Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2546
Article abstract: One of the greatest playwrights of the twentieth century, Ionesco helped develop and popularize the genre of Theater of the Absurd through his then-experimental plays, which expose the emptiness of societal institutions.
Eugène Ionesco was born on November 26, 1909, about one hundred miles west of Bucharest in the Romanian town of Slatina. His father, a lawyer, was Romanian, and his mother was French. The following year, Ionesco’s sister was born, and in 1914 the young family moved to Paris. His brother was born in 1915, and a year later, when Ionesco was four, the infant died as a result of meningitis. Against the tragic setting of his brother’s demise, Ionesco witnessed his parents’ hysterical and inane quarreling, caused by the loss of their youngest child. Following this the family moved no fewer than four times in one year, Ionesco staying with his mother while his sister went to live in a home for infants and his father took an apartment to prepare for his French law examinations.
In 1917, following Romania’s loss of neutrality in World War I, Ionesco’s father went back to his homeland to join the army. Ionesco’s mother was obliged to work in a factory to support her children when, after hearing no news from his father, she assumed that he had been killed in action. In 1921, the nine-year-old Ionesco developed anemia, and his mother took him and his sister to a small country village in the Mayenne. This village, La Chapell-Anthenaise, came to play an important part in Ionesco’s private mythology and appears in several of his writings, theatrical and nontheatrical. It was in this bucolic setting that he spent many happy months, perhaps the first such of his life. Back in Paris the following year, Ionesco soon discovered literature through reading Gustave Flaubert’s “Un Cœur simple” in Trois Contes (1877; Three Tales, 1903). Inspired, he began to write poems, a patriotic play, his memoirs, and sketches that would end with children destroying the family property and throwing their parents out the windows.
Ionesco’s father had not been killed in the war. He had merely discontinued communication with his family, and, after the war, joined the Romanian police. He returned to Paris in 1925 when, after divorcing his wife, he won custody of both children and took them back to Romania. There Ionesco’s patriotic French play became Romanian, but despite this and his brilliant success as a student in his new language, he considered himself an outsider and a foreigner in the country of his birth. His father remarried, but the two children did not get along with their new stepmother, and Ionesco’s sister was soon obliged to return to France. Ionesco stayed until he was seventeen, when he fled domestic strife to pursue French studies at the University of Bucharest in 1929.
Throughout the early to middle 1930’s, Ionesco pursued his studies in Romania while he published poems and literary critiques in Romanian reviews and magazines. He published a collection of essays entitled Na (no) in 1934, in which he first attacked and then reinstated several fashionable Romanian writers, creating a fusion of opposites that revealed an ability to present both sides of an issue without pronouncing judgment in favor of either side. This is an early sign of an affinity for revealing a situation while leaving the resolution up to the auditor that was to find itself at the heart of his theater. As political strife throughout Europe began to lead to World War II, Ionesco’s father was exercising a political flexibility that equaled his son’s own literary objectivity. As the Romanian government progressed treacherously toward Fascist alliance with a rising Nazi Germany, the elder Ionesco maneuvered his way along the slippery path of Balkan politics, always managing to find himself on the side of the government in power, while Ionesco found himself in increasing opposition. To his horror, it seemed that not only his own father but also all around him were throwing in their lot with the collective madness of bigoted and military nationalism.
Ionesco’s mother died in 1936, and in the following year Ionesco married a young philosophy student, Rodica Burileano. In 1938, he received a scholarship from the French government to go to Paris to write a thesis on the themes of sin and death in French poetry since Charles Baudelaire. He discontinued his research with the advent of World War II and the German occupation of France. During the war, the Ionescos lived in Marseilles, where Eugène eked out a meager living for them both as an editor for a publishing house. In 1944, a daughter, Marie-France Ionesco, was born to them. The war ended in 1945, and Ionesco’s father made a timely conversion to Romanian communism. Three years later, while trying to learn English, Ionesco stumbled upon the first of many devices that was to provide the inspiration and absurdity of his revolutionary theater.
Attempting to learn English at home with the aid of a self-teaching manual, Ionesco was struck by the arbitrary and inane example conversations that were given in the text for the student to repeat. As the fictional characters in the lesson book bluntly stated obvious and inconsequential facts about themselves and each other, what was trivial became important, and what was important became trivial, with the end result that the language itself began to lose all meaning. Ionesco himself lost all interest in learning English as he began to use his English lessons as the basis for writing down his ideas about the loss of meaning in language. As he wrote, his writing, to express his intent, began to take the form of a play, and Ionesco found himself writing for a medium that he had shunned since his initial childhood efforts for what he perceived as its dishonesty.
Ionesco was introduced to Parisian theater director Nicolas Betaille, and the two men began reworking and rehearsing the new piece. On May 11, 1950, it premiered at the Théâtre des Noctambules as La Cantatrice chauve (The Bald Soprano, 1956). As the play opens Mr. and Mrs. Smith, an average middle-class English couple, sit chatting in clichés about everyday trivia. The pointlessness of their dialogue reaches its most absurd point as they begin to discuss the triumphs and misfortunes of a very large family of their acquaintance whose every member, regardless of age or sex, is named Bobby Watson. The Martins enter. Only vaguely familiar to each other at the outset, they discover, as they talk to each other, that they are indeed man and wife and have been so for quite a while, being the parents of the same child and having shared everything for a number of years. The clock strikes seventeen and the doorbell rings to admit no one. The fire chief rushes in, in a hurry to extinguish all the fires in the city, but he gets delayed as he recounts one seemingly interminable anecdote after another. He exits and the two couples talk, but their language disintegrates into meaningless sounds. Finally the Martins are left alone and, using the same dialogue with which the Smiths opened the play, they seem to begin the action anew as the curtain falls. The play, the language of which exists only to uphold daily banalities, was not an immediate success. The senseless and empty routine of the automaton-like characters on the stage was too appallingly familiar to the people in the audience.
Ionesco, initially reluctant, soon embraced his métier, and in a short time the public and critics alike applauded his efforts. During the next five years, he wrote and produced no fewer than five new plays. While the words of his first play are shown to have no meaning, the language of his second play, La Leçon (1951; The Lesson, 1955), was given, quite literally, a point. A student is being tutored in preparation for her “total doctorate” examination. Meek at the outset, the professor, a philologist, gains confidence as he speaks because he speaks, and drowns his pupil, in highly stylized rhetoric that brings to mind the propaganda of the previous two decades. Impatient with his student’s seeming inadequacy, the professor begins to discuss the word “knife” and stabs the student to death with a knife, having apparently forged a deadly weapon with his very words.
With Les Chaises (1952; The Chairs, 1958), Ionesco put on the stage the futility of life and human endeavor. An Old Man and his his contentious wife fill the stage with chairs for an invisible audience that will gather to hear a speech by the Old Man that represents the culmination of his life’s work and will save mankind. Leaving an Orator to deliver the message, the couple jump out the windows into the sea, but the Orator cannot deliver the message, as he is mute. This play initially played to empty houses, but an article in its defense appeared in a magazine and was signed by Samuel Beckett and Arthur Adamov among others, giving Ionesco new recognition and attention.
Ionesco was beginning to reveal to larger audiences the Theater of the Absurd. He was showing how a world turned upside-down had been emptied of its meaning, leaving hollow institutions and behaviors to which people still clung in their daily routines. He employed a wide range of accepted theatrical conventions at the same time that he stripped them of all but their barest mechanical functions. He does not indicate a path; he merely shows his audience how ridiculous they are, leaving it up to them to reinvent and reinvigorate themselves. With success came controversy, and in its wake Ionesco began to write more complicated and more personal works.
Beginning in 1956, the influential theater critic Kenneth Tynan, an early champion of Ionesco, began attacking the seeming pointlessness of his plays, criticizing him for not taking a firmer and more pointed political stand to help answer the profound questions that he seemed to be asking. There ensued lively literary debate when Ionesco himself took up the challenge in articles and speeches with the support of other French writers, such as Jean Anouilh and André Breton.
Rhinocéros (1959; Rhinoceros, 1959) was produced first in Düsseldorf, and with it Ionesco gave a nod to Tynan’s demands while refusing to take more than a very personal, individual stand by introducing the Ionesco Everyman, Bérenger. Average and unconcerned, Bérenger does not take notice that everyone in the city is turning into a rhinoceros until his friend and the girl he loves become transformed too. In the end, Bérenger takes up a gun and decides to defend his humanity. While this drama is clearly antitotalitarian, Ionesco has plainly drawn on his personal experiences from the nightmare world of his father’s Romanian politics, and by so doing avoids standing on a soapbox to proclaim any specific political dogma.
In Le Roi se meurt (1962; Exit the King, 1963), Ionesco confronts most directly and most simply a theme that was to have increasing importance in his works: man’s inability to accept his own death. Here Ionesco has crowned his Everyman King Bérenger I, and the story of his life is essentially the story of humanity with specific references to the history of Europe. Having lived for centuries, Bérenger has personally built all Europe’s great cities and ghostwritten William Shakespeare’s plays, among other things. At the play’s opening, one of his wives, Queen Marguerite, announces that the king will die within the next hour and a half (the duration of the play), and the action covers a stage life of twenty years. Bérenger laments and rails against his inevitable demise, accepting everyone else’s death but his own, begging to be remembered forever, even though he, wiser than his predecessor the Old Man, knows that he will be forgotten. In the end he disappears (dies), his final moments of life unchanged by the death he knew to be approaching.
In many ways his simplest and most direct, Exit the King is Ionesco’s most important work, and, perhaps, his best. Man knows he will eventually die, and, despite even the greatest of life’s achievements, he will be forgotten and his work left undone. Life is presented in the face of death, the ultimate absurdity. If analysis indicates that this is Ionesco’s harshest play, the universality of the human plight of the characters on stage makes the drama his most affecting and moving to witness. This is achieved not with sentimental manipulation but with the honest and simple way that the playwright reveals the humanity of his audience by the characters on his stage.
Barely a decade after his astonishing debut, Ionesco was an accepted institution, the kind of monstre sacré that he so enjoyed debunking in his theater. This is perhaps the greatest irony and the greatest absurdity in the life of one of the greatest absurdists. In 1971, he applied to and was accepted as a member of that most conservative of French literary institutions, the Académie Française.
Deliberate and provocative, Eugène Ionesco’s theater has, since its first appearance, been the subject of lively discussion and debate, with the playwright himself as his own most outspoken defender. In addition to the stage works for which he is best known, he also published stories, poetry, autobiographical articles, and criticism. In the hour or so that his comedies take to present themselves, Ionesco’s theater reveals itself entirely with each work. Such self-definition gave the public something that was at once revolutionary and neatly packaged, which accounts for the rapid acceptance of a worldview so shocking and profoundly disturbing. While such cool demonstrations of human absurdity can be alienating, the audience is drawn in because, above all, Ionesco uses the theater as a metaphor for life. Unobscured by the mannerisms and speech he is so brilliantly exposing, his nonsense on stage makes a direct appeal to the audience in the house.
Coe, Richard N. Ionesco. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1961. A good introductory criticism and analysis of Ionesco’s first ten years as a dramatist.
Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1961. An early look at the Theater of the Absurd as a genre. Ionesco is put into the context of the theater of his time alongside great contemporaries such as Beckett and Adamov.
Hayman, Ronald. Eugène Ionesco. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1976. Beginning with an interview with the playwright, this study explains and analyzes Ionesco’s oeuvre play by play.
Lamont, Rosette C., ed. Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. A collection of important critical essays dealing with Ionesco’s theater, here is a wide range of interpretations that demonstrates the stimulating variety of thought and ideas that his works provoke.
Lewis, Allan. Ionesco. New York: Twayne, 1972. Part of the Twayne World Authors series, this work includes general biographical and critical information on Ionesco. Also contains a chronology, a bibliography, and an index.
Wagner, Walter, ed. The Playwright Speaks. London: Longmans Green, 1969. A more personal glimpse of Ionesco in his own words is included in this compilation of essays and interviews by celebrated modern playwrights.