top of page

HNR 455: Approaching Beckett in the Contemporary


Life is about suffering and repetition which can be personified on stage. Theatre of the Absurd exemplifies this idea. This paper discusses the history of absurdism, both artistic and theoretical, discussing how it can be applied in a current day theatre. Looking into the philosophy behind absurdism with Albert Camus’ essay, Myth of Sisyphus as well as paintings and plays that inspired the genre. I focus specifically on Samuel Beckett’s two plays that coined the term “Theatre of the Absurd”:  Waiting for Godot and Endgame. This includes an indepth look into how these shows can be performed from a unique approach, as well as the difficulties of performing plays that were written in a different societal time. Going even further to identify how to work around these difficulties to make the shows applicable to all.

Theatre of the Absurd: Beckett's Work Approached in the Contemporary

Theater follows characters as they experience larger than life phenomena in a truthful portrayal. When a character is overcome with emotion they might go into a soliloquy or sing a song about what’s happening, when just dialogue is not enough to fully express oneself. The play concludes with the characters having grown overall or learned a lesson about life in some manner. These rules of plot and character are seen in almost every play that is produced today. Avant-garde theater, meaning theater that is seemingly ahead of its time, pushes the boundaries of these rules with one genre of theater in particular breaking every common theatrical rule.

Nothing happens in the play and the play is about nothing. This thought process is one commonly associated with the avant-garde genre of theater: Theater of the Absurd. This genre has such a wide range of versatility from people in trashcans to waiting for an idolized person to appear. Theatre of the absurd has a complex history, both in how it is a genre and what inspires it, with a primary author of the genre being Samuel Beckett with two of his plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame. Both of these plays can be approached in the contemporary with few minor adjustments necessary to make the plays appealing to the majority of general audience members.


Post World War 2, many European playwrights felt isolated from everyone due to the trauma of living through one of the most devastating wars in history. Through this sense of isolation a genre started to form because of works produced by these playwrights. Theater of the Absurd was not meant to be an agreed upon genre with a set of rules that needed to be followed in order for a play to be considered absurdist. In this sense the genre was seen as a faux movement, one that was created out of pure coincidence and happenstance instead of being a broad idea that was pushed as a collective. This means that the playwrights were all writing in what they believed to be a style unique to themselves and other playwrights were writing in a style similar to one another. In fact, there was no real name for this movement or collection of plays until Martin Esslin wrote in his 1961 book, Theatre of the Absurd, where he became the one to completely define the genre. Esslin discusses several authors that he considered to be pioneers of this faux movement: Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter. These playwrights are considered to have written in a specific individual form that focus on different aspects of Theatre of the Absurd. Martin Esslin wanted it to be made clear that there should also be no nationality associated with Theatre of the Absurd, so while most of the plays were written in France and in French, this was not a French movement due to the majority of authors simply preferring to write their works in French even if they themselves were not French.

Upon initial viewing by critics, absurdism was seen to lack all of the following plot, development, characterization, suspense, and common sense. Part of the reason for this backlash was that absurdism happened to fall under the anti-literary movement, where the focus was to move away from the belief that big words and long sentences were better than to just exist with staging and short quick spouts of dialogue. Imagery does not matter in this anti-literary movement through theater but instead the feel of the show (the staging, scenery, and words). Another defining characteristic of absurdist plays is the idea that humanity is composed of senselessness. This becomes clear when there is a lot of repetition by characters or by nonsensical language being used, and this idea of senselessness can also be seen when what is happening on stage is not equivalent to what is being said, that there is a sense of disconnect from the world the audience sees versus the world the characters live in. The authors all were asking a similar question to one another and that was how does one present the idea of the absurdity of humanity? The playwrights answered this by not trying to argue that humanity was absurd, instead they simply wrote that it is and showed that through their work. Due to the ideas behind Theatre of the Absurd and how incidental the genre came to be known, it is suggested by Esslin that one does not compare absurdist work to anything outside of absurdism as the plays challenge the idea of theater as a whole that there is no basis to compare other than the fact that they are still plays. 

The birth of absurdism seems to be coincidental; however, there are inspirations from philosophy, literature, and art that contribute to why absurdism feels and looks the way that it does. The main philosophical inspiration was Albert Camus’ work titled “The Myth of Sisyphus” written in 1942. Camus attempts to propose the question of why not commit suicide? He discusses a more contemporary approach to nihilism and coins the human condition as absurd. In the work, Camus also bridges the gap of what the term absurd means to people today compared to original meaning. The etymology of absurd can be found in the music world when two notes were out of harmony with one another and creating dissonance, they would be considered absurd. Albert Camus proposed that the human experience is out of harmony with the world; therefore, the human experience is absurd. “The Myth of Sisyphus” work also goes into believing that if one results in death or God as the reasoning for something then they did not follow the correct path. Camus wanted to find an understanding of why life is absurd without blaming a deity of some kind. He came to the conclusion that to embrace the absurd fully, one must live life to the most, not the fullest, and attempt to experience the most of what the world has to offer.  In the writing it also states that when one embraces the absurdity of life there are three consequences: revolting, passion, and freedom. These three ideas can be seen through a lot of the playwrights of absurdism.

The other inspirations of Theatre of the Absurd were literature and art. Literature inspirations were works by author James Joyce, especially his work Ulysses, and author Franz Kafka, with focus on his work The Metamorphosis. Focusing on Joyce, Beckett was his research assistant in Paris and they even became close friends with Joyce almost welcoming Beckett into his family. Joyce’s work Ulysses uses concepts such as stream of consciousness and humorous events are similar to that as seen in absurdist plays. Kafka was less of a direct inspiration to absurdism when compared to Joyce. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was seen as having the events be considered absurd, and it is through the ideas of Kafka’s stories being about absurd situations that helped inspire playwrights to write their own absurd worlds. Both authors and their works helped cultivate the writing of Theatre of the Absurd.

When it comes to art as a source of inspiration, there is one artist whose work stands out the most: Salvador Dali. Dali’s work with surrealism, especially his 1931 piece “Persistence of Memory”, helped to inspire the worlds of absurdism. Surrealism is an art form that meshes realism with the unconscious or dream like reality. This perception of the world, being something that seems almost uncanny with its comparison to reality, is what playwrights in Theatre of the Absurd strive to recreate with their plays. They want to create a world that seems like the one we live in while making it clear that there is something about the reality that they have created that is just a bit off from what people consider the norm.

Of all the famous absurdist playwrights there was one that stood out in the literary and theater world: Samuel Beckett. Some of Beckett’s work includes, but is not limited to, Not I, Krapp’s Last Tape, Waiting for Godot, Happy Days, Endgame. Beckett wrote on the human experience, with some believing that his work was all symbolism towards what occurs in a human mind. He was an Irish author who lived in Paris for most of his life, including during World War 2 where he even volunteered with the Red Cross. Beckett would write in both English and French, as well as translating his works between the two. Beckett also directed all of his own works both for the stage and the screen, this allowed for his visions to be completely realized in their truest form. In 1969 Beckett won the Nobel Prize in Literature for “for his writing, which - in new forms for the novel and drama - in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation” (Nobel Prize). The prize was awarded in a sense for how well Beckett was able to formulate the human experience, as well as clear evidence that Samuel Beckett was an expert with his work in the absurd.

Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, is considered to be one of the best plays written in the past one hundred years (Nason). The play is about two men, Vladimir and Estragon, as they sit near a tree waiting for this supposed Godot to come and meet with them. While waiting for this mysterious figure they meet Pozzo and Lucky, a master and servant, who mock Vladimir and Estragon for waiting for this supposed person to appear. There is also a character only known as the boy, who meets Vladimir and Estragon and he is apparently a messenger for Godot. The boy is in both act one and act two but on both of his visits he states that this is his first time meeting Vladimir and Estragon. This part of the play helps to emphasize the idea that life is full of repetition and suffering, with both men being left for days outside for this supposed man and each day seems to be almost the same as the last. The premise of the whole play is about man waiting for the unknown hoping that when the unknown appears their problems will be solved. It is a discussion on complacency of the human condition and how far people will stay in a bad situation because of hope. Some audiences have perceived Godot as symbolic to how people are waiting for the second coming of Jesus, but this interpretation has no definitive basis. Beckett did want his audience to draw their own conclusions, and depending on where the play has been performed people have had different reactions. When the play was performed in a California prison the prisoners stated that they believed the play was that holding out hope for freedom was the point of life (Esslin). Waiting for Godot is a play that exemplifies what Theatre of the Absurd is as a genre.

Beckett considered Endgame to be his masterpiece, something better than the rest of all of his plays. The play takes place in a single room and only has four characters, Clov, Hamm, Nagg, and Nell. Nagg and Nell are a married couple, and also Hamm’s parents, but they live in trash cans and no longer have legs due to an accident in the past. Due to them only living in trash cans they live in their memories constantly discussing what life used to be like before they got stuck in the trash cans. Nagg even tells a story about an interaction between him and a man to fix his trousers with the joke being that he doesn’t need trousers anymore due to the lack of limbs. Hamm is a wheelchair bound old man who is completely blind. He spends his day ordering Clov around talking about his stories or chronicle to anyone willing to listen; however, the story that Hamm is always telling seems to be the origin of how he came into guardianship over Clov talking about how a dying man left him a small child that should not have lived. Clov is on the younger side who is going blind and has a constant limp due to an unknown injury to his leg, he is also not capable of sitting down. Throughout the play Clov and Hamm constantly fight one another with Clov constantly threatening to leave Hamm to die, this threat is usually followed by Hamm begging for death or telling Clov that there is nothing left in the world except for what’s around them. The end of the play is a Clov attempting to leave and Hamm accepting death and isolation.

Many ideas about what Endgame is actually about have been proposed. A common belief is that all the characters in the show represent different aspects of the human mind. This can be seen with Clov representing the want to be free and believing that there is more to life than what he has. Hamm represents the pessimistic view of life believing that there is nothing more to life than what is in front of him and that to live is to suffer. Nagg and Nell represent the aspect of someone who thinks they are past their prime only living in memory. They are the tragic characters knowing that there is nothing they can do but remember what once was. The world of the show is supposedly post-apocalyptic but due to the play never leaving the one room this post-apocalyptic world may or may not be real and that is the idea that Clov is trying to figure out. The play has many different interpretations but this idea about the characters representing the human mind is closest to that that matches with Theatre of the Absurd.

Personal Approach:

The characters of Hamm and Clov have a clear codependency with one another. When initially figuring out how to direct the show I realized why Hamm and Clov felt similar to my own life. The two characters, in my opinion, represent the political left and right. Hamm is representative of the Right, he does not want things to change and results in insults and being demeaning to get his way with Clov. Clov is representative of the Left, he only wants things to change and be able to make a positive change on the world. The two are constantly fighting back forth just like the two political sides fight back and forth over the American Government. The truth of the situation is though that Hamm needs Clov to continue to bring him food in order to survive and Clov needs Hamm to get into the safe that holds all the food. While the two clearly hate each other, they need the other one in order to survive and live life without one the other would die. This approach would take Endgame and put it into a more contemporary setting.

When approaching Endgame to be done in actuality there were a few difficulties that had to be overcome. First, according to the licensing contract, a director cannot change any of the stage directions written in the play, the director is also not allowed to add any additional blocking to the show. This is put in place because Beckett wanted his work to be replicated the exact way he wanted it to be with no changes whatsoever. There was a loophole to be found in the wording of the document. The play nor the contract specified how the stage must be set up and how the audience is supposed to be placed, this means that I am able to change the standard format of theater allowing for more adjustable blocking to be made while still following every stage direction and not adding anything. My solution to this was to put audiences on the left of the theater space as well as the right side, with the actors and set being in the center of the room. This also added the idea of the audience watching the audience react to the show. It gave the entire theater a feeling as if you were someone watching from backstage as the show was performed, a constant reminder that this is about something more than just theater.

The other big difficulty when attempting to work with this text is that in the licensing it is stated that only male actors are allowed to play male characters and female actors are allowed to play female characters, and there is to be no gender bending in any form. In a world where the gender binary is becoming less and less clear, as well as not being allowed to ask the gender of the actors in the audition, this was difficult to work around. I believe that unless the show is made to be a discussion on gender in a society or how gender roles can impact others that the gender of the actor performing a character does not matter. Due to this methodology I felt that the best way to approach this situation was to maintain the pronouns of the characters with the text, but be open to the best possible actor or actress for the part. This resulted in me casting women to play Nagg, Nell, and Clov with Hamm being the only male identifying actor in the play. This adjustment did not change the story in any way and should be something to be considered to be changed in the future, even though Beckett wished for it, it no longer fits into today’s society.

There were a few other things that I adjusted with the show to fit the message I was trying to have the audience pick up on. Due to the space I was using, there were two windows near the center of the room and the play calls for there to be windows that can be looked through. By having the actors use these windows and open them to the outside, allowing the audience to see what was outside of the theater, it was a larger discussion on how the play is a reflection of real life and the audience might start to see the parallels between the characters and themselves. While this was not fully accomplished due to only being a concept and not everyone picking up on it, I believe that this had an effect on a few members of the audience.   


Theater of the Absurd is an important genre to understand when it comes to how to discuss the human condition through art. It is work that is able to still work in the contemporary though there are some challenges that must be overcome. Absurdism, and Endgame, should be performed more in order to show how humanity reacted to the aftermath of World War 2 and how it is still how some people see the world today. Through repetition and plays about nothing Theatre of the Absurd lives up to its name: absurd.

bottom of page