Theatre of the absurd

Firstly, to substantially answer the question above, it is indeed imperative to present a definition of absurdist theatre by which to draw comparisons from, to successfully evaluate Harold Pinter's The Homecoming as a representative example.

It should initially be brought to the attention of the reader that absurdist theatre in effect does not present a typical definition or strict rules or guidelines from which to conform, for example, a piece of play script to. However, there is an interpretation that has been most famously noted by Martin Esslin in his 'Theatre of the Absurd', from which he puts this term into some context of understanding, influenced from "the French philosopher Albert Camus, in his 'Myth of Sisyphus', written in 1942." (Culik 2000). For example, Esslin in his 'Theatre of the Absurd' comments on the use of the word 'Absurd' describing its original meaning as "'out of harmony' in a musical context." (Worthen 2004 p 907 -10) However, he hones in on Camus' use of the word, which is used in the understanding of absurdist theatre that has a completely different notion behind it. For example, Ionesco defines this notion as, "Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose... Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless." (Worthen 2004 p 907 -10) Thus, the most central theme to Absurdist Theatre is "awareness of this lack of purpose in all we do [and how this] produces a state of metaphysical anguish." (Ray 2005)

Furthermore, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the 'Theatre of the Absurd'; the term essentially coined by Martin Esslin in his critical work, as mentioned above; defines the understanding that "The Theatre of the Absurd strives to express its sense of senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought." (OED 2010) Esslin continues to comment, in his study of 'Theatre of the Absurd', on the "disorientating quality of [the] plays" (Worthen 2004 p 907 -10) that are commonly grouped into the genre of absurd, and how "so many established critics...have condemned the ['absurdist plays'] for [their] lack of plot, development, characterisation, suspense or plain common sense." (Worthen 2004 p 907 -10) Specifically Esslin uses Samuel Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' as an example to demonstrate that those in society that are "unsophisticated enough t o come to the theatre without any preconceived notions and ready-made expectations" (Worthen 2004 p 907 -10) about a performance were thus able to look past the "nonsense or mystification" (Worthen 2004 p 907 -10) of these types of plays and find meaning and understanding in them, rather than their seemingly "impertinent and outrageous imposture" (Worthen 2004 p 907 -10).

In terms of language, the Theatre of the Absurd, "tends toward[s] a radical devaluation of language" (Worthen 2004 p 907 -10), in other words reducing the value of language that logically, plays are so heavily reliant on. However, this is not to say that language is completely disregarded, because in fact it is not, its function is more poignantly used to contradict the action of the character voicing the lines.

In terms of its historical context, Theatre of the Absurd has emanated from the avant-garde movements in art from the period of the 1920s - 30s, originating from Paris. Yet, probably more central to its rise was the traumatic horror experienced from World War II. Furthermore, around this time the beginning of the loss of religious significance and dependence in people's lives highlighted the opposite of purpose and meaning to life, alongside the resonating realisation of the uncertainty of life. As a consequence the Theatre of the Absurd aimed to present an anti- theatre, to reflect as the world was beginning to tear apart, with its moral's, conventions and values, so too must theatre evolve out of its traditionalism and become "surreal, illogical, conflictless and plotless." (Culik 2000). On first appearances Pinter's The Homecoming, seems to fit the theory of the Theatre of the Absurd. It initially presents the reader with an absurd setting, whereby the back wall has been removed. The stage action is juxtaposed against the ridiculous language that seems to be discursive - the character Max, seems to pass aimlessly between subject after subject. It almost satirises how language is the key to communication. However, the dialogue seems ridiculous with the stage action contradicting the words that are said by the characters. For example, Max says to Lenny: "Don't you talk to me like that. Im warning you" (Worthen 2004 p. 764) the understanding of the language implies Max aggressive attitude and embodiment, yet the stage action suggest a complete juxtaposition "(He sits in large arm chair)" (Worthen 2004 p. 764).

Furthermore, the absurd dialogue exchanged by the principle protagonist Max seems to be shocking and the ability to comprehend impossible, thus adhering to the illogical sense instilled in absurdist language. He talks about his wife in a negative and oppressive tone, "it made me sick just to look at her rotten stinking face, she wasn't such a bad bitch." (Worthen 2004 p.764) Lenny's reaction seems to be completely oblivious to his father's statement about his mother. Instead of the words he hears, it's as if he hears irritating noise being expelled from Max's mouth and wants him to be quiet. To add to the absurdity of the two characters we are presented with Max talks about himself in a manner that is bizarre, "your lousy filthy father" (Worthen 2004 p.764). The expression of this senselessness and repetitive discursive trend throughout the whole play creates an incomprehensible illusion that understandably baffles its audiences and readers.

More so, in terms of language, the play adheres to the illogical trend absurdist theatre expresses, through the representation of the characters Teddy and Ruth. They are married, yet Teddy is not fazed in the slightest as his brothers start to have sexual relations with his wife. For example, Lenny says to Joey in front of Teddy, "You didn't get all the way and you've had her up there for two hours!" (Worthen 2004 p782). This ludicrous behaviour stimulates an even more baffling realisation for readers and audiences, as they begin to understand the senselessness of the human condition that Absurdist theatre seeks to express. Furthermore, the incomprehensible expression of language strengthens even more so towards the end of the play. This is where we see the family, excluding Teddy; gravitate towards Teddy's wife Ruth, wanting her to stay in the household. Their objective for her is to turn her into a whore. This may be an act to replace the previous matriarch of the family, Jessie, who was both a mother and a whore. Teddy's distinct separation from the meaning of the dialogue depicts the open abandonment of rational devices, as he decides that it is okay to leave his wife there.

However, in opposition to the statement above, it is easy to see that Pinter's The homecoming does reflect the trends of Absurdist theatre, yet something more new and exciting is emerging that does not just restrict itself to this category/genre. For example, throughout the play we can see the heavy mix of influence from the realist and absurdist genre's that dominate the majority of the play. This juxtaposition reflected in the setting, exposes side by side "everyday domesticity with a subtle undercurrent of animalistic violence" (Gin 2008).

Francis Grin, in his book 'Pinter's Stage, 'A New Genre' argues that if you read Pinter's play without the "already existent framework" (Gin 2008) of realist and absurdist theatre, then you will discover the text for what it truly is, "an entirely new kind of dramaturgy" (Gin 2008). Gin continues to argue that Pinter's play needs "to be looked through an independent framework" (Gin 2008)to discover the unique "'Pinteresque' style of theatre e" (Gin 2008).

In addition Gin's unique insight into this genre, and more specifically Pinter's The Homecoming, allows a more comprehensive understanding to be gained from the seemingly incomprehensible read. For example, Gin clearly see's that "Pinter creates a rhythm and tempo" (Gin 2008) which mimics "the strange patterns of real life dialogue, but allow[ing] the hit home as the spectator fills the Pinteresque pause with their own subjective imagination." (Gin 2008). It is true that the play is fragmented with what seems to be a burdenful amount of pauses. This in itself does not constitute the play being placed into an absurdist category, but more so into Pinter's very own category. As (Bradshaw 2004) states, "The characters' speech, hesitations, and pauses reveal not only their own alienation and the difficulties they have in communicating but also the many layers of meaning that can be contained in even the most innocuous statements." (Bradshaw 2004)

Theatre Critic Molly Flatt, also has an inspiring perspective on Pinter's play that suggests there is much more to the play than just containing it to two genre's of theatre form (absurdist/realist). She describes it as a dark, "funny and recognizable portrait of 1970s masculinity" (Flatt 2008) until another character Teddy the "prodigal son" (Flatt 2008) returns with his wife Ruth, whom disrupts the stage action from "awkward to disconcertingly bizarre." (Flatt 2008) Indeed this is reflective of the theatre of the absurd with its "naturalistic setting and dialogue" (Flatt 2008) infused with the undercurrent of "dim, bleak [domestic] horror" (Flatt 2008). However its surrealism allows us to "[capture] what is great and wacky and wrong and sincere that we understand what is human." (Flatt 2008) As Pinter himself states that there are many truths that seek to "challenge, recoil, reflect, ignore, tease each other [...and so on]" (Flatt 2008) yet we never truly hold truth in our hands for more than a moment. (Flatt 2008)

In conclusion I think that it is clear Pinter is heavily influenced by the avant-garde and absurdist movements, yet his brilliance in making such weird and wonderful plays does not just lie in these genres, but in something that he has truly made unique and as Gin comments completely created an entirely new dramaturgy. Yes it is clear to see the influences of surrealism, realism and absurdist theatre in his work, especially in The Homecoming, but to what extent it is a representative example of Absurdist Theatre, would be to oversimplify Pinter's work. Therefore, after studying the text it would be indecent not to acknowledge the influence of absurdist theatre, but also not to acknowledge Pinter's the homecoming is "ambivalent in [its] plot, presentation of character...but [are also] works of undeniable power and originality." (Bradshaw 2004).


  • Bradshaw, Mike. 2004. Harold Pinter. [Online] (Updated 12th September 2004) Available at: [Accessed 22 January 2010].
  • Dr. Culik, Jan. 2000. The Theatre of the Absurd, The West and the East [Online] Available at: [Accessed 22 January 2010].
  • Flatt, Molly. 2008. The Economist: Surreal Truths in 'The Homecoming'. [Online] (Updated 12th March 2008) Available at: [Accessed 22 January 2010].
  • Gin, Francis. 2008. Pinter's Stage - A New Genre of Theatre. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 22 January 2010].
  • Ed. Ray, Mohit K. Studies in Literature in English, Volume 10. India: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors. 2005.
  • Worthen, W.B. The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama Fourth Edition. London: Cengage Learning EMEA. 2004.
  •, Oxford University Press, 1989. [Accessed 22 January 2010].

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