Bitten on the
Bum by the Absurd Drama Bug
by Celia Jones
experience with absurdist theatre was as a Drama
student at UC, Berkeley in a play called "Uncle
Sam", which was a kind of a modern-day
"Antigone" written by a student.
Being Berkeley in the 60's, it was an anti-war,
anti-authority play that didn't make much sense
to me, but I thought that is was probably deeply
metaphoric. As a naive freshman, I felt it
was an honour to be cast in the leading role of a
young rebellious woman who risked her life by
defying her uncle, the king.
of this alternative-style play was a graduate
student Rosemary, a tall, elegantly thin wraith
with curly, flowing blond hair and floral, hippie
dress that gave her an ethereal demeanour.
My recollection of performing this play is rather
fuzzy except for one scene with 'my uncle', where
the script called for me to slap him.
Since I had never before slapped someone in the
face, I was reluctant to do it on cue, and my
initial attempts in rehearsal were rather feeble,
not wanting to hurt the other actor.
a couple of my limp-wristed efforts, the
ethereal Rosemary suddenly transformed into a
fury spitting out, "You call that a slap!?"
In a flash, she was on me like an oversized
Valkyre, demonstrating on my face how to do a
proper stage slap. "This is how you do it.
Just cup your hand and hit on the jaw line so it
makes a loud noise but doesn't hurt," giving
my mush an almighty crack."Bullshit," I
cried, "that hurt like hell!"
because you flinched. If you didn't flinch,
it wouldn't have hurt," the harpy growled.
"Let's try it again, and don't flinch,"
she said as she slapped my flinching face several
times in quick succession. I'd
heard that you had to suffer for your art, but
this was ridiculous as I struggled to hold back
got the slap right; at least it didn't hurt me a
bit when I performed the slap myself. A few
years later while watching a scene from the
offbeat TV series "Monty Python's Flying
Circus", I felt a strong deja-vu feeling.
John Cleese and Michael Palin are standing on a
pier, each with a large fish in hand. They
proceed to slap each other with their fishes in a
ballet of military precision until one falls in
the water. My slapping scene made as much
the Absurdist Theatre Movement was becoming
rather popular, and I felt I should learn more
about it. Since my father was always
interested in what I was studying, I
arranged for him and my mother to see a
performance with me in San Francisco of a play,
or mime, by Beckett called "Act Without
Words". I felt it was my mission to
broaden my parents' theatrical experiences from
the usual Neil Simon comedies they attended at
their local theatre group.
opened on an empty stage, no scenery, nothing
except for two large burlap sacks. A big stick, a
goad, prodded one of the sacks and a scruffy
character "A" reluctantly came out of
the sack, brooded and unenthusiastically put on
the clothes that had neatly been placed next to
his sack. He ate a carrot and spit it out,
then carried his sack to the middle of the stage.
He brooded again and took off his clothes,
dropping them in an untidy heap onstage, and went
back to sleep in his sack.
returned, this time poking the second sack.
Immediately, character "B" woke up and
left the sack. He did everything
vigorously, consulting his watch several times.
He dressed rapidly and carefully and ate his
carrot with appetite. After performing his
own duty by carrying the sacks to the further
side of the stage, he removed the same clothes
character "A" had left in an untidy
pile and folded them neatly once again, winded
his watch and crawled back into his sack.
'action' took about an hour. I was
fascinated by all the symbolism; here were two
types, two different approaches to the absurdity
of existence. When combined, they presented
a composite picture of man. What a revelation!
Just as the
goad was about to wake character "A"
again, a rather loud snore echoed in the dark of
the theatre. At first, I thought it was
character "A", sleeping soundly, but
the snores continued even after that character re-emerged
from the sack.
worst, I reluctantly turned to catch my mother
sitting on the other side of my father, eyes
closed, mouth agape, emitting the loudest buzz-saw
sounds I'd ever heard. My father 'prodded'
my mother awake, "Katie, Katie, wake up and
watch the play."
my mother said in a clearly audible voice that
echoed in the silent theatre, "Oh, it's sooo
boring!" Cringing as a
hundred pairs of eyes suddenly fixed on us, I
knew we had to leave immediately. My father
helped my mother gather her things, including her
large, opened handbag filled with all the usual
snacks, apples and boiled candies which came
cascading out, as we hastily made our exit.
I prayed that people would think this was part of
the show, part of man's struggle with the
'absurdity and fruitlessness of existence.
was more angst outside the theatre; as we walked
towards the car, we saw a large empty
'existential' space where our car should have
been. Apparently, my father had
unintentionally parked in a tow-away zone, and we
finished our theatrical experience with an
'absurdly' expensive recovery of our impounded
car from the city garage across the city.
later near the end of my teaching career, there
was to be one more significant and final
experience with absurdist theatre. Years of
directing the school plays provided me with a
great deal of satisfaction, that is, until I
attempted the absurdist play "The Rhinoceros"
by Eugene Ionesco.
For the lead
actor, I was going to opt for a reliable,
competent student Jonah who had acted in other
plays until Adam appeared at the audition, having
memorized an entire monologue from the play.
Adam was a homeless kid, shunted from pillar to
post, and I saw this as a chance to be one of
those legendary teachers who effect a life-changing
experience on a disadvantaged student.
Also, Adam seemed to personify the leading
character Beringer, who is the non-conformist
standing alone against the transformation of the
whole village into rhinoceros.
the lines in that audition monologue were the
only lines in the whole play that he ever did
learn. Despite weeks of coaxing and
threatening, he didn't learn one more line.
His excuses seemed plausible, and his promises to
learn the lines were earnest. One week
before production, it became clear that it wasn't
going to work with Adam in the lead role. I
was angry, not only with Adam for thwarting my
teacher-of-the-year aspirations, but also
with my stupidity in letting the situation go on
grovelling and promising that he could use the
script onstage, I persuaded Jonah to do the part,
and demoted Adam to a walk-on role as a fireman.
I assured the students and myself that it would
be 'all right on the night', as my plays usually
were despite the hitches that always plagued my
began with an argument with the members of a
student band over their wanting to play the song
"Cocaine" for the audience at interval.
There was a mix-up with the tickets, and many
seats had been double-booked, causing heated
altercations. Some of the costumes had gone
missing, the coloured make-up sticks had been
ground into the dressing room floor, and the
rhinoceros masks were falling apart from their
rough treatment during rehearsals. The motorized
device controlling the curtains was acting up,
and it looked for a while like we wouldn't get
the curtains open at all. This didn't bode well
for the rest of the evening as I announced to the
audience the cast changes.
painful squeal of the curtains opening, I
tried to get comfortable in the cramped lighting
box with my crew of four students crunching
away on potato chips and expelling pungent
gaseous emissions. The production was
technically complex with slides of rhinoceros, as
well as the strange rhino grunting, musical,
sound and lighting effects all based on script
cues. Unease set in as I watched Jonah take
larger and larger strides across the stage before
dramatically closing the script and launching
into a total adlib of the play's absurdist
dialogue. As he ranted on, enjoying
being the centre of attention and re-writing the
play, my technicians kept asking me where he was
in the script. The other actors
didn't have a clue where they should jump in with
their lines, and I felt like I was in a nightmare
loop, where everything was careering out of
The worst was
yet to come as Adam, animated in his new role of
fireman, decided to enhance his entrance from the
audience by carrying on a heavy, six-foot wooden
ladder he'd found backstage. The scene
seemed to unfold in slow motion; Adam's wiry body
jaunted down the aisle, shoulder-length
flying under his red helmet, and swung the
huge ladder around towards the stage. A
sickening thud then echoed through the theatre as
the moving end of the ladder struck an elderly
member of the audience in the front row, knocking
watched the school administrators gather around
the stricken woman, praying that she would be all
right and wouldn't sue me and the school into
the end of the performance, and the excited cast
members crowded around me. There had been
so many laughs from the audience at all the
things that went wrong that they felt it was a
success and awaited my response. Unfortunately, I
was unable to speak as I was having an out-of-body
experience, watching a character in an absurd
play who looked just like me, sitting there in a
box, rigid with eyes glazed.