Absurdist Theatre and the Gospel: How Then Shall We Live? (Part 1)

by John Ellis

Absurdist theatre has gotten a bad rap within conservative Christian communities. Whether it’s viewed as a postmodern rebellion against God, simply dismissed as some sort of aesthetic version of the emperor’s new clothes, or has never even crossed their radar, absurdist theatre is not the preferred theatre genre of most conservative Christians, to say the least. Which is beyond unfortunate since the first and greatest absurdist play of all time is the (true) story of the Tower of Babel as told in Genesis 11:1-9. In the same vein as Babel, absurdist theatre looks far more honestly at the anthropological and soteriological condition of humanity than just about any other genre of literature. Instead of glorifying humanity, absurdist theatre puzzles over humanity’s predicament. In a recent article, sociologist Jonathan Haidt wrote, “Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community.” That’s where absurdist theatre lives.

The shattered ruins of the Tower of Babel are where absurd theatre’s stages exist. How to live within the Tower’s ruins is its driving question. Often, other theatre and aesthetic forms, mirroring the rebellion around us, attempt to build shinier, loftier Towers. God creates. We create because God creates, which is true. However, they take a next, idolatrous step. Ergo, they say, we can reach God’s heights because we are like God.

Standing in opposition to that prevailing spirit among the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, absurdist theatre requires humility. It requires a communion that’s coupled with the realization that communion is impossible. More importantly, it wonders why that is. How we can be like God when we struggle to even communicate with not just our neighbor but also with ourselves?

Theatre is the most paradoxical of art forms (at least it should be). It is at once unreal and real. It is false and true. It is manipulative and honest. It’s a clear reflection of our (the writer, cast, and audience’s) specific place in the Story even though we aren’t aware of it. The brilliant theatre theorist Antonin Artaud knew this. He saw it, and it tortured him, literally. Because of its paradoxical honesty, he knew that (true) theatre, like the plague, resolves in either death or (renewed) life – rebirth. On the other hand, and unfortunately, theatre in the tradition of Aristotelian catharsis creates a false image of theatre. It’s a theatre of inertness that disallows change of stasis. It’s a theatre that seeks to inoculate us from both death and life. Which makes it deadly, to borrow a term from Peter Brook.[1]

Sadly, theatre’s story-telling strengths of the paradox and its twin the absurd are often seen as a cause for suspicion among the broad set tagged conservative Christian. Of all people – people whose very worship is theatrically paradoxical in its liturgical embrace of the absurd-contra-absurd – Christians should reject the falsity of “popular” theatre in favor of the aspects of the art form that have been relegated to its fringes. Instead, Christians tend to make and support/attend the deadliest of deadly theatre. Being distracted by the shiny trinkets and baubles of “popular” theatre – of “Christian” theatre, especially – allows us to convince ourselves that the absurd isn’t real. A denial that is the gateway to errors like moralistic therapeutic deism, expressive individualism, and anthropocentric religiosity. Like the other sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we, too, live in a Tower of our making. Our theatre often reveals this.

Absurdist theatre recognizes that on the stage of life our stage directions are provided us, the cues already written, and our entrances and exits determined by an other. Only our lines are our own. The problem/question for absurdist theatre is that “other” because the other is missing. Contra what many people will tell you, though, and so as not to be unclear, the great absurdist plays are not strictly about the absence of God (although they feel this absence and expresses it through other motifs). Godot is not God, but that also doesn’t mean the play is not about God – a paradox. Life is absurd because it’s equally directed and directionless; life is a contradiction of terms. We didn’t arrive in this time and place under our own power, but, from the perspective of the absurdist playwrights, we are alone yet not alone – so what do we do now? The ruins of a once great communion dots the set. How should we live? How can we live?

In contrast, Christianity recognizes that God is paradoxical. By definition, He has to be. The finite (which we are) cannot reach the heights of the Infinite. We cannot intellectually nor existentially fathom God apart from how He chooses to reveal Himself to us. The Creator and the created are separate unless the Creator deems to change that. Being confronted by our Creator (His revelation and Revelation), which we all are, brings either life or death. This is what I meant above when I referenced our liturgical embrace of the absurd-contra-absurd.

Traditional theatre forms/genres tend to subvert (attempt to, at any rate) the absurd condition of life or death. It does so most often by replacing the “other” with us. Sartre said, “hell is other people.” Modernist humanism contradicts this by claiming, “salvation is at hand because I am at hand as are you.” Traditional theatre is decidedly anthropocentric; it’s literary humanism. Because of this, traditional theatre unwittingly brings degradation that terminates in death.

The great Russian novelist Dostoevsky understood this on a deeply personal level, and so he wrote his stories with the “conviction that a life lived only according to human self-direction will invariably lead to a subhuman existence.”[2] Writing as a literary humanist, classical or otherwise, undermines what it means to be made in God’s image. Nietzsche glimpsed the same truth, albeit from a different perspective than the devout Dostoevsky.

If you’ve read Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, or are simply aware of who they are, it may seem odd to see them paired together. In my theological circle, Dostoevsky is revered as an honorary reformed Christian while Nietzsche gets (unjustly) blamed for nihilism and whole bunch of other “evils.” But pairing the two is just what William Hubben did (alongside Kierkegaard and Kafka) in his now considered classic Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche & Kafka. In what has become a frequently cited summation of his work, Hubben opens the chapter titled “The Four Apocalyptic Horsemen” with the words, “These four writers, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Kafka, occupy, each in his own peculiar way, the position of outsiders in the society that had produced them. They lived the insecure existence of spiritual frontiersmen who no longer fit into the accepted categories of theology, philosophy, or belles-lettres. …. They realized that they were both the end products of a dying civilization and the clairvoyant prophets of coming chaos.”[3] Paraphrasing Jesus, prophets are without honor in their hometowns, especially when they’re raining on modernism’s gilded humanist parade.

Make no mistake, though, while the prophetic insights of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche may share a common target and similar diagnosis, one of them, Dostoevsky, points out of the mire and upwards to the Cross. The other, Nietzsche, urges us to embrace our heritage as the descendants of Zarathustra as the only way to conquer the coming nihilism; the mire is all there is, and we’d better figure out how to construct castles out of the muck and mud or we’ll sink and be overcome by it. His prophecies have a hubris that absurdist theatre recognizes as false – how can we construct out of material that the other has deconstructed? Dostoevsky provides a pedagogical contrast with the absurdist playwrights, too, even as he helps lay the foundation for the 20th century’s battle against nihilism’ inevitability. A foundation he recognized could not bear the weight of human angst and suffering. Dostoevsky saw and poured into his writing that a new Foundation is needed and that the other has to build whatever is constructed if permanence (salvation) is to be gained.   

Dostoevsky’s ability to show, in all its starkness, the suffering that results from the twisting of human relationships by already twisted humans is only part of his genius. The other half of his genius lay in his pastoral ability to crack wide-open loathing and misery with the Light of God’s salvation. As Malcolm Muggeridge put it, “Dostoyevsky was a truly prophetic figure, plunging down frenziedly into his kingdom of hell on earth and arriving at Golgotha.”[4]

In my own life, the Holy Spirit used Dostoevsky, specifically Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, to reveal the Father to me and replace my heart of stone with a heart of flesh. Reading both of those novels as an atheist made for an existentially jolting experience; an experience I couldn’t shake and didn’t enjoy, although I felt strangely compelled to return again and again to each book. It wasn’t until after I met Jesus that Dostoevsky’s specific genius began to be made clear to me.

While preparing for a two-person show of Notes From Underground, I uncovered the reason for God’s jolting absence in the novella. The government censor was appalled that the gospel of Jesus crossed the lips of a character as vile as the Underground Man. An incensed Dostoevsky concluded that completely writing God out of the story would actually illuminate the need for God. God can’t be absent, and any pretense of absence serves to highlight this truth. He was right. Modernism’s attempts at salvation absent God were pilloried by the great Russian novelist, and he correctly predicted the future consequence.

I love the novels of Emile Zola. Brilliantly written, they reveal the ugliness and steep price of modernism’s seemingly unstoppable (at the time) march to forced progress. But Zola succumbs to the tragically mistaken modernist determinism that reduces humans to cogs in the machine of history (think Marx, too). Despair is all that’s left because despair is all that’s ever been. Doestoevsky, in contrast, sees the tragedy of the machine; he recognizes how it not only chews up and spits out humans but that it feeds on the depravity in us. Yet, looking up from the mire and to the Cross, Doestoevsky also writes about how despair saves us. The paradox of mercy and justice kissing at the Cross upon which hung the King of Kings who cried out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” Despair saves. That’s what Doestoevsky wrote about. And that’s what sets his genius apart from every other great novelist. It also reveals that while he’s an empathetic ancestor of the absurdist playwrights, he transcended his descendants. Absurdist theatre retains much value, though, aesthetically and spiritually. While it doesn’t fail – because its objective is honest – the genre is incomplete. Honest incomplete is still truth, and absurdist theatre is a vehicle that could be and should be used by theatre artists who are Christians to confront audiences with the life and death nature of the truth that absurdist theatre sees and uncovers.

Without going through the entire history of theatre, it’s helpful to correctly situation absurdist theatre in its place on that historical timeline. In its dictionary definition, so to speak, absurdist theatre arose during the mid-20th century (post WWII). Of course, the form can be easily seen earlier. In the preface to the 3rd edition of The Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Esslin explains, “the Theatre of the Absurd represents trends that have been apparent in the more esoteric kinds of literature since the 1920s (Joyce, Surrealism, Kafka) or in painting since the first decade of this century (Cubism, abstract painting).”[5] Esslin then goes on to argue that absurdism needed a greater saturation in broader society before theatre was able to take up its mantle. While I hesitate to appear to disagree with a theatre theory luminary like Esslin, it’s important to note that playwrights like Strindberg, Witkiewicz, and Eugene O’Neill operated in the realm of the absurd long before the Battle of the Bulge and Hiroshima. In American theatre history, O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape and The Great God Brown stand out as notable precursors to the absurdist movement in theatre.

Eugene O’Neill, paradoxically America’s greatest playwright who also wrote some of America’s worst plays, was able to get to the heart of the problem absurdist theatre tackles. In a letter to the drama critic George Jean Nathan, he wrote, “The playwright today must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it – the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one for the surviving primitive instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with.”[6]

It’s been said that prior to Eugene O’Neill, playwrights wrote about humanity’s relationship (or lack thereof) with God. They struggled with the question, often rebelliously, what does it mean to live and breathe in a world where God exists? O’Neill was the first playwright to deal with humanity’s existence in a world where God is dead. What do we do now that we’re alone? Obviously, this is a bit of hyperbole, O’Neill wasn’t really the first, but the point is cogent, coherent, and true in a general sense. The absurdist writers, of course, delved deeper that O’Neill did into Nietzschean warnings about nihilism. Waiting for Godot and The Dumb Waiter are two straightforward examples of how absurdist theatre deals with the postmodern axiom that God is dead. In doing so, absurdist theatre parallels God’s Story in a very specific way.

After Genesis 3:15, the Bible confronts the reader with a question: Is this the promised seed? When we meet Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, etc., we wonder, is this the promised seed? The answer is quickly revealed to be, “no.” The Bible’s protagonist – the Promised Seed – is absent from much of the Story. But his absence is an illusion.

In both Waiting for Godot and The Dumb Waiter, the (ostensible) protagonist never shows up. That existential angst is what drives the plays: what do we, the minor characters, do when the main character is absent? How can there be meaning if the one who is the meaning of the story is absent? Confronted with a dreadful meaninglessness, audiences are forced to confront the absence of the other in our own lives.

Of course, the plays’ rebellion is that they refuse to surrender to the faith(filled) wait for the true Seed – the true Savior/protagonist. Their existential angst is ultimately revealed to be self-idolatrous. In the Bible, Jesus’ absence from the Story (Christophanies aside) actually serves to highlight his presence throughout the whole story (think the absence of God in Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground – an absurdist/postmodern story not in rebellion to God). When the Promised Seed finally does show up, we realize that we’ve already met him. Our existential angst, while real, was lack of faith. Like Abraham (and the other minor characters of the OT), even in faith, we are guilty of trying to help God fulfill the promise of Genesis 3:15 through our efforts. Our waiting (eschatological waiting for our final and full salvation – the final coming of the Promised Seed) is rife with an idolatrous existential angst. We don’t trust him, so we take it upon ourselves. Like King Saul, we offer sacrifices forbidden to us; we misunderstand who the protagonist is.

Absurdist theatre, as represented specifically by Godot and The Dumb Waiter, recognizes that someone is absent in our story, that we’re not the protagonist in our own story. Furthermore, since the protagonist is missing, the minor characters do not have a center from which to enter into communion with each other. Existence is absurd.

In Part 2, I unpack three seminal absurdist plays – Waiting for Godot, The Dumb Waiter, and The Bald Soprano – to help further illuminate how absurdist theatre speaks parallel truth(s) to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

About a month ago, a friend of mine asked me to be on her podcast where we talked about absurdist theatre and the gospel. I encourage you to listen to it, you can do so by clicking here.

[1] Peter Brook, The Empty Space (New York: Touchstone, 1996).

[2] William Hubben, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche & Kafka (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 80.

[3] William Hubben, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche & Kafka, 159.

[4] Malcom Muggeridge “Forward” The Gospel in Dostoyevsky ed. The Bruderhof (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003) 2-3.

[5] Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, 3rd ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 16.

[6] Quoted from The Intimate Notebooks of George Jean Nathan by Joseph Wood Crutch, Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill (New York: Liveright, Inc, 1932), xvii.

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