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Theatre of the Absurd

Developed in Paris during the 1950s, the Theatre of the Absurd is a type of play that depicts the human condition and the world we live in as being unclear, irrational and, of course, absurd. It is based on the existential philosophy that life is essentially purposeless. The term Theatre of the Absurd was not attached to the movement until 1962 when Martin Esslin, published a book about the theatrical style and used the term as the title of his work. Esslin took the phrase from existentialist Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus. The Theatre of the Absurd was popular through the mid-1960s, primarily in Europe and North America, before it declined, giving way to a more avant-garde style of playwriting.

Theatre of the Absurd plays tend to have sparse plotlines which are nonsensical, repetitive and cyclical.  The circumstances are illogical and the dialog is confusing, seemingly meaningless and disjointed. The design of the show is typically distorted and ambiguous.  Theatre of the Absurd plays generally are tragicomedies,
which have serious themes interspersed with great humor.

American playwrights associated with the Theatre of the Absurd include Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, Jack Gelber and John Guare.

Edward Albee

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1962, 248 pp.

This typescript copy of the play is inscribed by Albee to collector Robert A. Wilson.


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? New York: Atheneum, 1962.

Inscribed by the author to Wilson.

Ballad of the Sad Café, 1963, 137 pp.

This typescript copy of Albee’s dramatic adaptation of Carson McCuller’s novella is inscribed by the author to Wilson and is heavily annotated with multiple interleaved revisions, stage directions, and other notes by director Alan Schneider. The typescript is signed by cast member Colleen Dewhurst.

A Delicate Balance. New York: Atheneum, 1966.

Inscribed by the author to Wilson.

A Delicate Balance, 1966, 178 p.

Typescript copy with revisions and autograph corrections in an unknown hand. Inscribed by Albee to Wilson, and signed by original cast members Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn.

Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, 1968, 61 pp.

This typescript copy of the two plays is inscribed by Albee, "This copy is a first draft of these 2 interrelated | plays. The final version will have a greater | fragmentation and contrapuntalization of the | present material. | Donated to the library auction for peace | April 23, 1968. | Edward Albee | April 19, 1968. | NYC."

Three Tall Women. [New York]: Dutton, [1995].

Sam Shepard

Chicago: Icarus’s Mother: Red Cross: Fourteen Hundred Thousand: Melodrama Play. New York: Urizen Books, [1981].

Five Plays. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, [1967].

This collection of early plays is Shepard’s rare first published book.

Buried Child & Seduced & Suicide in B Flat. New York: Urizen Books, [1979].

Sam Shepard: Mad Dog Blues & Other Plays. Introduction by Michael McClure. New York, Winter House, [1972].

La Turista: a Play in Two Acts. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, [1968].

La Turista was first performed in New York in 1967 and represent’s Shepard’s first full-length play.

Seven Plays. New York: Bantam, 1981.

This collection brings together Shepard’s best-known plays to date, including the acclaimed True West and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child.

Curse of the Starving Class. Signed Contract.

Angel City & Other Plays. New York: Urizen Books, [1976]. Introduction by Jack Gelber.

Includes Angel City, Curse of the Starving Class, Killer’s Head, Action, The Mad Dog Blues, Cowboy Mouth, The Rock Garden, and Cowboys 2.

A Lie of the Mind. San Francisco: Arion Press, 1993. Illustrated by Stan Washburn.

This illustrated edition of one of Shepard’s best-known plays was limited to 300 copies signed by the author and illustrator. First performed Off-Broadway in 1985, A Lie of the Mind won several important awards, including the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play.

John Guare

The House of Blue Leaves: a Play. New York: Viking Press, 1972.

Six Degrees of Separation: a Play. New York: Random House, [1990].

Jack Gelber

The Cuban Thing: a Play in Two Acts. New York: Grove Press, [1968].

Sleep: a Play. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

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