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Stanford Report, March 6, 2002

Martin Esslin, drama professor and theater critic, dies


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