Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 983

At the time Ionesco wrote The Bald Soprano, serious French theater was under the domination of writers who wrote very literate plays with serious, intellectual themes. Among them were Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus who, although they shared a philosophical kinship with Ionesco, chose to write in a traditional mode There were a few dissenters, particularly Antonin Artaud. In The Theatre and Its Double (1938), he had clamored for something new, an overpowering drama that would have an impact analogous to that of the Black Death on medieval Europe. Few outside small avant-garde circles listened, however, and the new theatrical revolution preached by Artaud, which Ionesco's anti-play helped promote, began far less dramatically than Artaud had hoped. On May 11, 1950, The Bald Soprano opened before an audience of three people who sat under a leaky roof at the dilapidated Theatre des Noctambules on Paris's Left Bank.

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The audience never grew very large during the play's brief run. The work was simply too different for the established tastes of most patrons, some of whom hooted indignantly, outraged by the audacity of the piece. To them and most reviewers, The Bald Soprano was contrary to the very idea of theater. Few saw any merit in the play, and despite the cast and playwright's energetic efforts to drum up new audiences, the house soon went dark from lack of interest.

The chilling reception of The Bald Soprano did not discourage Ionesco, however. His fascination with theater rekindled, he continued writing his series of anti-plays, undeterred by the hostile or indifferent welcome of his early French audiences. The reactions even seemed to support the implications of his play, that the bourgeoisie was incapable of fresh judgments. It was the very discomfort of Ionesco's audiences that amused an early supporter, the French critic Jacques Lemarchand, who, in his "Preface to Eugene Ionesco," confessed that he found great pleasure in the "insults" and "grunts and ironic laughter of the notables in the audience."

Because he shared their distrust of rationalism, Ionesco won immediate approval by some surrealists, including the playwright Armand Salacrou, one of the three members of the play's first audience. However, it took the support of establishment critics and writers to break through the barrier of public aversion. The tide of public opinion really began to turn in 1954 with the revival of Ionesco's third produced play, The Chairs. It had played to sparse audiences m 1952, when it was first produced, and though it prompted a serious defense in the magazine, Arts, it fared little better than The Bald Soprano had two years earlier. However, the revival became a significant success when France's premier dramatist Jean Anouilh openly deemed it a masterpiece, a classic in the avant-garde theater. Ionesco soon found a niche in the front rank of the new French playwrights, some of whom, like him, were expatriates living in Paris, notably Samuel Beckett and Arthur Adamov.

There were those who complained that Ionesco's anti-plays advanced no causes, that the playwright lacked the kind of political commitment of dramatists like Bertolt Brecht. A major controversy arose after, in translation, Ionesco's plays made their way onto the British stage, starting with The Bald Soprano in November, 1956. Within two years, the so-called "London Controversy" started when an extremely influential leftist critic and early defender of Ionesco, Kenneth Tynan, began a celebrated debate with the playwright over what Tynan believed was Ionesco's linguistic nihilism, his distrust of language as a viable tool for human advancement. Several important persons were eventually drawn into the controversy, including Philip Toynbee and Orson Welles. In the intellectual fur flying, Ionesco made it clear that he saw little difference between the totalitarian regimes on the left and the fascist regimes on the right, and he openly attacked leftist apologists, among whom he numbered Jean-Paul Sartre Bertolt Brecht John Osborne, and Arthur Miller. To Ionesco, drama had little to do with doctrines, as he had endeavored to show in his early diary entries explaining his purpose in The Bald Soprano and The Lesson. His aim was to create "pure drama" that was "anti-thematic, anti-ideological, anti-social-realist, anti-philosophical, anti-boulevard-psychology" and "anti-bourgeois." His was to be a new, "abstract" theater, liberated from any sort of doctrinal adhesion.

Throughout the 1960s, with a growing worldwide reputation, Ionesco remained a prolific dramatist. His achievement, recognized by his election to the conservative Academe Francaise in 1970, was exceptional, but his influence on avant-garde theater was gradually waning. Some of his most ardent earlier admirers were frustrated by his inflexible opposition to didactic drama. Ironically, he had become increasingly partisan in his adherence to non-partisanship, a paradox that he himself pointed out. According to Deborah Gaensbauer in Eugene Ionesco Revisted, during the Cold War many "French intellectuals and critics … became devotees of Brecht," who had been one of Ionesco's major targets in his debate with Tynan. As a result, he alienated some of his original followers, becoming "cast once more as a pariah in an all-too-familiar irrational discourse."

By the 1970s, Ionesco had simply become too familiar, like an old hat worn too often. Though still honored for his first contributions to the new French theater, he was criticized for lacking the profundity of Beckett, the rebellious zeal of Genet, and the courage needed to take new artistic risks. Ionesco, stung by the rebukes, turned increasingly away from theater to fiction, criticism, and painting.

Ironically, the end of the Cold War helped restore some of Ionesco's diminished reputation as a playwright and thinker, for as Gaensbauer noted, in the 1980s "many of Ionesco's political claims were vindicated," making him a kind of prophet, a "modern Tiresias, shunted aside for seeing uncomfortable truths." Still, as Martin Esslin suggested in The Theatre of the Absurd, Ionesco's ultimate place in "the mainstream of the great tradition" remains uncertain, although his plays, including The Bald Soprano, have made "a truly heroic attempt to break through the barriers of human communication."

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