Critical Context

Exit the King is one of four plays written by Ionesco featuring Berenger as a kind of Everyman. Tueur sans gages (pr., pb. 1958; The Killer, 1960) pits a man named Berenger against the derisively laughing life-taker, representing the forces of unreason, and Berenger succumbs. In Rhinocéros (pr., pb. 1959; Rhinoceros, 1959), an Everyman Berenger is the last man on Earth, refusing to capitulate to all the others who have joined the “movement” to become horned beasts; the play is a satire on totalitarianism of both the Left and the Right. In Le Piéton de l’air (pr. 1962; A Stroll in the Air, 1964) Berenger is a French writer tired of using cliché to mock cliché; he thus eagerly visits another universe but returns, his eyes wild, having witnessed horror and ugliness.

Ionesco’s first play, La Cantatrice chauve (pr. 1950; The Bald Soprano, 1956), inaugurated the genre of the Theater of the Absurd, upending traditional stage conventions and making the rational seem irrational and ironic. With playwrights Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, Harold Pinter, and Samuel Beckett, Ionesco opened the theater to a new kind of tragicomedy which, in its playfulness and its metaphysical consideration of death and meaning, exemplified the angst, or feeling of abandonment and anxiety, of modern humankind.

Exit the King marked a departure for Ionesco from portrayal of the merely absurd to the use of more rounded, less overtly mechanical language and characters. Subsequently, Ionesco concentrated on the subconscious images of dreams. “Dreams,” he told an interviewer, “are reality at its most profound, and what you invent is truth because invention, by its nature, can’t be a lie.” Though still expressing what amounts to nihilism in some of his plays written after Exit the King, in others Ionesco seems to affirm the need of his central characters for some kind of love, as in La Soif et la faim (pr. 1964; Hunger and Thirst, 1968). The works of Ionesco, especially Exit the King, confront the audience with the problem of human finitude in the face of a world that has apparently lost its moorings.