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.