I was thinking today about Theater of the Absurd and mused about how the joke is really on its practitioners and aficionados. I am most familiar with the work of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, so most of my comments will be based on my knowledge of them and of their plays. I say that the joke is on them for three reasons: the words in their plays have meaning, the playwrights themselves do not live as though their worldview is true, and the plays would not appear absurd if their worldview were true.
When I consider the plays themselves, I reflect on how they contain words that have reognized meanings, and they often contain bits of straightforward diaglogue that makes some degree of sense. The absurdity comes with things like the insertion of nonsense words, illogical dialogues, and dialogue that has nothing to do with the action. Nevertheless, most absurdist plays contain words and phrases that make sense in and of themselves, and the reason that the words and phrases make sense, is that the human mind has created them and imbued them with meaning.
If the world were as the existentialist absurdist playwrights claim that it is, I do not believe that language would have meaning. In fact, all that human beings could do would be to babble sounds and die from acting completely chaotically. The world according to these playwrights is, after all, meaningless, purposeless, random, and chaotic.
Of course, hardly anyone of the absurdist playwrights or their audience members live as though the world is that way. They sleep, eat, converse, work, and play as though the world and their lives have discernible meaning and a high level of predictability. I’m reminded of a story involving Francis Schaeffer. One day a young man was arguing with him that reality is an illusion, that what we preceive is a projection of our own mind and not something real. One of the other guests got exasperated with that nonsense and grabbed a tea kettle full of boiling water. He held the tea kettle over the young man’s head and said, “If what you say is true, then it would not matter if I pour this boiling water on you.”
The fellow exclaimed, “You’re crazy!” and left abruptly. It is unknown if the point ever sank in.
Even if the things around us are not real, we must live, if we are to live, as though they are. We must actually eat food, for example. We must care for our teeth, or they will rot causing us great pain and the need for extraction.
You know, the playwrights themselves show that something in the universe is ordered and meaningful–the human mind. Using their own powerful minds they have created outstanding works of art. They have every reason to be humanists rather than existentialists, since they themselves show what amazing entities human beings are. If not humanists, they should at least realize that they have every reason to be egoists, since they are geniuses with amazingly creative and powerful brains. (I think that essentially they are egoists, but I do not think that most of them admit it.)
I find them lazy, to be frank. The world is not exactly as they wish it were, so rather than look at it long and hard, they dismiss it as meaningless, purposeless, and chaotic. They do not take the time to notice the beauty, order, meaning, and purpose that countless others recognize. They even have to deny the reality that is right before their eyes. They are atheists, for the most part. They might as well be nihilists, in which case there is no point in writing plays or in doing anything. There’s not even any point in living.
But they do (or did) live, and they write plays. Interesting!
Not only must we live as though things are real, we must also live as though things make sense. It might be fun in an absurdist play to have a character pull the trigger on a gun and have balloons fall from the ceiling, but in the real world the gun would fire and the bullet would hit something, and we all know it and act accordingly.
In fact, the reality that guns fire bullets is what makes an absurdist play absurd. If the gun in the play shot a bullet, it would not be absurd. And if guns in the real world caused a downpour of balloons, then the play would not be absurd. The order of the real world is juxtaposed against the disorder of the absurdist play, and that is how audiences recognize the absurdity of the play.
In fact, if the world were as the absurdist playwrights believe it to be, there would be nothing to say or write about their plays. A person would not even know that he had been to a play or whether he had enjoyed it or found it boring or stupid or annoying.
Nobody watches Waiting for Godot or The Bald Soprano and says, “Yup, that’s exactly what the world is like.” But that is just what the existentialist playwrights want you to think, or at least what they claim that they think. Don’t buy it. Please notice, along with me, that the joke is on them, not on you or me.