Theater of the absurd?

中国日报网 2016-01-26 10:25



Theater of the absurd?

Reader question:

Please explain this sentence, particularly “theater of the absurd”:

“America has the best health care system in the world” — a claim that moves us right into the theater of the absurd.

My comments:

The speaker means to say that the assertion (that America has the best health care system in the world) is absurd, that such a claim doesn’t belong to the realm of the reality but the realm of theater, particularly of the absurd, illogical, fanciful, and ridiculous, etc.

“Theater of the absurd”, you see, originally refers to theater plays about the absurdities of life, its unreasonableness, meaningless and so forth.

“Critic Martin Esslin coined the term in his 1960 essay ‘Theatre of the Absurd’”, according to Wikipedia. “He related these plays based on a broad theme of the Absurd, similar to the way Albert Camus uses the term in his 1942 essay, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’.”

Never mind Camus and other particulars for the moment, in everyday parley, if someone says something is in the theater of the absurd, they just mean to say it’s absurd.

Well, you don’t find a lot of people using “theater of the absurd” in everyday conversation, of course, and that’s the thing. It’s a term reserved for formal occasions only and only used by people who are well versed in art and are learned in general – or if they want to sound learned.

Otherwise, simply say it’s absurd. It’s nonsense. It’s ridiculous. It’s crazy. Okay?

OK, here are usage examples of the theater of the absurd, both in theater and in real life:

1. Could Edward Albee have envisaged when “The American Dream” opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1961 that he would be directing it at the same playhouse almost 50 years later? I doubt it but, having oscillated between dizzy theatrical highs and commercial and critical slumps, Mr. Albee's career path has eschewed convention. Somehow, then, it seems fitting that he should celebrate his 80th birthday by directing two of his early absurdist one-act plays.

Mr. Albee wrote “The American Dream,” and its short spin-off “The Sandbox,” just prior to his most celebrated play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” As with “Who’s Afraid...,” “The American Dream” depicts an unhappily married couple’s verbal battle, their dirty laundry shamelessly paraded at home in full view of their guests.

Mr. Albee takes a dim view of the American dream, deeming it a vacuous nightmare that chains couples to a lifetime of sterile conformity. Whether or not you share his desolate take on the nuclear family is irrelevant given the masterful economy of language and depth of character on show. “The American Dream” may belong to the “Theater of the Absurd” movement, but it is absurdity at its most powerful. An hour long, it provides a richer theatrical experience, and has more to say, than most plays that run twice its length.

The couple at its center (Judith Ivey and George Bartenieff) are simply named Mommy and Daddy. Mommy prattles on about the difficulties in purchasing a beige hat to Daddy, who tamely repeats his wife’s observations back to her. Grandma, Mommy's mother, who lives with the couple, is obsessed with storing her possessions in boxes, fearful her daughter will make good on her threat to get the “van people” to take her away.

The arrival of a neighbor, Mrs. Barker (Kathleen Butler), causes Grandma to disclose the roots of Mommy and Daddy’s unhappiness: Unable to conceive a child, they adopted a boy only to kill him when he turned out differently from what they had envisioned. The American Dream then arrives, in the form of Young Man (Harmon Walsh), and Mommy is intoxicated by the emptiness of this self-confessed nihilist who “has no talents at all except what you see” and who will “do almost anything for money.”

- Albee Revisits His ‘American Dream’,, April 2, 2008.

2. Members of Congress regularly cite the important work done by non-profit organizations to bridge the gap between government programs and actual community need. Yet we have a situation where the so-called “Super Committee” is considering draconian cuts in domestic programs like senior nutrition and eliminating or reducing the charitable gift deduction for taxpayers.

How can they possibly expect charities like Senior Community Centers to protect vulnerable seniors without government funding and private donations? The situation has devolved into the theater of the absurd.

To put the need in context, check out a couple of recent articles such as, “New scale finds more poverty” in the San Diego Union-Tribune and “Senior Citizens in U.S. Falling Into Poverty Faster Under Census Measure” in Bloomberg News. They illustrate how rapidly seniors are falling into poverty at higher rates. We know that the boomers aging into programs began this year. If predictions hold true, seniors will double their numbers by 2030. With the insurgence of older adults aging into programs, we must protect our ability to fundraise, especially if congress continues their path towards under-funding essential nutrition and wellness programs for seniors. We refuse to fade quietly away while the Super Committee decides to leave seniors out in the cold.

- Dear Super Committee; Don’t Leave Seniors Hungry and out in the Cold,, November 17, 2011.

3. In the NBA, coaches tend to stick together, as they develop close bonds within the coaching fraternity.

Friday’s move by the Cleveland Cavaliers to fire coach David Blatt — who led the team to the NBA Finals last season and to a 30-11 record this season — brought out the ire of several coaches in the league.

Blatt’s Cavaliers had the best record in the Eastern Conference, so he had done enough winning, compiling an impressive 83-40 mark in 1½ seasons. Assistant coach Tyronn Lue was promoted to head coach and given a three-year contract.

“All we know for sure is that it had absolutely nothing to do with team performance,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said following Saturday morning’s shootaround at the Pepsi Center.

“It’s hard to figure out what it’s all about anymore. That one, to me, elevated all of the coach firings totally into the theater of the absurd. It was insane.”

- Van Gundy: Blatt’s firing is ‘theater of the absurd’,, January 25, 2016.


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

(作者:张欣 编辑:丹妮)



















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