Literary and Critical Theory Theatre of the Absurd
Michael Y. Bennett
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0094


Coined and first theorized by BBC Radio drama critic Martin Esslin in a 1960 article and a 1961 book of the same name, the “Theatre of the Absurd” is a literary and theatrical term used to describe a disparate group of avant-garde plays by a number of mostly European or American avant-garde playwrights whose theatrical careers, generally, began in the 1950s and 1960s. Of the playwrights and writers (whether or not accurately) associated with this movement that has not been self-proclaimed, four were awarded Nobel Prizes in Literature: Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre (who refused the award). Other major playwrights associated with the absurd are Edward Albee, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet (among other important and minor playwrights). Often misconstrued as existentialist or nihilistic plays, they signaled the end of theatrical “modernism.” As such, some of these plays are considered among the most important and influential plays of the 20th century in their own right. As a group of plays, the Theatre of the Absurd, or known more casually as “absurd theater” or “absurd drama,” is widely considered, if not the most, certainly one of the most important theatrical movements of the second half of the 20th century. Besides leaving a treasure trove of important avant-garde plays, absurd drama and dramatists have left as possibly their greatest legacy, namely, that the tragicomic worldview of these plays has been subsumed by mainstream plays. Indeed, tragicomedy has become the default theatrical genre over the past five or so decades.

General Overviews

The first book-length theorization of the Theatre of the Absurd is Esslin 1961, with an important expanded second edition, Esslin 1969. Books that followed on the heels of Esslin 1961 and Esslin 1969 that also try to theorize these works in slightly different ways are Styan 1968, Hinchcliffe 1969, Wellwarth 1971, and Mayberry 1989. Later books, Brater and Cohn 1990 and Demastes 1998, look back upon the movement while also looking forward to the movement’s legacy. Cornwell 2006 is a major survey of the absurd, not only in its theatrical context, but also as the first that also includes writers of fiction and poetry. Bennett 2011 provides the first major challenge to a reevaluation of the Theatre of the Absurd, as theorized in Esslin 1961 and Esslin 1969. Bennett 2015 is the first comprehensive and authoritative book-length introduction for the general reader that also contains new scholarly assertions. Querido 2017 builds upon the field’s recent reevaluations of the absurd.

  • Bennett, Michael Y. Reassessing the Theatre of the Absurd: Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230118829

    The first work to offer a sustained challenge to Esslin 1961 and Esslin 1969, the author uses an up-to-date understanding of the philosophy of Albert Camus to suggest that the plays associated with the absurd, instead of purporting the meaninglessness of life found in Esslin 1961 and Esslin 1969, are rather ethical parables that force the audience to make meaning out of both the plays as well as their own situations.

  • Bennett, Michael Y. The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre and Literature of the Absurd. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107284265

    A reader-friendly introduction that also makes many new assertions, this book offers structural and non-reductionist ways to understand the common threads found in the plays and playwrights (and also writers and poets) associated with the absurd.

  • Brater, Enoch, and Ruby Cohn, eds. Around the Absurd: Essays on Modern and Postmodern Drama. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990.

    A very important collection of essays by many leading scholars that evaluates, largely, the legacy of absurd drama. This book offers a good snapshot of the legacy of the absurd shortly after the heyday of absurd drama.

  • Cornwell, Neil. The Absurd in Literature. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719074097.001.0001

    A very readable and extensive survey, not only of absurd drama, but also of the absurd in other literary genres. Many precursors to the Theatre of the Absurd are explored in this well-researched survey.

  • Demastes, William W. Theatre of Chaos: Beyond Absurdism, into Orderly Disorder. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    Taking a creative approach to understanding absurd drama, this book reflects upon the order and the disorder found in many absurd plays by examining them through the lens of “chaos theory” (in the hard sciences).

  • Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.” Tulane Drama Review 4.4 (1960): 3–15.

    DOI: 10.2307/1124873

    The article by the author who originally coined the term, and first theorized, the “Theatre of the Absurd.” This article serves as the basis for Esslin 1961.

  • Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961.

    The seminal book in which the author coined the term “Theatre of the Absurd” and, in many ways, the work that is credited for the enduring importance of these plays. The author suggests that these plays should not be judged against the standards of traditional drama, but by the standards set forth in this book, which argues that these plays purport, and theatrically mirror, the “sense of senselessness” and “metaphysical anguish at the absurdity of the human condition” (p. xix).

  • Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. 2d ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969.

    An important, greatly expanded second edition of Esslin 1961, this book includes a far greater number of plays and playwrights than found in the former volume.

  • Hinchcliffe, Arnold P. The Absurd. London: Methuen, 1969.

    An excellent, albeit short, overview of scholarly engagement connected to the term “Theatre of the Absurd.”

  • Mayberry, Bob. Theatre of Discord: Dissonance in Beckett, Albee, and Pinter. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.

    A title that describes its main thesis, this book uses the related ideas of discord and dissonance to characterize the work of Beckett, Albee, and Pinter, who are, without doubt, the three most important native-born English-language playwrights of the absurd.

  • Querido, Pedro. “From Kharms to Camus: Towards a Definition of the Absurd as Resistance.” The Modern Language Review 112.4 (2017): 765–792.

    DOI: 10.5699/modelangrevi.112.4.0765

    An impressive, well-researched article that cites many of the texts in this article, the author effectively builds on Bennett 2011 and Bennett 2015 to suggest that there is a common idea of “resistance” in absurd works.

  • Styan, J. L. The Dark Comedy: The Development of Modern Comic Tragedy. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511554254

    Another title that describes its overarching argument, this book traces some of the aspects of tragicomedy found in absurd drama to characterize these plays, ultimately, as dark comedies.

  • Wellwarth, George. The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama. Rev. ed. New York: New York University Press, 1971.

    Yet another title that describes its exact argument, this book offers another alternative way to group/see absurd plays: that of avant-garde plays of protest that also employ the use of paradox.

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