The ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ and ‘Feminist Theatre’ are two very different approaches which use techniques different to many other conventional styles of theatre. The difference between the two can be explained through the analysis of two plays, one from each style. Caryl Churchill’s ‘Top Girls’ which is an exploration of women explored and introduced through a feminist perspective by a female character reveals important roles in history where women have been at an advantage. Harold Pinter’s ‘The Birthday Party’ on the other hand, places man in a society where he is driven to extremes psychologically and is caught up in a hopeless situation. This essay will explain where the two movements in theatre differ from one another with reference to the plays mentioned.
The essential characteristics of feminist theatre are shown through Churchill’s top girls. The women in the play are placed within significant roles in society and the dominant role of leader or boss is fulfilled by a woman. Marlene is shown throughout the opening scenes of the play to idolise and emasculate women who have attempted to fulfil the role which she dreams of, having substantial status as a woman in history. The women are all of the past and Churchill brings these women together in a recollection of their achievements in history. She is praised for her dramaturgy in this exposition of recalling past events and her use of theatrical time. She covers aspects of women in society which although known were not really talked about. The aim of Churchill plays were not to push women to adopt masculine characteristics but to address them with equality and the idea that men and women should equally care for one another.
There is a common tendency in ‘top girls’ and a method known of feminist theatre in general to disrupt the expectations of time and chronological history whilst isolating the complex structure of women’s lives more than ever before. The effect of this is that it deepens and complicates questions regarding gender stereotypes with regards to women. In the play ‘Top Girls’, two sisters are reunited after a long separation from each other and they question and confront their differences and achievements in terms of connections with each other in their lives. Throughout the play Churchill uses a technique in which she asks constant questions of the characters in her play ‘Top Girls’ and this draws a parallel between the Absurd Theatre and Feminist Theatre in that they both use this kind of incessant questioning technique although with very different intentions of the overall effect. Goldberg and McCann in ‘The Birthday Party’ torture Stanley with absurd and irrelevant questions to work him into a phase of confusion; whereas in ‘Top Girls’ the questions are intertwined within the play and serve to address the issues of the societal structures of feminism. Although there is a similarity in techniques between the two playwrights; the exposition and the use of that technique as well as the result is very different.
An important part of Pinter’s ‘The Birthday Party’ is shown through the questioning in the final scenes as a characteristic of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’. This type of theatre in contrast to feminist theatre abandons the logical situations which are familiar to audiences of the time and instead replaces it with unconventional methods such as the weak portrayal of Stanley in ‘The Birthday Party’ who resorts to child-like bullying of Meg with nasty criticisms of a female. Stanley is thrust into a setting where he is uncomfortable not only for the character but also for the audience. Although he is safe from himself, he is vulnerable to the external circumstances in which ‘two thugs’ oppress him and target him with confusion forcing him into a mode of alienation with oppression. He is forced to feel all the same emotions which he made Meg feel earlier on in the play. The questioning now has a purpose in the plot because now Goldberg and McCann representations of himself and in a sense teach him a lesson for his own behaviour and cruelty towards meg. The Oppression inflicted on Stanley now reveals the absurdity of the play with completely irrelevant and non-related witticisms alienating not only Stanley but also the audience too, as they will feel his emotions.
Absurdist plays have a characteristic ability to disregard normal story telling methods and employ a more ambiguous approach in communication between characters. Through these plays it is possible to see a method of theatre through gender perspectives of a woman fighting against oppression of society and a man being dominated by it which in itself is absurd as it shines a new light on roles of masculinity for men and women. Absurdist plays often avoid discussion of human conditions and instead show it at an extreme level used to shock and discomfort the audience.