The Theatre of the Absurd is a movement made up of many diverse plays, most of which were written between 1940 and 1960. When first performed, these plays shocked their audiences as they were startlingly different than anything that had been previously staged. In fact, many of them were labelled as “anti-plays.” In an attempt to clarify and define this radical movement, Martin Esslin coined the term “The Theatre of the Absurd” in his 1960 book of the same name. He defined it as such, because all of the plays emphasized the absurdity of the human condition. Whereas we tend to use the word “absurd” synonymously with “ridiculous,” Esslin was referring to the original meaning of the word— ‘out of harmony with reason or propriety; illogical’. Essentially, each play renders man’s existence as illogical, and moreover, meaningless. This idea was a reaction to the “collapse of moral, religious, political, and social structures” following the two World Wars of the Twentieth Century.
Esslin was born in Budapest and educated in Austria. He read Philosophy and English at Vienna University and graduated as a producer from the Reinhardt Seminar, the well-known dramatic academy. He fled Austria in 1938 and in 1940 began working for the BBC as a producer, scriptwriter, and broadcaster. In 1963 he became Head of Radio Drama at the BBC, a position he held until his retirement in 1977. In 1977, Esslin became the Magic Theatre of San Francisco’s Dramaturg, the Magic becoming the first theatre in America to establish this position.