Esslin, Martin, 1918-2002.


from Stanford News Service
from Guardian Unlimited  (see below)


John Sanford, Stanford News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail:

Martin Esslin, drama professor and theater critic, dead at 83

Martin Esslin, a professor emeritus of drama who raised the profile of modern European theater in Britain and the United States through his writing and work as a BBC producer, died Feb. 24 in London after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 83.

"Martin was encyclopedic in his knowledge of theater and intellectual history," said Rush Rehm, an associate professor of drama and classics who brought Esslin back to campus for several days last summer.

"There were hardly any theatrical writers of the '50s, '60s and '70s who were not more or less a friend of Martin's," said drama Professor Carl Weber, who first met Esslin in 1963.

An internationally renowned critic and scholar, Esslin probably is best recognized in the United States for his book The Theatre of the Absurd, which coined the phrase that came to define the work of such playwrights as Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. Working for BBC Radio, Esslin also produced many of their works for the airwaves, as well as the work of other major dramatists. He also had a powerful influence on then up-and-coming playwrights Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter, whose work he championed early in their careers.

Born Julius Pereszlenyi on June 6, 1918, in Budapest at the sunset of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Esslin attended the University of Vienna, where he studied philosophy and English. He then studied theatrical direction at Vienna's famed Reinhardt Seminar of Dramatic Art. His studies were cut short, however, by the Nazi occupation of Austria. He fled to Brussels and, a year later, to England.

Shortly after arriving he found work with the BBC Monitoring Service, soon assuming the post of program assistant and producer for the German Service in London. During this time he was naturalized as a British citizen and changed his name to Martin Julius Esslin. In 1947, he married Renate Gerstenberg.

After the war, Esslin worked as a scriptwriter and producer for the broadcasting corporation's European Service, for which he covered the Nuremberg Trials and Berlin blockade. In 1955 he was promoted to assistant head of European productions.

But Esslin made his most significant contributions to the BBC in the early 1960s, as assistant head and then head of radio drama. He quickly set about bringing to life his vision of a "national theater of the air," and the three BBC networks of the time produced hundreds of plays, many by European writers whose works, translated into English by Esslin or under his direction, were made accessible to British audiences for the first time.

Meanwhile, he wrote his first book, Brecht: A Choice of Evils (1959), which examined the man as poet, dramatist and communist ideologue. But it was his next book, The Theatre of the Absurd (1961), that assured his place in the pantheon of theater critics. (The book recently went into its eighth edition.)

Among his other noted books are The Anatomy of Drama (1965), The Peopled Wound: The Work of Harold Pinter (1970), Artaud (1976) and The Age of Television (1981). He also was a prolific writer of essays, articles and reviews, some of which have been published as collections.

But what is most remarkable about his voluminous output was its accessibility to the average reader. "He wasn't into jargon," Rehm explained.

William Eddelman, an associate professor of design and theater history, agreed. "He wrote well and in a very fluid way," Eddelman said.

Esslin had the same kind ability in presenting the unusual work of the absurdist playwrights. "He could popularize the more esoteric and make it understandably real," Eddelman said.

Esslin retired from the BBC in 1977 after 38 years of service and joined the Stanford faculty as a professor of drama that same year. Through 1989 he was on campus two quarters of every academic year. Former students say his teaching was inspired.

"He was very open and helpful to students," said Ron Davies, the Drama Department administrator who earned his doctorate in drama here in 1986. "His big class at Stanford was Drama 2, which was held in the Little Theater, now Pigott Theater. It was a 10 a.m. class, and he would just tell the story of drama, without any notes or prepared texts. He would just launch in. He had a wonderful way of retelling the plot of a play, distilling the action and what was interesting or unusual about it."

Esslin also taught and advised students in German studies and comparative literature. Those who knew him tend to comment on his erudition in the first few minutes of the conversation, but the depth and breadth of his knowledge never translated into aloofness.

"He was an incredibly friendly person and always ready and willing to help," Weber said. "He was very open to all kinds of arguments ­ never narrow in his opinions and views of people. He was constantly evolving."

Eddelman recalled that Esslin had "one of those minds that remembered everything."

"You had a personal contact with the past through Martin," he continued. "He was this incredible repository of information."

Esslin also remained a bundle of energy. When he came to Stanford in July to talk at a Continuing Studies symposium titled "Fool's Gold ­ Ionesco and the Theater of the Absurd," he hit the ground running, according to Rehm. "He arrives, gets a night's rest, then teaches, like, a three-hour class with me, then goes to the theater, then goes to the seminar ­ I could barely keep up with him," Rehm said. "We'll never see the likes of him again."

Esslin is survived by his wife and a daughter, Monica Esslin of London, England. A celebration of Esslin's life is scheduled for 3 p.m. March 15 in Pigott Theater. A reception will follow.

Martin Esslin

Illuminating writer and radio drama producer

John Calder
Wednesday February 27, 2002
The Guardian

Martin Esslin, who has died aged 83, was a scholar and a man of action, whose wide knowledge of European literature and culture served him well during his two main careers: as a BBC producer and as a professor of drama in the United States.
His long-term importance, however, must lie principally in his analytical writing on the theatre. In an age of increasing specialisation, he had a refreshing breadth of vision, while his penetrating mind could quickly comprehend when something new and important was happening in the arts. He could explain the complex in a straightforward and lucid manner, and his judgments were invaluable. His book The Theatre Of The Absurd was the most influential theatrical text of the 1960s.

Esslin was of Hungarian origin, born and educated in Vienna, and influenced by Max Reinhardt's famous 1928 seminar in Vienna on dramatic art, where the great actor and director passed on his knowledge and techniques. He left Vienna for Britain because of the Anschluss, and got a job at the BBC, where, by 1940, he had become a producer and scriptwriter.

He worked for the European Service from 1941 to 1955, broadcasting during and after the war to Germany, and eventually became head of the European production department. His knowledge of European theatre led to the translation of many works into English, and, where the BBC had led the way, many theatre productions followed, often using the same versions that Esslin had made or commissioned.

For a large circle of European intellectual refugees from Nazism in London, the BBC became the principal means of support. Esslin knew virtually everyone in that group, and, in his quiet and efficient way, gave work and opportunities to many of them.

In 1951, he collaborated with Berthold Goldschmidt, who, in the 1920s, had been a rising German composer, on an opera, in English, based on Shelley's The Cenci. The work was planned for the Festival of Britain, although it was not staged until a Ger man production in 1994.

In 1961, Esslin became assistant head of radio drama under Barbara Bray, and, when she moved to Paris in 1963, he replaced her, retaining that post until 1977, when he moved for part of each year to the US.

During his time at the BBC, Esslin produced a stream of articles, essays and books, which earned him a reputation as one of the best literary journalists and critics. He advised Arts Council panels and repertory and experimental theatres, helped writers to obtain bursaries and performances, and produced a number of volumes on leading figures of the day, including the influential Brecht, A Choice Of Evils (1959), which coincided with the rising interest in that seminal figure.

The book that was to change his life was The Theatre Of The Absurd (1962). The title became the catch-phrase that delineated one of the new streams of theatrical writing that emerged in the early 1950s, the other being the British "angry" drama. The eclectic Esslin was interested in both, but it is for making sense of the absurdists that he is remembered.

"Absurdist drama" covered a wide range of plays, from Beckett to Arthur Adamov, from Pinter and John Arden to Ionesco. The last, perhaps, most deserved the portmanteau term "absurd", but Esslin used it to cover a whole range of 20th-century drama, from Genet and Arrabal to Buzzati, Frisch, Grass, Albee, Gelber and Kopit.

The book rapidly became a text book in universities, and led to lecture invitations, especially on the lucrative American circuit. Jewish by origin but in no way religious, Esslin liked to relate how the chairwoman of a Catholic society to whom he talked in a small American town told him, "You're just the kind of man we need in the church."

Esslin's writings and lectures led to his appointment as professor of theatre at Florida state university (1969-76), after which a special chair was created for him at Stanford, where he became professor of drama (1977-88). He never really retired on returning to Britain, continuing to take an active part in the theatre as writer, translator, reviewer and adviser.

Among his other books, between 1965 and 1988, are Pinter: The Playwright; An Anatomy Of Drama; Artaud; Mediations - Essays On Brecht, Beckett And The Media; The Age Of Televison; and The Field Of Drama. There were also the less well-known, but equally interesting, The Genius Of The German Theatre (1968) and The War Theatre Of Europe (1970). The writers he translated include Ödön von Horwath, Wedekind and Wolfgang Bauer.

In 1947, Esslin married Renate Gerstenberg, who collaborated with him on many translations and, indeed, was entirely responsible for some that appeared under his (well- known) name - for the sake of better sales.

A genial, friendly and self-confident intellectual, he was generous with his time and knowledge, an excellent conversationalist and a popular member of the Garrick Club. Like many eastern Europeans, he was politically on the intellectual right, but never allowed his anti-socialist views, which did him no harm at American universities, to cloud his judgment very far.

Among various honours and distinctions he received were the title of professor from the Austrian government, and the OBE in 1972. He is survived by Renate and their daughter, Monica.

Martin Julius Esslin (Pereszlenyi), writer, academic and radio drama producer, born June 8 1918; died February 24 2002.


Field of Drama  (Routledge, 1987)

Theatre of the Absurd—a term coined by drama critic, historian and theorist Martin Esslin to describe the anti-realistic post-War drama of such playwrights as Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet. Though each was fiercely independent and distinct in his approach, the work of these and other playwrights, including Americans like Arthur Kopit and Edward Albee, share a certain outlook on life. Esslin contends that the essence of absurdist philosophy was outlined by French writer and philosopher Albert Camus, who proposed that we see a paradigm for human life in the myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods “to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the rock would roll back of its own weight.” Sisyphus, “the absurd hero,” is condemned to strain with all his might to accomplish his task, over and over—futile and utterly meaningless labor. The best he can hope for is that rare experience of a consciousness of the absurdity of his plight. At such moments of intellectual clarity, Sisyphus “is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.” In fact, we and Sisyphus may rise even to tragic stature when we are fully conscious of our absurd condition. (See “A Modern Dummies Guide to Existentialist Theory in Godot”) for more on this subject.