Existentialism and Theatre


Existentialism is a concept that became popular during the 
second World War in France, and just after it. French playrights have 
often used the stage to express their views, and these views came to 
surface even during a Nazi occupation. Bernard Shaw got his play 
"Saint Joan" past the German censors because it appeared to be very 
Anti-British. French audiences however immediately understood the real 
meaning of the play, and replaced the British with the Germans. Those 
sorts of "hidden meanings" were common throughout the period so that 
plays would be able to pass censorship.

 Existentialism proposes that man is full of anxiety and 
despair with no meaning in his life, just simply existing, until he 
made decisive choice about his own future. That is the way to achieve 
dignity as a human being. Existentialists felt that adopting a social 
or political cause was one way of giving purpose to a life. Sartre is 
well known for the "Theatre engage" or Theatre 'committed', which is 
supposedly committed to social and/or political action.

 One of the major playwrights during this period was Jean-Paul 
Sartre. Sartre had been imprisoned in Germany in 1940 but managed to 
escape, and become one of the leaders of the Existential movement. 
Other popular playwrights were Albert Camus, and Jean Anouilh. Just 
like Anouilh, Camus accidentally became the spokesman for the French 
Underground when he wrote his famous essay, "Le Mythe de Sisyphe" or 
"The Myth of Sisyphus". Sisyphus was the man condemned by the gods to
roll a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down 
again. For Camus, this related heavily to everyday life, and he saw 
Sisyphus an "absurd" hero, with a pointless existence. Camus felt that 
it was necessary to wonder what the meaning of life was, and that the 
human being longed for some sense of clarity in the world, since "if 
the world were clear, art would not exist". "The Myth of Sisyphus" 
became a prototype for existentialism in the theatre, and eventually 
The Theatre of the Absurd.

 Right after the Second World War, Paris became the theatre 
capital of the west, and popularized a new form of surrealistic 
theatre called "Theatre of the Absurd". Many historians contribute the 
sudden popularity of absurdism in France to the gruesome revelations 
of gas chambers and war atrocities coming out of Germany after the 
war. The main idea of The Theatre of the Absurd was to point out man's 
helplessness and pointless existence in a world without purpose. As 
Richard Coe described it "It is the freedom of the slave to crawl east 
along the deck of a boat going west". Two of the most popular 
playwrights of this time include Samuel Beckett, who's most famous 
piece was "Waiting for Godot", and Eugene Ioensco with "Exit the 
King". Most absurdist plays have no logical plot. The absence of the 
plot pushes an emphasis on proving the pointless existence of man. 
Quite often, such plays reveal the human condition at it's absolute 

 Absurdist playwrites often used such techniques as symbolism, 
mime, the circus, and the commedia dell'arte, which are quite evident 
in the more popular plays of the time, such as Waiting for Godot, The 
Bald Prima Donna, and Amedee. 


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