceive. However, examining the complex overlapping between different styles and themes may decipher Albee's vision of illusive reality.
The study covers five plays namely: The American Dream, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Three Tall Women, The Play About The Baby and The Goat or Who is Sylvia?. The first two plays represent the first phase of Albee's dramatic career, which is experimental, challenging and vital. The other three represent the second phase, which is more mature, articulate and provoking. The study is divided into three chapters and a conclusion.
Chapter one: is a survey of the twentieth century's most prominent dramatic movements on both sides of the Atlantic. The first part of the chapter tackles the experimental theatre in Europe before and after the First and Second World Wars. The second part deals with the American experimental theatre as it is related and influenced in its own way by the European theatre.
Chapter Two: is dedicated to the first two plays: The American Dream and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The main point of discussion falls on the significance of the American dream.
Chapter Three: is concerned with Three Tall Women, The Play About The Baby and The Goat or Who is Sylvia? Themes like decadence, deconstruction and disillusionment are mainly investigated.
The conclusion sums up the findings of the study.
1-1-1. The European Drama: 1900-1950
Undoubtedly the interaction between the European theatre and the American one is quite noticeable. The first two decades of the twentieth century witnessed a turning point in American theatre. In a relatively short period of time American theatre shifted from realism towards expressionism and other anti-realistic modes; during the early decades of the twentieth century, the American theatre was more open to European influences whether that of realism or modernism. By the second half of the nineteenth century, psychological realism had already flourished in Europe; Henrick Ibsen, known as the father of modern drama, revolutionized the theatre whether thematically or stylistically; realism, as a theatrical trend, emerged.
A rebellious spirit that rejected romanticism characterized Ibsen’s drama. Realists considered romanticism as an artificial movement that did not advocate any social cause. Realists deemed romanticism as fake due to the increasingly complex life people live, which romanticism never touched upon. The advent of realism was considered a turning point in the subjects presented on stage. For in the Greek tragedy, kings and queens were the heroes and heroines of plays. Even in the case of the Elizabethan drama of Shakespeare and Marlowe, the characters were of a noble social stature like Hamlet and King Lear. Prior to realism, specifically the early decades of the nineteenth century, romantic drama nurtured comedies and intriguing themes of harmless misunderstandings that end cheerfully. 1
With Ibsen and August Strindberg the focus, instead, was now drawn on the problems of modern society. Drama finally came down to earth to address the majority of people, namely the emerging middle class.
Ibsen wanted to make the theatre a social arena in which serious social conflicts and daily concerns of average men are depicted. This intentional indulgence in societal conflicts was intended, on the part of playwrights, to help develop a social conscience and a critical capacity among the audiences to reform society, hence making theatre a useful device rather than a device of pure entertainment. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House deals with the social injustice where woman was treated as part of man’s property whether that man was a father or husband. Nora, the major character, speaking to her husband, depicts Ibsen’s concern with emancipation of woman from social slavery:
I mean I passed from father's hands into yours. You settled everything according to your taste; and I got the same tastes as you; or I pretended to--I don't know which--both ways perhaps. When I look back on it now, I seem to have been living here like a beggar, from hand to mouth. I lived by performing tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and father have done me a great wrong. It's your fault that my life has been wasted. . . . 2
The new strategy was to create a theatrical “illusion” where life is recreated upon the stage following a meticulous pattern of imitation. Analyzing the scenery of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Strindberg’s Miss Julie, it is easy to notice that everything is contrived in the plays’ setting through a three-dimensional fashion, a make believe environment. In other words, the playwright creates a carbon-copy reality on the stage where accurate, detailed and objective account of life is physically imitated on the stage. According to realism, a play must be treated as if it is a slice of life placed on the stage. Alvin B. Kernan explains that realists were careful to involve the audience in a process of familiarization where everything looks familiar through:
getting every detail on the costumes, down to the last button, historically accurate for period pieces, and the introduction of water taps that really worked, real doors, genuine gravel for walks... to make the stage a photographic imitation of the actual world 3
Sitting in a theatre and watching what happens in, say, a living room could not be done without removing the fourth wall of that room, hence, the audience could not escape being an integral part of the show, such as an invisible member of the family on the stage.
1-1-2. Scientific Influence
Charles Darwin published his The Origin of Species in 1859 and it was he who suggested that man’s destiny was determined by heredity and environment. This belief changed the face of Western world. It meant, among other things, that man is a natural object, not so different from any other part of nature, hence, contradicting the Biblical view that man is created in the image of God and he is above all else. The “survival for the fittest” theory historically coincided with August Comte’s theory of Positivism4 that recognized truth as an objectively observable fact concluded by the doctrine of cause and effect. These new theories helped to open the door for a new type of theatre, i.e. realism. Thus, Darwinism developed new dimension in realism; it was later called Naturalism, which held that man is not responsible but ruled by environment; he is driven by certain conflicting forces; Ibsen’s Ghosts dealt with a daring scientific subject, namely the transferring of syphilis from father to son as a metaphor of the concept of sin. Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Pygmalion are examples of the social injustice that changes one’s destiny; therefore, society must be blamed. Such themes accelerated the emergence of naturalism as a bias wing of realism. Strindberg’s The Father and Miss Julie are examples of a drama that struggled with a faithless universe ruled by brutal human instincts where man saw society as his enemy and denied his primary bonds with God and family. Alvin B. Kernan believes that “The constant war between man and women, the grotesque sexual antagonisms, of Strindberg’s plays give dramatic form to the theory of biological determination and social Darwinism.” 5
Man and woman, the two poles of society, were being confronted in a struggle for dominance and power. In this sense, the society was viewed as an evil force in the life of man; any relationship must be ruled by the stronger partner. Life, therefore, is a tragedy that man is doomed to face and he ultimately must be defeated as a helpless creature. Raymond Williams explains the bleak concept that naturalism held of man and society:
Tragedy, in this view, is inherent. It is not only that man is frustrated, by others and by society, in his deepest and primary desires. It is also that these desires include destruction and self-destruction. What is called death-wish is given the status of a general instinct, and its derivates, in destructiveness and aggression, are seen as essentially normal. The process of living is then a continual struggle and adjustment of the powerful energies making for satisfaction of death” 6
1-1-3. A Historical Sketch
If the second half of the nineteenth century brought the crackdown of Western civilization, through the triumph of the machine over the human spirit, the twentieth century, witnessed the collapse of man himself. One of the major representative images that dominated the second half of the nineteenth century was the wasteland, with its several connotative associations, including the severance of man from the past and the pastoral virtues. The shift was a serious one towards city values and the principles of urbanization; the artificial respectability of human relationships, the cruel abuse of the poor lower classes, the advent of the capitalists. Another remarkable force was the impact of the Darwinian Theory, which eliminated, though not permanently, the authenticity of God's existence from the minds of the public. This immediately hastened the shaking of the foundation of Church.
Prior to the second half of the twentieth century the world was subjected to the devastating blows of the two World Wars. The due disintegration of society led to rendering the European man as an outcast, an alienated individual who does not occupy more than his own self. Cut from any national, social and cultural commitment, he made a thorough retreat into the dark sides of him as a last shelter. André Malraux suggests that “at the center of the European man, dominating the great moments of his life, there lies an essential absurdity" 7
1-1-4. Europe during the Wars and After
Between the Two World Wars the West on both sides of the Atlantic had undergone overwhelming changes in politics, psychology and economy.
Drama was no exception. Europe witnessed introductions of new theatrical innovations and stylizations that were approached to respond to the alienated psychology of modern man.
Themes categorizing drama of that phase essentially reflected the intellectual challenges that modern culture had to face against its social organization and its institutionalized beliefs. The promise in the expansion of western civilization became a suspect. Social reality lost its authenticity as a moral force in the life of people. The truth becomes something relative and essentially subjective; certain theatrical voices went far with their sense of disillusionment so as to hold the conviction that the world is a psychological metaphor to the individual’s state of mind. Luigi Pirandello, for instance, realizes that the “subject” is sacred and that came as part of his defending of the person against the dehumanizing influence of society. Eric Bentley writes about the meaning of Pirandello’s theory of Relativism in saying: “The world is my idea, and the world is purely ideal….the world-all that is external to the ego-exists only according to the idea one has of it. I do not see what is; what I see, is.” 8
When the First World War came to remap the political and economical geography of dominance several literary voices started to emerge as a response to or mostly as a reaction against the tragedies and atrocities of war. Naturalism and Realism of the nineteenth century gradually started to be out of fashion and it was a matter of few years before certain dramatic genres took over the literary scene.
The air was full of feverish anticipation for change and a rebel zeal for reshaping all arts as long as these arts, including drama, were proven inadequately sketchy in projecting the collapse of values of modern society. It was an outburst of "isms" in Europe that culminated in the generation of a set of universal abstractions which symbolize the chaotic existence of man and reduces his life into a farcical tragedy. The compass of these "isms" was all pointing out for the common fate of the universal man as absurd. Language, the major human means of communication, was discredited by all the movements as a social disease that should be purged from the life of people. William I. Oliver believed that the disillusioned playwrights felt a “disgust of language. Believing as they do that man’s powers of perception, expression, and self-identification are pathetically limited by the fact of his individualistic perspective of anything and everything.” 9
Time brought about a wild generation agitated by the scenery of the war victims, charged with sound and fury against the foolish manifestoes of realism that was dedicated to copy a detailed description of the external world as a poor and distressing imitation void of any significant substance.
Expressionism 10, Symbolism, Futurism, Epic Theatre, Existentialism, Absurd theatre were among the main movements in the first half of the twentieth century that set forth to occupy the vacuum of irrationality of a world fighting itself.
In the rage of generating these movements, the time comes for Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) to begin a literary battle originating one of the most radical and daring movements in the history of European literature, i.e. Dadism. Tzara wrote in the movement's first manifesto in 1918 "DADA MEANS NOTHING."
For the Dadaists nothingness was the only truth, the only thing that ever mattered was how to intensify the disillusionment and diminish all rules, all human principles disciplines and every single inherited tradition and taught manners. J.L Styan reports on how the Dadaists expressed themselves:
"Tzara's public proclamations were in fact accompanied by violent gestures and bloodcurdling screams and whistles in order to emphasize his points. A poetry reading would consist of reciting a newspaper article to the wild accompaniment of bells and rattles; a copy of Mona Lisa would be given a moustache with elaborate ceremony. 11
Though the movement was considered, at best, a ridiculous nightmare associated with the disastrous effect of the war more than any other intelligible reason, Dada's impact was felt in a number of later movements.
The Twentieth century witnessed another controversial turn that was apparently based on dadism, i.e., symbolism. The idea of symbolism in drama bears much the same vein of expressionism though they differ in communicating their issues. The symbolists, like W.B. Yeats, believe that the world absorbed by the senses is only a physical reflection of what really processes in the mind. Actors at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin were always reminded by Yeats that once they are on stage they become poetic entities controlled by the author; it is said that they were rehearsed in barrels to force them the absolute truth is at the center of universe of which all living creations are very subtle manifestations.12 Yeats believes that symbolism was "a hand pointing the way into some divine labyrinth". 13
In 1924 Andre Breton, (1896-1966), French poet and critic who joined the Dadaist movement earlier, studied the works of Sigmund Freud. The constant reading resulted that his poetry with was capitulated with fluids of unconscious associations (automatic writing) casting his psyche back. Of his own dreams and hallucinations a new movement came to existence i.e. surrealism.
Breton aspires that a surrealist work must aim at revealing the inner landscape of human mind. The work ultimately, according to Breton, culminates the mysterious and undiscovered areas in man's personality. The depths of man’s psyche were turned into a manifestation of poetic juxtaposition of images accumulated randomly. This chaotic representation of man's inwardness may finally lead to two inevitable conclusions: it guides man to a close consideration of his real weakness and spiritual paralysis because only then he would realize how far he is helpless in the face of all the destructive forces that lead the world aimlessly.The second conclusion of surrealism is that it may also transcend the audience to a certain poetic reality, much wider and profounder than the one they live. Surrealism in drama showed its first emergence in France especially in the plays of Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) and Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) who in 1917 presented their plays on the stages of Paris. Apollinaire staged Les Mamelles de Trisias (The Breasts of Triesias).
One of the influences that initiated surrealism was that of Antonin Artaud.
At one occasion André Breton wrote "I salute Antonin Artaud for his passionate, heroic negation of everything that causes us to be dead while alive." 14 The French actor, director, poet, and theorist Antonin Artaud left a group of writings which had fundamental influences on experimental theatre. The main contribution was Theater and its Double (1938), in which he conceived his theatre of cruelty. The essential meaning of that work is an invitation to consider theatre as a superior type of reality and that social reality is only a reflection or as an imitation of theatre. He once said:
Instead of passively mirroring the world, art is seen as a higher form of reality, with material life as an imperfect copy of what art symbolically expresses.” Explaining the core sentence of his theory he says “if the theatre is the double of life, life is the double of the true theatre. 15
Artaud believed that civilization only distorted the core of humanity; civilization was evil and hence man was deluded and could only be purged be a catalyst force that frees the unconscious and returns to its purest state, i.e. primitivism. For Atraud that catalyst was the theatre of cruelty. The meaning of cruelty comes from the concept of irrationality. Atraud rejects reason and logic as “the chains that bind us in a petrifying imbecility of the mind” what he suggests instead of the social virtues are irrational spontaneity and delirium, which could liberate suppressed forces inside us. This liberation will result in an emotional purgation that has the same effect of catharsis. Using the ritualistic signs and symbols instead of language, acting upon the stage will be purely presentational and hence transcendental. Christopher Innes explains the significance of presentational rituality for Atraud :
presentations are assumed to evoke a mirror start in the spectator’s mind, if these “can be projected with the necessary violence; and the delirium will be contagious, exorcising repressive behavior patterns in society as a whole by its presence in the tiny percentage of the population who attend Artaud’s theatre an analogy to the plague that Artaud’s confused metaphor is “spiritual freedom” causing “all social forms to disintegrate’ and spreads “without rats, without microbes, without contact. 16
Atraud announced once that the public should look for the ideas of the theatre of French playwright Alfred Jarry in its performances, “better than any theories, our program is there to make our intentions manifest”. 17 Surrealism owed much of its innovatory to the works of Alfred Jarry who at the age of twenty three, managed to revolutionize French theatre (1873-1907). Jarry’s Ubu Roi. is the first part of a trilogy presenting a tyrant king, Ubu, who comes to power and is portrayed ridiculously. The king stands for many social vices like avarice, mediocrity, and the artificiality of the values confining bourgeois culture that is violently attacked by Jarry. "Action and Life…" says Jarry, "are more beautiful than Thought. Thus, let us Live and by so doing we shall be Masters." Every individual, he believed, should transcend the inferior reality to an “eternal dream” where everything is possible; he counted on the will power of every person. “His outlook on life was calculated to distort accepted "reality" and thereby trigger catastrophic changes, creating imaginary hypotheses that could replace the known.” 18
Life itself was void of any meaning to Jarry; he despised reason and any attempt to rationalize life. Life was no more than a dark sadistic joke the thing that made him the first theorist of the theater of the absurd. In the meantime, American drama was drifting between realism and expressionism. Of three-dimensional settings and characters carefully drawn from the daily life, realism continued to be the most permanent style. On the other hand, expressionism presented the alienated psychological state of man as a social alien, but it adhered to social concerns due to a conviction in effectiveness of social reformation. Although the European theatre aims at exploring universal themes that undermined the confines of the European social context, there was a remarkable impact of some social and economical philosophies upon theatre; the theories of Carl Marx of social reformation and economical progress are clear examples. Marx said that the “Estrangement” is necessary before the desire for change can be found; man should be mentally and emotionally disengaged from his environment so that the truth about his reality is exposed and hence the potential for change arises. Bertolt Brecht, a German playwright, started influencing theatre after the Second World War with Epic Theatre and the “Alienation Effect”, his own contribution to the modern experimental theatre. Brecht revolutionized theatre with his ideas that were induced mainly against classical theatre; he believed that Aristotelian theatre has reduced the spectator to passivity. Brecht saw theatre as a potential for change unlike the permanently static Greek theatre where past is introduced as present as thus things are unchangeable. The core of Brecht’s theory is Alienation effect. He thought that if he could “alienate” the audience then they would definitely approach the play intellectually and then leave the theatre with an impulse to change. The definition of Alienation, in German Verfremdung, occurred for the first time in The Roundheads and the Peakheads, a text Brecht had written in 1936. the following explanation appears:
Certain events of the play- by means of inscriptions, interpolations of music and noise, and the technique of the actor-should be elevated (alienated) out of the realm of the ordinary, natural not expected, and function as scenes complete in themselves. 19
Brecht undermined the psychology of his characters as independent individuals in favor of their social environment; he believes man has no psychological characteristics but collectively social attributes. In other words, Brecht’s Epic theatre is the clearest example of the collectivism that sacrificed the individual to the public good. This anti-individualistic attitude was attacked savagely by the cult of Absurd, Angry Yong Men and Beat Literature in America. Being a witness of the nineteen thirties vogue of social reformation, Eric Bentley anticipated that the post war generation would one day contempt all anti-individualistic attitudes including Brecht’s
We didn’t realize to what an appalling extent the motive force of our reforming zeal was fear of the self, a failure to face the self. We scoffed at the escapism of certain individualistic poets, and did not see the social collectivism could be the supreme escape. 20
With the advent of the post war period a serious commitment emerged to probe the inner depths of man’s alienated psychology. It was a new kind of reality, not that attacked by Tzara and Breton, but a one that paved the way for the revolution in theme and language, the dehumanization of arts and deconstruction of any means that makes a rational and logical sense of things. Although many dramatists of the 1930s proceeded to create substantial works during the 1940s, the theatrical landscape in Europe and the United States made a serious transition after World War II towards a more advanced experimental drama. Among the most influential postwar movements was the theater of the Absurd, which flourished in Europe and was then manipulated in America.
1-1-5. Absurd as a Collective Conscience
When Samuel Beckett wrote his Waiting for Godot in 1953, (he had already written the French version in 1948). A few years after the Second World War, a nihilistic spirit permeated the European literary scene due to the results of the war. Any rational approach to life was no longer considered valid. The restless quest of the young generation on both sides of the Atlantic was mainly set to devise a form that extended flexibly enough to work as an adequate portrayal of the infinite plight of existence.
France became the capital of dramatic innovation, whether on the level of content, stylizing methods, or stagecraft. The surrealistic drama came to its full maturity in the first manifestations of the theatre of the Absurd. Albert Camus is the first who used the term “Absurd” in his work The Myth of Sisphus. He described minutely a cruel metaphysical stasis where man is ruthlessly obliged to squander the counted hours of his life in a futile endeavor of ceaselessly rolling rock up the mountain then watching its descent. In the fifties, the term came to be associated with a group of young playwrights who were born between the two World Wars. Camus' essay is the first clear manifestation of the philosophy of the Absurd that crystallized later in the works of the first wave of Absurdists; the essay begins by stating an essential particle in the Absurd thinking: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." 21
The urge to commit suicide seems to be much weaker than the instinctive need to survive; what then is that thing which urges man blindly to stop living? According to the absurd philosophy, in moments of deep melancholy, uncertainty, mental fatigue, and unexplainable frustration man starts to associate his helpless station with an outer force that might set him free from the unsolvable puzzle of existence. He feels that life is pointless; because no value does exist thus none can justify or make sense of his relation with other human beings and with objects. William I. Oliver refers to the essential absurdity that rests at the centre of man’s life:
Our existence is absurd because we are born without asking to be born, we die without seeking death, and we live between birth and death, trapped in our body and reason... The only value we can affirm with certainty is a self-defeating complex that we do not understand: our life 22
Man comes to realize that he is disarmed of his senses which supplied him with the illusive answers for the cosmic phenomena. Science looks at life as merely a world of physical forces that participate in maintaining a certain order devoid of any spiritual level, a set of facts which spare no place for a deeper interpretation of life. Doubt envades man’s heart and mind about whether the values which constitute the pattern of behaviors are authentic or not. Because we have values, life becomes a systematic process of identifying and finally embodying those values. But there would be no point in adjusting to certain qualities if we were incapable of acting to realize those qualities.
if we are not more than strugglers for survival adapting to a constantly changing environment; exploiters or exploited caught up in a predetermined class struggle for control of the means of production; walking instruments of inescapable psychological forces, chemical reactions, and social conditioning; if we are all these in a universe we cannot see truly…how are we to validate our consciousness, our suffering, our sense of dignity, our demand that life have meaning? 23
The creation of habit in the life of man is another unsolvable problem for the Absurdist. Man approaches life habitually when he does not indulge in questioning things reasonably, rather he comes to his conclusion about the universe after a number of years which made him completely familiar with his existence. Habit forms his shelter, it blurs the distorted image of the illusion and defends his intellectual paralysis. "We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking." 24
The decision we take is either to give up a worthless life by committing suicide or practice 'the act of avoiding" through a constant delay of interpreting our existence, by which we discover a new meaning in life. The Absurdist overcomes the necessity of suicide by looking into the core of life and realizes that despite its meaninglessness, the absurd confrontation brings a new confidence in the power of human mind. William I. Oliver points out that the Absurdist:
believes that without this recognition man is a puppet fangled on the stings of dogma and illusion. He knows that absurdity is a bitter discovery for all men, but believes that it is the only assessment which will accurately define man’s power of perception, action, and accomplishment. Absurdity is, ironically, enough, the only ground upon which man’s reason can stand secure. 25
The absurd playwrights have picked man out of all the historical, geographical, and spiritual familiarities that promote his existence in the human community. They wanted to get him disembodied in his peculiar locality, in his belonging to a certain sect, race, or color. For any Absurdist, all social and economical classifications that distinguish man from other fellowmen are invalid since man lives by his instincts, which his mind defies. Man makes believe in external reality in the hope of restoring his faith in something that provides security and permanence. The Absurd playwright sets, as his only commitment, the role of drawing out the various dark curtains that blur man's perceptive insight: "He questions the sphinx he seeks a thread of meaning through the labyrinth of chaos this is without beginning or end" 26
Being Absurd, therefore, means to violate the immediate physical familiarities of daily life; it also means to penetrate the illusionary reality which occupies the human mind and causes the ultimate failure of man:
what happens transcends what is being said about it. It is the hidden, implied meaning of words that assume primary importance in absurd theatre, over and above what is being actually said "The Theatre of the Absurd strove to communicate an undissolved totality of perception - hence it had to go beyond language.27
The central question of the Absurd is essentially existential; it is the compulsion of being. Man has never been given the chance to decide whether to exist or not since he is being robbed of the will to determine the most fundamental thing, which is to be born. The nature of freedom and choice, the significance of time and the inevitable approach of death are common notions shared by the Existentialists and the Absurdists. All of these ideas embrace the obsessions of the age manifesting the philosophical precariousness which cast its shadow on the back of every aspect of modern life.
Jean Paul Sartre, the leading Existentialist literary figure, explained the importance of whether man is endowed with the power to decide his destiny and whether he is able to control his life without the interference of outside forces. Sartre impressed the Absurdists like Samuel Beckett in exploring the significance of time in molding man's identity after certain phases in his life. Beckett wanted to stop the stream of time because whenever man comes closer to a kind of self-realization, time moves him to a different set of circumstances where he becomes another man. Time changes everything, nothing stays the same; a fact that made the Absurdists reflect on the falsity of the concept of value. What was right in the past is wrong today and may become right again in the future. The atrocities of the World Wars made the absurdist seek a harbor in which he could operate an expression of his depressed self. Attempting to establish an adequate substitution, Absurdists aspired to some sort of mystical sphere rich of myths and mysteries to compensate the loss of faith and belonging. In fact, it was a farcical celebration of human failure to realize the expectations of life. The Absurd Theatre, therefore, can be seen as an attempt to restore the significance of myth and ritual to modern time, by making man aware of the reality of his condition.
For if man is cut off from his religious roots, there should be some place that he can turn to. Theatre becomes a metaphysical compensation for man to belong, lifting him up above the narrowing detailed localities of a certain culture. The universality of Absurd theatre, therefore, is a result of transcending the particular towards a universal consciousness of humanity. Ionesco, to cite one example, looks at theatre as storage of a collective consciousness recalling Carl Jung’s psychological theory of archetype. He states that:
for me, the theatre is the projection onto the state of the world within…as I am not alone in the world, as each one of us, in the depths of his being, is at the same time everyone else, my dreams and desires, my anguish and my obsessions do not belong to myself alone; hey are part of the heritage of my ancestor, a very ancient deposit to which all mankind may claim. 28
1-1-6. the Playwrights of the Absurd
Although Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Jene, Arthur Adamove, Ferdinand Arrabal, Harold Pinter, and Edward Albee were geographically, historically, economically and even intellectually of entirely different backgrounds, each enjoying his peculiar constituental influences, yet they were labeled Absurdists. However, they refused to be enlisted or categorized under any school of drama. Each of them, at the same point in time, created his own stylistic method on which he tackled serious modern issues centered on man's existence and introduced grotesquely. Martin Esslin is so precise in specifying the concerns that preoccupied the Absurdists putting clear emphasis on the thematic question:
such a theatre is involved in the relatively few problems that remain: life death, isolation, and communication...it challenges the audience to make sense of the nonsense, to face the situation consciously rather than feel it vaguely, and perceive, with laughter, the fundamental absurdity 29
The Absurd theatre combined different contradicting attitudes of mythological, archetypal, allegorical vision, all unified by the dream-like quality. Despite the divergence of styles and the multipliable thematic layers of the Absurd, yet it could never be seen as attached from other modern trends. In other words, in spite of the all encompassing universal nature of Absurd theatre, it resulted from the same social and philosophical contexts that generated other movements and that they all deliver a message. Arnold P. Hinchcliffe remarks that the fundamental meaning in Absurd drama is to recreate the ruins of the modern civilizing man again:
Any writer is committed in the sense that his writings seek value in a valueless universe…if we agree that Anger theatre is topical, particular, and political, where as Absurd Theatre is timeless, universal, and philosophical, we should have to account for theatre of Cruelty which is Angry in intention and Absurd in impression. 30
Refusing to follow any logical order in creating his plot, Beckett and the host of Absurd playwrights, manifest their anti-Aristotelian attitude, which appeals to all the anti-realistic movements. Also, the characterization, featuring motiveless creations, explains a faithful adherence to Surrealistic modes of expressions especially in presenting subconscious hallucinations, nightmares, and buried dreams. Beckett harshly mocks every scientific interpretation of the phenomenon of existence based on objective observation. In this respect there is a close kinship between expressionism and Absurd in that both trends aimed at destroying the external shape of reality.
The nightmarish atmosphere into which the Absurdists made their characters speak nonsense indicates their keen insight of these Absurdists in asserting the crisis of communication among others. For them, man is entrapped in an unfriendly world; he is spiritually paralyzed and cruelly crippled by the ugliness of his inner reality. He lacks the ability to say what he means to articulate his endless frustration. This failure was farcically depicted through establishing a language characterized by clusters of coined, telescopic words, and a sequence of repetitive phrasing. By creating the impression of futility, the conversation was reduced to an exchange of ridiculous clichés. William .I Oliver explains why these playwrights insist on forcing the ineffectiveness of language. He asserts that:
it is only natural that they should question our means of communication. They are not inspecting semantics phenomena as semanticists. Rather, they are 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. 31
Ridiculing conventionalized and stereotyped speech patterns, Absurd playwrights try to make people aware of the possibility of freeing man from the superficiality of conventions. Absurdist plays feature circles of repetition and clichés like puppets and machines; Eugène Ionesco, a Romania pioneer of Absurd, was concerned with exploring the potentiality of language of distorting the intended meaning and blurring the boundaries among vocabularies. As he started to learn English he was not impressed by the lucidity of the second language but by time he found out otherwise.
A strange phenomenon took place. I don't know how--the text began imperceptibly to change before my eyes. The very simple, luminously clear statements I had copied so diligently into my notebook, left to themselves, fermented after a while, lost their original identity, expanded and overflowed. The clichés and truisms of the conversation primer, which had once made sense ... gave way to pseudo-clichés and pseudo-truisms; these disintegrated into wild caricature and parody, and in the end language disintegrated into disjointed fragments of words. 32
Hence, as modern theatre mocked all conventional media of expression, Absurd theatre considered language as totally deficient and unable to convey boundless frustrations that overwhelm the modern man. In Waiting for Godot, the nonsensical repetitive conversations of pair of tramps Vladimir and Estragon, Lucky and Pozzo, reduce these characters into mere puppets and machines. The aim of depicting semi-characters with nonsensical half sentences and clownish gestures accompanied by unharmonious intonation is to reflect the void of language.
Evacuating language of any significance brings it into a state of antithesis. That is to say, the assault voids language through a systematic process of deconstruction of its authenticity and leaves the basic ruins to be the essential materials of reconstructing it to a valid means of communication capable of lifting the audience to a superior intellectual world, which the Absurd playwrights advocated. This newly created world is of metaphysical nature; it follows that it does not follow the logical order of things because logic cannot give answers.
All Absurd playwrights, therefore, aim at creating “a metaphysical theatre, to change the metaphysical condition of man, to change life.” 33 The distortion of characters is another distinct feature of the Absurd theatre. The dehumanizing effect of modern societies created characters sharing hollowness and lack of uniqueness. Ionesco, for instance, looked at society as the heart of evil and he thought that theatre must defend the ego against the superego of society and its materialism and deadening conformity. Christopher Innes writes:
the pressures of conformity that have produced carbon-copy characters, whose activities and relationships are therefore arbitrary and nonsensical, are not exaggerated to reveal existence itself as absurd, but only the forms of social conditioning that destroy individuality. What is being attacked is the contemporary emphasis on rationality. With its accompanying materialism and devaluing of the subconscious or spiritual levels of the mind; a dualism which either produces a zombie-like vacuity, or perverts one half of the psyche into human violence. 34
In all its raging bursts and negative manifestations of human psyche that the Absurd declared, in spite of the sadistic and sardonic depiction of man's failure and helplessness in the universe, it still faces up to touch a little much beyond the physical phenomena of existence. It also recreates man’s confidence in his mental potentiality at least in living without illusion.
1-2-1. the Mythical Aspect in Modern American Drama
With the rise of the machine as a reflection of the age of industrialization, rural societies shrank finalizing an entire phase of the American consciousness. Complex urban communities replaced the rural primitive ones; it was no longer possible to preserve the most distinct characteristic of the rural life, simplicity.
By course of time, the advent of the machine was considered a turning point in people’s life.
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