Introduction to Select Irish Literature and Film/Irish Absurdism & Humour



Absurdist literature defies all stage and narrative conventions and consists of “wildly irrational, often nonsensical goings-on”; they tend to be called “anti-plays” [1]. Absurdist plays do not have an obvious direction or a rational end in sight: instead, almost all happenings in an absurdist play seem completely random. However, absurdist plays “are living proof that the magic of the stage can persist even outside, and divorced from, any framework of conceptual rationality” [1]. This resistance to logical motivation ultimately prompts laughter (or even confused laughter) in the audience. Indeed, the very act of defying “logic” and “rationality” is a means to critique the social order. According to Martin Esslin these plays actually have an order and logic:

“Not only do all these plays make sense, though perhaps not obvious or conventional sense, they also give expression to some of the basic issues and problems of our age, in a uniquely efficient and meaningful manner, so that they meet some of the deepest needs and unexpressed yearnings of their audience.” [1]

Absurdism is situated during a time in Ireland associated with constant strife and sectarian violence. The conflict that arose from the oppression left the nation struggling economically, politically, and even culturally. Likewise, the conflict that arose from the sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics also left Ireland in despair. Absurdism can embody surreal ideas and events in a humorous manner, and it is this very resistance to logic that is able to highlight the absurdity of Irish identity politics and political strife (Humphreys). [2]. In fact, the absurdist plays made more sense than what was happening in Ireland at the time; these plays made more sense than The Troubles the Irish were experiencing. Most absurdist plays use a technique called the alienation effect. The University of Washington defines the alienation effect as “a set of devices in staging, music, acting, and the telling of parable, to confound an audience's comfortable identification with characters and story as encouraged by conventional realism or naturalism” [3]. This social effect ultimately prompted the audience to question the absurdity of the literature and consequently question the absurdity of their lives. This had the biggest impact on those who were lacking in high status and education and were being oppressed because of it [2]. Thus, the alienation effect created critical distance that caused the audience to question their circumstances as well as the idea that the lives they were oppressed into living made sense at all.

Official Language


Official language is the language of education, government, and other institutions. Jonathan Pool argues that it is much easier to discriminate against a society using language than it is to discriminate against a society through race or religion; this is because language is a universal tool of communication and a signifier of identity and cannot be ignored. Pool also argues that “[t]hose whose languages are not official spend years learning others’ languages and may still communicate with difficulty, compete unequally for employment and participation, and suffer from minority or peripheral status” [4]. Absurdist literature breaks down the social constructs that were built with Official language and attacks the idea that the language of the colonizer is the only language that should be heard [2]. Just as the colonized culture is alienated from certain social classes and opportunities, the audience is alienated from the absurdist play. This represents the illogical and illusional barrier that Official language had created between Ireland and other cultures of higher status and education. Absurdist plays provided comfort to the Irish people who were continuously oppressed and alienated from the conventional ways of life; absurdism helped the Irish understand how illogical life was and that these barriers can be easily broken down. Dr. Jan Culik embraces this idea by stating:

“Our individual identity is defined by language, having a name is the source of our separateness - the loss of logical language brings us towards a unity with living things. In being illogical, the absurd theatre is anti-rationalist: it negates rationalism because it feels that rationalist thought, like language, only deals with the superficial aspects of things. Nonsense, on the other hand, opens up a glimpse of the infinite. It offers intoxicating freedom, brings one into contact with the essence of life and is a source of marvellous comedy” [5]

Absurdist plays contrasted the style of plays previous to this period that had clear objectives and directions, as well as a reasonable end in sight. These plays conveyed a moral code that was easily understood and reflected the ideas, beliefs, and languages of the majority of the audience [1]. However, absurdist plays represent the idea that right and wrong are not always clear; the happenings in absurdist plays “remain recognizable as somehow related to real life with its absurdity, so that eventually the spectators are brought face to face with the irrational side of their existence” [1]. Absurdist literature also broke down “the ridiculous nature of a language which is empty of substance, made up of cliches and slogans” [1].

Samuel Beckett


Samuel Beckett was born on April 13, 1906 and died on December 22, 1989 in Dublin, Ireland. He and his family were Protestant, Irish, and middle class; however, Beckett lost this faith later in life and stated that he was in fact raised as “almost a Quaker[1]. Beckett was an influential novelist, playwright, and poet. He lived in Paris, France for most of his life and wrote his works in either English or French. In 1969, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His works include More Pricks than Kicks(1934), Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates (1935), Murphy (1938), Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), 'The Unnamable (1953), Waiting for Godot (1953), Watt (1953), Endgame (1957), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), and How It Is (1961). His literature deals mainly with tragic comedy, the human condition, minimalism, existentialism, and absurdity [6].

The works of Beckett were all essentially a venture into the unknown. Many of the characters in Beckett’s later works are tramps and wanderers that are all lonely [1]. Beckett placed a special importance on language in his literature, rendering it a “dangerous immersion as a creative/destructive element, [...] as the stuff that makes up, or else annihilates, the world and the self” [6]. His literature also embodied themes of isolation; Beckett saw himself as a “writer in exile” who had separated himself from his native country. Andrew Kennedy states that Beckett’s “self-exile thus shows the peculiar intensities of linguistic exile on top of the culturally ‘destabilising’ effect of being Irish in the modern world” [6]. Beckett also experienced a sense of alienation through language because the Irish did not speak the traditional language of the British. Thus, Irish authors like Beckett tended to feel as though they were writing in a foreign language when writing poems, novels, or plays. This feeling of isolation and alienation presents itself strongly in Beckett’s works.

Beckett also tended to resist the conventionality of life and resisted the idea that the oppression of the Irish people made any sense. The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh “praised Beckett for confronting the lack of ‘over-all purpose’ underlying the ‘human condition’, whereas ‘the Ireland writers continued as if nothing had happened; specifically, that they continued to write a national literature ‘as if society were a solid unified Victorian lie” [7]. Likewise, the Irish poet Louis MacNeice “acknowledges Beckett’s project of ‘articulating questions that have no answer -- but merely to put these questions is a worthwhile gesture’” [7].

Waiting for Godot


Waiting for Godot is play about two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who are waiting for Godot to come. The entirety of the play is consumed by Vladimir and Estragon’s thoughts and feelings about their disposition as well as their undying faith and hope that Godot will in fact come. While they are waiting, they encounter two more characters named Lucky and Pozzo. Lucky and Pozzo embody the relationship of master and slave and the need each one has for the other. Martin Esslin states that “Waiting for Godot does not tell a story; it explores a static situation. Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful” [1]. Vladimir and Estragon’s waiting reflects the human condition: “[t]hroughout our lives we always wait for something, and Godot simply represents the objective of our waiting -- an event, a thing, a person, death” [1]. Consequently, living one’s life simply waiting for something to come causes one to be much more aware of time passing one by. Esslin argues that when “we are active, we tend to forget the passage of time, we pass the time, but if we are merely passively waiting, we are confronted with the action of time itself” [1]. Vladimir and Estragon do not engage in living their lives because of their constant waiting for Godot to come. In fact, they are not even entirely sure why they are waiting for Godot or what Godot is going to do for them. The object of desire is Godot himself, not what they are going to accomplish when Godot arrives. This also reflects the human condition; those who live their lives waiting for something to come never actually know what that something is going to entail or accomplish. They have just simply become comfortable with waiting. It has become a habit of living and distracts people from their true disposition in life. Samuel Beckett deconstructs the human condition of living a monotonous set of routines when he writes in an essay:

“Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals… Habit then is the generic term for the countless treaties concluded between the countless subjects that constitute the individual and their countless correlative objects. The periods of transition that separate consecutive adaptations… represent the perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious, and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being” [1].

Thus, Waiting for Godot can be considered an Existentialist play: it experiments with the human condition and examines the metaphysics and purposes of life. Many people argue that Godot is a representation of God and God never fulfills the promised salvation of those with undying faith. Godot could also be a representation of many other aspects of life that are used to distract people from the realities of their life and give their life more meaning. In Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett provokes his audience to question their disposition in life and examine the things they use as distractions as well as the things they use to give their lives more meaning. Samuel Beckett suggests that it is these reactions to life that take away from life itself. Vladimir and Estragon do not do anything with their lives because of their obsession with waiting for Godot to come; just as people waste their lives by living in a routine of waiting for things to come.

Samuel Beckett chose to write Waiting for Godot in French to further emphasize his infatuation with Official language. He believed that by writing Waiting for Godot in a language he was somewhat unfamiliar with, he would begin to better understand the effects of Official language and how Official language dictates the thoughts of the oppressed. Martin Esslin argues that “while in his own language a writer may be tempted to indulge in virtuosity of style for its own sake, the use of another language may force him to divert the ingenuity that might be expended on mere embellishments of style in his own idiom to the utmost clarity and economy of expression” [1]. Thus, by writing Waiting for Godot in French, Beckett was forced to abandon all conventional styles of writing he had adopted throughout his writing career. He was ultimately successful in empathizing with those who were excluded from the high status culture that accompanied Official language. Claude Mauriac has stated in an essay on Beckett that “[t]he danger of being carried along by the logic of language is clearly greater in one’s mother tongue, with its unconsciously accepted meanings and associations. By writing in a foreign language, Beckett ensures that his writing remains a constant struggle, a painful wrestling with the spirit of language itself” [1].


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