Eugène Ionesco 1909-1994
Romanian-born French playwright, essayist, novelist, autobiographer, and critic. See also Eugene Ionesco Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 6, 9, 11.
One of the major figures in modern European experimental drama, Ionesco is best known for his innovative techniques using things and words in the theater and his association with the movement of the 1950s and 1960s known as the “Theater of the Absurd.” His “anti-plays,” which push both speech and action past the limits of rationality, cast doubt on traditional, naturalistic theatrical conventions and established assumptions about language and human nature, stressing the absurdity of life, humans' ever-present awareness of death, and the impossibility of communication. These and the related themes of human alienation and the destructive forces of modern society are presented in his plays with a surface humor that comments upon and serves to counterpoint the horror and anguish of human life that lies beneath. Like his contemporary and fellow “absurdist” Samuel Beckett, Ionesco replaces customary plots, structure, and language with fragmentary, contradictory, and often nonsensical dialogue and surreal images in order to present a world of chaos that mocks established institutions and conformity. His revolutionary approach to theater and his darkly comic vision reveal his distrust of all forms of ideology, as he urges his audiences to explore their own imaginations and awaken themselves to the potentialities of their own existence. Although Ionesco spent his dramatic career deriding the establishment, in 1971 he was elected to the conservative Académie Française, a sign not that the playwright had changed his earlier radical views to conform to the mainstream, but rather that his unique approach had altered the institution of theater in France and the world.
Ionesco was born in Slatina, Romania, to a French mother and a Romanian father. He spent his happy, early childhood years in France, returning to Romania after his parents’ divorce in 1925. In 1929 he enrolled at the University of Bucharest, where he specialized in French literature. After taking his degree he lived in Bucharest, where he taught French and began writing poetry and literary criticism. In 1936 he married a philosophy student, Rodica Burlieano, and two years later the couple moved to France after Ionesco accepted a scholarship to prepare a dissertation on the subject of death in modern French poetry. He spent the next ten years in Paris working as a journalist, teacher, and proofreader, deliberately avoiding the theater, which he dismissed as a complete waste of time and energy.
In 1948, at age thirty-nine, Ionesco began his career in the theater—quite by accident. He had undertaken to learn English by using a popular self-teaching method, and while reciting the seemingly random phrases used in the instruction manual found the task to make less and less sense. At the same time he found the phrases full of humorous possibilities and felt that they had a surreal existence of their own that was quite separate from their ordinary meaning. He soon abandoned the idea of learning English and conceived the idea of writing his first play by jotting down words and rearranging sentences. He showed the finished product (written in French) to a director and then to an editor at a major publishing house, both of whom dismissed the work. However, a friend showed it to Nicholas Bataille, a young director with a small company who immediately recognized its originality and produced it for the stage. The Bald Soprano, so named after an actor in the company, while rehearsing, uttered the phrase “bald prima donna” instead of “blond prima donna,” was a failure when it opened in 1950, with the audience shouting out rude comments throughout the performance. However, Ionesco found his vocation and continued to write plays, developing further the antilogical ideas of his first work. His prolific output from 1950 to 1955 included some of his best-known plays: The Lesson, The Chairs, Victims of Duty, Amédée, or How to Get Rid of it, and Jack, or The Submission. After 1951 his work began to attract critical attention, and by 1955 his reputation was firmly established in France. He also found himself at the forefront of a revolutionary new theater, which included such established names as Beckett and Arthur Adamov, that broke ties with realist forms, emphasized experimental methods, and stressed the irrationality in human life.
Ionesco continued to write for the stage until the early 1970s, enjoying a growing international reputation, earning awards for his work, and seeing many of his plays adapted as ballets. From the late 1960s through the 1980s his creativity became increasingly directed at experiments with other genres, including autobiography, criticism, and fiction. In the last decade of his life Ionesco gave up writing and devoted himself to painting and exhibiting his works. He died in Paris in 1994.
Ionesco's early plays, those written before 1956, are still considered among his best, as they present with startling originality and immediacy his recurrent themes of the difficulty of communication, the impotence of reason, and self-estrangement. In The Bald Soprano, about a couple who stumble upon the fact that they are indeed man and wife in the course of their meaningless conversation, and The Lesson, in which a professor and student find it increasingly difficult to communicate in words, Ionesco uses nonsensical dialogue in the form of familiar clichés and slogans to mock commonplace notions about the world. In plays such as The Chairs, The Future is in Eggs, Victims of Duty, The New Tenant, and Amédée, Ionesco populates his stage with meaningless physical objects to emphasize his theme of unreason and convey a nightmarish sense of inanity.
Although Ionesco's reputation as a serious dramatist began to flourish in the mid-1950s, in 1958 he was criticized by one of his early champions, the British critic Kenneth Tynan, for producing “nonsense theater” and not living up to the social role expected of a writer. The charge leveled at Ionesco was that his work was politically indifferent and therefore irrelevant. The “London Controversy,” as it was called, had Ionesco defending himself against promoting in his theater the ill-conceived “solutions” to social and political questions advocated by left-wing and right-wing thinkers alike. But many commentators, including the director Orson Welles, continued to feel that Ionesco was shunning his appropriate function by not engaging in political debate in his work. It seems that Ionesco was affected by this criticism, because beginning in the late 1950s he began to produce work that seemed to strive for political relevance. In his cycle of plays The Killers, Rhinoceros, Exit the King, and A Stroll in the Air, in which appear his “Everyman” Bérenger, a brave and idealistic man who has heroic qualities but always loses, Ionesco overtly criticizes totalitarianism and presents deeper analyses of the complexity of human aspirations than in his earlier works. His retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, written in 1973, is also a study of political tyranny.
Ionesco's dramatic works in the late 1960s and early 1970s returned to the more fragmented construction of his earlier efforts. The theme of death also becomes an overriding concern during this period, as seen in Hunger and Thirst and The Killing Game. The works of the 1970s, including Journey Among the Dead and Man With Bags, are notable for their use of dream elements, the fantastic, and the blurred line between humans' conscious and subconscious states.
In addition to his plays, Ionesco has written a novel, The Hermit, a collection of short stories, children's stories, criticism, and autobiography. In his several collections of essays and his autobiographical works, such as Notes and Counter-notes and Fragments of a Journal, Ionesco develops many of the ideas presented in his plays and comments on his dramas and critics' reactions to them. Like his dramatic works, his non-fiction is marked with a vehement opposition to political programs, oppression, and the constraints placed on the individual's imagination.
Early reviewers and audiences found Ionesco's plays obscure and inaccessible, largely because they broke all the rules of naturalistic theater. Today critics agree that one of Ionesco's great achievements is in making nonrepresentational and surrealistic techniques acceptable to viewers and allowing them to think beyond the bounds of conventional experience and language. As he became established as an important new voice that was invigorating modern theater, Ionesco was praised in left-wing circles and reviled by the right because of his iconoclastic approach. However, those on the left soon rejected him because of his refusal to accept any ideology and his seemingly apolitical stance. Ionesco himself complained that reviewers were too quick to judge his work based on their own ideological bias rather than a thorough understanding or appreciation of his method or literary merit. Contemporary commentators have begun to recognize that even in his early, so-called “nonsense” work there is a clear socio-political stance in his passionate defense of individual freedoms, even if Ionesco himself always refused to classify it as such.
While Ionesco continued to have detractors throughout his career, and not only for his seeming anti-leftist positions—at least one critic has faulted his plays for being unduly negative and containing elements of misanthropy—his reputation today is as one of the masters of a provocative performance style that engages audiences directly and urges them to think by giving bizarre embodiment to the commonplace. Some commentators have tried to capture the “meaning” behind the apparently meaninglessness of the language and situations Ionesco presents, while others claim that viewers and readers should look beyond meaning and concentrate on the “manner” rather than the “matter” of his works. For the most part, assessment of the plays has concerned Ionesco's use of proliferating objects to represent external forces that dominate the human spirit; his assault on empty forms of language; the use of the irrational to liberate the imagination; an existential view of life as both tragic and comic; and the longing for freedom that is distinctive of his characters. Many of these appraisals share a recognition that although the worlds Ionesco creates are bizarre, chaotic, and frightening, he holds out the hope that the human imagination, if freed, can marvel at the astonishing fact of human existence in a fleeting world.
La cantatrice chauve [The Bald Soprano] 1950
La leçon [The Lesson] 1951
Les chaises [The Chairs] 1952
Victimes du devoir [Victims of Duty] 1953
Amédée; ou, comment s'en débarraser [Amédée; or, How to Get Rid of It] 1954
Jacques; ou, la soumission [Jack; or, The Submission] 1955
L'Avenir est dans les oeufs [The Future is in Eggs] 1957
Le nouveau locataire [The New Tenant] 1957
Tueur sans gages [The Killer] 1958
(The entire section is 213 words.)
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
Leonard C. Pronko (essay date 1959)
SOURCE: “The Anti-Spiritual Victory in the Theater of Ionesco,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 2, No. 2, May 1959, pp. 29-35.
[In the following essay, Pronko argues that in Ionesco’s theater impersonal, anti-spiritual forces, symbolized in physical objects, dominate and conquer humankind, and that dead things are victorious over that which is alive.]
The French Dramatists who began writing about 1950, baptized by M. Jean Duvignaud the “School of Paris,” have sometimes been called “anti-theatrical,” for they employ dramatic methods which are frequently opposed to those of the conventional theater. Writers like Ionesco, Beckett, and the early Adamov wish to return...
(The entire section is 3426 words.)
Bernard F. Dukore (essay date 1961)
SOURCE: “The Theater of Ionesco: A Union of Form and Substance,” in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. XIII, No. 3, October 1961, pp. 174-81.
[In the following essay, Dukore analyzes The Bald Soprano and The Lesson to show that, contrary to Ionesco’s critics, his plays are not formless or meaningless, and explains that while his works are unorthodox and not concerned with psychological realism or political ideology, in Ionesco’s drama form is a direct outgrowth of subject matter.]
The plays of Eugene Ionesco have inspired both violent condemnation and rhapsodic adulation. When an off-Broadway theatre recently produced The Bald Soprano and...
(The entire section is 4739 words.)
George G. Strem (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: “Ritual and Poetry in Eugène Ionesco’s Theatre,” in The Texas Quarterly, Vol. V, No. 4, Winter 1962, pp. 149-58.
[In the following essay, Strem asserts that Ionesco creates a personal, poetical theater by using his inner voices rather than his rational faculties to produce his work, and says that by bringing the ritual of daily life onto his stage the playwright returns to the origins of dramatic expression.]
As a playwright Eugene Ionesco has a feeling of uneasiness, to say the least, about the contemporary theatre, especially about the contemporary French theatre. He accuses the latter of being too doctrinary. Too many writers are using the stage as a...
(The entire section is 5172 words.)
Susan Sontag (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: “Ionesco” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Anchor Books, 1966, pp. 115-23.
[In the following essay, Sontag notes that Ionesco’s early work, in which he discovers and uses theatrically the poetry of clichés and language-as-thing, is interesting and original. However, she finds his later work infused with a crude, simplistic negativity that is extracted from his earlier artistic discovery, and considers his attitudes a “type of misanthropy covered over with fashionable clichés of cultural diagnosis.”]
It is fitting that a playwright whose best works apotheosize the platitude has compiled a book on the theater crammed with...
(The entire section is 3172 words.)
Peter Thomson (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: “Games and Plays: An Approach to Ionesco,” in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. XXII, No. 1, March 1970, pp. 60-70.
[In the following essay, Thomson argues against critics who appraise Ionesco in terms of his plays’ meaning, and calls for a reassertion of interest in the playwright’s work based on his “manner” rather than his “matter.” He goes on to discuss the use of games as they operate in Ionesco’s absurd world.]
I have in front of me Donald Watson’s seventh admirably translated volume of Ionesco’s plays, and I am puzzled. Reading the main and most recent piece, Hunger and Thirst (Le Soif et La Faim), was a struggle almost...
(The entire section is 6285 words.)
Mary Ann Witt (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: “ Eugène Ionesco and the Dialectic of Space,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 3, September 1972, pp. 312-26.
[In the following essay, Witt discusses the polar states such as evanescence and heaviness, lightness and darkness, open space and restriction, that are evident in Ionesco’s plays; notes his use of the arrangement of spatial images; and asserts that Ionesco’s characters are hemmed in, lonely creatures longing for liberation.]
Throughout his journals and in his notes on the theater, Eugène Ionesco refers to the two basic states of consciousness which, he claims, are at the origin of all his plays. One is represented as a sensation of...
(The entire section is 6848 words.)
George E. Craddock, Jr. (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: “Escape and Fulfillment in the Theatre of Eugène Ionesco,” in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 1, October 1971, pp. 15-22.
[In the following essay, Craddock argues that a major concern in Ionesco’s work is the breaking out of confining social structures and awakening of the individual to the full potentialities of existence. According to Ionesco this can be done through exercising the imagination and creativity, those innate capacities that are best developed in solitude, which is where humans find their true selves.]
In Ionesco’s theatre two major themes stand out: alienation and fulfillment. The first of these is one which Ionesco has in common...
(The entire section is 3035 words.)
J. K. Newberry (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: “The Evolution of the Dramatic Technique of Eugène Ionesco,” in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. XIV, No. 1, May 1975, pp. 31-41.
[In the following essay, Newberry examines the development of Ionesco’s dramatic technique, especially in La Cantatrice Chauve, Les Chaises, and Le Roi se meurt, all of which, the critic considers, share a common element: “the indivisible mixture of tragedy and comedy.”]
It is now almost twenty-five years since Eugène Ionesco first made his appearance in the French theatre with his explosive play La Cantatrice Chauve of 1950. Since that date Ionesco has built up a considerable “œuvre” of both...
(The entire section is 5618 words.)
Patrick Roberts (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: “Ionesco: Paroxysm and Proliferation,” in The Psychology of Tragic Drama, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975, pp. 102-26.
[In the following essay, Roberts explores the intensification of plot, incongruity, and parodistic fantasy that are characteristic of Ionesco’s plays, and asserts that his dramas display “the insight of a veritable master of the irrational.”]
Eugene Ionesco, writing of his own theatrical ambitions, argues as follows:1
What was needed … was to go right down to the very basis of the grotesque, the realm of caricature … to push everything to paroxysm, to the point where the sources of the...
(The entire section is 9091 words.)
Germaine Brée (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: “Ionesco’s Later Plays: Experiments in Dramatic Form,” in The Two Faces of Ionesco, edited by Rosette C. Lamont and Melvin J. Friedman, The Whitson Publishing Company, 1978, pp. 101-18.
[In the following essay, Brée studies three Ionesco plays from the 1960s, A Stroll in the Air, Exit the King, and Hunger and Thirst, in relation to his essays of the same period, and argues that the dramas constitute an effort on the part of the playwright to communicate, via the state, a view of life as “provisional, sincere, problematic, yet positive. ”]
Découvertes (Discoveries), one of Ionesco’s more recent essays,...
(The entire section is 7134 words.)
Nancy Lane (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: “Human/Non-human Relationships in Ionesco’s Theatre: Conflict and Collaboration,” in Kentucky Romance Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer 1983, pp. 240-50.
[In the following essay, Lane examines the role of décor in Ionesco’s plays, asserting that the external surroundings interact with other “characters” on stage in a wide range of relationships, for example as antagonists and collaborators.]
One of the most striking features of Eugène Ionesco’s theatre is the prominent role accorded to décor. In fact, so many critics have commented upon this subject that there might appear to be little or nothing left to add to the...
(The entire section is 6421 words.)
Lynne Retford (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: “Irony in Ionesco,” in French Literature Series, Vol. XIV, 1987, pp. 174-77.
[In the following essay, Retford explores four categories of irony in The Lesson, The Bald Soprano, The Killer, and Victims of Duty, and asserts that Ionesco uses irony to reflect and world in flux and as a statement of his metaphysical sentiments that life is both tragic and comic.]
Eugene Ionesco transmits an extreme awareness of the plight of contemporary man through an artistic act of defiance at the absurdity of existence. This note, using the four plays La Leçon. La Cantatrice Chauve, Tueur sans gages and Victimes du devoir, explores four...
(The entire section is 1434 words.)
Robert L. Tener (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: “Scenic Metaphors: A Study of Ionesco’s Geometrical Vision of Human Relationships in the Bérenger Plays,” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring 1987, pp. 175-91.
[In the following essay, Tener treats the use of d&eacaute;cor and other visual and aural theatrical metaphors as the dramatic expression of internal and external forces that surround the protagonist in Ionesco’s Bérenger plays.]
An important characteristic of drama closely related to characters and plot is the scenic space wherein the actions take place. For Anne Ubersfeld, “l’espace scénique peut aussi apparaître comme un vaste champ psychique où...
(The entire section is 7570 words.)
Rosette C. Lamont (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: “Ionescoland ” in Ionesco’s Imperatives: The Politics of Culture, University of Michigan Press, 1993, pp. 13-20.
[In the following essay, an earlier version of which appeared in her volume, Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays published by Prentice Hall in 1973, Lamont explores the bizarre world of Ionesco’s dramas, where the protagonists are in search of perfection as they live in dreariness; where objects seem to be endowed with independent existence; where a feeling of heaviness hangs over people; where relief from drudgery is usually fleeting; where the absurdities of existence are expressed in a dislocated language of clichés; and which looks...
(The entire section is 2984 words.)
Michael Holland (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: “Ionesco and Tradition,” in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 35, No 1, Spring 1996, pp. 53-66.
[In the following essay, Holland argues that Ionesco, the radical innovator, restored Tradition to theater with his discovery of the inherent theatricality of language, as he moved away from the defeatist and fatalist attitudes of other modernists and brought theater back to the stage in the form of original work.]
In a lecture given in Helsinki in 1959 and subsequently published under the title ‘Discours sur l’avant-garde’, Eugène Ionesco claims that his theatre originates in ‘[un] refus du traditionnalisme pour retrouver la tradition’1...
(The entire section is 7311 words.)
Barranger, M. S. “Death as Initiation in Exit the King.” Educational Theater Journal 27 (August 1975): 504-07.
Examines Exit the King in the context of Tibetan philosophy, seeing the end of the play as a triumph rather than a tragedy.
Coe, Richard. Ionesco: A Study of His Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1961. 120 p.
Comprehensive, analytic survey of Ionesco's work that includes photographs, bibliography, and a translation of the play The Niece-Wife.
Cohn, Ruby. “Berenger, Protagonist of an Anti-Playwright.” Modern Drama 8 (1965): 127-33.
(The entire section is 1033 words.)