The absurdist theatrical nature of the non-profit workplace

Have you ever seen a production in the genre of the “Theater of the Absurd”? Plays within this particular theatrical universe are absurd in that they focus, not on logic, realistic events, character development, or traditional storytelling, rather on a world where anything goes, no matter how illogical, supposedly to illustrate some esoteric social point.  Over a decade ago, I was out on a double date watching the play “Rhinoceros” by Eugene Ionesco in Berkeley, California –a town that has the distinction of being a large scale theater of the absurd in reality.   When I first agreed to attend that play, I thought “ Theater of the Absurd” meant a play with numerous French-style pratfalls (since I tend to not really get the French sense of humor), but in the interest of expanding my horizons I was willing to try it.  What I encountered was way beyond the absurdity of silly physical humor or even just a plain old bad play.  Theater of the Absurd turned out to be an absurd way to spend two hours.  Not absurd.  Just plain stupid.  The dialogue was nonsensical, with no real connection between sentences, and the interjection of random fantastical elements that did nothing to further anyone’s understanding of anything, except the overwhelming desire to make the dialogue stop and to poke one’s own eyeballs out.  As I sat there I longed for a drama that more closely mirrored real-life.  I like escapism, but theater of the absurd felt stifling instead.  I can appreciate the avant garde in art, but it was so entirely incomprehensible that I felt my head would explode.   Maybe it made more sense in the original Czechoslovakian.   Somehow I doubt it.

The experience of Rhinoceros is somewhat similar to a joke that the comedian Lewis Black told (back in Berkeley at the same time as the Rhinoceros Production). In his joke, he noted that he now knew what a brain aneurysm must feel like and what brings it on: extreme stupidity. He specifically, noted (as part of his joke) that he was walking down the street when he overheard a snippet of a conversation in which a young woman said “If it weren’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college.”  Huh? That sentence is so absurd that it makes one’s head want to erupt. The phrase “If it weren’t for my horse”  has become one of those cool parts of pop culture. This phrase is used for anything that is so dumb, it defies any rational reasoning.  You can catch the comedy skit here: Little did I know that Ionesco and Lewis Black were on to something that represented the reality of the workplace.

First, let me explain the Rhinoceros play to you. In Rhinoceros, the protagonist (Berenger) watches his friends turning into rhinoceroses one by one until he alone remains unchanged against this mass movement. A he stands alone in his human form, he begins to doubt his existence. He begins to doubt so much that he tries, but fails, to turn into a rhinoceros. He then snaps out of his self-doubt and renews his vow to take on the rhinos. The protagonist shouts “I’m not capitulating!”  This statement of personal conviction has become my own workplace rallying call.

Let me explain. I have seen this very type of “rhinocerizing” scene in the workplace.  Some staff start off eager, motivated and earnest (well, as earnest as a 25 year old can be—which is actually pretty earnest, although relatively unskilled in the grand scheme of things – What’s the saying about the “road to Hell being paved with good intentions?). They put in their time, put in good work and take a sensible approach. Then, they get promoted and become part of the absurdist management realm where one can basically state that they “drank the Kool Aid”. What do I mean? Some individuals when they start to move up on the workplace ladder, in particular the non-profit ladder, as titles have more meaning in that realm since they are rarely as well financially compensated as the corporate world, believe that they are now better than the staff they left behind. And, that sense of feeling better is not so much based on salary, as there is actually not a marked increase and at times they still may be making less money than the others they left behind on the team. Instead, they base that sense of being better on the fact that they now have access to higher management people by carrying said individual’s bags and standing around waiting to be talked to.   A sense of logic and reasonableness has escaped. It’s interesting that some would think that having access to upper management is a step up when much of the dialogue in realm of upper management (just like in absurdist theater  consists of evasiveness and the inability to make a connection.  Unless, of course, you consider carrying someone’s briefcase the ability to make a connection.

But that is just one example of the workplace’s theater of the absurd. Have you ever seen an individual come to the workplace dressed in a Nazi uniform while singing “remember the Alamo” right before a meeting with a Mexican delegation?   Or how about this? Have you ever seen a paralegal running her own law office (though she repeatedly failed the bar exam) out of a government office because everyone was too afraid to reprimand her? Or have you ever seen an employee with so much free time on their hands that they photocopied a romance novel for an entire day while you slaved away and barely had time to eat?   I have also borne witness to an upper level management individual have to refer to her close friend and work colleague as “Dr.” whenever she addressed her colleague.   You really think she is your friend? That may explain the attitude towards the other employees.

Typically, when angry, a rhinoceros will use gestures instead of sounds including wiping its horns on the ground, urinating, rearing its head, and then going on to locking horns with the enemy rhino.  Have you ever seen a colleague take out a sewing kit in the middle of you explaining a financial report? I did, and I felt like my head would explode. Have you ever had an employee that dropped their keys in the middle of the desk and walked out for lunch and never came back.   If so, that is not so absurd. It’s happened. There was a company in California (Berkeley again) that had many employees start at 9am and by noon they decided it was for the best to quit and just walked on out for lunch to never return or be remembered. The theater of the absurd happens when said employee gets a severance package. Yes, that indeed has happened. It is akin to Milton Waddams, in the movie Office Space having been laid off years earlier, though he was never informed and, due to a payroll computer glitch, continues to receive regular paychecks

I have my own “if it weren’t for my horse” sentence. I was rushing from my office to the restroom, before anyone stopped me since I am often blocked from going to or am followed when going to the restroom.  As I ran to the restroom, I overheard an employee say “my Bahamian servants made the blondies.”  I ran into the restroom, sprayed water on my face and wondered “what am I doing here and am I becoming a rhino?”

The next week, after being subjected to numerous workplace indignities such as being force-fed by a feeding machine and an accelerating assembly line where he screws nuts at an ever-increasing rate onto pieces of machinery, a man suffers a nervous breakdown throwing the factory into chaos.  Does this sound familiar? Has such a physical or mental breakdown similarly happened in your workplace?  Is a sense of chaos pervasive and endemic in your workplace?  Well, while this scenario seems to be right out of a modern absurdist workplace, it is actually the opening scene of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 silent film “Modern Times.”  After countless attempts to be arrested and live a better life in jail, the protagonist escapes with his girl to parts unknown, to probably live off the grid. As one of the factory workers notes at the end “Buck up – never say die. We’ll get along”.

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