The theatre of the absurd does not depend on eliciting certain specific emotional responses, but rather on generating any sort of emotional disturbance — it demands that the audience question its basic emotional beliefs, not give over to them.
In a careful explication of the concept of catharsis, Allan H. Gilbert determines that pity is the primary emotion necessary for the drama to elicit (rejecting the common counterpart, fear). Pity has no real meaning in the theatre of the absurd, however; it requires a great deal more identification with the characters, when one of the major effects of the genre is to cause a certain alienation from the characters and the supposed realities of the play — and of the surrounding world. Anger and frustration are more appropriate emotional reactions than pity to a piece of absurdist theatre, and they are more appropriately addressed towards the self and towards reality (and perhaps the reality of the play) than towards the characters of the drama or its absurdist and virtually non-existent plot.
Aristotle also finds a certain sense of both beauty and pleasure in the pity (and fear, according to most interpretations) derived from a well-constructed dramatic plot. Modern psychological and aesthetic analysis attempts to explain how both pleasure and pain can be derived from the same perceived events, especially in the theatre where aesthetic beauty is achieved (a la Aristotelian drama) through the degree of accuracy in the presentation of likeness: “to an audience that sees a play correctly — as a likeness of people weeping — the play will give pain, qua people weeping, and pleasure, qua likeness” (Belfiore 355).
This notion of representation and possibly even of aesthetic beauty is, well, absurd to practitioners of the theatre of the absurd. Pinters plays employ a certain sense of Aristotelian mimesis, to be certain, but the approximation of accurate likeness is the direct antithesis to the goals and design of the genre. Absurdist plays, such as those of theatre, reflect the world in the way the playwright insists it truly is, though our perceptions and behaviors attempt to deny these realties.
Pinters plays do not represent our world the way we see it, that is, but rather create worlds that “play off” our “real” world in order to radically shift perspectives and force the audience to view their own world as an absurdist and completely irrational construct all of its own (Pearce 694-7). If there is any catharsis in the theatre of the absurd (which is highly debatable), it comes not from the evocation of pleasure and pain through the beauty of pity and fear, but from a collective frustration with reality and logic that is at once emotional and intellectual. The construction of the action in an absurdist play is just as careful as in Aristotelian drama, but the different ends of these plays lead to very different means of construction and production.
The diversion of the theatre of the absurd from the precepts of Aristotelian drama is unmistakable. The relationship between the two forms of theatre and their similarities is more subtle, and certainly worthy of inspection. In the next section, a brief overview of the details of Aristotles theory of drama as understood in this paper is provided as a means of facilitating such inspection. A more comprehensive view of catharsis, plot, and other dramatic elements in the Aristotelian schema will be provided to aid in a comparison with Pinters works.
Belfiore, Elizabeth. “Pleasure, Tragedy and Aristotelian Psychology.” The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 35, No. 2 (1985), pp. 349-361.
Gilbert, Allan H. “The Aristotelian Catharsis.” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Jul., 1926), pp. 301-314
Pearce, Howard. “Harold Pinters “The Black and White”: Mimesis and Vision.” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Winter, 1992), pp. 688-711.
Spanos, William V. “Modern Drama and the Aristotelian Tradition: The Formal Imperatives of Absurd Time.” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer, 1971), pp. 345-372.
States, Bert. “The Case.