To call something absurd is not to say it’s meaningless. It’s to say it just doesn’t make sense. Absurdity can be funny or depressing or maddening. Or it can be all these things simultaneously—a lunatic state of affairs explored by artists of the absurd from Franz Kafka to the Marx Brothers to postwar playwrights and contemporary comedians.
The term existentialism conjures dour, trench-coated intellectuals sitting in cafés, muttering about human suffering and chain-smoking Gauloises amid the gloom of postwar Europe. But existentialist thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre weren’t nihilists, holding instead that every human being has the ability to create his or her own life’s meaning. Absurdist writer-philosopher Albert Camus, often grouped with the existentialists, staked out a more radical position: In a universe that is absurd—resistant to any human effort to understand it—you must contrive your own meaning. But “authenticity” demands that you preserve an ongoing awareness of the absurd, and therefore an ironic distance from whatever meaning you create.
Viewed through the lens of the absurd, the human condition is both tragic and comic—tragic because the universe is hostile (it’ll kill you); comic because, although any revolt is bound to fail, we must keep on rebelling. Existence is one extended pratfall, like that taken repeatedly by Camus’s mythic hero Sisyphus, who eternally pushes a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again. This kind of tragicomic repetition characterizes the action in many dramatic works of the genre playwright and critic Martin Esslin called the Theatre of the Absurd.
“Logic is a very beautiful thing,” wrote absurdist postwar playwright Eugène Ionesco. “As long as it is not abused.” But the rank abuse of logic is often the technique of choice among absurdists. Take the following joke that comes to us from the long-standing Russian tradition of the absurd:
Two acquaintances bump into each other while crossing a bridge over the Volga River.
First man: You’re in a hurry, comrade.
Second man: I’m off to practice with my string quartet.
First: I didn’t know you played music! How many musicians are in your ensemble?
Second: Well, there are three of us.
First: Who are the other players?
Second: It’s just my brother and myself.
First: I didn’t know you had a brother!
Second: I don’t!
Russian writer Nikolai Gogol drew upon this tradition for his tale “The Nose,” whose impeccably skewed logic has a man misplace and regain his honker. No less a disciple than Fyodor Dostoevsky, one of the fathers of existentialism, claimed, “We have all come out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat,’” another of Gogol’s short masterpieces—this one with a protagonist whose first name and patronymic, Akaky Akakievich, translate roughly as “Crap, Son of Crap.”
The Theatre of the Absurd didn’t have a name until critic Martin Esslin gave it one in his 1961 book of that title. The postwar playwrights Esslin analyzes make a diverse group—including Jean Genet, Eugène Ionesco, Fernando Arrabal, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee—but each, according to Esslin, was exploring a new theatrical convention that subverted the well-made play, dispensing with such traditional standards as a coherent plot structure and characters driven by plausible, or even comprehensible, motivation. Instead, these writers offered up “dramas” whose plots are aimless, dreamlike or repetitive and characters whose behavior often confounds interpretation. An absurdist strain in Western theater goes at least as far back as Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896) and August Strindberg’s Dream Play (1907), and it remains alive and gleefully kicking in works by avant-gardists like Christopher Durang and Richard Foreman. But the maestro of the Theater of the Absurd was Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot chronicles two lookalike days in the life (if it can be called that) of its bedraggled protagonists—days during which there is “nothing to be done” except hang around awaiting the arrival of a possible savior, who of course never shows.
According to actor Barry McGovern, who played Didi (Vladimir) in several productions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, as well as in the 2001 film, “Godot’s got almost a Jewish humor; it’s Irish humor, it’s universal.” Yes, the darkly comic moral of Irishman Beckett’s play—whose wretched central duo Didi and Gogo (Estragon) ridiculously decide not to commit suicide in each of the play’s two acts—may be summed up in this quip from Jewish wisecracker Woody Allen: “Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering—and it’s all over much too soon.” Because its humor is inseparable from its pathos, Godot is seldom hilarious, but the kvetching, cross-talk and sometimes purely idiotic interplay between its protagonists owe much to comedic techniques perfected by Jewish vaudeville acts like the Marx Brothers. Beckett’s love of slapstick is obvious in Didi and Gogo’s hat-switching routine in act 2, which bears a striking resemblance to the one in the Marxes’ Duck Soup. And Didi and Gogo’s relationship—they find each other insufferable and are utterly codependent—resembles that of old married couples in countless Jewish jokes of the “Take my wife . . . please!” variety that Borscht Belt stand-up Henny Youngman popularized.
Whaddya call a family act in which several goofball brothers—one smoking a cigar and wearing a big greasepaint mustache, one chattering meaninglessly in a phony Italian accent, one not talking at all but occasionally playing a harp or honking a bicycle horn, and each having a ludicrous name ending in O—engage in all manner of ridiculous horseplay, make rude remarks and lewd gestures, do weird stuff with mirrors and endlessly annoy each other and everybody around them?
No, the Marx Brothers. Jewish humor, whose roots, some commentators claim, can be found in the holy disputations of Talmudic rabbis and whose devilish practitioners today include the likes of Sarah Silverman and Gilbert Gottfried, reached its most purely absurd apogee in the zany wordplay and madcap physical comedy of Groucho, Chico and Harpo (and sometimes a younger brother, straight man Zeppo). As a troupe the Marx Brothers turned a successful vaudeville act into an even more profitable run as motion-picture buffoons, creating 1930s masterpieces like Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, which are widely considered among the funniest movies ever made.
Modeled on Groucho Marx’s signature look, the novelty disguise called “Groucho glasses”—horn-rimmed specs, fuzzy black eyebrows and mustache, sometimes a cigar and always a plastic (or rubber) nose holding the ensemble together—first appeared in the 1940s and, in one version or another, has been on the market ever since. Now, it’s true that in the movies, Groucho’s exaggerated eyebrows and mustache were stripes of greasepaint. But his nose was his own, and, unlike that of Major Kovalyov, the befuddled main character in Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” Groucho’s schnoz wasn’t in the least detachable.
The absurd world Gogol depicts—one in which a man can lose his nose and then just as inexplicably regain it—is amusingly preposterous. But it’s also nightmarish. And so are the inane worlds the Marx Brothers inhabit. “Humor is reason gone mad,” as Groucho himself put it, and in the best of their films the Marx Brothers’ madness isn’t just irrational; it’s relentless. Nobody—least of all the imperious, impervious Margaret Dumont, who served as Groucho’s foil in seven of their pictures—can get them to stop the shenanigans. Which are funny. And also agonizing.
Sometimes you shouldn’t bother waking up in the morning, because you never know what absurd thing might have happened to you during the night. For instance, Gregor Samsa, a devoted son and brother who has toiled for years in a traveling-salesman job he hates, just to help his family maintain a respectable lifestyle, awakes one morning “to find himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” Or consider the case of poor Major Kovalyov, a “collegiate assessor” from the Caucasus who has come to St. Petersburg to better his career and romantic prospects—a plan that falls to pieces when he peers into the mirror one morning and discovers “only a flat patch on his face where the nose should have been!”
These are the premises, respectively, of Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella The Metamorphosis and Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Nose.” Following their transformations, things don’t go well for either Samsa or Kovalyov, the pain of their condition compounded when nobody else—not Samsa’s family, not Kovalyov’s doctor—is especially sympathetic to their plight. Both tales are disquieting, but Gogol’s ends more happily than Kafka’s: Kovalyov eventually gets his nose back, whereas Samsa, to everyone’s relief, simply expires.
A man is summoned by the governing authorities, but when he tries to comply with their order he is prevented from contacting them. A man is arrested and threatened with a trial, which never occurs; he is nonetheless executed without ever learning the charges against him. A man checks in on his elderly father, who suddenly and viciously accuses him of deceit and betrayal, compelling the son to run from the room and jump off a nearby bridge. A man earns his living by fasting before onlookers, and he eventually accomplishes his masterpiece: starving to death. A good and dutiful man suddenly turns into a monstrous insect that his family ignores out of disgust. If these five grim and puzzling scenarios sound Kafkaesque, that’s because they summarize the plots of tales by Franz Kafka (The Castle, The Trial, “The Judgment,” “A Hunger Artist” and The Metamorphosis, respectively).
Samuel Beckett’s plays show the Irishman to be Kafka’s spiritual heir, and similar to how Kafka’s name has, in adjectival form, entered the language, so has the title of Beckett’s best-known work. To “wait for Godot” means to soldier on in futile but determined expectation of something that will never arrive. How Kafkaesque!