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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.