While the naturalists reacted by trying to be more real than realism, plenty of theatre artists reacted by moving in the opposite direction, too. Following World War I and influenced by existentialism, the French absurdists sought to challenge the preconceived notions of conservative European culture. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), best known as a novelist and philosopher, wrote plays featuring characters forced to reassess their personal values when faced with extreme circumstances. For example, in Dirty Hands, an allegory about post-World War II Europe, characters are forced to choose between two unpleasant choices in an effort to resuscitate their failing nation.
Perhaps the best-known absurdist playwright was Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). Born in Ireland, Beckett moved to France just prior to World War II. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is arguably the most well- known example of absurdist drama. The script concerns Estragon and Vladimir, who wait for the arrival of the mythical Godot, who never appears. As they wait, the pair discuss their bleak surroundings, whether they should eat a turnip or a radish, and swap hats. While this may seem ridiculous, critics have been seeking the “meaning” of the script since it was first produced in 1953. The popular consensus is that Beckett consciously rejected nearly all forms of Western character development and plot structure in an effort to portray the existential/absurdist belief that the life has no inherent meaning, but with a play as inscrutable as Godot, it is impossible to reach a conclusive interpretation. And that may be Beckett’s point.
Perhaps the most radical reaction to realism was theatre of cruelty, a term devised by Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), a French actor, playwright, and theorist. In his book The Theatre and Its Double, Artaud called for a shift away from realistic, text-based theatre to create “spectacles” that were primal and poetic that used a “unique language half-way between gesture and thought” to assault the senses of the audience. Artaud also wanted to do away with the physical separation between performers and audiences, arguing that a “spectator, placed in the middle of the action, is engulfed and physically affected by it.”
While Artaud’s theories were compelling—and his work influenced major theatre artists such as director Peter Brook and playwrights Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet (as well as rock musicians Patti Smith and Jim Morrison) the scripts he wrote to illustrate his theories were difficult to stage. For example, his script The Spurt of Blood contains the following stage direction:
... two Stars are seen colliding and from them fall a series of legs of living flesh with feet, hands, scalps, masks, colonnades, porticos, temples, alembics, falling more and more slowly, as if falling in a vacuum: then three scorpions one after another and finally a frog and a beetle which come to rest with desperate slowness, nauseating slowness.
While this is certainly a rejection of realism, it is difficult to see how this could be staged in a practical, theatrical style. Nevertheless, Artaud’s rejection of the dominant aesthetic style and call for a more visceral, spectacular theatre made him one of the most influential theoreticians of the twentieth century.