There is a colloquial definition of insanity that goes “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. One could say that Absurdism is theatre’s answer to that phrase. The Theatre of the Absurd began in France, partially in response to the horrors of WWII, and as a way to rationalize a world that ignored the rumors about those horrors for the majority of the war. Philosopher (and playwright) Albert Camus wrote about the essential absurdity of the human situation in essays like “The Myth of Sisyphus” (Camus, 1942). His views on the absurdity of life were shared by his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre (also a playwright), who said that human beings are “condemned to be free”, meaning that they had to choose their own morals to live by, and that conformity to a third party’s morals (state, church, etc) was inherently immoral. Both philosophers believed that we must each examine our situation and make decisions that allow us to act meaningfully in our lives. These ideas, especially Camus’, inspired playwrights such as Ionesco, Genet, Pinter, and most notably Beckett. Theatre of the Absurd takes these ideas and tries to embody the meaning through cyclical action and routine, with no true resolution, and strange situations that are treated in the most banal ways. It rejected the traditional theatre form of action, climax, and resolution. It confounded critics at first as it flouted convention, but gained popularity because of plays like Waiting for Godot, Rhinoceros, No Exit, and Happy Days.
The Returning is an almost/not quite absurdist drama about dying...but not dying. It follows a family of 3: Mother, Father, and Gustav, but Gustav keeps dying. Mother and father have funerals for him, mourn him, and then he comes knocking back at their door. Each time they go through this cycle it becomes shorter and shorter. It is an incredibly absurd situation that the characters normalize. They never question why Gustav comes back, or how; they simply welcome him and move on. Gustav also falls easily back into his routines after each return, with little to no adjustment from before his death to his new life. It can be perceived as a sort of broken metaphor for mourning: we reject the trauma, we accept it and move on, we reject it, then we accept it and move on. We do that until it just becomes part of our daily routines, our lives. The metaphor is broken however, when that mourning cycle repeats with each of Gustav’s returns, ultimately desensitizing the Mother and Father, and the audience to his death.