by Kirsten Porter
April 2008

The theater of the absurd is based on the principle that either everything changes or nothing changes with the implication that life holds no meaning. Absurdism originated in Europe and quickly gained momentum. The absurdists’ core belief of an existence devoid of meaning was one that easily resonated among Europeans in the aftermath of the world wars (Frenz 170). Europe was experiencing a state of apocalyptic shock, horrified by the staggering death tolls and senselessness that were the legacies of such large-scale destruction. Absurdism became a movement that, in part, represented the painful unrest and bitter cynicism of Europe during that era. The movement would evolve to embody a broader set of goals, particularly known for its social conscience, upheaval of traditional theater conventions, and treatment of controversial themes. Though absurdism would never be embraced with a fervor similar to that of Europe, the dramatic movement would establish its influence among other cultures. The theater of the absurd provided playwrights a forum where they could express their concerns for society and use extreme and often offensive, absurdist mechanisms to challenge societal complacency and instigate change.

Playwrights Samuel Beckett and Slawomir Mrozek have helped propel the absurdist movement throughout Europe. The American theater also has been influenced by the movement, largely due to Edward Albee’s plays that reveal stylistic and thematic undertones of absurdism. This paper will analyze how absurdist drama handles the issue of society’s mistreatment of the elderly. Beckett, Mrozek, and Albee utilize metaphor in juxtaposition with absurdism to address the problem of society’s devaluation of the elderly within their plays.

Irish playwright Samuel Beckett is perhaps the most famous dramatist of absurdism. In his 1957 play Endgame, Beckett combines dramatic metaphor with elements of absurdism to convey how society devalues and dismisses the older generation. The older generation in Endgame is represented by the characters of Nagg and Nell. The husband Nagg and his wife Nell have each been confined to an “ashbin” in a small, drab room. Their son Hamm is debilitated not by age, but blindness and an inability to walk. However, Hamm sits in the center of the room and is quite obsessed with being in the “center” of the other characters’ attention (Beckett 438). Hamm has no regard for his parents; he is only concerned with the character Clov. Ironically, Clov is the only able-bodied character, yet he lets himself be bullied and ordered around by Hamm. Indeed, Clov is little more than Hamm’s attendant—fetching Hamm food and adjusting his chair—and silent companion—listening to Hamm’s stories and unending complaints. Hamm’s presence overshadows Clov and almost obliterates the existence of his parents who are still on stage, but not visible inside their trashcans.

It is an absurd scenario and a shocking metaphor that provide the social commentary for this play. Hamm is an unreasonable, unlikable character, and Clov gives in to his incessant orders. Hamm keeps his parents in trashcans, a provocative metaphor for Beckett to utilize in his hopes of inciting the humanity within his audience. The trashcans represent the poor treatment of the elderly.  Nagg and Nell have been discarded; their value is equal to society’s trash—what is thrown away and unwanted.

Hamm reinforces this concept of elderly neglect when, tired of listening to his parents, he instructs Clov to “screw down the lids” (Beckett 437). Hamm can only tolerate listening to Nagg and Nell for short periods of time, before he finds their “driveling” irritating and orders “silence” (Beckett 437). The dialogue that Hamm wants to stifle beneath the trashcan lids consists of memories and stories—though often incoherent—that his parents try to recount. Hamm has no interest in hearing Nagg and Nell relate their pasts, but whenever he speaks, Hamm expects his parents to be attentive listeners. He demonstrates this egocentrism when he orders Clov to rouse his sleeping father in the trashcan so that Nagg can hear a story Hamm wants to tell (Beckett 443).

Beckett gives the most poignant example of how society ignores the elderly in a few lines from Nagg’s monologue:

      I hope the day will come when you’ll really need to have me listen to you, and need to hear my voice…I hope I’ll live till then, to hear you calling me like when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened, in the dark, and I was your only hope. (Beckett 446)

Nagg wants Hamm to respect him and also remember the years he unselfishly devoted to raising his son. It is a sad monologue that appeals to Nagg’s “need” to be heard while recognizing his own issues of frailty in the aging process. In essence, Nagg is now “in the dark,” suffering from physical weakness and dementia, but the “hope” and compassion that he deserves from Hamm is missing. Hamm confirms this observation of his apparent apathy by giving no response to his father’s touching monologue. Instead, Hamm watches with relief when his father disappears as the stage direction indicates: “Nagg sinks back into his bin [and] closes the lid behind him” (Beckett 446). Finally, Nagg seems to understand the enormity of his labeled worthlessness by society and, losing all hope, “closes the lid” of an absurdist metaphor on himself.

Absurdism and metaphor also deliver this theme of the forgotten older generation in Polish playwright Mrozek’s 1965 play Tango. While Mrozek’s play fits into the realm of absurdism, the playwright does not replicate the same absurdist ideology found in Beckett’s Endgame. In Endgame, the characters have all concluded that finding meaning in anything only leads to a quest for some exterior truth that does not exist. Mrozek’s absurdist perspective veers from this exterior quest in favor of the absurdism that is at play in specific relationships and societal contradictions. The generational rift becomes the vehicle for absurdism in Tango. Mrozek further exploits the elements of absurdism by reversing the classic, stereotypical roles given to the youth and elderly within a society. This unexpected assignment of roles is evident at the very start of Tango, as the audience is introduced to a family of eccentrics who do not conform to the social norms.

Here, the characters of Grandma Eugenia and Uncle Eugene are representatives of the older generation. Mrozek’s “upside-down” absurdism makes the characters appear and act against all expectations of old age. The grandma looks inappropriate in a tacky dress with a train, jockey hat, and tennis shoes (Mrozek 576). The uncle wears equally ridiculous attire, clad in an old-fashioned dress jacket, ascot, knee socks, and shorts (Mrozek 576). As the play opens, the two are involved in a fast-paced card game. The arrival of the grandson Arthur interrupts the game and sends Grandma into distress. Studious Arthur is the picture of tidiness and decorum. Surveying the scene of idleness and card playing, Arthur becomes enraged at the older generation’s slovenly appearances and utter laziness. Arthur’s anger is largely directed at Grandma. She is supposed to represent morals and tradition; her inability to fill this role leaves Arthur without a foundation to build on or model to emulate.

Arthur’s desire to punish Grandma for these failings serves at Mrozek’s opportunity to introduce his metaphor within this absurdist situation. Arthur orders Grandma to lie down on a “catafalque”—an ornate coffin that the audience learns was used for the grandfather who has been dead for ten years (Mrozek 587). Arthur is not upset that the family holds on to family heirlooms and relics of the past; at least this would show respect for one’s tradition and heritage. Arthur asserts that his anger is due to the family’s lack of “order, no sense of reality, no decency, no initiative” and claustrophobic environment where he is unable to “move”, “breathe”, and “live” (Mrozek 588).

Arthur needs to find a “place” for everything and everyone. He believes his old baby carriage that remains in the living area should be stored in the attic, along with his mother’s wedding dress and other family relics left strewn about the house.  Arthur feels, likewise, that Grandma belongs in the coffin “to remind her of eternity” (Mrozek 582). Arthur deems the catafalque as a suitable designation for the grandmother, who is an unpleasant reminder of old age and inevitable death. Eugenia’s refusal to assume her “appropriate” role seems to justify, in Arthur’s mind, the premature use of the coffin.

Arthur wants cultural identity, order, and a code of morals to carry into the future. Unfortunately, these elements of self lie silently in the coffin alongside his grandmother—they are intangible, unobtainable, and to Arthur’s disappointment, have long since expired. The coffin, which serves as an enclosure of darkness and precursor for burial and permanent disconnection, is the ultimate punishment and solitary confinement for Grandma who has “grown old in this world that has lost its standards” (Mrozek 593).

Arthur’s father asks the question that appears to be at the heart of Mrozek’s theme of elderly mistreatment: “You mean we’re no good for anything?” (Mrozek 594).  It is the question that Grandma Eugenia, Uncle Eugene, and all of society’s aging citizens seem to echo—does old age equate worthlessness? Mrozek best answers this question in his depiction of Eugenia’s death scene.

Grandma Eugenia tries to make her family understand that she is about to die. Her request for the family’s attention in her last moments is made almost apologetically, “Please listen to me, my darlings. I won’t take much of your time” (Mrozek 656). However, even in death Grandma is treated as if she were a burden. Other family members respond to Eugenia’s dying with comments such as, “Later. We’re busy now” (Mrozek 657). The family is too preoccupied with their own affairs to recognize that Eugenia has positioned herself on the catafalque, which now becomes a metaphor for the isolation and loneliness she experiences in her final moments of life. Grandma Eugenia is given no comfort in her last breath; indeed, the family realizes she has died after the fact.

The family gives Eugenia little attention in her old age, nor do they stop to grieve for her after her demise. Arthur closes a curtain to hide the catafalque from view. The audience understands Mrozek’s sentiments: Grandma is forgotten in death much the same way she had been forgotten in life. She leaves behind the memory of the desolate coffin, an apt metaphor for the loneliness and exclusion she experienced in her last stages of life.

Albee also concentrates on a “Grandma” character in his 1959 play The Sandbox, which blends American absurdism with metaphor to convey the injustice of society’s rejection of the elderly. Albee’s Grandma character has autobiographical significance. He dedicates the play to the memory of his grandmother who died earlier in the year that the play was written. The issue of elderly neglect is a sensitive issue for Albee, who feels his own grandmother was not treated well before her death (Gabbard 27).

In The Sandbox, Grandma is treated with gross neglect. The characters of “Mommy” and “Daddy” are responsible for this reprehensible treatment of Grandma. The play begins with Mommy and Daddy carrying a frightened and bewildered Grandma across the stage, only to “dump” her into a sandbox (Albee 2452). The sandbox becomes a metaphor for both Grandma’s regressive, childish behaviors as part of her aging process and the eventual death that Grandma is expected to surrender to within the burial sands of her sandbox.

For Mommy, Grandma’s death is taking too long. She admonishes Grandma when the old woman tries to vocalize her discontent. Daddy colludes with Grandma’s mistreatment in a passive manner. He does not invoke the voice of reason and call his wife on her cruelty, nor does he refuse to take part in the abuse. Mommy gives Daddy orders to not “look at her…sit here…be very still…and wait” (Albee 2452). Mommy is eagerly anticipating Grandma’s death, and she becomes increasingly impatient as Grandma stubbornly continues to live.

Grandma’s uncooperative behavior irritates Mommy, who wants only for the old woman to die to make things easier and free up some space that Mommy wants to give her child. The child is really a “Young Man,” and he is the only character who responds to Grandma with any sensitivity and compassion. However, Mommy intends for the Young Man to replace Grandma, once the woman dies.  Grandma’s ability to evade death conflicts with Mommy’s plans for the future.

Albee’s Grandma is perhaps the character who is most indignant and vocal about her mistreatment. Beckett’s Nagg and Nell resign themselves to the hopelessness of their lives, trapped inside trashcans. Mrozek’s Grandma Eugenia shows disdain for her mistreatment, but gradually accepts her role assignment within the walls of her coffin. Albee’s Grandma is not as easily placated.  She protests Mommy’s abuse by crying loudly, throwing sand, and angrily addressing the unfairness of her situation:

      Honestly! What a way to treat an old woman! Drag her out of the house…dump her in a pile of sand…and leave her here to set…I’m a feeble old woman…There’s no respect around here. (Albee 2453)

It is this lack of respect and deliberate neglect from society that irritates Grandma and infuriates Albee. Much like Nagg, Nell, and Grandma Eugenia, eventually Grandma submits to her sandbox existence and fakes her own death. Mommy and Daddy, finally free of the inconvenience Grandma has been on their lives, exit the stage. Grandma is left to do her “real dying” alone. The barren sandbox becomes a metaphor for society’s cruel abandonment of the elderly.

Beckett, Mrozek, and Albee all write in the absurdist vein to create powerful metaphors that point out society’s shameful treatment of its elderly. Beckett conveys this theme by equating the aged parents Nagg and Nell with the worthlessness of trash thrown out to the garbage can. Mrozek shows the devaluation of Grandma Eugenia by stripping her of all dignity, both in life and death, and confining her to the walls of a casket. Finally, Albee deserts his ignored Grandma in the sandbox, where she is left to die alone. The three plays manipulate the absurd and dramatic metaphor to relay society’s disgraceful attitude toward its elderly population. These absurdist inflections and unique metaphors are left for the audience to ponder at each play’s conclusion. The audience, a small-scale version of society, is now responsible for evaluating its own social conscience and exploring the possibilities for change.

Works Cited

Albee, Edward.  The Sandbox The Heath Anthology of American Literature.  Ed. Paul Lauter.  4th ed. Vol. 2.  Boston: Houghton, 2002.  2450-2455.

—.  “Which Theater is the Absurd One?”  American Playwrights on Drama.  Ed. Horst Frenz.  NY: Hill & Wang, 1965.

Beckett, Samuel.  Endgame Modern Drama.  Ed. W.B. Worthen. Vol. 1. MA: Heinle, 2002.  429-454.

Gabbard, Lucina P.  “Edward Albee’s Triptych on Abandonment.”  Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal 28:1 (Spring 1982): 14-33. Literature Resource Center.  Marymount University, Arlington, VA. December 2007  <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/LitRC>.

Mrozek, Slawomir.  TangoNine Plays of the Modern Theater.  Ed. Harold Clurman.  NY: Grove, 1981.  573-671.

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