La Parodie, pb. 1950
L’Invasion, pr., pb. 1950
La Grande et la petite manoeuvre, pr. 1950
Le Professeur Taranne, pr., pb. 1953 (Professor Taranne, 1960)
Le Sens de la marche, pr., pb. 1953
Tous contre tous, pr., pb. 1953
Théâtre, pb. 1953-1968 (4 volumes)
Le Ping- Pong, pr., pb. 1955 (Ping-Pong, 1959)
Paolo Paoli, pr., pb. 1957 (Paolo Paoli: The Year of the Butterfly, 1959)
Le Printemps ’71, pb. 1960
Two Plays, pb. 1962
La Politique des restes, pr. 1963
M. le modere, pr. 1967
Off Limits, pr. 1967
L’Homme et l’enfant, 1968 (Man and Child: The Autobiography of Arthur Adamov, 1991)
Together with his contemporaries Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, Arthur Adamov (UH-da-muhv) first drew attention as a practitioner of the nontraditional, antirationalist trend in French drama that Martin Esslin would soon label the Theater of the Absurd. Like Beckett, an Irishman, and Ionesco, half Romanian, the Russian-born Adamov did not even begin writing plays until around the age of forty, and then in French. Before long, however, Adamov would renounce his apparent affinities with Ionesco and Beckett, opting instead for didactic, political theater in the manner of Bertolt Brecht, even going so far as to repudiate the early plays that had made his reputation and upon which much of it still rests. In general, Adamov’s political, or “epic,” plays proved less successful than his earlier, absurdist ones. In the mid-1960’s Adamov appeared to be attempting a fusion of his two characteristic styles toward the creation of a third. Long in failing health, Adamov died early in 1970 of a drug overdose, leaving more questions than answers concerning his rightful place in literary or dramatic history.
Born in Kislovodsk in 1908 to the wife of a prosperous oil well owner, Adamov spent his earliest childhood in the city of Baku, then the capital of the Russian petroleum industry. Despite his privileged circumstances, young Arthur always feared poverty, perhaps anticipating his eventual life on the fringes of Parisian art and culture. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 found the Adamov family on vacation in Germany, from which they managed to escape to Switzerland with royal intervention. The Russian Revolution caused further disruption in Adamov’s family life. The family moved to Mainz, Germany, and then to the outskirts of Paris.
Published as a poet before he turned seventeen, Adamov made many acquaintances among the Surrealists and cultivated the friendship of Antonin Artaud, later to be recognized among the major theorists of avant-garde theater. Like Adamov, Artaud was a deeply troubled individual prone to mental illness; he was also a visionary, whose radical approaches to dramatic concept and production would appear, years later, in some of Adamov’s more memorable plays. Unfortunately Artaud, for all of his demonstrable brilliance as a theorist, was all but incapable of writing plays. Adamov, meanwhile, remained on the fringes of Parisian culture, living off the income of occasional translations and adaptations while he worked on his poetry and on the hallucinative memoir which became L’Aveu (confession). In 1941, less than a year after the Nazi occupation of Paris, Adamov was arrested for “comments hostile to the Vichy government” and imprisoned in a concentration camp; his internment, joined to his earlier experience as a “stateless person,” seems to have heightened Adamov’s political consciousness, until then overshadowed by his own psychological problems.
In 1947, coincidentally the year that he met his future wife Jacqueline Trehet, Adamov turned his attention to the writing of plays, initially as a form of catharsis. La Parodie (the parody) was the first to be written, soon followed by L’Invasion (the invasion) and La Grande et la petite manœuvre (the great and small maneuver). Advised by the director Jean Vilar, Adamov took the unusual step of publishing his first two plays as a book before they were ever performed, in the hope that performance would soon follow; he was not to be disappointed. By the end of that year, 1950, his first and third plays had been performed, with the second soon to follow. His early productions coinciding roughly with those of Ionesco, preceding those of Beckett by at least two years, Adamov found himself at the forefront of a new, vigorous, and newsworthy current in French and world drama notable for its antirationalism and apparent anarchy. Like Ionesco, Adamov in his early plays evoked both the uselessness of language and the ultimate isolation of the individual. L’Invasion, the first of his plays to reach a truly wide audience, describes the woes and eventual death of a man dedicated to saving the writings of his deceased brother-in-law. Professor Taranne, perhaps the best known of Adamov’s plays, presents the unforgettable spectacle of an apparently distinguished man systematically and symbolically stripped of his identity by the perceptions of society. Ping-Pong, in fact a transitional work, portrays the dehumanization and eventual destruction of two men by their fascination with pinball machines.
With Ping-Pong, Adamov first crossed the boundary from the personal to the political; while the characters’ obsession with inventing the perfect pinball machine harks back to Adamov’s earliest efforts, their exploitation by the consortium prepares the way for a full-blown critique of the capitalist system, first expressed in Paolo Paoli, set at the turn of the twentieth century. Not yet free of his absurdist mode, Adamov here chooses as the business of his capitalist characters a vigorous trade in butterflies and ostrich feathers, essential to women’s fashions of the time. Although promising, Paolo Paoli proved a bit too long–and long-winded–for most audiences; in such subsequent efforts as La Politique des restes (the politics of waste), set in South Africa, and Off Limits, set in the United States at the time of the Vietnam conflict and featuring drugged hippies and drunken entrepreneurs, Adamov appeared to have lost not only his perspective but also the irony that had assured the success of such otherwise harrowing plays as Ping-Pong and Professor Taranne.
Even as he attempted, during the 1960’s, to continue the Brechtian tradition of committed, objective theater, Adamov was earning belated recognition in English-speaking countries and elsewhere as a master of absurdist drama, a convention that he had long since renounced. Drinking heavily, dissatisfied with the fortunes of his later efforts, Adamov nevertheless continued to work at a variety of writing projects until he apparently took his own life (as had his father and Artaud before him). Never quite able to equal the power of Brecht in his didactic efforts, he is most likely to be remembered for Ping-Pong and Professor Taranne.