The Mask of Absurdity

Some 20 years ago, I was in the cast of Samuel Beckett’s one-acts, directed by a visiting French company, Theatre du Shaman. The thing is, we struggled to see the humor the director insisted was in Beckett. We just couldn’t see it.

How on earth could the doom-and-gloom of Beckett’s absurd theatre be funny? We refused to laugh, we refused to learn, we refused to consider another experience. His take on humanity was without soul. We did not know how to react to anything so seemingly devoid of emotion, except to treat it with spite. His drama was etched in the ink of existentialism, a world where human existence had all together forced the birth of a philosophy of meaningless.

As a society in communal Africa, no matter our hardships, we had not reached a point where the idea of life as a stretch of futility had built up into a shared philosophy of meaningless absurdity. We couldn’t recognize it, therefore couldn’t laugh at it. African societies have collectively gone through terrible soul-searing experiences, but I’d argue that the philosophy of “utu” – the ability to see the human worth of another – disallowed for the emergence of philosophies that were embedded in individualism and meaninglessness of existence. European individualism separated the one from the whole and allowed for the emergence of the absurdity of life as a philosophy.

Not surprisingly, the reviews in the Kenyan papers were about the “soullessness” of the Beckettian production showing at Alliance Francaise. The reviewer saw the characters and their situation as empty, devoid of human heart. I was playing one of Beckett’s characters, and I felt like a plank of dark wood moving mechanically through eerie space. I failed to appreciate the European ghoulish backdrop of war and loss, bombs and cold slaughter, that informed Beckett’s personal experience and his works.

The director failed to inform us of this background and how it shaped intensely alienated characters. We might perhaps have understood Beckett’s choice to laugh at it all, to scoff at a phantom god who had no effect on human choices and suffering, to boldly question dogma and follow our natural instinct as free thinkers.

It wasn’t until over a decade later, having lived through the intense alienation of one misplaced, one waiting for Godot in a cold foreign land that saw little value in you except for the monetary worth of your labor, that Beckett’s world became real to me, and I laughed my tears into salty streams at the absurdities of life.

Meaninglessness had come home to me, and I realized, with a desolate shudder, that giving my life meaning was my responsibility. Questioning was my responsibility. Tearing down institutional thought that shackled our freedom to believe our experiences was my responsibility.

I live in a land that selfishly protects and advances itself at the expense of other peoples; a land that sustains wars on others’ soil for decades, in the name of God and Country, for Oil and Spoil. I’m constantly shocked by the absurd binge on materialism that leaves half the world decaying in destitution. The civilized world and its advanced democracies where I have chosen to experience my adult life, is a soulless place. I now fully understand Beckett.

It’s in finally waking up to the humor in the absurd that we begin to find our way out of it. The realization of what we’re capable of as human beings is both shocking and absurdly funny.

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