Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

The Bald Soprano has been often said to deal with the tragedy of language. Indeed, the disintegration of language is one of the main themes of this play. The Bald Soprano, however, is above all a parody of the bourgeoisie: not of the English bourgeoisie, but of a universal bourgeoisie which, according to Eugène Ionesco, has become dehumanized and spiritually empty, living by fixed ideas conveyed in ready-made expressions. The utility of language is then but one symptom or aspect of this dehumanization. The language of the Smiths and Martins is indeed fossilized, filled with slogans and commonplace expressions. The more they try to talk to one another, the less they communicate and the more language disarticulates itself: Mechanical phrases lead to nonsensical sentences, which give way to meaningless words, which in turn are soon reduced to chaotic sounds. At the end, these characters, filled with anguish and thoroughly frustrated by their inability to communicate rather than simply chatter, permit language to explode and are reduced to a level of subhumanity. What Ionesco depicts, then, is the tragedy of human communication.

The Bobby Watson episode introduces another important theme, closely linked to noncommunication: human interchangeability. According to Ionesco, the Smiths and the Martins are unable to communicate because, like the petite bourgeoisie they represent, they are devoid of spirituality; they have forgotten how to think and how to be. They can, therefore, become anyone. The proliferation of the Bobby Watsons suggests the interchangeability of people who become totally absorbed in their social context and eventually, having no distinctiveness, become indistinguishable from it and from those occupying it. The Watsons are not the only ones who are indistinct and thus easily duplicable. There is very little to distinguish the Smiths from the Martins; thus the end of the play exactly repeats the beginning, with the Martins having replaced the Smiths.

Individuals, then, are incapable of making real contact with other human beings; they are basically condemned to isolation. Lacking in inner life, they are unable to engage in any meaningful relationship. Even love and marriage cannot relieve this metaphysical solitude. This point is made patently clear in the famous scene of recognition that occurs between Mr. and Mrs. Martin. This scene elicits laughter because of its exaggerations and burlesque elements. It is a nervous laughter, however, because mixed with it is the uncomfortable sensation that springs from witnessing the domestic tragedy of two individuals who are forever losing each other, never really communicating, never really knowing each other. Though not real in temporal and physical terms, the reality of their psychological and moral separation is undeniable.

Another target of Ionesco’s ridicule is man’s faith in the long-accepted law of causality, the notion that a given cause will always produce the anticipated result. The episode of the doorbell clearly demonstrates Ionesco’s disdain for causality and the ways in which human beings attempt to make sense of common occurrences. Ionesco seems to be saying that it is absurd to expect causality to illuminate the major problems and mysteries of life when it cannot even make sense out of daily phenomena. This statement underlines the overall message of the play, that reason, logic, and rational principles of discourse are essentially inadequate to explain or convey matters of human transcendence.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1292

Absurdity Absurdist themes are pervasive in The Bald Soprano . In fact, the work is often critically mined to illustrate absurdist ideas and motifs. Chief among them in Ionesco's play is the concept of entropy, or the tendency of order to decay into chaos. This collapse is reflected in the speech...

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of the characters, which, in the course of the play, becomes increasingly dysfunctional, resulting in the total breakdown of language as a viable tool of human communication.

Entropy is also conveyed by the characterizations, or, more accurately, the lack of them. Humankind is reduced to the Smiths and Martins, who, at times, behave very much like some of those contemporary dolls that issue pat, random expressions when their recordings are activated by pulling a string or pressing some part of their plastic anatomy. Like the dolls, the Smiths and Martins are soulless and hollow remnants of character reduced to exhibiting only a sort of vestigial anxiety about their missing or confused identities.

The general breakdown of language-borne sense and logic gives The Bald Soprano a facade of nonsense, sometimes even an infantile silliness. The remarks of the characters are often inappropriate, contradictory, or completely devoid of meaning, especially towards the end, when, as language decays into word fragments, the Martins and Smiths become almost manic in their anger. What they reveal is one of the most important absurdist themes: the modern inability of humans to relate to each other in either an authentic or honest fashion.

Language and MeaningThe Bald Soprano is a "tragedy of language" dealing with the gradual loss of its communicative function and its final fossilization into inane phrases and meaningless clichés. At first there is at least a thread of logic in the characters' conversation, but it is often interspersed with contradictory and inconsistent statements, as when, for example, Mr. Smith first says he learned of Bobby Watson's death in the newspaper, then claims that it had happened three years earlier, and that he "remembered it through an association of ideas."

It is, in fact, a sort of free association that takes the characters off on ever-widening tangents, their statements jumping completely off contiguous mental tracks onto barely relevant sidings. For example, in her opening monologue, Mrs. Smith meanders through a series of simple sentences that have no cohesive point at all. She moves cursorily from a description of what the Smiths consumed for dinner towards her pronouncements about Dr. Mackenzie-King's virtues as a physician.

Towards the end of the play, the mental track-shifting accelerates. The dialogue breaks into a series of non sequiturs, suggesting that rational discourse has become impossible, that relevant thought can not even be sustained past a single sentence or two. The Martins and Smiths simply cascade through unrelated and inane phrase-book clichés before breaking into a sort of syllabic babble. Words degenerate into mere objects, thrown about like pies in a comic free-for-all.

Alienation and Loneliness In his parodist's treatment of his bourgeois non-characters, the Smiths and Martins, Ionesco stresses both the loss of a personal identity and social and familial estrangement. His characters are alienated, not because they are sensitive beings in a hostile or impersonal world, but because they have no individuality at all. They are no longer merely threatened by machines; they have become like them, manufactured on a sort of class assembly line and engineered to conform to middle-class values as codified in hackneyed expressions and rigid patterns of behavior. They are too similar to have personal identities, thus it hardly matters whether, like the Smiths, they have no first names, or, like the various Watsons, they all have the same one. Their alienation has everything to do with a total lack of a personal identity, which even their language inhibits them from establishing. They have simply been rendered incapable of incisive, individual thought.

Identity At the opening of The Bald Soprano, Ionesco stresses the typicality of his characters in his repeated insistence that they and their surroundings are "English." The first characters encountered are named "Smith," a very common English patronymic also suggesting the couple's conventional nature. These are figures who have no discrete sense of self.

Moreover, Ionesco continually drives his characters' lack of self-awareness beyond even a simple stereotype. The Martins, for example, cannot even recognize each other as husband and wife, and have to go through their distended and repetitive deductive process to establish their relationship. Even then their identities are called into question by what Mary discloses, leaving the audience somewhat mystified. However, the playwright's point is that the truth, if there is any, does not matter, for the Martins can serve as wholly suitable surrogates for the "real" Donald and Elizabeth Martin because they are almost their perfect clones.

The only hints of a different identity are drawn along sexual and class lines, and even these are deliberately blurred. While Mrs. Smith is responsible for homemaking duties, she hints about Mr. Smith's inadequacies as a male, while, he, in his turn, complains about women behaving like men. Throughout the play, the characters' anxieties seem to center on threats, not to their individuality, but only to their roles as determined by gender and class.

Time If language gradually loses all significance in The Bald Soprano, time, as measured by the Smiths' English clock, immediately becomes so erratic as to mean nothing at all. Before Mrs. Smith first speaks, the clock stakes seventeen times, prompting her to announce that it is nine o'clock. Thereafter, it strikes as few as one and as many as twenty-nine times, in a random, jumbled order. Finally, according to the stage directions, it "stakes as much as it likes," as if it were an animate or sentient object, entirely out of human control.

Time in the play has lost its purpose—it no longer represents a logical sequence in a spatial dimension. The strokes, rather than conveying a sense of progression, act like a neurotic chorus reinforcing the absurdity of the dialogue. Like the words, the strokes participate in the centripetal decay or entropy that describes both the play's basic movement and its central theme.

Gender Roles Even a reliable identity based on gender is undermined in The Bald Soprano. The Smiths and Martins may voice or evidence some commonplace gender-based biases, but role distinctions erode in the course of the play. Early on, Mr. Smith accuses his wife of asking stupid questions, indicating his belief that his mind is superior to hers and that her powers of reasoning are severely limited because she is a woman, an irrational "romantic." However, during the Fire Chief's visit Mr. Smith concedes that his wife is more intelligent than he is, and even "much more feminine," suggesting that there is a feminine side to his character and behavior. Mrs. Smith says as much when she complains about men who use rouge on their lips and sit around all day and drink. She also suggests that Mr. Smith lacks the "salt" of the evening's soup, an oblique slur on her husband's deficient masculinity. Further, she is the more sexually aggressive of the two. She flirts with both the Fire Chief and Mr. Martin, suggesting her need to establish a sexual identity denied her by her emasculated husband.

Class Conflict The Smiths and Martins have a class-consciousness challenged by Mary, the Smiths' maid. Mary presents a threat to them because she is willful and disrespectful, and does not seem to know her place. The couples grow testy and self-righteous when, during the Fire Chief's visit, Mary requests that she be allowed to tell a story. They find her request presumptuous and inappropriate, and though Mary manages to recite her poem in honor of the Chief, she is forced off stage in the process.