Absudism provokes reality check

David Ralfe 2 November 2007

There’s a curiously fine line between righteous indignation and weary apathy. Some people can’t get off their soap boxes; others never bother to find one. Most of us are stuck somewhere in between. We’ll accept that “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain”, but is there any point voting or complaining these days? Does it make any difference?

The Theatre of the Absurd is a loosely defined school of theatre which encompasses Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard’s earlier plays and this year’s ADC Freshers’ Mainshow The Visit, by Friedrich Durrenmatt. Typically they portray a godless world in which humans can’t do much more than make a mess of things. It’s famously avant-garde and surreally chaotic, reveling in the absurdities of life, which are by turns hilarious, terrifying or both. And it suddenly feels uncomfortably relevant.

In absurdist drama the individual can rarely effect any change. In Beckett this is taken to extremes: the protagonist of Happy Days is buried in mud, and in Endgame two characters sit in bins throughout the play. Do we feel similarly incapable of effecting change today? The perceived erosion of British democracy is one of the bitterest after-tastes of the Blair years (not to mention the Beckettian clown in the White House right now).

Another absurdist aim is to expose the idiocies and trivialities of modern life. Continental playwright Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna (staged wonderfully at the Playroom last year) features a tedious middle-class couple and their friends babbling nonsense. Ionesco’s inspiration was an English phrase book, whose collection of “useful phrases” was so utterly vapid that we English came across as rather dull. I wonder, if we compiled our most common conversational topics, would we come across any better, or would Facebook and Heat magazine recur embarrassingly frequently? We might be a more affluent society than ever before, but has this just given us more time and resources to devote to the utterly inane?

Perhaps such relevance explains the sudden recent interest in absurdist drama. The Donmar recently staged Absurdia, “a triple bill of British Absurdist Comedies” by N.F Simpson and Michael Frayn. This summer, the RSC produced Ionesco’s parodic Macbett. Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is showing at the Royal Court right now. And in two weeks, Durrenmatt’s The Visit will grace the ADC.

Absurdist drama doesn’t tread a line between comedy and tragedy, it consciously erodes it. The idiocies of life can easily be comic, but when they’re all you’re left with, it’s easy to get depressed. That’s when the weary apathy hits you. But although Rhinoceros and The Visit are absurdist, they don’t want you to give up yet.

Romanian-born Ionesco saw his homeland conquered by Soviets, before moving to France which was promptly invaded by Germany. Ionesco was appalled at the speed with which people capitulated and were persuaded that the invasions weren’t so bad after all. The Swiss Durrenmatt was equally embarrassed by his country’s wartime neutrality. Both plays examine political conformity and capitulation. In Rhinoceros ‘Berenger’ finds people turning into savage rhinoceroses; at first his friends are shocked, then less so, then they become rhinoceroses themselves. In The Visit a bankrupt town is visited by a millionairess, who promises the town money to rebuild itself, in return for one man’s life. At first the town is shocked, then less so… But both plays beg their audiences to be better than this. They expose life’s absurdities and pitfalls so that we can guard against them. They’re there to galvanise you, to tell you that although it’s easy to feel helpless we mustn’t give up. They’re there to get you back on your soap box.

David Ralfe

‘The Visit’ will be at the ADC from November 13th – 17th at 19:45, (£6/£8, £7/£9)