Most human beings seem to think they need to live for something. Thus we have religion, which gives people purpose, often of quite a noble moral character. Following the global catastrophe that was World War II, a group of playwrights — not a school, exactly, but a gifted creative talents acting individually — gave the world what critic Martin Esslin dubbed the Theater of the Absurd. The absurd works of Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and others gave voice and legitimacy to the existential idea that there is no purpose or meaning to human life other than, possibly, that which may be created by the acts of human beings themselves, who come from nothing and will return to nothing.
Absurdist works are grim spectacles. They reflect a pessimism at least bordering on the nihilistic. They are unforgettable and highly instructive — who has not been affected by Waiting for Godot? But Theater of the Absurd was necessarily a brief movement because it was so dark. And, perhaps, because the point had been made.
But now it’s time for a new wave of Theater of the Absurd to appear.
For the first time since that cataclysmic war, life has become so absurd that absurdity itself is accepted as a norm. By absurd I chiefly mean the divorce of daily life from objective fact. It doesn’t even matter whether, metaphysically speaking, objective fact exists. The idea that it does, that it is discernible and generally agreed upon, is necessary to the orderly conduct of daily human intercourse. Everything breaks down in a world of alternative facts and tribal denial of such clearly observable phenomena as climate change, for example, and economic injustice.
When clear facts are deniable and denial can be believed, we are suffering from fascism — not a political system so much as a social pathology brought about by the confluence of state and corporate power, the hatred of a dominant group toward “the other,” and the blind allegiance of people to a cultish mythology.
The symptoms of this pathology begin with the creation of malevolent myth. And they end, inevitably, in violence. Masters of this pathology will perpetrate, and its followers will admire, the tear-gassing of children. It gets worse from there.
No, this is not some wild-eyed alarmism. It is a well-worn path in history, and its turns are wearily predictable.
That it makes no sense is beside the point. That is what is absurd; that is our reality. It is also, again, an opportunity for superb theater. Picture a Republican and an Englishman discussing Donald Trump, Jamal Khashoggi, Vladimir Putin and Brexit. They talk and they listen, but they do not hear; each one’s story is buried in subtext. They do love to talk, and each one believes that, with patience, the other is educable. They are, after all, in their shared heritage still children of the Enlightenment. They might as well shout at the wind.
The story, to the extent that there is one in Theater of the Absurd, is one of competing theologies. The traditional theologies are Pollyannish. They hold that in a world full of evil, a divine force or forces will somehow establish or restore a humankind of sweetness, light and stability. The prevailing one of the moment, while neither encoded nor preached, is humanism of the basest sort, in which everyone is on his own, a creature of the mean wilderness fighting with creatures of his and other kinds for scarce and diminishing resources, with all the edifying elements of life, including art, subjugated to grim survival and hollow victory. Cheesy, post-apocalyptic dystopian myth misses the point, because the human soul — the truest self, the ability to relate, empathize, work, assist, and love — is lost long before the point of history that stuff purports to portray. It’s gone with the shouting into that wind, with the loss of the power to hear, with the acceptance and bland disregard of everyday absurdity.
It left with the election of soulless political leadership, a symptom as much as a cause of civilization’s abrupt, meek and silent, mostly unnoticed collapse.