Lesson Lovenotes: The Theatre of the Absurd, Teaching Suggestions and Resources

I recently posted some teaching and learning activities for the teaching of Dada Performance Art in the classroom. I mentioned in the post that Dada is an excellent pre-cursor to teaching The Theatre of the Absurd. Here are some of the strategies I like to use in the classroom when teaching The Theatre of the Absurd to my students.

Introduction to The Theatre of the Absurd

There are two main concepts students need to understand in order to start to understand the basic ideas behind The Theatre of the Absurd:

  1. The random, lack of connection between actions, objects and words.
  2. The playfulness between the actors in being able to convey this randomness.

The first point links to the social, cultural, historical and philosophical viewpoint of Absurdists. The second links to the execution of this philosophy by the Absurdists.

Remembering that drama is a visual medium, it is important to understand the viewpoints of the Absurdists. However, the intricacies of the execution with which they manifest their beliefs through their plays is what is of real interest. You want your students to be able to identify these, interpret and perform them in new and existing ways and to also be critical of them and review and appreciate the process of making an Absurdist performance.

There are two activities I always like to use in the classroom to convey this.

1. A Non-Sensical Scene: Place a number of random objects around the room. Have each student line up at the entrance to the classroom. Each student must take a turn at entering the space, picking up an object and using it in a way that it would not normally be used. Secondly, students pair up. The first of the pair enters the room and picks a different random object and uses it in a way it wouldn’t normally be used. As they are doing this the second of the pair comes into the space and whispers a line of dialogue into their partner’s ear. It should have nothing to do with the object or what the person is doing with the object. The person then says it aloud. It is important at this point to have the students discuss their experiences of the exercise. Use questions that engage them with the idea and the connection that what appears on stage is not literally what is intended. Often something different may be meant.

2. Watch Clips of Absurdist Scenes: In the years since Beckett, Albee and Ionesco many have treaded the boards of Absurdism. These include the Marx Brother’s, Abbott and Costello and of course Monty Python’s Flying Circus. There are several excellent clips on YouTube that show what an Absurdist piece can look like but the key concept to be drawn from these clips at this point in the students learning is that commonly, not always, but commonly, Absurdist plays featured two main, male characters who were seemingly clown-like.

Before viewing these clips may I also suggest rather than watching the clips straight from YouTube you consider downloading them and saving them permanently on your computer. I have written a post about this previously that you may be interested in to help you with this.

The Marx Brother’s – A Day at the Races

Monty Python’s Flying Circus – The Dead Parrot

Abbott and Costello – Who’s on First?

Working Through the Concepts

There are some pretty heavy concepts dealt with in the Theatre of the Absurd. In particular, their philosophical viewpoint, the idea of existentialism. Consider starting your theoretical study of Absurdism with a discussion about this. Link to the Wikipedia page or perhaps consider the use of another video to get the students thinking about what it is. Essentially what they must understand is that Absurdists believed life had no purpose or meaning and only till you experienced anything could you place meaning onto it and what it means to you may be different to someone else.

Other things to consider in your theoretical study include:

  • The historical context: Absurdism was a creation born out of WWII. Get students to consider the effect the war had on people at the time and why some people may have felt it necessary to create theatre like this.
  • The social/cultural context: Absurdism was not well received by theatre audiences. Have students consider (and perhaps research) what kinds of plays people had been watching up until then and the kinds of expectations they had of an evening at the theatre and why this (Absurdist Theatre) was so outrageous at the time.

Acting It Out

Next comes the fun part🙂 The experiential learning. Students need to be up and actively engaging with the texts language and stage directions in order to fully understand the purpose and dramatic meaning of the text. Most of the suggestions below are based around Waiting for Godot but can certainly be adapted to suit any of the other texts available for study. Consider the following:

1. Pick a play: There are heaps to choose from including most famously Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (notice my tree reference in the image above), The Zoo Story by Edward Albee, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. I prefer to use Waiting for Godot because there is a lot of material available on this play both online and in books. Ensure also that you are able to study the play chosen because certain syllabi have text lists and texts are not be studied across more than one curriculum area.

2. Moved Reading + Video: Have the students perform a moved reading of the script. Alternate students playing each of the parts at different times during the play and alternate students to also read the stage directions (these prove very important later on in the experiential study of the plays). If you can source a video of the play, watch it after the moved reading. Personally, I prefer to watch the film at the end of the unit because I like to see how the kids interpret the dialogue and stage directions without the films impressions in their minds but that is a decision best left to you, the teacher.

3. Clowning Workshop: After the students have read the play I delve into getting the students to understand and interpret the relationship between the characters. Many of the Absurdist plays, as mentioned above, tend to centre around two main, male characters. The dialogue is like a tennis ball bouncing between them and the ins and outs of their relationship are moulded by it. The clowning workshop looks at interpreting the physicality of each role. Look at facilitating certain activities such as master/servant, look at the different types of clowns, the way they dress, speak, walk, stand, show facial expressions, enact with other clowns (consider slap stick and tricks here like falls etc). Have students create their own clown character. Pair them up with another student and get them to create a short skit that demonstrates some of the elements explored in the workshop. To take the workshop one step further, have the students apply their knowledge of clowns to specific scenes from the play. Incorporate props (e.g. the bowler hats that Estragon and Vladimir wear). Have the students perform it to the class and have them discuss the effects of the performance on the audience in terms of dramatic meaning and the relationship between characters.

4. Voice/Dialogue Workshop: Similar to the clowning workshop and linking some of the elements of the voice workshop mentioned in my Dada post, choose sections of dialogue to experiment with pitch, pace, pause, tone etc. Pitch and pause are two commonly used conventions in Absurdist plays. Another one is intonation and punctuation. A fantastic example of this is Lucky’s speech towards the end of Act 1 in Waiting for Godot. There is not a single punctuation mark for over two pages. Many students will interpret it as being read in one long, fast, continuous breath. However, watching various interpretations and trying to work out what it could mean to Lucky generates some interesting interpretations and deliveries of his dialogue.

And The Rest…

In addition to all of that it’s a good idea to look at the following:

  1. Biblical Allusions: In Waiting for Godot there are many. Have the students find out what they mean and why they have been referenced.
  2. Who is Godot?: Obviously this is specific to Waiting for Godot but it is an essential question to ask. Also, whether or not he is in fact real needs discussing.
  3. Dramatic Form: The cyclical nature of the play both in Act 1 and Act 2 are relevant and link in with the Absurdist philosophy of existentialism. Explore this.
  4. Elements of Production: Minimal sets, lighting, sound and costumes are used. Have students look at pictures of past productions or use the stage directions or inferences to set pieces in the stage directions as a means of discussing the dramatic meaning for the audience.

I hope you found these suggestions helpful. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated. Please leave your feedback in the comments below.

Image Credits:

3005 Waiting for Godot, melomys, Licensed Under Creative Commons: Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)

26 Comments

  1. Your website, is very helpful, I am a student in drama, and we just started Absurd theatre! I found it confusing at first but the site has helped me understand some of the concepts of the plays and hopefully with a little more digging, my group and I can create our own with little difficulties. Thanks so much!

    Grateful Student🙂

  2. I love the ideas you have for teaching absurdist theatre, particularly the idea of the clowning workshop. Not being very familiar with clowning, do you have any good resources you would recommend?

    Thanks for the great post – I’m really excited about using your ideas in my class!

      • Hello,
        I found your blog during research for my individual Theatre projet in school and your lesson ideas about the absurd theatre are really helping me, thank you so much!🙂

        I would also like to use some clownnig workshop in relation with the absurd, could you maybe give me some recommendations too?

        Greetings,
        Franz

      • Hi Franz,

        I do have some notes on clowning. I would be happy to put a post together. In the meantime, I recently posted on some comic exercises in Commedia which might also be of use. You can check out the post at this link: http://wp.me/pGFs7-k5

        Glad the Theatre of the Absurd stuff helped. Let me know if there is anything else you need. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and share your thoughts.

        K.

  3. Pingback: More Theatre of the Absurd Teaching Ideas | Drama Teacher's Network

  4. Wonderful blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own site soon but I’m a little
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    or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m completely confused .. Any recommendations? Bless you!

  5. Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve been to this site before but after browsing through some of the post I realized it’s new to me.
    Anyhow, I’m definitely happy I found it and I’ll be book-marking and checking back frequently!

  6. Hi Karla,
    I am a first year Drama teacher in a rural school, and I am the only Drama teacher at my school! I am teaching Year 11 Drama and Absurdist Theatre for the first time, and I’m finding it really hard to get my head around it. Can you explain what the ‘human condition’ is? My kids’ first assessment is a directorial concept for a scene in Waiting for Godot. I’m not sure what their dramatic meaning would be, though I know it has something to do with the human condition but I’ve no idea what that is! Should they be looking at a directorial concept of the whole play, or just one scene, or..? I’m so terribly confused!😦

    • Hi Dee,

      Sorry for my delayed response. That is so exciting that you are teaching Absurdism. I absolutely love it. Your assessment task sounds fantastic. In fact it is something that I do with my class and I have found it to be very successful. When you are linking to the human conidition in Absurdism you need to focus on the concept of Existentialism. This can be hard for the kids to get their head around. It was the Absurdist’s philosophy and their approach to how they wanted to show the human condition in their work. I hope that helps. I would love to hear how it goes.

  7. Pingback: Theatre of the Absurd Workshop Series | Drama Teacher's Network

  8. Hi Karla,
    Im studying Absurdist theatre for my IB Theatre EE and was going to investigate the role of set in Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco plays. However, I’m afraid that the set is not as important as other conventions and that there is a lack of research on it as it is mainly literature (plot) based. I was wondering if you could give me some advice/suggestions.
    Thanks.

    • I’d compare how the conventions of Absurdism are reflected through those aspects plus other theatrical techniques. You could use the workshop series template I have produced as a guide for work shopping. I’m pretty sure it is in the Resources section.

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