Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591

To be fully understood, Eugène Ionesco’s theater must be projected against two of the twentieth century’s most important movements: Surrealism and existentialism. Though Ionesco owes much to the Surrealists, what distinguishes him from them is that, in spite of the experimental nature of some of his plays and their apparent irrationality, they seldom if ever divorce themselves from recognizable reality, as did most plays written by the Surrealists. Philosophically, Ionesco is indebted to Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Yet they attempted to express the meaninglessness, irrationality, and absurdity of modern existence by means of traditional literary conventions, exceptionally rational discourse, and lucid reasoning, whereas Ionesco believes that the notion of an absurd existence cannot be communicated intellectually; one must be made to feel it, to sense it, and to experience it.

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The Bald Soprano was not a once-in-a-lifetime play for Ionesco. In fact, it contains many of the techniques, ideas, and obsessions that he developed in subsequent plays. Although his later plays cannot be said to be traditional, they do show considerable technical development and greater attention to, and perhaps better understanding of, traditional theatrical requirements. With a few exceptions, his later plays have greater complexity and breadth of meaning, and his characters gradually gain in humanity.

Les Chaises (pr. 1952; The Chairs, 1957) heralded what might be regarded as a second period in Ionesco’s development. This play deals with the meaninglessness of human existence. It also introduces a brilliant central metaphor, the chairs, by which Ionesco makes patent his view that materialism and material objects separate human beings from one another and from a higher being. Ionesco’s concept of human anonymity and his view that societal and familial pressures force individuals to abdicate and lose their individuality is further developed in Jacques: Ou, La Soumission (pb. 1954; Jack: Or, The Submission, 1958) and in Rhinoceros (pr. 1959; Rhinoceros, 1959), among other plays. Amedee: Ou, Comment s’en debarrasser (pr., pb. 1954; Amedee: Or, How to Get Rid of It, 1955), Ionesco’s first full-length play, deals again with the problems of married couples. In this play, Ionesco introduces still another ingenious and effective image: a huge and rapidly growing cadaver that a husband and wife discovered in their bedroom many years ago. It symbolizes the couple’s incompatibility and their inability to deal directly with it.

Tueur sans gages (pr., pb. 1958; The Killer, 1960), his second full-length play, departs considerably from its predecessors. In it Ionesco attempts, probably for the first time, to combine metaphysical, political, and public themes with his personal experience and obsessions, making it one of his most thematically complex and dramatically powerful plays. Speaking about Rhinoceros, Ionesco stated that it “is an anti-Nazi play but also an attack on collective hysteria and the epidemics that lurk beneath the surface of reason and ideas.” Ionesco uses brilliantly yet another central image, the metamorphosis of humans into rhinoceroses, to document once again the dehumanization of human beings. He imbues this image with enough elements of ambiguity, however, to make it transcend the equation of rhinoceros and Nazi.

Though Ionesco has written several other plays, there is general agreement that those that follow Rhinoceros are generally inferior to those that precede it and do not offer much that is new. There is also general agreement, however, that the author of The Bald Soprano is not only one of the best practitioners of Theater of the Absurd but one of the twentieth century’s foremost playwrights. Ionesco’s place in literary history was sealed when, on February 25, 1971, he was admitted to the Academie Francaise.

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Critical Evaluation