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last updated: 6/9/2010

Absurdist Theatre: A Resource Guide


In the 1950s, Europe was piecing together a fragmented identity that had suffered the blows of a major World War, and Existentialism was taking hold of the intellectual world with a tenacious grip. These philosophical wanderings of influential thinkers like Sartre and Camus eventually lead to the stages of France in a movement that would evolve into a truly influential genre of Avant-Garde theater. In the wake of such theatrical experimentation came a series of plays and playwrights who, to say the least, caused a fuss. It wasn't until 1961, after some of the most important Absurdist plays had already been written, that Martin Esslin, a European playwright and critic who had been moved greatly by an elusive form of drama no one had yet pinned down as a movement, wrote his now well-known The Theater of the Absurd, coining the term and creating a niche for a form of drama that wasn't quite like the rest of Avant-Garde theater.  Esslin defined the Absurdist movement as any form of theater that "strives to express its sense of the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought." (Esslin 24) Indeed, the Theater of the Absurd is often characterized by a lack of logically-constructed plots, senseless characterization, and a very persistent awareness of the limits of the stage itself as a creator of worlds. The movement is made up of only five playwrights, according to Esslin: Samuel Beckett of Ireland, the most well-known, Eugene Ionesco of Romania and France, Jean Genet of France, Arthur Adamov of Russia, and Harold Pinter of England, (although many of them wrote in French, and so are considered among other French literature). While other plays can be categorized as absurdist, these five playwrights have supplied the bulk of the canon.

            Because the boundaries of the movement are still so undefined, and because the categorization of these playwrights as constituting a movement has been avoided, this pathfinder focuses on the major playwrights and where they appear together in literature, rather than pinning down specific resources on the movement, which are very scarce. Because four of the five are considered contributors to French theater, there is a major focus on French literary criticism as well. The guide is to act as an introduction to researching the movement, and introductory texts, more in-depth criticism, and bibliographies (in the form of indexes and databases) for further research are all presented.


Browsing Points by Call Number
PN1720-1862 - Literature (general)-Drama-History
PN2181-2193 - Literature (General)-Dramatic Representation-By period--Modern Theater
PQ500-591 - French Literature-History and Criticism--French Drama
Z 5700-5800- Subject Bibliographies (arranged in alphabetical sequence)

Most Appropriate Subject Headings

Theater of the Absurd
Drama-20th century-History and Criticism
Drama-History and Criticism--Bibliography

**Make sure when you're searching for Theater of the Absurd that you take into account both spellings of theater/re



Brockett, Oscar, & Hildy, Franklin J. "French History and Drama, 1940-1968." History of the Theatre, 9th ed. Ed. Oscar Brockett & Franklin J. Hildy. Boston : Allyn and Bacon, 1968.

This chapter briefly reviews the foundations of absurdism, its roots, and continues into listing the main playwrights and their major works. This book is a suitable place to start research on the main ideas of absurdism, and provides a good window into how the genre fits between the movements before and after it, from its growth out of existentialism to its evolution into other genres, such as avant-garde theater. While it is not an extensive discussion, it is a good introduction. (Note: this book is in chapters by time period, and no separate chapter exists for absurdism.)

Hawkins-Dady, Mark, ed. International Dictionary of Theater, vol. 1, Plays. Detroit, London: St. James Press, 1992.

Anyone focusing on a specific absurdist play for study will find this resource useful. Plays are listed alphabetically and cover all genres and time periods. A list of important critical sources for each is followed by a detailed synopsis and a brief discussion of the major themes and genres that it invokes or embodies. While most of the major Absurdist works are included, most of Adamov's plays are missing. A list of plays by author can be found in the preface of the work.

Hawkins-Dady, Mark, ed. International Dictionary of Theater, vol. 2, Playwrights. Detroit, London: St. James Press, 1992.

This book can be used to find information on any theatrical movement; like its counterpart (listed above), playwright's names are listed alphabetically, and the five major Absurdist playwrights are included, along with many others from the fringes of the movement. Each entry begins with a very brief listing of their major life events, followed by a list of their works, bibliographies about them, and major works of criticism on them as well. This list is extremely extensive, including any essays they authored or things they may have written for television or film. The list of works and criticism is followed by a discussion of their careers and major plays.

Levi, Anthony. Guide to French Literature: 1789 to the Present. Chicago, London: St. James Press, 1992.

This guide contains extensive entries on major names in French literature spanning the past three centuries. Writer’s names are in alphabetical order, and all major Absurdist playwrights are included. Each entry is divided up by life, work and publications (with a list of critical works about them included as well). It offers a more thorough look at the themes that the playwrights tackle than other dictionaries of theater, and should be used for a slightly more in-depth look at the playwrights and their careers.

Popkin, Debra, & Popkin, Michael, eds. A Library of Literary Criticism: Modern French Literature. 2 vols. New York: Frederich Unga Publishing Co, 1977.

Names are listed alphabetically in these two volumes, and each entry contains a series of excerpts from major critical works discussing each writer, the whole acting as a great collection of voices from the 1950s to the 1970s. The four major absurdist playwrights are included, and there are even a few newspaper reviews listed as entries, published directly after a certain play was produced. This work might be a good resource for finding a particular critical tone on a single playwright, and while extensive bibliographies are not included, it may be an appropriate place to look for further readings.


Bradby, David. Modern French Drama, 1940-1990. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

This critical and historical work provides a solid introduction to the genres and movements that captivated France in the late twentieth century. Chapters four through six will be of particular interest to the user studying Absurdity, and it will be a good place to turn for those wanting to locate the movement in a historical moment or context. The text is detailed, but also manages to be very accessible to the beginner. It also provides a table in the back of the book, listing in chronological order the plays that premiered between 1940 and 1988, in what theater and with what director (although specific dates are missing).

Brater, Enoch, Ruby Cohn, eds. Around the Absurd: Essays on Modern and Postmodern Drama. Ann Arbor, Mich.: The University of Michigan Press, 1990.

This work is a collection of 15 essays devoted to the Absurd as a theatrical concept: its movement from informal usage in early 20th century drama and through the century to post-Absurdism (as reflected in Postmodernism and Avant-Garde Theater), even up to its effect in the late 1980s. Essays range in topic from specific plays to covering entire careers, and discuss important playwrights, from Maeterlinck to even Maria Irene Fornes (the only essay on a female playwright in the book, and in this collection of resources). It provides a very good introduction to how the Absurd took shape as a theatrical phenomenon, and how the major playwrights in Absurdist theater were influenced by their predecessors.

Esslin, Martin.  The Theater of the Absurd.  3rd ed. London: Methuen, 2001.

Esslin is the creator of the term Theater of the Absurd, so this work is a quintessential part of beginning research on the movement. The resource has gone through numerous revisions since its first edition in 1961, and it contains extensive and detailed chapters on the lives and works of Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter. It also contains a chapter on the current trends of modern writers influenced by the Absurdist movement, and a chapter simply explaining the major themes of the plays and the significance of such plays in literary history. It does not discuss in detail the historical context from which the theater sprung, but it is an invaluable resource when approaching Absurdist theater as a comment on society, and when examining its place in the literary canon.

Wellwarth, George. Theater of Protest & Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama. New York: New York University Press, 1964.

Each of the four major French playwrights of the Absurdist genre are devoted a chapter, along with others on the fringe and involved in the Avant-Garde movement. Their works are discussed in-depth with regard to their major themes (while being subjected to the author's interpretation). The book offers a fascinating look into the issues of the genre, but one should be fairly familiar with the opus of the particular writer being discussed, or the book can't be of good use.


Breed, Paul F., & Sniderman, Florence M. Dramatic Criticism Index. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1972.

This index offers a comprehensive list of sources discussing major playwrights throughout history (all five major playwrights in the Absurdist movement are included). Playwrights are listed alphabetically, and each entry contains a list of general works of criticism, followed by a bibliography for each individual play (of course, as this book was published in 1972, this includes works only up to that year). It's a good source to turn to for a fairly comprehensive bibliography for Adamov, as he is sometimes left out of other indexes. The index does not offer annotations. The complete citations of the works listed in the bibliography can be found in an index in the back, listed alphabetically by author's name. Other indexes include one for critics and one for play titles.

Beachman, Walton, ed. Research Guide to Biography and Criticism: World Drama. Washington, D.C.: Research Publishing, 1986.

Playwright names are listed alphabetically in this work, and each entry is a series of detailed overviews of different aspects of their lives: Author's Chronology, Bibliographies, Biographical Sources, Autobiographical Sources, and Critical Sources. These sections present brief introductions to the themes and the major works of each playwright, and a section titled Selected Criticism offers an annotated bibliography of important critical works for each writer. Adamov is not included, and Beckett can be found in the Research Guide to Biography and Criticism: Literature, by the same author and publishers, and with much the same layout.

Coverage: From first journat to three to five years ago.

This database extensively covers most topics in the Arts and Humanities, including 20th century theater, and offers access to a wide range of full-text articles from scholarly journals. Do an advanced search for the exact phrase Theater of the Absurd, (or Theatre of the Absurd) or search under a particular playwright's name. In the advanced search option, you may also want to limit your search by discipline, to Performing Arts and Language & Literature, or (by clicking on the plus signs next to the discipline) even to particular journals therein.

Gale Group. Literature Resource Center.
Coverage: Authors from all time periods.

This resource offers biographical entries on all major Absurdist playwrights. The database homepage allows searching under author name. Tabs at the top of the screen will allow you to choose between categories such as Biographies (which will include selected entries from major biographical or reference works on the author), Literary Criticism, Articles, and Work Overviews (includes excerpts from major resources, normally books, about the particular author), and additional resources (includes any web resources of interest).

Modern Language Association. MLA International Bibliography.
Coverage: 1963-present.

This is one of the most extensive databases out there for citations in the Arts and Humanities (it is not, however, full-text). Try searching under Theater of the Absurd as a Subject, and narrow down your search by limiting to a particular playwright or nationality (ie- searching Ionesco, or French as keywords with the above Subject Heading, for instance). Because this database is so extensive, it may be helpful to limit your search to the languages you know as well.

The Johns Hopkins University Press. Project Muse.
Coverage: 1995-present

If you're searching for criticism on a particular playwright, search under his name as a keyword. If you're searching for Theater of the Absurd as a genre, search under the Subject Heading Drama-20th century-History and criticism. If you would like to narrow your search further, searching within the results under French or American might also be a good direction to take.

This guide was created by Sara Franks, and was last updated July 25, 2006.

last updated: 6/9/2010