DRAMA Transition to Eclectic Realism provides only amoral observation, while absurdism rejects even the possibility of debate. (Frances Babbage, Augusto Boal). The cynicism of this remark reflects the aberrant attitude towards absurdism, yet there is truth to it. Theatre of the absurd is an esoteric avant-garde style of theatre based on the principles of existentialism that looks at the world without any assumption of purpose. Existentialism and Theatre of the Absurd became identified with a cultural movement that flourished in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s, after the Second World War.
The idea that man starts with nothing and ends with nothing is a common theme amongst most absurd plays. Despite this strange philosophy, Theatre of the absurd mimics certain elements of realistic acting to produce an anomalous yet comical and entertaining style of theatre. Emerging in the late 1940’s, authors such as Beckett, Camus and Pinter were pioneers of Theatre of the absurd, who to some extent redefined modern theatre, yet Pinter describes his works as merely “symbolic realism” as opposed to absurd.
The plays “The Caretaker” by Harold Pinter and “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams are both classic plays of their genre, truly exploiting the absurd and realistic styles of drama through their similarities and differences to evoke an interesting yet markedly different approach to theatre. Many facets of realistic theatre pertaining to the elements and conventions are openly employed in absurd plays, with no clear distinction separating them. The acting, tension and staging are analogous in both plays, while the plot and language are markedly dissimilar setting the plays apart.
Themes and issues are transposable between both realistic and absurd, with each style of theatre often conveying similar messages. The traditional attitudes towards theatre and the conventions of realist drama are distorted by Pinter. The issues and themes are the engine and fuel of any play, regardless of the style, driving the plot and tension; the purpose is to provide the audience with a better interpretation of the motives of each character. In spite of the two different styles, the issues of deceit, lies, fantasy and llusion are common amongst both texts, each strongly displayed throughout each play. Emerging from these issues is a common theme of “life is a fantastic voyage of illusion” and how the perspective of reality is skewed. In The Caretaker, none of the characters in the play can be trusted to speak the truth. All are to some extent, deceptive, twisting reality in order to manipulate one another and to delude themselves. Davies, a tramp, constantly tells lies about his past, trying desperately to win the respect of Aston and Mick and also as a feeble attempt to bolster his own self esteem.
Going under a false name of Jenkins, Davies’ assertiveness and lying is constant throughout the entire play. “I’ve had dinner with the best,” he says in Act One, and is even accused of being a liar by Mick in Act 3: “Every word you speak is open to any number of different interpretations. Most of what you say is lies”. The issue of lying and deceit is seen in A Streetcar named Desire through Blanche, who to some degree is a compulsive liar, driven by her desire to be viewed as a youthful and respectable she tells lie after lie after lie to gain a false respect.
She tries to escape reality through lying but eventually deteriorates into madness, believing her lies to be true; her false telegrams from Shep Huntleigh inviting her on a Caribbean cruise in Scene 10 is the turning point between her lies and insanity. Both Blanche and Davies live in a fantastical world built of their own illusion, plagued with delusions and outbursts that illustrate the insecurities of one another. Both plays feature certain aspects that are indistinguishable between styles.
Setting the two plays apart is the distinct lack of plot evident in The Caretaker compared to a detailed and fully explicable storyline found in A Streetcar Named Desire. A Streetcar Named Desire follows a dramatic structure, with an exposition rising to a climax then falling to a resolution. The Caretaker follows no such structure, with a metaphysical approach that promotes a mystical and confusing mode. Pinter divorces and exposes society’s codes, institutions and human relations. Throughout the play the audience is rarely comfortable.
This disruption is established from the outset of the play when Mick, a character who at this stage of the play the audience knows nothing about, sits on the bed and stares at the audience in silence for ‘30 seconds’. Mick’s arrival on stage generates unease within the audience and the tension only increases as Pinter provides the audience with no explanation for his being there. Mick leaves the stage in a state of maintained silence; hence the first images presented in the play confront and challenge many of the assumptions of a traditional theatrical experience. Pinter does not adhere to the accepted use of dramatic conventions.
There is no traditional relation of character histories within the opening scenes and lack of revelation is maintained throughout the play as relatively little is exposed about the character’s backgrounds. This makes events within the room conditional phenomena, which are dependent on the individuals involved and what the audience is able to interpret. A distinguishing feature separating realism from absurd is the style of language employed throughout the plays. In A Streetcar Named Desire the language and dialogue reflects real life, where each line has a subtext and motivation behind it, and is often heightened for emotional moments.
Blanche’s educated speech and literary allusions contrast with Stanley’s down-to-earth language and crude–but often effective and amusing–imagery. In contrast to this, Pinter’s characters often speak in broken sentences, utter non-sequitors, repeat themselves, pause for no apparent reason and don’t listen to what is said to them or appear to understand it. When Mick is conversing with Davies, he repeats the same question over and over: “What did you say your name was? ”, until Davies erupts in a fit of frustration, confused by the nature of the conversation in turn creating a very funny scene when reproduced on stage.
The constant silences and pauses within character’s conversation makes clear the sub-text of all human interaction. Pinter himself said that “one way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover silence’ this view and the presentation of this view within the play would be very disturbing to an audience, as it disrupts the traditional notions that language, the basis of all human interaction is one-layered and can be defined, classified and understood. Featured numerous times throughout the text is stichomythic dialogue, hand bag.
It exposes the use of our language to construct fictions about our lives and for the purpose of self-deception. The play produces a loss of faith in language to unproblematically represent realities in the world and a loss of faith in humanity to know what reality is. Symbols within theatre are supplements to the dialogue as a means of communicating ideas to the audience. Both Pinter and Williams utilise symbols throughout each play to convey both subtle and obvious concepts. In A Streetcar Named Desire, the paper lantern that Blanche places over the “harsh light” is one of the most power symbols in the play.
The paper lantern represented Blanche’s wish to hide her past. It was symbolic when Stanley ripped the paper lantern at the very end of the play, as it was he who revealed the truth behind Blanche and he past. Symbolic of her wish to hide her age is the lighting as well, with Mitch saying: “I don’t think I ever seen you in the light. That’s a fact! You never want to go out in the afternoon. You never want to go out till after six and then it’s always some place that’s not lighted much. What it means is I’ve never had a real good look at you. In contrast to A Streetcar Named Desire, in which most of the symbols are quite obvious, The Caretaker is much more subtle at conveying its symbols, with most s arising directly from the action. Despite the veiled nature of symbols in the play, items such as the Buddha and Davies dinner jacket are physically symbolic. The Buddha is an object that Aston has picked up and brought back to the already cluttered room. In this sense, the Buddha resembles Davies, who can also be seen as something useless that Aston has picked up – in this sense the Buddha is symbolic of Davies.