(Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/14.)
Back in 1961, Martin Esslin published a seminal book, The Theatre of the Absurd. What Esslin did was define a new theatrical movement: one whose chief exemplars were Beckett, Ionesco, Genet and Max Frisch. "Absurd" didn't, in Esslin's sense, mean "ridiculous". It derived from an idea, articulated by Albert Camus in 1942, that, in a world of shattered beliefs, life was without meaning. As Ionesco succinctly, brutally wrote: "Cut off from his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless." But I would argue that, while absurdism was a fascinating historical phenomenon, it now looks increasingly irrelevant.
I readily concede that absurdism produced several plays that transcend their origins. Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Happy Days are a permanent part of the theatrical landscape. Ionesco's The Bald Prima Donna, and The Chairs – memorably revived by Complicite (paywall) – still delight. And Frisch's The Arsonists (previously known as The Fire Raisers), with its portrait of a middle-class man welcoming a trio of incendiaries into his house, is a timelessly topical satire. But, leafing again through my dog-eared copy of Esslin's book, I am struck by how many of the writers he so earnestly championed, from Arthur Adamov to Slawomir Mrozek, are now largely forgotten except by theatrical specialists.