The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The Absurd

BEFORE

1942 The narrator of Albert Camus’ novel The Outsider expresses a typical Absurdist belief: “I laid my heart open to the gentle indifference of the universe.”

AFTER

1959 Les Nègres, a play by French writer Jean Genet, shocks audiences by using black actors whited up.

1959 In Rhinocéros by Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco, characters turn into rhinoceroses and wreak havoc, indicating the absurdity of a world where ordinary people change into fascist monsters.

1960 English writer Harold Pinter’s play The Caretaker owes a great debt to Beckett in its lack of plot and its oblique dialogue, full of tangents and offbeat implications.

The Theatre of the Absurd, in which the acclaimed Irish writer Samuel Beckett (1906–1989) played a major role, subverted the norms of art and life by entertaining the idea that any meaning in the universe would always elude our attempts to discover it. “He leaves no stone unturned,” said English playwright Harold Pinter admiringly of Beckett, “and no maggot lonely”. In both his plays and his fiction, Beckett gave voice to the inarticulate – damaged souls, without hope and with only pathetic consolations, facing the brute truths of existence.

Words in orbit

The play Waiting for Godot (originally written in French, like much of Beckett’s work) features two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon. Their dialogue is a tragicomic dance of ideas, and the action defies common sense. Another character, Lucky, led on a rope by his master, Pozzo, says nothing initially but later spews out a surreal 700-word unpunctuated monologue with phrases that have no meaning. The speech stops only when Vladimir pulls off Lucky’s hat, causing him to break off mid-sentence – an example of Beckett’s debt to vaudeville comedy and, more specifically, to comedians Laurel and Hardy. The tramps are waiting for Godot, but this character never turns up, and has been seen as a stand-in for God, often referred to but also absent – an analysis that irritated Beckett, although he conceded its plausibility.

"Joyce was a synthesizer, trying to bring in as much as he could. I am an analyser, trying to leave out as much as I can."

Samuel Beckett

See also: Metamorphosis • The Trial • Nausea • The Outsider