Date of Award

Spring 1996

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Robert Mennel


This study examines the significance of the post World War II Theater of the Absurd which explored new concepts of ontology and semiology and provided a vehicle for the dissemination of existentialist ideas. As a link between modernist and postmodernist drama, it also served as a catalyst for changes in drama criticism that anticipated some of the controversies of deconstructionism.

The first part of this work places the Theater of the Absurd in historical context by tracing elements of absurdity from the theater of ancient Greece into the twentieth century. Modern absurdism emerged in the 1930's as part of the reaction to Realism. Combining aspects of Symbolism and Surrealism, the absurd was illustrated in the dramatic productions of Dada and the theories of Antonin Artaud. The connection between this theatrical experimentalism and existential philosophy influenced the French theater of the 1940's. Samuel Beckett's groundbreaking drama Waiting for Godot (1952) provided a prototype of absurd theater. Two chapters focus upon selected early plays of Harold Pinter--The Room (1960), The Birthday Party (1959) and The Caretaker (1960) and Edward Albee, The Zoo Story (1960), The American Dream (1961) and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). These plays demonstrate the characteristics of the Theater of the Absurd--the devaluation of traditional forms of communication; a stage poetry that uses concrete images to display emotions and relationships; a unique blend of silence and dialogue as well as manifest physicality and psychological suggestiveness. The plays of Beckett, Pinter and Albee also testify to the continuing interchange of ideas between Europe and America in the post World War II period as the playwrights focused on the same questions of being, human freedom and intersubjectivity that absorbed the existentialist philosophers.

The plays of the Theater of the Absurd invited further inquiries into significant intellectual issues--the purpose of art, the limits of communication, authorial privilege and audience involvement. The concluding chapter examines changes in drama criticism in reaction to the Theater of the Absurd and suggests that such criticism has served to enhance theater's vitality and to raise questions about language and meaning that are at the heart of contemporary intellectual debates.