Ionesco, Eugène 1912–
Ionesco is a French dramatist and major figure in the theater of the absurd. He creates a darkly comic portrait of the human condition, exposing man's tragic alienation, his obsession with violence and power, and the impossibility of true communication. In this world, the grotesque is exaggerated, the ordinary made surreal. To Ionesco, "theater is the projection on the stage of the world within." Though personal and dreamlike, this vision assumes universal proportions. An experimentalist, he has also written short stories, a novel, and a screenplay. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 6, 9, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
It is disconcerting to experience the world on the stage, but in The Killer, it is there all the same. The atmosphere hovers over the action, a metaphysical cloud in our midst; on the stage, the machinations of our humdrum, hurried world….
We are aware that the play is about the System, the Establishment, the State, and we feel good because we have labelled a part. There is security in labelling. We know that the play has characters representing the crowd, the bureaucrat—all those who have sacrificed individual will to functions. Fine! So far the world is familiar. Everybody is writing about those people. What begins to bother us is that at the point where his contemporaries instruct, Ionesco remains silent. Just where does he stand? His characters, except for Berenger, are all devoid of passion; they have no sympathy for each other; there is no human understanding or communication; rapport among individuals is impossible; no one shares interest in the affairs of others. Each is solely concerned with his individual function; love is unknown as is its meaning; human relationships are cold, blunt, and uncaring. These are not unique characteristics, but are found in the work of many artists. In fact, there is general agreement that modern man is alienated, selfless, loveless, etc. So why, we think, doesn't Ionesco come up with a new plan? (p. 224)
To begin with, Ionesco does not believe that we can change social conditions for the better by the techniques by which we normally manipulate them. What revolutions rule out is man's irrevocable subjection to the boundaries of the human condition…. "Is not man," Ionesco asks, "the sick animal?" It is the symptoms and the nature of this illness that comprise the body of Ionesco's work....
(The entire section is 736 words.)
The Dance of Death and the Triumph of Death are themes that appeared across late medieval and Renaissance Europe in the visual arts, poetry and drama. Death snatching people away became a favourite subject of didacticism. In Germany, France and Switzerland, particularly, the lasting impressions made by extant murals, verses and plays have continued into our time. (p. 107)
In Ionesco, we find [a] most stunning use of the medieval Dance of Death. In his [Massacre Games], the ominousness of Death, his dignity and irresistible power are vested in the allegorical Black Monk, who stalks his victims. Anonymous type characters come and go. Above all, the metaphysical aura, so strong in this author's later work, obtrudes in the midst of universal dying. Though devoid of theological meaning, this aura signifies man's helplessness before transcendence. Although the appearance of Death is sombre, Ionesco has injected the Grand Guignol farce in which he is now an expert, and in this context, it reflects the comic cavorting of the corpses in numerous Dances. Ionesco rejects realism categorically, of course, and by doing so he locates his work in fantasy. Rapid changes of scenes, simultaneous staging and use of lighting reinforce the vagueness of location. (p. 108)
For its graphic details the play is based on Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year (1722)…. Allegory is prominent in the figure of the Black Monk. The dramatic quality inheres in the separate scenes.
Ionesco believes that one must laugh at death. In 1969 he asserted that a dead person is derisible because he is no longer master of himself. Death is the deliberate joke in Massacre Games. The title alone stresses the play element in Ionesco's approach. A jeu de massacre is the game "Aunt Sally," played at fairs, in which the players throw sticks at the pipe in the mouth of a wooden woman's head. In this play,...
(The entire section is 795 words.)
[By accentuating and accelerating the disjointedness of character, setting and situation] the theater of the absurd turned the professor into a central figure for the representation of man's condition in the modern world, in a way neither Mr. Chips nor his cousins, Molière's Docteurs, could have represented it.
Ionesco's Professor [in La Leçon is] … obviously steeped in the tradition of the stage professor, a tradition which for both its comic and tragic effects supposes a link with everyday life and reality. This link survives, though it has become extremely tenuous, and though the figures on stage now seem to re-enact everyday nightmare in patterns that are as unlife-like as possible, yet more compelling than ever for all involved. Overcoming the grotesque distortion of displacement and acceleration, this new professor holds the center of the stage and shows disturbing marks of kinship with the more heroic figures whose place he has usurped. (p. 138)
Ionesco has continued to be faithful to [the] conception of theater as a universe where the archetype has a privileged position and the intensely private blends with the commonplace…. The case of the professor in La Leçon is, in this respect, particularly interesting, for it recalls not only the mountebank, but, with him, the tradition of the Carnival contrasto; as a result, "la propre mythologie de l'oeuvre" emerges by contrast with the Dionysian myth, going against the grain of Western drama. (p. 141)
[La Leçon] is the first of Ionesco's paradoxical machines …, namely, presenting interaction of rather clearly distinguished "gear" and "pivot" figures (personnage-rouage and personnage-pivot) thoroughly undermined in their respective roles…. The main paradoxical effect of this play results from the dramatization of impotence: like all dead things, it becomes frightening when set in motion, especially at the infernal pace...
(The entire section is 814 words.)
[Rhinocéros is not an allegory.] Few readers are likely to agree at the outset with this assertion, because for most interpreters of the play, starting with its author, Eugène Ionesco, Rhinocéros is indeed allegorical—or at least broadly symbolic. The meaning of the drama must be explained in dualistic terms, so the argument goes: good versus evil, Bérenger against the world, humanity refusing to succumb to the grotesque epidemic of rhinoceritis, the individual—flawed but admirably courageous—celebrating selfhood in defiance of conformism or totalitarianism, language holding its own in the face of rampant noncommunication. (p. 207)
If we disregard external evidence …, we discover that the thematic import of Rhinocéros is less transparent than has often been contended. Having stripped away all elements foreign to the text, one must attempt to answer some fundamental questions about the nature of literature in general and about this dramatic work in particular. (1) What relationships, if any, exist between a concept in literature and its empirical applications? (2) What does it mean to be human—in the implied internal definition of the term found in the play? (3) How effectively does Bérenger defend the human condition? (4) Is rhinoceritis necessarily bad, in light of the play's dynamics, or is it an understandable response to the condition it replaces—human form essentially devoid of humanness?
In the first place, it must be made clear that Bérenger is not a spokesman for any real-life notion of humanity, nor is Ionesco's version of rhinoceritis a pragmatic phenomenon suitable for the research projects of social scientists. Rhinocéros, like any significant literary work, does offer its audience an implied analogy with human experience. But analogy is never identity. Bérenger...
(The entire section is 766 words.)