The term is applied to a number of works in drama and prose fiction which have in common the sense that the human condition is essentially and ineradicably absurd, and that this condition can be adequately represented only in works of literature that are themselves absurd. Both the mood and dramaturgy of absurdity were anticipated as early as 1896 in Alfred Jarry's French play Ubu roi (Ubu the King). The literature has its roots also in the movements of expressionism and surrealism, as well as in the fiction, written in the 1920s, of Franz Kafka (The Trial, Metamorphosis). The current movement, however, emerged in France after the horrors of World War II, as a rebellion against essential beliefs and values both of traditional culture and traditional literature. This earlier tradition had included the assumptions that human beings are fairly rational creatures who live in an at least partially-intelligible universe, that they are part of an ordered social structure, and that they may be capable of heroism and dignity even in defeat. After the 1940s, however, there was a widespread tendency, especially prominent in the existential philosophy of men of letters such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, to view a human being as an isolated existent who is cast into an alien universe, to conceive the universe as possessing no inherent truth, value, or meaning, and to represent human life, as it moves from the nothingness whence it came toward the nothingness where it must end, as an existence which is both anguished and absurd. As Camus said in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942),
In a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile. . . . This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his settting, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity.
Or as Eugene Ionesco, a leading French writer of absurd drama, including The Chairs (1952), has put it: "Cut off his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless." He also said, in commenting on the mixture of moods in the literature of the absurd: "People drowning in meaninglessness can only be grotesque, their sufferings can only appear tragic by derision."
Samuel Beckett (1906-89), the most eminent and influential of writers in this mode, was an Irishman living in Paris who often wrote in French and then translated his works into English. His plays project the irrationalism, helplessness, and absurdity of life, in dramatic forms that reject realistic settings, logical reasoning, or a coherently evolving plot. Waiting for Godot (1955) presents two tramps in a waste place, fruitlessly and all but hopelessly waiting for an unidentified person, Godot, who may or may not exist and with whom they sometimes think they remember that they may have an appointment; as one of them remarks, "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful." Like most works in this mode, the play is "absurd" in the double sense that it is grotesquely comic and also irrational and non-consequential; it is a parody not only of the traditional assumptions of Western culture, but of the oncentions and generic distinctions in traditional drama, and even of its own inescapable participation in the dramatic medium. The lucid but eddying and pointless dialogue is often funny, and pratfalls and other modes of slapstick are used to project metaphysical alienation and tragic anguish. Beckett's prose fiction, such as Malone Dies (1958) and The Unnamable (1960), present an antiero who plays out the absurd moves of the end game of civilization in a nonwork which tends to undermine the coherence of its own medium, language itself. But typically, Beckett's characters carry on, even if in a life without purpose, trying to make sense of the senseless and to communicate the uncommunicable.
Another French playwright of the absurd was Jean Genet (who combined absurdism and diabolism); some of the early dramatic works of the Englishman Harold Pinter and the American Edward Albee are in a similar mode. The plays of Tom Stoppard, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) and Travesties (1974), exploit the devices of absurdist drama more for comic than philosophical ends. There are also affinities with this movement in the numerous recent works which exploit black comedy: baleful, naive, or inept characters in a fantasitic or nightmarish modern world play out their roles in which Ionesco called a "tragic farce," in which the events are often simultaneously comic, horrifying, and absurd. Examples are Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), Thomas Pynchon's V (1963), John Irving's The World According to Garp (1978), and some of the novels by the German Gunter Grass and the Americans Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and John Barth.
See Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (rev., 1968); David Grossvogel, The Blasphemers: The Theatre of Brecht, Ionesco, Beckett, Genet (1965); Arnold P. Hinchliffe, The Absurd (1969); Charles B. Harris, Contemporary American Novelists of the Absurd (1972); and Max F. Schultz, Black Humor Fiction of the Sixties (1980).
Quoted at length from M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th Ed. (1993), without permission. All rights reserved.