FREN 265 Theater Workshop:
20th Century Absurdist Comedy - Ionesco,
Beckett, Tardieu

Cours-Atelier de Théâtre: la comédie de la dérision au XXe siècle


TR 3:30-4:45

Office hours: ICC 427 or Reynolds 145
by appointment

A significant amount of information pertaining to this course is sent via e-mail to your <> address: please check your mailbox regularly.

It may be modified over the course of the semester. Always refer to the latest on-line version.

> Last updated on January 10, 2018<





   From the late 16th century, when modern comedy in French was created, and until WWII (1939-45), there existed a consensus on the basic features of the genre: it had a fairly linear plot (a beginning, a middle and an end) with verisimilar (that is, plausible rather than realistic) characters. This model was predicated in the belief that the world and human life made sense. After the horrors of the war, however, a powerful trend emerged towards regarding the world and human existence as absurd, and nowhere was this movement more developed than in France. While its leading proponents were writers/philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, both only produced plays that offered an extremely bleak, humorless vision: the best known, Sartre's Huis Clos (No Exit, 1944) involves three unsavory characters stuck in the same room, discovering that they are in Hell, and that their eternal punishment is having to put up with (and essentially torment) one another.
Within a decade, new playwrights emerged who would dramatize the absurdist view of human existence through comedy; in so doing, they also completely reinvented the genre with a focus on deconstructing conventional dramatic form. Ionesco's La Cantatrice chauve (The Bald Soprano, 1950) substituted to the usual plot a series of scenes imitating dialogues found in a then-popular language learning method. There is no soprano (bald or otherwise) in it. In Beckett's En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot, 1953) two vagrants engage in apparently purposeless banter to kill time, until their alledged benefactor,
Godot, arrives (he never does). Jean Tardieu even wrote an entire series of playlets intended to demonstrate the absurdity of dramatic conventions.
Initially, spectators were often puzzzled, frustrated, sometimes even infuriated when confronted with such plays; but in time, avant-garde writing and performing would become the new norm, and these "scandalous" plays turn into revered classics.
Today we can really only understand plays from this period through performance, by studying the conditions in which they were staged, by seeing them staged or, better yet, by performing them ourselves. Yet performing these plays still poses an interesting challenge since they essentially ignore the logic of plot (a sequence of events that are somewhat connected by rationally determined linked, such as causality) and characterisation based on psychological motivation.

Course goals

   In this course, students take on a part in the rehearsal of scenes from French comedic stage plays of the mid-20th century, with the possibility of performing a whole play on stage (depending on enrolment and other factors). In so doing they not only improve their public speaking skills in French, but they also learn more about Modern French drama, and about comedy as both a literary and performative genre. Studying the plays will provide an opportunity to learn about French history and society in the 20th century.

Course objectives

In this course, students will
• take on and rehearse roles in scenes from various 20th-century French comedies;
• practice their close reading skills;
• learn and practice public speaking techniques and strategies (diction, tempo, breathing, posture);
• learn and practice basic acting techniques, and improve their acting skills if they have already undergone some stage training;

• expand their knowledge of comic drama;
• read other plays of the period in order to become familiar with the features of
mid-20th-century French comedy and melodrama (character types, plot structure, etc.);
• reflect on their rehearsal work and on their learning about mid-20th-century French drama.

Teaching methodology

   This course requires the active participation of students since most of class time is devoted to rehearsing a stage play (we will work on different plays). The teacher will provide constant suggestions and feedback on acting techniques as well as on French diction. At the end of the semester, the class may give a live performance in which everyone will take on a part (length of time on stage may vary).
  Although the nature of the work in this course is essentially performative and collaborative, students need to prepare for class by practicing their lines (on their own or with a partner) and memorizing them.
  The initial phase of the class involves a close reading of the play in order to clarify unknown or obscure vocabulary, but also allusions and references in the text.
  Students will also reflect on the work being done through complementary readings of other
mid-20th-century French comedies, and engage in a continuing conversation using BlackBoard's Discussion Board feature.

Attendance and Punctuality

  Every student is expected to be present for every class and arrive on time (repeated tardiness will be penalized). If an absence is anticipated, the instructor must be notified beforehand by e-mail or by phone (ext. 5852).
   An absence may be "excused" if it was caused by an unforeseen event or accident that made it impossible or extremely difficult for a student to attend class, and which can be documented. If you feel sick enough to miss class, then you should also seek medical attention and obtain a certificate from the health care provider who treated you. If you suffer from a chronic mental or physical condition that occasionally flares up to the point of incapacitating you, you need to be registered with the University health services in order to be granted accommodations.
   A student who was absent (justifiably or not) remains responsible for finding out what was done or assigned during the missed class(es), and for turning in assignments on time. Unjustified absences will result in a reduction of the portion of the final grade allotted to "Presence, Preparedness and Participation."
   You must come to class prepared by having completed assignments as indicated by the instructor, in an appropriate manner (see the "Total Commitment Policy"). Manifest lack of adequate preparation will result in a reduction of the portion of the final grade allotted to "Presence, Preparedness and Participation."


Participants need to have completed (or be completing concurrently) the "Advanced French" sequence in the Georgetown curriculum (101-102 or 111-112 or their equivalent), or be able to demonstrate a level of French speaking and listening proficiency congruent with the course objectives. Contact Dr. Spielmann at if you are not sure that you qualify.

Honor system

     All aspects of this class fall under Georgetown University's honor system. If you are not thoroughly familiar with its provisions, please review them at A point of particular concern is using source material appropriately and avoding plagiarism : "Plagiarism, in any of its forms, and whether intentional or unintentional, violates standards of academic integrity. Plagiarism is the act of passing off as one’s own the ideas or writings of another (…). While different academic disciplines have different modes for attributing credit, all recognize and value the contributions of individuals to the general corpus of knowledge and expertise. Students are responsible for educating themselves as to the proper mode of attributing credit in any course or field. (…) Note that plagiarism can be said to have occurred without any affirmative showing that a student’s use of another’s work was intentional.





  By the end of the semester, all students will have

• rehearsed and performed a part in a French comedy from the mid-20th century;
• done a close reading of play texts and learned a set of strategies for clarifying the meaning of such texts;
• become acquainted with the history of modern comic drama, especially in France;
• become acquainted with a variety of French comedic texts from the period;
• reflected on the nature of "classical" comedy and its alternatives;
• expressed their reflections in writing and in French.


• Presence, Preparedness and Participation: 55%.
• Discussion board messages (at least 500 words per week, in one or several messages): 25%
• Live or taped performance (last week of class): 20%



Dramatic texts to be read, analyzed and performed (printable version available on BlackBoard) Textes dramatiques à lire, à analyser et à jouer
- Eugène Ionesco, La Cantatrice chauve (1950)[excerpts/extraits]
- Samuel Beckett, En attendant Godot (1953) [excerpts/extraits]
- Jean Tardieu,
Oswald et Zénaïde, Il y avait foule au château, Eux seuls le savent

Other dramatic texts to be read and commented upon (on BlackBoard) Autres textes dramatiques à lire et à commenter
- Alfred Jarry, Ubu roi (1896).
- Jacques Audiberti, Le Mal court (1947)
- Eugène Ionesco, Les Chaises (1953)
- Arthur Adamov, Le Ping-Pong (1954)
- Samuel Beckett, Fin de Partie (1957)

Complementary Critical Works
- Martin Esslin, Le Théâtre de l'Absurde, Paris, Buchet-Chastel, 1971.
________. The Theatre of the Absurd. [1961] 3rd ed., Rev. and enl. Harmondsworth (U.K.) and New York, Penguin, in association with Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1980. LAU PN1861 .E8 1980.
- Emmanuel Jacquart, Le Théâtre de dérision, Paris, Gallimard, coll. « Idées », 1974. LAU PQ558 .J3
- Henri Béhar, Le Théâtre dada et surréaliste, Paris, Gallimard, coll. « Littérature », 1968. LAU PQ558 .B4

On line resources/ Ressources en ligne
- Institut National de l'Audiovisuel (INA): Anaïs Bonnier, « Le Théâtre de l'Absurde - Parcours thématique » (Illustré de nombreux extraits vidéo)




   For greater authenticity, we will only use materials originally produced for a French speaking public: Only purely administrative matters (such as this syllabus) will be handled in English. In all other circumstances, including discussion and critique of your work in class or during office hours, French will be used exclusively orally and in writing, by you and by the instructor. You will never be asked (with rare, very precise exceptions) to translate anything, nor are you expected to use translation ever as a means to accomplish your work in this class. NO BILINGUAL DICTIONARIES ARE ALLOWED IN CLASS. Use of a monolingual dictionary is strongly encouraged, however.

Attitude and Behavior

  This is a class held in a university classroom. It is not a meeting of a book club at a local library branch; it is not a game in a stadium or a workout at the gym; it is not a get together at someone's home or a pajama party in your dorm room; it is not a luau at the beach. Please dress and behave accordingly!
- No eating or snacking during class (drinking is OK)
- Cell phones, smartphones and other mobile communication devices unrelated to class work must me turned off and stored away in a pocket or a bag (except for emergency situations, with prior notification to the instructor)
- No wearing of gym shorts, flip flops, exercise/sport gear, pajamas, lounge wear, grass skirts, etc.
- No chit-chat unrelated to class matters, please!
- Use of computers and tablets is class is strictly limited to working on relevant tasks matters. Anyone caught using a computer/tablet in class for anything else (checking e-mail, Facebook status, stock prices, playing games) will be issued a warning the first time, and, the second time, banned from using the device in class altogether for the rest of the term

Preparation and Participation
   You must prepare for class by going over assigned material, and by formulating questions, remarks and comments for class discussion. Each hour spent in class should be matched by about 45 minutes of preparation before class, and another 45 minutes of follow-up work afterwards. Every evening, review what was done in class that day to verify that you understand it; if necessary, use books and on-line resources for clarification. Bring up unresolved items in class, or discuss them with your instructor during office hours.
  Each and every student is expected to participate in every class, not only by responding to prompts and questions by the instructor (or to other students' comments), but also by volunteering comments and questions without being prompted (see also the "Total Commitment Policy").

  Deadlines indicate the absolute last day and time when assignments should be turned in. The cut-off time is the end of class on the day of the deadline, whether you bring in a hard copy of the work, e-mail it to me or post it on a discussion board. It is not advisable to start working on an assignment on the day it is due. Give yourself enough time to allow for unforeseen delays or problems (printer running out of ink, e-mail bugs, network access down, etc), which cannot be used as excuses for not meeting a deadline. Acceptable excuses are acts of God, system-wide server outages and documented medical emergencies.

No Class on Thursday, Feb. 15
No Class on Thursday, April. 19
Taping of final performance on Tursday, April 26 (last day of class).