- Reassessing the Theatre of the Absurd: Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter by Michael Y. Bennett
In recent years, a number of scholars have striven to deconstruct and redefine Martin Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd, challenging his fairly Procrustean taxonomy [End Page 89] in an attempt to illustrate that playwrights like Beckett, Pinter, Genet, and Ionesco can stand on their own merits, without needing the overarching moniker of “Absurdist” to assign them meaning. As the title suggests, Michael Y. Bennett likewise counters Esslin in Reassessing the Theatre of the Absurd: Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter. Bennett suggests that reading these seemingly disparate plays within the framework of parable might allow for new revelations to emerge, and though his analysis is at times fragmented, he nonetheless offers a number of intriguing and insightful readings of these plays and playwrights.
The foundation for Bennett’s argument begins with Esslin himself; “Esslin based his understanding of the plays he characterized as absurd on two significant misreadings: 1) Esslin mistranslates and miscontextualizes a quote by Eugene Ionesco, which Esslin uses to define the absurd, and 2) Esslin misread Albert Camus as an existentialist” (2). Bennett structures his text into four main chapters, each offering a reassessment of one major “Absurdist” text: Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Pinter’s The Birthday Party, Genet’s The Blacks, and Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. The book concludes with an all-too-brief analysis of the “Female Absurd” in Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart (juxtaposed with Genet’s The Maids), and two addendums regarding the nature of parable. Throughout, he offers an anti-existentialist reading of Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus as a touchstone for reevaluating these works, which he sees not as Absurdist, but as “parabolic drama” (3).
In his introduction, Bennett illustrates a number of salient and thought-provoking concepts regarding our notions of the absurd, and suggests new readings of Camus, Sartre, Kafka, Ionesco, Esslin, and others. Here, Bennett outlines the questions and concepts that provide the guideposts for the rest of the book: the characteristics and definitions of “absurd” in Esslin’s estimation; the prevalence of scholarly misreadings, the difference in semantics and semiotics in regard to identifying the “absurd”; rereading Camus in the wake of problematic scholarship and misreadings, heterotopia, utopia, and the like. Two of the most fruitful of Bennett’s observations are the “paradox of progress”—specifically in Godot and Rhinoceros—as a reflection of the economic and social status of postwar Europe, and the fact that these works offer little in the way of a standard conclusion, preferring instead ambiguity or silence (15).
The first chapter, in which Bennett reads “Estragon’s Struggle with the Boot” as a parable for Godot as a whole, is easily the most accessible and enlightening. In this chapter, Bennett offers insightful and innovative readings of these plays, arguing that Godot is not a bleak, hopeless affair, as it is usually read, but rather, that it offers “not only meaning, but a simple roadmap to making meaning in life” (29). Bennett draws upon up-to-date criticism on Godot and Beckett, in regard to both the text and the play in production. He astutely suggests that recent productions of Godot seem to be echoing changes in theory—shifting away from the pigeonholed characteristics of “Absurdism” and toward parabolic drama—whether intentionally [End Page 90] or not. Bennett’s arguments here are sound and convincing; his own use of Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus as a thematic touchstone feels like a logical extension of his main argument and he allows a reassessment of Beckett’s seminal work to emerge organically from a variety of sources.
The second chapter focuses on “The Pinteresque Oedipal Household” in The Birthday Party, analyzing the play’s various “interrogation scenes” as “parable[s]-with-the-larger-parable” of Oedipal familial discord (65). Chapter three explores the use of ritual in The Blacks, employing “The Parable of the White Clown” to argue that “Genet uses ritual in...