theatre absurdism and quot happy days quot by samuel beckett

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In this final week, we turn our attention to performing arts, in particular, theatre. One of the Modernist movements in theatre came to be known as Absurdism. Unlike conventional plays, in which characters take actions in pursuit of fulfilling desires or needs, Absurdist plays present characters who seem to do nothing apart from cope with their own existence. In this way, Absurdist plays are metaphors suggesting that life is meaningless.


1. Read the description that follows these instructions. They are from the following link:

2. Watch a production of a play called Happy Days by Samuel Beckett at this link:

Happy Days – Samuel Barclay Beckett

Ignore the subtitles, which are in modern Greek.

3. If you need or want to refer to the text of the play, go to the link pasted here. Going to the text to see what the actors are saying is a good idea as some passages are sometimes just a bit inaudible. (Links to an external site.)

4. Post a comment in this discussion that answers the following questions. Write answers according to the number of words required for each answer.

  • List and describe three aspects of Happy Days that make it an Absurdist play. You can find characteristics of Absurdism in the reading posted below. To answer this question correctly, write clearly and precisely as to how three different aspects of the play (things like character, language, environment, situation, action, etc.) correspond to specific characteristics of Absurdism. (150 to 200 words)
  • What do you think the play Happy Days is about? What evidence from the performance and/or text leads you to your conclusion about the play’s topic or meaning? Answer both of these questions, not just the first. Avoid simplistic answers. Think about what the play is about at its core, not at its surface. Use your own words and ideas. Think for yourself. Do not copy from others’ works. To do so would be a breach of academic integrity. (150 to 200 words)
  • Once you have posted your comment, you will be able to see others’ comments and respond to them if you wish.


Your posts will be graded on accuracy, completeness, and clarity.

All posts must be earnest, relevant, and respectful. Any post not meeting these standards, as deemed by the professor, will be given a failing grade.

Some Tips for Writing Well

  • Even thought this is quite a short piece of writing I’m asking you to do, take in the following writing tips in order to craft well all of your assignments for this course.
  • While this is a post to a discussion, avoid the mistake of thinking of it as a text message or a comment in social media. This is an assignment for a class.
  • Do not wait until the day before the assignment is due to churn out a rushed response.
  • Do several drafts and allow at least a night to go by between each one so that you can come back to the next revision with fresh eyes. That means completing your first draft no later than Sunday.
  • Think of your writing as a piece of sculpture. You chisel away until the truth of what you mean to communicate emerges.
  • When you do go back to your latest draft, pretend you’ve never read it before. With that mindset, ask yourself whether what you’ve written makes sense, carries the reader along from one point to the next in a logical way, and engages the reader with thoughtful points.
  • Find the right balance between too much detail and not enough.

Reading: Description of Absurdism

Theatre of the Absurd Conventions

The theatre of the absurd was a short-lived yet significant theatrical movement, centred in Paris in the 1950s. Unusual in this instance was the absence of a single practitioner spearheading the form. Largely based on the philosophy of existentialism, absurdism was implemented by a small number of European playwrights. Common elements included illogical plots inhabited by characters who appeared out of harmony with their own existence. The typical playgoer had never seen anything like this on the stage before. The theatre of the absurd will be remembered in history for many things, the most significant of these being Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece Waiting for Godot, one of the great plays of the 20th century. Absurdism is commonly studied in senior high school and university drama and theatre courses. Below are the main conventions of the theatre of the absurd.


  • not a conscious movement
  • exponents of the form were a disconnected group of playwrights
  • the term theatre of the absurd was first coined by scholar Martin Esslin in his 1961 text The Theatre of the Absurd (Links to an external site.)
  • true absurdist playwrights are few in number: Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet (with some scholars including Arthur Adamov).
  • other playwrights whose selected works have been labeled absurdist by others include Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard, Fernando Arrabal, and Peter Weiss (though most deny the label of absurdist playwright)
  • the beginnings of absurdism lie in avant-garde experiments of the 1920s and 30s, while some argue absurdist elements exist in plays such as Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896) and even in ancient Greek dramas


  • theatre of the absurd is otherwise referred to as absurdism
  • absurd originally means “out of harmony” (in a musical context) – its meaning in the theatre of the absurd is different to the everyday meaning of the word as “ridiculous”
  • absurd in the context of absurdism can mean:
    • without purpose
    • illogical
    • out of harmony
    • useless
    • devoid of reason
    • meaningless
    • hopeless
    • chaotic
    • lacking order
    • uncertain
  • lying in the background to absurdism is the notion of existentialism
  • existentialist philosophers who influenced absurdist playwrights were Frenchmen Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960) – both also playwrights themselves

Existentialism refers to a particular view of the nature of man’s existence. The existentialist believes that man starts life with nothing. His life is made up of acts; through the process of acting man becomes conscious of his original nothingness. By choosing to act, man passes into the arena of human responsibility which makes him the creator of his own existence. However, the existence inevitably ends with death. Man returns to his original state of nothingness. This existential notion eliminates the Western concept of man’s exalted nature. Life becomes meaningless and useless – a condition which is in essence “absurd”. Man’s only freedom in this condition is the exercise of his conscious mind. However, consciousness means conflict – between man’s awareness of the absurdity of his existence and his need for justification of his human action. (J. L Crawford: Acting In Person and in Style)

  • the atrocities of World War II are considered influential events to the movement, highlighting the precariousness of human existence
  • Sartre denied the existence of a God, seeing humans with no choice but to create their own standards and moral code in life (instead of accepting standards offered by the Church, the State, or society)
  • Camus’ book-length essay The Myth of Sisyphus sees Sisyphus endlessly pushing a boulder to the top of a mountain, only to see it roll to the bottom again – this futile labor is an analogy for man’s meaningless existence, a quality seen in many characters and plots of absurdist plays

For Camus, the legendary figure of Sisyphus was the prototype of an ‘absurd’ hero, condemned by the gods forever to roll a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down again by its own weight. He represented the epitome of futile labor and pointless existence. Although Camus denied any connection with Sartre’s existentialism, the book (Sartre’s The Myth of Sisyphus) became a manifesto for the new existentialist drama, and later for the theatre of the absurd. In it, Camus asserted that it was legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life had any meaning. He described how man felt himself to be a stranger in an alien world, and believed that this divorce between man and life was properly ‘le sentiment de l’absurdite’, the feeling of absurdity. (J. L. Styan: Modern Drama in Theory and Practice 2)

Plot and Structure

  • anti-realistic, going against many of the accepted norms of conventional theatre
  • labeled by some critics as ‘anti-theatre’
  • often characterised by a deliberate absence of the cause and effect relationship between scenes
  • non-linear plot developments, sometimes cyclical – ending where they began
  • occasionally appearing as though there is no plot at all to speak of
  • deliberate lack of conflict

… a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.

On the plot of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot (Links to an external site.) – Vivian Mercier, The Irish Times, 18 February, 1956.

Acting and Characterisation

  • both presentational and representational modes of acting
  • sometimes stereotypical
  • often an absence of character development
  • absurd characters lack the motivation found in characters of realistic dramas, highlighting their purposelessness
  • time, place and identity are frequently blurred with characters often unsure about who or where they are
  • characters are often out of harmony or out of sync with the world in which they live


  • mixture of realistic and non-realistic
  • elements of circus, vaudeville and acrobatics
  • ritualistic
  • slow
  • illogical
  • repetitive
  • action sometimes defies logic or easy understanding
  • one extreme to the other without notice
  • often sombre and serious, then highly comical

… the absurdists, while for the most part accepting Sartre’s philosophical outlook, tended to concentrate upon the irrationality of human experience without suggesting any path beyond. By employing a succession of episodes unified merely by theme or mood instead of a cause-to-effect arrangement, they arrived at a structure parallelling the chaos which was their usual dramatic subject. The sense of absurdity was heightened by the juxtaposition of incongruous events producing seriocomic and ironic effects. (Oscar G. Brockett: History of the Theatre)


  • language was devalued as a communication tool (unreliable and distrusted)
  • often illogical
  • sometimes telegraphic and clipped
  • long pauses
  • clichéd
  • repetitive
  • rhythmical
  • frequent use of silence
  • monotone
  • slow dialogue sometimes accompanied by a frenzied, fast-paced monologue (extremes)


  • often simple and minimalist use of stagecraft
  • barren set pieces barely denoting a location (e.g. a tree and a country road in Waiting for Godot)

Key Plays

  • Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
  • Endgame by Samuel Beckett
  • Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco
  • The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco
  • The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco
  • The Bald Prima Donna / The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco
  • Exit The King by Eugene Ionesco
  • The Balcony by Jean Genet

Other Notable Works

  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
  • The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter
  • The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter

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