Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 661
Eugène Ionesco was born in Romania and eventually moved to France, where he was educated and where he remained during World War I. With The Bald Soprano, his first play, and those that followed—including La Leçon(1951; The Lesson, 1955), Les Chaises (1952; The Chairs, 1958), and Rhinocéros(1959; English translation, 1959)—he became internationally famous, and his plays were produced all over the world. Although his international success gradually declined, in France Ionesco continued to be highly respected, and his works are often revived there.
The name given to the style of Ionesco’s plays (and to the plays of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov) is absurdist. The Bald Soprano, which is frequently regarded as the first absurdist play, is typical of the theater of the absurd for its absence of plot and a circular trajectory that ends where it began. Absurdist characters tend to be broad, generalized, two-dimensional figures, while settings are nondescript and vague. Moreover, what the characters say is rather insignificant; they tend to communicate not through what they mean but through how they speak the words and how the reader or audience associates meanings with those words.
Little happens in an Ionesco play. Readers and audiences who feel that they can find little in The Bald Soprano that makes any sense have probably discovered an essential ingredient of this one-act absurdist classic. Long after the play opened in Paris, Ionesco revealed that he got the idea of writing it when he tried learning English from an old textbook. The book, written in dialogue form, introduced members of a typical British family who conversed almost meaninglessly about themselves and the world in which they lived. This may be the strongest clue that the play is a satire of the British—and, by extension, the middle-class—way of life. With its parody of conventional characters and conventional settings, the play clearly also makes fun of middle-class theater. The recognition scene between Mr. and Mrs. Martin, which is highly reminiscent of nineteenth century melodrama, becomes comedic when the audience realizes that this married couple cannot remember that they share the same bed and that this is a fact they can only deduce intellectually. Ionesco called The Bald Soprano an anti-play, which is doubly appropriate because the piece is so deliberately unlike any plays that came before it and because it draws on traditional drama in order to make fun of it.
The fact that there is no conflict in the play reflects the nature of the people in the play: They want nothing and nothing can occur to them. These middle-class characters, the Smiths and the Martins, use language as a means not to communicate with each other but to compete and put down their adversaries. Language becomes a weapon for them. They are so far from being alive that when the Fire Chief comes looking for fires they laugh at the notion that anything could be warm and burning at their house. Mary’s poem, which describes different objects going up in flames, suggests a passion alien to them, and they are so offended by her recitation that they shove her offstage. Unlike the Martins, who must reason who they are before they can recognize each other, Mary and the Fire Chief (both driven by fiery passion) know each other on sight.
The two middle-class couples—in contrast to the more easygoing working-class maid and fireman—are fierce defenders of their respectable way of life, but as Ionesco presents them, their lives are amazingly empty, their stories are nonsensical, and their words ultimately amount to nothing more than angry sounds. There is much to laugh at here, and the comedy in The Bald Soprano is brilliantly funny. Many of the fables that precede Mary’s poem and the fractured clichés exchanged at the end of the play are such outrageously illogical parodies of familiar, everyday speech that the only way to respond to them is with laughter.