The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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.”

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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. 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 (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

(Drama for Students)

In the period between 1948, when Ionesco began writing The Bald Soprano, and 1956, when Peter Wood directed the play's first...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The setting of The Bald Soprano is so typically "English" as to be a reductio ad absurdum. The...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

  • 1950s: There is a growing concern about the misuse and abuse of language, particularly as an instrument of...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

  • Investigate the basic existential tenets of the French philosophers and writers Jean Paul Sartre and Albert...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

  • The only feature film in English adapted from an Ionesco play is Rhinoceros, which was released in 1974....

(The entire section is 186 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

  • Waiting for Godot (1952) is Samuel Beckett's best known play and shares top billing with...

(The entire section is 208 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

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


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(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

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