Rene Magritte’s Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe poses the perfect “is it?/isn’t it? existential question (true fact — its actual name is The Treachery Of Images). What really is — or, more to the point, is anything really “is”? Is anything real?
For those of us (me, for instance) who love wrestling with esoteric brain puzzles, this is a top of the line WWF cage match.
On the one hand — the viewer has to disagree — “What’re ya talking about? Of course it’s a pipe!” But, as Magritte himself pointed out when his piece first started making viewers crazy, “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!”
What really is vs what actually isn’t. Can we believe anything anymore?
For the non-theater majors, Theater Of The Absurd was a literary genre that emerged from World War II like existentialism’s louder, loonier twin sister. Like existentialism, Theater Of The Absurd saw human beings as pointless. After all, didn’t most of humanity just fight a world-wide duel nearly to the death?
For comparison’s sake, a very similar reaction occurred after World War I. The Dadaist movement rejected everything about capitalism and its “values”. Art itself had no value to the Dadaists — even as they created it. A famous, wonderful example is Marcel Duchamp’s series of “readymades” including this shovel. The shovel, Ducamp claimed, was already art. All the artist had to do was sign his name on it.
Dadaists got what existentialists & Theater Of The Absurdists later got — our faith in humans being logical, rational and just is based entirely on bullshit. We’re all bonkers and need to face that fact. Theater Of The Absurd put words in the mouth of our insanity.
The most famous — most performed — example of Theater Of The Absurd is Samuel Becket’s Waiting For Godot.
Spoiler Alert — Godot never shows. That’s the point — lots of waiting, lots of speculating, lots of hoping, lots of random cruelty — and all for nought. Who knows if Godot even exists?
For pure existential crunchy goodness though, the quintessential Theater Of The Absurd play is Eugene Ionesco’s La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) — which has played continually at the Theatre De La Huchette in Paris since 1957. Nothing in the play means anything. A husband tries to remember where he’s met his wife before — perhaps in the bed they’ve shared every night for years? All information is meaningless. All communication futile. “Experience teaches us that when one hears the doorbell ring it is because there is never anyone there.”
And what’s the point of fighting it? “Who has any interest in prolonging this confusion? I don’t know. Let’s not try to know. Let’s leave things as they are.”
A more recent version comes from Alex Cox’s exquisitely nihilistic movie Repo Man: “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”
Does that not feel like us — in the here & now? Does it not feel like we’ve come all this way only to discover we never left home. Well, some of us never left home. Some of us still live in our parents’ basement — if mentally.
Watch any hour of CNN or MSNBC and I DARE you not to feel like you’re Waiting For Godot — justice in our case. I DARE you not to feel like the dialogue spewing from any talking head discussion has all the weight of a mal-formed soap bubble. The one thing you can probably count on, when the bubble bursts, the soap will get in your eye.