EXISTENTIALISM AND THEATRE OF THE ABSURD Existentialism: “I must find a truth that is true for me…the idea for which I can live or die.” –Søren Kierkegaard — The term existentialism itself suggests one major theme: the stress on concrete individual existence and, consequently, on subjectivity, individual freedom, and choice. — Existentialism is a philosophy in which the unique and particular in human experience is emphasized; the individual is at the center of the existentialist’s view of the world, and they are suspicious of philosophical and psychological doctrines that obscure this essential individuality by speaking as if there sere some abstract “human nature.” — Choice and commitment: Perhaps the most prominent theme in existentialist writing is that of choice. Humanity’s primary distinction, in the view of most existentialists, is the freedom to choose. Each human being makes choices that create his or her own nature. In the formulation of the 20th century French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, existence precedes essence. Choice is therefore central to human existence, and it is inescapable; even the refusal to choose is a choice. Freedom of choice entails commitment and responsibility. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, existentialists have argued, they must accept the risk and responsibility of following their commitment wherever it leads. — Each person is what she chooses to be or make herself; she cannot escape responsibility for her character or deeds by claiming that they are the pre-determined consequences of factors beyond her power to control or resist, nor can she justify what she does on terms of external or “objective” standards imposed upon her from without. — All existentialists are concerned with ontology, the study of being. Many existentialists believe that the point of departure from “being” is human consciousness and mental processes. Previous philosophical systems believe the opposite; thinking precedes physical existence. Existentialists conclude that man’s self is nothing except what he has become; at any given moment, it is the sum of the life he has shaped until then. The “nothing” he begins with is thus the source of man’s freedom, for at each moment it is man’s will that can choose how to act or not to act, concluding that a man is or should be responsible for the consequences of his actions. — By what standards then, should humans make decisions? Our minds cannot discern any meaning for this existence in the universe; when we abandon our illusions, we find ourselves horrified by the absurdity of the human condition. — Honesty with oneself is perhaps the major value common to existentialist thinking; all their writings describe the emotional anguish of trying to achieve it. Philosophers of Existentialism: — Blaise Pascal (17th-century French philosopher) - Like later existentialist writers, he saw human life in terms of paradoxes: the human self, which combines mind and body, is itself a paradox and contradiction. — Søren Kierkegaard (19th-century Danish philosopher) - He ultimately advocated a “leap of faith” into a Christian way of life, which, although incomprehensible and full of risk, was the only commitment he believed could save the individual from despair. The task of discovering the meaning of his works [or any real existential work, for that matter] is left to the reader, because "the task must be made difficult, for only the difficult inspires the noble-hearted.” And all the people said…. — Martin Heidegger (20th-century German philosopher) - He argued that humanity finds itself in an incomprehensible, indifferent world. Human beings can never hope to understand why they are here; instead, each individual must choose a goal and follow it with passionate conviction, aware of the certainty of death and the ultimate meaninglessness of one’s life. — Jean Paul Sartre (20th-century French philosopher) - His philosophy is explicitly atheistic and pessimistic; he declared that human beings require a rational basis for their lives but are unable to achieve one, and thus human life is a “futile passion.” He nevertheless insisted that his existentia1ism is a form of humanism, and he strongly emphasized human freedom, choice, and responsibility. Theatre of the absurd: — An avant-garde dramatist convention that emphasizes the illogical and purposeless nature of existence. Often violent, grotesque, and outrageously funny, it strips language of traditional poetic and utilitarian functions, and instead conveys its meaning through masks, ritual sounds, gestures, costumes, or stylized actions. The main concern of the major dramatists of the absurd - Samuel Beckett being one of those dramatists- is to project onto the stage a personal, concrete image of a situation that epitomizes humankind’s fundamental helplessness in a contradictory and alienating universe. Sometimes, social criticism is embedded in these author’s works, but this is less important than their portrayal of human reaction to the essential realities; death, self, time, loneliness, communication, and freedom. These ancient themes are presented in ways that are intended to shock the audience so that the viewer assumes a more detached and critical attitude than in conventional drama; it is a theatre of alienation rather than a theatre of identification. The following is a list of themes that are often found in existential work (which includes theatre of the absurd). Not all existentialists are concerned with all of these issues, and certainly they do not deal with the issues in the same way. Rather, these themes bear a family resemblance that existentialists tend to share with each other. 1. an emphasis upon the individual 2. a critique of current society and its goal for individuals of a comfortable existence as merely part of the “herd” 3. an emphasis upon human freedom and choice 4. an anti-Enlightenment attitude: human existence cannot be adequately or fully captured by Reason, objectivity, or the System, and thus an account of human existence must include passion, emotion, and the subjective 5. a focus on death and its role in human life 6. an emphasis upon anxiety and its role in human life 7. an emphasis upon the dynamic and incomplete versus the static and complete In the theater of the absurd: 1. The plays are “theatrical” rather than realistic, often setting forth obviously impossible situations with obviously unreal characters. 2. The plays are serious but often (or at least intermittently) comic, especially satiric. 3. The basic themes are (a) human loneliness in a world without God, (b) the inability to communicate, (c) the dehumanization and impotence of individuals in a bourgeois society, and (d) the meaninglessness of life. 4. Characters behave illogically, speak in clichés, rarely if ever communicate with each other, and seem to have no clearly defined coherent character. 5. The plays are relatively plotless (nothing much seems to happen). In thinking about (and in rereading) The Sandbox, you may find that it does indeed embody some of these characteristics, but of course it may embody other qualities, too, and some of the points listed may not be relevant. In fact, the most useful function of this list may be that it will stimulate you to think about ways in which the play departs from it.