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Absurd again.

There was a time when the term existentialism was part of every American's arts-peak. Art (with a capital "A") simply didn't matter unless audiences--suitably anguished and ulcer-prone--were made to stare into some bleak, Beckettian chasm, convinced that "Modern Art" meant everything by signifying the big Nothing. In the '90s, the overused equivalent seems to be another French import: deconstruction, the postmodern term par excellence, which infects all forms of contemporary cultural expression while ironizing and undermining the of High Modernist solemnity. Albert Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) seems almost quaint now in its aesthetic naivete: artists no longer push any boulders up any hills...unless, of course, the "boulder" has quotation marks around it.

This may explain why Theatre of the Absurd--existentialism's dramaturgical bedfellow--has been nearly invisible on the American stage for the past two decades (even as British playwrights such as Bond, Churchill and especially Stoppard made use of absurdism through the '70s and '80s, and Eastern European playwrights, particularly Mrozek and Havel, saturated their political plays with it). Perhaps it's our fragmented social structure or the rise of multiculturalism that has made absurdism seem nostalgic, irrelevant, apolitical. In fact, many American playwrights have gone out of their way to distance themselves from a movement they identify in historical (rather than formalistic) terms: Elizabeth Egloff, in a recent Village Voice interview, declared, "We're not being Ionesco. We didn't experience World War II." So while American drama has run the gamut from Shepard's mythic expressionism to Mamet's gritty realism, Theatre of the Absurd has become the big Nothing.

But maybe absence makes the Sartre grow stronger. Last season, a crop of new American plays provided textbook examples of Theatre of the Absurd, at times mimicking language and images directly from masterpieces of the genre. While this movement may seem out of synch with our deconstructed and self-reflexive era, due to some absurd logic, the most successful plays of last year bore many of its earmarks. Granted, there may forever be "no exit" from a genre that is, in Martin Esslin's words, "one of the most representative of Western man," but three new plays in particular--Steven Dietz's Lonely Planet, Nicky Silver's Pterodactyls and David Ives's All in the Timing--capture the absurdist ethos in a manner reminiscent of Paris in the '50s. All three, nevertheless, express something sharply pertinent to America in the '90s, reconfiguring absurdist responses to the horrors of World War II to speak to the issues of today.

Steven Dietz's Lonely Planet, with its explicit references to Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs, is self-consciously absurdist. In a shop that sells maps and globes but has never had a customer, Jody and Carl discuss questions of geography and destiny, their conversations imbued with irony (the "penicillin of the modern world," according to Carl) and always casting about for connection in a cosmos that only offers up alienation. While Jody refuses to leave his shop, Carl visits daily carrying furniture from the apartments of their dying friends. By the end, as in Ionesco's 1951 one-act, the stage is littered with empty chairs. (Carl actually sits in one of them early in the play, reading--you guessed it--Ionesco's The Chairs). Moreover, the play's black humor, volley of wordplay and two-character structure echo the favored paradigms of Beckett, Adamov and Pinter.

BUT WHILE IONESCO AND CO. were often reacting to the atrocities of world war, the characters of Lonely Planet flail and struggle to cope with the AIDS crisis. "The absurdist response," says Dietz, "is really a way of breaking through the numbness for these characters: They are determined to be romantics in a depressing age. To me, that idea is definitive Camus!" Although he's written more polemical plays in the past (he calls his own God's Country "one of the great screaming plays of our time"), Lonely Planet's accent on the theme of human connectedness provoked Dietz to tap the "profound way that true friendship--a beautiful and romantic notion--actually works, even in the face of AIDS." Dietz, in fact, dedicated Lonely Planet to two friends (Michael Winters and Larry Ballard, who performed the play at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle), and stresses that "if absurdists are poets of the stage, these actors have made me more fearless in my poetry."

Carl and Jody forge their way through our postmodern and plague-ridden world, experiencing by turns bouts of terror, oases of tenderness and--in Carl's words--"a tidal wave of boredom." The play's absurdist logic seems to make sense to audiences at resident theatres around the country, where it has been enthusiastically received. It won the 1994 PEN U.S.A. West literary award and will be remounted this season in New York by the Barrow Group at Circle Repertory Company.

Reluctant to call himself an "absurdist" (as, incidentally, were Ionesco, Beckett, Pinter, et al.), Dietz believes that Lonely Planet, "like Ionesco's plays, keeps one foot in the real world and one in the absurd." However, as in his newest play Handing Down the Names, he plans to keep "writing about tragic events from a comedic standpoint. The results are, by necessity, slightly surreal, slightly absurd." Dietz has never felt any ties to psychological realism, adding that "with something as bleak and redundant as the parade of death we have been witnessing, my characters' so-called absurd way of dealing may be a realistic way of dealing."

Nicky Silver, on the other hand, has no problem with the label "absurdist playwright"--"I prefer it to, say, 'fat playwright,'" he reasons. Silver's epigrammatic wit--both on the page and in person--makes him seem a playwright who walks more on the Wilde side than in the heavy boots of Didi and Gogo. "I have a very lowbrow sense of humor," he confesses. "Borscht belt, you might say. I'm not an 'idea-based' playwright, really. I think my base is more likely flour and water." But Silver's Pterodactyls--which will be widely produced across the U.S. this season after last year's extended run in New York (and publication in the Feb. '94 issue of AT)--employs many classic absurdist tropes. As a mordantly funny riff on the nuclear American family, Pterodactyls calls to mind the early plays of Edward Albee--the grandfather of American absurdism--whose triumphant Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Silver finds "to this day, very, very exciting."

ALTHOUGH HE ESCHEWS psychological realism, Silver stresses in the play's notes that "no matter how manic or absurd the action, it is based in real need." While at first glance Pterodactyls seems merely a satire of bourgeois complacency--a la The Bald Soprano--it is really a warning about the wages of denial, using the upper middle-class American family as its site of application. When son Todd Duncan comes home and announces that he has AIDS, sister Emma--forgetful and hypochondriacal--first screams that he's a stranger, then complains that her skin's too tight. Meanwhile, the dipsomaniac-mother Grace plans a party and rattles on about her cosmetic surgery, the amnesiac-father Arthur loses track of the seasons, and Emma's gay fiance begins employment as the Duncan family's maid. By the end, an excavated pterodactyl looms center stage, reminding us that deep-seated denial can teeter our whole species into extinction, while also suggesting that the traditional American family is something of a dinosaur these days.

In fact, homespun "family values" came under absurdist scrutiny by a number of playwrights last season. Quincey Long's Shaker Heights, Jeffrey Jones's Love Trouble, David Greenspan's Son of an Engineer and Steve Martin's one-act WASP all offered, to varying degrees, absurdist takes on this chestnut of American drama. But Silver's play crystallized the genre, dragging the dysfunctional Duncan family's skeletons out of the closet and (literally) staging the bare bones with unflinching candor. Absurdist images abound: extreme weather changes and prehistoric beings point to Thornton Wilder's The Skin of our Teeth, daughter Emma's sudden and inexplicable deafness recall Rose's instant blindness in Pinter's The Room, and Grace and Arthur might be perfect bridge partners for Virginia Woolfs George and Martha. In fact, even the title, Pterodactyls, calls to mind Ionesco's Rhinoceros, a play thai Silver admits he's never seen. "But I'm very familiar with the Hirschfeld drawing of Zero Mostel," he quips. "I counted the 'Ninas.'"

These days, Silver is also counting the numerous stagings around the country of his plays, which boast such evocative titles as Wanking 'Tards, My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine and the oft-produced Fat Men in Skirts--"which deals with cannibalization and is even more absurdist than Pterodactyls," Silver volunteers.

When Camus coined the phrase le sentiment de l'absurdite, he was referring to the experience of alienation in a world without meaning, believing that this rift between our need for clarity and the value-less universe around us induces a "feeling of absurdity." These days, "absurd" is more often used synonymously with "ridiculous." Both those qualities are alive and well in David Ives's All in the Timing, an admixture of six short plays (published in the July/August '94 issue of AT), all mini-worlds without meaning, all resolutely ridiculous. From the critique of authorial genius in Words, Words, Words (featuring three monkeys named Swift, Kafka and Milton "somewhere in Infinity" trying to write Hamlet) to the slippery historical narratives of Variations on the Death of Trotsky (wherein Trotsky's wife announces to husband Leon who sits onstage with a mountain-climber's axe in his head--that she's read about his murder in a 1994 encyclopedia), All in the Timing effortlessly syncopates large themes with little gems of lunacy.

IVES INSISTS THAT THE ABSURDIST influence is a matter more alphabetical than theoretical: "Ionesco' comes right before 'Ives' on the library shelf, so I would be lying if I said I was unaware of the playwright." But eventually he admits some affinity for the style, reflecting that there may be some absurd causal continuity (rather than contiguity) for its reappearance on the American stage. "It may be the 'grandfather law' at work. You know, how you look more like your grandfather than your father. Everybody in college had that paperback copy of Four Plays by Ionesco, everybody certainly knew their Albee. Maybe the influence is becoming apparent now that we're becoming apparent."

Ives counts the patently absurdist Monty Python's Flying Circus as an influence (in his Babel-tongue send-up of Esperanto in The Universal Language, "English" becomes "Jonglese"--i.e., "John Cleese"), but Ives's plays are not throw-away sketches designed only to tickle and be forgotten. Inherent in The Universal Language is the idea that human discourse alleviates the loneliness of alienation and individual silence.

Not surprisingly, Ives views American realism in the same light as Dietz and Silver. "I can get much better 'naturalistic realism' by riding on the subway on the way to the theatre." Despite his penchant for the frivolous, Ives is a Yale-trained writer of considerable erudition, with "more than a passing interest in the larger 'existential' questions." Still, Ires is likely to mine American popular culture for less-than-weighty answers: Trotsky imitates Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners; the play The Philadelphia likens the City of Brotherly Love to a metaphysical black hole; and Ives's Ancient History is replete with references to Nick and Nora, Animal Crackers and other American pop classics. All in the Timing filters the detritus of our American culture--both high and low through an absurdist lens.

"Maybe theatre's getting back to what it does naturally, which is to deal with emblematic reality in some way, and to be a metaphor for existential concerns," Ives posits.

And, in the midst of absurdism's new American blossoming, Eugene Ionesco--in his usual nonsensical manner--died at the age of 84.

Steven Drukman is a New York-based theatre writer.
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Title Annotation:absurdity in theater arts
Author:Drukman, Steven
Publication:American Theatre
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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