Although Eugène Ionesco’s 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, he 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.
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.
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 Bobby Watson 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.
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...
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