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Obituaries

Martin Esslin, 83; Drama Critic and BBC Producer

June 06, 2002|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Martin Esslin, a theater critic and radio producer who coined the phrase "theater of the absurd," has died. He was 83.

Esslin died Feb. 24 in London. He had suffered from Parkinson's disease.

Esslin was best known for his book "The Theatre of the Absurd," first published in 1961, which examined the work of a group of playwrights--Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov and Eugene Ionesco--and younger talents such as Harold Pinter and Edward Albee.

In his book, Esslin quoted Ionesco's definition of "absurd"--"that which is devoid of purpose.... Cut off from his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots, man is lost; his actions become senseless, absurd, useless."

These writers illustrated this condition by forsaking "rational devices and discursive thoughts" in their plays, Esslin said. The book became a frequently read text in college courses, and the titular phrase has been adapted to many other contexts since 1961. By the time he wrote his preface to the book's second edition, Esslin noted that the writers he described did not make up "an organized movement" and that "theater of the absurd" was only "a working hypothesis."

Two other achievements of Esslin's were perhaps as influential as his most famous book: his work as a BBC producer and as an advocate of the plays of Bertolt Brecht.

Esslin worked for the BBC from 1940 to 1977, serving as head of radio drama from 1963 to 1977. He was instrumental in commissioning radio plays by young writers even before they achieved stage success, said Charles Marowitz, a Los Angeles-based stage director and critic who lived and worked in England from 1956 to 1980. Esslin "was a great advocate of the new writing of that time, and one of the few who understood the European background of the theater and brought it into British theater. He brought a gravity to the BBC that it never had before."

Among the European writers Esslin championed was Brecht. "Every time I spoke to him, it was about Brecht," Marowitz recalled. "Even after the Soviet Union dissolved and people were saying [the Marxist] Brecht was old hat, he said that the best of the Brecht plays were great poems for the theater, not necessarily propaganda."

Esslin wrote "Brecht: The Man and His Work" in 1960 and "Bertolt Brecht" in 1969.

He also wrote books, published in 1967 and 1970, about Harold Pinter, one of the writers whose work he commissioned for the BBC, and two books on the French director and theorist Antonin Artaud.

Esslin's roots were in central Europe. He was born Julius Pereszlenyi in Budapest and studied English and philosophy at the University of Vienna and theatrical direction at Vienna's Reinhardt Seminar of Dramatic Art. When the Nazis invaded Austria, the young scholar fled to Brussels and, after another year, to England, where he found work with the BBC. He became a naturalized British citizen and changed his name to Martin Julius Esslin.

Esslin taught theater at Florida State University from 1969 to 1976 and theater, German studies and comparative literature at Stanford University for two quarters each year, from 1977 through 1989.

In his 1987 book "The Field of Drama," Esslin wrote about drama in movies and television as well as theater. He told an audience at a seminar at UC San Diego in 1990 that culture "is never fixed. It is changing from second to second."

Esslin married Renate Gerstenberg in 1947. In addition to Gerstenberg, he is survived by a daughter, Monica Esslin of London.

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