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A Dictionary of Critical Theory

Ian Buchanan


A term created by theatre critic Martin Esslin in his 1961 book, The Theatre of the Absurd, to encompass a wide range of works produced in the two decades after World War II which seem to dramatize Albert Camus' philosophical position in Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942), translated as The Myth of Sisyphus (2005), that life is inherently absurd. Esslin identified Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov, later adding Harold Pinter to the list, as authors whose work typifies what he means by absurd. Although the work of these authors varies quite widely, it shares in common the creation of impossible situations, wordplay, a pervasive but indefinable sense of menace coupled with seemingly random explosions of violence. The absurd is closely related to the work of the Dadaists and Surrealists; it also claims Alfred Jarry's notion of 'pataphysics and Antonin Artaud's theatre of cruelty as its precursors. Although the term was originally conceived to describe theatrical productions, its use has grown more general to encompass a wide range of texts sharing the same qualities. Outside of the theatre, the work of Czech writer Franz Kafka would certainly qualify as Absurdist as would the work of Polish author Witold Gombrowicz. But it is not just a literary or ‘high art’ phenomenon. Today, one could point to The Simpsons and South Park as continuing examples of what Absurdism might mean. Certainly, Homer Simpson's great line ‘it's funny because it's true’ is utterly Absurdist in spirit.