When my A level group were looking for a style of theatre in which they wanted to devise a performance for their practical exam, I readily suggested Theatre of the Absurd; more doable than Naturalism; far less worthy than Didactic Theatre and less likely to involve something offensive and loud than Physical Theatre. Plus, I have always been a big fan and it’s always nice to teach something you are particularly passionate about. From the first moment I read Becket I was hooked…
…actually that isn’t entirely true; not true at all. I don’t remember being particularly taken with Waiting for Godot. I don’t think I liked it at all. It didn’t make an awful lot of sense and nothing much happened in it and I had to write an essay about the play, which is the surest way of killing off any enthusiasm for a subject there is.
But I suppose I must have forgotten about that, because I dived straight into preparing a detailed scheme of work to introduce my students to the wonders of the Theatre of the Absurd.
Coined in 1961, by Martin Esslin in his seminal book, The Theatre of the Absurd, the moniker has been assigned to a wide variety of plays of a certain style and nature. Though interestingly enough, none of the playwrights he wrote about, among them Ionesco, Beckett and Albee, ever claimed to be writing Absurdist Theatre. To them there was nothing absurd about what they were doing; it was simply how they saw the world.
I prepared my material and began my class with a quote from Esslin’s book that references Friedrich Nietszche in his book Thus Spake Zarathustra. ‘And so after two world wars there are still many who are coming to terms with the implications of Zarathustra’s message, searching for a way in which they can, with dignity, confront a universe deprived of what was once its centre and its living purpose, a world deprived of a generally accepted integrating principle, which has become disjointed, purposeless – absurd. Theatre of the Absurd is one of the expressions of this search.’
A sea of blank faces met my opening salvo, but undeterred I ploughed on, referencing a number of writers and philosophers they had never heard of and couldn’t care less about. My initial lesson died a death and it appeared I had achieved nothing more than distancing my students from this rich and funny theatrical style. I was forced to reconsider; to go back to the research I had done to attempt to find a different way into the topic and it was then that I remembered my initial feelings about Godot. How far removed from it I had initially felt. What was it that had changed my mind? Of course it was the comedy. The play is hilarious and it is a well-known fact that it owed a great deal to Vaudeville and Music Hall, but more specifically when looking back through my notes from school, I discovered a key scribble in a margin. In 1988 Steve Martin and Robin Williams had performed the play. These were the days before Youtube and it wasn’t as simple as looking up their performance online (a clip can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TazBIiAJtb0 ) but the sheer thought of these wonderful comedians, the stars of Good Morning Vietnam and Planes, Trains and Automobiles – themselves Absurdist in their own way - tackling this play, suddenly brought everything to life for me.
Two men appear on stage. They know, as do we, that what they’re giving is a performance and there is a certain poignancy in the fact that we know what Lou Costello does not and yet the invisible barrier between performer and audience means we can’t help him. The frustrations and nonsense that stems from the misunderstanding and that could be quickly rectified if Bud Abbott would just take a moment to explain to his companion, so succinctly captures the essence of Theatre of the Absurd. For it is fundamentally about human communication or the lack of it; our inability to understand each other or the world around us. The fact that so often the solutions are always just out of reach and the fact that language is so often a barrier to communication when it should be a gateway, adds both to the humour and the tragedy of our lives. When Lou, filled with frustration shouts, “I don’t even know what I’m talking about!” He could be a Vladimir cowering from Lucky or Berenger in most of Ionesco’s plays.
From Abbott and Costello we did a whirlwind tour of comedy, Martin and Lewis, Morecambe and Wise onto Eddie Izzard and Michael Macintyre, all the time drawing parallels to the plays of Eugene Ionesco and Edward Albee, of Pinter and Stoppard and Adamov and from there we went darker into the plays of Genet. The original philosophies and theories that I had begun with merged seamlessly into the study and the students went onto to devise a wonderful play about a music teacher who had mistaken his female student for a Tuba; magical.
It is always useful to be reminded that there is a thin line between the academic and the popular and that the latter is as rich a mine of information and inspiration as the former. Theatre of the Absurd is such a wonderful style of theatre because it strikes right to the heart of what it means to be a human being; our confusion or to quote Lou Costello one last time, “I throw the ball to Who. Whoever it is drops the ball and the guy runs to second. Who picks up the ball and throws it to What. What throws it to I Don't Know. I Don't Know throws it back to Tomorrow, Triple play. Another guy gets up and hits a long fly ball to Because. Why? I don't know! He's on third and I don't give a darn!”
And if those aren’t words to live by, I don’t know what are.
Rob Messik is a drama teacher and director of theatre at King Alfred School in London.