Existentialism is a philosophical movement that developed in continental Europeduring the 1800s and 1900s. Most of the members are interested in thenature of existence or being, by which they usually mean human existence.
Although the philosophers generally considered to be existentialists oftendisagree with each other and sometimes even resent being classified together,they have been grouped together because they share many problems, interests, andideas. The most prominent existentialist thinkers of the 1900s include theFrench writers Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sarte, and Gabriel Marcel and Germanphilosophers Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger.
The Russian religious andpolitical thinker Nicolas Berdyaev and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber werealso famous existentialists. Existentialism is largely a revolt againsttraditional European philosophy which reached its climax during the late1700s and early 1800s. Principles of knowledge that would be objective,universally true, and certain were produced. Existentialists rejected themethods and ideals of science as being improper for philosophy. Theyinvestigated what it is like to be an individual human being living in the worldinstead of making the traditional attempt to grasp the ultimate nature of theworld and abstract systems of thought.
They stress the fact that everyindividual is only a limited human being. Each must face important and difficultdecisions with only limited knowledge and time in which to make these decisions.
Human life is seen as a series of decisions that must be made without knowingwhat the correct choice is. They must decide what standards to except and whichones to reject. Individuals must make their own choices without help fromexternal standards. Humans are free and completely responsible for theirchoices. Their freedom and responsibility is thrust upon them and they arecondemned to be free. Their responsibility for actions, decisions andbeliefs cause anxiety. They try to escape by ignoring or denying theirresponsibility. To have a meaningful life one must become fully aware of thetrue character of the situation and bravely accept it. Existentialists believethat people learn about themselves best by examining the most extreme forms ofhuman experience. They write about such topics as death and extreme situations.
This concentration upon the most extreme and emotional aspects of experiencecontrasts sharply with the main emphasis of contemporary philosophy in Englandand the United States. This philosophy focuses upon more common place situationand upon the nature of language rather than experience. JEAN-PAUL SARTREJean-Paul Sarte was born in Paris in 1905, and died in 1980. In 1964, he wasawarded the Nobel Prize for literature. However he refused to accept the reward.
Sarte was a French existentialist philosopher who expressed his ideas in novels,plays, and short stories, as well as theoretical works. The mere existence ofthings, especially his own existence, fascinated and horrified him. To Sartethere seemed no reason why anything exists. He stated that only human existenceis conscious of itself and of other things. He argued that non-living objectssimply are what they are and people are whatever they choose to be. People existas beings who must choose their own character. He agreed with theexistentialists philosophy that people are completely free. Sarte said,People are afraid to recognize this freedom and to accept full responsibilityfor their behavior. Throughout his philosophical and literary works, heexamined and analyzed the varied and subtle forms of self-deception. InSartes chief philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, he investigated thenature and forms of existence or being. In his essay, Existentialism andHumanism, he defined existentialism as the doctrine that, for humankind,existence precedes essence. In the Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartepresented his political and sociological theories. THEATER OF THE ABSURDMOVEMENT The theater of the absurd refers to tendencies in dramatic literaturethat emerged in Paris during the late 1940’ss and early 1950s. Itsroots can be found in the allegorical morality plays of the middle ages and theallegorical religious dramas. The term theater of the absurd derives from thephilosophical use of the word absurd by such existentialists thinkers as AlbertCamus and Jean-Paul Sarte. A fully satisfying rational explanation of theuniverse was beyond its reach and the world must be seen as absurd. The imagesof the theater of the absurd tend to assume the quality of fantasy, dream, andnightmare. The theater of the absurd movement heightened people in abstractsituations. It was informative and overall made the audience think. Its purposeis to provoke thought with laughter. Theater of the absurd does not stay in keyand is sometimes described as crazy. It always has intense moments, does notlook like conventional theater, and has no start, no middle and no end. SAMUELBECKETT Samuel Beckett was born in Foxrock, Ireland in 1906. He attended TrinityCollege in Dublin and left for Paris when he was twenty-two. Throughout his lifehe wrote in both English and French, but most of his major works were written inFrench. Beckett was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1969. He died inParis in 1989. Becketts works are explored in novels, short stories, poetry,and scripts for radio, television, and film. He is best known for his work inthe theater. His most famous play Waiting for Godot became one of the mostdramatic works in this century. The strange atmosphere of Godot, in which twotramps wait on what appears to be a desolate road for a man who never arrives.
This made his audience come back to see other major works. Becketts drams aremost closely associated with the Theater of the Absurd. He has a minimalisticapproach, stripping the stage of unnecessary spectacles and characters. Hisworks cover much of the same ground as World War II French existentialists.
WAITING FOR GODOT Waiting for Godot captures the feeling the world has noapparent meaning. In this misunderstood masterpiece Beckett asserts numerousexistentialist themes. Beckett believed that existence is determined by chance.
This is the first basic existentialist theme asserted. The play consists of fourvulgar characters, and in a simple way who twice arrives with a message fromGodot, a naked tree, a mound or two of earth and a sky. Two of the charactersare waiting for Godot who never arrives. Two of them consist of a flamboyantlord of the earth and a broken slave whimpering and staggering at the end of arope. It is almost certain that Godot stands for God and those who are loiteringby the withered tree are for salvation, which never comes. Many critics haveagreed that Godot does not necessarly mean God, merely the objective of ourwaiting- an event, a thing, a person, a death. Another basic existentialisttheme on which Beckett reflects is the meaninglessness of time. Because past,present and future mean nothing, the play follows a cyclic pattern. Vladimir andEstragon returned to the same place each day to wait for Godot and encounter thesame basic people each day. Godots messenger does not recognize Vladimir andEstragon from day to day. This suggests that the people we meet today are notthe same as they were yesterday and will not be the same tomorrow. Beckett alsoexamines a theme of self-deceptive attempts to dodge reality by making excusesfor ones actions. Vladimir and Estragon fool themselves by engaging in pettydiscourse that reflects the absurdity of life. They even contemplate suicidenumerous times for numerous reasons, but ultimately persist in the futility oflife. TOM STOPPARD Tom Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia on July 3, 1937, theson of Eugene Straussler, a doctor employed by Bata, the shoe manufacturers. In1942, his family moved to Singapore. He and his mother evacuated to India withhis brother before the Japanese invasion. His father was left behind and killed.
He then went to a multi-racial English speaking school in Darjeeling, India. Hismother later married Kenneth Stoppard, who was in the British army in India.
Stoppard was educated in a prep school at Nottingham Shire, and a grammar schoolin Yorkshire. He was then employed by Western Daily Press in Bristol, were helived. There he was a news reporter, feature writer, theater critic, film criticand gossip columnist. Eventually he married Jose Ingle. He wrote such works asRosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear, a one-act play in verse. He alsowrote Rosecrantz and Guilenstern Are Dead. He won the John Whiting award andEvening Standard award in 1967. ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEADRosencrantz creates a picture of characters who inhabit a world which isstranger than they had supposed, which they know it is not as it seems but whatit is . He evokes the ability of all man kind to understand those forcesultimately in control of their lives and fates. Because Rosencrantzs andGuildensterns fate is determined by Hamlet and not by random forces. Atoutset of the play, Rosencrantz remains oblivious to any oddity and theircoin-tossing, describing the improbable run as 85 heads as merely a new record.
The destiny which awaits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern consists of nothing forwhich they are prepared. Instead they are to be kept intrigued without everbeing enlightened. The purpose of the coin-tossing scene is the obviousconclusion that forces beyond their control are guiding their fate and it isobvious Guildenstern is more conscious of the two. He also sets up the questtheme that the play will take on. The ranting and ramblings of Rosencrantz andGuildenstern are reminiscent of the spiritual pilgrim of the protagonist ofWaiting for Godot. They both spend the entire play searching for a fate andspiritual rationale that is always alluding them. It can be concluded that thetitle characters are searching for a divinity that will make itself evident.
Irony comes to fit in the framework of the play because we know that the pairare to loose their heads. The humor of this situation is a game of questionswhere they answer every question with another question, but really realizehow the game is mirroring their predicament, which is to inhabit a world full ofquestions which, for them, have no answers. For every action they partake inorder to answer their calling, they are met with a hundred more questions, andIn this lies the irony of the entire production. T.S. ELIOT T.S. Eliot(1888-1965) was born in St.Louis, Missouri and graduated from Harvard. He livedin England for most of his life, returning to the United States periodically tolecture and teach at Harvard and other universities. Eliot achieved the fullnessof his poetic expression in The Waste Land and other poems on this recording. In1948 he was awarded a Nobel Prize. Eliot ranks among the most important poets ofthe 1900s. He departed radically from the techniques and subject matter ofpre-World War I poetry. His poetry, along with his critical works, helped toreshape modern literature. Many of Eliots views on literature appeared in TheCriterion, a literary magazine he edited from 1922 to 1939. Eliot served as adirector of a London Publishing house from 1925 until his death. Eliot alsoreceived the Order of Merit for literature during his lifetime. He finally foundhappiness in his second marriage which took place eight years before his deathon January 4, 1965. Two important factors in Eliots development as a poetwere his introduction to French symbolist poetry and his friendship with fellowAmerican Ezra Pound. It was in Pound that Eliot found a devoted mentor and asensitive critic of the early drafts of his poems. With Pounds help, The LoveSong of J. Alfred Prufrock was published in Poetry in 1915 and Preludes in Blastthat same year- thus launching Eliot into the midst of literary modernism.
Eliots first major poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, revealed hisoriginal and highly developed style. The poem shows the influence of certainFrench poets of the 1800s, but its startling jumps from rhetorical languageto cliche, its indirect literary references, and its simultaneous humor andpessimism were quite new in English literature. THE WASTE LAND The Waste Landhas become the poem of the twentieth century. The poem offers an epochal insightinto the modern world, the urban blight, of death and destruction, ofmeaningless relationships, and of a profound absence of spiritual, social, andcultural assurances. It is presented with a series of allusions, fragments oftexts and documents, because Eliot wants the reader to experience that sense offragmentation for themselves through a kind of collage technique. There areglimpses of a sense of underlying order and unity expressed throughout thisliterary masterpiece. Eliot suggests that the poem draws upon the powerful mythof the wounded king who must be restored to health before his lands can bereturned to wholeness and fertility once more. Eliot also suggests that, deepwithin the cultural unconscious of our modern wasteland, there are underlyingpatterns and a sense of continuity. This poem has references to previous empiresand cultures such as Rome, Alexandria, and Vienna. The Waste Land is widelyregarded as loose or impressionistic.
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