Existentialism


Existentialism is a concept that became popular during the second
World War in France, and just after it. French playrights have often used
the stage to express their views, and these views came to surface even
during a Nazi occupation. Bernard Shaw got his play "Saint Joan" past the
German censors because it appeared to be very Anti-British. French
audiences however immediately understood the real meaning of the play, and
replaced the British with the Germans. Those sorts of "hidden meanings"
were common throughout the period so that plays would be able to pass
censorship.

Existentialism proposes that man is full of anxiety and despare
with no meaning in his life, just simply existing, until he made decisive
choice about his own future. That is the way to achieve dignity as a human
being. Existentialists felt that adopting a social or political cause was
one way of giving purpose to a life. Sartre is well known for the "Theatre
engage" or Theatre 'commited', which is supposedly commited to social
and/or political action.

On of the major playwrights during this period was Jean-Paul
Sartre. Sartre had been imprisoned in Germany in 1940 but managed to
escape, and become one of the leaders of the Existential movement. Other
popular playwrights were Albert Camus, and Jean Anouilh. Just like
Anouilh, Camus accidentally became the spokesman for the French Underground
when he wrote his famous essay, "Le Mythe de Sisyphe" or "The Myth of
Sisyphus". Sisyphus was the man condemned by the gods to roll a rock to the
top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down again. For Camus, this
related heavily to everyday life, and he saw Sisyphus an "absurd" hero,
with a pointless existance. Camus felt that it was necessary to wonder
what the meaning of life was, and that the human being longed for some
sense of clarity in the world, since "if the world were clear, art would
not exist". "The Myth of Sisyphus" became a prototype for existentialism in
the theatre, and eventually The Theatre of the Absurd.

Right after the Second World War, Paris became the theatre capital
of the west, and popularized a new form of surrealistic theatre called
"Theatre of the Absurd". Many historians contribute the sudden popularity
of absurdism in France to the gruesome revelations of gas chambers and war
atrocities coming out of Germany after the war. The main idea of The
Theatre of the Absurd was to point out man's helplessness and pointless
existance in a world without purpose. As Richard Coe described it "It is
the freedom of the slave to crawl east along the deck of a boat going
west". Two of the most popular playwrights of this time include Samuel
Beckett, who's most famous piece was "Waiting for Godot", and Eugene
Ioensco with "Exit the King". Most absurdist plays have no logical plot.
The absense of the plot pushes an emphasis on proving the pointless
existance of man. Quite often, such plays reveal the human condition at
it's absolute worst.

Absurdist playwrites often used such techniques as symbolism, mime,
the circus, and the commedia dell'arte, which are quite evident in the more
popular plays of the time, such as Waiting for Godot, The Bald Prima Donna,
and Amedee.