Conversations with Keith Johnstone: Theatre of Equivalence

A few weeks ago, I was lecturing on Beckett and Theatre of the Absurd in my Theatre History II class at Ohio University, reminding students that “Theatre of the Absurd” was not a movement with manifestos, that is, the so-called “absurdist” playwrights like Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, and yes, Johnstone, did not label their plays absurd and were not following certain rules, even though their work did share ideological and structural similarities: anti-literary, drawing on Camus’ existential philosophy, sense of senselessness, abandonment of the rational, rejection of the conventional dramatic structures, etc. “Theatre of the Absurd” was an expression coined by critic Martin Esslin in 1961 to categorize plays by these authors (Note that 1961 is 8 years after Beckett’s Waiting for Godot premiered in Paris). The term is problematic and is not used as regularly by scholars, but it is still used and almost always incorrectly. Therefore, when I was talking to Keith about a week ago, I asked him what he and his colleagues (Beckett, Pinter, Jellicoe, etc) at the Royal Court called their style of writing before Esslin coined the term. Keith said they didn’t have a collective term but he had his own preferred term: THEATRE OF EQUIVALENCE— with “equivalent” meaning equivalent to reality, but not literal. Oxford English Dictionary defines “equivalent” as: “Equal in value, amount, function, meaning, etc.; Having the same or a similar effect as.” And defines “absurd” as: “Wildly unreasonable, illogical, or inappropriate. Arousing amusement or derision; ridiculous.” Looking at these two definitions side-by-side, I believe Keith’s term “Theatre of Equivalence” is a thousand times better than “Theatre of the Absurd.” Let’s take Waiting for Godot. If you walk away from a production of Godot thinking only how ridiculous, illogical, and amusing it was, then you’ve missed the point entirely (or it was a really bad production!). More likely, you walked away with a deeper understanding of life, of what it means to be isolated, to wait and hope day after day for something or someone that may or may not arrive; and as you wait, you become older, gravity takes over, and everything seems worse. In 1957, the prisoners at San Quintin immediately grasped Godot as “equivalent” to prison life. In 2007, several black communities in New Orleans saw Godot as “equivalent” to the 2 years of waiting, post-Katrina, for resources to rebuild their devastated neighborhoods. For these audiences, and for the post-war generation (including Keith) that saw the English-language premier of Godot in London in 1955, the message was very clear, not absurd. It had equivalence to the experiences they were living. So, from this point forward, I will use THEATRE OF EQUIVALENCE when talking about these writers and their “equivalent” plays. Thank you, Keith!

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