Real life is getting too absurd for absurd theater, absurdist playwright Minoru Betsuyaku complained in an article he wrote last month for the Asahi Shimbun.
Born in 1937, Betsuyaku grew up in a wartime and postwar environment whose chaotic aspects would naturally sensitize those so inclined to absurdism. It’s an outlook on life based on the belief, or perception, that “reality” doesn’t make much sense; that coherence, therefore, is a sin against truth. Nothing means anything, nothing matters, there’s no point in doing one thing rather than another; no point in doing anything at all; no point in doing nothing either — and yet, being alive, we must live, somehow.
Two men wait by a leafless tree.
“What are you doing?” asks one.
“Taking off my boot,” says the other. “Did that never happen to you?”
They are waiting for Godot. Who’s Godot? Nobody knows. Why wait for him? Why not? That’s absurd! Of course. It’s absurdist. The wonder isn’t so much that Samuel Beckett created a drama as disjointed and cracked as “Waiting for Godot,” or that it’s creepily brilliant; the wonder is that it went mainstream. By 1953, when it premiered, people evidently were ready to accept a view of the world that earlier audiences, schooled in coherence, would have shunned, perhaps feared, as deranged.
Beckett was a major influence on Betsuyaku, a founding father of Japan’s postwar theater of the absurd. The 20th century was steeped in absurdity. World War I, World War II, the Cold War with its threat of nuclear armageddon — if people were going mad, they had reason. The causes were not far to seek. Art need hardly concern itself with them. Its task was simply to portray our madness.
Playwrights portrayed it by dramatizing it — heightening it, exaggerating it. Exaggeration won’t do for newspapers but it’s fine onstage. It shocks us into seeing ourselves as we are — writ large, distorted maybe for effect, but recognizably us.
Betsuyaku’s lament, sounded in his Asahi article, is this: “When society and reality get more absurd than the theater, it becomes very hard to do theater.”
The wars and revolutions of the last century were awful but stimulated rather than stifled the absurdist in him. It’s different now. The seeds of his plight were sown in the 1980s, “when family relationships started to break down.” In stabler times, he writes, “murderers murdered for a reason — they bore a grudge, or there was something they hoped to gain. Now, often, it’s a case of ‘I just felt like killing someone, it didn’t matter who, anyone would have done.'”
When the news is filled with stuff like that, what’s an absurdist dramatist to do? An absurd predicament indeed: absurdist theater overwhelmed by absurder reality.
The word “absurd” is rooted in the Latin surdus — deaf. The characters in absurdist theater do tend to be deaf to one another — to be on different wavelengths, as it were. “Absurd,” explains cultural historian Jacques Barzun, “was the term used by (French writer) Anatole France (1844-1924) when he heard of Einstein’s universe.” In Einstein’s universe, as in Beckett’s and Betsuyaku’s and, increasingly, ours as we catch up to the avant-garde, reality and common sense are worlds apart, mutually irrelevant. Once upon a time, a radical departure from common sense implied madness. How can it possibly, now?
Still, if the world were a single human individual and if that individual behaved as the world as a whole is behaving, that individual might (as the suspect in the mass slaughter last month in a Kanagawa Prefecture care home in fact was, shortly before the rampage) be involuntarily committed to a mental hospital for observation, if not for something more drastic.
Civil war rages in Syria and northern Iraq; its fleeing victims strain and crack the world’s capacity for active sympathy; the world turns inward and rightward in response; the globalism that was supposed to draw us together is tearing us apart. Terrorists espousing radical Islam are at work globally — echoing, in effect, the Japanese random murderers Betsuyaku cites: “Anyone, anywhere will do,” as long as they die or are maimed.
In one respect, however, the Islamic State murderers more closely resemble Satoshi Uematsu, the suspect in the Kanagawa massacre, than they do the random thrill killers.
Uematsu, like the Islamic State group, sees himself as doing good. In a now-famous February letter to Lower House Speaker Tadamori Oshima, Uematsu championed euthanasia for people with disabilities, and justified killing them as being “for the sake of Japan and world peace.” The Islamic State group is not interested in world peace but has its own brand of good. It claims to commit its atrocities for God, the more atrocious the holier — the shock, outrage and horror of the infidels proving, to its satisfaction, the sanctity of its mission.
Who can govern an absurd world? Its current state suggests a dispiriting answer: nobody. The business magazine President takes up the question — indirectly, without using the word “absurd,” although U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s presence among the leaders and would-be leaders it profiles naturally suggests it.
What do Trump, U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have in common? Image, says the magazine — not the same one, but a shared concern with image to the exclusion, sometimes, of more substantial thinking. Of Obama, President recalls his 2008 campaign slogan, “Yes we can.” Can what? How? “Obama didn’t say — he stirred his audiences with the mere call.”
As for Abe, the magazine notices in him lately a recurring tendency toward “rocket metaphors,” as in his vow to “rev up the Abenomics engine.” How ironic: This most nationalist of Japanese leaders “sounds just like a Western politician.” The laugh is his. After three years in office, Abe is one of very few long-serving world leaders of whom it can be said that familiarity has not bred his electorate’s contempt.
We are governed by words and phrases, most of them empty. Absurd, in other words.
The first of two installments. The second installment will be published on Aug. 21. Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”
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