The Interrelationship of Ionesco's Anti-Play Elements

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The Bald Soprano (1950) is Eugene Ionesco's first "anti-play," conceived and created as a deliberate spoof or parody of the plays then in vogue in Paris. Ionesco was attempting to create "a new free theatre," one devoid of theme, ideology, social realism, philosophy, and the thin "boulevard" psychology then pervading French drama. His targets were the complacent bourgeoisie and intellectual drones who went to see plays that fed them nothing to challenge their smug certainty that such matters as social injustice could be ameliorated through political convictions and rational discourse. For Ionesco, the very efficacy of language was in question, something far more fundamental and troubling than the passing concerns of political ideologies, no matter what their flavor.

Ionesco's method was to weave together trite expressions pilfered from an English-language primer that he had used while learning English. He translated these for his trenchant caricature of the bourgeoisie, whom he saw as prattlers of an endless stream of mindless expressions and hackneyed slogans. As he confides in Notes and Counter Notes, the process proved unsettling. While writing the work, he "felt genuinely uneasy, sick and dizzy," because, perhaps, he glimpsed from the outset that what he was writing "was something like the tragedy of language!"

The Bald Soprano may have tragic implications, but on the surface it is pure comedy, almost farce. In fact, Ionesco was aware of the seeming contradiction, for he also dubbed his anti-play a "comedy of comedies." He set out in artistic defiance of the Aristotelian notions of plot, character, diction, and thought—the elements of the "well-made" play—designing a new drama as free of such conventional elements as he could make it. His main characters, the Martins and Smiths, are robotic ninnies, so much alike as to be indistinguishable, either in language or function. Their diction is largely pre-masticated cant, made up of self-evident observations and the various insincere pleasantries that polite but empty civility requires. The Martins and Smiths are middle-class English couples, though they could just as well be of any nationality in Europe or North America.

Hemmed in by their hollow platitudes, these anti-characters never seem to progress much beyond a pre-cognitive ritual of acknowledging the existence of each other. Even that much is resisted by Mr. Smith when, at the play's opening, he reads and clicks his tongue while Mrs. Smith jabbers incoherently. Empty niceties and insincere expressions of awe lock out any understanding or insight, resulting, for example, in the ludicrous discovery by the Martins that they are actually husband and wife. Or so they agree to believe.

These are characters who either cannot think for themselves because they have no selves or have no selves because they cannot think. That is the ironic implication of Mrs. Martin's farewell thanks to the Fire Chief, with whom she says she has "passed a truly Cartesian quarter of an hour." In essence, the Smiths and Martins have provided the negative corollary to Descartes' famous principle, cogito ergo sum ("I think therefore I am"). They do not think; therefore they are not. They have no discreet identities, thus it is no wonder that Mr. and Mrs. Martin cannot recognize each other when they first enter the Smiths' home. The amnesia they suffer is a condition of non-being.

When a real thought threatens to invade the consciousness of these anti-characters, it is usually too evanescent to have any sticking power. It comes and is immediately lost, forcing discourse into a crazy-quilt pattern of incongruous observations, many of which are self-evident or indisputable truisms, like the fact that a week consists of seven days...

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or that the ceiling lies above and the floor below, snippets of inane conversation that Ionesco took from his English phrase book. Still, throughout the first half ofThe Bald Soprano, there are a few occasions in which a sense of anxiety breaks through the barriers erected by the polite platitudes. Angst is revealed in the characters' inability to endure silence and in a few hostile remarks that disclose, at least in the Smiths, fears of sexual inadequacy and the resulting threat to any last remnants of a meaningful identity. It is only at such points that characters, however crudely, use language creatively rather than merely mechanically. There is, for example, Mrs. Smith's early quip that although the soup of the evening meal "was perhaps a little too salty," it was "saltier" than Mr. Smith.

For the most part, as George Wellwarth remarks in "Beyond Realism: Ionesco's Theory of the Drama," the Smiths and Martins use language "as decorative verbiage to cover over the subconsciously felt fear of being in a reasonless void, of being an effect without a cause." Such isolated wordplay as Mrs. Smith's, indicative of an echo of an intuitive ability, is both faint and rare. In fact, in the final moments, just before the play starts over again, the hostile anger that emerges as the play's strongest emotion grows in potency as any semblance of meaning expressed in language breaks down. Discourse simply implodes into babble, word fragments strung together by sounds, not by the association of ideas. Words lose their symbolic value altogether, thus language utterly fails, leaving the Smiths and Martins in frustrated rage. The basis of that rage is completely lost in a torrent of nonsense. At that point, as Richard Coe says in Ionesco: A Study of His Plays, "language is used almost physically, as a kind of bludgeon or blunt instrument" and the audience is "physically assaulted by the barrage of quasi-meaningless sounds emitted by the characters on stage."

Formal logic and inductive reasoning, tools of rational discourse, are also assaulted in the playwright's scathing parody. Like the surrealists, Ionesco had a distrust of rational thought, widely regarded by Western thinkers from Aristotle forward as the principal means to human understanding. Ionesco mimics the rational process even as he mocks it, clearly defying it with highly improbable or random occurrences and contradictions. For example, the Smiths, masking sexual fears, engage in futile arguments built on ever-shifting premises. Like the clock, which finally strikes whatever it wants, the characters say whatever does or does not move them.

As in dreams, in Ionesco's world a ringing doorbell might announce the presence of someone at the door; then again, it might not. It is a random and arbitrary world, in which causal reasoning is at best unreliable. There can be no certainty. The Martins, having determined through their lengthy and comically tedious deductive process that they are married to each other, are actually deceived, if Mary can be trusted as accurate. Moreover, it makes no difference, for like the proliferated Bobby Watsons, one Mr. Martin or Mrs. Martin is basically the same as the next.

For Ionesco, causal argument badly misrepresents reality by putting too much faith in artificially ordered and focused conscious thought. He targeted the plays of the social realists because they told stories with events chained together in a logical, interlocking pattern that falsified true experience through drastic oversimplification and distortion. To reveal the deficiencies of such a causal pattern, he has the Smiths and Martins attempt to apply its principles to the more chaotic and less predictable world of the inner being. He does it, as Richard Scheduler says in "The Bald Soprano and The Lesson: An Inquiry into Play Structure," by "stripping away" the usual order, "the causative world," and thereby revealing the true "rhythms" of the theater. These more faithfully reflect that same inner being.

The basic structural paradigm for the linear, causally-developed, well-made play is an isosceles triangle, sometimes referred to as "Freytag's pyramid," after the nineteenth-century German writer who devised its schema. It reflects a unified structural pattern in which action rises from a stasis or equilibrium to a climax, then falls in denouement to an end. Theoretically, that sequence describes not only the entire structure but each dramatic "moment" or "beat."

Scrapping this artificial structure, Ionesco had to find a way to bring The Bald Soprano to closure. His first working solution, arrived at in rehearsal, was to end the action abruptly, using a sort of deus ex machina device in which the performance was closed down by "the Superintendent of Police and his men, who open fire at the rebellious audience" and simply order the theater vacated. The actors and playwright considered other possibilities but rejected them as too problematic. Then they came up with the clever idea of simply letting the play begin again, giving the work its cyclical structure. The play was already up and running when, as a final structural refinement, Ionesco substituted the Martins for the Smiths in the repeated opening.

Perhaps the Ouroboros, a snake devouring its own tail, can serve as the new structural paradigm. It suggests an endless, tedious, and futile cycle. It is, therefore, an appropriate structural symbol for much of the avant-garde drama influenced by Existentialism, representing the absurd condition of man explored by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. With variations, it would be used again by Ionesco, in, for example, his very next play, The Lesson (1951). Sensing that tedious and pointless labor was appropriate to the absurd condition Samuel Beckett used a parallel structure in the two acts of Waiting for Godot (1952).

As a complement to the infolding or collapsing structure, Ionesco employs a centripetal design in which language seems to go berserk. Everything speeds up. Words proliferate, then break into mere cacophonous fragments just prior to the blackout that divides round one from round two in the interminable main event. That pattern of acceleration and proliferation, whether of words or objects, characterizes most of Ionesco's ant-plays. It remains his indelible artistic signature and a hallmark by which his plays are easily recognized.

Source: John W. Fiero, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998. Fiero is a professor of English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, where he teaches drama and play writing.

Ionesco's The Bald Prima Donna

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In his play The Bald Soprano, Eugene Ionesco objected to mundane, peripheral talk "to diversions that tempt us to avoid thinking about or talking about the only things that really matter—the meaning of existence and the inevitability of death." Ionesco was agitated because he felt that "words no longer demonstrate: they chatter…. They are an escape. They stop silence from speaking…. They wear out thought, they impair it."

In relation to the idea that words no long "mean," Mrs. Martin remarks near the end of the play "We have passed a truly Cartesian quarter of an hour," which implies that those with her all knew that they existed because they were thinking. But since Ionesco parodies to the extreme their so-called thinking, they are not truly considering who they are or the reason for their existence; they are not truly living. All they wish to consider is how to pass the time as comfortably as possible.

Picking up on Mrs. Martin's inane remark, the Fire Chief incongruously blurts out the most enigmatic phrase of the play: "Speaking of that—the bald soprano?" The phrase is met with "embarrassment" and dumb "silence" by the Smiths and the Martins. The silence is termed "general," for it is all-pervasive; it is not the silence that speaks. This phrase is Ionesco's happy solution to the problem cited by Coe: It is "the phrase whose very essence is meaningless insignificance but which must become significant without thereby becoming meaningful…. It must reveal its own absurdity" [Coe, Richard, Eugene Ionesco, Grove, 1961]. And so it does; it is the epiphanic phrase by which Ionesco chose to reveal the complete designification of the word. In its having no connection to anything spoken heretofore, in its isolation from predication, this phrase is worse than any of the banal platitudes that have preceded it. It is the nonexistent "prima donna" that does not appear in the play, for as Ionesco said when asked why he had given the play this title, "One of the reasons … is that no prima donna appears in the play. This detail should suffice." And so it does, for the phrase which the playwright liked because of its sound signified his belief that words had become nothing but meaningless sounds.

Following the "general" silence that follows the Fire Chief's meaningless phrase, Mrs. Smith remarks, "She always wears her hair in the same style." This vapid attempt at humor is not used to cover any embarrassment she may feel over her ignorance of what possible meaning the phrase may have; rather it points up her indifferent attitude toward the idea of thought, for in her world words no longer signify anything.

That "the bald soprano" was an inadvertent remark or "slip of the tongue" by the actor who played the part of the fire chief, is an appropriate seed that must have struck Ionesco in its inappropriate relation to anything else in the play. The phrase served Ionesco's purpose well in signaling the final collapse of the word—sound without meaning, without significance—the way of the world.

Source: John V. McDermott, "Ionesco's The Bald Prima Donna" in the Explicator, Volume 55, no. 1, Fall, 1996, p. 40.

The Bald Prima Donna

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The curtain rises on a middle-class English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Smith: the wife is a non-stop chatterbox who has nothing to say beyond praising the cooking of their maid, Mary, while Mr. Smith is content with clicking his tongue from behind his opened newspaper. He is busy scanning the obituary page where a notice appears about the death of one Bobby Watson. Confusion pervades the exchange between husband and wife as to the gender of the dead person since both husband and wife were called Bobby. The clock strikes seven, three, then five, as Mrs. Smith wonders when the two Bobby Watsons plan to get married. The time is definitely "out of joint." These speculations, which also include the little Bobby Watsons, are interrupted by Mary who comes in to announce the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Martin. As the Smiths rush out to change, their guests settle in the vacant armchairs. Although Mr. and Mrs. Martin have come down on the same train from Manchester, they do not seem at first to know one another. Step by step they reconstruct their lives, becoming convinced that they are man and wife. Mary, the self-proclaimed "Sherlock Holmes" of the play, blows up their pyramid of evidence by stating that the little girl they assume to be their child cannot be their offspring: "… whereas it's the right eye of Donald's child that's red and the left eye that's white, it's the left eye of Elizabeth's child that's red and the right eye that's white." There are no certainties in Ionesco's world. With the unexpected arrival of the Captain of the Fire Brigade, the maid's erstwhile lover, matters disintegrate further. The Fireman's absurdist tales unleash a land of madness. The play ends with the Smiths and Martins dancing round and round like cannibals, hurling invectives or hissing syllables at one another. At the end, the Martins and Smiths trade roles and places. Everything starts all over again.

When The Bald Prima Donna was presented by Nicolas Bataille in 1950 on the tiny stage of the now defunct Theatre des Noctambules, the one-act sketch was received as a witty prank, the kind of show one might expect to see in a cabaret. The title appeared to be a joke since no bald diva was seen on the stage. The audience was unaware that the Fire Chief had slipped up in rehearsal, substituting the words "bald prima donna" for another group of nonsense terms, and as a result Ionesco decided that this chance twist of the tongue would determine the play's title. Such a solution was in keeping with the tradition of Dadaism, a school whose own title came from flipping open a dictionary and choosing a word at random. Ionesco, the admitted heir of Tristan Tzara, welcomed the intrusion of chance as an element of his aesthetic.

Ionesco likes to say that in composing The Bald Prima Donna he was not quite certain of what he had produced. He assumed that it was "something like the tragedy of language," and was therefore amazed to hear the audience laughing. Later, when he had had time to reflect upon this non-psychological, apolitical work, he came to see it as pure structure, like a musical composition or an architectural construction. Although Ionesco claimed the text of the play was "dictated" to him by the characters from a conversation book, English Made Easy, a careful analysis reveals that it is crafted with minute precision, that the rhythm of the play gathers momentum and reaches a crescendo. Although Ionesco sub-titles this sketch an "anti-play," pointing out its parodic intent, it must be seen as a lampoon that pays homage to the genre it mocks.

Most French critics made the mistake of considering this comedy to be social satire, a way of poking fun at bourgeois French society by means of a cartoon version of the British middle class. However, Ionesco is quick to declare: "I'm a good bourgeois myself!" If any joke was intended, it was at the expense of boulevard melodrama in the style of Henri Bernstein. Nicolas Bataille claims to have imitated this style in directing his actors, just as he ordered his set designer to recreate the decor of Hedda Gabler. Ionesco suggests that his play must be understood to be the satire of bourgeois mentality, not bourgeois customs. He says that he makes fun of a universal petite-bourgeoisie, of men of fixed ideals, who live by slogans, using mechanical language without ever questioning it.

There are six characters in the Bald Prima Donna. The Smiths and the Martins are interchangeable, and in the end they do change places. The Maid and the Fire Chief, her erstwhile lover, are no less indistinct, but they are colorful rather than gray. Ionesco's Mary is the Bacchante of Dionysus/The Fire Chief whom she celebrates by reciting a paean to fire. Of course the Fire Chief is enchanted with this celebration of his "conception of the world." It seems that being worshipped in this manner frees his own creative impulses; he manifests a gift for story telling. Both Mary's paean and her lover's surrealist fables constitute the dynamite charge that brings down the walls of convention. The play's rhythm intensifies, grows delirious. What becomes obvious is that the flat, cartoon-like characters are made of words, not of flesh and blood.

Ionesco's first play is still his favorite because of its simple abstract quality. It has been running at the Theatre de La Huchette in the Latin Quarter for over 35 years. It is also widely performed in university campuses in the United States. The Bald Prima Donna has ushered in the leading dramatic form of the second half of the 20th century, the metaphysical farce.

Source: Rosette C. Lamont, "The Bald Prima Donna" in The International Dictionary of Theatre I: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, p. 47.


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