There were really interesting developments in theater during the 20th century. Not only were there revolutionary changes to dramatic theory, manifested in Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater, but there also emerged Theater of the Absurd, with works emerging from the premise that there are no premises – essentially, that there is no meaning to the world. Often in such plays, nothing happens, or characters return exactly where they began, having gone nowhere at all. Endings are unpredictable and, well, absurd, offering no closure. It’s possible that these plays are either enjoyed or hated; but this writer happens to like them.

This post presents a short list of some of the most absurd plays of an absurd style. Several notable avant garde plays were intentionally left off the list, because they’re too “on the nose”; these include Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Israel Horovitz’s first play, Line, which is about people who fight while standing in line. I’ve even left out a personal favorite, Jean Genet’s The Balcony, a microcosmic play about revolution and the absurdity of social rank. Instead, the pieces on this list are equally thought-provoking but more difficult to interpret. They present the world as a paradox and humans as infinite and inconsistent. They present a deep incongruity of reality, often funny and silly, with no promise of eventual coherence.

If I found videos of the plays, I linked them. It may be worth having a screening party – perhaps any guests, following Ionesco’s The Chairs below, will be invisible.

First is Eugène Ionesco’s Jack, or The Submission: In this “family” piece, the main characters name is Jack, and all the other characters are named after him – Father Jack, Mother Jack, and so on. Jack, however, is a disappointment to his family because he won’t marry the woman they chose for him.

Next we have The Skriker, by Caryl Churchill. This piece features an ancient fairy pursuing two teenage mothers, along the way turning into all matter of objects and people, and speaking in a rhythmic arcane language Churchill invented for the play.

Though we’re skipping Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett still makes the list with his extremely abstract Nacht und Träume. A figure sits alone in a dark room, music by Schubert (also called Nacht und Träume) starts to play, and hands come out of nowhere and tease and touch him. That’s it. That’s the play.

Speaking of human parts, The Gas Heart by Alfred Jarry and Tristan Tzara is top absurdist form, as it centers on the personification of facial parts – ear, nose, neck, eyebrow and eye – in nonsensical, circular dialogue, the random (or deeply metaphorical) lines mentioning emperors, mollusks and pockets. This is an explicitly Dadaist playDadaism was absurdity as protest, formed in response to the horrors of World War I.

Next, is Arthur Adamov’s Ping-Pong, a play about two characters inside a sentient pinball machine who dialogue about being in a pinball machine, unable to transcend their surroundings. It has a strong Marxist vibe, with a Chaplinesque trapped-in-the-machine flavor, and lots of despair.
Finally, Eugène Ionesco earns a second entry on the list with the utterly delightful, utterly nonsensical, and a little touching The Chairs. You want to read this play and watch the video as well. An old man and an old woman are preparing for a party by arranging chairs throughout the play. It may take place in a post-apocalyptic world where there aren’t going to be any guests, or the old man and woman may be ghosts and the eventual (invisible) guests the real beings, but the ending introduces a new, completely paradoxical character into the mix, shattering whatever we might have thought we’d figured out by then. Perfect absurdity.