Theatre, Samuel Beckett (1929-1989)

There were many absurdist playwrights that can be classified as postmodern. Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, Jean Genet and Eugene Ionesco are the most famous. The movement was spread around the world and although many scholars have decided that the postmodern style has already passed, the work of theses playwright’s is still being performed, analyzed and enjoyed by people everywhere.

Samuel Beckett’s plays contain clear references to existential thought, which is often at the base of postmodern art. His first play, Waiting for Godot, sets the tone for his continued search for meaning in a meaningless world. The plot consists of two men, Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) waiting for the mysterious Godot. Godot is never identified, but the character seems to represent an authority to which humans tend to dedicate themselves. He is not, according to Beckett, God, but he does seem to represent external authority, such as God. The play is filled with religious references and Vladimir has faith in waiting for Godot. Throughout the play, it is Didi that insists the pair remain where they are and wait for Godot, who keeps sending messages of his arrival but who never appears. It is through the questioning of the messenger boy that the audience realizes that the pair know nothing about the mysterious Godot.

This wait is absurd because as it has been determined that God takes up no space. Anyone who appears cannot be the ultimate authority, a god, but as salvation, in most belief systems comes from knowing one’s god, the entire scenario is completely absurd. The two wait for guidance from an external source, who never appears to them. Didi’s blind faith in Godot serves to remind the audience that he has no real reason for his faith. It is not based on the use of reason, although the pair try to apply reason, to no avail. No proof is ever supplied that waiting for Godot is a worthwhile endeavor. And so, the audience, like Vladimir and Estragon wait.

There is no real movement or character development in the play, the characters are, as their nicknames suggest, clown types. They are not dressed as clowns but normally as tramps. Their Vaudevillian patter certainly resembles the clowning associated with popular comedy. The show, when produced correctly, is quite disconcerting but it is also extremely funny. Beckett presents life as absurd. The setting and time period are vague and unidentifiable. The set is minimal, consisting of a bare tree. As the play progresses, Act II, which seems to be no more than a day after Act I, reveals that leaves have begun to appear on the tree. This twisting of time is a common element in postmodern theatre. Another typical aspect of absurdist theatre is that each play can be interpreted in multiple ways. It is up to the audience to decide what the meaning is, for them.

A scene from Waiting for Godot. The pair on the left are Dido and Gogo, the other two are the minor characters of Pozzo and Lucky
7.2 A scene from Waiting for Godot. The pair on the left are Dido and Gogo, the other two are the minor characters of Pozzo and Lucky.1

Another famous play by Beckett is End Game. It also has few characters and again they seem to be lost in a world not of their making. In this play the set is again minimalist, consisting of two windows and two trash cans. As the play progresses the parents of Hamm, the main character, are revealed, one in each trashcan. They pop up from time to engage in conversation. As well as providing comic relief they remind the audience of the often bizarre relationships between people and their parents. This is especially applicable to the trend of putting parents away in a home when they become a challenge to care for. Hamm is incapable of caring for himself, much less his aging parents. Their relationship is not pleasant. Nagg, his father, is gentle yet sorrowful and aggrieved about his son’s ingratitude. Hamm, the main character, is a selfish, blind old man in a wheelchair. He is clearly in charge of the others, who may be parts of himself or may represent actual parents. It is left up to the viewer to decide which. He is attended by his servant, Clove, who seems to be more trapped than loyal.

References are repeatedly made to what is outside the windows, which are so high on the wall that Clove must climb up to see through them. There is an apocalyptic feel to the barren world outside. Hamm is determined not to allow anyone into his abode, not that there is a door to enter through. During the play, Nell dies, and Clove repeatedly threatens to leave. At the end, the blind Hamm thinks that Clove has left. Clove stands with his coat on, going nowhere. Here is a sample of the dialogue between Clove and Hamm.

Clove: Why this farce, day after day?
Hamm: Routine. One never knows. [Pause.] Last night I saw inside my breast. There was a big sore.
Clove: Pah! You saw your heart.
Hamm: No, it was living. [Pause. Anguished.] Clove!
Clove: Yes.
Hamm: What’s happening?
Clove: Something is taking its course. [Pause.]
Hamm: Clove!
Clove: [impatiently] What is it?
Hamm: We’re not beginning to … to … mean something?
Clove: Mean something! You and I, mean something! [Brief laugh.] Ah that’s a good one!
Hamm: I wonder. [Pause.]”2

Eugene Ionesco (1909-1994)

The Romanian-French playwright, Eugene Ionesco, takes the idea of postmodern absurdity to the limit. He was a lover of words and most of his plays contain a good deal of word play. In his first play, The Bald Soprano (1950) he

“satirizes the deadliness and idiocy of the daily life of a bourgeois society frozen in meaningless formalities. Greatly surprised by the success of the play, Ionesco embarked on a career as a writer of what he called antiplays, which characteristically combine a dream or nightmare atmosphere with grotesque, bizarre, and whimsical humor. In his work the tragic and farcical are fused.”3

One of his most bizarre plays is called Rhinoceros(1959). In it the character of Berenger realizes that he and his girl, Daisy are the only humans left on earth. During the play, Daisy becomes charmed by the rhinoceroses that the rest of the humans on earth have turned into. She decides to join them. At the end, Berenger considers allowing himself to turn into one of the beasts but he decides not to. He does not capitulate. This play, like many of Ionesco’s works has a socio-political message. The plot refers to the growing threat of authoritarianism that predated WWII. Ionesco’s work tends to be more bizarre than that of other postmodern playwrights, but his messages are often more pointed and much less generalized around the idea of existence. For that reason, many scholars will argue that the term postmodern is too narrow to describe Ionesco’s work. His plays are so unique that it is hard to clearly put them in a single category. Placing them in the postmodern style is the closest that one can hope to come.

Harold Pinter (1930-2008)

Pinter’s plays often begin with two people in a relationship. When a stranger enters their world it upsets the precarious balance of the stereotypical relationship of the main characters. The dialogue in Pinter’s plays is made up of disjointed conversations and resonant silences. His characters, like real people often feel much differently than is expressed in their words. “The characters’ speech, hesitations, and pauses reveal not only their own alienation and the difficulties they have in communicating but also the many layers of meaning that can be contained in even the most innocuous statements.”4

Pinter’s most well-known plays are, Moonlight, The Birthday Party, The Caretaker and The Dumbwaiter. In these and other plays Pinter uses seemingly banal conversation to reveal the alienation of the characters. They try but are unable to communicate successfully. Pinter, in addition to being a playwright, wrote screenplays, radio plays and criticism. After 1970, Pinter directed many of his premieres himself, and in 2005, he won a Nobel Prize for literature. Harold Pinter,

“in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.”5

In his play The Dumbwaiter, two characters, Gus and Ben, wait for a third mysterious person named Wilson. Like we saw in Waiting for Godot, the Wilson character never arrives. Much like Didi in Waiting for Godot, Ben believes in authorities and believes the messages that are sent via a dumbwaiter. He trusts the information coming from outside sources. Time seems to slow down as the characters wait for Wilson. Gus is frustrated with being kept in the dark. This conflict provides the action in the one-act play. As in so many Absurdist plays, there is little actual action. Disjointed dialogue carries the show.

Robert Wilson (1941- still living) and Einstein on the Beach

The American, Robert Wilson could be said to be from the second wave of postmodern theatre. Wilson worked as a choreographer, performer, painter, sculptor, video artist and sound and lighting designer. His collaboration with Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach, was groundbreaking and is considered one of the most important contributions to the art of performance.

The opus broke the rules of opera. It was in four interconnected acts and lasted five hours with no intermission. The audience was invited to wander in and out at their leisure. There is no actual plot, although there is a nuclear holocaust depicted in the final scene. This seems to be a reference to the science that Einstein pushed forward, making the nuclear bomb possible. Other than that, there is no story told.

The acts were intersticed by what Glass and Wilson called “knee plays”–brief interludes that also provided time for scenery changes. The text consisted of numbers, solfege syllables and some cryptic poems by Christopher Knowles, a young autistic man with whom Wilson had worked as an instructor of what were then called “disturbed children” for the New York public schools.6

The dance, choreographed by Lucinda Childs, is more like exaggerated daily motion, slowed down, than any traditional dance form. Everything is methodical, rhythmic and perfectly coordinated to the music of Philip Glass. There is no attempt on the artists’ part to evoke specific emotions from the audience. There is no attempt to explain the images, music and other content of the opera to the audience. Interpretation is left solely to the audience members.

Scene from Einstein on the Beach
7.3 Scene from Einstein on the Beach.7

The repetitive nature of dialogue, often merely a series of numbers and the often slow pace of the work is mesmerizing. Wilson creates another world filled with familiar images and ideas but which only makes sense if the viewer concludes that there is a particular meaning to any section of the play. It is up to the audience to decide what the meaning is.

The music was based on two techniques Glass had been working with since the mid-60s: additive process and cyclic structures. Additive process involved the expansion and contraction of tiny musical modules; a grouping of five notes might be played several times, then followed by a measure containing six notes (similarly repeated) then by seven notes, and so on. “A simple figure can expand and then contract in many different ways, maintaining the same general melodic configuration but, because of the addition or subtraction of one note, it takes on a very different rhythmic shape,” Glass observed. Glass defines rhythmic cycles as the simultaneous repetition of two or more different rhythmic patterns, which, depending on the length of the pattern, will eventually arrive together back at the starting points, making for one complete cycle. “This has been described by some writers as sounding like wheels inside wheels, a rather fanciful but not wholly inaccurate way of evoking the resulting effect,” Glass wrote.8
Scene from Einstein on the Beach.
7.4 Scene from Einstein on the Beach.9

In the scene above silhouettes of the actors can be seen, all of whom seem to be dancers. One person is in light, speaking a series of numbers slowly. There is an echo created by the microphone making the sound feel unreal. In the dark, in front of the stage sits Einstein, holding his temporarily silent violin. Above the rest of the dancers, on a suspended platform is Lucinda Childs, the main dancer and choreographer of the opera.

Tim Page’s article includes a quote from an audience member that reveals the effect of this opus on many of those who viewed and listened to it.

As I listened to that five-hour performance, I experienced an amazing transformation. At first I was bored–very bored. The music seemed to have no direction, almost giving the impression of a gigantic phonograph with a stuck needle. I was first irritated and then angry that I’d been taken in by this crazy composer who obviously doted on repetition. I thought of leaving. Then, with no conscious awareness, I crossed a threshold and found that the music was touching me, carrying me with it. I began to perceive within it a whole world where change happens so slowly and carefully that each new harmony or rhythmic addition or subtraction seemed monumental….10

The show premiered in 1976 and has been remounted several times. It is unfortunate that postmodernism, originally intended to be inclusive lost that element in this expensive production. The structure was unlikely to appeal to the average viewer, who probably would have walked out confused before being transported into the world of the opera. The high cost of tickets eliminated many others who might otherwise have experienced the show.

Postmodern Dance, Lucinda Childs (1940- still living)

Lucinda Childs began her career working with the Judson Dance Theatre. This group redefined what dance could be. They incorporated everyday movements drawn from the street. Their structures were based on social dances, simple everyday tasks and games. A 2019 exhibition at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) titled Judson Dance Theatre: The Work is Never Done illuminated the contributions of the group. The Judson Dance Theatre had introduced the art world to many future postmodern choreographers and composers. Included in that exhibition was the work of 40 actors, playwrights, choreographers, composers, musicians and dancers who once made up the dance company. Among them were many who went on to makes names for themselves executing art in the postmodern style. Among these artists were the composer, John Cage, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, playwright, poet and critic, and Leroi Jones, who later changed his name to Amear Baraka in order to throw off his “slave” name. The painter, Robert Rauschenberg and of course, Lucinda Childs were also a part of the exhibition that shared the history of the Judson Dance Theatre.11

Childs win an Obie award for her work on Einstein on the Beach. Following that production Childs continued to work with Philip Glass, even directing his opera, Akhnaton. She also collaborated on a piece by Robert Wilson, titled, I was sitting on my Patio This Guy Appeared I thought I Was Hallucinating. She later collaborated with the playwright on a piece based on the tragic life of the dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky. The production, Letter to a Man, is based on letters written by the dancer. Childs even worked on a set designed by Frank Gehry. Childs won countless awards and fellowships and had a huge impact on future dance productions.12 In 2018 The Lucinda Childs Company closed.

Postmodern Dance, Merce Cunningham(1919-2009)

Merce Cunningham studied under Martha Graham, famous for her contributions to modern dance. He later broke away, working with the Judson Dance Theatre where he met Robert Rauschenberg, who he often collaborated with.

Rauschenberg’s collaborative relationship with choreographer Merce Cunningham began in 1952 when they participated in an untitled event, referred to as Theater Piece No. 1, organized by composer John Cage at Black Mountain College, North Carolina. Rauschenberg officially began working with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1954, and throughout the next decade, he contributed to over twenty performances, providing lighting, set, and costume designs.13

In 1953, Cunningham formed The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which he worked with until his death. The company was housed in the Penthouse Auditorium from 1971 until 2010, a year after Cunningham’s death. The choreographer had worked with John Cage on his first solo performance. The two were life partners and collaborators until the death of Cage in 1992. Cunningham choreographed over 200 works during his career.14 He collaborated with many composers and visual artists and incorporated technology into both his creative process and in his final products.

Above is a scene from eyeSpace (20’) one of three versions of the Eyespace dance
7.5 Above is a scene from eyeSpace (20’) one of three versions of the Eyespace dance.15

The set for eyeSpace was designed by Daniel Arsham.

Arsham created the in situ set for merce Cunningham’s ‘au tour du paris’ events during the festival. The performance events will take place in a variety of theatres around the city. this is Arsham’s second collaboration with the dance company, after his 2007 design for eyespace during the merce in Miami celebration. Arsham’s design will integrate found objects and he will also be ‘cutting holes in the back wall of the theater during the performance turning the architecture of the theater into the set.’ Arsham follows in the footsteps of Robert Rauschenberg who was Cunningham’s artistic director from 1954-1964. Arsham lives and works in New York and Miami.16

Notice that the quote above (and other media about this production) is presented with a lack of capital letters. This is in keeping with the deconstructive theme of much of the work of Arsham and Cunningham. Cunningham, like many of his Judson compatriots included day to day movements. He also challenged the idea of the roles of dancers and audience by placing dance in public spaces. Cunningham pushed the boundaries of people’s expectations of dance. His most drastic contribution to dance was the separation of the movement from the music, as discussed briefly in the section on John Cage, a postmodern composer.

Cunningham included chance in his choreographic choices. He often flipped a coin to determine which movement to incorporate. The use of randomness was freeing, allowing new discoveries. Cunningham embraced technology in his work. He used video, body sensors, computers and motion-capture technology. Collaborating with videographers, Cunningham began working with film, bringing new visual experiences of dance. He often had dancers isolate parts of their bodies making it seem as though their bodies were being pulled in different directions by an outside force. Cunningham forever changed the way that choreographers look at dance. His influence can be seen in works around the globe, not only in dance but in visual art and music as well. Merce Cunningham is one of the most important figures to influence dance in the last hundred years.


Promotional photo for dance performance at Judson Memorial Church, 1967, James Waring (top), Charles Stanley (with beard), Peter Hartman, and Deborah Lee
7.6 Promotional photo for dance performance at Judson Memorial Church, 1967, James Waring (top), Charles Stanley (with beard), Peter Hartman, and Deborah Lee (photo: © James Gossage, The New York Public Library.17
1 Beckett, Samuel. Scene from Waiting for Godot.Photo by, Dharampal Singh, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Satnam_Laddi_art_direction_(4).jpg
2 “Fifty Best Waiting For Godot Quotes From Samuel Beckett.” Quotes from Waiting for Godot. Kidadl. https://kidadl.com/quotes/best-waiting-for-godot-quotes-from-samuel-beckett accessed 09/07/2022,
3 Esslin, Martin. “Eugene Ionesco – French Dramatist.” Discover France.https://www.discoverfrance.net/France/Theatre/Ionesco/ionesco.shtml accessed 09/12/2022.
4 Augustyn, Adam. “Harold Pinter, British Dramatist.” Britannica Encyclopedia.
5 The Nobel Prize in Literature 2005. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022. Fri. 16 Sep 2022. HYPERLINK “https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2005/summary/”https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2005/summary/accessed 09/14, 2022.
6 Page, Tim. “Einstein on the Beach—Philip Glass and Robert Wilson.” 1979. National Registry. https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/EinsteinOnTheBeach.pdf Accessed 09/09/2022.
7 Wilson, Robert and Philip Glass. Scene from Einstein on the Beach. Photo by Esther Westerveld, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons . https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Einstein_on_the_Beach,_Muziektheater_Amsterdam.jpg
8 Ibid.
9 Wilson, Robert and Philip Glass. Scene from Einstein on the Beach. Photo by Esther Westerveld, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Einstein_on_the_Beach,_Amsterdam_(2013).jpg
10 Wilson, Robert and Philip Glass. Scene from Einstein on the Beach. Photo by Esther Westerveld, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons . https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Einstein_on_the_Beach,_Muziektheater_Amsterdam.jpg.
11 Janeveski, Anna. “Judson Dance Theatre The Work is Never Done.” Museum of Modern Art Catalogue 2018. https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3927 accessed 09/12/2022.
12 “History.”Lucinda Childs Dance. https://www.lucindachilds.com/history.php accessed 09/12/2022.
13 Sarathy, Jennifer, editor. “Rauschenberg and Cunningham.” Rauschenberg Foundation. https://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/lightboxes/rauschenberg-and-cunninghamAccessed 09/12/2022.
14 Dolkart, Andrew. “Westbeth: Merce Cunningham Dance Company.” NYC LGBT Historic Sites.
15 Scene from eyeSpace. Daniel Arsham, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:8_eyespaceweb.jpg
16 Archer, Nate. “Artist Daniel Arsham Collaborates with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.”https://www.designboom.com/art/artist-daniel-arsham-collaborates-with-the-merce-cunningham-dance-company/#:~:text=arsham%20created%20the%20in%20situ,the%20merce%20in%20miami%20celebration accessed 09/12/2022.
17 Photo courtesy of Kahn academy. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/architecture-design/late-modernismpost-modernism/a/running-in-sneakers-the-judson-dance-theater accessed 09/17/2022.


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