Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Absurd and How To Deal With It

Why should anyone care about the theater of the absurd?  I found myself arguing about this with a colleague a while back.  We’ been thinking about a graduate seminar on the culture of the first half of the 20th century, and arguing about what to include in the impossibly ambitious syllabus.  I’d made a case for including Beckett, and my colleague, a historian, had argued against including him.  When pressed, I found I had little to say about the historical significance of Beckett’s work or, indeed, about the significance of any works in the theater of the absurd.  And yet I felt, and still feel, that there’s something important about Arrabal and Beckett and Ionesco and all the rest, something of social significance, not limited to the particulars of any particular play.  It’s just such a strange thing to have happened, the theater of the absurd.  But what’s important about it?  I know the issue’s been eating at me, since I dreamed, the other night, about Foursome, one of Ionesco’s short plays.  I went back and read it yesterday, and somewhere about halfway through the things I wished I could have said to my colleague started to become clear to me.  In the end, I think the flourishing of the theater of the absurd in the 1940s and 50s tells us a great deal about the position of the arts in society during that time, and about the alienation of artists from the larger culture around them.

My personal touchstone for the idea of absurdity comes from a passage in Camus in which we’re told about a man talking on a telephone in one of those old-fashioned glassed-in phone booths.  The man talks but, says Camus, “we cannot hear him beyond the glass partition, but we can see his senseless mimicry. We wonder why he is alive.”  The man’s expressions and gestures have the form of an emotionally engaged person, but from our position beyond the glass we are deprived of any meaningful context for those gestures.  We have the forms of life without any meanings or values attached to them — and that is the world of the absurd, of a universe that refuses to give us any transcendent values.  The theater of the absurd works this way, giving us the elements of meaningful drama without much by way of a specific meaning attaching to them.  It’s important, for example, that the Godot of Waiting for Godot is never specified: is Godot God, or the Revolution, or the bearer of wealth or significant messages?  No.  He’s an empty signifier, and so his arrival or non-arrival become deprived of specific meaning.  The hijinks and pratfalls and yearning speeches of Vladimir and Estragon have the form of meaningful yearning and frustration, but they’re not attached to any specific object, so in the end they are difficult to judge, or sympathize with.  They are the gestures of the man on the other side of the phone booth’s glass.

Consider Ionesco’s Fourplay (or Scène a quatre).  Already the title indicates that we’re dealing with the form of drama more than the content.  It refers to the four characters in the one act — de-emphasizing content for form, just as the sight of the man on the phone behind glass emphasizes the form of his gestures, not the content of his conversation.  It’s as if Shakespeare, instead of calling his greatest play King Lear, chose to call it One Bad Decision and its Consequences.

The play opens with a scene that is a kind of abstract, version of the core of drama: we have two characters in conflict.  But the conflict is without any content.  Two characters pace around, going in circles in opposite directions.  When they collide, they speak and reverse direction:


It’s primal dramatic stuff to begin with a conflict, but here the conflict is without any kind of content, at least not that we know about, nor do we find out about it as the conflict elaborates.  There is no way to pick sides, no one with whom to sympathize.  The two characters are even costume identically, so it is impossible to find some value system based on visual cues (a landlord vs. a proletarian, for example).  In Lear Shakespeare gave us the selfish, scheming modern individualism of Edmund vs. the traditional feudal loyalty of Edgar, so there was something emotional, political, and ethical at stake in their conflict.  Ionesco’s giving us nothing — he keeps the glass wall up between us and these characters, allowing us to see their gestures and their conflict without letting us attach value to that conflict.  The absurd, indeed!

Later, when we’ve seen some variations of this “yes!” “no!” conflict, Ionesco changes things up a bit:

DURAND: You don’t need to keep on saying yes to me, it’s no, no…NO.
DUPONT: You are pigheaded, you can see very well that you’re pigheaded…
DURAND: You’re reversing our roles, my friend…

The “yes” man Durand has become the “no” man, and Dupont calls him on it.  It’s a classic dramatic move to have the nature of a conflict reverse.  Think of David Mamet’s Oleanna: the professor, John, begins as the empowered one on the offensive, abusing his privilege; later the formerly disempowered student Carol goes on the offensive, abusing her newfound empowerment every bit as much as John had abused his power.  But in Mamet’s play, something’s at stake: the complex gender and generational power dynamics of life in the late 20th century university, where a highly localized, limited empowerment of women was challenging an institutionally fading, if socially prevalent, empowerment of men.  The characters stand for something, and their conflict means something, and connects to the issues faced by real people in the real world.  Ionesco’s done away with all that, leaving us with the form of a reversal in conflict detached from any values we can identify or about which we can care.  It’s a pretty radical gesture.  There’s a kind of themelessness in place of theme, and a kind of characterlessness in place of character.  It’s like getting the sketch or blueprint of a play without any concession to the particular values or interests we associate with content.

Of course we’ve only met two characters so far, and the title promises us four.  At this point we meet a third character, Martin, costumed (significantly) identically to Durand and Dupont.  When he enters, we may think we’re in for some meaningful intervention in this empty conflict.  But at first what we get, instead, is some meta-dramatic comedy.  “Oh…stop being so stupid…” says Martin, “Characters in a play don’t always have to be more stupid than in real life.”  But this meta-dramatic comedy leads no where: there’s no revelation about the meaning of drama.  And soon enough Martin becomes a part of another classic dramatic device, the triangular conflict.  We see moments when Martin is at odds with Dupont who is at odds with Durand who is at odds with Martin, and go through various permutations and combinations, with two characters at odds with one, followed by realignments.  I haven’t checked, but it’s possible Ionesco puts us through all the possible options of alliance and conflict, all the while keeping the nature of the conflict as empty as it was in the initial conflict of “yes” vs. “no.”  In essence, we still see only Camus’ man behind glass, full of gestures that, for us, have no content.  No specific values seem to be at stake in this absurd universe of ignorant nitwits clashing by night.

It’s at this point that a fourth character enters, along with the hope that we may be delivered from absurdity.  This character is different: a well-dressed woman with a fashionable handbag.  She enters the conflict, but not in the same way: she’s the object of desire, with Durand, Dupont, and Martin each claiming that she is his fiancée.  They struggle over her, and gradually she becomes disheveled, losing her handbag, her gloves, and other pieces of clothing as they pull her this way and that.  It’s significant that no one character seems to have a greater claim on her than any other: this isn’t a matter of true love and the virtuous suitor winning out over villains.  It’s a group of three ham-handed stumblebums, between which there is nothing to choose.

But if we can’t choose, the woman can, and she does, in the play’s abrupt conclusion:

THE LADY [to the three men]: Leave me alone, all of you.
DURAND, DUPONT, MARTIN [astonished]: Me? Me? Me?
[All movement stops.  The LADY, rumpled, unhooked, winded, half undressed, moves down to the footlights.]
THE LADY: Ladies and gentlemen, I agree with you entirely.  This is completely idiotic.

This is the really interesting point, and the payoff for sitting through a short play that, despite some wonderful business involving potted plants being handed around, threatened, by virtue of it’s very refusal of specific values in conflict, to be utterly boring.  But what’s it all about?  Is Ionesco condemning the meaninglessness of an absurd world?  Is he bemoaning the fate of a world without values?  I almost want to say yes.  But not so fast: the world isn’t condemned, here: the play is.  And it isn’t Ionesco doing the condemning: it’s the audience, or at least the audience as he’s written it into the play.  And then the real question arises: what’s the significance of Ionesco’s sense that this play, so caught up in the forms of drama, and so cut off from an ordinary audience’s concern with values in which it can feel a stake?  Is the play (prior to the ending) in the right?  Or is the implied audience of the play’s ending correct?

One way to understand what’s at stake in the ending of “Fourplay” is to look at the claims made for the theater of the absurd by Martin Esslin (the man who coined the very term “theater of the absurd”) and to run them against the ideas of one of modernist art’s most articulate opponents, José Ortega y Gasset.

Esslin, in his 1961 study The Theater of the Absurd, tells us that theater has suffered an “apparent eclipse” with the rise of mass culture forms like television and film.  Theater has become an art for the few, and it’s forms and values reflect that, becoming less sentimental, more cerebral, more challenging.  This, though, is not to be taken as a sign of marginality or obsolescence.  In a move as old as that of P.B. Shelley in “Defense of Poetry,” Esslin claims an enormous importance for an apparently marginal art.  The mass media, he says, are “too ponderous and costly to indulge in much experiment and innovation,” so true innovation will come from the stage, especially the stage of absurdist playwrights like Ionesco.  “The avant-garde of the theater today is, more likely than not, the main influence on the mass media of tomorrow, and the mass media, in turn, shape a great deal of the thought and feeling of people throughout the Western world.”  The absurdist playwright may not appeal to many people initially — indeed, they may, like Ionesco’s implied audience, find avant-garde productions “completely idiotic.”  But fret not!  Such initial unpopularity is only initial: in the long game, absurdist playwrights will be the unacknowledged legislators of the world.  “Thus,” says Esslin, “the type of theater discussed in this book is by no means of concern only to a narrow circle of intellectuals.  It may provide a new language, new ideas, new approaches, and a new, vitalized philosophy to transform the modes of thought and feeling of the public at large in a not too distant future.”

If we look at Ionesco’s play from something like Esslin’s point of view, the joke, at the end, is on the audience.  They’ve been given a play stripped of all sentimentality, a play that shows us a truly absurd world, where there’s nothing to choose between the sides on major conflicts, where there’s no coaching about what to value, where we’re very much out on our existential own with regard to the question of values.  King Lear chooses for us, holding up the hierarchical Edgar over the individualistic Edmund (a position we might not, if we really looked at the play critically, find all that sympathetic).  Foursome refuses to do that thinking for us.  In this view, the woman at the end, when she invites the audience to share her views, is offering a kind of cop-out, a chance to be inauthentic, and to accept her views because they’re easy, and articulated for us.  The implied audience that condemns the play is like Esslin’s mass media audience.  But fret not!  The absurdist truths will strike some of the crowd, and their views will be the influential and important ones, spreading slowly out.  It’ll be the most creative and clever audience members who see past the cop-out ending, and they’ll let the absurdist view enter their work in the cultural sectors, and slowly, slowly, the ordinary schmucks will catch on to the new, unsentimental worldview.

That’s one way of seeing things.  But consider another perspective, one that opens up to us when we think about modern drama from the point of view of Ortega y Gasset.  In The Dehumanization of Art (which predates Ionesco’s play).  If Esslin’s view of the audience for works of art like Foursome is that the challenging nature of the work will eventually win out, first appealing to the most independent-minded intellectuals and eventually seeping out into society in that vauge, Shelleyan way, Ortega takes quite the opposite view.  Modern art, he says, “will always have the masses against it.  It is essentially unpopular; moreover, it is antipopular.”

Ortega’s argument runs like this: the majority of people do not admire art for its specifically artistic or formal qualities.  Rather, the man on the street “likes a play when he has become interested in the human destinies presented to him, when the love and hatred, the joys and sorrows of the personages so move his heart that he participates in it as though it were happening in real life.”  The masses want emotional participation when they see a dramatic conflict — exactly the sort of thing that Ionesco denies them in the conflicts of Fourplay.  Ortega continues describing the masses, saying “by art they understand a means though which they are brought into contact with interesting human affairs.  Artistic forms proper — figments, fantasy — are tolerated only if they do not interfere with the perception of human forms and fates.  As soon as purely aesthetic elements predominate and the story of John and Mary grows elusive, most people feel out of their depth and are at a loss what to make of the scene…”

Now comes the really interesting part of Ortega’s argument.  “Pirandello’s drama,” he says (naming a favorite precursor of absurdism) has “the sociological effect of compelling the people to recognize itself for what it is: a component among others of the social structure… On the other hand, the new art also helps the elite to recognize themselves and one another in the drab mass of society and to learn their mission which consists in being few and holding their own against the many.”  It all sounds very Pierre Bourdieu, doesn’t it?  Art that foregrounds form (as does Ionesco’s), and that doesn’t allow for easy emotional identification with characters and their values (as Ionesco’s doesn’t) forces the majority of people to see that they are not the whole of society.  They may be great in numbers, but they and their tastes aren’t the only game in town.  And such art shows the intellectual or cultural elite that they, too, are a class of sorts.  It helps them find one another, and gives them courage to represent their (minority) values against the majority.

Looking at the ending of Ionesco’s Foresome from an Ortegan point of view, we see a special challenge for the audience: the lady, leaving the stage and joining the audience, offers to speak for that audience, and condemn the rest of the play.  Those who’ve been alienated by what they’ve seen may applaud happily at her action.  But those who find themselves with a kind of wry, knowing smile will see that Ionesco has set up a complex conflict—a conflict between an absurdist play that refuses to dictate values to us, and a non-absurdist ending, that offers to dismiss the play.  Between these two elements of the audience there will be no agreement.  Indeed, the function of the play is not what it would be for Esslin (the beginning of a slow process of the conversion of the many by the few).  Rather, it would be the spark that creates an awareness that there is a real division between the few and the many.

To my mind, the real value of putting an absurdist playwright like Beckett or Ionesco on the syllabus of a seminar on modern culture would be to open up a discussion about the question of elite or minority tastes and mass audience.  Clearly, such theater poses the question starkly.  And whether we take Esslin’s view, or Ortega’s, or some other perspective, any discussion of modern culture in the early twentieth century needs to address the deliberate unpopularity of the kinds of art so many of the greatest geniuses of the period produced.


  1. How can the historical significance of absurdism be so hard to place? At a particular moment in time--right when some saw human history as having advanced, in WW2 and the Cold War, to its point of highest moral clarity--a number of writers and intellectuals saw such questions as fundamentally absurd, and wrote literature to indicate such absurdity. That seems particularly historically significant to me.

    But now that we're in the "discussion about the question of elite or minority tastes and mass audience," I've got to say that I find the Ortega y Gasset formulation particularly uncompelling. Basically, it's the same right-wing p.o.v. you always get: the people are a certain way, they've always been that way, and they'll always be that way. There's never any consideration of different people having different opinions, let alone of people changing, or of the structural forces that have made them this way--the structural reasons, for instance, that "Artistic forms proper" might be "tolerated only if they do not interfere with the perception of human forms and fates." This is not to say that the Left formulation expressed here is problem-free--it seems to fall into the old logical trap of Nietzscheanism: if every individual is to overcome society, then we'll have a new society that again overcomes all individuals--and against which Ortega y Gasset can cry (disingenuously, like the Republican Party) "elitism!" and say avant-garde art exists so the few can "recognize themselves and one another in the drab mass of society and ... [hold] their own against the many."

    This problem aside, though, avant-gardism does believe that art's purpose is not to leave us be, but to lead us, to push us, and to pull us, and in that, it becomes part of a vision of partipatory democracy--and it's the participation, of course, that makes democracy democratic. As César Chávez said, "We don't need perfect political systems; we need perfect participation."

  2. I do think Ortega had a point, back in the 20s, about the nature of popular taste -- his book very much anticipate's the work Bourdieu did in "Distinction," about the "popular aesthetic" vs. the "pure gaze." But yeah, there's not much about the structural reasons for this state of affairs.

    If that's what you're after, I think the best explanation about what happened to differentiate popular taste from modernist taste is implicit in T.W. Heyck's "The Structural Transformation of Intellectual Life in Victorian England," although one has to kind of extrapolate a bit to get into the modern era. D.L. LeMahieu's book "A Culture for Democracy" picks up with these issues for the era between the wars.

    I'm sure you're right about the avant-garde desire for a kind of participatory democratic art. But I think we have to look at democratic urges it in the context of the (frequent) unpopularity of the avant-garde. Ortega's analysis is a challenge, here, one worth responding to, I think -- and I'm not sure the old Shelleyean "unacknowledged legislator's" argument is an adequate response. I mean, it relies on a view of posterity of which we can't really be very certain.


  3. I haven't read Ortega beyond how you represent him, but I'll go along with your notion that he anticipates Bourdieu, except: my sense of Bourdieu is that he's saying, "class is behind everything, often in complex ways, even the rejection of class." So there's class behind the liking of avant-garde art--but not, for Ortega, behind the plainspoken, content-forward art that avant-gardism stands against. I guess I have a Roland Barthes view of this: just like he said “the bourgeoisie is defined as the social class which does not want to be named,” what's called "realism"--because it's become the default literary genre, and doesn't want to be named--is also governed by the bourgeoisie. Never mind that it wasn't always the default mode, or even that most people who like it are not themselves part of the bourgeoisie--this is exactly what makes its rule unnameable, and is behind its desire, at least in its present iteration, to keep its readers out of participation.

    That's the extremist expression of my standpoint, anyway. The realities are, of course, a touch more complicated. And I should also mention that I've got some real problems with the "praxis" of some other writers--the Languagey types, for instance--whom I agree with in theory.


  4. The way Ortega anticipates Bourdieu is this: each of them sees popular taste as something that eschews formalism, wants emotional participation, and is far from disinterested, in the Kantian sense of making a judgment that has nothing to do with, say, liking a piece of art because it is about the kind of person you can identify with. In distinction Bourdieu calls the Kantian thing the "pure gaze" and the other thing "the popular aesthetic," and he argues that (in France up to the time of his book) the "pure gaze" gets prestige and the "popular aesthetic" is looked down on by elites. Ortega has very much the same view, though he's more of a pessimist -- writing in the 20s, he sees modernism, which for him appeals to the kind of consumption Kant would call the "pure gaze," as a permanently minority viewpoint, of artists for artists and other specialists. Ortega certainly sees class behind the older kind of art he sees the avant-garde challenging: in fact, he sees something like the bourgeoisie behind it, with bourgeoise artists speaking of and to the bourgeois public. He sees the avant-garde as a small sub-class of artists speaking mostly to itself. The title essay of "The Dehumanization of Art" is only about 60 pages, and worth a look, though one hardly expects to agree with everything in it.

    I get the whole dada/surrealist urge to break down the barriers between art & audience, to make the audience into active co-creators (I'm with Peter Burger on this stuff). I'm skeptical about how successful this was except for a small minority of people. You know, like us.


  5. I guess I should add: I'm less interested in beginning with the premise that the avant-garde is necessarily good (or bad), and more interested in how it has actually functioned for the last century or so. I don't want to begin an argument with the assumption that experimental art should be defended. I'm aiming at an (impossible to approach except by degrees) disinterested analysis, just so I can better understand what's been going on. It makes for some difficulties: half of the people I'm in touch with assume I'm attacking the a-g; the other half think I'm defending it. My aim, however imperfectly attained, is neither.

  6. I for one don't think you're criticizing the avant-garde, Bob. And I also think it's worth mentioning that what the avant-garde looked like when Ortega was writing was very different from what the avant-garde looks like today. There's really no doubt that Eliot & Pound were elitist, but that doesn't mean that people who have learned from them, and infused them with their radicalism, are also elitist just because they're also exploiting forms. As an academic, I think the difference between then and now would be a necessary element to any discussion of how the a/g "has actually functioned"; as a partisan avant-gardiste, I writhe at the accusation that my taste makes me "elitist."


    1. Sounds like we're on the same page. About Bourdieu and elite taste: in "Distinction" he means a social elite, which he sees as preferring art that asks to be looked at with attention to form (either by how it is put together, or how it is displayed) and is mostly indifferent to content (so: appreciating a painting for its composition, as opposed to appreciating it because it is patriotic, or of a cute kitten, or whatever). I think what he said was more true of France in the 60s and 70s than of America now.


  7. This struck me as a relevant discussion:


  8. That's an interesting essay -- I might have to get the book.

    In the book I'm working on now, I've finished a chapter on what happens to poetry after the rise of mass publishing, mass literacy, and a whole new business model for publishing. I've tried to avoid the term "elite" there, and ended up speaking of "minority culture" literacy, vs. popular or commercial culture. I think that model holds up pretty well for the period from, say, 1885 to about 1940, then things start to look different.