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Martin Esslin (1918 – 2002)

Hungarian-born English producer and playwright dramatist, journalist, adaptor and translator, critic, academic scholar and professor of drama most famous for coining the term "Theatre of the Absurd" in his 1961 work of that name, critiquing mid-twentieth century forms of Absurdism in dramatic theatre.
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Martin Esslin
The Theatre of the Absurd can be seen as the reflection of what seems to be the attitude most genuinely representative of our own time. ? The hallmark of this attitude is its sense that the certitudes and unshakable basic assumptions of former ages have been swept away, that they have been tested and found wanting, that they have been discredited as cheap and somewhat childish illusions. The decline of religious faith was masked until the end of the Second World War by the substitute religions of faith in progress, nationalism, and various totalitarian fallacies. All this was shattered by the war.
Esslin quotes
The "Theatre of the Absurd" has become a catch-phrase, much used and much abused. What does it stand for? And how can such a label be justified? Perhaps it will be best to attempt to answer the second question first. There is no organised movement, no school of artists, who claim the label for themselves. A good many playwrights who have been classed under this label, when asked if they belong to the Theatre of the Absurd, will indigniantly reply that they belong to no such movement and quite rightly so. For each of the playwrights concerned seeks to express no more and no less his own personal vision of the world.
Yet critical concepts of this kind are useful when new modes of expression, new conventions of art arise.
? "Absurd" originally means "out of harmony," in a musical context. Hence its dictionary definition: "out of harmony with reason or propriety; incongruous, unreasonable, illogical." In common usage, "absurd" may simply mean "ridiculous," but this is not the sense in which Camus uses the word, and in which it is used when we speak of the Theatre of the Absurd. In an essay on Kafka, Ionesco defined his understanding of the term as follows: "Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose. . . . Cut from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless."

Esslin Martin quotes
The Theatre of the Absurd has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being that is, in terms of concrete stage images. This is the difference between the approach of the philosopher and that of the poet; the difference, to take an example from another sphere, between the idea of God in the works of Thomas Aquinas or Spinoza and the intuition of God in those of St. John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart the difference between theory and experience.
Esslin Martin
The Theatre of the Absurd strives to express its sense of the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought. While Sartre or Camus express the new content in the old convention, the Theatre of the Absurd goes a step further in trying to achieve a unity between its basic assumptions and the form in which these are expressed. In some senses, the theatre of Sartre and Camus is less adequate as an expression of the philosophy of Sartre and Camus in artistic, as distinct from philosophic, terms than the Theatre of the Absurd.
Martin Esslin quotes
The Theatre of the Absurd attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy. It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it. But the challenge behind this message is anything but one of despair. It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity, and to bear it with dignity, nobly, responsibly; precisely because there are no easy solutions to the mysteries of existence, because ultimately man is alone in a meaningless world. The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.
Martin Esslin
In an age of increasing specialisation, he had a refreshing breadth of vision, while his penetrating mind could quickly comprehend when something new and important was happening in the arts. He could explain the complex in a straightforward and lucid manner, and his judgments were invaluable. His book The Theatre Of The Absurd was the most influential theatrical text of the 1960s.
Esslin Martin quotes
The "poetic avant-garde" relies on fantasy and dream reality as much as the Theatre of the Absurd does; it also disregards such traditional axioms as that of the basic unity and consistency of each character or the need for a plot. Yet basically the "poetic avant-garde" represents a different mood; it is more lyrical, and far less violent and grotesque. Even more important is its different attitude toward language: the "poetic avant-garde" relies to a far greater extent on consciously "poetic" speech; it aspires to plays that are in effect poems, images composed of a rich web of verbal associations.
The Theatre of the Absurd, on the other hand, tends toward a radical devaluation of language, toward a poetry that is to emerge from the concrete and objectified images of the stage itself. The element of language still plays an important part in this conception, but what happens on the stage transcends, and often contradicts, the words spoken by the characters. In Ionesco's The Chairs, for example, the poetic content of a powerfully poetic play does not lie in the banal words that are uttered but in the fact that they are spoken to an ever-growing number of empty chairs.
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