The Canon: The Theatre of the Absurd. By Martin Esslin

June 18, 2009

Perhaps it's only books one meets at a young and impressionable age that become major landmarks on one's intellectual landscape. When Martin Esslin's book came out I was a teenager, fascinated - but frustrated - by Samuel Beckett and the first plays of Harold Pinter. And in the early 1960s The Theatre of the Absurd opened up their work, showing it as part of a radically new movement. Their plays may appear anarchically individualistic, stylistically incomprehensible and thematically so opaque as to be wildly irrational (as they did to me and many others at that time). However, Esslin showed they had coherent philosophic underpinnings, a definable aesthetic and links to the Surrealist and Post-Expressionist traditions. And he coined the term "absurdism", brilliantly switching an ordinary English word of abuse, "absurd", into the carrier of a complex set of reactions to the alienating context of contemporary existence.

It was a remarkable achievement of analysis and synthesis: one that Esslin was uniquely situated to undertake. Trained as dramaturge under the great Austrian impresario and director, Max Reinhardt - who had himself launched the Expressionist theatrical movement, a quarter of a century earlier - at the time he wrote The Theatre of the Absurd Esslin was assistant head of BBC Radio Drama. Appointed to head BBC Radio Drama in 1963, shortly after his book was published, he oversaw the production of an astonishing array of challenging new dramas for radio, echoing the radical developments taking place right then in the theatre, and helping to publicise the Absurdist movement he had defined. Indeed, the medium of radio seemed to have a particular affinity for the illogical structures and interior images of Absurd drama - so that Esslin was in exactly the right place to promote the movement; and his book was also informed by friendship with many of the dramatists he wrote about. For instance, in 1957, Esslin brought with him a tape recorder from London so that Beckett could listen to a tape of the BBC radio production of All That Fall - a gift that led to Beckett's next play, Krapp's Last Tape.

The cover of the mass-market paperback edition of The Theatre of the Absurd was just an uncompromising list of ten names in a deliberately anti-alphabetical layout: ADAMOV ALBEE GRASS BECKETT down to IONESCO PINTER FRISCH. At the time all were practically unknown: now it's difficult to find anyone not familiar with these writers. Three went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, a further three were elected Transcendent Satrape in the College de 'Pataphysique, while others were appointed to the Academie Francaise and the Legion d'Honneur, won Tonys and multiple Pulitzers, and Olivier, Spinoza, Pasolini and Georg Buchner prizes.

The remarkable prescience in selecting such a group of writers, most of whose careers had hardly begun, has itself validated Esslin's pathbreaking book (now in its eighth edition). But it could also be said that by explaining and popularising their work, The Theatre of the Absurd directly contributed to that success. This is a book that literally created the movement it defined, changing not only scholarly and public perceptions but also the nature of contemporary theatre.

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