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Analysis of Eugene Ionesco’s Plays

Although Eugène Ionesco’s (26 November 1909 – 28 March 1994) dramatic art is often traced to such precursors as the plays of Alfred Jarry and Antonin Artaud, it is essentially sui generis, springing primarily from nightmarish visions deeply rooted in the author’s own mind and experience. In fact, two of his later plays, A Hell of a Mess and Man with Bags, can be traced directly to nightmares recorded in his autobiographical writings of the mid-1960’s.

As a boy, Ionesco recalled, he frequently attended puppet shows mounted for children in the Jardin de Luxembourg; during the years since, he remained haunted by the reverse relationship of human beings to marionettes, seeing his fellow mortals as puppets pulled by forces unseen and unexplained, prone to violence either as perpetrator or as victim. Puppetry must thus be seen as one of the strongest verifiable influences on Ionesco’s theater, as on modern drama in general. Indeed, the grotesquely “flat” characters of The Bald Soprano, although immediately drawn from names assigned at random to dialogue in a language textbook, can readily be traced to a deeper, more fecund source in the tradition of the Punch and Judy show.

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Critic Martin Esslin hailed Ionesco’s theater as a far more effective illustration of Albert Camus’s concept of the absurd than Camus himself had ever written for the stage. Forsaking the convenience of rational expression still relied on by Camus, Jean Anouilh, and even Jean-Paul Sartre, Ionesco—in Esslin’s view—presents on the stage the absurd in its purest form, more true to life (if less “realistic”) by the mere fact of its apparent gratuity. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more effective illustration of dehumanizing habit than is to be found among Ionesco’s peculiarly automated characters, whose aspirations (if any) have long since been separated from their lives. When death threatens (as it often does in the later plays), Ionesco’s habit-conditioned characters will often proceed as lambs to the slaughter in a manner even more credible than the “philosophical suicide” described by Camus in Le Mythe de Sispyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955) as a characteristic human response to the absurd.

Ionesco’s memories of puppetry may also account for the strong visual element in his plays, more dependent on gesture and blocking than on the stage set itself, which may range from elaborate to nonexistent. (The most elaborate of Ionesco’s stage sets are those that call for enormous quantities of objects, be they household furnishings or eggs, implying that humans are being crowded off the earth by the commodities used for their need or pleasure.) As noted, the spoken text itself is, as a rule, the least significant element of Ionesco’s dramaturgy, literally “upstaged” by the posturing and placement of its characters.

Dramatically, Ionesco’s most effective use of language occurs in its deformation, with “normal” speech replaced either by incongruous banalities or by equally nonsensical monosyllables. Even so, it is possible to imagine certain of Ionesco’s plays performed as pure pantomime; Exit the King, for example, was originally written in the form of a ballet. Certain critics, moreover, detected in Ionesco’s dramaturgy a strong cinematic influence, primarily from silent films and those of the Marx Brothers.

Considered as a whole, Ionesco’s work exhibits a number of different styles, each of them uniquely his own. Although it may be tempting to consider those styles as evolutionary stages, such analysis founders on the simple evidence that the styles do not necessarily occur in chronological order. The Lesson, for example, would appear at first glance to be more evolved and “later” than it really is.

There is also the matter of the Tynan debate, or London controversy as it has often been called among students of Ionesco’s work. During the late 1950’s, perhaps because of the debate, Ionesco began writing plays in which, for the first time, he appeared to be saying something specific; critics, noting the trend either with delight or with alarm, observed that his expression was somewhat weaker than in his earlier efforts. Yet, his expression had not really changed; the best of his apparently “didactic” plays, in retrospect, have much in common with the rest of his theater, both earlier and later. Rhinoceros, perhaps the weakest of the lot, is a highly typical Ionesco play, hampered mainly by the commonly held assumption of intended specific meaning.

One of Ionesco’s more entertaining and edifying styles, although commonly associated with his shorter plays, involves the characters in aimless speech as the stage gradually fills with objects. In one of Ionesco’s earliest plays, The Chairs, the two main characters keep bringing out chairs to seat an unseen multitude of guests. Although the proliferation of chairs is hardly the main point of the play, Ionesco clearly appreciated the visual effect and would use it again more than once, most notably in The New Tenant, in which furniture is carried onstage with difficulty inverse to its weight. At first, the movers struggle under the weight of bric-a-brac and table lamps; with their task well under way, they balance heavy chests delicately on the tips of their fingers. At the end, not only is the stage filled with furniture, but also presumably the streets and highways outside. The title character, who apparently owns all these things, asks only that the landlady turn out the lights as she leaves him; in a rather obvious effort to rediscover the prenatal state, he has long since been hidden from view by his possessions.

Easily appreciated or understood at a preconscious level, yet subject to varied interpretations, Ionesco’s imagery has brought to the stage sights and sounds that would tax the ingenuity and imagination of even the most resourceful designers. In a variation on the proliferation theme, for example, the characters of Amédée share the stage with a growing corpse that is about to crowd them out of house and home; what usually shows of this monstrosity is a man’s shoe, approximately three meters in length, with sock and trouser leg attached. In Hunger and Thirst, the furniture must be specially designed so that it will sink into the floorboards as if into mud. In Exit the King, similarly, the king’s throne must simply vanish from the stage while the curtain remains open. Not all of the headaches fall upon the set designer alone; two of Ionesco’s plays call for an “attractive” female character with multiple noses and breasts.

Whether (as is doubtful) Ionesco’s dramaturgy was in any way influenced by Camus’s speculations on the absurd, his writings, both expository and creative, give evidence of a deep sensitivity and strong moral conscience of the sort commonly associated with The Myth of Sisyphus and its author. Although more visceral than cerebral, Ionesco’s expression adds up to one of the most deeply humanitarian statements in contemporary literature, haunted by a nagging doubt that humankind will ever assimilate the evident lessons of history. Ionesco’s King Bérenger, the Everyman protagonist of Exit the King, meets and surpasses in his life and death the anguished declaration of Camus’s Caligula (1954; English translation, 1948) that men die and are not happy; resuming in his modest person the history of all human endeavor, King Bérenger remains lucid even in his final moments, painfully aware that all has gone for nought.

Elsewhere in Ionesco’s theater, nearly all forms of human behavior are duly stripped of acculturated meaning, shown to be as absurd and out of phase as they often seemed to Camus himself. In Jack: Or, The Submission and The Future Is in Eggs, for example, courtship and marriage are reduced to the least attractive stereotypes, characterized by animal noises, obscene rutting gestures, and a quantitative standard for human reproduction. In Amédée, the telephone-operator wife “goes to work” at a switchboard in her own apartment while her husband, a writer, labors over the same phrases that have occupied him fruitlessly for years. The theme of repetition, dominant in several plays that end exactly as they began, bears further witness to the apparent futility of all human endeavor. Beneath it all, however, the viewer can perceive a strong nostalgia for lost innocence, or at least for things as they ought to be. In each of his plays, Ionesco seems to be exhorting his audience to “rehumanize” the world before matters get worse than they already are.

Striking in its imagery and resonance, Ionesco’s theater remains one of the more durable bodies of work in twentieth century drama. Although uneven in quality, perhaps least effective when the author seemed to have a specific message in mind, his theater is nevertheless sufficiently rich and varied to provide rewarding work for future generations of actors and directors. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the strongest of his plays were in frequent production around the world, performed by professional and amateur actors alike. In retrospect, it appears fortunate that the playwright never capitulated fully to his detractors’ stated demands for relevance; his theater, perennially relevant to basic human needs and tendencies, stands as a useful, even necessary mirror through which to study human behavior, both individual and social.

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The Bald Soprano

The Bald Soprano, Ionesco’s first play, served clear notice of a major new talent and remains his best-known effort and the one most frequently performed. Rivaled only by Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as a classic of the contemporary drama, The Bald Soprano (produced in London as the The Bald Prima Donna) is neither the strongest nor the weakest of Ionesco’s plays; it is surely, however, among the most memorable.

Set against the stuffy banality of a bourgeois household (Ionesco himself suggested the use of a set prepared for Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, 1890, English translation, 1891), The Bald Soprano begins with the dour, machine-voiced Mrs. Smith informing her husband that it is nine o’clock. The grandfather clock, however, has just struck seventeen times. Silent except for the regular clucking of his tongue, Smith puffs on his pipe as he reads the evening paper, held upside down. Mrs. Smith, seemingly oblivious to his lack of interest, continues to discuss the fine English food that they have eaten (including such anomalous dishes as quince-and-bean pie) and tell him the ages of their children. If Mrs. Smith’s monologue seems increasingly surreal, the dialogue becomes even more so as Smith, still reading the paper, expresses amazement that the ages of the deceased are routinely printed in the papers, while those of newborns never are. Husband and wife then discuss a recent operation that the surgeon first performed on himself. Even so, the patient died.

A good doctor, opines Smith, should die with his patient, just as a captain should go down with his ship. Discussion of an apparent obituary for one Bobby Watson soon elicits the further information that the man has been dead for three years, that he left a truly well-preserved corpse, that his wife (also named Bobby Watson, as are their son and daughter) is unattractive because she is too dark, too fat, too pale, and too thin. All traveling salespeople, it seems, are also known as Bobby Watson, and vice versa.

Before long, the Smiths’ maid interrupts to announce the arrival of their invited guests, Mr. and Mrs. Martin. Although introduced as husband and wife, the Martins (in what has since become one of the most famous scenes in contemporary drama) begin speaking to each other with all the tentative awkwardness of a pickup between strangers on a train. Gradually, expressing amazement with each passing coincidence, the Martins discover that they live in the same town, on the same street, in the same building, on the same floor, in the same apartment, and sleep in the same bed. Cleverly mocking every recognition scene known to conventional theater, Ionesco locks the couple in a passionate embrace, only to have the maid announce that the Martins are not husband and wife or even who they think they are, since her daughter and his daughter are not the same person, having eyes of different color on each side of the face.

Once admitted to the Smiths’ parlor, the Martins join their hosts in what may well be the most effective parody of social interaction ever portrayed on the stage; all four participants hem and haw, clear their throats, and let one another’s conversational gambits drop with a resounding thud. Ionesco’s true intentions, however, clearly lie deeper than mere parody, and the conversation soon degenerates into a nightmare of cross-purposes interrupted (and complicated) by the arrival of an even more gratuitous personage, the Fire Chief.

The Chief, it seems, is making his rounds in search of possible fires; his arrival, meanwhile, has been preceded by a long discussion of whether the ringing of a doorbell indicates the presence of someone at the door. (The bell in fact sounds three times, at rather long intervals, before the Chief sees fit to show himself.) Once inside, the Chief avails himself of celebrity treatment to regale his hosts with a long, involved, and totally nonsensical story prefaced with the title, “The Head-Cold.” The maid, attempting a story of her own, is pushed brutally offstage by the other characters and possibly beaten to death; in any event, she is not seen again.

Once the Chief has left, conversation among the four main characters resumes with a gabble of inapposite proverbs, soon degenerating into nonsense syllables shouted with great vehemence, simulating quite effectively the sounds of a genuine argument among four people. At the end, the syllables assume the regular rhythm of a chuffing locomotive, whereupon the curtain falls. A brief final scene recapitulates the first, with the Martins instead of the Smiths.

In its current and final form, The Bald Soprano incorporates many evolutionary changes said to have occurred in the course of production. At first, Ionesco admitted, he had no real idea of how to end the play, having once considered (and rejected) the arrival of armed “police” to clear the house of spectators. Later, he decided on a reprise of the opening scene with the Smiths, replacing them still later with the Martins to reinforce the notion of interchangeability already manifest in the BobbyWatson dialogue. Even the play’s title is claimed as an addition, having occurred when an actor playing the Fire Chief in rehearsal misspoke the phrase “institutrice blonde” (“blonde schoolmistress”) as “cantatrice chauve” (roughly, “bald primadonna” or “bald soprano”). Supposedly, the actress playing Mrs. Smith ad-libbed the line, “She still wears her hair the same way,” and the hitherto untitled play was on its way. Although such an explanation may well be apocryphal, the fact remains that much of The Bald Soprano as it is now known was improvised in production, proving (among other things) the impressive fluidity of Ionesco’s developing talent.

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The Lesson

To those spectators falsely conditioned by the nonsense title of The Bald Soprano, the action of The Lesson may well have come as a rude shock. Although his first play calls for no vocalist, or even any bald person, The Lesson has very much to do with instruction, as seen in its most negative aspects. If knowledge is power, the play seems to be saying, it can also be used as a weapon, either political or sexual.

In fact, there is no evidence that the Professor of The Lesson really knows anything— except perhaps, on occasion, the techniques of psychological manipulation. His important-sounding lectures are by turns banal, nonsensical, irrelevant, and selfcontradictory; yet the torrent of verbiage that pours forth from his mouth soon reduces his young, strong, confident Pupil to utter helplessness in anticipation of her inevitable death. Mild-mannered and tentative at the outset, the elderly Professor gains such confidence from the sound of his own voice that he is quite plausibly capable of murder, committed with an invisible knife made manifest by words.

Recapitulating the frequent use of nonsense dialogue in The Bald Soprano, Ionesco in The Lesson at first disorients the spectator with the Pupil who, armed merely with a schoolgirl’s book bag, confidently announces her intention to pursue the “total doctorate”; even so, she is shaky on elementary geography and utterly unable to subtract, although she can multiply six-digit numbers in her head. When asked to account for the latter talent, she calmly replies that she has memorized all possible products. As in the earlier play, incipient tragedy is never far removed from comedy, and The Lesson, for all its sense of impending doom, is well provided with hilarious moments.

Despite obvious elements of political satire (increasingly evident toward the end of the play), the predominant tone of The Lesson is sexual. The Pupil, for all her apparent innocence, is a highly provocative figure only dimly aware of her powers. The Professor, helpless and seemingly tongue-tied in the presence of his acerbic Housekeeper, responds to the Pupil’s implicit provocation with increasingly violent and eventually murderous aggression.

As the Housekeeper has warned him, “philology leads to the worst”; for Ionesco, “philology” here connotes not a “love of language” but a penchant pursued past the point of addiction. The Professor seems to exist only when, and because, he speaks. Language covers a multitude of probable sins, acquiring hypnotic powers quite beyond the scope of logic. For some, The Lesson symbolizes the inherently sexual nature of all teaching, which involves, at least in its intent, an act of penetration. Such an interpretation gathers further momentum from a Sartrean interpretation, whereby the Professor hides inauthentically behind his function in order to brutalize and terrorize a world that has long threatened him.

The Lesson retains such resonance as to resist simplistic attempts at explanation. For all its weaknesses (especially the anticlimactic ending), the play presents an arresting and still original deformation and reformation of human behavior and is one of Ionesco’s best-realized expressions of a nightmarish vision.

The Chairs

Initially baffling even to those spectators familiar with The Lesson and The Bald Soprano, The Chairs broke new ground in the development of Ionesco’s theater by introducing a poetic element of which his earlier plays had given little indication. Although connected to the earlier plays by nonsense elements, disconnected speech, and disorientation of the spectator, The Chairs establishes a thoughtful, elegiac tone that anticipates both Exit the King and the best plays of Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot was soon to be produced for the first time.

Like The Lesson, The Chairs vigorously rejects simplistic efforts at interpretation, although on the surface it might be said to be “about” love, marriage, aging, and, above all, the futility of all human endeavor. Both individually and as a pair, the nonagenarian couple with the main speaking parts recapitulate in their behavior all stages of human life, from babyhood to extreme old age. By turns pathetic and ridiculous, frequently sympathetic, the Old Man and the Old Woman represent as effectively as Hamm and Clov, of Beckett’s Endgame, the human need to “mean something,” even against insuperable odds.

Set inside a tower on a remote and sparsely populated island, The Chairs presents the old couple in what will be their final moments, as the Old Man prepares to leave his testament for all humanity. The testament, it seems, is in the form of a speech that the Old Man has prepared from the raw material of his long life, but which he feels unqualified to deliver in his own voice. For the momentous occasion, he has hired a professional Orator, who will deliver the speech to a carefully selected assemblage of invited dignitaries including the Emperor himself.

In time, the distinguished guests begin to arrive, greeted and seated by the delighted and understandably anxious old couple. The audience, however, never sees the guests, who are represented onstage by a rapidly growing number of empty chairs—hence the play’s title. Gesturing and grimacing in a worthy parody of Marcel Proust’s aristocratic hosts, the old couple continue to seat their invisible audience; the Orator, however, is quite visible, and as soon as the Emperor arrives (unseen), the action is ready to begin. Sure at last that he has not lived in vain, his message about to be delivered, the Old Man leaps to his death from a tower window, followed closely by his wife.

When the Orator rises to speak, however, he proves to be a deaf-mute (or at least tongue-tied). Turning at last to an available blackboard, the Orator fares hardly better, managing at best a meaningless gabble of words, letters, and fragments. Lest the spectator, however, leap to the conclusion that the Orator’s audience has been hallucinated by the old couple, Ionesco calls in his script for crowd noises that, in production, tend to sound like a cross between applause and howls of derision. The audience, invisible or not, is still in evidence. The Chairs remains, like its predecessor, hauntingly enigmatic, reflecting back on the spectator his own attempts to determine the play’s meaning.

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 Michael Shannon and Robert Stanton in The Killer. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

The Killer

Following the belated success of The Chairs, Ionesco embarked on the most prolific phase of his career, producing more than a dozen short sketches and oneact plays as well as his first full-length plays, including Amédée and Victims of Duty. It was also during this period that the author’s earliest and best-known work gave rise to the revisionist London controversy, involving (as did many similar disputes in the twentieth century) the social role of the writer as seen from the political Left.

By 1958, Ionesco stood persuasively accused (by Kenneth Tynan and others) of shunning his appropriate function in favor of nonsense theater, which is irrelevant by definition. Among the greater of ironies is that Ionesco, a man truly displaced by two world wars, gave evidence even in his earliest plays of a profound social conscience. Nevertheless, his deep-seated mistrust of political extremism on both sides left him peculiarly vulnerable to charges of political indifference. Like George Orwell before him, Ionesco aroused the ire of doctrinaire liberals by rejecting their proposed “solutions” as well as those offered from the Right.

In any event, it appears in retrospect that Ionesco may well have taken the criticism very much to heart, much as he professed not to in such documents as Notes and Counter-Notes. Toward the end of the 1950’s Ionesco’s plays seemed to strive increasingly for political relevance, with decidedly uneven results. In the strongest of these efforts, however, Ionesco retained his unique personal stamp with plays that resist any attempt to assign arbitrary political significance. The Killer, in particular, functions effectively as satire while going far deeper in its analysis of human aspirations and behavior. While waxing eloquent about the abuses of political power, The Killer also has much to say about the simple imperfectibility of human nature and the inevitability of death.

Partially set in a futuristic “Radiant City,” probably inspired by the projections of the architect Le Corbusier, The Killer marks the first appearance of the protagonist Bérenger, a partially autobiographical Everyman-figure to be featured in several more plays of Ionesco’s middle period. Arriving in Radiant City, which is surrounded by several darker neighborhoods, Bérenger is astounded to learn that most common problems and ailments have been banished from the area for good. His guide, the Architect (who also functions as police chief and coroner), explains that nothing has been left to chance, and that even the weather is controlled. Unfortunately, the streets are empty; eventually, the Architect explains to Bérenger that the inhabitants are hesitant to leave their homes for fear of an unknown killer, who lures people to their deaths by promising a glimpse of “the colonel’s photograph.”

Based on a short story in fact entitled “La Photo du colonel” (“The Colonel’s Photograph”), The Killer quickly departs from simple satire in its deliberately uncertain distinction between the act of murder and the basic fact of death. If curiosity kills the cat, it doubtless kills people as well; whatever the “colonel’s photograph” may indeed be like, it represents, among other things, the irrational element implicit in all human behavior. In French, the play’s title suggests an unpaid, hence gratuitous killer, and in many respects the Killer differs little from the conventional figure of the Grim Reaper.

If death is inevitable, The Killer is not, however, without distinct political overtones. Employees of the state, it seems, enjoy guaranteed immunity from the Killer’s assaults, a fact made painfully evident when Mlle Dany, the Architect’s secretary and the woman of Bérenger’s dreams, resigns her job only to fall victim soon after to the Killer. Another plainly political element is evident in the person of Mother Peep (“la mère Pipe”), a demagogue and rabble-rouser who has risen to prominence of sorts as keeper of the public geese. Divorced from the context of the play, the masterly scene depicting Mother Peep’s rally might well be seen as one of the most powerful parodies of demagoguery and totalitarianism ever portrayed on the stage. Restored to context, however, the scene ultimately provides still further evidence of the absurd, together with the Killer himself. Political satire thus serves, for Ionesco, as the means to an end, rather than as an end in itself.

Motivated primarily by his desire to avenge Mlle Dany’s apparently senseless murder, Bérenger sets off on a dogged search for the Killer, often appearing to be the only sane man (or indeed the only human being) in a world turned upside down. After adventures involving several cases of mistaken identity, Bérenger at last comes face to face with his quarry, an apparently feeble, one-eyed individual who, according to Ionesco, may or may not actually appear on the stage, according to the wishes of the individual director. In any case, the Killer has no real lines to speak, serving mainly as foil to Bérenger’s impassioned, eloquent (and perhaps overlong) speech in defense of life, liberty, and the human race. As close to lyricism as Ionesco had thus far come in his career, Bérenger’s speech in The Killer remains a powerful statement in defense of humanity; predictably, however, it falls on deaf ears, and Bérenger, out of options, offers himself freely to the Killer’s brandished knife.

More ambitious in scope than any of Ionesco’s earlier efforts for the stage, The Killer seemed to move his career into a new phase, partially satisfying those critics who had assailed his earlier work for its “irrelevance.” It seems likely, however, that such critics may have seen primarily what they wanted to see; despite obvious political overtones, The Killer seems far closer to Ionesco’s characteristic mode of expression than it may at the time have been supposed. In any case, it was not long before the critics were presented with a new object of study, the well-known and still controversial Rhinoceros.

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Rhinoceros

First produced within a year after The Killer (to which it is related by the character of Bérenger), Rhinoceros remains the best-known and most frequently performed of Ionesco’s later plays, quite probably for the wrong reasons. Although decidedly weaker than The Killer, Rhinoceros is not without its strengths; unfortunately, those strengths tend to be slighted by directors and spectators alike, in favor of those elements providing the play with its apparent “relevance.”

Considering the heat generated at the height of the so-called London Controversy, it is perhaps not surprising that Ionesco proved more willing than usual to allow the attachment of literal significance to one of his more ambitious efforts. Unfortunately, the play itself, although up to Ionesco’s usual standards, tends to collapse under the weight of “meaning” applied from without.

Last seen in The Killer as an eloquent advocate of human nature, Bérenger makes his entry in Rhinoceros in a decidedly more passive role, as an easygoing if rather morose fellow who would prefer, when possible, to be left alone. Indeed, he tries as long as possible to go about his business, despite the gathering invasion of rhinoceroses, whose bizarre trumpeting can be heard from the street below. Indeed, the device of the proliferating pachyderms is every bit as powerful and eloquent as that of a gratuitous murderer in the previous play.

Perceived at first as invaders from outside, the pachyderms are gradually seen to be emerging among the populace as well. A certain Mme Boeuf at first flees in terror from a trumpeting beast, only to recognize (somehow) in its voice the accents of her missing husband: She rides happily off on the animal’s back in a parody of the traditional recognition scene rivaled only by the Martins of The Bald Soprano. Characters around Bérenger begin to talk and act strangely, finding the invaders handsome and their language beautiful, far more so than the “merely” human. It is not long before transformations from man to beast become an hourly occurrence, with the animals taking over local businesses and ultimately the broadcast media. At the time of the play’s introduction, Ionesco readily admitted to obvious parallels between “rhinoceritis” and the rise of Nazi Germany from the decadent Weimar Republic. Unfortunately, his acknowledgment served to authorize a fixed interpretation of a play which, in true Ionesco fashion, is in its essence open-ended and fraught with ambiguities.

If staged without preconceptions as to meaning, Rhinoceros quickly emerges as one of Ionesco’s more unsettling staged nightmares, less effective than The Killer but nearly as resonant as The Lesson. Unfortunately, deliberate efforts to present Rhinoceros as antifascist propaganda rob the play of one of its more haunting qualities, implicit in the characterization of Bérenger.

Quite unlike his earlier avatar in The Killer, the Bérenger of Rhinoceros is neither eloquent nor potentially heroic. Indeed, one of the major tensions latent in the play as written resides in the passivity of Bérenger, in his anguished uncertainty as to whether he could turn into a rhinoceros even if he so wished. His refusal to capitulate, articulated in the final scene and hailed by critics as proof of Ionesco’s “message,” emerges from the context of the play in accents not of heroism but of desperation. Bérenger alone remains the last human being on earth, less because he will not change than because he simply cannot.

If viewed with sufficient objectivity, Rhinoceros thus emerges as a chilling portrayal of an individual in a society, any society, ostracized by his or her fellows for reasons that cannot be fully comprehended. It is possible that future generations of actors and directors may well discover the latent subtext of Rhinoceros and restore the play to its rightful place among Ionesco’s more disorienting nightmare visions. In the meantime, Rhinoceros remains hampered by its prevalent literal interpretation, far less effective as polemic than such overtly political plays as those of Bertolt Brecht or the later Adamov. Neither fish nor fowl, Rhinoceros, as commonly interpreted, can neither swim nor fly. To Ionesco’s ultimate credit, however, it remains a better play than it seems.

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Still from Exit the King

Exit the King

Rivaled only by The Killer, Exit the King is perhaps the strongest and best realized of Ionesco’s later plays, deserving more frequent revivals than it has received. Deceptively simple both in concept and in execution, Exit the King harks back to The Killer and The Chairs in its portrayal of a royal Bérenger awaiting death. Deftly compressing all of human history into a single life-experience, Ionesco presents a King Bérenger who, during several centuries of life and rule, has invented the airplane and the bicycle, has pseudonymously written all the plays and sonnets attributed to William Shakespeare, and has personally built all the major cities in Western Europe. By now, however, his kingdom is crumbling, its monuments are in ruins, and his rule is crippled by anarchy. The action of the play compresses some twenty years, indicated by Queen Marguerite’s assertion that the king will be dead within an hour and a half, at the end of the play.

Inevitably reminiscent of Camus’s Caligula, whose historically inspired imperial protagonist substitutes his own caprices for those of an incomprehensible natural order, Ionesco’s King Bérenger suffers primarily from an awareness of the simple fact that people die and are not happy. Like the Old Man of The Chairs, Bérenger has lived and labored in vain; unlike the Old Man, he knows as much, vigorously protesting the unfairness of his fate. Resuming in his person the lives of all who have ever suffered, worked, or dreamed, Bérenger ultimately speaks in his anguish to the futility of all human endeavor given the eventuality of death, a finality as capricious as the actions of The Killer in the first of the Bérenger plays.

Surprisingly, in the light of its evident ambitions, Exit the King genuinely works, both as text and in production. Ponderousness of tone is avoided largely through Ionesco’s choice of supporting characters; the king’s protracted final moments are witnessed by both of his queens (one young and pretty, the other middle-aged and tart of tongue), a guard, and a Doctor who serves also as Astrologer and Chief Executioner. Among them, the characters provide for a strong infusion of humor, if never “comic relief.” The aging Queen Marguerite, clearly descended from Mrs. Smith and from Madeleine of Amédée, continues the satire of marriage that runs as an undercurrent through many Ionesco plays; the younger Queen Marie, meanwhile, seems to represent maternal warmth as well as the promise of young love.

The Doctor, who has aided and abetted the king in many of his Promethean schemes, frequently provides a perfect foil for the king’s thoroughly human grievances. In an evident parody of the political slogan “Every man a king,” Ionesco presents a king who is indeed Everyman and whose life will be nullified as well as ended with his death. In the French title, the use of the reflexive construction reinforces the notion that death is a process rather than a mere event; the king, implies Ionesco, is dying— as are all men and women from the moment of their birth.

Exit the King remains among the most eloquent and economical of Ionesco’s dramatic statements, surpassing most of his subsequent efforts. Hunger and Thirst, for all its innovative brilliance, is sententious and often confused; Killing Game reiterates what Ionesco had already said, and said better, in such earlier efforts as The Killer and The Chairs. Of Ionesco’s later efforts, only Man with Bags approaches the concise statement and eloquent imagery to be found in such plays as The Killer and Exit the King.

Man with Bags

Based in large measure on nightmare visions already recorded in Ionesco’s memoirs, Man with Bags ironically inverts, intentionally or not, the title and premise of Jean Anouilh’s immensely popular 1937 play, Le Voyageur sans bagage (Traveller Without Luggage, 1959). Anouilh’s play, in part a parody of the Oedipus theme, presents an amnesiac war veteran who, reunited with his true family after twenty years and countless false leads, seeks refuge in amnesia against a sordid past that he has no desire to reclaim. Rejecting the obviously valid claims of the Renaud family, the pseudonymous Gaston opts instead for outright fantasy, declaring that he is “washed clean” of his youth, and indeed of his identity. It remained for Ionesco, however, to explore even in his earliest efforts the horrific consequences that result when identity is lost or denied. Whether the individual likes it, identity (especially as retrieved through memory) is the only available proof of his existence. It therefore seemed quite fitting that Ionesco, nearly forty years after Traveller Without Luggage, should balance Anouilh’s speculative fantasy with a highly convincing rebuttal.

Despite the strong infusion of dream elements in such earlier plays as The Chairs, The Killer, and A Stroll in the Air, Man with Bags is the first of Ionesco’s efforts to be characterized by its author as a dream play. Ionesco, who, by the time of the play’s introduction, was well acquainted with the precepts and procedures of Jungian psychoanalysis, readily conceded that his characters were in fact archetypes and that the play represented an attempt to explore human identity through dreams. No longer known as Bérenger, the autobiographical protagonist is identified simply as “The Man” or “No-man,” the latter an obvious recollection of the pseudonym chosen by Odysseus during his encounter with the Cyclops. Another archetype strongly recalled by the protagonist in his adventures and behavior is that of the Wandering Jew. In a succession of scenes shifting wildly in space and time, the man travels resolutely in search of both his ancestry and his identity, accompanied only by the “luggage” of his memory.

Unlike such earlier dream plays as those of August Strindberg and those attempted by the Surrealists, Man with Bags abounds in the sharp, seemingly realistic detail to be found in actual dreams. Linked by the preconscious logic peculiar to the dream experience, the scenes are striking in their imagery and often memorable. In one, for example, an old woman converses animatedly with her long-lost mother; the actress playing the mother is in her young and vibrant twenties, the age at which the old woman last saw her. Political elements such as bureaucracy, war, and oppression are present in abundance, although portrayed (as usual in Ionesco’s work) without emphasis, as yet another anomalous fact of life, such as death. As in real dreams, sexual fantasies are juxtaposed with philosophical and political ones.

In another memorable scene, the protagonist is propositioned by a married woman and accepts the offer in full view of her apparently willing husband, who agrees to keep an eye on the protagonist’s luggage; the assignation then takes place in a public park ominously filled with armed guards. In the final scene, the man pauses to rest on one of his suitcases while the other characters rush about with their own luggage, vigorously pursuing the quest for identity of which the man himself has now grown tired. He does not, however, abandon or drop his own luggage; no doubt he will soon rise to his feet and continue as before.Memories, suggested Ionesco, remain the only proof that people have concerning the fact of their own individual passages through life.

eugene-ionesco

 

 

Principal drama
La Cantatrice chauve, pr. 1950, pb. 1954 (The Bald Soprano, 1956); La Leçon, pr. 1951, pb. 1954 (The Lesson, 1955); Les Chaises, pr. 1952, pb. 1954 (The Chairs, 1958); Victimes du devoir, pr. 1953, pb. 1954 (Victims of Duty, 1958); Le Maître, pr. 1953, pb. 1958 (The Leader, 1960); La Jeune Fille à marier, pr. 1953, pb. 1958 (Maid to Marry, 1960); La Nièce-Épouse, pr. 1953 (The Niece-Wife, 1971); L’Avenir est dans les oeufs: Ou, Il Faut de tout pour faire un monde, pr. 1953, pb. 1958 (The Future Is in Eggs: Or, It Takes All Sorts to Make a World, 1960); Amédée: Ou, Comment s’en débarrasser, pr., pb. 1954 (Amédée: Or, How to Get Rid of It, 1955); Jacques: Ou, La Soumission, pb. 1954, pb. 1955 (Jack: Or, The Submission, 1958); Théâtre, pb. 1954-1966 (4 volumes); Le Nouveau Locataire, pr. 1955, pb. 1958 (The New Tenant, 1956); Le Tableau, pr. 1955, pb. 1963 (The Picture, 1968); L’Impromptu de l’Alma: Ou, Le Caméléon du berger, pr. 1956, pb. 1958 (Improvisation: Or, The Shepherd’s Chameleon, 1960); Tueur sans gages, pr., pb. 1958 (The Killer, 1960); Plays, pb. 1958-1965 (6 volumes); Rhinocéros, pr. in German 1959, pb. 1959, pr. in French 1960 (Rhinoceros, 1959); Les Salutations, pr. 1959, pb. 1963 (Salutations, 1968); Scène à quatre, pr. 1959, pb. 1963 (Foursome, 1963); Délire à deux, pr. 1962, pb. 1963 (Frenzy for Two or More, 1965); Le Roi se meurt, pr. 1962, pb. 1963 (Exit the King, 1963); Le Piéton de l’air, pr. 1962, pb. 1963 (A Stroll in the Air, 1964); La Colère, pb. 1963 (Anger, 1968); La Soif et la faim, pr. 1964, pb. 1966 (Hunger and Thirst, 1968); La Lacune, pb. 1966, pr. 1969 (The Oversight, 1971); L’OEuf dur: Pour préparer un oeuf dur, pb. 1966, pb. 1970 (The Hard-Boiled Egg, 1973); Jeux de massacre, pr., pb. 1970 (Killing Game, 1974; also pb. as Wipe-out Games, 1970); Macbett, pr., pb. 1972 (English translation, 1973); Ce formidable bordel, pr., pb. 1973 (A Hell of a Mess, 1975); L’Homme aux valises, pr., pb. 1975 (Man with Bags, 1977); Parlons française, pr. 1980; Voyages chez les morts: Ou, Thèmes et variations, pb. 1981 ( Journeys Among the Dead: Themes and Variations, 1985)

Other major works
Long fiction: Le Solitaire, 1973 (The Hermit, 1974).
Short fiction: La Photo du colonel, 1962 (The Colonel’s Photograph, 1967).
Sreenplay: La Vase, 1970 (The Mire, 1973).
Radio play: Le Salon de l’automobile, 1952 (The Motor Show, 1963).
Nonfiction: Nu, 1934; Notes et contre-notes, 1962 (Notes and Counter-Notes, 1964); Journal en miettes, 1967 (Fragments of a Journal, 1968); Présent passé passé présent, 1968 (memoir; Present Past Past Present, 1972); Un Homme en question, 1979; Le Blanc et le noir, 1980; Hugoliade, 1982 (Hugoliad: Or, The Grotesque and Tragic Life of Victor Hugo, 1987); La Quête intermittente, 1988.
Children’s literature: Story Number 1: For Children Under Three Years of Age, 1969; Story Number 2: For Children Under Three Years of Age, 1970; Story Number 3: For Children over Three Years of Age, 1971; Story Number 4: For Children over Three Years of Age, 1975.

Bibliography
Coe, Richard N. Ionesco: A Study of his Plays. London: Methuen, 1971.
Esslin, Martin. The Theater of the Absurd. Reprint. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968.
Gaensbauer, Deborah B. Eugène Ionseco Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1996.
Lane, Nancy. Understanding Eugène Ionesco. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
Nottingham French Studies 35, no. 1 (1996). Edited by Steven Smith.

 

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Categories: Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Theatre Studies

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