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He Found Meaning in Absurdity

Courtesy Monica Esslin

REAL-LIFE DRAMA: After fleeing Austria, Esslin championed the theater of the absurd.

One April day in 1937, Julius Pereszlenyi decided he had to flee his Vienna home. An 18-year-old student with Jewish roots, he hurried to the passport office to obtain the necessary stamp, just 11 months before Adolf Hitler annexed Austria. Sitting behind the office desk was a former schoolmate. Although suspected Jews were forbidden regular passports, the childhood friend stamped Pereszlenyi’s papers and urged him to get on the next train without looking back. Hours later, Pereszlenyi was on his way to Brussels.

Having survived the real-life drama of World War II, he changed his name to Martin Esslin and devoted his life to the dramatic arts. Esslin became a renowned drama critic and scholar, coining the phrase “theater of the absurd” and introducing modern European drama to the English-speaking world. As a BBC producer, he brought radio drama to the masses, and as a Stanford professor, he inspired many hundreds of students.

Esslin died of Parkinson’s disease on February 24 in London. He was 83.

Born in Budapest in 1918, Esslin grew up immersed in the arts. His father wrote art reviews and regularly took his son to the Vienna theaters and opera house. Young Esslin was fond of puppets and would reenact the works of Shakespeare in his own puppet theater. “Drama was always there,” says his daughter, Monica Esslin of London. “The theater was absolutely a part of the way he lived.”

Before fleeing Austria, Esslin studied English and philosophy at the University of Vienna. He also pursued theatrical direction at the famed Reinhardt Seminar of Dramatic Art. After a year in Brussels, he settled in London and became a British citizen.

In 1939, Esslin found a job producing anti-Nazi broadcasts in German for the BBC monitoring service. He married Renate Gerstenberg in 1947 and became a scriptwriter and producer for the BBC’s European service, covering the Nuremberg trials and Berlin blockade. By 1955, Esslin was head of the BBC’s European productions; eight years later, he took charge of radio drama. In that role, he produced and translated—with the assistance of his wife—hundreds of previously inaccessible European plays, realizing his vision for a “national theater of the air.”

A prolific writer of essays, reviews and books, Esslin authored perhaps the most influential theatrical text of the 1960s, The Theater of the Absurd. Now in its eighth printing, the book gave definition to the previously misunderstood works of absurdist playwrights such as Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. Esslin’s other notable books examined Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud and Harold Pinter.

Esslin retired from the BBC in 1977 and joined the Stanford faculty. “His big class at Stanford was Drama 2, where he would just tell the story of drama without any notes or prepared texts,” drama department administrator Ron Davies, PhD ’86, told Stanford Report.

Though he retired in 1989, the emeritus professor returned to Stanford in recent years to teach in Continuing Studies and lead seminars for high school students. “He had an incredibly open mind and was interested in what young people had to say,” says Monica Esslin. “The 12 years he spent at Stanford were some of the happiest years of his life.”

In addition to his daughter, Esslin is survived by Renate, his wife of 55 years.

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