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Diversions: Absurd Theatre

A sociological overview of Absurd Theatre and it's final developments within the wider context of The Performing Arts in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Submitted by Johannes Contag.

8: The performing arts in the 20th and 21st centuries



By the 20th century, the performing arts had evolved into an integrated, holistic institution that deeply governed peoples’ lives. The money phenomenon, which by now had largely deteriorated into an abstract concept, was the driving force behind the large majority of performing arts practices. Most adult members of the population were fervently participating in local groups; family ensembles were also common. Absurd theatre was reaching its last stages, ending a development that had started more than 3000 years earlier. The highest pinnacle was reached at the beginning of the 20th century, when the boundary between fiction and reality was blurred more masterfully than ever before; a further sign of the sophisticated approaches that had evolved is evident in a small fraction of playwrights who actually wrote and staged a series of plays about the nature of absurd theatre itself (hence describing themselves as “Absurdists"). It may be of interest to those who have been following the absurd theatre discourse that the absurdists’ plays were sporadically performed right into the start of the 21st century. The populace at large, however, preferred the more direct approach of method acting.

The Play

By the middle of the 20th century, one absurd play had become so popular that its many variations, copies, pastiches and versions were to be found all over the globe. It is one of the great laments of historic research that the name of this play has been lost; like in so many other cases, the sudden drop in scientific proficiency (and indeed interest) during the mid-21st century is to blame. As the variations of the play (referred to as “the play" ff.) became increasingly similar, they arguably fused to form one consistent meta-play (interesting parallels can be observed in the developments of popular film in the same era). This was largely thanks to the efforts of the more ambitious actors. While not necessarily career-oriented, the vast majority of actors was nevertheless highly dedicated; it was perfectly normal for players to be practicing and staging their performances up to seven or eight hours a day. This behaviour is most coherently understood in the context of the aforementioned deterioration of the money phenomenon, i.e. the destabilising influence of its increasing abstraction on interpersonal culture. In its physical form, money had been reduced to a mere facilitator of personal interaction; in all other respects, it had become an intellectual concept. Aside from monetary dependency, the prime binding factor to integrate the actors was to be found in the communal approach to practice and performance. Players would typically meet in groups of varying sizes – two or three as a minimum, at most several hundred. With larger casts, smaller subsets usually formed to focus on particular plot elements. The stage settings were generally very similar – variations on an initial theme that had been modified and superseded so many times that its exact origins have slipped into obscurity. (Research into this will presumably continue for some time.)

Setting and structure

By the late 20th century, set design had reached an unprecedented homogeneity, primarily featuring easily identifiable (and reproducible) props. As well as tables and chairs (initially also writing utensils), the actors would mostly use white boxes and buttoned consoles to structure their performances. This prop minimalism – the possibilities of combining the pieces were very limited – was an ideal backdrop for the prevailing performance aesthetic, which was to juxtapose the absurd plot with an austere psychological realism. In focusing on the actors’ interactions with their minimal settings, the school of method acting had reached its most effective dramatic approach, a peak in the history of theatre. Structurally, there was little outward variation in performance. The players typically stared at the props for hours, displaying an intentionality that suggested states of trance and hypnosis. Only occasionally would they exchange a few arbitrary words with the other actors present; the structural reasons for these interactions are explained in greater detail below. To offset their highly repetitive observational stances, the actors would at times interact artistically with their consoles. This interplay of seeming passivity and restrained physical activity sustained large parts of the dramatic tension. Great intricacy and skill was displayed in the button play at the console; the sequences and meta-sequences mastered by most actors were testament to their great cultural maturity. Indeed the button sequences were frequently used to express complex plot lines, which were transported only locally. They also provided the actors with some degree of comic relief from the dominating atmosphere of impersonal absurdity. The actors would trade sequences too, and in return enhance the sequences they had received. The meta-patterns of sequential communication are an intriguing field of study, but unfortunately, the exact meaning of most sequences has been lost. As genealogical research has proven, many of the actors were themselves unaware of the actual significance of their sequences – suffice it to say, they had a primary understanding of the sequences’ absurd content and knew how to present them dramatically.

Sociological phenomena

Due to its all-pervading popularity, the social repercussions of the play were enormous. As the money concept was still being used at this stage to regulate both social hierarchies and fundamental human emotionality – these functions were still maintained despite money’s reduced physicality – its distribution was of central importance to the actors on a personal level. However, as money was the primary structural device of the play, i.e. the prime arbiter of the absurd dynamic, the actors needed to subordinate their personal motivations to the collective dramatic structure. Within the play, the distribution of money was used to enforce interaction between the actors, the “glue" of interpersonal absurdity. When confronted with plot elements pertaining to money distribution, the actors liked to take this as a stimulus to unfold their theatrical potential, and the psychological minimalism displayed in most of the prop-focused scenes would arbitrarily be interjected by any of an extremely wide range of dramatic aesthetics. It was in fact the formal contrast between these stylistic dynamics that pushed the play to its greatest climaxes, and of course also its dazzling (albeit catastrophic) finale. (This will be discussed in greater detail at the end of the chapter.) An intriguing sociological aspect resulting from the dramatic positioning of the money device is that the players would not only use it as a dynamic stimulus, but also as a source of fictional truth and validity. As it had already become an abstract concept, it made sense to treat money as an absolute, a higher, infallible instance; its exact nature, purpose and origins were only questioned sporadically (in the context of the more tense plot elements if at all). Similarly, the actors generally did not question money’s distribution structures. Despite some actors having amassed very much of it but the large majority owning fairly little (this having very feasible sociological repercussions, both within the realm of absurdism and beyond!), no direct links were made between the actors’ dramatic qualities and money distribution. A more absurd performance, for example, would not be “rewarded"; for this reason, the level of absurdity remained largely constant (as can be observed in the button play scenes). Similarly, the dramatic interaction between the actors did not seem to directly affect money distribution. Thanks to the abstract, conceptual nature of late money, arbitrary/absurd distribution paths were easily facilitated.

Despite its strong positioning, the money device itself had become too corroded to fully carry the structural weight of the play, and the absurd framework was easily transcended because of this. Actors presented as having larger amounts of money, for example (usually these would be the older, more disillusioned members of the cast), would sometimes justify their fictional fortunes with dramatic causalities – claiming that it was skill etc. that was responsible for their monetary wealth. This resulted in some dissent among the cast, as the enormous stylistic energy of absurdity collectively generated by them was easily diffused by such causal interventions. Nevertheless, the majority of actors agreed to attribute the distribution of money to its absurd essence. It is therefore evident that despite the described conflicts among the cast , most actors had a high degree of understanding and appreciation of the play, and also of their performance of it. However, as the integrity of the play had become so easy to undermine with pseudo-causalities, it was considered unprofessional to explicitly demonstrate any extra-dramatic understanding within the performance. In the play’s drawn-out finale, however, even this last dictum was broken down. As its structural framework was disintegrating and performance aesthetics were becoming irreconcilable, audience reception was correspondingly becoming more critical and disinterested; although the play, as the largest work of absurd theatre ever performed, ran its predetermined deteriorative course, it was rejected. In effect, this spelt the end of historic absurd theatre. The recent resurgence of absurdism will need to confront the issues discussed and address the problems presented by them if it is to endure.


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