Esslin Publishes

Martin Esslin’s study of Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and other avant-garde playwrights whom he labeled absurdists helped define one of the major trends in modern drama.

Summary of Event

The 1950’s produced an avant-garde theater movement in Europe that in its technique and content left many of its audiences bewildered—even, at times, exasperated and angry. Although the various playwrights involved did not belong to a self-conscious artistic clique, they seemed to share a post-World War II disillusionment with humankind and a fervid rejection of ideals, including belief in God and the purposefulness of human existence. In its bleakness and morbid humor, the new drama seemed to have risen from the charnel houses of Europe. Theatre of the Absurd, The (Esslin)
Theater of the Absurd
Theater;avant-garde[avant garde]
[kw]Esslin Publishes The Theatre of the Absurd (1961)
[kw]Theatre of the Absurd, Esslin Publishes The (1961)
Theatre of the Absurd, The (Esslin)
Theater of the Absurd
Theater;avant-garde[avant garde]
[g]North America;1961: Esslin Publishes The Theatre of the Absurd[06740]
[g]United States;1961: Esslin Publishes The Theatre of the Absurd[06740]
[c]Theater;1961: Esslin Publishes The Theatre of the Absurd[06740]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;1961: Esslin Publishes The Theatre of the Absurd[06740]
Esslin, Martin
Adamov, Arthur
Beckett, Samuel
Genet, Jean
Ionesco, Eugène
Pinter, Harold

Commentators during the 1950’s often noted the kinship of some of these playwrights, largely on the basis of their presumed nihilism and their general break with realistic theater in mood and method. Remarking on influences apart from sociopolitical events, perceptive critics tied the avant-garde drama to various artistic and philosophical strains, including the existential philosophy then in vogue, Surrealism, the early experimental work of Alfred Jarry, and the antitheater preachments of Antonin Artaud, whose Le Théâtre et son double
Theater and Its Double, The (Artaud) (1938; The Theater and Its Double, 1958) provided a new, widely disseminated artistic credo. Still, there was no single study that penetrated to the common marrow of the avant-garde playwrights.

The playwrights’ works were very different from the typical Broadway and West End fare seen in New York and London, and for many they were simply baffling. Unlike Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, whose plays espoused their existential philosophy in traditional form and method, Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Jean Genet, and Eugène Ionesco wrote plays that violated virtually all the conventions of the commercial stage. The problem was that each writer did this in his own way, and to most observers, these playwrights seemed as different from one another as they did from more conventional dramatists.

Perplexed and even threatened by the avant-garde movement’s penchant for devaluing language and its rejection of a time-honored dramaturgy, some critics assaulted the movement’s works as nonsense, mere charlatanism, or, even worse, seditious blasphemy hopelessly negative in perspective. The resistance to the movement’s influence culminated in a celebrated 1958 exchange of views in The Observer between Kenneth Tynan Tynan, Kenneth , one of England’s foremost drama critics, and Ionesco, who by that time had achieved considerable success on London’s more experimental stages.

In 1961, with the publication of The Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Esslin single-handedly put much of the controversy to rest. A scholarly study of diverse avant-garde playwrights, the book brilliantly finds in the concept of absurdity a common link among his subject playwrights. In its epiphanic insight, it also reveals that a good deal of sense can be made of their works. Further, in his chapter entitled “The Significance of the Absurd,” Esslin vigorously and convincingly defends the absurdist playwrights as visionaries devoted to making modern people shake off a narcosis induced by false dreams and illusions and face life honestly, or, in existential terms, authentically.

Although earlier he had written an important, critically acclaimed study of Bertolt Brecht, Brecht: A Choice of Evils (1959), Brecht (Esslin) when Esslin published The Theatre of the Absurd, he had not yet achieved significant standing as a theater historian or scholar. At the time, he was working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as a broadcaster, writer, and producer. He was, however, fascinated with the new theater of Europe, and he had an affinity with some of the dramatists because, like many of them, he had been uprooted by the sociopolitical events leading up to World War II. Cut adrift from his own roots and having to cope with the vagaries of an adopted language, he had, for example, a special empathy for Ionesco, who was prompted to write La Cantatrice chauve
Bald Soprano, The (Ionesco) (1950; The Bald Soprano, 1956), his first play, as a result of trying to learn English by aping the fatuous phraseology of a language primer.

Despite having no academic credentials as a scholar, Esslin revealed remarkable thoroughness and care in his study. Tracing the confluence of the absurdist movement to various sources both in and out of theater, he probed more deeply and widely than any earlier commentator on the avant-garde movement. Among other things, he points out the relationship of absurdist plays to other works by the playwrights themselves and to such diverse influences as mime; clowning; the silent-film comedy of Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, and others; Surrealism; the Dada movement; cubism and abstract painting; the nonsense verse and prose of such writers as Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear; the fiction of Franz Kafka and James Joyce; and, in theater directly, the commedia dell’ arte and the works of diverse playwrights, including William Shakespeare, Georg Büchner, Jarry, August Strindberg, Guillaume Apollinaire, Yvan Goll, and Brecht.

The first edition of The Theatre of the Absurd focuses on Adamov, Beckett, Genet, and Ionesco, treating each of them at length; others more briefly discussed in a chapter entitled “Parallels and Proselytes” include such new-wave playwrights as Harold Pinter, Arthur Kopit, Slawomir Mroszek, Vàclav Havel, Günter Grass, Edward Albee, and Fernando Arrabal. In naming these and other playwrights as the movement’s neophytes, Esslin showed remarkable prescience; within the next several years, most of them would validate his insights.

In discussing the works of those writers together under the rubric “theatre of the absurd,” Esslin opened a path to an intelligent approach and appraisal of the works of his subject playwrights. Further, as a clarifier of what Beckett, Ionesco, and the rest were attempting to achieve, Esslin had no obvious mentor and certainly no peer. His work was thus almost immediately recognized as an extremely important, seminal study, one of those rare works of scholarship that breaks through the branches to find not just a tree but a whole forest to which it gives a fortuitous and highly suggestive name.


The influence of Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd can hardly be overstated. During the 1960’s, the work was widely read on college campuses, and the author’s coined term for the theater of Beckett, Ionesco, and the rest became a familiar ting his doctoral dissertation in the 1950’s, he was unable to obtain a teaching position at a French university. Between 1954 and 1960, he taught French courses at universities in Sweden, Poland, and Germany. His dissertation was received so favorably by his colleagues that he was offered not only a professorship but also the position of head of the department of philosophy at the University of Clermond-Ferrand in central France. This was quite an unusual honor for a scholar who had just received his doctorate. Why was Madness and Civilization considered to be such an important book? A large part of the reason is the basic lens that Foucault applied to modern history, one that he would later use to discuss the history of the clinic, of the prison, and of sexuality. Foucault believed that there was a disjunction within history, that the advent of modernity represented a fundamental break or paradigm shift, and that humanity was essentially different before and after the break. This concept of temporal disjunction would become a powerful lens for understanding the nineteenth century and the birth of what Foucault, following Friedrich Nietzsche, referred to as the “modern soul.”

Since its publication in 1961, critics of Madness and Civilization have pointed out its import for many different fields, including social and cultural history, cultural studies, political science, ethics, the history of ideas, and the history of psychiatry. Many scholars have asked whether Foucault was more a historian or a philosopher. This opposition between history and philosophy assumes that the traditional objective analysis of social history is somehow incompatible with theoretical and philosophical reflections on the history of ideas. Foucault believed, however, that such a distinction between history and philosophy was artificial because historical research based on extensive analysis of primary sources can lead to an understanding of how people perceived ethical, social, or religious problems in earlier centuries or in foreign cultures.

This approach to history and philosophy, which combined rigorous historical research with a study of the history of ideas, represented the method developed by the eminent French historians Marc Bloch Bloch, Marc and Lucien Febvre Febvre, Lucien in the 1930’s and 1940’s to study what they called “the history of mentalities.” Foucault wanted modern readers to understand the basic assumptions and popular beliefs or misconceptions that led generations of Europeans to conclude that it was perfectly acceptable to imprison the insane and to deny medical doctors access to the mentally ill.

Foucault argued persuasively that the justification for this egregious mistreatment of the mentally ill was the specious assumption that those whose behavior, opinions, or even religious beliefs did not conform to socially accepted norms were unreasonable and therefore should not be allowed to remain free. Freedom was then considered a privilege and not a right. Until the French Revolution, a person in France could be imprisoned for insanity without a judicial hearing if the king signed a lettre de cachet (a letter bearing the royal seal) ordering that the individual be imprisoned until the king decided otherwise. This use (or abuse) of power was absolute, and people imprisoned for insanity were not permitted to challenge such royal decisions in a court of law. Lettres de cachet constituted an overt form of political repression designed to discourage all types of resistance to the ruling class. Anyone who did not conform to specific socially accepted norms could be imprisoned without a judicial hearing.

Between the publication in 1961 of Madness and Civilization and his death on June 24, 1984, Foucault wrote extensively on a wide variety of topics including prison reform, the treatment of the mentally ill, linguistics, homosexuality, and the history of psychiatry and sexuality. It is ironic that Foucault died in the neurological hospital of La Salpetrière in Paris. Until the French Revolution, La Salpetrière had been one of the major prisons in which large numbers of people were incarcerated because of insanity. In Madness and Civilization, Foucault had written extensively about the terrible mistreatment in La Salpetrière of the mentally ill before the French Revolution.

Although there was considerable diversity in Foucault’s writings, a major focus in his books was the analysis of the diverse techniques that societies have used over the centuries to control those whose behavior does not conform to specific norms. In his works published in the 1960’s, he analyzed extensively the mistreatment of the mentally ill. In his three-volume Histoire de la sexualité
History of Sexuality, The (Foucault) (1976-1984; The History of Sexuality, 1978-1987), Foucault described the many techniques of repression directed against women, from ancient Greece to the modern era. Throughout his works, Foucault consistently affirmed the necessity for societies to recognize and to respect the dignity of each individual and diversity of all kinds.

Foucault’s writings probably influenced, at least indirectly, reforms that occurred from the 1960’s onward in mental health treatment, though critics have been reluctant to posit such links. Abuses of power by Soviet officials, who claimed that dissidents were mentally ill and hospitalized them as a poorly concealed means of incarceration, were exposed and gradually eliminated. Even in the United States, treatment of the mentally ill came under closer examination. Foucault’s influence is more noticeable in the humanities. His use of historical materials as a means of examining the values of society has been emulated by later scholars, and Foucault is required reading in courses ranging from cultural studies to philosophy and psychology and history. Madness and Civilization (Foucault)
New Historicism
Cultural criticism
Paradigm shifts

Further Reading

  • Arac, Jonathan, ed. After Foucault: Humanistic Knowledge, Postmodern Challenges. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988. Contains insightful essays by nine scholars who examine Foucault’s writings on social history, feminism, politics, linguistics, and literary theory.
  • Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization. 1964. New ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. Part of the Routledge Classics series. Foucault’s foundational work on mental illness and the institutionalization of the mentally ill.
  • _______. Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1973-74. Translated by Graham Burchell, edited by Jacques Lagrange. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Collected lectures presented by Foucault on the subjects of psychiatric history and psychiatry and their relationship with institutional power and ways of thinking.
  • Gutting, Gary. Foucault: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. A brief but thorough introduction to Foucault and his work, with chapters on “madness” and “crime and punishment.”
  • O’Farrell, Clare. Foucault: Historian or Philosopher? New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Examines the debate over Foucault as either social historian or as a moral philosopher. O’Farrell concludes that the approaches are equally valid. Contains an extensive bibliography on Foucault.
  • Scott, Charles E. “Ethics Is the Question: The Fragmented Subject in Foucault’s Genealogy.” In The Question of Ethics: Nietzsche, Foucault, Heidegger. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Examines Foucault’s reflections on ethical problems and discusses the profound influence of the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger on Foucault.
  • Scull, Andrew. The Insanity of Place, the Place of Insanity: Essays on the History of Psychiatry. New York: Routledge, 2006. Part of the Routledge Studies in Cultural History series. Explores psychiatry’s problematic past, with a chapter on the reception of Madness and Civilization by historians in the United States.
  • Shumway, David R. Michel Foucault. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Presents an excellent general introduction to the philosophical and ethical dimensions in Foucault’s works. Describes very well Foucault’s importance in modern French philosophy. Contains an annotated bibliography on Foucault.
  • Smart, Barry. Michel Foucault. 1985. Rev. ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Presents a sociological interpretation of Foucault’s writings on the use and abuse of political power to limit personal freedom. Describes well the unity of Foucault’s social philosophy.

New Criticism Arises in American Universities

Kuhn Explores Paradigm Shifts in Scientific Thought

Lévi-Strauss Identifies Common Structures in World Myths

Marcuse Publishes Foundational New Left Works