Eugène Ionesco 1909-1994
Romanian-born French playwright, essayist, novelist, autobiographer, and critic. See also Eugene Ionesco Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 6, 9, 11.
One of the major figures in modern European experimental drama, Ionesco is best known for his innovative techniques using things and words in the theater and his association with the movement of the 1950s and 1960s known as the “Theater of the Absurd.” His “anti-plays,” which push both speech and action past the limits of rationality, cast doubt on traditional, naturalistic theatrical conventions and established assumptions about language and human nature, stressing the absurdity of life, humans' ever-present awareness of death, and the impossibility of communication. These and the related themes of human alienation and the destructive forces of modern society are presented in his plays with a surface humor that comments upon and serves to counterpoint the horror and anguish of human life that lies beneath. Like his contemporary and fellow “absurdist” Samuel Beckett, Ionesco replaces customary plots, structure, and language with fragmentary, contradictory, and often nonsensical dialogue and surreal images in order to present a world of chaos that mocks established institutions and conformity. His revolutionary approach to theater and his darkly comic vision reveal his distrust of all forms of ideology, as he urges his audiences to explore their own imaginations and awaken themselves to the potentialities of their own existence. Although Ionesco spent his dramatic career deriding the establishment, in 1971 he was elected to the conservative Académie Française, a sign not that the playwright had changed his earlier radical views to conform to the mainstream, but rather that his unique approach had altered the institution of theater in France and the world.
Ionesco was born in Slatina, Romania, to a French mother and a Romanian father. He spent his happy, early childhood years in France, returning to Romania after his parents’ divorce in 1925. In 1929 he enrolled at the University of Bucharest, where he specialized in French literature. After taking his degree he lived in Bucharest, where he taught French and began writing poetry and literary criticism. In 1936 he married a philosophy student, Rodica Burlieano, and two years later the couple moved to France after Ionesco accepted a scholarship to prepare a dissertation on the subject of death in modern French poetry. He spent the next ten years in Paris working as a journalist, teacher, and proofreader, deliberately avoiding the theater, which he dismissed as a complete waste of time and energy.
In 1948, at age thirty-nine, Ionesco began his career in the theater—quite by accident. He had undertaken to learn English by using a popular self-teaching method, and while reciting the seemingly random phrases used in the instruction manual found the task to make less and less sense. At the same time he found the phrases full of humorous possibilities and felt that they had a surreal existence of their own that was quite separate from their ordinary meaning. He soon abandoned the idea of learning English and conceived the idea of writing his first play by jotting down words and rearranging sentences. He showed the finished product (written in French) to a director and then to an editor at a major publishing house, both of whom dismissed the work. However, a friend showed it to Nicholas Bataille, a young director with a small company who immediately recognized its originality and produced it for the stage. The Bald Soprano, so named after an actor in the company, while rehearsing, uttered the phrase “bald prima donna” instead of “blond prima donna,” was a failure when it opened in 1950, with the audience shouting out rude comments throughout the performance. However, Ionesco found his vocation and continued to write plays, developing further the antilogical ideas of his first work. His prolific output from 1950 to 1955 included some of his best-known plays: The Lesson, The Chairs, Victims of Duty, Amédée, or How to Get Rid of it, and Jack, or The Submission. After 1951 his work began to attract critical attention, and by 1955 his reputation was firmly established in France. He also found himself at the forefront of a revolutionary new theater, which included such established names as Beckett and Arthur Adamov, that broke ties with realist forms, emphasized experimental methods, and stressed the irrationality in human life.
Ionesco continued to write for the stage until the early 1970s, enjoying a growing international reputation, earning awards for his work, and seeing many of his plays adapted as ballets. From the late 1960s through the 1980s his creativity became increasingly directed at experiments with other genres, including autobiography, criticism, and fiction. In the last decade of his life Ionesco gave up writing and devoted himself to painting and exhibiting his works. He died in Paris in 1994.
Ionesco's early plays, those written before 1956, are still considered among his best, as they present with startling originality and immediacy his recurrent themes of the difficulty of communication, the impotence of reason, and self-estrangement. In The Bald Soprano, about a couple who stumble upon the fact that they are indeed man and wife in the course of their meaningless conversation, and The Lesson, in which a professor and student find it increasingly difficult to communicate in words, Ionesco uses nonsensical dialogue in the form of familiar clichés and slogans to mock commonplace notions about the world. In plays such as The Chairs, The Future is in Eggs, Victims of Duty, The New Tenant, and Amédée, Ionesco populates his stage with meaningless physical objects to emphasize his theme of unreason and convey a nightmarish sense of inanity.
Although Ionesco's reputation as a serious dramatist began to flourish in the mid-1950s, in 1958 he was criticized by one of his early champions, the British critic Kenneth Tynan, for producing “nonsense theater” and not living up to the social role expected of a writer. The charge leveled at Ionesco was that his work was politically indifferent and therefore irrelevant. The “London Controversy,” as it was called, had Ionesco defending himself against promoting in his theater the ill-conceived “solutions” to social and political questions advocated by left-wing and right-wing thinkers alike. But many commentators, including the director Orson Welles, continued to feel that Ionesco was shunning his appropriate function by not engaging in political debate in his work. It seems that Ionesco was affected by this criticism, because beginning in the late 1950s he began to produce work that seemed to strive for political relevance. In his cycle of plays The Killers, Rhinoceros, Exit the King, and A Stroll in the Air, in which appear his “Everyman” Bérenger, a brave and idealistic man who has heroic qualities but always loses, Ionesco overtly criticizes totalitarianism and presents deeper analyses of the complexity of human aspirations than in his earlier works. His retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, written in 1973, is also a study of political tyranny.
Ionesco's dramatic works in the late 1960s and early 1970s returned to the more fragmented construction of his earlier efforts. The theme of death also becomes an overriding concern during this period, as seen in Hunger and Thirst and The Killing Game. The works of the 1970s, including Journey Among the Dead and Man With Bags, are notable for their use of dream elements, the fantastic, and the blurred line between humans' conscious and subconscious states.
In addition to his plays, Ionesco has written a novel, The Hermit, a collection of short stories, children's stories, criticism, and autobiography. In his several collections of essays and his autobiographical works, such as Notes and Counter-notes and Fragments of a Journal, Ionesco develops many of the ideas presented in his plays and comments on his dramas and critics' reactions to them. Like his dramatic works, his non-fiction is marked with a vehement opposition to political programs, oppression, and the constraints placed on the individual's imagination.
Early reviewers and audiences found Ionesco's plays obscure and inaccessible, largely because they broke all the rules of naturalistic theater. Today critics agree that one of Ionesco's great achievements is in making nonrepresentational and surrealistic techniques acceptable to viewers and allowing them to think beyond the bounds of conventional experience and language. As he became established as an important new voice that was invigorating modern theater, Ionesco was praised in left-wing circles and reviled by the right because of his iconoclastic approach. However, those on the left soon rejected him because of his refusal to accept any ideology and his seemingly apolitical stance. Ionesco himself complained that reviewers were too quick to judge his work based on their own ideological bias rather than a thorough understanding or appreciation of his method or literary merit. Contemporary commentators have begun to recognize that even in his early, so-called “nonsense” work there is a clear socio-political stance in his passionate defense of individual freedoms, even if Ionesco himself always refused to classify it as such.
While Ionesco continued to have detractors throughout his career, and not only for his seeming anti-leftist positions—at least one critic has faulted his plays for being unduly negative and containing elements of misanthropy—his reputation today is as one of the masters of a provocative performance style that engages audiences directly and urges them to think by giving bizarre embodiment to the commonplace. Some commentators have tried to capture the “meaning” behind the apparently meaninglessness of the language and situations Ionesco presents, while others claim that viewers and readers should look beyond meaning and concentrate on the “manner” rather than the “matter” of his works. For the most part, assessment of the plays has concerned Ionesco's use of proliferating objects to represent external forces that dominate the human spirit; his assault on empty forms of language; the use of the irrational to liberate the imagination; an existential view of life as both tragic and comic; and the longing for freedom that is distinctive of his characters. Many of these appraisals share a recognition that although the worlds Ionesco creates are bizarre, chaotic, and frightening, he holds out the hope that the human imagination, if freed, can marvel at the astonishing fact of human existence in a fleeting world.