The Theatre of the Absurd at home

I was brought up – exaggeration already – on Martin Esslin’s ‘The Theatre Of The Absurd’, his study of playwrights in the 1950s, including Frisch, Beckett, Pinter (who became Esslin’s obsession), Ionesco, and other, largely-forgotten writers like N.F.Simpson, of whom more in a tick. I love their plays. They changed how I saw things.

On of my favourites of Ionesco’s is The New Tenant, about a man who moves into a new flat. The whole play consists of removal men bringing in crates and artefacts and furniture until at last, the tenant cannot actually be seen. I think it ends with one of the removal men saying ‘Is there anything else?’ and the tenant asking him to switch off the light. Esslin sees it as a metaphor for a man “stifled in a sea of inert matter”. This is what is happening to me today, yesterday, tomorrow (if there is one) and for several days to come. Getting hold of a free stash of archive boxes (I find them sexy, I think), I have started to throw stuff in and out, in an effort to reduce the quart-in-a-pint-pot effect of my “office”. At the moment, I can get to the computer, but I cannot get out of the room.

It goes like this. You get some new archive boxes, brown and clean and good, and you realise that they need to be filled to make sense. To fill the archive boxes (and the black bin bags), you have to empty the room, and investigate the plastic boxes (the previous poison of choice), which turn out to have been randomly filled with family history, teaching notes, letters, cards, documents, photos, bits of equipment. In clearing the room, you find you can open the cupboard you last opened in 2004. In it are more plastic boxes, which are filled with more family history, teaching notes, letters, cards, documents, photos, bits of equipment. The idea is to put the archived material in the shed, having first sourced it from the roof, the room, the bedroom, and indeed the shed. The books which fell on me last night can go on the shelves in the shed; but these must be emptied of the videos due for transfer to DVD “when there is time”; and the plastic boxes must be ruthlessly purged before the videos can be put in them (the sensible plan).

I am surrounded by piles of stuff. I am in stuff so far stepp’d in, returning were as tedious as go o’er, as Macbeth pretty much says when he is up to his eyes in murder. And this stuff, which (so the aim is) should be accessible, has to be moved round the room before the process can get properly under way. At the moment, it feels like there is a flaw in the system, because the stuff is now spreading like a virus, into the bathroom, down the stairs, into the kitchen. I am trying to do seven years spring-cleaning in two days. It is impossible. I know it is impossible. But the hell with it, this is my last chance. (Even now I am cheating, e.g. archiving some family history as ‘unsorted’.)

I need Esslin to come over and comment on the irony. I need Ionesco to come back from the dead and pour scorn on me in that unflappable way of his.

N.F. Simpson, born 1919

N.F. Simpson, born 1919

But still – you know how it is, you consign someone to an early grave, only to find that they are still going – the surrealist Edward Upward only recently died, aged 104, and Leonora Carrington is still with us. And the good news is – so is N.F. Simpson, who lives, it transpires, in Cornwall – very close. He’s working on a new play in London, and had one produced there, which I somehow missed hearing about, in 2007, his first for 30 years. He once wrote a completely overlooked and wonderful novel called (and about a man called) Harry Bleachbaker. The character spends the whole novel failing to drown. I know how he feels.


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