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Some Analogies Between the Epic Brecht and the Absurdist Beckett Charles R. Lyons Contemporary drama is dominated by two types of dramatic structure: the epic and the absurd. While both of these movements within the avant-garde are international and both are fed by complex influences outside of their own literatures, they are, in a sense, primarily German and French movements respectively. The antithetical nature of the epic and the absurd seems clear on a variety of levels— sufficiently clear, surely, to make the title of this paper somewhat surprising: one movement is predominately Marxist and the other largely existential; one assumes the existence of an objective, external reality, and the other sees the subjective consciousness as the only reality; one imitates its concept of reality in loose, episodic structures, frequently repre­ senting a wide passage of time, the other functions more as an extended poetic image, concentrating upon a single “ psychic moment;” one presents clearly defined social relationships, the other exploits obscurity and density. These differences are ones we recognize easily, and, to a large degree, they define our sense of the relationship between the epic and the absurd theaters. While the philosophical and formal antitheses have made the playwrights themselves see their work as incompatible, both kinds of structure can satisfy the same audience; and it is not unusual for a critic who celebrates Bertolt Brecht to respond as deeply to Samuel Beckett. In this paper, I would like to explore some of the analogies between the epic and the absurd, using Brecht and Beckett as the prime examples of each of these dramatic forms which, while they seem antithetical, offer analogous satisfactions. O f course, Brecht’s early plays are very similar to the absurdist drama; and that relationship has been discussed with some frequency. Interestingly, those works remained strange and obscure until we went back to them after learning how to deal with such plays as En attendant Godot and Fin de partie. However, in this paper, I am dealing with the analogies which exist between the major Brechtian plays, those written in the controlled and deliberate form of Brecht’s Marxist polemic, and the plays of the Theatre of the Absurd. First of all, in both formal structures, there is a disintegration of the conventional, or Aristotelian, sense of dramatic time in which 297 298 Comparative Drama the temporal sequence of the act imitated determines the order of the play. In his theoretical writings, Brecht argued against what he defined as an Aristotelian structure: one in which the protagonist, the focus of the spectator’s identification, suffers an experience whose temporal sequence organizes the play. Rather than having the experience itself determine the structure in an obvious progression of events, Brecht exploited an episodic form in which the progression is delayed by the “interruption” of songs and digressive scenes. The rather complicated structures which Brecht developed are closely unified, but they are unified thematically, not temporally. Each Brechtian scene is inde­ pendently coherent, forming an integrity of its own as it clarifies its own theme, like a medieval exemplum, and relates to the major ethical judgment directing the work. Brecht wanted to interfere with the psychological process of identification— the fantasy of self as hero— so that the imagination of the spectator would be free to make an ethical judgment upon the protagonist’s act. Act and consequence are known factors, usually, at the beginning of the action, and the rhythm of his plays does not depend upon the suspenseful expectation of the spectator. The exposition of the ethical quality of the event forms the order of scenes. In this perspective, the Brechtian play is a vertical structure, not a horizontal one. The conventional temporal sequence is also abrogated in the absurdist plays. These works are not imitative of the passage of time in any usual sense. In Beckett’s drama, time seems to be one of those futile contracts which one attempts in order to establish relation with another human being; yet time has no more meaning than that which the consciousness invests in it. The nature of Beckett’s plays is dynamic, as they imitate the transaction of a consciousness, but each is...


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