The Absurd in its theatrical sense has had a long and complicated history. We will not know, perhaps, whether it has come to an end. It may still linger on into the coming age of common sense and world-wide liberal democracies.

On April 23/24 at the Young Vic, the International Association of Theatre Critics will be debating this subject. Even then, to be honest, the pronouncement may not be definitive. Even if the assembled multitudes of critics, actors and directors give a unanimous thumbs-down to the Absurd, it is quite possible that certain heretical sects will linger on being as absurd as they like, without showing that deference to authority that form and good manners expect.

The subject is nonetheless worth discussing, and at this time, when much has happened to cast the old uncertainties into doubt and while this conference may not seem to have the life-and-death appeal of anAIDS seminar or one on Third World debts, it may still influence habits of mind which could lead to decisions which have weighty consequences. Only someone like Mrs. Thatcher can afford to be so dismissive of other people's cultural backgrounds. The rest of us have to live in the real world, and the controversy over the Absurd has moulded several generations of believers and disbelievers.

The French-Algerian writer, Albert Camus, first brought the word ‘Absurd’ in its modern theatrical sense into use in the West, where it was picked up by, among others, Martin Esslin, who incorporated it into the title of his book, The Theatre of the Absurd (1961). This was influential throughout the 1960s and still is today. But Camus and Esslin were writing within different contexts. Camus was a member of tire French Resistance during the war, during which he wrote The Outsider and The Myth of Sisyphus, which were published in English in 1946 and 1955.

The war background lent an immediacy to his philosophical speculations which were, in themselves, far from new. Camus began by puzzling over the question as to whether or not we could believe in a benevolent God, who could nevertheless tolerate the uffering of innocents. He was drawn into the conclusion that there could be no such God and that therefore the world was for all human purposes without meaning or order, hence Absurd.

The question then arose as to how man should conduct himself in an Absurd world. Was he or she free to do anything, to behave as he liked or could get away with 7 His play Caligula is the portrait of an absolute ruler who tests the limits of his free will.

Hovering in the background, or rather in the foreground but in Paris, was Jean-Paul Sartre, who accepted the view that the universe was Absurd, but concluded from this that the individual person had to decide the rights and wrongs of his or her behaviour, and by that means determine what sort of person he or she should become. ‘Existence precedes essence’, the first assumption of existentialism.

Of course, as Camus would have been the first to admit, the question as to whether the universe contains within it a moral order or not, is one which is impossible to answer. There may be such an order but one imperceptible to man; and from a human point of view, the difference between a universe without order and one with an order which we cannot see or understand may seem to be negligible.

You can perhaps pretend there is an order, which is how humanists might describe Christian faith, but in that case you can never be sure that you have pretended the right order. Different religions have different systems and priorities, and it is largely a matter of social upbringing as to which moral order one perceives in the universe.

Dean Inge once defined faith as ‘reason acting beyond the boundaries of proved certainty’. Camus in wartime might well have retorted that faith was the vain hope that someone, somewhere, might be able to impose reason on chaos.

But the Second World War was not the only, or even the dominant, context within which this debate took place. The scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century were so illuminating that by the 1880s scientists were confidently predicting that in time they would be able to discover and control the secrets of the universe. It was the overweening pride from which the twentieth century suffered its downfall.

Not least among the scientific pretensions was the belief that evolution itself could be controlled, including the evolution of man. There were two leading theories as to how this could be done. One involved selective breeding or genetic engineering, which provided some intellectual justification in the 1930s for master races and the elimination of those who were not destined to be masters and could corrupt the stock.

The other concerned the control of the environment, particularly the social environment. Behind Marxism, lay not just a random Utopian theory but a programme for the betterment of mankind. This rested on the belief that human evolution could itself be controlled and more rapidly developed.

Confronted by the twin evils of Nazism and Stalin, Camus came to the conclusion that the belief in a universal order that man could comprehend through science or grasp through religious faith was a folly in itself; but not to believe in such an order posed its own problems. The horrors of the Second World War and its aftermath brought such speculations about the Absurd to a high pitch. Camus was taking part in a protracted European debate which had run on for nearly a century. In Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883), Nietzsche had pronounced God dead, leaving man in charge of the world as we didn't then know it.

The churches opposed such outright atheism, but by the end of the nineteenth century they were prepared to come to terms with scientism. The battles with Darwin and Russell over evolution had left scars, but the scientific discoveries seemed to prove what religion had always argued. The universe did have an order, and if so, there had to be an ordering principle.

God to these newly enlightened clergy was the great watchmaker. But many philosophers, and with them many atheists were not so easily satisfied. The fact that patterns were, or seemed to be, discernible in the world did not necessarily mean that these patterns had a purpose. You can have patterns without order or an ordering principle.

You can observe the processes of change within the animal kingdom without leaping to the conclusion that the survival of the fittest necessarily means the elimination of the bad and the furthering of the good. The evolution of the species might not coincide with progress.

By the 1890s, artists were prepared to confront what they regarded as the facile optimism of science. In Paris, that cheeky schoolboy, Alfred Jarry, was inventing the mock science of Pataphysics and writing plays such as Ubu Roi, where world domination is achieved by a pear-shaped megalomaniac in a pin-striped suit, who keeps his conscience in a briefcase.

Tristan Tzara in Zurich in 1916 responded to the destruction of Europe in the First World War by questioning the organising principles on which his civilization had been based. It was not just a childish game to cut up a Shakespearian sonnet into individual words, putting them afterwards into a hat and withdrawing them at random. The chance associations of Dadaism often seemed to make more sense than the politics of imperial madness.

Whatever the Dadaists may have proved or illustrated, they demonstrated the persistent human wish to make sense of the nonsensical. But they achieved more than this for, altogether elsewhere in Vienna, Freud was offering his theories about the significance of dreams,as a guide to the workings of the unconscious mind. TheDadaists, who specialised in the random, found themselves in fashion. Their non-sequiturs were taken seriously, as illustrations of how the unconscious mind operates.

Hence, Dadaism became surrealism, and surrealism became the common language of the visual arts, poetry and the theatre of the Absurd. Martin Esslin, writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s, extended the meaning of the word Absurd to cover all those anti-science manifestations, from Jarry to Antonio Artaud, the half-mad theorist (though nobody would say which half) of the Theatre of Cruelty..

Samuel Beckett was included, as was Franz Kafka, Harold Pinter and Eugene lonesco, the Romanian-French dramatist. But so were the Absurdists from the past, Lewis Carroll, the Goon Show, Jean Genet and Arthur Adamov, writers who from a distance must seem as remote from one another as can be devised.

The topics of the sessions reveal the scope of the conference — 'Is God a watchmaker', 'Is anarchy be:ter than socialism7’, 'Is nonsense the death of wit’, ’Is logic a male conspiracy?’, ’Are Nightmares better forgotten†’, 'Is madness a higher form of sanity?’. And it ends with the ominous matter of 'Black Holes’, those gaps in the universe where God the Watchmaker left a silence and an absence.

We do not know how this full weekend may end. Who knows? In one sense, perhaps, the conference will end with a ‘Yes’. The targets of the old Absurdists — the over-mechanistic interpretation of science and over-devout Christians — no longer have such a tyrannical hold over our European societies. A conference resolution to the effect that there is much that we still do not know would unite the scientists, theologians, politicians, psychiatrists and the artists. No longer are dreams held to offer a hotline to the unconscious, no longer do Marxists talk about utopia, no longer do priests insist in total obedience, no longer are the battles for sexual freedom worth fighting. No longer are the Absurdists in Europe fighting humbug, hypocrisy and the kind of false optimism which leads straight to the prison camps and gas chambers.

The age of agnostics and liberal democrats has dawned. We are not so self-confident that we can even risk seeming Absurd. All we know is how little we know.

Uncertainty, however, is a harsh taskmaster. In Britain, there is a baleful return to Victorian values, as significant in its own way as glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union. There is an attempt to bring back the old truisms. John Selwyn Gummer lectures the Anglican church for failing to provide a strong enough lead (where?) and for taking the side of permissiveness. The born-again Christians in the States are making a bid for the White House. The scientists still make bold theoretical claims, although their discoveries are even more frightening than their dreams.

The Absurdists may yet have a role to play, protesting their agnosticism, while there are still Cold War masterminds lining up for a new Armeggedon.

February 1990