The Play

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As the curtain rises on The Bald Soprano, the audience sees a “middle-class interior” and is witness to what appears to be a naturalistic “slice of life.” Mr. Smith is sitting comfortably near a fireplace, smoking a pipe and reading the newspaper, while Mrs. Smith is darning some socks. This impression of blissful tranquillity is interrupted by something unexpected and odd: The clock strikes seventeen strokes. The general tone of the play is immediately set when Mrs. Smith exclaims: “Goodness! It’s nine o’clock.” Mr. and Mrs. Smith proceed to tell each other what they both already know: what they had for dinner, the number of helpings each had, and the names and personal traits of their children. This conversation leads Mrs. Smith to discuss the merits of a Romanian grocer who has a diploma from a yogurt-making academy. While extolling the medicinal virtues of yogurt, she is reminded of a doctor who tries all medicines and operations on himself first. Mr. Smith responds that the man cannot be a good doctor: “A conscientious doctor must die with his patient if they can’t get well together.” Mr. Smith adds, “All doctors are quacks. And all patients too. Only the Royal Navy is honest in England.”

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The clock then strikes seven times and again three times after a long silence. To add to this temporal confusion, Mr. Smith reads in the obituary section about the death of a man named Bobby Watson who died, Mr. Smith says, about two years ago. During their conversation, however, the Smiths continually contradict themselves, making it difficult to know when the man really did die. What is more, the audience learns that Bobby Watson’s wife is also called Bobby Watson; “as they had the same name, when you saw them together you could never tell one from the other.” This situation of mistaken identity extends to many other members of the family, all of whom are named Bobby Watson.

Mary, the maid, enters and informs the Smiths that Mr. and Mrs. Martin are at the door. Although they had been invited to dinner, they did not dare enter. They were waiting outside until someone showed them in. The Smiths leave the stage to change clothes for dinner and the Martins are ushered in. Left alone onstage, the two strike up a casual conversation. Is it possible that they might have met before? To their absolute amazement, they gradually discover that they both come from Manchester, take the same train, and live in the same street, the same building, the same floor, and the same apartment, which they share with a two-year-old daughter who has one white eye and one red. Could they be married to each other? As the clock strikes twenty-nine times, the Martins move toward each other: “Elizabeth, I have found you again!” “Donald, it’s you, darling!” The evidence seems irrefutable. They are indeed husband and wife—or are they? As the two promise not to lose sight of each other ever again, the maid informs the audience that Elizabeth and Donald are not who they think they are, and the child of whom Donald spoke is not Elizabeth’s daughter. In fact, Mary is not Mary: “My real name is Sherlock Holmes.”

When the Smiths join the Martins, the two couples exchange embarrassing silences, nervous coughs and laughter, and cliches devoid of any real meaning. The stories that they tell are of a peculiar nature. While they find extraordinary the most commonplace human acts—such as a man bending down to tie his shoelaces—they accept as natural and ordinary the most fantastic occurrences.

The doorbell rings to interrupt their nonsensical conversation. Mrs. Smith naturally assumes that someone is at the door. After three different trips to answer it, she concludes that, though it may be true in theory that when the doorbell rings there must be someone at the door, “experience teaches us that when you hear a ring at the doorbell it means that there’s never anybody there.” When the bell rings a fourth time, Mrs. Smith refuses to answer it, so Mr. Smith does. A fire chief comes in; he is in search of a fire. Though disappointed at not finding any fire, he decides to stay for a while and regale the two couples with a series of “experimental fables” and other bizarre stories, each increasingly more complex and absurd. When the fire chief is ready to leave to put out a fire, which was announced three days earlier and which will start in “three quarters of an hour and sixteen minutes exactly,” his departure is delayed by the entrance of the maid, who turns out to be the woman who extinguished the chief’s “first fires.” Mary insists on reciting a repetitious, boring poem entitled “The Fire.” While the Smiths push Mary offstage, Mr. Martin exclaims: “That sent chills up my spine.”

When the fire chief finally leaves, the exchanges of the Smiths and the Martins take an interesting twist. From gratuitous truisms such as “The ceiling is above, the floor is below” they move to senseless assertions such as “The car goes very fast, but the cook beats batter better” and surrealistic proverbs such as “Take a circle, caress it, and it will turn vicious.” At first uttered in a natural way, the remarks gradually accelerate and become increasingly aggressive. The four become hostile and are soon standing, screaming their speeches, raising their fists, ready to throw themselves upon each other. Language breaks down completely into purely aggressive sounds.

The stage goes dark. When the lights come back on, Mr. and Mrs. Martin have taken the places occupied by the Smiths at the beginning of the play. As the curtain falls softly, the play begins again with the Martins, who say exactly the same lines as the Smiths in the first scene.

Dramatic Devices

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As Eugène Ionesco confessed, The Bald Soprano was an attempt to parody the well-made play, with its shallow psychology, worn-out conventional imbroglios, stereotypical plots and characters, and pat denouement. For example, the opening scene, where the Smiths exchange the most banal pieces of information, is a parody of the classical exposition. The recognition scenes between the Martins and between the fire chief and Mary are also clear parodies of the typical scene of the melodramatic plot. In this “anti-play,” the nonsensical and the pseudological reign supreme. Action contradicts words, and words contradict action. Even the title is misleading, since there is no bald soprano in the play.

The Bald Soprano lacks a beginning, a middle, and an end, necessary for following traditional Aristotelian precepts. Ionesco would argue that, though typical of the realistic theater, such neat divisions can hardly be said to mirror real life. True dramatic action does not exist in the play; nor are there any heroes, since the characters in this play lack the most fundamental psychological dimensions that would distinguish one from the other. It is precisely this absence of psychological and emotional depth that renders them anonymous and indistinct and, therefore, interchangeable. In fact, even time, space, and social context are leveled off into a continual present where the before and the after do not exist. This condition further reinforces the robotic nature of Ionesco’s characters.

Logically, if such a word can be used when discussing this play, such characters cannot be expected to use language along traditional lines. Theirs is an exaggeratedly absurd language which obfuscates rather than explicates. At best, it conveys platitudes; at worst, it is lost in non sequiturs and pure nonsense. Its final chaotic sounds underline the insufficiency of language to express matters of transcendental import as well as the characters’ misuse of one of the few means by which human beings can hope to come into contact with one another.

In spite of its parodic import, its elements of shock and buffoonery, its overt frontal attack on established traditions, The Bald Soprano is not a negativistic play. Ionesco wanted to liberate theater, to free it from the shackles of rationality, causality, and age-old traditions. Realism, according to Ionesco, diminishes the humanity of man by concentrating excessively on science, logic, reason, and the physical aspects of reality. Human reality was much more to him. Theater, being the domain of imagination, had to make room for all those elements which together constitute the human being: Ionesco wanted to welcome to the theater the wonders of dreams and nightmares, the complexities of human fantasies, the illogicality of the subconscious, the irrationality of obsessions, and the unbridled stream of consciousness. Language too had to reflect this enriched reality. Andre Breton, the pope of Surrealism, once wrote that language had been given to men so that they could use it surrealistically. Ionesco does exactly that.

Places Discussed

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*London

*London. Great Britain’s capital city, in a suburb of which Mrs. Smith and her husband live. Numerous references to things English are enhanced by stage directions that continually stress Englishness. Almost all these references occur, however, in the first quarter of the play, because as it progresses, its geographical location decreases in importance.

Smiths’ sitting room

Smiths’ sitting room. Living room of the London suburban flat in which the Smiths live. The reassuring dullness of a humdrum middle-class English home in 1950 conflicts with the illogical events and incongruous conversations that occur within it. The sitting room remains an essential context even when geographical location ceases to matter. The numerous discrepancies between setting and action emphasize Ionesco’s challenge to social conventions, warn against placing trust in language (even when it obeys the rules of grammar and syntax), and exemplify its potential meaninglessness.

*Australia

*Australia. Subject of a subtle joke, when Mrs. Smith regrets not drinking some Australian burgundy—a wine that was not obtainable in England during the 1950’s. After such wine later became available in England, Ionesco’s joke became unnoticeable.

*Andrinopolis

*Andrinopolis (an-dree-NAP-oh-lihs). Also known as Adrianople and later Edirne, a Turkish city near the Greek frontier, where Mrs. Parker’s Balkan grocer obtained his yogurt-maker’s diploma before emigrating to England. Balkan yogurt, later popular in England, was unheard of when the play was first produced and would have puzzled the play’s 1950’s audiences. The grocer originated in Romania, likewise in Eastern Europe. With this group of references, Ionesco, himself Romanian, shares a joke with spectators in the know.

Historical Context

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In the period between 1948, when Ionesco began writing The Bald Soprano, and 1956, when Peter Wood directed the play's first production in English at the Arts Theatre in London, the split that divided the world into two hostile super powers deepened and widened. Ionesco, who obtained French citizenship in 1950, the year the work was first performed, was cut off from his homeland, Romania, which by then was firmly within the Soviet bloc of communist satellite states.

The Cold War arms race began in earnest in that same period. The "police action" in Korea, starting in 1950, heated up the war, pitting North Korea and its Communist Chinese allies against South Korea and United States and other United Nations forces. The prospects of spreading hostilities loomed large, prompting fears at home and abroad of a new world war that would employ weapons of vast destruction, like the thermonuclear device that was detonated at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in 1954. America's first hydrogen bomb, the device was hundreds of times more powerful than the more primitive atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.

In the United States, congressional investigations of suspected communists continued, although the excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy, censured for misconduct in 1954, were slowly turning the tide of public opinion against the investigations. Many felt the inquiries had turned into a hysterical witch hunt, as Arthur Miller had suggested in The Crucible, his 1952 drama based on the Salem witchcraft trials of the seventeenth century. It was also in 1954 that, at a conference of world powers meeting in Geneva, Vietnam was divided into two separate states, setting the stage for the Vietnam War.

In France Ionesco's adopted country, the conservative government fell in June, 1954, bringing to the premiership Pierre Mendes-France, leader of the Radical-Socialist party. Among other leftist policy changes, Mendes-France favored an end to French colonialism in North Africa and Indochina. Algerian nationalists, hoping to hasten their independence, revolted against France the following October, creating a national crisis.

Winds of political and social change were also shifting in the United States. In the momentous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, effectively overturning laws based on the "separate but equal" ruling of a much earlier Court. The landmark decision was the legal basis for the civil rights movement of the next two decades.

By the early 1950s, television had become the principal medium of popular culture in the United States, supplanting the radio and offering a major challenge to the motion picture industry. Prices for black and white television sets with nineteen-inch screens had dropped to an average of $187 by 1954, bringing them within the affordable means of the average family. In that same year, RCA introduced the first color television set, and though the quality was poor and unreliable, within six years, with improved technology, color television began replacing black and white television as the household standard. A "hot" medium, television would soon begin purveying popular artistry, such as the new and revolutionary style of music known as rock and roll, including the work of Elvis Presley, who cut his first commercial recording in 1954.

In the American theater, the principal playwrights were Arthur Miller Tennessee Williams and a rediscovered Eugene O'Neill. Although all three used non-realistic elements in their drama, they largely worked within the tradition of the well-made play and shared a similar focus on social and psychological problems affecting realistic characters. Compared to the Broadway and West End fare of 1954—plays like Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial and Terrence Rattigan's Separate Tables—Ionesco's The Bald Soprano and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot represented a new, bold, and highly controversial use of theater. Their influence in the American theater would first be felt in the United States in the off-off Broadway movement of the late 1950s.

Like much of absurdist drama, The Bald Soprano seems detached from the real world. It is virtually free of any topical allusions to current affairs. It goes down its own sort of metaphysical rabbit hole, creating a world in which there is no verisimilitude, no link to actuality. It does make reference to several real persons, to Benjamin Franklin Robert Browning and Rudyard Kipling for example, but these are anachronistic names invoked in the muddle of verbal nonsense that dominates the last part of the play. Except in the most abstract sense, Ionesco's purpose is not political. He is not dealing with a social or even an ethical wrong. He is lamenting the death of language, a tragedy of such magnitude that it renders the current state of world affairs trivial and irrelevant.

Literary Style

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Setting
The setting of The Bald Soprano is so typically "English" as to be a reductio ad absurdum. The interior, the furnishings, the characters' dress and manners are all "English," at least in the sense of epitomizing a national stereotype. The setting is the modern interior of a middle-class London couple's home, while the characters are a husband and wife who evidence those qualities attributed to the type, a sort of stoic stiffness and reserve and superficial cheeriness and civility.

The actual furnishings may be realistic enough, but the behavior of the Smiths and their visitors most certainly is not. Nor is the English clock, which, from the outset, indicates that the action within the seemingly real surroundings is to be distorted through the lens of a parodist.

Structure
Billed as an "anti-play," The Bald Soprano parodies the well-made problem play of the realistic tradition. Rather than develop on a linear, causal path towards a climax and denouement, Ionesco's work progresses haphazardly, and though it becomes increasingly frenetic near the end, as if approaching an emotional climax, it finally folds back on itself and starts all over again. Its cyclical structure suggests that an infinite and tedious replay is possible but is aborted, not because there is an Aristotelian end, but simply from practical necessity. Even an anti-play has to finish.

Although it may be described as a fairly long one-act play, there is no formal division of The Bald Soprano into either acts or scenes. The entrances and exits of characters mark episodic changes that do not carry forward any causal or thematic links. Basically, there are five major episodes or "French scenes": first the Smiths are alone, arguing over trivial matters and discussing the Bobby Watsons; next the Martins are alone, tediously discovering that they are husband and wife; then the Martins and Smiths are together, exchanging empty observations and arguing over the significance of the ringing doorbell; next the Fire Chief arrives, visiting with the two couples, telling stories; and finally, after the maid's interruption and the Chief's exit, the Smiths and Martins are alone again, engaging in a nonsensical verbal ruckus. Thereafter the anti-play shifts into a combination epilogue and prologue, starting all over again.

Anti-Characters
The Bald Soprano is also an "anti-play" because its characters are anti-characters. The Smiths and Martins are entirely lacking distinct or consistent personalities; they are indistinguishable, virtually interchangeable, and essentially characterless. They speak alike, often echoing each other's phrases, as evidenced in the dialogue between the Martins. They are unable to begin and sustain meaningful discourse, for they are defined by the clichés of their class, from which they can not depart and which they never transcend. They are anti-heroes not because they are physically disabled or have weak minds or experience extraordinary bad luck but because they have no minds at all. None of them serves as a protagonist or main character in any traditional sense.

There are hints of potential character, conveyed in the vague anxiety that afflicts these figures, something lying outside the ability of their language to express it, except perhaps in isolated moments of oblique word play. Characters seem compelled to say things, to cover a silence that would expose their vulnerability. When the Martins and Smiths first sit down to talk, they must overcome an embarrassing silence, an uncomfortable moment in which the realization that they have nothing to say threatens to expose their hollowness. The silence is broken, first with hemming and hawing, then with pointless pleasantries, but the silence keeps returning with its disturbing presence. The silence seems to be a more authentic act of communication than the silly and self-evident comments the Smiths and Martins make.

Nonsense
The Bald Soprano may have a serious theme, but it uses nonsense and buffoonery to advance its idea that language has become denuded of its majesty and affective power. The physical slapstick of classic farce, used to beat the comic stooge, has been transformed into a verbal counterpart, noisy but ineffective.

Words are depleted of force in various comic ways. One way is through tedious repetition. For example, the words "bizarre," "coincidence," and "curious," used in the first exchange between the Martins, are worn down to pointlessness through repetition. Words are also misapplied, such as when the Martins and Smith find the most mundane or trivial act to be "something extraordinary" or "incredible." Words also go limp when they appear in doughy lumps or hackneyed expressions, randomly inserted in dialogue that goes nowhere because it is simply a meandering stream of non sequiturs. Words deprived of meaning become mere objects, to be thrown about like brickbats in a comic but nonsensical free-for-all.

There are also some nonverbal farcical elements in The Bald Soprano, although they seem of less importance. Characters sometimes act in ways diametrically opposed to what they say they will or will not do, as, for example, when the Fire Chief announces that he has no time to sit down and then proceeds to do so, or when the Smiths retire to change their clothes but return to greet the Martins without having done so. Buffoonery is also evident in their dress itself, notably in the large, shiny helmet the Chief wears, and in such classic clowning routines as shoving an intruder offstage, as the Smiths do to Mary while she recites her poem, and in Mrs. Smith's repeated trips to the door to find that no one has rung the doorbell. This silliness has a purpose, serving as a visual concomitant to the basic breakdown of sense in language that is the play's central concern.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1950s: There is a growing concern about the misuse and abuse of language, particularly as an instrument of propaganda. Words are used to sway public and political opinion, particularly by the powers waging the Cold War. As communication technology advances, concerns arise over the negative effects on the human mind. Some believe that media advances make a sort of massive brain washing possible, a danger reflected in both nonfiction and fictional works, including George Orwell's 1984 (1949) and Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders (1957).

    Today: Many critics argue that in stressing the need for "political correctness" the media and various public agencies are currently engaged in social engineering through the manipulation of language, even if the aim, multi-cultural understanding and tolerance, is praiseworthy.

  • 1950s: In the traditional stereotype of the middle-class family, the roles of husband and wife are primarily limited to the husband as "bread winner" and the wife as "nurturer." World War II temporarily altered this pattern as women replaced military-bound men in factory jobs. After the war, the pattern resumed, but many women discovered they were dissatisfied with a life confined to the domestic sphere.

    Today: Women are much more active in the work force. They have also made significant inroads in the military, with many serving in combat roles.

  • 1950s: The Cold War is a global pressure cooker threatening an uneasy peace with heated words and threats. Although The Bald Soprano remains free of any reference to the ideological struggle, Ionesco's "anti-play" is the first of several in which he deliberately neglects current affairs for his more abstract ends, leaving the international crisis conspicuous only by its total absence.

    Today: With the Cold War over, Ionesco's unwillingness to use drama to promote partisan views seems intellectually justified, as does his concern with the debasement of language.

Media Adaptations

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  • The only feature film in English adapted from an Ionesco play is Rhinoceros, which was released in 1974. An American Film Theatre production, it was directed by Tom O'Horgan and starred Karen Black, Zero Mostel, and Gene Wilder. Ionesco was one of the screenwriters. The stage play did not translate well into film, and most critics consider it a failure. It is not currently available on video.
  • An audio tape of Rhinoceros, featuring the same leading actors as the film version, was released by Harper Audio on cassette in 1973. It is out of print, but used copies are sometimes available online from retailers like Amazon.com.
  • La Vase (The Slough), a film made at La Chapelle-Anthenaise in 1970, was written by Ionesco and features him in its single role. In 1971, the film played briefly at a Latin Quarter cinema in Paris, but it was poorly received. It is not currently available in the United States.
  • A reading of The Chairs was recorded and released by Caedmon Records in 1963, featuring Siobhan McKenna and Cyril Cussack. It was re-released on audio cassette by Harper Audio but is not generally available.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Coe, Richard N. Ionesco: A Study of His Plays. Methuen & Co., 1971, p. 60.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd, 2nd edition. Penguin, 1968, pp. 135, 138, 351.

Gaensbauer, Deborah B. Eugene Ionesco Revisited. Twayne, 1996, pp. 13-14, 17.

Ionesco, Eugene. Notes and Counter Notes, translated by Donald Watson. Grove, 1964, pp. 179-81, 184-85.

Lemarchand, Jacques. "Preface to Eugene Ionesco." In Theatre I. Gallimard, 1954, p. 9.

Schechner, Richard. "The Bald Soprano and The Lesson: An Inquiry into Play Structure." In Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Rosette C. Lamont. Prentice Hall, 1973, p. 22.

Wellwarth, George E. "Beyond Realism: Ionesco's Theory of the Drama." In The Dream and the Play: Ionesco's Theatrical Quest, edited by Moshe Lazar. Undena Publications, 1982, p. 34.

Further Reading
Hayman, Ronald. Eugene Ionesco, World Dramatists Series. Frederick Ungar, 1976. Written in 1973, after Ionesco virtually turned away from theater, Hayman's study concludes that the playwright's best work was written in the 1950s, which he deems superior to that of the 1960s. The work provides a chronology of stage and broadcast pieces through 1973 and a play-by-play analysis of dramas through Macbett. Hayman claims that Ionesco's greatest weakness is structural. Includes an interview with Ionesco.

Killinger, John. World in Collapse: The Vision of Absurd Drama. Dell, 1971. Aids in the interpretation of absurdist drama, explaining the philosophical base for the structural designs and thematic motifs in the plays of Ionesco and other absurdists.

Lamont, Rosette C. Ionesco's Imperatives. University of Michigan, 1993. A major resource text for further study, this work reflects thorough research into Ionesco's historical and political milieu. It features valuable aids, including a rich chronology and notes on productions.

Pronko, Leonard C. Eugene Ionesco, Columbia Essays on Modern Writers. Columbia University Press, 1965. A brief pamphlet, this work provides a quick overview of Ionesco's plays of the 1950s and early 1960s. It provides information about the playwright's techniques and artistic aims in his earliest works.

Bibliography

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Bradby, David. Modern French Drama 1940-1990. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. In his discussion of the New Theatre, which flourished in France after World War II, Bradby suggests that The Bald Soprano is the “ultimate form of audience aggression.” Beautifully contextualizes the playwright’s first effort with those of other absurdists.

Coe, Richard N. Ionesco: A Study of His Plays, 1971 (revised and enlarged edition).

Cohn, Ruby. From “Desire” to “Godot”: Pocket Theater of Postwar Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. In examining some of the great plays that opened in some of the tiniest theaters in Paris after World War II, Cohn describes the original production of The Bald Soprano, including curious and often funny backstage details. An illuminating appreciation of the script and its performance.

Dobrez, L. A. C. The Existential and Its Exits: Literary and Philosophical Perspectives on the Works of Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Emphasizing the philosophical aspects of absurdist theater, the author explores Ionesco’s most successful dramatic works. Addresses the play’s peculiar mixture of tragedy and comedy.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. 3d ed. New York: Penguin, 1980. A pioneering critique that views Ionesco’s work as basic to the absurdist repertory and provides fascinating information on how and why Ionesco wrote The Bald Soprano. A definitive work on absurdism; includes useful biographical and production data.

Hayman, Ronald. Eugène Ionesco, 1976 (revised edition).

Jacobsen, Josephine J., and William R. Mueller. Ionesco and Genet: Playwrights of Silence, 1968.

Lamont, Rosette C., ed. Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1973.

Lane, Nancy. Understanding Eugene Ionesco. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994. A reexamination of the playwright’s career and works.

Lazar, Moshe, ed. The Dream and the Play: Ionesco’s Theatrical Quest, 1982.

Morris, Kelly, ed. Genet/Ionesco, the Theater of the Double: A Critical Anthology, 1969.

Pronko, Leonard C. Eugène Ionesco, 1965.

Schechner, Richard. “Eugène Ionesco,” in On Contemporary Literature, 1969.

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