Eugène Ionesco Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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....

(The entire section is 2546 words.)