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Eugène Ionesco 1909-1994

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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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La cantatrice chauve [The Bald Soprano] 1950

La leçon [The Lesson] 1951

Les chaises [The Chairs] 1952

Victimes du devoir [Victims of Duty] 1953

Amédée; ou, comment s'en débarraser [Amédée; or, How to Get Rid of It] 1954

Jacques; ou, la soumission [Jack; or, The Submission] 1955

L'Avenir est dans les oeufs [The Future is in Eggs] 1957

Le nouveau locataire [The New Tenant] 1957

Tueur sans gages [The Killer] 1958

Rhinocéros [Rhinoceros] 1959

Le piéton de l'air [A Stroll in the Air] 1962

Le roi se meurt [Exit the King] 1962

La soif et la faim [Hunger and Thirst] 1964

Jeux de massacre [The Killing Game] 1970

Macbett [Macbeth] 1972

Ce formidable bordel! [A Hell of a Mess] 1975

L'homme aux valises [Man with Bags] 1975

Voyages chex les morts: Thèmes et variations [Journeys among the Dead] 1980

Théâtre complet 1992

Non [No] (criticism) 1934

Notes et contre-notes [Notes and Counter-notes] (essays, addresses, lectures) 1962

La photo du colonel [The Colonel's Photographs] (narratives, short stories) 1962

Seven Capital Sins (screenplay) 1962

Journal en miettes (journal/autobiography) 1967

Présent passé, passé présent (autobiography) 1968

Contes no.1-4 (children's stories) 1969-70

Le solitaire [The Hermit] (novel) 1972

Antidotes (essays) 1979

Un homme en question (essays) 1979

Viata grotesca si tragica a lui Victor Hugo: Hugoliade [Hugoliad: The Grotesque and Tragic Life of Victor Hugo] (criticism) 1982

La quête intermittente (autobiography) 1988

Leonard C. Pronko (essay date 1959)

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SOURCE: “The Anti-Spiritual Victory in the Theater of Ionesco,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 2, No. 2, May 1959, pp. 29-35.

[In the following essay, Pronko argues that in Ionesco’s theater impersonal, anti-spiritual forces, symbolized in physical objects, dominate and conquer humankind, and that dead things are victorious over that which is alive.]

The French Dramatists who began writing about 1950, baptized by M. Jean Duvignaud the “School of Paris,” have sometimes been called “anti-theatrical,” for they employ dramatic methods which are frequently opposed to those of the conventional theater. Writers like Ionesco, Beckett, and the early Adamov wish to return to what might be called “pure theater,” that is to say a type of theater employing means which are strictly theatrical and do not belong to the realms of philosophy, psychology, sociology or politics. One of the favorite devices of such a theater is the presentation of the author’s views in a visual way, using space and movement rather than language. In Waiting for Godot, for example, the moral suffering of mankind is depicted physically by shoes which do not fit, hats which scratch, servants visibly attached to masters, and watches which do not run. In a play like Adamov’s The Parody, the solitude and bewilderment of modern man are represented by a decor (including a clock without hands) which remains the same, but is constantly foreign because seen from different angles. In The Big and the Little Manoeuvre, a man’s destruction by incomprehensible and impersonal forces is made more palpable by his loss of one limb after the other.

The theater of Ionesco is rich in examples of this phenomenon. In the essays he has published in various French periodicals, Ionesco has described quite explicitly the feeling he is attempting to evoke by giving such undue importance to the physical aspects of his theater. There are two fundamental states of consciousness at the root of his plays, he tells us in “The Point of Departure” (Cahier des Quatre Saisons, August, 1955). One is that of evanescence, and the other that of heaviness or opacity. The latter feeling most often dominates, and we feel the universe crushing in upon us:

Matter fills everything, takes up all space, annihilates all liberty under its weight; the horizon shrinks, and the world becomes a stifling dungeon. Speech crumbles, but in another way, words fall like stones, like corpses; I feel myself overcome by heavy forces against which I wage a losing battle.

Such a “victory of anti-spiritual forces,” of the dead thing over that which is alive, is expressed on many levels in the theater of Ionesco. Setting and properties, language, characters, and structure, each contributes in a slightly different way to the impression of heaviness or opacity.

The first and most obvious level, that of physical objects, plays a particularly large role in the later comedies. In the earlier plays, The Bald Soprano (1950?), The Lesson (1950), and Jack or the Submission (1950), the stage is encumbered not with an oppressive amount of matter, but with fantastic characters and what one might call solidified language. In The Chairs (1951) the characters are more realistic, the language less absurd, and the accumulation of objects as a means of expressing solitude, uselessness and loss of liberty makes its appearance. The Old Man and the Old Woman, living in a dilapidated apartment on a lonely island, await the arrival of their guests to whom the Man will reveal his “Message” before the two leap to their deaths. The guests arrive and a chair is brought for each. The guests are, however, invisible, and soon the stage is cluttered with chairs, suggesting that even when people are present there is an absence of humanity and an overabundance of the object. The physical universe and society, in the form of the chairs, gradually accumulate between the two old people so that at the end of the play, as they leap from their respective windows at either side of the stage, there is no opportunity for them to meet again. The last guest to arrive is “His Majesty,” and in spite of strenuous efforts to reach him, neither of the characters is able to get through the mass of chairs. The setting of the play also suggests the futility of life, and a lack of meaning, for there are ten doors in this small apartment, and the characters go in and out all and any, aware that they all lead to the same place.

In Victims of Duty (1952) the crushing force of life, and of an inimical world, is manifested by a huge crust of bread which the Inspector forces Choubert to chew and swallow with great difficulty. At the same time, Choubert’s wife is preparing coffee for her guest, and brings out dozens of teacups which she piles upon a buffet.

In Amédée or How to Get Rid of It (1953), the dead love of Amédée and Madeleine, their bitter and quarrelsome relationship, is represented by a cadaver which they discovered in their bedroom some fifteen years ago. It is stricken with “geometric progression,” and has been growing ever since. Moreover large mushrooms have been sprouting in the bedroom where the fascinating body is kept. Suddenly the body starts growing at a vertiginous rate, and huge toadstools spring up in the living room as well. By the end of the second act the corpse stretches across the entire stage, ready to knock a hole in the front door by the force of its ever-growing feet. Amédée and Madeleine have been forced to make space by piling the furniture in a corner of the room, and are scarcely visible any longer, so much are they dominated by the deadweight of their meaningless life together, crowded out of house and home by cabinets and corpses. Amédée finally succeeds in pulling the huge body out a window, and drags it through the streets down to the Seine, but he is discovered by the police, and escapes by simply flying into the air. The ending is weak and somewhat obscure, although Ionesco may wish to suggest by Amédée’s buoyancy the elation and complete liberation he experiences upon freeing himself from this burden.

The New Tenant (1954) reminds us of the second act of Amédée, but without the body. A man comes to take possession of his new apartment. The movers arrive with the furniture, and carry it into the room, until every inch of space is covered, the windows blocked, and the doors obstructed. The stairway, we learn, is still full of furniture, the streets are crowded, traffic has stopped, and the subway system is paralyzed. Here we are in a universe which has been overcome entirely by matter, and there is nothing to do but follow the example of the New Tenant who, invisible behind tall screens and cupboards, asks the movers to turn out the lights as they leave.

In the early plays, dead matter is suggested not so much by visible objects (although they are present too in the worn out clothing and shabby settings) as by language which is treated not as a living instrument of communication, but as something solidified and lifeless. Words are used for themselves, for their sounds rather than their meanings, and an order of suggestion rather than logic is frequently followed. Ionesco has called The Bald Soprano “the tragedy of language,” and it is in this play that we witness a total breakdown of communication on the linguistic level. Words are used which have apparent meaning, but in the context in which they are placed they lose their significance and appear absurd and empty. The process begins in the stage directions as the set is described: “English middle-class living room, with English armchairs. An English evening. Mr. Smith, an Englishman, in his English armchair and slippers, etc.” The adjective “English” is used to a point where it becomes empty of meaning, ending with the senseless seventeen English strokes on the English clock.

As the play opens Mr. and Mrs. Smith are spending a quiet evening at home. Mrs. Smith, in language strangely reminiscent of conversation manuals (which Ionesco has admittedly used in constructing the dialogue of this play), outlines the meal they have just had, describes the members of the family, and in general indulges in a delightful parody of the inane chit-chat which forms so large a part of daily conversation. Fatuous phrases, trite proverbs which are not at all à propos, and absurd word associations constantly crop up: Roumanian folklorique yogurt, which is good for appendicitis and apotheosis. Mr. Smith emerges from his newspaper to wonder why the ages of the deceased are always given, but never those of the newborn. In the discussion of Bobby Watson, who died two years ago, we see a complete confusion of time, character and meaning, and yet within each sentence there is sense. It is only when set side by side with the others that the absurdity is apparent. “He died two years ago,” says Mr. Smith. “You remember, we went to his funeral a year and a half ago.” And later he points out, “People were talking about his death already three years ago.” To which Mrs. Smith adds, “Poor Bobby, he had been dead for four years and his body was still warm.”

Bobby Watson’s wife, it turns out, is also called Bobby Watson, as are his son, daughter, and all the other people to whom he is related. Language has broken down completely, and we are lost in a world where there are no longer any distinguishing tags.

Guests arrive, the Martins and the Captain of the Fire Department. An argument ensues, followed by the usual chit-chat strewn with such original observations as, “The truth lies between the two,” “The heart is ageless,” “Truth is not found in books, but in life.” The guests begin to tell stories, each one more pointless than the other, ending up in the masterly tale told by the Fireman, entitled “The Cold”: “My brother-in-law had, on his father’s side, a blood cousin whose maternal uncle had a father-in-law whose paternal grandfather had married as a second wife a young native whose brother had met, on one of his voyages a girl with whom he fell in love and by whom he had a son who married … etc., etc.” This continues for a full page. It is the victory of language over logic, of empty conversation over meaningful discourse, of dead phrases over a living content.

The play ends at a high pitch as the language disintegrates into complete nonsense and unintelligible repetition of syllables, the characters shouting at one another in their anger at not understanding. And as the curtain falls we are back at the beginning of the play, with the Martins occupying the places originally occupied by the Smiths, and Mrs. Martin reciting the same empty phrases that Mrs. Smith had uttered.

In The Lesson a professor, at first humble and meek, gives a private lesson to a young girl eager to take her “Total Doctorate.” He so dominates her by his “learning” and personality that at the end she is reduced to a somnambulistic state, and he kills her. The knowledge of the young student is dead knowledge, so to speak, for it is not a thing which she really knows, but only something which she has memorized. There is a significant commentary on language in the professor’s lecture on philology, which is at the same time a parody of pedantry. In absurd terms, he discusses the “Neo-Spanish” tongues: Spanish, Latin, Italian, Portuguese, Roumanian, Sardanapolous, Spanish and Neo-Spanish. The differences between these related languages, we learn, are imperceptible, since all the words of all the languages are the same. As an example he employs the sentence, “The roses of my grandmother are as yellow as my grandfather who was Asiatic.” In all languages it is identical, and yet when the girl repeats the sentence, it is never correct according to the professor. The only really safe words, it is suggested, are nonsense syllables, for words which are heavy with meaning, always end up succumbing, crumbling, or bursting like balloons.

In Jack a nonsense phrase, “I like potatoes with bacon,” stands for an acceptance of society and all that it imposes upon us. Jack at first refuses to utter a word, a rebel against his family who want to marry him to Roberte. The family overwhelms him with invective: he is a mononstre, vilenain, an actographe. His sister Jacqueline cries, “Je te déteste, de t’exertre,” while his mother reminds him how she taught him to “progresser, transgresser, grasseyer,” for she has been all things to him, “une amie, un mari, un marin.” As in The Bald Soprano, words are no longer used as counters, but simply stand for themselves, meaningless blobs, suggested by other words. Trite phrases are again thrown in for no apparent reason. Jacques finally gives in and accepts, not the original fiancée, but her sister, who has three noses, and nine fingers on one hand. She tells Jacques that in the basement of her chateau all things are called “cat.” Again language has broken down completely, and serves absolutely no meaningful purpose. Cats are called cats; insects, cats; chairs, cats; one, cat; two, cat; etc. So whether one wishes to say, “I’m tired, let’s go to sleep,” or “Bring me some cold noodles, warm lemonade and no coffee,” one says, “Cat, cat, cat, cat, cat, etc.” “Oh,” concludes Jacques, “how easy it is to speak! It’s not even worth the trouble.” This is also the conclusion of the New Tenant, who, expressing himself in terms of light and dark, simply says good night, turns out the light, and remains in his wordless solitude.

The same techniques are employed in The Chairs where “Drink your tea, Semiramis,” and “You might have been a general chief, etc.,” return with the monotony of a hey-nonny-nonny refrain, and with just about as much meaning. Words suggest other words because of sound, regardless of meaning, and the absurd physical presence of the word is before us once again rather than any reality of which it is a symbol. “Were you sure to invite everyone,” asks the Old Woman, “Le Pape, les papillons, et les papiers?” (The Pope, the butterflies and the papers). Several times words are repeated so frequently that they become only a sound, totally emptied of their meaning, as when one repeats one’s own name so long that it becomes simply an object in itself. Will the Orator come to reveal the Old Man’s message? “Il viendra,” (he will come) says the Old Man confidently. And the word is repeated ten times, then changed to the present tense, and repeated five more times.

The ultimate irony is that life itself, even a rich and successful life which contributes something to society (which is certainly not the case with the two old ruins on the stage before us), is finally reduced to nothing but a word, to a street name. “Let’s die and enter into legend,” says the Old Woman, “At least we’ll have our street.” And the old couple plunge to their death repeating ecstatically, “Nous aurons notre rue!”

The Chairs seems to be a transitional play in the career of Ionesco. In it we may see the gross exaggeration of language, and the grotesque characters so typical of the first plays. At the same time, these elements are not so prominent, and there is a certain realism in the presentation of the Old Man and Woman. This realistic presentation of the characters is seen again in Victims of Duty, Amédée and The New Tenant, however fantastic the situations may be. It is in these more “realistic” plays that the visible objects play an important role, and one suspects that this is a sort of compensation for the lack of dead language presented as such and the lack of puppet-like characters who are exaggeratedly mechanical, and therefore representative, once again, of that which is dead and cumbersome rather than vital and potentially spiritual.

For Ionesco’s characters are dead, all of them entombed within his restricting universe with walls closing in upon them, and buried also within their own solitude, each one separated from all others in a world where communication is absolutely impossible. The huge cadaver on stage in Amédée is not the only dead body in the play, and Amédée is fortunate if he is resurrected at the end, for he is the only resurrected character in Ionesco’s theater, the only one to escape from this world. He does so only at his wife’s expense, for as he ascends he drops upon her head the gigantic hat and beard belonging to the body he has finally gotten rid of.

Even the more realistic characters in the later plays perform meaningless and mechanical activities. Amédée is caught up in the senseless repetition of the play he is writing, and of which he never gets beyond the third speech. Madeleine is tangled in the wires of her job as telephone receptionist. And both of them have accepted mechanically, without thinking, the presence of the body in their apartment. In fact, they no longer can remember who it is, or where it came from. The mechanical rhythm of the movers in The New Tenant is obvious, as they bring in the furniture. The concierge in the same play speaks in a vacuum, never waits for the answers, but gives them herself.

The Old Woman in The Chairs becomes a grotesque automaton as she rushes from door to door bringing in chairs, and when the room is crowded she automatically takes on the role of usher and begins selling programs and candy.

The lack of any individual existence of the characters in Jack is underlined by the fact that all the members of one family are called Jacques, and all those of the other, Robert. The same technique is used in The Bald Soprano when Bobby Watson is mentioned. The Martins, in the same play, are so lost in their individual solitude that after years of married life they do not recognize each other. Their life together has been one of mechanical repetition. People are so interchangeable, so anonymous, that at the end of the play the Martins may take the roles assumed at the beginning by the Smiths.

The structure of these plays is frequently circular, and we find ourselves at the end at exactly the same point from which we started out. This is true of The Bald Soprano; of The Lesson, where the professor kills his student, the bell rings and another student is about to enter as the curtain falls; and of Victims of Duty, where everyone is conquered by the inhuman force of duty and the curtain falls on all the characters masticating the hard crust of bread imposed by society, and seeing to it that all the others are doing the same.

Those plays which are not constructed along these lines, usually follow a descending line, beginning with something resembling life, and ending, after absurd repetitions of one kind or another, in absolute silence. The Chairs and The New Tenant both end on a note of silence and emptiness. The world, dominated by substance, has become a graveyard.

This unhappy outlook on life is, surprisingly enough, presented by Ionesco in a way that is extremely amusing. One reason for this is that he employs the very technique of comedy—reduction of the living to the mechanical, exaggerated repetition—to express his particular view. The heaviness and opacity of life’s atmosphere, the overabundance of matter is at least partially relieved by the element of humor, which Ionesco considers a “happy symptom of the other presence,” evanescence or lightness. There is a profound unity, then, in this theater, where the very humor which is a symptom of lightness, at the same time makes patent the victory of the anti-spiritual forces in life.

One might be tempted to argue with the author over the paradox which lies at the base of his theatrical conception. But Ionesco is after all a dramatist, and makes (even less than other playwrights) no claims as a thinker. He stands for “pure theater,” and we can only be grateful that this paradox has produced plays which are amusing, suggestive, and refreshingly original.

Bernard F. Dukore (essay date 1961)

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SOURCE: “The Theater of Ionesco: A Union of Form and Substance,” in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. XIII, No. 3, October 1961, pp. 174-81.

[In the following essay, Dukore analyzes The Bald Soprano and The Lesson to show that, contrary to Ionesco’s critics, his plays are not formless or meaningless, and explains that while his works are unorthodox and not concerned with psychological realism or political ideology, in Ionesco’s drama form is a direct outgrowth of subject matter.]

The plays of Eugene Ionesco have inspired both violent condemnation and rhapsodic adulation. When an off-Broadway theatre recently produced The Bald Soprano and Jack, their advertisements featured a “For-and-Against” column of critical judgments, and urged the public to decide for itself. The public decided not to decide for itself, but accepted the “Against” verdict. Yet the statements on the “Against” side were not the sole reason that the production did not succeed, for Ionesco’s supporters often have a habit of alienating his potential public. In a characteristically enthusiastic article, William Saroyan declared that Ionesco’s plays “bewilder, delight, annoy, astonish, amaze and amuse” him.1 Jacques Lemarchand, an ardent supporter of Ionesco, stated that Ionesco’s theatre “is not a psychological theatre, it is not a symbolist theatre, it is not a social theatre, nor is it a poetic or a surrealistic one. … The Theatre of Eugene Ionesco is certainly the strangest … to have emerged from the post-war period.”2 These statements have helped create an image of Ionesco as the incomprehensible poet of the obscure. Until very recently, Ionesco himself has not done much to create a different impression. Such statements as “reality is unreal … words are just noises”3 have fostered the legend that Ionesco writes little more than fascinating double-talk.

Lately, however, Ionesco has become more articulate, and in his recent writings and speeches about the theatre, we can see a logical aesthetic credo. A new style of art is usually unpopular, he reminds us, chiefly because its technique is unfamiliar. To illustrate this, he compares Proust and Sue.

Eugène Sue was extremely popular. Proust was not. He was not understood. He did not speak to everyone. … Today it is Proust who offers a wealth of truth, it is Eugène Sue who seems empty. How fortunate that the authorities did not forbid Proust to write in a Proustian language!4

The type of theatre against which Ionesco usually inveighs is the ideological theatre, the theatre which claims social usefulness as its main function. This, he says, is nonsense, for when the theatre “tries to become the vehicle of ideologies, it can only become their popularizer. It simplifies them dangerously. … An ideological theatre is insufficiently philosophical.”5 And it is more illuminating to read a psychological treatise than to visit a psychological theatre, for the latter is insufficiently psychological. Pirandello, he says, is now outdated,

since his theatre is founded upon theories of personality or of many-faceted truth, theories which since psychoanalysis and depth psychology seem clear as day. By confirming the correctness of Pirandello’s theories, modern psychology, necessarily going further in the exploration of the human psyche, gives him a certain validity, but at the same time renders him insufficient and useless: since it says more completely and more scientifically that which Pirandello has said.6

But although Ionesco harangues against the ideological theatre, he does not maintain, as Terrence Rattigan did in his debate with Bernard Shaw, that ideas have no place in the theatre. Ionesco draws a line between ideas and ideology: “A work of art is not devoid of ideas. Since it is life or the expression of life, ideas are emanated from it: the work of art does not emanate from an ideology.”7 He makes a distinction between ideas which are universal in character and those which are local and specific, such as political ideas.

Ionesco remembers that as a child he was held spellbound by the puppet shows in the Luxembourg Gardens, and in fact his plays are descendants of these puppet plays. His theatre is a guignol, a theatre of caricature and of the grotesque, a theatre that exaggerates life and that becomes larger than life. Ionesco finds the realistic theatre insufficient and unsatisfying. It is necessary, he says,

to go all the way in the grotesque, in caricature, beyond the pale irony of witty drawing room comedies. Not drawing room comedies, but farce, an extreme burlesque exaggeration. Humor, yes, but with the methods of burlesque. A hard comedy, without finesse, excessive. … Theatre is an extreme exaggeration of feelings, an exaggeration which disjoints the real8

Ionesco is not a crank writing meaningless absurdities or colorful vagaries. His plays are different from the conventional types of plays. He writes neither from the viewpoint of psychological realism nor from the viewpoint of a political ideology. Because of this, the form of his plays is neither the form of the well-made play nor of epic theatre. But his plays are not formless. Artistic unity, he maintains, “satisfies an inner need and does not answer the logic of some structural order imposed from without.”9 To understand the form of his plays, one must go to the plays themselves, and not to some preconceived notion of play construction. Ionesco’s plays are neither formless nor meaningless. To prove this, I would like to take The Bald Soprano and The Lesson—two plays dissimilar in form, both plays different from the type of theatre we usually encounter—and to analyze their meaning, and how the form of each reflects that meaning.

Both The Bald Soprano and The Lesson begin with recognizable theatrical conventions, and promptly turn them upside down. In The Lesson, the Maid admits the Pupil into the house, and the latter meets the Professor for the first time. This is a conventional means of giving exposition. Characters meet for the first time and discuss their backgrounds. In The Bald Soprano, a husband and wife are relaxing after dinner: she knits, and he reads the newspaper. What could be more familiar? In both plays, the opening situations are familiar. The audience has seen them in the realistic theatre. What happens later is not familiar.

The Bald Soprano seems to be formless because it does not use the plot structure of the realistic play. But is not this lack of plot, this apparent lack of form, this willful lack of meaningful forward motion—is it not exactly the right form for a play that reveals lives which are formless and which lack meaningful forward motion?

Note the opening stage direction:

scene: A middle-class English interior, with English armchairs. An English evening. Mr. Smith, an Englishman, seated in his English armchair and wearing English slippers, is smoking his English pipe and reading an English newspaper, near an English fire. He is wearing English spectacles and a small gray English moustache. Beside him, in another English armchair, Mrs. Smith, an English-woman, is darning some English socks. A long moment of English silence. The English silence. The English clock strikes 17 English strokes.10

Except for the clock striking seventeen times, this is a stunning picture of bourgeois conventionality. And this image of bourgeois conventionality is developed throughout the course of the play.

No sooner have the chimes struck seventeen times than Mrs. Smith announces that it is nine o’clock. A joke? Of course it is a joke. But it also reveals that the specific time of day is meaningless, because from hour to hour and day to day, their lives are essentially the same. It is also noteworthy that the couple is named Smith: a perfectly conventional, nondescript, middle-class name for conventional, nondescript, middle-class people.

Mrs. Smith continues: “We’ve drunk the soup, and eaten the fish and chips, and the English salad. The children have drunk English water. We’ve eaten well this evening. That’s because we live in the suburbs of London and because our name is Smith.” The complacency and smug self-satisfaction of the bourgeois is established at the very start of the play.

The uniformity, as well as the lack of vital life in the lives of the members of the bourgeoisie is revealed when the Smiths discuss Bobby Watson, whom Mr. Smith describes as a “veritable living corpse.” Bobby Watson has a wife, also named Bobby Watson.

Since they both had the same name, you could never tell one from the other when you saw them together. It was only after his death that you could really tell which was which. And there are still people today who confuse her with the deceased and offer their condolences to him.

There is no difference in the pattern of existence between one bourgeois and another, difference in sex notwithstanding. That people still confuse the dead man with the living woman indicates further the lifelessness of bourgeois existence, for quick or dead the bourgeois Bobby is a corpse. When asked to describe Mrs. Bobby Watson, Mr. Smith first states that she is not pretty, then that she is pretty; first that she is big and stout, then that she is small and thin. The outward appearance of the bourgeois does not matter: since their lives are exactly the same, their peculiar physical characteristics are unimportant. To reinforce this point, Ionesco informs us that the Watsons have a son and a daughter, named Bobby and Bobby, an uncle named Bobby Watson, and an aunt named Bobby Watson. Every bourgeois is a Bobby Watson.

Ionesco frequently employs a grotesque reversal of the usual. He accomplishes this by taking a familiar situation, injecting into that situation a single element which renders it completely improbable, and then writing the scene as though the improbable element were not there. Such a scene occurs when Mr. and Mrs. Martin enter. Each thinks the other looks familiar. They discover that they are originally from Manchester, that they came to London on the same train, that they sat in the same compartment, and that they now live in the same house. A man and a woman are attracted by each other, and discover that they have seen each other before. So far, there is nothing unusual—except that we know their names are Mr. and Mrs. Martin. Then they discover that they live in the same room, sleep in the same bed, and are parents of the same child. Bourgeois love is revealed as not only formalized and standardized, but as something which has become a series of clichés. Bourgeois lovers neither really see nor really know each other. That passion has disappeared, and that excitement has become boredom is clearly indicated in the opening stage directions of the scene: “The dialogue which follows must be spoken in voices that are drawling, monotonous, a little singsong, without nuances.” And at what would normally be the high point of passion, “They sit together in the same armchair, their arms around each other, and fall asleep.” Upon awakening, Mr. Martin issues the following declaration of love: “Darling, let’s forget all that has not passed between us … and live as before.” Mrs. Martin passionlessly agrees. The lack of passion and vitality will continue; they will go on as before.

The Smiths return, the party begins, and Ionesco presents not only a brilliant satire on cocktail party conversation, but—and more to the point—on the bourgeois preoccupation with inconsequentials. At first, each of the characters gropes for something profound with which to impress the others. The result is a plethora of banalities. When Mr. Martin states, “We all have colds,” Mr. Smith adds the penetrating observation, “Nevertheless, it’s not chilly.” The group then discusses interesting and important events. For example:

mrs. martin (graciously): Oh well, today I witnessed something extraordinary. Something really incredible. … In the street, near a café, I saw a man, properly dressed, about fifty years old, or not even that. … Well, I’m sure you’ll say that I’m making it up—he was down on one knee and he was bent over.

mr. martin, mr. smith, mrs. smith: Oh!

mrs. martin: Yes, bent over. … I went near him to see what he was doing. …

mr. smith: And?

mrs. martin: He was tying his shoe lace which had come undone.

mr. martin, mr. smith, mrs. smith: Fantastic!

mr. smith: If someone else had told me this, I’d not believe it.

By having these people regard this incident as extraordinary, Ionesco emphasizes the triviality of their lives.

The doorbell rings. Mrs. Smith goes to the door to answer it. She returns with the announcement that no one was there. This occurs twice more. When the doorbell rings a fourth time, she refuses to go. Mr. Smith goes to the door and returns with the Fire Chief, who rang the doorbell the fourth time. He admits that he rang it the third time, and then hid himself as a joke. But he tells them that no one had rung the doorbell when it rang the first two times. The women maintain, “Experience teaches us that when one hears the doorbell ring it is because there is never anyone there,” and the men the reverse. When the argument gets heated, the Fire Chief intervenes and extinguishes the “fire”: “You are both partly right. When the doorbell rings, sometimes there is someone, other times there is no one.” This satisfies all concerned, for it is the classic bourgeois manner of settling controversies: choosing the middle path between two extremes.

It is appropriate that the visitor is a Fire Chief, for what a fireman does is what the bourgeois does. He puts out fires, extinguishes the flames of human passion. And since the Fire Chief is under orders to extinguish all the fires in the city, he goes around looking for fires (sparks of vital life) to extinguish. He will not find such fires in middle-class homes, and when he asks if there is a fire for him to put out, the Smiths and Martins answer that there is not even a smell of anything burning.

The lives of these people are not only passionless, but pointless. What is of vital importance to them is actually trivial. What promises to be highly exciting turns out to be dull, and a tempest in a teapot is greeted with the significance of a cosmic catastrophe. The characters tell each other pointless stories based on commonplace incidents. Finally, the Fire Chief goes through an absurdly long and involved genealogy (“My brother-in-law had, on the paternal side, a first cousin whose maternal uncle had a father-in-law whose paternal grandfather had married as his second wife a young native whose brother …” etc.) as preface to a story whose “point” (amazing revelation of the extraordinary!) is that one of these people caught a cold in the winter.

At this point, enter the Maid, who turns out to be the Fire Chief’s sweet-heart. Here, too, passion is extinct, for, as the Fire Chief declares, “It was she who extinguished my first fires.” Not kindled, but extinguished. This is the ideal of young love: passion extinguished.

The Maid wants to read a poem to the guests (i.e., join them on an equal footing) but the Smiths are shocked at this effrontery. Although she manages to frighten them into letting her recite a poem, they push her offstage as soon as they can. The sanctity of the middle-class must be protected from lower-class upstarts.

When the Fire Chief leaves, Ionesco presents another illustration of the dull routine of these people’s lives. The party conversation becomes a series of clichés. “To each his own,” “An Englishman’s home is truly his castle,” “Charity begins at home”—these clichés follow each other with no logical continuity. The words gradually become nonsense syllables, and the nonsense syllables solitary vowels and consonants, as one character yells, “A, e, i, o, u” and another screeches, “B, c, d, f, g.” The meaning-lessness of their lives is conveyed by the manner in which they express themselves: meaningless sentences and phrases which degenerate into more meaningless syllables and letters.

Finally, to reinforce the point that these people are not individualized characters but are prototypes of the bourgeois man and woman, the lights that descend on the “final” scene come up to discover Mr. and Mrs. Martin seated in exactly the same positions as Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the beginning of the play, and saying the same words that the Smiths had said. The play ends exactly where it began.

The Bald Soprano is a satire on bourgeois life, which, the play shows us, is horrible in its dull conventionality, its rigidity, its lack of vital life. Since the lives of these people lack purpose and direction, Ionesco has removed from the play the conventional dramatic structure which would have given them purpose and direction. The play is deliberately static. Ionesco purposely avoids a forward motion of plot, choosing instead a succession of scenes, each of which is connected to the other by theme, each revealing the banality of these people’s lives, and culminating in a screaming mass of clichés.

The title is explained when the Fire Chief inquires of the bald soprano, and is told, “She always wears her hair in the same style.” And so it is with the bourgeoisie. Each lives daily the same life as the previous day, and the day of each is like the day of the other.

The opening of The Lesson is not as bizarre as that of The Bald Soprano. There is nothing comparable to a clock striking seventeen times and an announcement that it is nine o’clock. On the contrary, the opening of The Lesson is as conventional as any admirer of the realistic theatre could desire. A doorbell rings. A Maid admits a Pupil to the house, and asks her to wait for the Professor, who will arrive shortly to give her a lesson. What follows when the Professor arrives is far from conventional.

Having named—with difficulty—the four seasons, the Pupil announces, to the Professor’s satisfaction, that she wants to study for a doctorate. When the Pupil answers that one and one are two, the Professor marvels at her knowledge, tells her that she is very advanced in her studies, and that she will easily get a doctorate. A few moments later, our doctoral candidate is unable to subtract three from four. Nevertheless, she is able to multiply—in a split second—3,755,998,251 by 5,162,303,508. Soon, the Professor explains that the difference between two languages is their striking resemblance to each other, and that they are different despite their identical characteristics.

Although The Lesson may be regarded as a satire on the educational process—which it is—I do not think that this is either its sole or even its chief meaning.

Let us begin by examining what happens.

The Maid admits the Pupil for a lesson. The Professor arrives, and gets acquainted with the Pupil. The Maid warns him not to teach arithmetic, but he ignores her warning. He begins the lesson by trying to find out what the Pupil already knows, and gives her a simple test in addition, which she passes easily. Next, he gives her a simple test in subtraction, which she fails. He then tries to teach her subtraction, but fails. He introduces the subject of linguistics and comparative philology, also against the Maid’s advice, and fails again. Finally, he murders the Pupil. The Maid comes in and discovers the crime. He tries to kill her, but does not succeed. She helps him to get rid of the evidence, and to prepare for the next pupil, to whom, presumably, he will do the same thing.

The Lesson is a tightly organized play, with a recognizable plot. A teacher tries to teach a lesson to a pupil. He is increasingly frustrated at his inability to do so. These failures gradually assume the shape of a nightmare as he becomes less and less able to make her understand what he is talking about.

A lesson is essentially a form of communication, an attempt to pass on information from one person to another. In this play, the attempt is unsuccessful. And Ionesco’s theme emerges from this: people cannot effectively communicate with each other. The Professor tries to teach the Pupil the two basic elements of communication, words and numbers. But he cannot do so. To the communicator, everything is clear and logical, and in the first half of the play, we see the lesson through the eyes of the communicator, the Professor. His attempts to explain subtraction are perfectly clear to us: we know exactly what he is talking about. But by the time he gets into linguistics and philology, we see the lesson through the eyes of the Pupil. What the Professor says is unintelligible. That which distinguishes Spanish from neo-Spanish, he explains, “is their striking resemblance which makes it so hard to distinguish them from each other.” These languages are “diverse in spite of the fact that they present wholly identical characteristics.” Each successive attempt to communicate fails, and each failure causes frustration, which creates a frenzy that results in murder. The inability to communicate translates itself into frustration on the part of the teacher, pain (toothache) on the part of the pupil, and finally murder, the culmination of the frustration and the pain. Nor will it end this time. The process will repeat itself with each new pupil. Communication will not be achieved.

The function of each character is directly related to this theme. The Professor’s major objective is to teach, to communicate meaning; the Pupil’s is to learn, to understand his meaning. And the Maid is one of those souls who is not concerned with communication or meaning; she is concerned only with her job. She keeps the place in order and cleans up her employer’s mess.

Running beneath all of this, as a constant counterpoint to the theme of non-communication, is a strong sexual motif. This is apparent from the very entrance of the Professor, and is stressed by Ionesco in his opening description of him:

He rubs his hands together constantly: occasionally a lewd gleam comes into his eyes and is quickly repressed.

During the course of the play … the lewd gleam in his eyes will become a steady devouring flame.

As soon as he enters, he notices that the Pupil is well developed for her age. When she says, referring to the test that he will give her, that she is ready for him, he is taken aback. “Ready for me? … (A gleam in the eye, quickly dispelled, a gesture immediately checked.) It is I who am ready for you, Mademoiselle. I am at your service.” Throughout the play, there are sex symbols. The Professor refers to the arithmetic lesson as “arithmetical knitting.” In trying to teach her subtraction, he talks about biting her ears. The chief sexual element, however, is the fact that in the middle of the lesson, the Pupil gets a toothache. Ionesco could have chosen a crick in the neck, or writer’s cramp but he chose a toothache. A toothache is internal. And the moment the Pupil first gets this toothache is significant. In a speech filled with an insistent, caressing rhythm, the Professor discusses words. These words, which are “charged with significance” and heavy with meaning, dive downwards and “burst like balloons.” At this point, the Pupil gets a toothache. At this point, the hymen is ruptured. From here until the murder, we have a subtle rhythm of speech and action increasing in force as the Professor makes deeper insertion, until he reaches orgasm: murder. The rhythm of the speech is smoothly, then more violently, caressing:

pass delicately, caressingly, over the vocal cords, which, like harps or leaves in the wind, will suddenly shake, agitate, vibrate, vibrate, vibrate or uvulate, or fricate or jostle against each other, or sibilate, sibilate, placing everything in movement, the uvula, the tongue, the palate, the teeth … the lips. … Finally the words come out through the nose, the mouth, the ears, the pores, drawing along with them all the organs that we have named, torn up by the roots, in a powerful, majestic flight …

The rhythm becomes strongly fricative:

farrago instead of farrago, fee fi fo fum instead of fee fi fo fum, Philip instead of Philip, fictory instead of fictory, February instead of February …

From the tantalizing fricatives, the rhythm of the scene, completely linked to the continuing cycles of the action (effort, failure, frustration, renewed effort, etc.) builds steadily in intensity until it reaches a dramatic and sexual climax in the murder.

professor: Repeat, repeat: knife … knife … knife …

pupil: I’ve got a pain … my throat, neck … oh, my shoulders … my breast … knife …

professor: Knife … knife … knife …

pupil: My hips … knife … my thighs … kni …

professor: Pronounce it carefully … knife … knife …

pupil: Knife … my throat …

professor: Knife … knife …

pupil: Knife … my shoulders … my arms, my breast, my hips … knife … knife …

professor: That’s right … Now, you’re pronouncing it well …

pupil: Knife … my breast … my stomach …

He stabs her. Ejaculation occurs at precisely the same moment as the murder. In addition, the manner in which he kills her is important. He does not strangle her: he uses a knife—a phallic knife.

The sex motif is developed as an undertone that reinforces the basic theme of the play, the inability to communicate. In the sex act, we have the most basic form of human communication. It is ironic that despite this basic way in which two people unite, they are more apart than ever; that despite the apparent communication, there is really no communication. This irony not only reinforces the theme, but reinforces the nightmare quality of the play.

The functions of the chief characters attain new significance when seen in the light of the sex motif. The Professor, in attempting to teach and to communicate meaning, is trying to penetrate. The Pupil, in attempting to learn and to understand meaning, is trying to receive.

The form of each of these plays is, as we have seen, a direct outgrowth of its subject matter. The lack of meaningful forward motion in The Bald Soprano and the nightmare intensity of The Lesson spring from the inner worlds of these plays. Ionesco does not begin with a theatrical form (such as the well-made-play) which he uses to develop his subject. Instead, he begins with a subject, and from that subject derives his form. Form and content are so interrelated, that these highly unorthodox plays possess an artistic unity which would hardly have been attained had Ionesco poured his subject matter into an orthodox form.


  1. William Saroyan, “Ionesco,” Theatre Arts, XLII (July, 1958), 25.

  2. Jacques Lemarchand, “Le Théâtre d’Eugène Ionesco,” in Eugène Ionesco, Théâtre (Paris, 1954), I, 11-12. My translation.

  3. Quoted in Muriel Reed, “Ionesco,” Réalités (December, 1957), p. 50.

  4. Eugene Ionesco, “The Avant-Garde Theatre,” World Theatre, VIII (Autumn, 1959), 184.

  5. Eugene Ionesco, “Discovering the Theatre,” trans. Leonard C. Pronko, The Tulane Drama Review, IV (September, 1959), 9.

  6. Ibid., p. 8.

  7. Ionesco, “The Avant-Garde Theatre,” p. 194.

  8. Ionesco, “Discovering the Theatre,” pp. 10-11.

  9. Eugene Ionesco, “The Starting Point,” in Eugene Ionesco, Plays, trans. Donald Watson (London, 1958), I, ix.

  10. This and subsequent quotations from The Bald Soprano and The Lesson are from Eugene Ionesco, Four Plays, trans. Donald M. Allen (New York, 1958). Another English translation is available: Eugene Ionesco, Plays, trans. Donald Watson (London, 1958), Vol. I. The reader is invited to compare these with the French edition: Eugène Ionesco, Thèdtre (Paris, 1954), Vol. I. Ionesco’s plays present language problems that are sometimes insurmountable. In The Bald Soprano, for example, Ionesco has Mr. Martin announce that he took a train from Manchester at “une demie après huit” and arrived in London at “un quart avant cinq.” The grammatical construction is English. Although the correct French would be “huit heures et demie” and “cinq heures moins le quart,” he has made the English Mr. Martin say—in French—“a half after eight” and “a quarter before five,” which is a general equivalent of “half past eight” and “a quarter before five,” which joke his French audience would certainly understand. The only way to give the flavor of the original would be to make the characters French rather than English, and to have them say, “eight hours and a half” and “five hours less the quarter.”

George G. Strem (essay date 1962)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5172

SOURCE: “Ritual and Poetry in Eugène Ionesco’s Theatre,” in The Texas Quarterly, Vol. V, No. 4, Winter 1962, pp. 149-58.

[In the following essay, Strem asserts that Ionesco creates a personal, poetical theater by using his inner voices rather than his rational faculties to produce his work, and says that by bringing the ritual of daily life onto his stage the playwright returns to the origins of dramatic expression.]

As a playwright Eugene Ionesco has a feeling of uneasiness, to say the least, about the contemporary theatre, especially about the contemporary French theatre. He accuses the latter of being too doctrinary. Too many writers are using the stage as a pulpit to expose and impose their philosophies.

His own convictions in the matter of theatrical art he summarized in his play Improvisation. Here Ionesco stages himself under his own name, demonstrating the way in which he works, or rather, how his works arise by spontaneous generation. The accent is on impromptu: in the beginning there is the creative urge. The playwright, vehicle of creation, patiently waits until the first impulse is followed by another, a first word evokes a sequence, a question its reply, until finally the dialogue falls into a pattern according to its own law. However, even while his play is still in gestation, philosophers of the market place urge him to elaborate a plot which should conform to their own individual and contradictory doctrines. One of them wants to convert him to the epic theatre à la Brecht, another to essentialism (existentialism), a third to another fashionable philosophy. For a while he endures the swell of pompous clichès, but he eventually manages to state his own profession of faith regarding the art of playwriting:

“Le théâtre est, pour moi, la projection sur scène du monde du dedans: c’est dans mes rêves, dans mes angoisses, dans mes désirs obscurs, dans mes contradictions intérieures que, pour ma part, je me réserve le droit de prendre cette matière thèâtrale.”1

These lines reveal the nature of the quarrel between Ionesco and the conventional theatre. Ionesco does not seek theatrical substance in dialectics brought in from the outside; rather, he finds the conflict within himself and uses the stage to exteriorize it. In the strict sense of the drama his theatre is therefore undramatic; nonetheless, it makes excellent theatre. Since he admits that his plays aim at self-expression, he must turn away from the conventional techniques of playwriting to achieve this aim. He rejects the categorical imperative of a plot—conceived as a prearranged concatenation of events—for he is not interested in telling a dramatized story. In Victims of Duty he takes issue with this conventional requirement of plotmaking. To think out a plot, he says, is not different from writing a suspense story; in fact, he contends, all playwriting has been since antiquity the writing of suspense stories. Where there is a plot, there is a solution found in advance; it is held in reserve to produce it at the right moment. It is the deus ex machina to save author and spectator from embarrassment; it is reassuring, its existence is known in advance, it therefore perverts the basic law of life which is unpredictability.

“On cherche, on trouve. Autant tout révéler dès le début.”

Essentially, the reproach Ionesco levels against the traditional theatre is that it does not take into account the powerful drive of modern art to enrich itself from nonrational sources that bathe all existence. Already Jean Cocteau had declared in 1936 in his preface to Renaud et Armide:

“L’epoque allait venir où, loin de contredire la sottise, il s’agirait de contredire l’intelligence. Mais on ne peut contredire l’intelligence que par l’emploi lyrique des sentiments.”

We shall see that Ionesco does just that: he creates a personal, that is to say poetical theatre in order to dispute the right of reason to serve as unique guide and mirror of man’s world. He relies on what he terms “le mecanisme createur,” to write his plays. We have already explained what this means as to the creative process; his work is not the product of his brain but the dictation of inner voices. His writing technique consists of resorting to sound effects, puns, and apparently nonsensical phrases to produce a certain magic like that of the witch doctors among primitive peoples. Thus, he creates an atmosphere charged with emotion; it appeals not to the reasoning faculties but to the feelings and sensitivity of the spectator. Moreover there is no “imitation of action” in Ionesco’s theater in the Aristotelian sense; his dialogues are no mere conversation to illustrate and explain the action, as it is the case in many of the so-called “well-made plays”; rather, they constitute the very tissue and fabric of the drama, forming what Francis Ferguson calls “the plot as the soul of the play.”2

In addition to harking back to his inner voices Ionesco also allows outside influences to shape his plays. The title of The Bald Soprano is due, for example, to a slip of the tongue of one of the tired actors during a rehearsal. Ionesco, present at the rehearsal, found the accidental encounter of the words “cantatrice” and “chauve” extremely propitious to express the satirical intent of his play; he therefore changed the original title “English without Tears,” which had in its turn been borrowed from an advertisement of a language-teaching method. Undoubtedly Ionesco believes that works of art are the concern of the entire universe, which brings them about through manifold influences as it would create a planet or a mountain. His theatre, as he puts it, is not written; it writes itself.

His medium, the words of the human language, fascinates him. This Rumanian-born author is a great master and juggler of the French language in which he writes. In this respect he is the direct heir and continuator of Rabelais, also a disciple of Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Baudelaire, and others. Words he realizes, participate in the universal duality as much as anything else. They are valid as keys to conventional understanding but also in their own right as musical entities. As such they possess a certain evocative quality.

Deprived of their rational connotation, words in The Bald Soprano produce a sound-pattern characteristic of the social contacts of Western man, epitomized in the British middle class. The chatter of nonsensical or silly phrases symbolizes the inability of man to communicate with his fellow men. By giving up all pretense of meaning, the author shows that our conversations have no regard for true communication. He gets his point across by reproducing the ritual of daily family life in its innumerable manifestations. The comical effect achieved by the nonsense of the words, accompanied by that of the gestures, has deep tragic implications. The play conforms to Ionesco’s own definition of the theater, for it is the expression of his anguish about the nonsensical character of our daily lives, and on a higher plane also about the meaning of our existence. The same will hold for all of Ionesco’s productions; from one end to the other of his theatre he presents the manifold aspects of the Human Comedy, the force and satire of which surpass Balzac’s interpretation.

Let us take, for example, another of his popular plays, The Lesson. Gibberish produced in imitation of the sound pattern of modern life again constitutes its theme, this time between a professor and his pupil at their lesson. The rational being, the professor, is overcome by the power of words. The endless repetitions of certain formulae intoxicate him; their magic unleashes deep-seated, murderous instincts in him. The fact that such magic ceremonial always results in the same ritualistic sacrifice of a human being is announced in form of a warning, uttered by the maid: “La philologie mene au pire.” The student too begins to succumb to this word magic: through increasingly involved, increasingly nonsensical periods, circumlocutions, and repetitions, she is brought into a state of torpor, accompanied by a physical sensation that feels like toothache. Tension is on the rise, comparable to that produced by a savage beating of drums. Several times the professor repeats the word couteau—it refers to the glittering blade that he has taken out of its cache and is now holding in his hands. The word is decomposed: cou-teau. The first syllable alludes suggestively, alluringly, dangerously to the neck of the student that beacons to the frenzied man handling the glittering object; the second syllable “teau” is very close to “tue,” the lethal verb that brings the ritual to the culminating point. “Le couteau tue,” the knife strikes the girl with enormous force as the High Priest immolates the sacrificial victim. The result was not calculated, though it could be foreseen; the professor acted in an intoxicated state as if under the effect of a drug. The ritual has certain prescribed forms and gestures but it is never exactly the same—just as was the case at the Dionysian festivals.

Like The Bald Soprano, this second play transcends the individual plane and attains a collective meaning. The Lesson suggests that people are swayed not by reason but by their passions. The learned man who turns murderer when he is intoxicated by words is the so-called civilized man who has been brought into a state of frenzy in which he is capable of wholesale massacre of his fellow men. The magic of nonsensical phrases proclaims the inanity of our whole civilization, Ionesco’s condemnation of the misuse of erudition.

The creative mechanism that produced The Lesson is the unfolding of a ritual, comparable to the production of primitive dances and a ritualistic act in which they culminate. There is no dramatic conflict brought in from the outside; the play is a journey back into the jungle of the human soul. And again, as in Soprano, the end of the play shows that the same ritual is about to start all over again, that it will renew itself while repeating itself. The dead girl is carried out, a new student will take her place, the performers will perform, sinister forces will recommence their action; the deeply hidden sense or the shocking nonsense of human sacrifice, of life and death, of human striving and failure will be once more hinted at, the same ritual arriving at the same results—da capo al fine.

Magic and ritual produce the theme of a third play, Jack, or The Submission. As in Soprano, the characters are interchangeable. This is indicated by the ingenious artifice of calling all the relatives of the male protagonist Jack, all of those of his female counterpart Roberta. The various members of the same clan are differentiated by numbers only. Both tribes gang up on Jack No. 1, whose tragedy and crime is that he is an individual. The pathos of the play, underlining the futile struggle of the individual against the all-submerging forces of our mass civilization, the “submision” of the title, is enhanced by nonconventional techniques based once more upon the performance of certain ritualistic acts and the magic of sound effects. At first, Jack No. 1 boldly faces the hostile armies of his enemies. He proclaims that he dares dislike the universally adopted dish of potatoes with bacon. Then all the pressure, clamor, and hatred of public opinion weigh down upon him. He must conform; with the dish he must accept all the paraphernalia of the mass man, must choose a bride not according to his own taste but according to the needs of the community. Once defeated on the score of the insipid nourishment, our sad hero turns his former defiance into a negative one by going all the way on the road toward his debasement. Not only will he espouse an ugly bride but he will choose the most repulsive of the Robertas, the one with three noses and nine fingers on each of her hands. The ritual that consecrates this immolation of the individual on the altar of public opinion is most expressive and depressive. The bride is a sorceress who promises to Jack a one-syllable language. This syllable is “cha” which is, as pronounced in French, the sound of kissing, that is of sensual pleasure. The multiplication of this sound in the combinations of cha-armant, château, chameau, chaminadour, charrue, chagrin, chabot, chaloupe, chaland, chalet, chatouille, chapître, chahut, chamarré, chapeau, and finally chat (cat) represents the insistent, recurrent, irresistible lure of the Flesh to which Jack abandons himself. The verbal magic is further strengthened by the ritual of gestures. The members of the two tribes, witnessing the embrace of the defeated rebel and his cat of a bride, execute a savage dance around the lovers; they make all kinds of grotesque gestures, they utter animal cries. The obscurity of the night and the passion of their senses make the lovers unaware of the crawling, crouching, moaning, and heavy breathing around them, of the squatting teeming mankind that celebrates their downfall. Finally everything dissipates; only the Woman, with the nine long, grabbing fingers on her hands, agitating like snakes, remains visible.3

Ionesco is, like his contemporary and fellow playwright Jean Anouilh, an author of but a few basic themes which recur throughout his theatre. Thus we retrieve the theme of the impossibility of a breakthrough in human communication in The Bald Soprano, The Lesson, and Jack; and the question of the absurdity of the human condition in view of the inevitability of death in most of the plays. All these motives are intertwined in The Killer, one of Ionesco’s most forceful plays, a three-acter. In the first two acts the protagonist is faced with the brutal, sly, maliciously destructive work of a Killer who is out to deter man from creating, from persevering in the ways of Life. Our hero’s first reaction is that of indignation rather than of horror; it is the reaction of the social man who invokes the help of society against an enemy of society. He finds nothing but indifference and incomprehension; stupidity reigns supreme. Finally, in the last, magnificent monologues of the third act, the revolt of the protagonist against the Killer transcends society to rise to the metaphysical plane. Death is presented here in an actual exteriorization of the dreaded monster. The “monologue interieur” of the hero is converted into an imaginary dialogue, to make it perceptible on the stage.4 The grinning killer is the projection of the hero’s, that is of Man’s, inner vision. It is to this embodiment of his vision that he addresses his questions, but they are answered by the hero himself, for the Killer remains speechless though terribly present throughout the scene. The questions are those man eternally asks in the face of death. Man wants to understand the reason for his inevitable destruction. All he gets for an answer is a cynical grin from the Killer. The latter, represented as a puny fellow to make the dread he inspires all the more ridiculous, will nevertheless overwhelm and slaughter the human hero. Man implores but the other remains implacable. Man would like to combat the Killer and perhaps he has the means of doing it (Bérenger, our protagonist, has two guns which he once aims at his enemy), but he is so fascinated by him that he finally kneels down, disarmed, to receive the deathly blow. The ritual of killing is performed according to varying and yet eternally the same laws. Again, as in The Lesson, the knife of the High Priest is raised to immolate the victim. The inability of the hero to oppose the killer means perhaps that deep down man knows that death is good, death is wise, and that the living do not understand death. One almost has the impression that our hero has been at all times on the side of Death against Life which he finds senseless. If we apply the same conclusion to the author himself—for he admittedly expresses his own anguish and his own feelings in his theatre—we find that, indeed, death is an obsession with Ionesco. He fears and desires it at the same time; as he puts it, he fears his desire for Death.5

Death lurking upon Man, ambushing him in the midst of life’s preoccupations, is the subject of still another play, The New Tenant. The ritual of death is staged here through the moving-in and installation of the personified Death, the new tenant, into the house of life. All around us the paraphernalia of death encumber our horizon. The furniture of the new tenant keeps coming; it takes up all the space in the apartment, in the hall, in the street. The dark-clothed gentleman who sits down in his chair and puts out the light, to wait in the darkness, is a strong and obvious symbol. One is reminded of the ephemeral character of life, one becomes painfully aware of the ever present possibility of one’s own, sudden end. In the midst of this stern symphony, comic elements appear, the comic being produced, as usual, though reversal of the normal attitudes of people or the normal attributes of things. Heavy pieces of furniture are handled with the greatest ease by the movers while small vases weigh them down. One can interpret such theatrical tricks any way one wishes, but the light and graceful vases clearly seem to have more weight, that is more importance from the perspective of the play than the massive pieces of furniture.

Since Ionesco conceives of the theatre as the projection of his inner world, as we saw in his declaration of faith above, and since he is an artist, it follows that he endeavors to create a poetic theatre. That does not mean that he will write his plays in verse but, rather, he will give them poetical content. Of him can be said what had been asserted about the writers of the twenties and early thirties centered in Paris, namely that they “tried to substitute the poetry of the theatre for poetry in the theatre.” (Fergusson, Chapter Seven). It is in the name of poetic reality, which he holds superior to the materialistic representation of our universe, that he protests against the monopoly of the rational, Racinian tradition of the French stage. This poetic reality, he creates by the same sound effects that he employs to reproduce ritual on the stage, also by the settings and by leading us into the realm of the subconscious and superconscious. In The Killer, for example, the loneliness of man in the face of Death is suggested by the dazzling whiteness of the décor, while in The New Tenant the conventional black clothes of the New Tenant makes Death a respectable and acceptable figure. The final scene of the former play is a poem on the horror of death, the latter on the frailness of human life. The hero’s monologue in The Killer is a long lament, while the entire ritual of the moving in of Death in the second play forms an elegy.

Ionesco believes in the liberating action of poetry; he could say with Jean Cocteau that “the poet disintoxicates the world.” Indeed, this is the theme of his three-act play, Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It, also, indirectly, of Victims of Duty. The first two acts of Amédée make us participate in the hero’s growing anguish about his wasted life, his feeling of guilt, his desperate attempt to escape the prison of everyday reality by trying to create a work of art, his daily renewed failure; we also participate in his efforts to lead his wife back to the world of beauty and poetry which had been theirs at the beginning of their love. There is much telling symbolism in the play: a dead man whom Amédée might or might not have killed—that is, his own higher self—lives with him ever more demandingly, keeps growing, taking up an increasingly large part of his apartment; then there are the poisonous mushrooms, symbols of his gnawing, ever growing anguish. All this is extremely powerful. The tension in Amédée’s soul—the tension in the play—steadily increases; we witness the struggle between his humdrum preoccupations and his strong yearning to extricate himself, between his higher visions and the petty thoughts of his wife, until the situation matures to a point of explosion. The third act comes as détente, in contrast to the tense last act of The Killer. Now Amédée’s inner world is projected into the outer world through a street scene. With superhuman efforts our protagonist has succeeded in ejecting his phantoms; the dead man is dragged out into the open and so begins Amédée’s liberation. Finally he will soar above this material world and disappear into higher regions.

Poetry is very much present even in such a pessimistic play as Jack, or the Submission. For a second Jack retrieves something of his former self when he dreams aloud of a fountain of light, of glowing water, of a fire of ice, of fiery snows. Also the dialogue between him and his bride is a poem of great fantasy, reminiscent of the encounter between Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and the Green-Clad Woman; indeed the entire scene of their final union recalls the one in the Royal Hall of the King of the Dovre-Trolls. Jack, like Peer Gynt, succumbs to sensual temptation; he ceases to be himself, that is a human who aspires ever higher, but will become like a troll who is sufficient to himself. The hero of Victims of Duty is the negative counterpart of Amédée. With the same materials the author created two works, one with a positive, the other with a negative hero, as Ibsen did in Brandt and Peer Gynt or Sartre in The Flies and No Exit, respectively. The dead man becomes, in Victims of Duty, a detective, symbol of a self-searching spirit. Again a playwright reflects on his art and yearns to know himself better in order to be able to create. Once more his wife is called Madeleine, and once more she drags him down instead of helping him; she enslaves him by means of sensual temptation and persuades him to stay in this world of material reality. Thus the protagonist’s efforts to escape end with dismal failure; a modern Icarus, incapable of taking off, his wings drop and he ends up with his rear end in the wastepaper basket. From then on society takes him back with a vengeance. He is fed on insipid food; they make a child, that is a conventional man, of him.

Perhaps the most poetic, most moving of Ionesco’s plays is The Chairs, called by the author a “tragic farce.” The word “tragic” applies to man’s inability to communicate with his fellow men, a theme recurrent in Ionesco’s theatre. This theme is expressed here more emphatically, unmixed with other themes; it is the theme of man’s loneliness, which, according to Lemarchand, constitutes the key to Ionesco’s theatrical production.

The protagonist, again flanked by his wife, is this time Old Man who has arrived at the extreme limit of age allowed to humans. His horizon is limited by a waste of waters; he is on an island of hopelessness, of finality. On the threshold of his death his dead friends return to him. He and his wife scurry about to provide chairs, scores of chairs, for the guests. These invisible visitors are wonderfully alive. To them, through them, our pitiful hero tries to vindicate his wasted existence; his wife echoes his boastful words—she wants to believe him and wants him to believe what he cannot believe; both know that they are lying. Before the eyes of the dying man the theatre of life with its tragicomic and usual incidents, its chaotic sounds, its spectacle-like remoteness and unremoteness and unreality, is unfolding itself.

Each visitor is supposed to have come to honor him; each is a witness for the defense at this pre-trial of man’s soul, a soul ready to appear before the Eternal. In this world of make-believe, these ghosts are all that remain to him. And the visitors who have come to discharge our hero become more and more numerous; they must sit close to each other on their chairs. The most illustrious of them is the Emperor, who, by the splendor of his rank, has come to support the defense; he is Greatness for which Old Man has always aspired and which has always eluded him. This time our hero wants to shake hands with the Emperor, to thank him for the honor he has done him by coming; but the crowd is so dense that he is unable to push his way through to him. The Emperor is sitting on a rostrum where he is joined by the Orator, the only visitor of flesh and blood among the many invisible ones. The Orator’s role is to present all the world-shaking thoughts which had accumulated in the hero’s mind during his lifetime but which he himself had been incapable of expounding. Now, at this supreme hour, he will summarize them and redeem the world, redeem the author of the message at the same time.

All are waiting, intent upon the message. The cacophony of vulgar and trivial sounds in the theatre forms an ironic contrast between the lofty expectations of the audience on the stage and that in the auditorium. The Orator opens his mouth to speak but can only utter some inarticulate, guttural sounds. And so the great message of Man is lost forever.

In this atmosphere of dream, the Orator turns out to be the most hypothetical of all characters, though he be of actual flesh and blood.

By bringing the ritual of daily life into the theatre Ionesco returns to the origins of dramatic expression as it was done in pre-Aeschylean tragedy, also in Christian liturgy and liturgistic representations. In his use of symbolistic, impressionistic, and surrealistic techniques he was influenced by the early one-acters of Maurice Maeterlinck, also by the stage tricks of Jean Cocteau with whom he shares the belief that all truly artistic creation is poetry. He has learned some of the reversal techniques of Pirandello, also the simplifying and reducing methods of Beckett. Like Beckett, Ionesco strips man of his veneer of civilization to point to his savagery, his greed and selfishnes, his inability to love, also his helplessness in an uncomprehending and incomprehensible universe. Nevertheless in his criticism and portraying of man Ionesco never descends to the limit of utter despair which characterizes Beckett. One can say that Ionesco has not lost sympathy and solidarity with his heroes. This is natural, for he portrays his own solitude, he writes subjective theatre.

In addition to other forerunners, it is almost sure that Kafka has left his mark upon Ionesco, though this cannot be proven by any direct reference to that author in Ionesco’s writings. Indeed such plays as Jack, or The Submission and Victims of Duty strongly remind us of the hallucinating short stories of Kafka, The Hunger Artist and The Metamorphosis. Also, Ionesco’s repeated presentation of the woman who degrades man is reminiscent of some of the feminine figures around the hero of The Castle.

Ionesco’s revolt against the rational theatre is understandable. Too often the theatre is mistaken for a lecture hall in France. Racine, the omnipotence of logic, the well-coordinated play have not lost their prestige there. Yet France and the rest of the world no longer live in a powerful monarchy, in a universe where all stars revolve around a central Sun. Our present world is one of kaleidoscopic images which blend and change too fast to be fully intelligible. Modern man, especially the modern artist, tries to break out of the prison of man’s limited intelligence and aspires to grasp things that are outside the domain of his reason. The theatre should mirror this bewildering world of ours.

Ionesco’s revolt repeats, at a distance of about one hundred and thirty years, that of the French Romantics which began with the battle of Hermani. However, instead of a rebellious new poetry and unruly scenes he uses satire to signify his revolt. His mockery of our society never impairs the poetical content and spirit of his plays by which he affirms his belief in a new, higher reality. His word consciousness, his poetical spirit relate him in direct line to Shakespeare whom he considers his spiritual liege lord; at the same time, he recognizes Molière as one of his masters. He tries to continue Molière’s tradition by presenting human situations, the human frailness that prevails at all times, also by striving for some guiding light that will allow the individual to assert himself against the levelling and stultifying forces of our society, as he depicted them so vividly in the recent Rhinoceros. In view of Ionesco’s horror of mass civilization he naturally heaps scorn and sarcasm on all totalitarian ideologies which insult man’s reason, which resort to any means to inveigle or browbeat him into thoughtless obedience. It would be erroneous to believe that by revolting against the monopoly of reason in the presentation of human situations Ionesco abdicates reason. On the contrary, he believes that reason is man’s precious equipment to maintain his moral integrity.

Ionesco is an innovator in the best tradition of modern art, fighting the encroachment of reason on man’s emotional world, and at the same time fighting conformity, a force that threatens art itself. Essentially he frees the theatre from its many shackles, restores and enlarges its freedom.


  1. L’Impromptu de l’Alma, E. I. Theatre, Gallimard, 16-eme edition. I will refer to this edition in all of the following quotations from Ionesco’s works.

  2. The Idea of a Theatre. See the chapter “Two Aspects of the Plot: Form and Purpose.”

  3. The Woman, dragging Man down into the mire of sensuous pleasures occurs in other Ionesco plays.

  4. The stage instructions given by the author leave it up to the producer either to make the Killer invisible, in order to signify, as it were, that he exists only within the mind and soul of the protagonist, or—and this is the more theatrical solution—to make him appear as a frail man, an outcast who, by his very appearance, emphasizes his hostility to society. The appearance of the Killer on the stage is necessary to foster the illusion of a dialogue.

  5. “J’ai peur de mourir, sans doute, parce que, sans le savoir, je désire mourir. J’ai peur donc du désir que j’ai de mourir.”

Susan Sontag (essay date 1964)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3172

SOURCE: “Ionesco” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Anchor Books, 1966, pp. 115-23.

[In the following essay, Sontag notes that Ionesco’s early work, in which he discovers and uses theatrically the poetry of clichés and language-as-thing, is interesting and original. However, she finds his later work infused with a crude, simplistic negativity that is extracted from his earlier artistic discovery, and considers his attitudes a “type of misanthropy covered over with fashionable clichés of cultural diagnosis.”]

It is fitting that a playwright whose best works apotheosize the platitude has compiled a book on the theater crammed with platitudes.1 I quote, at random:

Didacticism is above all an attitude of mind and an expression of the will to dominate.

A work of art really is above all an adventure of the mind.

Some have said that Boris Vian’s The Empire Builders was inspired by my own Amédée. Actually, no one is inspired by anyone except by his own self and his own anguish.

I detect a crisis of thought, which is manifested by a crisis of language; words no longer meaning anything.

No society has even been able to abolish human sadness; no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute.

What is one to make of a view at once so lofty and so banal? As if this were not enough, Ionesco’s essays are laden with superfluous self-explication and unctuous vanity. Again, at random:

I can affirm that neither the public nor the critics have influenced me.

Perhaps I am socially minded in spite of myself.

With me every play springs from a kind of self-analysis.

I am not an ideologue, for I am straightforward and objective.

The world ought not to interest me so much. In reality, I am obsessed with it.

Etcetera, etcetera. Ionesco’s essays on the theater offer a good deal of such, presumably unconscious, humor.

There are, to be sure, some ideas in Notes and Counter Notes worth taking seriously, none of them original with Ionesco. One is the idea of the theater as an instrument which, by dislocating the real, freshens the sense of reality. Such a function for the theater plainly calls not only for a new dramaturgy, but for a new body of plays. “No more masterpieces,” Artaud demanded in The Theatre and Its Double, the most daring and profound manifesto of the modern theater. Like Artaud, Ionesco scorns the “literary” theater of the past: he likes to read Shakespeare and Kleist but not to see them performed, while Corneille, Molière, Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello, Giraudoux and company bore him either way. If the old-fashioned theater pieces must be done at all, Ionesco suggests (as did Artaud) a certain trick. One should play “against” the text: by grafting a serious, formal production onto a text that is absurd, wild, comic, or by treating a solemn text in the spirit of buffoonery. Along with the rejection of the literary theater—the theater of plot and individual character—Ionesco calls for the scrupulous avoidance of all psychology, for psychology means “realism,” and realism is dull and confines the imagination. His rejection of psychology permits the revival of a device common to all non-realistic theatrical traditions (it is equivalent to frontality in naïve painting), in which the characters turn to face the audience (rather than each other), stating their names, identities, habits, tastes, acts … All this, of course, is very familiar: the canonical modern style in the theater. Most of the interesting ideas in Notes and Counter Notes are watered-down Artaud; or rather Artaud spruced up and made charming, ingratiating; Artaud without his hatreds, Artaud without his madness. Ionesco comes closest to being original in certain remarks about humor, which he understands as poor mad Artaud did not at all. Artaud’s notion of a Theater of Cruelty emphasized the darker registers of fantasy: frenzied spectacle, melodramatic deeds, bloody apparitions, screams, transports. Ionesco, noting that any tragedy becomes comic simply if it is speeded up, has devoted himself to the violently comic. Instead of the cave or the palace or the temple or the heath, he sets most of his plays in the living room. His comic terrain is the banality and oppressiveness of the “home”—be it the bachelor’s furnished room, the scholar’s study, the married couple’s parlor. Underneath the forms of conventional life, Ionesco would demonstrate, lies madness, the obliteration of personality.

But Ionesco’s plays, it seems to me, need little explanation. If an account of his work is desired, Richard N. Coe’s excellent short book on Ionesco, published in 1961 in the English Writers and Critics series, offers a far more coherent and compact defense of the plays than anything in Notes and Counter Notes. The interest of Ionesco on Ionesco is not for its author’s theory of theater, but for what the book suggests about the puzzling thinness—puzzling considering their richness of theme—of Ionesco’s plays. The tone of the book tells a great deal. For behind the relentless egotism of Ionesco’s writings on the theater—the allusions to unending battles with obtuse critics and a bovine public—is an insistent, plaintive uneasiness. Ionesco protests, incessantly, that he has been misunderstood. Therefore, everything he says at one point in Notes and Counter Notes, he takes back on another page. (Though these writings span the years 1951-61, there is no development in the argument.) His plays are avant-garde theater; there is no such thing as avant-garde theater. He is writing social criticism; he is not writing social criticism. He is a humanist; he is morally and emotionally estranged from humanity. Throughout, he writes as a man sure—whatever you say of him, whatever he says of himself—that his true gifts are misunderstood.

What is Ionesco’s accomplishment? Judging by the most exacting standards, he has written one really remarkable and beautiful play, Jack, or the Submission (1950); one brilliant lesser work, The Bald Soprano, his first play (written 1948-49); and several effective short plays which are pungent reprises of the same material, The Lesson (1950), The Chairs (1951), and The New Tenant (1953). All these plays—Ionesco is a prolific writer—are “early” Ionesco. The later works are marred by a diffuseness in the dramatic purpose and an increasing, unwieldly self-consciousness. The diffuseness can be clearly seen in Victims of Duty (1952), a work with some powerful sections but unhappily overexplicit. Or one can compare his best play, Jack, with a short sequel using the same characters, The Future Is in Eggs (1951). Jack abounds with splendid harsh fantasy, ingenious and logical; it alone, of all Ionesco’s plays, gives us something up to the standard of Artaud: the Theater of Cruelty as Comedy. But in The Future Is in Eggs, Ionesco has embarked upon the disastrous course of his later writings, railing against “views” and tediously attributing to his characters a concern with the state of the theater, the nature of language, and so forth. Ionesco is an artist of considerable gifts who has been victimized by “ideas.” His work has become water-logged with them; his talents have coarsened. In Notes and Counter Notes we have a chunk of that endless labor of self-explication and self-vindication as a playwright and thinker which occupies the whole of his play, Improvisation, which dictates the intrusive remarks on playwriting in Victims of Duty and Amédée, which inspires the oversimplified critique of modern society in The Killer and Rhinoceros.

Ionesco’s original artistic impulse was his discovery of the poetry of banality. His first play, The Bald Soprano, was written almost by accident, he says, after he discovered the Smiths and the Martins en famille in the Assimil phrase book he bought when he decided to study English. And all the subsequent plays of Ionesco continued at least to open with a volleying back and forth of clichés. By extension, the discovery of the poetry of cliché led to the discovery of the poetry of meaninglessness—the convertibility of all words into one another. (Thus, the litany of “chat” at the end of Jack.) It has been said that Ionesco’s early plays are “about” meaninglessness, or “about” non-communication. But this misses the important fact that in much of modern art one can no longer really speak of subject-matter in the old sense. Rather, the subject-matter is the technique. What Ionesco did—no mean feat—was to appropriate for the theater one of the great technical discoveries of modern poetry: that all language can be considered from the outside, as by a stranger. Ionesco disclosed the dramatic resources of this attitude, long known but hitherto confined to modern poetry. His early plays are not “about” meaninglessness. They are attempts to use meaninglessness theatrically.

Ionesco’s discovery of the cliché meant that he declined to see language as an instrument of communication or self-expression, but rather as an exotic substance secreted—in a sort of trance—by interchangeable persons. His next discovery, also long familiar in modern poetry, was that he could treat language as a palpable thing. (Thus, the teacher kills the student in The Lesson with the word “knife.”) The key device for making language into a thing is repetition. This verbal repetition is dramatized further by another persistent motif of Ionesco’s plays: the cancerous, irrational multiplication of material things. (Thus: the egg in The Future Is in Eggs; the chairs in The Chairs; the furniture in The New Tenant; the boxes in The Killer; the cups in Victims of Duty; the noses and fingers of Roberta II in Jack; the corpse in Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It.) These repeating words, these demonically proliferating things, can only be exorcised as in a dream, by being obliterated. Logically, poetically—and not because of any “ideas” Ionesco has about the nature of individual and society—his plays must end either in a da capo repetition, or in incredible violence. Some typical endings are: massacre of the audience (the proposed end of The Bald Soprano), suicide (The Chairs), entombment and silence (The New Tenant), unintelligibility and animal moans (Jack), monstrous physical coercion (Victims of Duty), the collapse of the stage (The Future Is in Eggs). In Ionesco’s plays, the recurrent nightmare is of a wholly clogged, overrun world. (The nightmare is explicit with respect to the furniture in The New Tenant, the rhinoceroses in Rhinoceros.) The plays therefore must end in either chaos or non-being, destruction or silence.

These discoveries of the poetry of cliché and of language-as-thing gave Ionesco some remarkable theatrical material. But then ideas were born, a theory about the meaning of this theater of meaninglessness took up residence in Ionesco’s work. The most fashionable modern experiences were invoked. Ionesco and his defenders claimed that he had begun with his experience of the meaninglessness of contemporary existence, and developed his theater of cliché to express this. It seems more likely that he began with the discovery of the poetry of banality, and then, alas, called on a theory to bulwark it. This theory amounts to the hardiest clichés of the criticism of “mass society,” all scrambled together—alienation, standardization, dehumanization. To sum up this dreadfully familiar discontent, Ionesco’s favorite word of abuse is “bourgeois,” or sometimes “petty bourgeois.” Ionesco’s bourgeois has little in common with that favorite target of Leftist rhetoric, although perhaps he has adopted it from that source. For Ionesco, “bourgeois” means everything he doesn’t like: it means “realism” in the theater (something like the way Brecht used “Aristotelian”); it means ideology; it means conformism. Of course, none of this would have mattered were it merely a question of Ionesco’s pronouncements on his work. What mattered is that increasingly it began to infect his work. More and more, Ionesco tended to “indicate” shamelessly what he was doing. (One cringes when, at the end of The Lesson, the professor dons a swastika armband as he prepares to dispose of the corpse of his student.) Ionesco began with a fantasy, the vision of a world inhabited by language puppets. He was not criticizing anything, much less discovering what in an early essay he called “The Tragedy of Language.” He was just discovering one way in which language could be used. Only afterward was a set of crude, simplistic attitudes extracted from this artistic discovery—attitudes about the contemporary standardization and dehumanization of man, all laid at the feet of a stuffed ogre called the “bourgeois,” “Society,” etc. The time then came for the affirmation of individual man against this ogre. Thus Ionesco’s work passed through an unfortunate and familiar double phase: first, works of anti-theater, parody; then, the socially constructive plays. These later plays are thin stuff. And the weakest in all his oeuvre are the Bérenger plays—The Killer (1957), Rhinoceros (1960), and The Pedestrian of the Air (1962)—where Ionesco (as he said) created in Bérenger an alter ego, an Everyman, a beleaguered hero, a character “to rejoin humanity.” The difficulty is that affirmation of man cannot simply be willed, either in morals or in art. If it is merely willed, the result is always unconvincing, and usually pretentious.

In this, Ionesco’s development is just the reverse of Brecht’s. Brecht’s early works—Baal, In the Jungle of Cities—give way to the “positive” plays which are his masterpieces: The Good Woman of Setzuan, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Mother Courage. But then—quite apart from the theories they espouse—Brecht is simply a much greater writer than Ionesco. To Ionesco, of course, he represents the arch-villain, the arch-bourgeois. He is political. But Ionesco’s attacks on Brecht and the Brechtians—and on the idea of a politically committed art—are trivial. Brecht’s political attitudes are, at best, the occasion for his humanism. They allow him to focus and expand his drama. The choice Ionesco insists on, between political affirmation and affirmation of man, is spurious, and dangerous besides.

Compared with Brecht, Genet, and Beckett, Ionesco is a minor writer even at his best. His work does not have the same weight, the same full-bloodedness, the same grandeur and relevance. Ionesco’s plays, especially the shorter ones (the form for which his gifts are most suited), have their considerable virtues: charm, wit, a nice feeling for the macabre; above all, theatricality. But the recurrent themes—identities slipping out of gear, the monstrous proliferation of things, the gruesomeness of togetherness—are rarely so moving, so appalling, as they might be. Perhaps it is because—with the exception of Jack, where Ionesco lets his fantasy have its head—the terrible is always, somehow, circumscribed by the cute. Ionesco’s morbid farces are the boulevard comedies of the avant-grade sensibility; as one English critic has pointed out, little really separates Ionesco’s whimsy of conformity from Feydeau’s whimsy of adultery. Both are skillful, cold, self-referring.

To be sure, Ionesco’s plays—and writings about the theater—pay strenuous lip service to the emotions. Of The Bald Soprano, for instance, Ionesco says that it is about “talking and saying nothing because [of] the absence of any inner life.” The Smiths and the Martins represent man totally absorbed in his social context, they “have forgotten the meaning of emotion.” But what of the numerous descriptions which Ionesco gives in Notes and Counter Notes of his own inability to feel—an inability which he regards as rescuing him from being, rather than turning him into, a mass man? It is not protest against passionlessness which moves Ionesco, but a kind of misanthropy, which he has covered over with fashionable clichés of cultural diagnosis. The sensibility behind this theater is tight, defensive, and riddled with sexual disgust. Disgust is the powerful motor in Ionesco’s plays: out of disgust, he makes comedies of the distasteful.

Disgust with the human condition is perfectly valid material for art. But disgust for ideas, expressed by a man with little talent for ideas, is another matter. This is what mars many of Ionesco’s plays and makes his collection of writings on the theater irritating rather than amusing. Disgusted with ideas as one more foul human excrescence, Ionesco flails about in this repetitious book, at once assuming and disavowing all positions. The unifying theme of Notes and Counter Notes is his desire to maintain a position that is not a position, a view that is no view—in a word, to be intellectually invulnerable. But this is impossible, since initially he experiences an idea only as a cliché: “systems of thought on all sides are nothing more than alibis, something to hide reality (another cliché word) from us.” By a sickening glide in the argument, ideas somehow become identified with politics, and all politics identified with a fascistic nightmare world. When Ionesco says, “I believe that what separates us all from one another is simply society itself, or, if you like, politics,” he is expressing his anti-intellectualism rather than a position about politics. This can be seen with special clarity in the most interesting section in the book (pp. 87-108), the so-called London Controversy, an exchange of essays and letters with Kenneth Tynan, representing ostensibly a Brechtian point of view, which first appeared in the English weekly The Observer in 1958. The high moment of this controversy is a noble and eloquent letter from Orson Welles, who points out that the separation between art and politics cannot emerge, much less prosper, except in a certain kind of society. As Welles wrote, “Whatever is valuable is likely to have a rather shopsoiled name,” and all freedoms—including Ionesco’s privilege to shrug his shoulders at politics—“were, at one time or another, political achievements.” It is not “politics which is the arch-enemy of art; it is neutrality … [which is] a political position like any other. … If we are doomed indeed, let M. Ionesco go down fighting with the rest of us. He should have the courage of our platitudes.”

What is disconcerting about Ionesco’s work is, then, the intellectual complacency it sponsors. I have no quarrel with works of art that contain no ideas at all; on the contrary, much of the greatest art is of this kind. Think of the films of Ozu, Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Nabokov’s Lolita, Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers—to take four modern examples. But the intellectual blankness is one (often very salutary) thing, intellectual surrender is another. In Ionesco’s case, the intellect that has surrendered is not interesting, relying as it does on a view of the world that sets up an opposition between the wholly monstrous and the wholly banal. At first we may take pleasure in the monstrousness of the monstrous, but finally we are left with the banality of banality.


  1. Notes and Counter Notes: Writings on the Theatre by Eugène Ionesco, Translated by Donald Watson. New York, Grove.

Peter Thomson (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: “Games and Plays: An Approach to Ionesco,” in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. XXII, No. 1, March 1970, pp. 60-70.

[In the following essay, Thomson argues against critics who appraise Ionesco in terms of his plays’ meaning, and calls for a reassertion of interest in the playwright’s work based on his “manner” rather than his “matter.” He goes on to discuss the use of games as they operate in Ionesco’s absurd world.]

I have in front of me Donald Watson’s seventh admirably translated volume of Ionesco’s plays, and I am puzzled. Reading the main and most recent piece, Hunger and Thirst (Le Soif et La Faim), was a struggle almost uninterrupted by delight. Has Ionesco changed? Has the climate? Have I? The three shorter pieces in Volume 7 were first published in 1963, in Paris. The Picture (Le Tableau) is a one-act piece with a thrusting theatricality reminiscent of The Lesson, and a conclusion that is merely silly. Anger (La Colère) is a scenario that formed one of the sections of the film The Seven Deadly Sins. It is witty, sudden, and obvious. Salutations (Les Salutations) is an adverbial exercise that could not reasonably have been expected to get into print had it not been preceded by its author’s reputation. It may prove no more than Ionesco’s mischievous willingness to write juvenilia at the wrong end of his career. Hunger and Thrust was first published in 1966. Donald Watson makes no reference to any performance of the play—“Three Episodes” is Ionesco’s description, and one which ought, perhaps, to be adhered to—and, writing in England at the end of 1969, I can think of no immediate reason for any performance to take place. It is, in structural outline, a quest-play; and if the knight-errant (or anti-knight-errant) is not specifically Bérenger, he shares with the Bérenger of Exit the King (Le Roi se meurt) a solicitous wife Marie (here Marie-Madeleine) and with the Bérenger of A Stroll in the Air (Le Piéton de l’air) a gentle daughter Marthe. Episode One begins with Jean resentfully ready, with Sartrean “bad faith,” to accept his “destiny,” but dreaming of alternatives:

A house perched up in the mountains. There are such things, you know. Or even on some river. Not right in the river, but built out over the water, with flower-faces at the windows, flowers with their roots and stalks out of sight, just the top of them showing, flowers you can stretch out and touch. There are flowers that weep, of course, but also some that laugh. Why not choose flowers that shoot up in the world and smile?

marie: Gardens and houses like that are beyond our means, not within our reach. (p. 12)

It was with an implausible hope of gardens that Marthe brought down the final curtain of A Stroll in the Air:

Perhaps it will all come right in the end … Perhaps the flames will die down, perhaps the ice will melt, perhaps the depths will rise. Perhaps the … the gardens … the gardens … (They go out)

(VI, 77)1

And it is by an insistence on the unattainability of the garden that Marie-Madeleine tries to deter Jean from his quest in Hunger and Thirst:

What garden it is you hope to find? You can’t really go. You know we’re here, you know I’m here. You’re joking aren’t you, you’re staying aren’t you, pretending aren’t you? From your heart you cannot tear out love, the wrench would be too great, no-one could heal that wound. You can’t pull up the roots of love, you can’t tear love from your heart, the love in your heart, from your heart. It’s a game you’re playing, isn’t it?

(VII, 30-31)

It is a speech, and indeed a play, lacking in Ionesco’s usual linguistic confidence, the clumsy prelude to an actual rather than a metaphorical game. By creeping off-stage to hide behind the back wall, Jean initiates a game of hide-and-seek in which Marie-Madeleine becomes an unwilling participant. On Ionesco’s plastic stage, hide-and-seek is a game of unpredictable scope, but it is handled in this play with strident literalism:

marie: Jean, you can’t have gone out, can you? You can’t have gone away, can you? You’d have told me, wouldn’t you? Answer! Cooee! I can hear him. No. I can’t hear him. This is a cruel game. Much too cruel! (She goes on looking for him automatically, with less and less conviction, not looking too hard, slowing the pace down.) No, he can’t tear this love from his heart. (She goes out for a few seconds and while she is chanting this sort of refrain, Jean appears. He violently tears from his heart a branch of briar rose, his face screwed up with pain, wipes the drops of blood from his fingers on his shirt; puts the branch down on the table, carefully buttons his jacket and then tiptoes out.)

(VII, 34-35)

Jean escapes, and almost immediately, by one of those transformation-scenes Ionesco might just as well have borrowed from nineteenth-century pantomime, the garden appears:

The back wall … vanishes. You can see a garden: trees in blossom, tall green grass, a very blue sky. … Then, on the left of this landscape, which is also on the audience’s left, you can see a silver ladder appear, hanging in the air, the top of it out of sight.

(VII, 36)

There is, of course, a melancholy irony in the timing of the garden-revelation. Jean has already embarked on his quest. In Episode Two, having failed to meet a woman he cannot accurately describe, he spells out his limited existentialism to the two keepers of an empty, mountain-top museum:

Oh, my friends, my keepers, I was so comfortable in my discomfort! Listen: and I’ll tell you. I wanted to escape old age, keep out of the rut. It’s life I’m looking for! Joy I’m after! I’ve longed for fulfilment and all I find is torment. I had to choose between peace and passion. I chose passion, fool that I was! Yet I was safe enough in my hide-out, firmly locked in gloom and nostalgia, remorse and anguish, fears and responsibilities, like so many walls all round me. The fear of death was my truest shield. Now the walls have collapsed. And here I am, defenceless, exposed to the blazing inferno of life, and in the freezing grip of despair. I wanted life and life has hurled itself at me. It’s crippling me, killing me. Why didn’t I have the sense to welcome resignation? All my old scars have opened, my wounds are bleeding again. Thousands of knives are driving into my flesh.

(VII, 46-47)

The mental state is Faustian, and Jean achieves even less by his new freedom than Marlowe’s Faustus. Episode Three brings him to a monastery-prison-barracks where he witnesses a masque-cum-torture illustrative of man’s enslavement to the means of life. When the garden of Episode One reappears, Marie-Madeleine and Marthe are standing in it, but Jean and the audience glimpse it through the iron bars of the monastery-prison. Jean is in debt to his sinister hosts; he owes them time. They demand as repayment that he should serve as a waiter, satisfying their physical hunger and thirst, and the play ends in a chorus of counting that accompanies Jean’s increasingly frantic distribution of soup. Behind this rhythmic action is the garden, the reminder of the spiritual hunger and thirst that initiated Jean’s quest, and Marie-Madeleine promising (or threatening?):

We’ll wait! We’ll wait! No matter how long, I’ll wait for you, I’ll wait for you forever!

(VII, 106)

That the coupling of Marie-Madeleine and Marthe gives to the garden a Lazarus-like acquaintance with death2 seems to me to possess a necessary significance which does nothing to increase my interest in the play. Hunger and Thirst is closer to being a pièce a thèse than a writer of Ionesco’s stated views ought ever to have come. Its atavism—the whole of Volume 7 is depressingly atavistic—ought to be apparent even in so sketchy an account as this. I have to ask myself what claim Ionesco has to continued critical attention.

The approach recommended by so many critics, the explanatory method typified with well-meaning thoroughness by George E. Wellwarth,3 is of surprisingly small service in a re-appraisal of the dramatist who had so incalculable an effect on theatre in the west in the fifties. The response to any explication of an Ionesco play is not an excited, “Is that what it means?” but a disgruntled, “Is that all it means?” It is no longer news that eschatology takes a curious turn in a world that has lost its God. The critical attempt to direct our attention to Ionesco’s meaning exposes him increasingly to our ridicule. The theatrical symbols have lost their effectiveness as they have lost their “surprise”; but Ionesco’s frequent denials of any polemic intention in his writing ought to make us wary of giving the meaning of his plays primacy over their conduct. Words like “commentary” and “allegory” do little to explain Ionesco’s peculiar impact, yet they can both be found in Wellwarth:

Rhinoceros, like The Lesson, is an obvious commentary on the disintegration of reason and morality under a totalitarian state. Only those unfamiliar with the history of Nazism will be at all puzzled by its allegory.4

Ionesco has denied the deliberateness that Wellwarth here ascribes to him:

I have no ideas before I write a play. I have them after I have written a play, or when I am not writing at all. I believe that artistic creation is spontaneous. At least it is for me. … Only spontaneity can guarantee a direct knowledge of reality. All ideology ends up with indirect knowledge which is only secondary, oblique and falsified.5

The “guarantee” proposed here is alarmingly sanguine, but we should surely grant to Ionesco a greater concern for the knowledge of reality than for its interpretation. His particular attractiveness, at the outset of his career, was his brave refusal to provide audiences with such traditional incentives to attention as are implied in Wellwarth’s exegesis. These incentives have now been provided by critics, and the atavism of his recent work may be the result of a critical backlash, of Ionesco’s writing, for the first time consciously, what he is told he has always written. It is time to reassert an interest in Ionesco that is based on his manner rather than his matter, to apply to his own work the kind of sympathetic scrutiny he applied to Pirandello’s:

It is no longer the discovery of the antagonisms of personality which interests us in Pirandello, but what he does with it, dramatically speaking. Its purely theatrical interest is extra-scientific; it is beyond his ideology. What remains of Pirandello is the mechanism of his theatre, its movement (jeu)6

It is with this in mind that I propose an analogy with games as a useful tool in the appreciation of Ionesco’s conduct of his plays.

The interest of many modern dramatists in games as structural or textural devices must be obvious. Adamov tells us that Le Ping Pong sprang from a single image of two old men playing ping-pong, the finished play’s final scene.7 Ping-pong, objectively observed and perhaps largely because of the noise it makes and the banality of the equipment it requires, is already closer to absurdity than most games. As an image of life it is devastatingly reductive. (In The Tea Party Pinter seems to be using the same game as a reductive sexual image.) Like Le Ping Pong, Endgame incorporates the idea of a game in its title, though denying us a determinate game as absolutely as it denies us a determinate end. Genet’s characters play charades that are like rituals, and perform rituals that are like charades. Jarry’s Père Ubu organises an on-stage race. Through the game of hopscotch in The Happy Haven, Arden expounds and exposes two of the geriatric inmates. The game of cricket played on stage in Edward Bond’s The Pope’s Wedding is the prelude to Scopey’s self-discovery. Pinter makes explicit use of games (in The Tea Party and The Basement), of party games (in The Tea Party and The Birthday Party), and charades (in The Lover, where the Lover/Mistress charade carries an aura of pretence into the “real” marriage); but he is also a consistent exploiter of the related psychological games recently expounded by Eric Berne.8 All Pinter’s plays might, I suspect, provide lucid illustrations of Berne’s thesis. In The Homecoming, for example, Ruth, whilst generally playing “Let’s you and him fight,” does at one point present her leg for scrutiny in a literal version of “The Stocking Game.”

Ionesco is overtly less interested in games than many of his contemporaries. The hide-and-seek of Hunger and Thirst is a rare example of an announced game played according to its own rules. But there is, as Ionesco has observed,9 a “progressive heightening” of the action in his plays that seems to owe more to the gathering of tension when a result is anticipated than to any thrust from the plot; and there is, more significantly, an analogy with games in the theory of spontaneous creation. The combative dialogue of his plays is, according to this theory, self-propelling, the second “stroke” conditioned by the first, the third by the second and so on, as in a rally at tennis. The parallel with Pirandello breaks down here, for Pirandello’s “ideology,” whatever may be one’s view of it, provides a reason for the ordering of dialogue that is more architectonic than any Ionesco admits to. It was, I suggest, the removal of any apparent pre-conditioning of the dialogue by the total meaning of the play that most confused Ionesco’s first audiences. Certainly it was the combative, rally-like composition of the dialogue that James Saunders imitated in Alas Poor Fred (Scarborough, 1959), which he calls “a duologue in the style of Ionesco” and which claims a place among the masterpieces of theatrical parody. There is an amusing example of the effect on Ionesco’s life-style of his dramatic method in a recently republished interview.10 It seems to have occurred to Ionesco about half-way through his meeting with Professor Rosette Lamont in 1960 that she would take seriously, or at least unresistingly, almost anything he cared to say. For a while the interview reads like a segment of absurdist dialogue, where Ionesco’s responses are less answers than counters to the questions: The failure of answers to measure up to questions is an essential feature of Ionesco’s style. Clearly there are philosophical implications, but the more immediate effect is to augment the unpredictable, game-like tone of the dialogue. In the placing of a particular speech, the dramatist’s eye is not, evidently, on what must succeed it, but on what has in fact immediately preceded it.

lamont: Who are the great ’pataphysicians?

ionesco: Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert, and Boris Vian before he died, were among them, but I believe that the actual rulers of ’Pataphysics are secret. Queneau, Dubuffet, René Clair and myself—we’re a front. We’re there for glory. The real head of the Collège de ’Pataphysique is a gentleman by the name of Salmon, who died recently and was reincarnated under the name of Latisane. I believe it’s the same one.

lamont: And who is Latisane?

ionesco: It’s Salmon.

lamont: And this Latisane, what does he do in life?

ionesco: He has a double who is a teacher.

It is, then, in the first place texturally that the analogy with games may be of some service in a re-appraisal of Ionesco. A discussion of the larger structural analogy requires some preface.

Lord Justice Birkett, in a speech of welcome to, I think, the touring Australian cricketers, made an observation which I quote as accurately as I can from memory: “The English, being naturally an unspiritual people, invented cricket to give them a concept of eternity.” Despite its pungency the remark has no descriptive validity. Cricket, like all games, is directly opposed to open-ended concepts like eternity and infinity. Games take place in a prescribed area, and their end in time is implicit in their beginning. The duration of a game is normally determined in either of two ways.11 In the first, as in football in its various national forms, a time-limit is pre-established, and the score on the completion of this set time is declared the result of the game. (Ionesco is on the way to exploiting the resources of set time in Exit the King when Marguerite warns Berenger: “You’re going to die in an hour and a half, you’re going to die at the end of the show” [V, 26].) In the second, as in tennis, the game continues according to its own internal logic until a result is reached, and the clock has no direct bearing on it. Whatever may be the temporal strategy of individual scenes,12 plays as a whole normally use result time, which is to say that it is the completion of the story rather than the running out of time that brings them to an end.13

There are, of course, exceptions to the strict alternatives. If Exit the King may be said to exploit both set time and result time, so many certain games. In boxing, for example, the spectator is held in tension by the possible imposition of result time on set time. The same is true of cricket, though the imposition there is never as sudden as it may be in boxing. A five-day Test Match may end on the first, second, third, or fourth day. Often a large part of the game is played without any likelihood of a determinate result, though with the guarantee inherent in set time that it must end. No game has been more subject to experiments with time, the most interesting for our purpose being the notorious “Timeless Test.” In a five-match series played in South Africa between England and South Africa the first four matches were drawn. It was agreed to play the last to a finish, so cricket abandoned the normal constraint of set time and committed itself to the alternative discipline of result time. It was a disaster. After eleven days there was still no immediate prospect of a result, and the game was called off to allow the English players to catch the return boat. The fiasco was not, perhaps, inevitable, nor was it unlikely. A change in the form of a game is also a change in its content.14

Where a play may be said to employ both set time and result time, it normally does so in a way directly opposed to that of boxing and cricket. A scarcely perceptible initial restlessness in the auditorium is the first sign that, for a part of the audience at least, set time is up and a quick result is hoped for. The application to the play of these external concepts of time is already evidence that the playwright has failed to draw the audience away from “real” time into the symbolic time-sequence of his play. But to some modern dramatists the set time and result time of games offer exciting alternatives to the symbolic time that has traditionally kept the play at an acceptable distance from life.15 I once failed to persuade a theatre director to stage a play of mine in which the result of a game with rolling balls, played in the round by actors, determined whether the game itself should be the beginning or the end of the action. Now, five years later, I might persuade him.

My concern here is with games rather than with time, but the two are not easily separable. Both operate in the meaningful world16 to reassure us of the link between beginnings and ends, cause and effect, becoming and being, and both can be made to operate in an absurd world precisely to deny the existence of any such link. To be late for an appointment is bad. To be on time and yet to meet no one is worse. But to be unable to make an appointment at all, ever—the clocks have no hands (Adamov), the seasons change without warning (Waiting for Godot)—that is terrifying. And that is the plight of Jean in Episode Two (“The Rendezvous”) of Hunger and Thirst when he tries to establish the chance of his meeting the woman of his mirages:

jean: What’s the time?

1st keeper: Midday.

jean: What’s the time?

2nd keeper: One o’clock.

jean: What’s the time?

1st keeper: Late afternoon.

(VII, 45)

The use of games is not, of course, new to drama. The duel in Hamlet is played through to a significant end under the inset discipline of result time, and a student has drawn my attention to twenty plays written between 1603 and 1633 in which games take place on stage.17 There are doubtless many more. The English public schools have no monopoly on the recognition that the playing of games brings people into significant relationships with each other. Party games are generally designed to do the same thing more forcibly, and the analogous psychological games have always been played by competitive man, eager for whatever reason to be victorious or to be defeated. To approach what may be different in the use of game-structure in the absurdist theatre, and in Ionesco in particular, we need to look again at the idea of results. There are at least four ways of turning game-structures into absurdist attacks on the reassuring connection of cause and effect.

(1) Play the game right through according to the rules, but announce an entirely unrelated result.—Spectators who have just watched Manchester United score five goals against West Ham United’s two will be required to accept a declared result that makes West Ham the winners by two goals to nil. Something like this happens in Ionesco’s short piece, Maid to Marry. The play begins with the Lady’s reference to her daughter—“My daughter, let me tell you, was quite brilliant in her studies”—and returns to the theme after the Gentleman’s long domination of the conversation:

lady: She’s gone a long way with her studies. I’ve always longed for her to be a typist. So has she. She’s just got her diploma. She’s going to join a firm that deals in fraudulent transactions. …

gentleman: She must be very proud and happy.

lady: She’s dancing for joy from morning to night. She’s worked so hard, poor little soul!

gentleman: Now she’s won the reward for her labours.

lady: It only remains for me now to find her a good husband.

gentleman: She’s a fine girl.

lady: (looking out into the wings) Well now, there is my daughter just coming. I’ll introduce you to her.

(The LADY’s daughter comes in. She is a man, about thirty years old, robust and virile, with a bushy black moustache, wearing a grey suit.)

(III, 158)

The effect is predominantly comic, but the unruffled acceptance by the actors of a non sequitur so extreme belongs to a world in which the state of being has no recognisable relationship with the state of becoming. In Maid to Marry the shock-result technique is all on the surface, but it is of the kind suggested by the game analogy. If this is the result, what has the game been about? If the adolescent girl is a mature man, what has the conversation been about? The same quizzical dislocation of game and result, of process and conclusion extends over the whole conduct of The Lesson, and is the single structural principle of The Future Is in Eggs. This play opens with Jacques and Roberta in the same coital embrace they had held at the end of Jacques. They have been there for three years, and the surrounding families are now crying out for results:

My son, if you want me to be proud of you, try and instigate, instigate production. …

(IV, 132)

The result is eggs, a great profusion of eggs, a startling effect which immediately follows their separation, but for which there is no discernible cause. A game has been visibly played, but the announced result is not related to it.

(2) Don’t bother to play the game at all, just announce the result.—England’s February snow has produced a disturbing example of this absurd idea. On two consecutive Saturdays in February 1969, so many football matches were postponed that the big-money business of the Football Pools could not be normally conducted. Instead a committee, calling itself a Pools Panel, was formed to discuss the likely outcome of the postponed matches. At the end of the afternoon the results of the games that had not been played were announced along with the results of those that had. Transferred to the theatre, such a concern for the curtain line has bizarre possibilities, but, as Tardieu suggests in his spoof ‘whodunnit’ The Crowd up at the Monor,18 it is a logical extension of most detective plays. Ionesco goes further. It is his reiterated view that a disproportionate emphasis on results is a characteristic of all drama previous to his own. Choubert in Victims of Duty, for example, tells his inattentive wife:

All the plays that have ever been written, from Ancient Greece to the present day, have never really been anything but thrillers. Drama’s always been realistic and there’s always been a detective about. Every play’s an investigation brought to a successful conclusion. There’s a riddle, and it’s solved in the final scene. Sometimes earlier. You seek, and then you find. Might as well give the game away at the start.

(II, 269)

With the entry of the Detective, Victims of Duty becomes an aggressive parody of conventional dramaturgy. The whole subsequent action, Choubert’s ordeal of duty, is directed towards the discovery of an answer to the Detective’s question, “Where is Mallot?” The single-minded pursuit of results is always subject to Ionesco’s mockery. Results belong in a world that has fixed points of reference, a world that can be “held still,” but Ionesco’s world is constantly moving, constantly being transformed. The parodic twist in Victims of Duty is that there can be no result. Choubert has no idea where, or even who, Mallot is. The play is written in direct opposition to “All the plays that have ever been written.” It cannot be “brought to a successful conclusion.” The misplaced human concern for the result above the game/play is acknowledged by Choubert in order that it may be exposed and mocked by Ionesco.

(3) Play the game with complete seriousness in obedience to ridiculous rules, accepting as conclusive the necessarily inconclusive result.—Games of this sort are a feature of the international competitions televised on the Eurovision network under the suggestive title, Jeux sans Frontières. Competitors carry buckets of water along slippery poles, burst balloons in a variety of improbable ways, joust with pillows on narrow planks poised over pools of cold water etc. The whole thing is taken with the utmost seriousness by the players, and by a large section of the television audience. A satirical purpose is likely to underlie this sort of game in literature. The great egg controversy that divides the Lilliputians is Swift’s application of the technique. In his novel, The Incomparable Atuk,19 Mordecai Richler exaggerates the absurdity of the television “quiz-game”—not an easy thing to exaggerate—in order to demonstrate the extremity of his Eskimo hero’s corruption by materialistic values. Atuk must answer the million-dollar question in the programme “Stick Out Your Neck” with his neck in the groove of a guillotine. When he gives the wrong answer the blade descends.

The game analogy suggested here has some application to a large part of Ionesco’s work. The eccentric rules of conduct invented by the players of The Chairs and The Bald Prima Donna, together with the absoluteness of their obedience to them, are an obvious example. The comic line of Amédée is dependent on the disparity between the grotesqueness of the ‘game’ and the seriousness of the players. What Ionesco most commonly exposes in the plays that employ this technique is man’s collaboration in the curtailment of his own aspirations, his willingness to settle for the contingencies, his tendency to mistake quantity for quality. Ionesco has, in my own view, been too often seduced by the theatricality of the ridiculous into betraying the absurd, and it is in this, the least important of the four game-structures, that the betrayal is most readily apparent to his hostile critics. A jeu d’esprit like The Motor Show (V), a short sketch in which two people take seriously what is manifestly ludicrous, is either too marginal to need defence or too puerile to deserve it.

(4) Play the game according to the rules, under the gradually dawning and desperate realisation that there is no possibility of a result.—This is the most philosophically significant of the game analogies that can be used to illustrate the theatre of the absurd. It is the kind of game played in Waiting for Godot. It is a game in which goals can be scored, but can never accumulate because they can never be linked to each other. There is no end, and so no beginning, no effect and therefore no cause, no state of being to confirm the condition of becoming.

There can, of course, be no parallel in actual games. However indolent the participation, games are played purposively towards a result. The games of Waiting for Godot are aimless, not increasingly but consistently aimless. The classic absurdist game is the one in which players form a circle and pass a clock round it from hand to hand.

“What are you doing?”

“Passing the time.”

Ionesco’s awareness of the applicability to his world of this kind of game is evident in Victims of Duty, A Stroll in the Air, Frenzy for Two (VI) and elsewhere, but the heightening of the action as the play progresses gives a contrary impression of movement towards an end. It is, perhaps, partly as a result of this that he does not achieve that precise and terrifying point of balance, between agony and laughter, that is so outstanding a feature of Beckett’s writing. Ionesco defines less clearly than Beckett the actual comedy and latent tragedy of playing towards nothing—of playing, that is, towards neither the final whistle nor the end of the game. But no dramatist has been more determined to deny his audience a “solution.” His plays are not ends in themselves, but part of a continuing endlessness; and to those who defy him in their demand for ends he offers a cheerless message:

For you see, my dear chap, art and logic are two different things, and if you have to call on logic to understand art, art in other words life, vanishes; only logic, in other words death, remains.

(The Picture, VII, 131)

The modern audience member, I have already suggested, is being increasingly invited to carry over his understanding of tension from his experience as a spectator of a game. The implications are generally discomforting. The dramatists have pre-judged the competition and found it futile, but the players act in ignorance of this. Absurdist plays constantly exploit the disparity between the levels of awareness, not of the characters simply, but of the characters and their creator. Games are an excellent image of the faith in a reliable connection between cause and effect. The player of a game strives towards a determinable end, using only those means that are allowed by the rules of the game. These rules impose on him at every moment certain necessities of decision and conduct, and the concept of necessity has a crucial place in absurdist irony. Beckett describes Watt’s response to Mr. Knott’s modus vivendi:

But he had hardly felt the absurdity of those things, on the one hand, and the necessity of those others, on the other (for it is rare that the feeling of absurdity is not followed by the feeling of necessity), when he felt the absurdity of those things of which he had just felt the necessity (for it is rare that the feeling of necessity is not followed by the feeling of absurdity).20

The player of games must go on obeying the necessities of the game, even after the purpose of obedience has gone, and is therefore constantly in the presence of the absurdity which is consequent on necessity. We use words, we accumulate wealth, we tell the time, but we know that words and wealth can be emptied of significance, and that time is a fiction as soon as it has been divided. The lucid dénouement of the well-made play is foreign to the game-structure of absurdist drama. The most that can be offered to the players is a powerful illusion of significance, and the luke-warm hand of Avery Brundage on their shoulder to remind them that the taking part and not the winning is the real incentive.21


  1. All quotations from Ionesco are from Plays, trans. Donald Watson, 7 vols. (London, 1957-68).

  2. The easiest reference is to The Gospel According to St. John xi.

  3. George E. Wellwarth, The Theater of Protest and Paradox (New York, 1964).

  4. Wellwarth, p. 67.

  5. From “Discovering the Theatre,” originally published in Tulane Drama Review, but quoted here from Theatre in the Twentieth Century, ed. R. W. Corrigan (New York, 1963), p. 92.

  6. Ibid., p. 83.

  7. Arthur Adamov, Théâtre II (Paris, 1955), p. 15.

  8. Eric Berne, Games People Play (New York, 1964). The two games referred to are described in Part II under the general heading, “Sexual Games.”

  9. Cited in Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (New York, 1961), p. 131. Ionesco is referring to his technique in The Lesson, but, as Esslin suggests, the observation has a more general accuracy.

  10. The Playwrights Speak, ed. Walter Wager (London, 1969). The American edition appeared two years earlier. In the English edition the passage quoted can be found on p. 129.

  11. For an illuminating application of game theory to the drama cf. Richard Schechner, “Approaches to Theory/Criticism,” Tulane Drama Review, X (Summer 1966), 20-53. Schechner lists three kinds of time: Event (here “Result”), Set, and Symbolic.

  12. Henry Livings, for instance, explains the method of Stop It, Whoever You Are in terms of roughly worked out set time: “I broke down the story into ‘units’ of about ten minutes each—about as long, I reckoned, as you can hold a new situation clearly and totally in mind.” The comment is quoted in John Russell Taylor, Anger and After (London, 1963), p. 262.

  13. This understates the operation in the theatre of a kind of set time. Plays can be denied performance because they are “too long” or “too short.” The understood right length is still proximate to the “two hours’ traffic” of Shakespeare’s stage. In television drama, set time operates more aggressively.

  14. Match-play golf is an intriguing example of game-structure. The game can finish on any green from the tenth onwards, but the result has to take the idea of the eighteenth hole into account. A victory on the tenth green is nominated a victory by 10 (or 9) and 8, ten up and eight to play. There is no set time in golf, so that match-play offers a structure in which the ideal result time can be anticipated or exceeded by the actual result time. (The abandonment of snooker when only the black ball remains and one player has an invincible lead is a minor parallel which could be the cause of extreme frustration if extended to the theatre!)

  15. For a description of Symbolic Time in this context, cf. Schechner, p. 29.

  16. My choice of words is suggested by a sentence in Arnold P. Hinchliffe’s lucid short book, The Absurd (London, 1969), p. 56: “Ionesco himself has tended to suggest that the opposite of Absurd is Meaningful.”

  17. R. J. Millington, “The Use of Stage Properties on the Elizabethan stage,” unpublished M. A. thesis, University of Manchester, 1970.

  18. Jean Tardieu, The Underground Lovers and Other Experimental Plays, trans. Colin Duckworth (London, 1968).

  19. Mordecai Richler, The Incomparable Atuk (London, 1963).

  20. Samuel Beckett, Watt (Paris, 1958), p. 146.

  21. In his interview with Professor Lamont, Ionesco gives this account of Bérenger: “He has the feeling that he is struggling against the whole world, that he alone can save the world. Of course he knows all along that it isn’t so, but he acts as though it were” (Wager, p. 125). Whether or not I am right in sensing something of the Olympic spirit in this Bérenger—the Bérenger that is, of The Killer and Rhinoceros—I am confident of Ionesco’s agreement that the benign sportsmanship of Avery Brundage, millionaire Chairman of the Olympic Committee, had an absurdity all its own in the fraught Mexico Games of 1968.

    In the context of this paper, it is intriguing to note the title of Ionesco’s latest play—Jeu de Massacre. Ionesco explained to an interviewer, “that’s the name of a game you play at funfairs when you have to knock out all the figures in a shy” (The Guardian, 6 Feb. 1970). Jeu de Massacre is scheduled to receive its world première in Düsseldorf in 1970.

Mary Ann Witt (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6848

SOURCE: “ Eugène Ionesco and the Dialectic of Space,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 3, September 1972, pp. 312-26.

[In the following essay, Witt discusses the polar states such as evanescence and heaviness, lightness and darkness, open space and restriction, that are evident in Ionesco’s plays; notes his use of the arrangement of spatial images; and asserts that Ionesco’s characters are hemmed in, lonely creatures longing for liberation.]

Throughout his journals and in his notes on the theater, Eugène Ionesco refers to the two basic states of consciousness which, he claims, are at the origin of all his plays. One is represented as a sensation of levity, evanescence, luminosity: “Chacun de nous a pu sentir, à certains moments, que le monde a une substance de rêve, que les murs n’ont plus d’épaisseur, qu’il nous semble voir à travers tout, dans un univers sans espace, uniquement fait de clartés et de couleurs. …”1 The physical sensations are translated emotionally either as an experience of euphoria and marvel or as vertige—a Pascalian anguish before infinite space. The opposite state, far more frequent, is the sensation of being closed in and weighted down. It is sometimes described in terms reminiscent of Baudelaire’s Spleen: “Un rideau, un mur infranchissable s’interpose entre moi et le monde, entre moi et moi-même, la matière remplit tout, prend toute la place, anéantit toute liberté sous son poids, l’horizon se rétrécit, le monde devient un cachot étouffant.”2 Images or dreams of walls and prisons haunt Ionesco’s private writings and are most often associated with fear of death, metaphysical ignorance, the anguish of solitude, regret and remorse over past life, or, in another context, the pressures of society and “sinking” into domesticity. Yet imprisonment is sometimes seen as a form of protection, a haven of solitude.

Polar states such as evanescence and heaviness, light and darkness, the feeling of being closed in and that of flying through space are also evident throughout Ionesco’s plays and stories after La Cantatrice chauve and La Leçon, which are primarily concerned with language. Rosette Lamont has analyzed the images of air and matter in Le Piéton de l’air and Victimes du devoir and has discussed the proliferation of matter in other plays.3 Simone Benmussa’s comprehensive study demonstrates that Ionesco’s theater is based on the interplay of poetic images rather than on conventional dramatic elements such as plot and character.4 At one point she states that the physical opposites of evanescence and heaviness are at the basis of the construction of Ionesco’s plays,5 but since her efforts are directed toward listing and interpreting all of Ionesco’s dramatic imagery, she does not develop this important notion. By isolating the polar images of closed and open space I hope to be able to define more clearly the workings of certain fundamental structures and themes in Ionesco’s work.

The anti-Brechtian Ionesco has led a long and consistent polemic against a theater of commitment. For him great drama is extratemporal, and the most profound communication in any art form takes place between one solitude and another. “En exprimant mes obsessions fondamentales, j’exprime ma plus profonde humanité. …”6 Ionesco’s most fundamental obsession is with death. In his argument for the primacy of universal situations he particularly emphasizes two examples of great theater. Both are concerned with the realization of an impending death, and both are set in a prison. Richard II’s soliloquy in the dungeon of Pomfret castle in Shakespeare’s tragedy is a “theatrical archetype” for man’s fundamental, solitary condition.7 The prison in Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow, where prisoners and guards become united in awaiting the death of the unseen protagonist, stands for all societies, for the human condition.8

If imprisonment is both a personal experience and a universal situation, it is particularly suited for representation on stage. In Ionesco’s plays there are no dungeons or cells with iron bars: these have been replaced by the petty bourgeois living room. It is primarily in this, his most prevalent décor, that Ionesco works out his “archetypes.” The opposite image of open or infinite space is more difficult to suggest on stage, but it may be done through language or with lighting and the absence of décor. Other images, both scenic and verbal, such as mud, wetness, heaviness or fire, light and dryness, may accompany the two poles, but the spatial images, in the theater particularly, are primary. They serve not only as poetic metaphors but also as means of advancing the plot. Nearly all of Ionesco’s plays can be seen structurally in terms of what I shall call a dialectic of space.

In their arrangement of spatial images, Ionesco’s major works (after La Cantatrice chauve and La Leçon) fall more or less into four categories. In the first, the scene is set in a closed-in, shabby interior which becomes progressively confining, usually because of the invasion of material objects. When confinement of the major characters reaches what seems to be its utmost limit (a parallel to the Sartrean situation-limite), a decision of some sort is forced on them; but it is accompanied by an interlude in which action stops completely and gives way to lyricism, often a meditation on the past and a fusion of images of enclosure and infinity. Amédée ou Comment s’en débarrasser, Les Chaises, Le Roi se meurt, and Ionesco’s only short story which did not become a play, “La Vase,” belong here. In the plays of the second category—Le Nouveau Locataire, Délire à deux, Jacques ou La Soumission, L’Aventr est dans les æufs, Rhinocéros, and Victimes du devoir—the movement is also one of progressive confinement, but the resolution is a burial within. Here too the action, at the point of greatest confinement, will often give way to a lyricism in which the two contrasting images appear. The suggestion of a cosmic holocaust, of which the situation represented on the stage is only a small part or a reflection, is also characteristic of these plays. Le Piéton de l’air, in which Ionesco concentrates on a development of the open-space image, constitutes a third category by itself. The fourth, comprised of the two long plays Tueur sans gages and La Soif et la faim, is characterized by an alternation between “open” and “closed” scenes. I shall attempt to deal with these four types by concentrating on one play from each with brief mention of the others.9

The dull interior that constitutes the principal décor of Amédée ou Comment s’en débarrasser is remarkable only for its multiple functions as living room, study, and telephone office. We learn in the first act that since the death or murder of Madeleine’s former lover, fifteen years previous, Amédée and his wife have been imprisoned in their apartment. The corpse that occupies their bedroom acts as both judge and jailer for them.

By the end of the first act the corpse has caught its incurable disease, “geometric progression.” Space on stage becomes increasingly restricted, not only because of the corpse’s rapid growth, but also because of the furniture brought out of the bedroom. Madeleine and Amédée are caught in a very literal situation-limite. Once they make the decision to get rid of the corpse, the action stops and gives way to a dream sequence in which the husband and wife are represented by their sosies Amédée II and Madeleine II.

The dialogue in the second act gives some clue to the nature of the corpse which has held the couple prisoner. Originally, it may have been the cadaver of their dead love, as Leonard Pronko has suggested,10 but through the years it has progressed into more than that. Listening to Madeleine review the past, Amédée comments on her habits: “Des reproches, toujours des reproches, ce qui est fait est fait, inutile les remords …” (I, 261).11 A pluperfect clause followed by a conditional is perhaps Madeleine’s favorite construction (“Si tu avais déclaré son décès à temps, on aurait la prescription maintenant … nous ne vivrions pas comme des prisonniers, comme des coupables …” (I, 264-65) and of course expresses regret over an unchangeable situation. If Madeleine is trapped by regret, Amédée is trapped by remorse. Vague guilt feelings nag him, but he is unable to do anything about them. In the end the lost years add their contribution to the trap.

The Madeleine II-Amédée II interlude is like a duet in which Ionesco’s favorite contrasting images are pitted against one another. While Madeleine II sings ugliness, darkness, heaviness, unhappiness, imprisonment, Amédée II sings beauty, light, weightlessness, joy, liberty. The duet ends with a rhymed battle between “maison de fer” and “maison de verre” (I, 281).

The counterpoint between the sosies (who represent the young Madeleine and Amédée) is echoed in the scene in which the corpse is pushed out the window. It is first stated in the décor itself. In his stage directions Ionesco insists that a striking contrast must be felt between the beauty of the night, the moonlight entering the window, and the “macabre” look of the room (I, 289). One should bear in mind that at this point the window is opened for the first time in fifteen years. The entrance of moonlight and starlight into the room seems to reawaken the lyricism and the expectations which the spectator has just seen to be dormant in Amédée. The first breath of outside air evokes his yearning to escape from enclosure to its opposite. Amédée’s ecstatic description of the night culminates with “Et de l’espace, de l’espace, un espace infini!” (I, 290).

Unlike most of Ionesco’s characters, Amédée will fulfill his desire for infinite space. The corpse which has imprisoned him for fifteen years, suddenly transformed into a parachute, becomes the instrument of his deliverance. In the highly comic ending (there are two versions) Ionesco seems to be making a statement on art and the artist. We are reminded in the last scene that Amédée is supposed to be a writer. Dangling in the air, he makes a rather pathetic profession of faith: “Je suis confus, je m’excuse, Messieurs, Mesdames, je m’excuse … Je voudrais bien rester … Rester les pieds sur terre … Je suis pour le progrès, je désire être utile à mes semblables … Je suis pour le réalisme social …” (I, 307). Madeleine’s final plea with her husband is “Ta carrière dramatique!” Imprisoned by dead love, guilt, remorse and regret, Amédée’s career was, to say the least, nonproductive. But those very obsessions which limit and oppress in daily life can become, if given a free outlet (unrestricted by the dictates of usefulness), the stuff of creation. As much as Amédée might consciously wish to be a good and useful citizen, his obsessions, in league with his fantasies, were determined to make of him an artist.

Amédée’s joyful flight is exceptional in Ionesco’s work. More frequently, a leap into space or an escape from imprisonment is associated with annihilation, with death. This is the case in “La Vase,” Les Chaises, and Le Roi se meurt, all of which follow to some extent the pattern of Amédée. The combination of the polar images of open space and restriction is particularly striking in “La Vase.” It is the account in the first person of a sickness, culminating in the description of a consciousness that observes the death and disintegration of its own body. The transformation from health to sickness, from optimism to pessimism, is accompanied by a shift from open space to closed room, from mobility to immobility. As in Amédée, the point of greatest immobility concurs with a duet of opposing images, but here the sole protagonist plays two parts. In a state of near paralysis, the dying man shut in his room envisions the dissolution of the material objects which surround him and a merging of his prison with limitless space: “Au crépuscule, enveloppés par les ombres moites, les meubles perdaient peu à peu leurs formes et, la nuit venue, s’effaçaient entièrement, silencieusement engloutis, avec la chambre, avec le monde même, comme dans un océan de ténèbres, sans limites.”12

As Amédée is forced to a decision by the growing corpse, the narrator of “La Vase” is forced into action by the “dead weight” of his own body. Like Amédée he breaks out of a sealed prison, ventures into the open, and disposes of a body—his own. Rather than rising into the air, however, the body here is allowed to sink into a marsh while the bodiless “I” merges with an infinite blue sky. Although some sort of dualistic separation has taken place, there is nothing that suggests a Platonic or Christian immortal soul being liberated from the body. The final words “je partis” can only mean “I ceased to exist.” The merging of the closing eye with the clear sky is in the end as suggestive of utter annihilation as is the sinking of the body in the mire.

Les Chaises, like Amédée, portrays on stage claustration by geometric progression. Here too, at the most crowded moment, Ionesco introduces a contrasting image—a powerful light which invades the old couple’s island home through the door and windows and suggests at once a new hope and an opening out. Yet Sémiramis and her husband end their lives meaninglessly. They escape from a trap to die in a dark void.

Le Roi se meurt is, like “La Vase,” the story of a growing sickness and approaching death and, like Les Chaises, a kind of endgame. The stage is not filled with matter in this play, but imprisonment is suggested in the language and by the eventual closing of doors around the king. The king is “trapped” by the inevitability of his death. Queen Marie offers him what would seem to be the only possible way out: “Plonge dans l’étonnement et la stupéfaction sans limites, ainsi tu peux être sans limites, ainsi tu peux être infiniment. Sois étonné, sois ébloui, tout est étrange, indéfinissable. Écarte les barreaux de la prison, enfonce ses murs, évade-toi des définitions. Tu respireras” (IV, 41-42). This state of étonnement, of a fresh, poetic wonder before the world, is described recurrently by Ionesco in his journals and essays. Always associated with light and space, sometimes with childhood and sometimes with creativity, it is a form of mystical deliverance available to every human being, a way of transcending time, evading determinism.13 It cannot, however, stave off death. At least King Bérenger is unable to take this escape. On the contrary, he is closed into his throne room with Queen Marguerite, who will teach him to die. In the end, the king on his throne is swallowed up by a foggy gray light.

Le Roi se meurt differs from Les Chaises in that the illusion of a void is created on stage. It shares with this play the suggestion of death and destruction beyond the limits of the scene portrayed. This type of suggestion is prevalent in the plays of the second category which end, not with emptiness, but with total imprisonment or encumbrance. In Délire à deux, for example, a war raging in the street seems only an enlargement of the domestic battle of two aging lovers trapped with and by each other in another of Ionesco’s grim petty bourgeois rooms. The plight of the couple is objectified and framed by the absurd debate on the tortoise and the snail which opens and closes the dialogue. Whether or not the two are the same animal as she contends and he contests, both are creatures with protective shells like the room in which the man and woman barricade themselves. But protection against the outside world forces them to live with each other in an ongoing battle. Like the dialogue between Madeleine and Amédée and between the old man and woman in Les Chaises, the words exchanged in Délire are full of regrets and remorse. Here the past conditional dominates: each character blames the other for what he or she has become in contrast to what “might have been.”

As the war comes closer to them, the reaction of these human turtles is to withdraw as far as possible into their shelter. They shut the windows, the shutters, the door, and then begin to barricade themselves with furniture. Their final position, which indeed resembles that of a tortoise or snail, is under the bed. Here again action, in the most confined position, gives way to nostalgia and lyricism. In the case of the two middle-aged lovers the lyricism is somewhat truncated, but each experiences an evocation of a lost childhood paradise, of a past without the conditional. The images are of fish in the water and of rainbows.

This scene states in a comic, distorted way one of Ionesco’s most profound themes. In his deepest solitude, in his encirclement by death, man communicates with others more than in the course of normal life or in any group involvement. But this moment is a brief one in Délire à deux. Ionesco goes on to show that resolutions on a social or political level do not necessarily have any effect on the private hell of individuals. If “she” and “he” saw their own obsessions reflected in the war, they return to their private battle once the danger is past and peace has come. They also rebuild their falling house, barricading the doors and windows even more than before as if to construct a protection from death itself, in any form. “Il y a des courants d’air. Il y a la grippe, il y a les microbes et puis il faut prévoir” (III, 224), she explains. The last words—“Tortue!” “Limace!”—bring the play to a circular conclusion.

The process of barricading oneself within a room is almost the sole subject of Le Nouveau Locataire. Here the world is solipsistic to a point well beyond Délire à deux. Disaster in the outside world is not merely reflected in the private world; it is created by it. The new tenant fills up the outside world and stops its normal movement with his own possessions. Thus an inner, individual state of being is made visible on stage. The active part of the mind gradually becomes inactive and inhibited by its own “furniture”—obsessions, desires, fears, and other subconscious rumblings. In this play, escape is not even suggested. No image of space or light interrupts the methodical, self-imposed burial of the new tenant.

The other plays in this group (ending in confinement) deal with several characters, and in these it is the social, rather than the inner, world which engulfs and imprisons its victims on stage. The imagery in Jacques ou La Soumission, an early play, is created more by language than by use of stage material. Yet its structure parallels that of Délire à deux and Le Nouveau Locataire. At the climax of the play the couple, Jacques and Roberte, are closed in alone. Jacques understands that he has been trapped and confesses as much to Roberte: “Ils m’ont trompé … Et comment sortir? Ils ont bouché les portes, les fenêtres avec du rien, ils ont enlevé les escaliers … Je veux absolument m’en aller. Si on ne peut pas passer par le grenier, il reste la cave … Il vaut mieux passer par en bas que d’être là” (I, 116-17). Roberte will offer him precisely this exit, but first, characteristically at the point of greatest confinement, she creates a poem of open space, dryness, and light. The same movement takes place in L’Avenir est dans les æufs, in which, as Pronko describes it, Jacques is “slowly swallowed up by animalism and materialism.”14 He is allowed a small rebellion and an outcry of protest—“Je veux une fontaine de lumière, de l’eau incandescente” (II, 230)—but production, matter, the family, and the white race win out.

In Victimes du devoir Choubert is also finally engulfed by matter and the forces of order, but not before he almost flies away and escapes. The imprisonment of Bérenger in his own room at the end of Rhinocéros is of a different oder. Unlike the new tenant’s, Bérenger’s inner space is free; it is the world outside that is encumbered with rhinoceroses. When Daisy goes to join the herd, Bérenger retains his humanity in what for Ionesco is the only possible way—by preserving his solitude.

Le Piéton de l’air (the play of the third category) might be called “The Liberation of Bérenger.” It is the only work in which Ionesco attempts to deal almost entirely with images of free space and evanescene rather than with their opposites. Bérenger’s flight seems to be for Ionesco a kind of laboratory experiment to test what would happen if the dream of transcending human limits were realized. It is in a sense a sequel to Amédée—and this Bérenger is the only other character in Ionesco’s work who is a writer. The flight follows a kind of curve. Bérenger is at first literally uplifted by joy, full of confidence and pride.15 During his departure the tone changes. His wife Joséphine experiences an acute anguish, and all of the characters become distorted as in a dream. One of the dream sequences is particularly significant for the development of the spatial imagery. It is a confrontation between John Bull (“le gros personnage”) and a little boy. The boy runs toward a wall which he attempts to climb, is caught by the man, pleads that he wants to walk in the sky and light and that he does not want to return to his cell. The fat man then gives him a lesson: “Petit imbécile, tu apprendras que la lumière est bien plus belle quand on la regarde du fond d’un trou noir et que le ciel est bien plus pur quand on le voit à travers la grille de la lucarne” (III, 181-82). Bérenger’s return seems to confirm John Bull’s harsh common sense. The surrealistic visions he describes from the other side of the wall are of death and destruction. Bérenger’s perceptions of light and space are no longer accompanied by joy but by terror. It is the Pascalian terror before infinite nothingness: “Après, il n’y a plus rien, plus rien que les abîmes illimités … que les abîmes” (III, 198). The experiment with liberation has failed, and Bérenger remains as if dangling between finitude and infinity.

A dialectic of space is at the basis of the structure of Ionesco’s two long plays, Tueur sans gages and La Soif et la faim. The three acts of Tueur can be described as open-closed-open, those of Soif as closed-open-closed. Both plays follow the destiny of a character through the extremes of closed and open space like a swinging pendulum—an equilibrium between the two is never reached. Tueur sans gages opens with a décor made entirely of lights in which Berenger seems to find the outward realization of his deepest longings. Yet as soon as he hears of the work of a killer in the “radiant” city, the lighting changes to gray and objects being to come on stage. The setting of the second act, in Bérenger’s apartment (which must correspond to his most frequent state of mind), is characterized by an oppressive low roof, darkness, and heaviness. The menace of death is present here too in the sickly Edouard. Yet Bérenger leaves this situation in a burst of optimism and action, and the third act finds him in the open again. In the last part of this act Ionesco uses a décor that in a way synthesizes the open and closed spaces in acts 1 and 2. Space on the stage is first enlarged to suggest solitude and emptiness. Then walls are to be moved to form a corridor around Bérenger “afin de donner l’impression que Bérenger va être pris dans un guet-apens … il aura l’air, finalement, de vouloir s’enfuir” (II, 158). The corridor can suggest both limitlessness and imprisonment. At the very end of the play the two images merge in another way. When Bérenger meets the killer, the corridor disappears; there remain only a wall and the sensation of “le vide de la plaine” (II, 161). The emptiness suggests Bérenger’s solitude and the meaninglessness of his endeavor, and the wall corresponds to the impassibility of the killer.16 Closed and open or limited and vacant encounter each other here on mutual ground. Absurdity, anguish, and death are met at either extreme.

Ionesco’s two fundamental images and the themes that accompany them are most fully developed in La Soif et la faim. A reversal of the acts of Tueur, the movement here is closed-open-closed, with a juxtaposition rather than a synthesis at the end. A counterpoint between the two images runs throughout the play and has its source in the character of Jean, who can never be content with either condition but is constantly searching for one or the other. His wife, Marie-Madeleine, describes his predicament neatly: “Si ce n’est pas l’agoraphobie, c’est la claustrophobie” (IV, 77). Jean spends most of the first act complaining about their present dwelling, a sordid basement, contrasting it with their previous spacious, luminous apartment. Repressed remorse, objectified in the figure of Aunt Adelaide, “weighs” on him. Yet the family had lived in the basement before moving to the other house, and Marie-Madeleine claims that Jean made the decision to return. Thus a pattern of perpetual alternation is established.

For Marie-Madeleine, as for Queen Marie in Le Roi se meurt, it is possible to find happiness within imprisonment, to destroy the sense of confinement by a mere shift in attitude. After Jean has left her, she is thus able to “free” herself. At the end of the first act, the back wall of the house has disappeared, and Marie-Madeleine stands before a luminous garden in an attitude of étonnement.

The second episode follows Jean in his quest for liberty. In the décor here height has replaced the underground; clear horizons, the walls. Yet Jean is far from free. His agoraphobia does not take long to manifest itself. Growing impatient with waiting for a mythical woman to appear at a museum on the mountain, he begins to speak nostalgically to the only other characters present, the two museum guardians, of the shelter he left behind.

Pourtant, j’étais à l’abri, bien enfermé dans ma tristesse, dans ma nostalgie, dans ma peur, dans mes remords, dans mon angoisse, dans ma responsabilité, à l’abri. C’était autant de murs qui m’entouraient. La crainte de la mort était mon bouclier le plus solide. Les murs se sont écroulés et me voici, vulnérable. Les murs se sont écroulés et me voici dans le feu torride de la vie, dans le lucide désespoir de la détresses. (IV, 114)

In open space, with absolute freedom of choice before him, Jean is in a state of anguish. The despair of limitlessness necessitates action as much as the pressure of limits. Once Jean has discovered for himself a banal but fundamental truth, “il n’y a aucune raison de vivre” (IV, 117), he must continue his wandering, hoping, acting as if he will be given a reason to live.

It is not difficult to imagine that Jean would seek out another enclosure. The décor of the third episode is more than that—it represents the main room of “une sorte de monastère-caserne-prison” (IV, 121). Downstage is a barred door behind which one sees first a gray, foggy landscape (corresponding to the “morne plaine” which is the recurrent theme in Jean’s description of his travels), then, at the end of the play, the luminous garden of act 1 with Jean’s wife and daughter.

The episode of Brechtoll and Tripp, the “education-re-education” show put on for Jean’s benefit, is not only a play within a play, but also a prison within a prison. The atheist and the believer come on stage in cages, and the “play” consists of tantalizing them with freedom (opening the cage door) and soup. One of the tasks which Frère Tarabas proposes to accomplish in his re-education procedure is the “demystification” of liberty. His assumption is that imprisonment of some sort is the natural condition of man in society. “Réfléchissez” (he addresses the prisoners who demand their liberty): “les prisons vides, les rues pleines de gens qui errent, qui errent … Ce serait le monde à l’envers” (IV, 139). Here, he argues, the prisoners are safe, protected; outside they might be “free” to die of cold. What the two men now call “liberty” or “imprisonment” is merely a result of habit or prejudice—it can be changed. The argument is a familiar one.

The “establishment” (the proper word for the place, according to Frère Tarabas) in act 3 represents a collective or social form of confinement in contrast to the personal or familial form in act 1. Frère Tarabas explains to Jean that they suspected he would come: “C’est la maison où l’on vient d’habitude” (IV, 123). This is perhaps a way of stating that a quest, if it has an end, ends with an answer, thus with an ideology, thus with an organized system. Whether “la bonne auberge” represents a religious monastery, the realization of the socialist utopia,17 or a psychiatric clinic,18 it is an institution characterized by both security and oppression. For Ionesco, who could write, “le camp de concentration est la société telle qu’elle est dans son essence, quintessenciée,”19 it is surely a model for all varieties of social organization. Every society has its ruling class, and the ruling class will oppress those who are not with them. There is no more real outlet for individual assertion within an institutional framework than in a concentration camp.

After the play, Frère Tarabas uses comparable techniques on Jean. In adding up the hours (days, months, years?) of service he owes the “establishment,” he presents the obligation as if it were a natural expression of human solidarity.

Nous nous devons des services les uns aux autres. Nous sommes des humains. Nous avons des obligations les uns vis-à-vis des autres, à moins de préférer la cage de la solitude. Mais cela n’est pas un endroit confortable. Vous ne pouvez y tenir ni tout à fait debout, ni tout à fait assis. (IV, 164)20

The natural outcome of the play of Brechtoll and Tripp (there are twenty-nine more episodes!) would be the “freeing” of the prisoners from their cages to become willing and docile members of the community. Solitude, individuality, or the expression of deviant ideas is made into an uncomfortable cage by a society that wants conformity and harmony. The brothers now set about making Jean into a member of the community. He is given a monk’s habit and a duty to perform.

The end of act 3 is a reversal of the situation at the end of act 1: Jean is imprisoned, Marie-Madeleine and Marthe are outside. Once again eternity or timelessness is associated with open space, and the rapid passing of time with closed space. Marie-Madeleine in the garden seems forever young while the brothers count out the passing minutes and hours in Jean’s prison. Jean’s vision of his wife and daughter is through bars. The play ends on this poignant note of separation and with the impression that Jean will never be able to liberate himself to join those he loves. If he did, would his vacillation not recur?

The spatial images in Ionesco’s work which serve the dramatist in constructing his plot act as symbols for the poet and the recorder of dreams. The feeling of being enclosed or cut off and the simultaneous desire for liberation emerge as two of the strongest themes in Ionesco’s journals and essays as well as in his creative works. The two states are indeed, in his view, at the basis of the history of civilizations. All religions, all ideologies, he claims, have been founded on the assumption that life in the present is a prison or an “alienation” and on the corresponding nostalgia for liberty, happiness, the “true” life or paradise.21 Ionesco’s own dreams and fantasies are filled with the same images, and occasionally he attempts to interpret them. The recurrent dream of a wall, which appears throughout Journal en miettes, is seen to contain multiple meanings:

Le mur est donc le mur d’une prison, de ma prison; il est la mort puisqu’il semble être un cimetière vu de très loin; ce mur est le mur d’une église, il me sépare d’une communauté: il est donc l’expression de ma solitude, de la non-interpénétration. … Il est en même temps l’obstacle à la connaissance, il est ce qui cache la vie, la vérité. En somme c’est le mystère de la vie et de la mort que je veux percer; ni plus ni moins. (pp. 102-103)

All of Ionesco’s characters are hemmed-in, lonely creatures longing, however obscurely, for some sort of liberating answer, a resolution that will free them from their limitations. For many of them—Amédée and Madeleine, the old couple in Les Chaises, the couple in Délire à deux, Jean and Marie-Madeleine—imprisonment is a way of life. Couples, in particular, tend to keep each other trapped in the quagmire of domesticity or in “remorse” and “regrets.” For others—the narrator of “La Vase,” the new tenant, King Bérenger, and the Bérenger of Tueur sans gages—being enclosed is a way of death, a stifling of the self by the self, or an encounter with the ultimate absurdity. For the Bérenger of Rhinocéros, confinement means separation from a community, but in spite of Ionesco’s statement in his journal, the community is never seen as something desirable. More often, it is itself the cause of the claustration and suffocation of an individual. This is the case in Jacques ou La Soumission, L’Avenir est dans les æufs, Victimes du devoir, and La Soif et la faim. If one ventures out of the cage of solitude, one is more than likely to end up in a concentration camp.

The prisoners’ dream of liberation takes the form of a yearning for open, unencumbered space, usually bathed in light. It is sometimes characterized by dryness, sometimes by vegetation, and is associated with feelings of buoyancy, giddiness, exhilaration, joy. Amédée and the Bérenger of Piéton represent the feeling quite literally in being lifted off the earth. The narrator of “La Vase” experiences the lightness of a kite and a vision of infinity when rid of his body. Marie-Madeleine is able to perceive an idyllic landscape through her capacity for étonnement. Images of light and space appear in the dreams and fantasies of such prisoners as Jacques, Choubert, Sémiramis and her husband, the Bérenger of Tueur, and Jean. For a while the latter two think that they have found their inner vision realized in an actual setting. Yet the realization inevitably fails.

Another type of open-space image, characterized by gray light or darkness, is more likely to be found in “reality” by Ionesco’s characters. It is “la morne plaine” in Jean’s account of his journey, “le vide de la plaine” at the end of Tueur sans gages, the gray light at the end of Le Roi se meurt, the dark void around the island in Les Chaises. This may be associated with limitless, anxiety-producing freedom or with meaningless, universal death. Hoping for the deliverance represented by space and light (as do the old couple in Les Chaises), Ionesco’s characters are more apt to encounter the dark, limitless void.

Absurdity, the non-answer behind the mystery of existence, or death seems to be what is encountered at the extremes of imprisonment or open space. Liberation is something never achieved, only glimpsed. True freedom would mean a transcendence of the dialectic of space.

Est libre celui qui ne sait même pas qu’il est libre, ni qu’il y a la liberté, ni qu’il y a l’emprisonnement. Est libre non pas celui qui est au-delà du bien et du mal, mais en dehors des obsessions de la liberté et de la prison. … Libre … celui … pour qui mourir et vivre c’est la même chose.22

Such freedom is beyond Ionesco and the creatures of his imagination. Impeded and frustrated by both the restrictions of the human condition and the intuition of an infinite universe devoid of unity or meaning, they can, at best, envision momentarily images that suggest liberation. Paradoxically, such visions are most intense at the point of greatest confinement and solitude. Yet the dreams of the solitary individual remain unfulfilled in reality; at most they can partially be brought forth by artistic creation which can shed “une petite lueur grisâtre, un tout petit début d’illumination”23 on the opacity of things. Imprisonment, in its various forms, is a reality. One does what one can from within.


  1. Notes et contre-notes (Paris, 1962), p. 140.

  2. Ibid., p. 141.

  3. See “The Proliferation of Matter in Ionesco’s Plays,” ECr, 2 (1962), 189-97, and “Air and Matter: Ionesco’s ‘Le Piéton de l’air’ and ‘Victimes du devoir.’ ” FR, 38 (1965). 349-61.

  4. Ionesco (Paris, 1966).

  5. Ibid., p. 67.

  6. Notes et contre-notes, p. 34.

  7. Ibid., p. 18.

  8. Ibid., p. 34.

  9. Because of limited space I have not included Ionesco’s latest play. Jeux de massacre (1970), in this study. Though the play does not fit into any of the four categories, the confinement imagery that dominates it would merit a separate, lengthy treatment.

  10. Avant-Garde: The Experimental Theater in France (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1962), p. 94.

  11. All quotations from Ionesco’s plays are from Théâtre, 4 vols. (Paris, 1954-66), and are cited by volume and page number. In his Journal en miettes (Paris, 1967), p. 149. Ionesco speaks of remorse and regret as “the prison” for him.

  12. La Photo du colonel: Récits (Paris, 1962). p. 145.

  13. Ionesco claims to have attained such states himself: “J’ai eu l’expérience, j’ai su ce qu’est être en dehors de l’Histoire. On peut y arriver. Cet état d’étonnement premier, de stupéfaction est propre à la condition humaine et peut illuminer quiconque au-delà de sa condition sociale, de son temps historique, du conditionnement économique” (Journal en miettes, p. 70). The understanding that he seeks is both mystical and Platonic: “Détruire les murs du réel qui nous sépare de la réalité, participer à l’être pour vivre comme au premier jour de la naissance du monde …” (Présent passé passé présent [Paris, 1968], p. 215).

  14. Avant-Garde, p. 74.

  15. In Pŕesent passé passé présent (pp. 223-24) Ionesco recounts an experience of elation, a feeling of almost being able to fly, which must have been the impetus for writing Le Piéton de l’air. The sensation of joy and wonder is associated with light, which is in turn equated with expansion of space or destruction of limits: “La stupéfaction surgit, éclata, déborda, faisant dissoudre les frontières des choses, désarticulant les définitions … comme la lumière semblait faire disparaître les murs. …”

  16. A “blind force” or “incomprehensible destiny” is associated with the vision of both an “impenetrable” soldier and a wall in Journal en miettes (p. 197).

  17. Ionesco has explained that the prison episode in La Soif et la faim was partially a reference to the trial of Siniavsky and Daniel and that the setting of the third act could represent the prison which the socialist utopia had become in Soviet Russia (Arts et loisirs, March 9-15, 1966, p. 19).

  18. Ionesco compares the psychiatric clinic in Switzerland in which he spent some time to a caserne, prison, and concentration camp (Journal en miettes, pp. 151. 213-14). Frère Tarabas’s language occasionally suggests that of a psychiatrist with a patient, and he tells Jean that their institution was once a clinic (IV, 132).

  19. Journal en miettes, p. 156.

  20. This would seem to refer to the medieval prison cell called the “little ease” or malconfort—an important image in Camus’s La Chute.

  21. See Présent passé passé présent, pp. 227-28.

  22. Journal en miettes, p. 100.

  23. Ibid., p. 120.

George E. Craddock, Jr. (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3035

SOURCE: “Escape and Fulfillment in the Theatre of Eugène Ionesco,” in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 1, October 1971, pp. 15-22.

[In the following essay, Craddock argues that a major concern in Ionesco’s work is the breaking out of confining social structures and awakening of the individual to the full potentialities of existence. According to Ionesco this can be done through exercising the imagination and creativity, those innate capacities that are best developed in solitude, which is where humans find their true selves.]

In Ionesco’s theatre two major themes stand out: alienation and fulfillment. The first of these is one which Ionesco has in common with the other major playwrights of the theatre of the absurd. The theme of fulfillment, however, is less typical of the works of the other contemporary playwrights, but it is a vital part of Ionesco’s theatre.

Ionesco’s major concern about the human condition revolves around his belief that the important goals of life are lost in the maze of routine daily actions. Social living channels the individual’s physical and mental activities to such an extent that he becomes a kind of conditioned human being. By giving most of his attention to the exterior world, the individual fails to give sufficient attention to his inner life. Thus he starves his higher self of artistic or creative activity, and he loses an important dimension of his identity.

In an article in Notes et contre-notes Ionesco states that people who have become prisoners of social reality are “appauvris, aliénés, vidés.”1 Their ability to marvel at the many facets of existence has been killed, and in its place they find fatigue and boredom. This is the sickness which Ionesco feels is prevalent in modern society and which is caused by the opposition of man’s nature and his condition. A symptom of this sickness is a malaise, a sensation of being weighted down by the forces of life, of being without energy or enthusiasm. This gives the individual the feeling of not belonging to the world and of longing to be elsewhere.

In expressing such a mental state in his theatre, Ionesco frankly admits that he is using his own feelings and that his plays are exorcisms of his own anxieties. He writes of two basic states which he goes through: heaviness and lightness. The latter state gives him a feeling of euphoria and of refound liberty, but this happy state is very rare. More often he feels crushed by the universe and longs for something to take him away from what he calls his “prison quotidienne.”2 He has a vague nostalgia of some other world (“un ailleurs”), from which he feels separated and which he misses. This state of being ill at ease in life he has expressed as follows:

Je ne me sens pas tout à fait appartenir au monde. … J’ai plutôt l’impression que je suis d’ailleurs. Si je savais quel est cet ailleurs, ça irait bien mieux. … Le fait d’être habité par une nostalgie incompréhensible serait tout de même le signe qu’il y a un ailleurs. Cet ailleurs est, peut-être, si je puis dire, un “ici” que je ne retrouve pas; peut-être ce que je cherche n’est pas ici. … Je constate donc tout simplement que je suis là, ce “je” difficile à définir, et c’est bien pour exprimer, pour faire part de mon étonnement et de ma nostalgie que j’écris.3

Ionesco endows some of his characters with his own malaise. These are the exceptional ones, however, for he sees most people as being too insensitive to be aware of any malaise. Most of his characters are resigned to the world as it is. They make no complaint; they are, like the Smiths and the Martins, quite at home in their routine world, where they believe themselves fulfilled. Not all, however. There are some who realize that there is a lost dimension to their lives, and they look for it in their memories, dreams, and imagination.

The earliest appearance of such a character is the protagonist of Jacques ou la soumission,4 who reveals in a long expressive monologue how disappointed he is with life and why he would like to escape: He was more perceptive than most people, and he realized early in life what the world was all about. He did not like the things he saw and he complained about them openly. Whenever he complained, people told him that everything would be remedied. To make up for all this, they promised him decorations, awards, and other trivialities. But he was not pleased with these, for they did not touch upon the real problem. He insisted that the situation be changed. Everyone swore to give him satisfaction, even gave him official promises with many legal seals. To pacify him, as well as to divert his mind to other things, they took him on voyages, and at first he let himself fall into this trap. But eventually he realized that all this was faked, that they had changed nothing, that the world was as bad as ever. He wanted to protest, but there was no one who would hear him. He wanted to escape, but all the exits were blocked. He was told that there were exits, but he could not find them. But there was still the cellar door of sensual pleasure. If he could not escape from above, he could at least escape from below. His baser instincts win out, as he lets himself be lured into marriage; and he is trapped into the restricted and limited atmosphere of domestic life.

Jacques reappears in a sequel, L’Avenir est dans les oeufs,5 in which he is controlled further by the family and by society—so much so, that he is not even consulted when the family decides on the careers for his many offspring. When he does try to offer his views, they call him down. They claim that he has lost his faith, and they ask him what he really wants. He replies in a poetic outburst: “Je veux une fontaine de lumière, de l’eau incandescente, un feu de glace, des neiges de feu.”6 This sudden outburst represents his real nature trying to break out of his bondage to middle-class life—the heart of the poet, longing for beauty, but stifled by the chores of daily life. He is brought back to reality, as his family insists that he must do his social duty. If he needs any beauty in his life, he can always go to displays of fireworks, or perhaps take in a chateau from time to time.

In Amédée ou Comment s’en débarrasser7 we again see the killing effect upon the individual as a result of domestic life. Amédée is a writer, but he cannot get past the first line of his work. His wife constantly ridicules and criticizes him. In the next room a body keeps growing until it crowds out both Amédée and his wife. This body could be taken to represent Amédée’s own higher self, killed by the cares and duties of domestic and social life. The more Amédée settles down into bourgeois routine, the bigger the body grows. It is his lost dimension—that part of his life representing his individuality and creativity.

Ionesco’s most famous treatment of social duty as a killing force on the individual is Victimes du devoir,8 in which he shows that society’s control over the individual is so thorough that even his inner life is in danger of being controlled by exterior forces. Choubert, the protagonist of the play, tries to escape his social identity and look for his true self. He does this by means of going back into his memory and his imagination, where the outer world cannot penetrate, but where—in this instance—there is a detective who tries to enter even into that most private domain of one’s life. In the most famous scene of the play, Choubert—in his imagination—climbs a mountain and attempts to fly away. The detective and the wife, in collaboration, do all they can to call him back to his social life. Finally, his wife ridicules him until he loses his confidence and falls. He has failed to escape; he is then watched even more closely, as he is ordered to fulfill his social duty.

Jacques, Amédée, and Choubert are all embryonic forms of Bérenger, a later creation, who has been called Ionesco’s finest. Ionesco uses Bérenger in three of his major plays: Tueur sans gages, Le Rhinocéros, and Le Piéton de l’air.9 Bérenger is essentially an Everyman, and might also be taken to represent Ionesco’s own views. He has learned from experience that we are not living in a golden age. He has given up his illusions and has done his best to adjust to his mediocre existence. But he is dissatisfied with his life, and he yearns for another. He speaks of a warmth which once pervaded his life—an “élan vital,” which he has lost through the years. He is aware that something is wrong, even though he cannot grasp exactly what it is. The character Jean in La Soif et la Faim10 is of the same race as Bérenger. He longs for a world of beauty even though he lives in the midst of ugliness, and he tries to attain it, to struggle against the forces which try to hold him down.

It is through such protagonists that Ionesco shows us the major symptoms of that most discussed modern malady, alienation. But Ionesco not only exposes the malady, he also proposes a cure: to recapture that part of one’s nature from which he has been alienated. This idea he expresses in his theatre, on the metaphorical level, and in his articles, on the polemical level. Even as early as Amédée, Ionesco has presented this form of fulfillment, as Amédée recaptures the lost dimension of his basic self. This happens in a very strange way, but one which is perfectly comprehensible, if one understands the dead body as representing Amédée’s lost self. Amédée takes the body from his apartment (where the atmosphere is so stifling and dead that there are mushrooms growing) and drags it out into the street, where a surprising thing happens. The body becomes very light and goes upward, carrying Amédée with it. He becomes intoxicated with joy; he has become reunited with his lost self, and he goes off into outer space, completely happy, as the play ends.

This same idea Ionesco develops more fully in Le Piéton de l’air, in which he shows us a Bérenger who has a rare moment of lightness which frees him from the heaviness of life. He is filled with such joy that he first walks above the ground, then really flies, saying that he has found again the forgotten means to do this. The onlookers—the conditioned human beings—tell him that this is not natural. He assures them that it is, claiming that flying is an indispensable need and an innate faculty which everyone has forgotten. When we do not fly, he says, it is worse than when we have been deprived of nourishment. He is told that it is too late to relearn it, but he replies that one must try if he is to become a more complete being. After all, he warns, if we are not careful, we might even forget how to walk. Bérenger insists that he will remain a pedestrian, both of the earth and of the air.

Ionesco uses the act of flying in Le Piéton de l’air to express a breaking out of the confines of one’s limited social existence into the limitless opportunity which life offers. He wishes to awaken people’s minds to the full potentialities of life, and he calls for total liberty of thought and a new awareness of reality. In Le Piéton de l’air he implies that one refinds his basic self—this lost dimension—on exercising his full capabilities.

This idea is also expressed in Ionesco’s articles, in which he suggests creation (especially artistic creation), dreaming, and imagination as some of the means of breaking away from life’s limitations. He sees imagination as more important than “la réalité concrète, matérielle, appauvrie, vidée, limitée.”11 He believes that it is not by a limited notion of reality that the authentic nature of things is discovered: “La nature authentique des choses, la vérité ne peut nous être révélée que par la fantaisie plus réaliste que tous les réalismes.”12 Dreaming, likewise, can reveal to the mind many things which are not noticed when one is awake. Ionesco writes: “Lorsque je rêve je n’ai pas le sentiment d’abdiquer la pensée. J’ai au contraire l’impression que je vois, en rêvant, des vérités, qui m’apparaissent, des évidences, dans une lumière plus éclatante, avec une acuité plus impitoyable qu’à l’état de veille.”13

Ionesco sees imagination as a kind of power; it is “la force vivante et créatrice de l’esprit humain.”14 Imagination is a source of the joy of existence; it is part of man’s true nature. The world that is within needs further exploration: “L’espace est immense à l’intérieur de nous-mêmes. Qui ose s’y aventurer? Il nous faut des explorateurs, des découvreurs de mondes inconnus qui sont en nous, qui sont à découvrir en nous.”15 Using our power to think is one way to deliver ourselves from our condition. Ionesco wonders if art might not be the means to this deliverance:

Je me demande si l’art ne pourrait pas être la libération, le réapprentissage d’une liberté dont nous sommes déshabitués, que nous avons oubliée, dont l’absence fait souffrir aussi bien ceux qui se croient libres que ceux qui pensent ne pas pouvoir l’être; mais un apprentissage ‘indirect.’16

Ionesco writes that there is innate in man a creative instinct, which must be given an outlet: “La création est une nécessité instinctive, extra-consciente; parce que imaginer, inventer, découvrir, créer, est une fonction aussi naturelle que la respiration.”17 This need to invent, to express oneself by creating, is what raises man above the animals. He observes that all of us, at one time or another, have written, or at least tried to write, or else have tried to paint, to act, to compose music, or to build something, if only a rabbit cage. There is not always any practical utility to this, or, if so, it is only a pretext to let our creative nature express itself.18 The act of creating is for Ionesco this “passage vers autre chose” which man longs for. It is an attempt to satisfy what he calls “notre soif de l’absolu.” It is a way to call into play the undeveloped faculties which have been given up to the demands of social life.

This type of fulfillment requires solitude, which Ionesco defends against those who think of it as anti-social behavior: “La solitude n’est pas séparation mais recueillement, alors que les groupements, les sociétés ne sont, le plus souvent, comme on l’a déjà dit, que des solitaires réunis.”19 It is in our solitude, he claims, that we find our real selves. He feels that he is more truly himself when he is alone and that often society alienates him from himself and from others. His social self does not fully reveal him: “Lorsque je suis à la surface sociale de moi-même je suis impersonnel. Ou je suis très peu moi-même.”20

Ionesco claims that his plays try to show that man is more than just a social animal who is a prisoner of his time. He refers to a “communauté extra-historique,” which he says is a more fundamental one than the society of any one time.

Si je peux m’exprimer en paradoxe, je dirai que la société véritable, l’authentique communauté humaine, est extra-sociale,—c’est une société plus vaste et plus profonde, celle qui se révèle par des angoisses communes, des désirs, des nostalgies secrètes qui sont le fait de tous.21

He wonders what the term “social” really means, and he believes that there are many misunderstandings in connection with this word. Too often, he feels, things which are said to have a social interest in reality have more of a political or practical value. He finds that man in general is truer to himself than the man who is limited to his own epoch, and he tries in his plays to penetrate the complex structure of society to rediscover the basic man. Man’s nature is not to be found entirely in his social self, but also in his inner life, which can be as rich as the exterior one: “Le monde intérieur peut être aussi riche que le monde du dehors. L’un et l’autre ne sont, d’ailleurs, que les deux aspects d’une même réalité.”22 It is by returning to the interior life that man in society can recapture his equilibrium and find his fulfillment.


  1. Notes et contre-notes (Paris: Gallimard, 1962), 74.

  2. Ibid., 140-41.

  3. “L’auteur et ses problèmes,” Revue de Métaphysique et de morale, LXVIII (October-December, 1963), 411.

  4. Théâtre (Paris: Gallimard, 1954-1966), I, 95-127.

  5. Ibid., II, 203-29.

  6. Ibid., 228.

  7. Ibid., I, 237-333.

  8. Ibid., 181-235.

  9. Ibid., II, 59-172; III, 7-117; III, 119-98.

  10. Ibid., IV, 75-180.

  11. Notes et contre-notes, 4-5.

  12. Ibid., 123.

  13. Ibid., 93.

  14. Ibid., 130.

  15. Ibid., 207.

  16. “Depuis dix ans je me bats contre l’esprit bourgeois et les tyrannies politiques,” Arts, No. 758 (January, 1960), 26.

  17. “L’auteur et ses problèmes,” 409.

  18. Notes et contre-notes, 103-04.

  19. Ibid., 129.

  20. Ibid., 95.

  21. Ibid., 73.

  22. Ibid., 111.

J. K. Newberry (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5618

SOURCE: “The Evolution of the Dramatic Technique of Eugène Ionesco,” in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. XIV, No. 1, May 1975, pp. 31-41.

[In the following essay, Newberry examines the development of Ionesco’s dramatic technique, especially in La Cantatrice Chauve, Les Chaises, and Le Roi se meurt, all of which, the critic considers, share a common element: “the indivisible mixture of tragedy and comedy.”]

It is now almost twenty-five years since Eugène Ionesco first made his appearance in the French theatre with his explosive play La Cantatrice Chauve of 1950. Since that date Ionesco has built up a considerable “œuvre” of both one-act and longer plays. From almost complete obscurity he has now become established as one of the major contributors to the French theatre of the twentieth century and his fame has stretched far beyond the shores of France itself. In 1971 he was elected to the Académie Française, something one would not have dared to forecast after the initial failure of La Cantatrice Chauve. How has his dramatic technique evolved during his career?

In an article of this nature it is impossible to give a complete picture of the evolution of Ionesco’s dramatic technique.1 I shall therefore limit myself to marking out the major developments and to saying whether such changes as are evident have been beneficial to Ionesco’s art.

It is first of all necessary to define what is meant by the word “technique”. For the purpose of this study technique will be studied under the headings of structure, language, plot, character, the types of plays, and enactment, that is to say how Ionesco himself visualizes their being performed.

Ionesco’s dramatic career can be conveniently divided into three sections. The first is concerned exclusively with the one-act play and, with one or two exceptions, is confined to the years 1950-1956. The second contains his first plays of more than one act, namely Amédée (1954) and the four plays which have Bérenger as their central character. These plays were written between 1957 and 1962 and are Tueur sans gages, Rhinocéros, Le Piéton de l’air and Le Roi se meurt. The third section is also concerned with longer plays and stretches from 1966 to 1973. These plays are La Soif et la Faim, Jeux de massacre, Macbett and Ce formidable bordel.

It is my contention that the outstanding one-act plays are La Cantatrice Chauve and Les Chaises. I propose to look at these two plays in some detail.

La Cantatrice Chauve is the play which first brought about the realization that the French stage was seeing the arrival of an unusual and original writer. It was, and still is, in the correct sense, a shocking play. Its structure is essentially circular. By that I mean that there is no end to the play, other than through the act of the curtain being drawn. The words which open the play are those which end it, the same thing will be repeated ad infinitum. This is because Ionesco wishes us to know that what happens during the play will go on happening in the same way again and again, the only real change being that the characters will change places. What Monsieur and Madame Smith say at the beginning will be said by Monsieur and Madame Martin at the end. They are stuck in their humdrum, petit-bourgeois existence, and are incapable of breaking out of it.

Les Chaises (1951) has a more complex structure. There is no presentation of an argument which is then developed and finally concluded neatly, giving one the opportunity to experience a sense of satisfaction at the end of the play. This would be impossible for a dramatist who has consistently argued that a work of art asks questions and does not dare to try to give answers. Les Chaises builds up slowly but surely towards its climax when the Old Man, supported by his wife, is to deliver his message to an expectant audience through the lips of an Orator. Guests, all of them invisible, (are they, or are they not, present?) are introduced into the room. More and more chairs are brought on stage, all to be occupied by invisible people. The pace of the action increases. The invisible Emperor arrives, thus crowning the importance of the occasion. Finally, the Orator appears but he is visible, effecting a feeling of surprise in the audience which has become accustomed to the emptiness of the stage. The old couple commit suicide, leaving the delivery of their message to this Orator. This is the climax, but the Orator is a deaf-mute, he can utter only incomprehensible grunts. Thus the climax becomes a huge anti-climax. At the end of the play the stage is left empty, except for the chairs, but we do hear, for the first time, the human noises of the invisible crowd, which leave us with the uncomfortable feeling that perhaps these people have been present all the time. A huge question mark hangs over the end of the play, as befits the aim of the author. The mystery is not unravelled for us, there is no dénouement. There cannot be, since we must be left to draw our own conclusions to the questions, “What is life all about? Can we communicate to others our own basic philosophy? Do we understand our own personal lives? Even if we do, is language a suitable vehicle of communication?” So what is left at the end? Nothing, a void, a “néant”. Thus the play ends with nothing to be seen: but for the chairs, the stage is empty. Les Chaises is a masterpiece of dramatic architecture.

The problem of language is important in Ionesco’s one-act plays, especially in the earliest ones. He is very concerned with the questions of communication and the disintegration of language.

The language of La Cantatrice Chauve was drawn from a course designed to teach English to French people. Ionesco was struck by the uselessness of the phrases which purported to be fundamental to the learning of a language and built his play around such phrases to show how empty, how devoid of meaning language had really become. The characters speak for the sake of speaking and do not really communicate with one another. Their speech is riddled with clichés, and gradually the language disintegrates to the extent of becoming a collection of meaningless, rhythmical sounds which are, however, just as meaningful as the words and phrases which have gone before. Words are empty, they have become depersonalized, so, at the end of the play, Ionesco strings them together just because they have a similarity in sound. It is like a party-game: a word is spoken and then one follws it with the first word which comes to mind.

M. Martin: Sully!

M. Smith: Prudhomme.

Mme. Martin: François!

M. Smith: François!

Mme. Smith: Coppée.

M. Martin: Coppée.

Mme. Martin: Coppée Sully.2

M. Smith: Coppée Sully.3

However, there is something beyond a mere stringing together of sounds. The words chosen tell us something about the characters. The authors they mention are as dull and out-dated as they themselves in their bourgeois existence. The play ends with the entire cast rhythmically chanting the phrases “C’est pas par là, c’est par ici!”

La Cantatrice Chauve is a negative play. It says what language is not and does not suggest what it might be. However, from his very first play, Ionesco makes us aware of an area of major concern to him, the misuse of language and its possible disintegration. In Les Chaises we see a development of the inability to communicate, or rather the problem is put on an even more serious level. The old man and his wife are decrepit, so is the language they use. She insists upon his re-telling a favourite story. This is akin to a child demanding the same story time after time. For a child familiarity provides a sense of security, a feeling that here is something which he knows. For the old couple it is quite different. They are in their second childhood and, sadly, there is only one story they know, the sum total of a long life. She laughs in order to fortify her husband. The story goes on, reaches its end, and the language collapses into meaningless, infantile phrases. They are pathetic, so is their story. Their life has been worthless, so is the story. Their existence is disintegrating, so does the language of the story. There is no logical progression to the language which the couple use. He has a message to deliver to posterity, but has not the power to deliver it. Language is inadequate for such a task, one can speak only for oneself. The old man needs an orator, a professional speaker, to deliver his message. He and his wife commit suicide, content that their life has not been wasted. In Ionesco’s world, of course, where words are treacherous, the professional user of them is the arch-traitor. The Orator is dumb and makes only ugly grunts and groans:

He, Mme, mm, mm,

Ju, gou, hou, hou,

Heu, heu, gu, gou, gueue. (I, 179).

He cannot even write an intelligible phrase on the blackboard:



NNAA NNM NW NW NW. (I, 179).

There is no means of communication. At the end we are left to contemplate the rows of empty chairs, we are confronted by Ionesco’s, by the dramatist’s dilemma. How can he make himself understood, since he has shown that language disintegrates? So, with this play, Ionesco’s questioning of the use of language becomes more serious. In fact, if language is absurd, so is the creative art of writing. To a certain extent Ionesco solved the problem by giving great importance in his plays to the use of visual effects. A visual image is more readily understood than an oral one.

The plot of La Cantatrice Chauve is arranged in such a way as to show the irrational resulting from the rational. The events in the life of the Smith family are presented, a family which has lost the joy of living. They are surprised by nothing: even the appearance of a fireman in their living room does not disturb their equilibrium. As for the fireman, he knows where and when a fire is to take place—the tragedies of life are all down on the time-table. The whole pattern of existence, as depicted in the play, is predictable. People are all alike, thinking and acting like robots. Thus the plot of the play is designed to achieve the effect of boredom, in a world which is so well-ordered and imperturbable that it results in chaos. One cannot distinguish one person or event from another. The rational has resulted in the chaotic, as is shown by the disintegration of language at the end of the play. Even more tragic is the fact that this pattern of events will go on repeating itself, as we saw when dealing with the structure of the play.

In Les Chaises the plot leads towards a climax via a series of smaller climaxes. The first is the arrival of the first guest resulting in astonishment at his being invisible. The old couple become more and more excited as guests arrive, the ultimate glory being the appearance of the invisible Emperor. This is superseded by the appearance of the visible Orator. With the Emperor and Orator present, the couple see the realization of their dreams and commit suicide, gaining more dignity in death than they ever possessed in life. This is the real moment of climax; tension has been mounting and we are now ready to hear the message. However, what happens is a huge anti-climax, for the Orator is deaf and dumb. The play ends on a quieter, but nonetheless menacing tone, with the stage empty except for the rows of chairs. The plot is very powerful, the events being skilfully manipulated by Ionesco to achieve the required effect. More things happen in Les Chaises than in any other of his one-act plays, so that the plot is easier to pick out and more traditional in the terms normally accepted. Not only is there a use of narrative, but this narrative is also arranged in a deliberate way, the incidents taking on meaning through the way in which Ionesco interrelates them.

In Ionesco’s one-act plays we find no fresh and original studies of individual character. What we do find are ready-to-hand characterizations or, more exactly, caricatures. We meet types, rather than individuals, and faceless types into the bargain. The individual has been swallowed up in society and much of the tragedy of Ionesco’s plays is to be found in the absence of ever-new, living contact between people. They are devoid of all verve and humanity, playing out their roles in a robot-like world. They are anonymous, for the most part indistinguishable one from another.

These characters are all drawn from the petit-bourgeois class of society, the group according to Ionesco most concerned with its petty prejudices, most comfortable in its existence, most devoid of any joy in living. Also, a fact which is extremely important, it is for him the class which predominates in modern society and personifies stupidity and lack of culture, whilst claiming to possess all these virtues. In dealing with people, Ionesco is not really concerned with the social injustices such as poverty, hunger, inequality, but more with their metaphysical deficiencies.

The characters of La Cantatrice Chauve are puppets, sub-human beings, who are all alike. Outside the Smiths’ drawing-room is a townful of Bobby Watsons, both male and female! Inside, the Smiths and Martins move more like marionettes than real people.

The main characters of Les Chaises are more human, but they still have no real identify. The old man and his wife cannot discover their role in life, probably because they have not got one. They long to be important, or rather she longs for him to be important. The only positive act they accomplish in life is suicide, one positive act at the end of a life filled with tentative attempts to do something meaningful. In death they are happier than in life. It matters little that we see the absurdity of the suicide. They may be deluded in their happiness, but at least they are released from the trauma of living.

It must be said that the important characters in Les Chaises are, for the most part, invisible. They are made uncomfortably concrete as the play progresses. In fact they seem more real than the ludicrous figure of the Orator. The grotesque manner in which he is dressed gives him an air of unreality. He cannot even do what he is supposed to do. Most of the characters may be invisible, but they have more dignity in a disintegrating world than any of the visible characters. The overall impression which we gain from this play is that of people unable to achieve anything of value in life.

When looking at Ionesco’s one-act plays it is not unreasonable to start from the basic premise that they are amusing, often hilarious. On what does this comedy depend for its effect? The simple answer is that it comes from the use of the unexpected, both linguistically and visually. Nicolas Bataille, producer of La Cantatrice Chauve, said, when I talked to him, that there are phrases in the play: … qui vous sautent à la figure.4 This is the most comic of all Ionesco’s plays. Its comedy springs from its surprising use of language. In order that the full effect may be realized, the characters must deliver every line seriously. For example, there is the maid who, quite calmly, announces:

Mon vrai nom est Sherlock Holmès. (I, 32).

That the characters take themselves so very seriously adds to the comedy. The humour is maintained throughout the work, which is not always the case in Ionesco’s one-act plays. However, the basic problems of inability to communicate and the anonymity of people leave an overall air of tragedy achieved through derisive comedy.

In Les Chaises comedy is always close to the surface without ever being dominant. The ridiculous situation of the old couple becomes less ridiculous as the play develops. Their language is, at first, amusing, until we realize that this is the only way they can speak. Similarly the invisibility of the “guests” ceases to be amusing as we grow accustomed to it. The visibility of the Orator is, likewise, comic, but he soon becomes far more tragic in his significance. However, tragedy generally overrides comedy. The self-deception of the old couple is tragic, as is their pointless suicide. The eerie macabre ending takes the comedy away from the invisibility of the guests.

It seems right to call Ionesco’s one-act plays tragi-comedies, in the sense that they are comedies with an unhappy ending, taking ending to mean the final impression they leave with the spectator. Ionesco does make his audiences laugh, but he is basically concerned with serious, disturbing problems. The laughter is one of derision, not of release or sympathy. Ionesco laughs at life because it is absurd and he holds it in scorn, at least in his one-act plays. His genius is for intermingling the comic and the tragic, as in La Cantatrice Chauve and Les Chaises. Where this mixture is not evident he becomes less effective.

Within his plays Ionesco displays an acute sense of the way in which they should be performed. His printed texts contain numerous stage directions. In La Cantatrice Chauve he makes effective use of the clock which: frappe dix-sept coups anglais. (I, 19). When this clock strikes seventeen times, Mme Smith observes:

Tiens, il est neuf heures. (I, 19).

As the characters lose control of their language and thought, the clock is used to emphasize this loss of control.

On se sent qu’il y a un certain énervement. Les coups que frappe la pendule sont plus nerveux aussi. (I, 53).

Thus an inanimate object is used most effectively to contribute to the progression from the extraordinary to the final, wild degradation. However, the major impact in the play is through a highly unusual use of language.

This is not so with Les Chaises, where visual effects are of paramount importance, as can be seen from a quick glance at the text with its numerous stage directions. The chairs themselves, and how they are brought in, are very important. Their very presence on-stage, and their emptiness, is a powerful means of giving concrete reality to the abstract void. There is nothing in the world of the old couple, therefore no-one can be seen on the many chairs. The room is empty except for these same chairs. We literally see nothing on stage.

The role of lighting becomes important. At the beginning it is subdued, in order to show the essential dullness of the old couple’s life. As “guests” arrive the room has to appear huge and this is done through lighting, building up to a dazzling brightness at the “appearance” of the Emperor. At the end of the play we return to the subdued lighting of the opening. Thus the general movement of the play is served by the lighting—a dull beginning changing to excitement at the arrival of the Emperor and a return to depressing dullness when the whole exercise is seen to have been futile.

Les Chaises is the most evocative of all Ionesco’s plays. Much is suggested rather than clearly exposed. He demands much of the actors, who must make us feel the presence of the void. They have to give the impression of being amongst a crowd of people. Long periods of silence are used, during which the actors, rushing about, bringing in more chairs, getting more and more exhausted, make the invisible guests’ presence seem more real. The ending of the play is very evocative. We are meant to feel uneasy, to reflect upon the nothingness we have seen.

Tout cela doit durer assez longtemps pour que le public—le vrai et le visible—s’en aille avec cette fin bien gravée dans l’esprit. (I, 180).

The greatness of Les Chaises lies in its many intangible qualities which become uncannily tangible and make a deep impression upon the audience. Its many nuances are thought-provoking.

That the next play to concern us is Le Roi se meurt, written, and first performed, in 1962, does not mean that everything Ionesco wrote between 1951 and 1962 is being dismissed as irrelevant. However, when he moved from writing short, one-act plays to longer pieces, he did seem to be aiming for a particular goal, which he reached in Le Roi se meurt, the last of the four “Bérenger plays”.

The structure of the play is very simple. We are told early on that King Bérenger I is dying. Only he does not believe the fact, being unwilling to recognize what is happening. He has two wives, Marguerite and Marie. The former is intent upon making him face up to the truth, the latter is more intent upon hiding it from him. It is Marguerite who starts a sort of countdown by saying to Bérenger: Tu vas mourir à la fin du spectacle. (IV, 22); and even more explicitly: Tu vas mourir dans une heure vingt-cinq minutes. (IV, 29). After a reign of 277 years 3 months (!) Bérenger is coming to the same end as everyone else. At last he realizes what is happening and is gripped by fear. No-one can help and he is forced to sit down, a posture which he sees as indicating the approach of death. He is wearing out physically and mentally, and complains about not having had enough time to live. Marguerite is penetrating his defences more and more, but fear still prevents his seeing clearly, fear plus the brake in the persons of Marie and Juliette (infirmière et femme de ménage) who try to hold back the inevitable.

We now reach a major turning point in the play, where Jacques Mauclair,5 producer at the play’s création, inserted an interval. The King says he is dying, albeit without fully understanding what he is saying. As Marguerite’s arguments begin to outweigh those of Marie, the play becomes a soliloquy by the King, as he goes over the things in life which have given him pleasure. These pleasures, most of them very simple, are of the past. Life no longer concerns him. The one phrase which dominates his vocabulary is “je meurs”. He and his whole world are crumbling. His retinue leaves one by one, insincere to the last, deceiving him, in his now physical blindness, by saying that they will stay by his side. The last to leave is Marguerite, but she, too, has to leave, just before his death, since he must die alone. So finally he remains isolated on his throne, which is swallowed up in a sort of mist. The King is dead. The ending is neither a climax nor an anti-climax, it is simply inevitable, realistic rather than pessimistic.

The structure of Le Roi se meurt is superb. A central theme is developed. There are no unnecessary divergences, just a slow, steady progression to an inevitable end. There is no suspense, the end always being kept before us. The structure is simple, the effect powerful. We are spectators at the death of a person, here a King; death spares no-one, and we are in fact watching our own death. King Bérenger is humanity which has to face up to the ultimate absurdity in life, which is death.

It is in the realm of language where Le Roi se meurt shows the greatest change in Ionesco’s technique from that of the one-act plays. No longer is he concerned with the problems of language disintegrating, of impossibility of communication. In this play he produces a text of considerable literary value. The language of the Guard is wonderfully absurd. In a formal manner, always tinged with comedy, he conveys an atmosphere of lassitude:

Le ciel est couvert, les nuages n’ont pas l’air de vouloir se dissiper facilement. Le soleil est en retard. J’ai pourtant entendu le Roi lui donner l’ordre d’apparaître. (IV, 11).

Bérenger’s doctor insists upon using very learned phrases to explain the obvious. Also, in a situation where Bérenger needs to be given firm encouragement, Marie can only indulge in sentimentality and pointless flattery. She sees not only an illustrious past for Bérenger but also a present and a future, and this for a dying man. However Marguerite, in some superb speeches, provides the much-needed voice of harsh reality. A wonderful simile describes the state of the Kingdom:

… le royaume est plein de trous comme un immense gruyère. (IV, 15).

She counteracts the sentimentality of Marie with cold logic and makes Bérenger realize that his life is of the past, and of the past alone.

The speech of Bérenger himself moves from sheer refusal to believe that he will die, to fear, and finally to resignation. The most poignant factor within the play is hearing this helpless man being forced to admit:

Je suis plein, mais de trous. On me ronge. Les trous s’élargissent, ils n’ont pas de fond. J’ai le vertige quand je me penche sur mes propres trous, je finis. (IV, 54).

In this grave situation, the dialogue is often sharp and witty. For example, when Bérenger refers to life, Marguerite skilfully turns the remark towards death:

Le Roi: J’aimerais redoubler.

Marguerite: Tu passeras l’examen. Il n’y a pas de redoublants. (IV, 33).

Within the play is a mock litany, its tone entirely in keeping with the pseudoritualistic atmosphere, since the play is essentially a death rite. Finally, the closing section of the play contains some of the most moving, tragic language Ionesco has ever written.

The greatness of Le Roi se meurt is to be found in the greatness of its text. There is no verbosity, there are many ringing phrases rising to a level of poetry, of tragic poignancy which is, however, tinged with the comic. This is always typical of Ionesco at his best.

The plot of this play is beautifully controlled. It is a study of the psychological awareness of death within the mind of one human being. It is very simple, with no diversions from the linear development. There is no climax, no dénouement, because the end is inevitable. The plot is concerned with how, rather than whether, this end will be reached. It is worth noting that Bérenger is in a “privileged” position. He knows when he will die. All most of us know is that we shall die.

In Ionesco’s longer plays we find not only caricatures but also full characters. Anonymity of people is not a major problem. What does concern the characters is how the individual can find self-fulfilment in a society which restricts his movements and where the absurdity of death is always threatening life.

The Guard in Le Roi se meurt is a magnificant character. He is grotesquely funny, his every utterance being totally out of keeping with the solemnity of the occasion. Yet, through him, the absurdity of death is shown. Without any sign of emotion he announces the various steps along the road to Bérenger’s death. He has no effect upon the King, but, in a way which borders on ghoulish humour, he echoes the progress towards death. The Doctor is a mocking portrayal of the inability of medicine and scientific knowledge to cope with the phenomenon of death. Juliette is the biggest nonenity in the play. She is redundant. Having totally depended on the King, with his death she will be useless. She is well-meaning but has no reserves to call upon in adversity. Similarly Marie is to be pitied more than despised. She is no more than a flatterer and is unequipped to deal with the harsh factors in life. Metaphysical problems are beyond her terms of reference. These are much more the prerogative of Marguerite, Bérenger’s first wife. She is the most formidable character of all Ionesco’s plays. She has an unswerving honesty and is incredibly cool in a situation charged with emotion. Marguerite is the high-priestess in the ceremonial rite preparing the sacrificial offering, Bérenger, for the moment of consecration, death. Despite the title of the play, it is she who dominates it, having the strength of character to deal with the certainty of death.

Through his major male characters Ionesco more or less puts himself on stage. He speaks through them. In Le Roi se meurt we meet Bérenger for the fourth, and last, time. It is important to say that he is not the same man in each play. He is more different aspects of Ionesco himself. King Bérenger embodies the dramatist’s fears about death, which become something of an obsession in his later plays, but here it has great dramatic value. Reconciliation to the idea of death would be impossible for a writer with no fixed religious beliefs. Therefore acceptance is the highest state to which Ionesco, the man, can aspire. The ability to face up to such a problem does perhaps suggest that Ionesco is much more at ease with life than in many of his earlier plays.

Le Roi se meurt is the nearest Ionesco comes to great tragedy. He seems to be searching for it in his longer plays and at last achieves his aim. However, this is not tragedy without a comic element. Black comedy is provided by the character of the Guard and, to a lesser extent, of the Doctor. The tragedy of the play is not of the classical mould. We do not observe a character arguing out in his own mind the demands of reason against the temptations of love and passion. Ionesco displays his own brand of tragi-comedy, the indivisible liaison of two genres. This tragedy of the absurd reaches heights which he has never reached before in his longer plays and which he has never reached since.

When we come to look at the enactment of Le Roi se meurt we find confirmation of Ionesco’s movement away from the powerful visual imagery of Les Chaises. The text stands by itself. Stage directions are cut down to a basic minimum. As the use of the visual becomes less important this play can be seen as Ionesco’s ultimate goal.

The plays of Eugène Ionesco which mark him as a major contributor to the French theatre of the past twenty years are La Cantatrice Chauve, Les Chaises and Le Roi se meurt. Each is his first dramatic statement on an area of particular concern. The first is concerned with the use, or misuse, of language and the anonymity of people. The second is about the impossibility of communicating one’s own “message” to others and the void in life. The last reveals Ionesco’s fear at the absurd, but inevitable, prospect of death.

So these plays are of differing themes, but they have one element in common, namely the indivisible mixture of tragedy and comedy. It is Ionesco’s genius to make audiences laugh whilst confronting them with grave problems. There is no pathos in his tragedy, no attempt to make us pity the characters involved. Through laughter the tragedy becomes one of derision.

In each play Ionesco achieves his desired effect in differing ways. La Cantatrice Chauve is filled with banal phrases used at unexpected moments. They explode in the faces of the audience. Les Chaises is a play of visual imagery showing the nothingness of existence. Le Roi se meurt is above all a great text, the most rhetorical of Ionesco’s plays which never deteriorates into verbosity.

For these three plays alone Ionesco must at least be considered one of the greatest French dramatists of the post-war years. He has changed a great deal, especially during the past ten years when his plays have become more traditional and certainly less comic. He no longer provides the kind of drama which shatters cherished theatrical prejudices. The revolutionary dramatist of 1950 is now a figure of the literary Establishment. Nonetheless, as I have tried to show, his theatre does contain unique qualities which should be able to weather the test of time. That I have ignored his work after the year of 1962 may be taken as an indication that these unique qualities do not show themselves so effectively in the plays of this period. As Nicolas Bataille said to me, somewhat sadly:

… ce qui est extraordinaire, c’est un révolutionnaire qui se sert du comique pour faire sa révolution. … Il est en train de supprimer le rire de ses pièces. C’est ça qui est dommage.


  1. For a detailed treatment of the subject see J. K. Newberry, An evaluation of the plays of Eugène Ionesco with special reference to dramatic technique, M.Phil. thesis, Nottingham University, 1974.

  2. Eugène Ionesco, Théâtre (Paris, Gallimard, 1954-1966), 4 volumes, Volume I, p. 55. All subsequent references to Ionesco texts found in this edition will be indicated solely by the volume and page number.

  3. Eugène Ionesco, Théâtre (Paris, Gallimard, 1954-1966), 4 volumes, Volume I, p. 55. All subsequent references to Ionesco texts found in this edition will be indicated solely by the volume and page number.

  4. See Newberry, op. cit., for full text of interview.

  5. See Newberry, op. cit., for full text of interview with Mauclair.

Patrick Roberts (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9091

SOURCE: “Ionesco: Paroxysm and Proliferation,” in The Psychology of Tragic Drama, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975, pp. 102-26.

[In the following essay, Roberts explores the intensification of plot, incongruity, and parodistic fantasy that are characteristic of Ionesco’s plays, and asserts that his dramas display “the insight of a veritable master of the irrational.”]

Eugene Ionesco, writing of his own theatrical ambitions, argues as follows:1

What was needed … was to go right down to the very basis of the grotesque, the realm of caricature … to push everything to paroxysm, to the point where the sources of the tragic lie. To create a theatre of violence—violently comic, violently dramatic.

The path to the ‘basis of the grotesque’ lay through introspection, an examination of the inner life: defending himself in the Observer against Kenneth Tynan’s attack on his subjectivism, he wrote:2

To discover the fundamental problem common to all mankind I must ask myself what my fundamental problem is, what my most ineradicable fear is. I am certain then to find the problems and fears of literally everyone. That is the true road into my own darkness, our darkness, which I try to bring to the light of day. …

This darkness lies in the common inheritance of the primitive and irrational, a perception of which conditions the structure as well as the meaning of Ionesco’s plays. Two aspects of the ‘fundamental problem’, as illustrated in his theatre, are of especial relevance to my theme. First, there is an element of paroxysm and intensification; the characteristic movement of the plays is one of acceleration, of instinctual urges ever more frenziedly and maniacally released. As Ionesco’s comment on the grotesque shows, this makes for comedy; in place of Pinter’s enigmatic slow-burning menace, Ionesco offers us a feverish dance of incongruity, in which the contrary elements of anarchic protest against order on the one hand, and the fear of chaos and nothingness on the other, are held in dramatic balance. Something that can properly be called comedy, in spite of powerful tragic overtones, is also ensured by a certain lightness of tone and temperament which distinguishes Ionesco from other major practitioners of ‘Absurd’ drama; the amiably helpless hero is in a well-established comic tradition, as is the taste for parodistic fantasy.

Intensification is of the essence of Ionesco’s plots. The Lesson develops feverishly from a conventional beginning—the small change of talk between hesitant Professor and eager pupil—to rape and murder; in The Chairs, more and more chairs fill the scene as the old couple welcome invisible guests; in Amédée, the corpse in the next room gets bigger and bigger as the play proceeds. In these two plays the second aspect of the ‘fundamental problem’ is even more prominent: proliferation. ‘The horror of proliferation’, in Esslin’s words, ‘is one of the most characteristic images we find in Ionesco’s plays.’3 Ionesco himself calls it ‘the point of departure’, along with its opposite and complement, a feeling of emptiness and unreality:4

Two fundamental states of consciousness are at the root of all my plays. These two basic feelings are those of … emptiness and of an overabundance of presence; of the unreal transparency of the world, and of its opaqueness. … The sensation of evanescence results in a feeling of anguish, a sort of dizziness. But all of this can just as well become euphoric; anguish is suddenly transformed into liberty. … This state of consciousness is very rare, to be sure. … I am most often under the dominion of the opposite feeling: lightness changes to heaviness, transparency to thickness; the world weighs heavily; the universe crushes me. … Matter fills everything, takes up all space. … Speech crumbles. …

This is a very revealing statement of Ionesco. We are certainly made more aware in the plays of the proliferating tyranny of matter than of any sense of liberation: the growing corpse in Amédée which is beginning to sprout mushrooms; the bread and coffee cups that fill the stage in Victims of Duty; the encirclement of Bérenger by rhinoceros heads in Rhinocéros; the ever-increasing flood of furniture which pours into the room of The New Tenant. Moreover, the persecutory threat represented by the oppressive density of matter is liable to be intensified, not relieved, by its alternating aspect of unreality; the sensation of the ‘unreal transparency’ of the world causes vertigo, dizziness. Ionesco describes his sensations while writing his first play, The Bald Prima Donna, apparently almost by accident while learning English by the Assimil method:5

While writing the play … I felt sick, dizzy, nauseated. I had to interrupt my work … and, wondering all the time what demon was prodding me on, lie down on my couch for fear of seeing my work sink into nothingness, and me with it.

However, ‘anguish is suddenly transformed into liberty’; it is important to see that the lightness and euphoria which this sense of evanescence occasionally induces may themselves be associated with proliferation. Thus the writing of The Bald Prima Donna was at first experienced by Ionesco as an unexpected and extraordinary proliferation of original words and characters out of the bare clichés of the Assimil primer. Words began to behave like the spreading objects that were to fill the plays:6

The very simple, luminously clear statements I had copied diligently into my … notebook, left to themselves, fermented after a while, lost their original identity, expanded and overflowed.

The experience, though disconcerting in the way described, was also stimulating; Ionesco conveys vividly the excitement he felt at seeing, for the first time, his word-creations coming to life through the interpretation of actors and the response of an audience:7

To incarnate phantasms, to give them life, is a prodigious irreplaceable adventure, to such an extent that I myself was overcome when, during rehearsals of my first play, I suddenly saw characters move on the stage who had come out of myself. I was frightened. By what right had I been able to do this? Was this allowed? … It was almost diabolical.

He seems to be describing here a kind of creative proliferation of the self, successful perhaps in counteracting the destructive proliferation of matter; its similarity to the persecutory experience makes it ambivalent, at once exciting and appalling. The end of Amédée, where the anonymous hero floats off into the air, drawn up out of reach of his oppressors by the oppressing corpse itself which now ‘seems to have opened out like a sail or huge parachute’ seems to symbolize this ambivalent feeling of the author; the source of persecution, the growing corpse, becomes itself the means of liberation. Though Amédée claims he is being carried off involuntarily, there is a lightness of spirit and euphoric excitement about the conclusion: ‘Forgive me, Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m terribly sorry! Forgive me! Oh, dear! But I feel so frisky, so frisky. (He disappears.)’8 His disappearance is signalized by brilliant lights and flashes in the sky, ‘comets, shooting stars, etc.’; he is deaf to his wife’s plea that he can ‘come home, the mushrooms have bloomed’.9 The blooming mushrooms recall the grotesquely blossoming corpse (both travesties of true growth); in contrast to these oppressive presences, the lights in the sky are liberating, celebratory of Amédée’s triumphant release from earthbound matter. The contrasting images seem clearly to represent the opposite poles of Ionesco’s ‘fundamental states of consciousness’, of heaviness and lightness, overabundance and transparency.

Paroxysm, or intensification; fullness, with its inevitable complement of emptiness. These two aspects of Ionesco’s inner drama exemplify in a striking manner part of the basic structure of infantile fantasy as explored by psychoanalysis. Ionesco’s account, quoted above, of how he came to write his first play, shows clearly how close he has kept to unconscious sources of feeling; he emphasizes both the semi-voluntary nature of the activity—as though his conscious self were being taken over by something deeper—and the powerful physical reaction, of dizziness and nausea, that suggests an involvement of the personality at a deep level. Like Pinter, he does not write from an abstract idea, but because he is possessed by an image, the pictorial or fictional representation of a feeling:10

I have no ideas before I write a play. I have them when I have written the play or while I am not writing at all. I believe that artistic creation is spontaneous. It certainly is so for me.

In discussing The Bacchae I sought to show how easily greed may produce anxiety in the infant. First, there is anxiety springing from the realization that the breast can be withdrawn; even though he may be receiving ample food, the greedy baby’s gratification may be so short-lived that this anxiety, basically a fear of starvation, is very readily activated. Second, there is anxiety over what his greed in its excess may do to the mother, in emptying her breast and so rendering her incapable of feeding him. The greed is itself likely to be stimulated by anxiety, so that a vicious circle is set up, the greed producing anxiety and the anxiety in its turn further increasing the greed. This situation may cause the baby to seek to get rid of the unwanted feelings by putting them into the mother, projecting his greed and anxiety into the person who represents to him, in the very earliest stage of life, the greater part if not the whole of the external world. The more successful this mechanism the more dangerous and disturbing it is likely to prove. Just as by introjection the outer world may be taken into the self, and so experienced as part of the inner life, so by projection that outer world may be experienced as actually endowed with those parts of the self that are put into it. Thus the mother is now felt to contain the baby’s greedy and anxious impulses; not only may she then be believed incapable of feeding him adequately, but through the identification or confusion of child with mother which is an essential part of the mechanism of projection she may now be experienced as a restless devouring creature who threatens to stifle the child with his own greed. If it be accepted that the mother represents, at this early stage, the greater part of the external world to the child, then the later fear of invasion by proliferating objects can be seen as an extension of this original experience.

Proliferation may thus be taken to represent, at one level, the invasiveness of the infantile self experienced, through projective identification, as a hostile external force attacking and persecuting its victims. Ionesco shows an intuitive understanding of the vital part played by identification in this process; the victims appear as in some way responsible for, or at any rate very closely related to, the proliferating objects. A stage direction in Amédée makes the point with peculiar precision. As Amédée succeeds, with a ‘superhuman effort’, in pulling the now vastly extended body up on to the window-sill, at the moment it yields to him ‘the impression should be given that … it is dragging the whole house with it and tugging at the entrails of the two principal characters’.11 A typical confusion of identity between mother and child, represented here by the corpse and the two characters, has occurred. Moreover, the intimate relationship of mother to child makes the situation profoundly claustrophobic. The child may attempt in fantasy to project the whole of himself into the mother in order to restore the prenatal organic unity between them and so put an end to the damaging attacks brought about by subsequent separation. Again, the more this fantasy succeeds the more dangerous it will prove to be; finally separate now, the child cannot re-enter the safe place without the risk of suffocation. It is thus right that we should have the impression that Ionesco’s characters are in danger of being actually swallowed up by the monstrous proliferation of matter that surrounds them. (‘Matter fills everything, takes up all space.’) The child’s greedy and invasive projections have already made of the mother a monster who will envelop, suffocate, and finally absorb him.

It will be recalled that Ionesco sees, as the contrasting and complementary ‘fundamental state of consciousness’ to over-abundance of presence, emptiness: a condition both agonizing and, more rarely, exhilarating. Emptiness again suggests greed: if the ‘overabundance of presence’ suggests the greedy child who projects his greed into the mother, the emptiness suggests the child who for the same reason is no longer able to receive nourishment from her. The painfulness of this very common experience of emptiness and unreality, in the self and the external world, is explicable in psychoanalytical terms as the result of a projection of too great a part of the self, leading inevitably to a sense of impoverishment. Unreality is experienced because a great part of the self has been temporarily lost; the anxiety over identity inherent in this condition (am I a real person?) may well be exacerbated by the suppressed awareness that the ‘real’ self that has been projected is hostile and invasive, a threat to peace. Ionesco gives a moving and penetrating account of having experienced this state of consciousness in childhood:12

When I was a child I lived near the Square de Vaugiraud. I remember—it was so long ago!—the badly lit street on an autumn or winter evening. My mother held me by the hand; I was afraid, as children are afraid; we were out shopping, for the evening meal. On the sidewalks sombre silhouettes in agitated movement … phantomlike, hallucinatory shadows. When that image of that street comes to life again in my memory, when I think that almost all those people are now dead, everything seems a shadow, evanescence. I am seized by a vertigo of anxiety. …

The contrasting state of exhilaration, in which ‘anguish is suddenly transformed into liberty’, may be thought to signalize a counteracting fantasy of omnipotence. In place of the experience of impoverishment and loss, the self, free of its hostile and invasive parts, enjoys an exhilarating if dangerous sense of liberation that may be felt to transcend normal physical limits. It will be recalled that in the third and final act of Amédée, matter, that had threatened to fill everything, is left behind altogether as the hero soars triumphantly into the upper air; that this is a child’s dream of freedom is emphasized by the language of the watching crowd:13

Madeleine (to the sky) Come along now, Amédée, won’t you ever be serious?

Second Policeman (looking up at the sky and wagging his finger at Amédée as one would at a child) You little rascal, you!

Soldier Why Junior, you bad boy!

Under the spell of this feeling happiness seems unqualified, absolute. In another play, The Killer, Bérenger, the typical Ionesco hero, describes it as ‘a blazing fire inside me … youthfulness, a spring no autumn could touch; a source of light, glowing wells of joy that seemed inexhaustible’.14 Later—he is describing a landscape so beautiful it makes him forget everything else—he speaks significantly of ‘that deep sky and that sun, which seemed to be coming nearer, within my grasp, in a world that was made for me’.15 Not only does the world exist for his gratification but he fills the world with himself: ‘My own peace and light spread in their turn throughout the world, I was filling the universe with a kind of ethereal energy.’16 The image is surely that of an identification with the mother as source of all goodness and nourishment. In place of emptiness and unreality, there is a superabundance of reality; all other experiences, and even existence, are validated by the fantasy fulfilment of this first and most profound wish: ‘I walked and ran and cried I am, I am, everything is, everything is. …’17 The experience is comparable to the ecstasy of union celebrated by the Bacchants; the reforging of the physical link with the mother that is so often described, as Bérenger describes it here, as both familiar and new. The description is apt, for it is the buried life that is being rediscovered: ‘Everything was virgin, purified, discovered anew. I had a feeling of inexpressible surprise, yet at the same time it was all quite familiar to me.’18 As these quotations show, the experience possesses a perhaps unique value as the rediscovery of the deepest and most real happiness known to the self; but it is the urge to maintain this happiness pure and undiluted that stimulates the omnipotence, the denial of pain and loss that is ultimately damaging. Death itself is denied—inevitably, for the magic reunion with the mother has been substituted for the separation and growing away from her that is the condition of health and maturity, but must end finally in death: ‘A song of triumph rose from the depths of my being: I was, I realized I had always been, that I was no longer going to die.’19 It is also worth noting that in the imagery expressive of this mood there is a sexual colouring; the triumphant union with the mother may be experienced, it is implied, as a sexual possession of her. The fireworks and shooting stars of Amédée which accompany the hero’s apotheosis suggest orgasm, while the language of The Killer, though still metaphorical, is more direct; Bérenger speaks of ‘glowing wells of joy’ and of ‘filling the Universe with an ethereal energy’.20 The sense of omnipotence is complete.

Alternating with liberty, anguish; an accurate recognition of the price to be paid for the fantasy of omnipotence is enacted in the plays. There is the Icarus-like fall into dizziness and emptiness, as the reality of the infant’s helplessness and hunger breaks through the fantasy. There is also the pain of separation, part of a recognition that in the process of rapturous identification with and possession of the mother in fantasy, the real mother is lost. Bérenger in The Killer describes both aspects of the feeling, in a passage that follows immediately the long evocation of ecstasy from which I have already quoted. There is a change of mood:21

And suddenly, or rather gradually … no, it was all at once, I don’t know, I only know that everything went grey and pale and neutral again. Not really, of course, the sky was still pure, but it wasn’t the same purity. … It was like a conjuring trick.

Fantasies of omnipotence do indeed partake of the nature of conjuring tricks. Bérenger continues:22

There was a kind of chaotic vacuum inside me, I was overcome with the immense sadness you feel at a moment of tragic and intolerable separation … I felt lost among all those people, all those things.

As soon as the sense of omnipotence fades, objects begin to threaten again. The play ends with Bérenger’s submission to the knife of the ‘Tueur sans Gages’,23 the gratuitous killer, in appearance a shambling one-eyed dwarf, giggling and imbecile; the murderous dwarf here suggests the death-dealing aspects of the omnipotent child. Movingly and tragically, the finale presents the inevitability of death, in contrast to the fantasy of freedom and happiness; in the words of the short story, ‘La Photo du Colonel’, from which the play was later elaborated:24

No words, friendly or authoritative, could have convinced him; all the promise of happiness, all the love in the world, could not have reached him; beauty would not have made him relent, nor irony have shamed him. …

Death is the more intolerable and absurd, not because the happiness had been so real, but because there had been a certain unreality about it. To argue, as Esslin does, that The Killer portrays not only the inevitability and unacceptability of death but the absurdity of human existence itself—‘No argument of morality or expediency can prevail against the half-witted, idiotic futility of the human condition. …’25 is surely to impose an alien philosophy of despair on Ionesco’s subtle, poetic presentation of experience. Esslin makes a similar point when he argues that even in the radiant city of the first act (seemingly a representation in objective terms of Bérenger’s private happiness) ‘the presence of death makes life futile and absurd’.26 It is rather the unreality of the radiant city that produces this effect—the unreality of a world where all human needs are catered for by perfect planning, where ‘it’s all calculated, all intentional. Nothing … left to chance’, not even the weather; the climate is of everlasting spring sunshine, ‘in this district it never rains at all’.27 It is appropriate that the killer should walk in this city whose inhabitants have deserted it or, if unable to leave, stay hidden within their beautiful flats (Bérenger is puzzled by the city’s abandoned air); in its unreal perfection it is already empty, a place of fantasy not reality, a place of the dead. Bérenger fails to see this, in his rapturous acclamation of the city in the first act, just as he fails to see the elements of omnipotent yearning and denial of loss in his own memories of transcendent happiness. Ionesco’s heroes are so sympathetic that the extent of their surrender to overmastering fantasy may well be missed; this surrender is surely the central preoccupation of a writer who has described his theatre as ‘the projection on to the stage of the world within—my dreams, my anguish, my dark desires, my inner contradictions. …’28The Killer is a more powerful play than Amédée not because it testifies to the supposed meaninglessness of existence but because it suggests a fuller recognition of the truth about fantasy. The dissatisfaction expressed by critics about the third act of Amédée—that there is a decline of tension, that the transition from heaviness to lightness cannot be adequately realized in dramatic terms—may be symptomatic of an uneasiness about the hero’s apotheosis at the end of the play, with its implications of an uninhibited triumph of fantasy. The ambivalence conveyed by Amédée’s guilt at abandoning his earth-bound companions, and by the crucial role played by the corpse in his escape, does little to offset the euphoria. The euphoria is very appealing, but it does not altogether ring true. However, if there is an element of indulgence in the finale of Amédée, for the most part Ionesco displays a penetrating and lucid understanding of the crucial role played by unconscious fantasy in normal life, as ‘an activity of the mind that accompanies every impulse …’;29 without such understanding he could not evoke so well the darker and more damaging aspects of its mastery over us. (The darkness is usually relieved by a certain instinctive human sympathy and, often, an infectious gaiety; love and affection always exist as a possibility, however remote, in the relationships of Ionesco’s characters.) He recognizes, notably in The Killer and The Chairs, how fantasy embodies our daydreams of happiness and our longing for peace and security as well as our invasive and destructive wishes; above all, he sees the tragic link that may be forged between the two.

It is in such ways as this that the feeling of emptiness and evanescence is experienced as profoundly ambivalent, Janus faced in its contrasting anguish and euphoria. It will be recalled that the act of artistic creation itself and its consequences are described by Ionesco as partaking of this ambivalence; to see ‘characters move on the stage who had come out of myself’ is both frightening and exhilarating, ‘a prodigious, irreplaceable adventure’.30 The adventure is rightly felt to be dangerous; polarized between fulfilment (fulfilled achievement) and omnipotence (omnipotent fantasy), what I have called the creative proliferation of writing seems to Ionesco to partake of a Faustian bargain—‘Was this allowed? … It was almost diabolical.’31 (Images of procreation often occur in Ionesco in the context of fantasies of proliferation: the corpse in Amédée which produces blossoming mushrooms, the unceasing basketsful of eggs hatched by Roberte at the end of another play, The Future is in Eggs.) In thus conceiving of art as an extension of the self, its material the artist’s own fantasies and conflicts, Ionesco is firmly in the Romantic tradition; he makes the large claim that, as Professor Sutherland notes, is implicit in the attitude of the early Romantic poets—‘This was important to me; it must therefore be so to all men.’32 At the same time, the justification of the claim lies in the Romantic artist’s perception of the universal revealed through the experience of a single consciousness:33

For me, the theatre is the projection on to the stage of the world within—it is in my dreams, my anguish, my dark desires, my inner contradictions that I reserve the right to find the stuff of my plays. As I am not alone in the world—as each one of us, in the depths of his being, is at the same time everyone else—my dreams and desires, my anguish and my obsessions do not belong to myself alone; they are part of the heritage of my ancestors, a very ancient deposit to which all mankind may lay claim.

The response to Ionesco’s plays shows that his judgment here is right; he speaks to us so effectively through his profound understanding of the inner life, supported by the ability to find compelling dramatic images in which to express it. In a defence of the free employment of fantastic or magical effects on the stage he writes:34

I personally would like to bring a tortoise on to the stage, turn it into a race horse, then into a hat, a song, a dragon, and a fountain of water. One can dare anything in the theatre. … Let the playwright be accused of being arbitrary. Yes, the theatre is the place where one can be arbitrary. As a matter of fact, it is not arbitrary. The imagination is not arbitrary, it is revealing. … [my italics]

The apparent chaos of the inner life of fantasy is found to possess an inner meaning and coherence. This discovery, the truth of which Ionesco expresses in the cogent final sentence of this passage, is central to psychoanalytical thinking; his own theatre bears it out.

One of Ionesco’s subtlest treatments of the ‘two fundamental states of consciousness’, of overabundance and emptiness, is The Chairs. Here the emptiness lies at the heart of the overabundance, for the ever increasing number of chairs are set out by the old couple for non-existent guests, while the stream of polite conversation is addressed to the ears of the audience alone. The central theme of the play, as Ionesco defines it, in a letter to the director of the first production, Sylvain Dhomme, is emptiness and unreality; it is unusually close to Beckett in mood:35

The subject of the play is not the message, nor the failure of life, nor the moral disaster of the two old people, but the chairs themselves; that is to say, the absence of people … the unreality of the world, metaphysical emptiness. The theme of the play is nothingness. …

Ionesco also calls it a ‘tragic farce’. It will be remembered that Bérenger in The Killer experiences a ‘chaotic vacuum’ of loss and unreality: ‘I felt lost among all those people, all those things’. In The Chairs the unreality that, in certain states of consciousness, seems to be a property of the external world as well as of the self, is conveyed through an image of great power—‘the chairs themselves’.36 By means of this image the experience of unreality is embodied directly in the drama; in place of the hero being unable to communicate his feelings and needs to other characters who exist independently of him, as in Amédée or The Killer—the normal way of expressing this situation—the two chief figures people the stage with characters with whom they communicate freely but who exist only in their imagination. In terms of psychological symbolism, it may be said that the external world has been reduced to their own projections into it. There is always a possibility that the infant through his projective and omnipotent fantasies may experience a loss both of self and real mother so complete that a sense of total isolation results, his need for love and understanding completely frustrated. Such an early situation seems to be represented in the predicament of the old couple, which Ionesco interestingly refers to in the passage quoted above as a ‘moral disaster’37 though they do retain a certain reality to each other. It is noteworthy that the maternal aspect of the old woman’s attitude to her husband is emphasized: ‘Mummy’s with you, what are you afraid of?’38 she declares when he is distressed at the thought of having wrecked his career. He for his part sobs for his mother ‘with his mouth wide open, like a baby’,39 in the accents of a child who has broken a toy; she rocks him backwards and forwards on her knee to comfort him, but at first he sulkily refuses to accept her in the maternal role—‘you’re not my real Mummy’.40 However, their relationship is very much that of spoiled child and indulgent mother, he looking to her for continuous consolation and support; towards the end of the play she echoes, exactly, his speeches, and he remarks to an old flame of his, a Mrs Lovely, one of the imaginary guests, ‘My worthy spouse, Semiramis, has taken the place of my mother.’41 The dialogue at various points impresses on us that the old man is also a child; thus, he describes how the revelation he is about to dispense to his guests came to him when, at the age of forty, he was sitting on his father’s lap before going to bed. (Some visitors laugh at him and tell him he’s a man, but he thinks ‘But I’m not married yet. So I must still be a child.’) In another passage, evocative of the tragedy of the parent/child relationship, the old woman informs one of the guests that they had had a child who abandoned his grief-stricken parents because ‘they killed all the birds’ and whom they never saw again; simultaneously, the old man tells another guest that they never had a child, but that he had abandoned his mother, leaving her to die in a ditch. The confusion of identities here suggests that it is the child part of the old man who is the hero of both these incidents: a child whose guilt over his fantasied cruelty to the parents is assuaged by a projection of that cruelty into them—‘Daddy, mummy, you’re wicked, wicked! … The streets are full of the birds you’ve killed and the little children dying.’42

A sense of frustrated omnipotence, again reminiscent of an early infantile situation, is also prominent in the old man’s talk. He feels that he is singled out from the mass of men by the achievements that might have been his ‘if he had had a little ambition in Life’, by the extent of his humiliation and sufferings—he describes himself as having been ‘a lightning conductor for catastrophe’—and above all by his role as a saviour:43

And then, no one ever took any notice of me … and yet it was I, I tell you, it was I and I alone who could have saved mankind, suffering, sick mankind … I haven’t given up hope of saving mankind, there is still time, and my plan is ready.

This conviction is actually responsible for the drama presented to us: the guests have been summoned in order that they may listen to the old man’s message, the fruit of a lifetime’s experience. He has hired a professional orator to deliver the message ‘who’ll answer for me, who’ll explain to you exactly how we feel about everything … he’ll make it all clear. … rsquo;44 The arrival of the Orator is the consummation of the old couple’s lives; he ‘really exists. In flesh and blood. … It’s not a dream.’45 As they now have nothing more to ask of life, they leap out of the window to their deaths in the sea. Their disappearance is the signal for the hitherto silent and impassive Orator to face the rows of empty chairs and attempt to speak. However, he is deaf and dumb; his desperate efforts to make himself understood only produce ‘moans and groans and the sort of guttural sounds made by deaf mutes’. The resourceful idea occurs to him of writing his message on the blackboard, but the result is likewise gibberish, along with the single word ‘Angepain’ (Angelbread). Thus the message the old man could not speak himself remains unspoken. There is a hint, in the fact that he disappears as soon as the Orator appears, that he is to recover his lost identity in the identity of the Orator; but the sense of unreality remains undimmed. Indeed, finally it is only the unreal that has reality; a magnificent final image conveys this to us when, at the Orator’s departure, ‘for the first time human noises seem to be coming from the invisible crowd; snatches of laughter, whisperings … little sarcastic coughs’.46 As Ionesco recognizes, it is a familiar theatrical paradox—the baseless fabric of the stage’s vision—presented in a new context:47

The invisible elements must be more and more clearly present, more and more real (to give unreality to reality one must give reality to the unreal) until the point is reached … when the unreal elements speak and move … and nothingness can be heard, is made concrete. …

The paradox is pushed to the point where the author succeeds in communicating to the audience his conviction of incommunicability and nothingness. The non-existent ‘human noises’, the stage direction continues, ‘should last just long enough for the real and visible public to go away with this ending firmly fixed in their minds’.48 The empty chairs, as has been pointed out, do of themselves suggest a theatre, and the Orator’s inability to deliver the precious message hints at the difficulties and discouragement the artist may experience in the effort to reach his public if, like Ionesco, he ‘projects on to the stage the world within’. There is no doubt that he has succeeded in reaching them in The Chairs.

In the opening paragraph of this section I suggested that there were two features of Ionesco’s drama of especial relevance to my subject: first, proliferation and all that is associated with it; second, intensification. The Lesson, the play of Ionesco which provides an exceptionally concentrated and powerful example of this second feature, also embodies in an unusually direct form the content of an infantile fantasy. There are three characters: The Professor, aged between fifty and sixty, the Girl Pupil of eighteen, and the Maid of forty-five to fifty. The pattern of the play is a reversal of roles by Professor and Pupil. At the outset the Professor is ‘excessively polite, very shy, a voice subdued by its timidity’, while the Pupil is described as ‘vivacious, dynamic, and of a cheerful disposition’. As the play proceeds, however, ‘[he] will grow more and more sure of himself, excitable, aggressive, domineering’, while ‘she will become more and more passive, until she is nothing more than object, limp and inert … in the hands of the Professor’. Ionesco explains carefully, in this long stage direction with which he introduces his characters to us, how every feature of appearance and behaviour is to correspond to this change; thus the Professor’s voice should change ‘from thin and piping at the start … to an extremely powerful, braying, sonorous instrument at the end; whereas the Pupil’s voice, after being very clear and resonant … will fade almost into inaudibility’. The ‘prurient gleam’ that at first ‘now and again … quickly dismissed, lights up his eyes … will end by blazing into an insistent, lecherous, devouring flame’.49

It is characteristic of infantile sadistic fantasies that while under their spell the infant should lose to a great extent his sense of the mother as a person and retain only the sense of her as an object, receptacle for the spoiling sadistic attacks. Indeed this sense of the woman as merely object, present for the gratification of own’s own needs but without needs of her own, remains the single most typical feature of adult male sadism. I have previously tried to show how sadism, in Melanie Klein’s view, has its origins in infantile envy.50 The envy is experienced as a result of the infant’s awareness of his own helplessness and dependence in contrast to the mother’s independence and freedom:51

whenever he is hungry or feels neglected, the child’s frustration leads to the phantasy that the milk and love are deliberately withheld from him, or kept by the mother for her own benefit.

Envy is essentially spoiling in nature; the urge to possess the loved object, normally the breast, is characterized by powerful feelings of frustration and resentment. I have already mentioned how the projection of bad parts of the child into the mother may lead to a persecutory situation. In a context of sadistic fantasy, projection is likely to play its part in the denigration of the coveted object, the mother’s body or breast. Containing the bad envious parts of the child, the breast is experienced as a bad as well as a good object and can thus be attacked with the less guilt. However, the sadistic fantasy at its most intense may try to avoid the persecutory consequences of projection by experiencing the mother’s body as exclusively object, to be freely used for the satisfaction and containment of envious impulses; the infant is thus defended against the potentially threatening and persecutory aspects of the mother as a person into whom such feelings have been projected.

It is this extreme situation, pathological if acted out but very common in fantasy, that Ionesco presents in The Lesson. The reversal of rules by which the vivacious and charming girl pupil is transformed into an inert and limp object suggests both the root of sadism in envy and the compulsive nature of the urge to spoil and destroy. The climax is of a simultaneous rape and murder, confirmation that the sadistic fantasy is at its purest and most intense; as the Professor ‘kills the Pupil with a spectacular thrust of the knife’ he first cries out in satisfaction, then52

She too cries out, then falls, crumpling into an immodest position on the chair … they both cry out, murderer and victim, at the same moment.

It is an accurately rendered parody of sexual intercourse, the woman’s body being used simply as receptacle for the knife, or penis. Even at the climax of a sadistic fantasy some sense of the real function of the woman’s body must be retained, as provider first of food and subsequently of mutual sexual satisfaction, if it is to continue to be desired and coveted. It is thus appropriate that the murderous act should be experienced as orgasm: ‘after the first blow, he gives the dead Pupil a second thrust of the knife, with an upward movement; and then he starts visibly and his whole body shudders’.53 His next words—the first he speaks after the act of rape—show the mechanism of projection at work; the projection has resulted in a denigration of the envied object, so that a retrospective justification is available for the sadistic attack and the welcome release of tension enjoyed, at first, without guilt:54

Professor (out of breath, stammering) Trollop. … She asked for it. … Now I feel better. … Ah! … I’m tired. …

I mentioned that sadistic fantasies at their most intense may lose sight of the woman as a person, as the Professor virtually loses sight of the Girl Pupil except as a vehicle for his sadism. However, The Lesson is greatly strengthened by the introduction of a different, and less pathological, relationship between the man and another woman. In the person of the Maid Ionesco has given us the kind of disapproving but indulgent mother figure who might be expected to support and encourage the child’s sadistic fantasies. The relationship between her and the Professor, deployed in the epilogue that, after the climax of the murder, closes the play, is demonstrably that of mother and child. At the climax itself there is a subtle anticipation of the Professor’s child self; as Professor and Pupil approach the moment of truth, he enjoins her to repeat after him the word ‘Knife’: ‘Say it again, watch it. (Like a child) Knifey … Knifey.’55 After the murder, the Professor, in a reaction of horror at finding the body of a pupil on his hands, calls in panic for the Maid. She is at first severe and unsympathetic: ‘Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, at your age too!’56 Vexed at her reproaches, he defends himself by accusing the dead girl of being ‘a bad pupil’; Professor and Maid then enact with remarkable precision the parts of a nasty child turning on its mother and the mother responding with interest:57

Professor (approaching the maid slyly, his knife behind his back) It’s none of your business! (He tries to strike her a terrific blow, but she seizes his wrist and twists it; the Professor drops his knife). … Forgive me!

(The Maid strikes the Professor twice, forcibly and noisily, so that he falls to the ground on his behind, snivelling.)

Maid You little murderer! Revolting little swine! Wanted to do that to me, did you! I’m not one of your blessed pupils!

(She hauls him up by the back of his collar. … He is afraid of being hit again and protects himself with his elbow, like a child.)

Having thus established her ascendancy, she relents. It is already clear from an earlier scene that she has known all the time what is going to happen and has allowed it to happen; she warns the Professor not to go too far—‘Philology is the worst of all … you won’t say I didn’t warn you!58 Later, however, although she recognizes that with the toothache induced in the Pupil by the philology lesson ‘the worst symptom’59 has arrived, she leaves the two alone together. Now, with the body of the Pupil between them, she responds to the Professor’s sobs and protestations with something like sympathy, as soon as he has admitted he is sorry:

Maid At least you’re sorry you did it?

Professor Oh yes, Marie, I swear I am.

Maid I can’t help feeling for you. Come now! You’re not a bad boy after all! …

She exacts a promise that he won’t do it again, significantly because it might be bad for him (‘it would give you heart trouble …’); she then helps him to plan the funeral and advises him how best to protect himself, finally assisting him to carry the body off stage.60

This fine scene suggests in almost every particular the mother who overlooks the murderous pranks of the child because she is too big to be seriously threatened by them; the initial violence of her response combines with the absence of any real disapproval on her part to stimulate his sadism, which is effectively displaced on to the more vulnerable target of the girl pupil. Structurally the scene is integral to the meaning of the play, which presents us both with the roots of sadism in infantile fantasy and with a cogent example of a later, indirect manifestation of the impulse in the exploitation of language for the purposes of sadistic domination. The adult teacher who forces a parody of learning down the pupil’s throat and the child caught out by its mother in a nasty sadistic game are linked by the enacted fantasy of the rape cum murder. Ionesco is careful to preserve a sense of fantasy throughout the grotesque climax; the knife with which the Professor kills the Pupil, and with which he later threatens the Maid, is invisible. Moreover, when the Professor asks, of the coffins which the Maid is to order for him ‘What if anyone asks us what’s inside?’ she replies, ‘… We’ll say they’re empty. Besides, no one will ask any questions. They’re used to it61 [my italics].

We are, indeed, all used to it, although it is not often recognized for what it is. The Lesson is not a morality play, but none the less it embodies a valuable and neglected truth: that primitive sadistic instincts do not only, or indeed normally, find gross physical expression, but find effective release in many less obvious and more subtle ways. Ionesco’s choice of the teaching situation is an apt one for this purpose. The educative process can degenerate into an exercise of power at the expense of the pupil, a power that is sadistic in origin in that it reflects in displaced form an early sadistic impulse. The Lesson shows how the urge to dominate and control may at first take the milder form of a metaphorical seduction and if this proves unsuccessful develop into metaphorical rape. (It must be remembered that the design of the play requires that the seduction remain metaphorical while the rape is presented as literal and actual.) Both processes concern themselves with the needs of the teacher and not with those of the taught. The student may be seduced into believing that he is learning when he is really serving the teacher’s ego, whether by acting as willing receptacle for an exhibitionist display on the teacher’s part or by himself making such a display of prowess in response to flattery and encouragement by the teacher; both processes are a substitute for the mutual effort of learning. In terms of early experience, a narcissistic and exhibitionistic activity, involving masturbatory fantasies or at a later state fantasies of intercourse with the mother, has been substituted for feeding. Rape, in terms of the metaphor, suggests the bludgeoning of the pupil into an acceptance of what is arbitrarily prescribed by the teacher; it is a penetration by force—the psychological force at the disposal of superior age, experience, knowledge. Neither process can be regarded as uncommon in the teaching relationship.

Seduction is certainly present in The Lesson. At first the Professor flatters and conciliates his Pupil:62

Pupil One and one make two.

Professor (astonished by his pupil’s erudition) But that’s very good indeed! You’re extremely advanced in your studies. You’ll have very little difficulty in passing all your Doctorate examinations.

Later he displays his own prowess in the field of comparative philology, in a long nonsensical declamation about the neo-Spanish languages; the Pupil is at first delighted and fascinated. However, as the Professor becomes more insistent and aggressive in his self-display, refusing to permit any interruption, the Pupil suddenly announces that she has toothache. From this point onwards she defies the Professor by means of her toothache, rejecting and even mocking his instruction; he only succeeds in overcoming her defiance by an increasing, and increasingly violent, pressure. The toothache may perhaps indicate loss of the power of speech and so of language; the parody of the whole learning process is an important element in the play. Just as, positively speaking, language is seen as an instrument of power, so negatively the communication of knowledge is mocked in the nonsense games played by the pair in language and arithmetic:63

Pupil I can count up to … infinity.

Professor That’s impossible.

Pupil Up to sixteen, then.

Professor That’s quite far enough. We must all recognize our limitations.

It is worth noting here, in the context of the parody of learning, a comic device by which Ionesco reinforces the ‘progressive heightening and intensification’ he is seeking: the Pupil can do complex sums of addition with miraculous ease, but she cannot subtract, arguing, for example, that three from four makes seven.

The toothache has perhaps an additional significance: the persistent but feeble resistance to instruction offered by this means is seen to act as provocation to the Professor, whose tone and manner, already assertive, are transformed into open sadism:64

Professor … And so on and so on. …

Pupil That’s enough! That’s enough! I’ve got …

Professor The toothache! The toothache! … Teeth, teeth, teeth, teeth! … I’ll have them all out for you in a minute. …

There is even a hint, in the obsessive nature of the Pupil’s complaints of toothache, that to her teaching in itself is experienced as a violation, a painful penetration of her body by the voice of the Professor:65

Pupil That’s enough! I’ve had enough! Besides, my teeth ache and my feet ache and my head aches. … You make my ears ache, too. What a voice you’ve got! How piercing it is!

Professor Say Knife. … Kni … Fff. …

Her fantasies may be thought to play a part in the situation, operating in collusion with the Professor’s fantasies to bring about the fatal conclusion; this is certainly in keeping with the general impression made on us by the play. Admittedly, at this point the Professor is already threatening her with sadistic violence; as we know from the opening stage direction, by now his voice has grown more powerful and piercing. However, the passage is reminiscent of one in Amédée, where Amédée’s loving enthusiasm is experienced by Madeleine, his wife, as a sadistic attack: ‘Your voice is so piercing! You are deafening me! Hurting me! Don’t rend my darkness! S-a-dist! …’66 As Martin Esslin comments: ‘The situation is that of an ardent lover and a girl who regards all advances as acts of violence and rape.’67

I suggested earlier that Ionesco understands how ubiquitously a primitive, infantile sadism operates in normal adult human affairs in a concealed and displaced form. By a bold paradox, this point is made by a reversal—by the presentation of a normal activity, teaching, that develops rapidly into a grotesquely sadistic situation. A final touch reinforces our sense of the operation of a basic aggressive drive in a form unrecognized, and so socially and morally acceptable. We learn from the Maid—she is speaking of the Professor’s crime—that ‘it’s the fortieth time today! And every day it’s the same story! Every day! …’68 Clearly she is used to it, just as people in general are used to the sight of the coffins of his victims. The extravagance, by being pushed so far, succeeds brilliantly since ‘one can dare anything in the theatre’,69 in the author’s words. The Lesson points the moral, in its own essentially comic terms, that sadism is not merely a psychopathic perversion but a universal, even commonplace, illness, affecting respectable professors and their bright pupils. Ionesco calls The Lesson a comic drama; whatever the wider implications, it is certainly comic in its preoccupation with incongruity and also in a certain emotional detachment. There is none of the plangency of feeling or poetic suggestiveness to be found in The Killer or The Chairs; I suspect that for Ionesco there is little or no poetry in sadism. This is greatly to his credit—a refreshing contrast to writers whose only source of poetry seems to lie in the sadomasochistic areas of experience. If The Lesson has less depth for this reason, it has a compensating concentration of effect. More importantly, it displays, in common with the other plays of Ionesco I have discussed, the power and insight of a veritable master of the irrational, one who follows ‘the true road into my own darkness, our darkness, which I try to bring to the light of day’.70


  1. E. Ionesco, ‘Expérience du Théâtre’, Nouvelle Revue Française, (Paris, 1 February 1958), pp. 258-9. I owe this and other quotations from Ionesco’s writings on the drama to Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (New York, 1961), ch. 3.

  2. Ionesco, ‘The Playwright’s Role’, Observer (6 July 1958). Tynan’s criticism appeared in the previous number of the paper.

  3. Esslin, op. cit., ch. 3, p. 99.

  4. Ionesco, ‘The Point of Departure’, Cahiers des Quatre Saisons, no. 1 (Paris).

  5. Ionesco, ‘La Tragédie du Langage’, Spectacles, no. 2 (Paris, July 1958).

  6. Ibid.

  7. ‘Expérience du Théâtre’, p. 258.

  8. Ionesco, Amédée, trans. Donald Watson, Plays II (London, 1958), p. 226.

  9. Ibid.

  10. ‘Expérience du Théâtre’, p. 268.

  11. Amédée, ed. cit., p. 62.

  12. Ionesco, ‘Lorsque j’écris …’, Cahiers des Quatre Saisons, no. 15.

  13. Amédée, ed. cit., p. 227.

  14. Ionesco, The Killer, trans. Donald Watson (London, 1958), p. 77.

  15. Ibid., pp. 80-1.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ibid., p. 82.

  18. Ibid., p. 81.

  19. Ibid.

  20. See above.

  21. The Killer, ed. cit., p. 82.

  22. Ibid., p. 83.

  23. The French title of the play.

  24. Evergreen Review, March 1957 (trans. Stanley Reed).

  25. Esslin, op. cit., pp. 122-3.

  26. The Killer, ed. cit., pp. 68-9.

  27. Ibid.

  28. Ionesco, Improvisation, trans. Donald Watson, Plays III (London: Calder; New York: Grove Press, 1960), pp. 112-13.

  29. Melanie Klein, Our Adult World and its Roots in Infancy (London, 1960), p.6.

  30. See above, p. 104.

  31. Ibid.

  32. J. R. Sutherland, A Preface to Eighteenth Century Poetry (Oxford, 1948), p. 161.

  33. Improvisation, pp. 112-13.

  34. ‘Eugène Ionesco ouvre le feu’, World Theatre, VIII, 3, Autumn 1959.

  35. Letter from Ionesco to Sylvain Dhomme, quoted by F. Towarnicki, ‘Des Chaises vides … à Broadway’, Spectacles, no. 2 (Paris, July 1958).

  36. Letter from Ionesco to Dhomme.

  37. See above, p. 113.

  38. Ionesco, The Chairs, trans. Donald Watson (London, 1968), p. 13.

  39. Ibid., p. 13.

  40. Ibid.

  41. Ibid., p. 30.

  42. Ibid., pp. 31-2.

  43. Ibid., p. 50.

  44. Ibid., p. 44.

  45. Ibid., p. 53.

  46. Ibid., final stage directions, pp. 59-60.

  47. Letter from Ionesco to Dhomme.

  48. The Chairs, final stage directions, ed. cit., pp. 59-60.

  49. Ionesco, The Lesson, trans. Donald Watson (London, 1958), Penguin edition, pp. 182-83.

  50. See above, p. 17.

  51. Klein, op. cit., p. 8.

  52. The Lesson, ed. cit., p. 214.

  53. Ibid.

  54. Ibid.

  55. Ibid., p. 213.

  56. Ibid., pp. 215-16.

  57. Ibid., p. 198.

  58. Ibid., p. 198.

  59. Ibid., p. 211.

  60. Ibid., pp. 216-17.

  61. Ibid., p. 217. I discuss the point of the plurality of coffins later in this chapter (see p. 123).

  62. Ibid., p. 189.

  63. Ibid., pp. 190-91.

  64. Ibid., p. 208.

  65. Ibid., p. 212.

  66. Amédée, ed. cit., p. 48.

  67. Esslin, op. cit., p. 108.

  68. The Lesson, ed. cit., p. 215.

  69. See above, p. 113.

  70. See above, p. 102.

Germaine Brée (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7134

SOURCE: “Ionesco’s Later Plays: Experiments in Dramatic Form,” in The Two Faces of Ionesco, edited by Rosette C. Lamont and Melvin J. Friedman, The Whitson Publishing Company, 1978, pp. 101-18.

[In the following essay, Brée studies three Ionesco plays from the 1960s, A Stroll in the Air, Exit the King, and Hunger and Thirst, in relation to his essays of the same period, and argues that the dramas constitute an effort on the part of the playwright to communicate, via the state, a view of life as “provisional, sincere, problematic, yet positive. ”]

Découvertes (Discoveries), one of Ionesco’s more recent essays, came out in 1969 in the semi-de-luxe series entitled “The paths of creation” published by Skira. The over-all title of the series is self-explanatory. Writers—Aragon, Butor, Prévert—and critics—Barthes, Caillois, Starobinski, Picon—approach the topic from various, personal angles. Ionesco’s contribution is disarming, partly because it is unpretentious and obviously genuine and partly because it is vividly illustrated by Ionesco himself.

A dozen brightly colored plates, full page or spread over a double page, and a few small marginal sketches, cherry-trees or childishly simplified figures—accompany the text. Dominant is the figure of “the king,” plastic in shape and diversely colored, a humorous, appealing and something disturbing projection of his creator’s self-image in various situations and moods. Then there is the eye, detached and immobile, contemplating with obvious stupefaction brightly colored shapes moving across the page; or sometimes carried along in their flow. There are, besides a couple of picture stories done in a child-like—but vigorous—idiom: a walk in the country for example, one of Ionesco’s familiar methaphors for happiness.

A double of Ionesco is present in these illustrations, a self-projection, whether as king, eye, or participating figure, a visual record of the manner in which Ionesco perceives himself in what he calls his “encounters with the world.” That these illustrations are closely connected with both Ionesco’s personal and his stage world it is easy to see at a glance; they are proof of how visual, spatial, and idiosyncratic are the forms of expression that come naturally to him. The self-images of Découvertes, the verbal images Ionesco uses to describe his “paths” to creation, are related to his sense of the stage. Ionesco perceives himself as situated in space; and it is in spatial terms that he defines a range of intense emotions through which he responds to the world. Let me give just one example, linked to the initial perception of the self as “eye.”1 In Découvertes Ionesco describes the child in the pram as enthralled spectator to the flow of shapes and colors flowing past him in the light. These are analogous to the brightly colored shapes moving across the page of the book and they recall the “apparitions,” Ionesco describes in Notes … “fruits of the void, flowers of nothingness … ovements, configurations, colors” that float before his eyes at those moments of exhilaration when he happens to “love the world” and in it “discovers beauty.”2 But a gigantic unknown object moves across the space—the shadow of a tree sensed by the child as a personal menace and deliberate aggression, causing an inner shrinkage of his world, and terror. The incident is revealing and fundamental and its patterning of a shrinking space as the shape of fear is a constant in Ionesco’s stage world. The “I-eye” watches a world that deploys its changing colors and configurations harmlessly “like a carpet,” harmlessly and boundlessly. “The seasons seemed to spread out in space. The world was a decorative background, with its colors now dark and now bright with its flowers and grass appearing, then disappearing, coming towards us, moving away from us, unfolding before our eyes, while we ourselves stayed in the same place, watching time pass, ourselves being out of time … rdquo;3 The image denotes a contemplative state of non-involvement and delight, which one might call aesthetic. Disturbance comes when the “monstrous shadow” invades the space of both contemplator and contemplated, veiling the light. The darkening is a threat, an aggression, a terrifying “apparition,” accompanied by the contraction of the spectacle, the shrinkage of the boundless space.Fear as we have seen is a contraction of free space and the disruption of the spectacle. It is a premonition of the “fall” which Ionesco describes again in spatial terms: “Then all of a sudden there came a kind of terrible reversal; it was as though a centrifugal force had projected me out of my immutability into the midst of things that go and come back and go away for good … At sixteen it was all over. I was in time, in flight, in finiteness.”4 The monstrous shadow then is death. Ionesco’s perception of himself, as he describes it in these very early schemas, contains one highly dramatic element: his sense of discomfort in a closed or contracting space. For him the “room” or “house” will never be the habitual intimate self-contained space in which the self is at home in a protective shell. It cuts the “I-eye” out of its rightful realm. Nothing in Ionesco’s language refers us to a “place within,” and the hastily improvised refuges in which Ionesco withdraws are always flimsy and temporary: “I settle down in the moment, I surround myself with the walls of the moment. I shelter under the roof of the moment … rdquo; but the moment passes.5

Subjective, emotionally charged, and spatially organized, Ionesco’s world is not introverted. And when Ionesco speaks of his stage-world as an “architecture” he certainly refers to something other than the merely verbal patternings of the plays themselves. The stage, after all, is the locus of a spectacle and it is closely akin too to the limiting, self-defensive, temporary room, thereby to the two basic though antithetical images Ionesco has of his relation to the outer world, his “encounters with the world.” It is not surprising then that when in Découvertes he goes back to his childhood, what he refers to first of all are his perceptions of that world. In their freshness they seem singularly absent from the greater number of his plays, at least until the sixties. The child Ionesco moves in the vast space of a countryside that furnishes the elements of a privileged spatial imagery, a language of the emotions, quite simple in its elements: delight is a “fête,” a spectacle of “changing perspectives” where sky, color, fruits, fields deploy ever fascinating configurations under the play of light; boredom is a dreary sky over a vast grey endless steppe; mystery is a threhold, when, stepping through a breach in the ramparts the boy saw a field of corn, golden in the sun, the emblem of a world “beyond the gates.” Fear is the giant shadow of a tree thrown across the sunlit path. The visual and spatial elements are strong, and the emotions intense. But not the conflicts. In fact conflicts are singularly absent from these images. One could readily surmise wha Ionesco suggests that it is as a protest against the absence of that world that he created its obverse: the enclosed Ionesco stage. It is form of exorcism.

Ionesco’s essays Notes and Counter-notes, Fragments of a Journal and Découvertes show the simplicity of the metaphors that underly Ionesco’s stage worlds, and how closely connected they are to his own modes of perception. Abstraction is not his forte. He is temporamentally adverse to theoretical reasoning as his polemical exchanges—with Kenneth Tynan for example—have shown. His violent dislike for ideologically “committed” writers among his contemporaries is visceral; his reactions to Brecht, Sartre and even Camus are notorious. Even in debate, his language, sometimes confusedly, tends to become visual and spatialized: “Les Sartrismes nous engluent, nous figent dans les cachots et fers de cet engagement.” (Sartrisms glue us, gell us into the prison cells and irons of commitment.) It matters little to Ionesco that the spatial metaphor of the prison cell and the solidity of the irons are incompatible with the borrowed Sartrean image of engulfment in a viscous substance like glue. What matters is the sense of fear and physical discomfort the words convey. On the whole, Ionesco is not sensitive to the full implications of the words he sets on the page but rather to their cumulative value as signs rather than expressions of his feeling. Thence a certain poverty and haphazardness in the linguistic texture of his plays, particularly striking if one compares it to the rich tonalities of a Beckett text. What compensates for the lack of resonance is the mobility of the verbal patternings—so often and so extensively analyzed—that give his theater its baroque flavor. Here again the language develops on a single plane, flatly.

The only work Ionesco recognizes as having influenced his approach to art is Croce’s Aesthetic. He often seems to be merely echoing the Aesthetic, to which he refers specifically in Découvertes, but here again in a rather haphazarad way. Art, as he conceives it, is “intuitive knowledge,” “lyrical intuition,” the objectification of subjective perceptions. An autonomous free activity, it transmits a concrete individual “vision,” born of emotion that freely shapes a “whole” imaginary situation. One can readily identify Croce’s language: “aesthetic intuition”; art as an “individual expressive fact”; “expression” as “free inspiration.”6 Ionesco has vehemently reiterated, too, Croce’s contention that “the search for the end of art is ridiculous” and his injunction to “leave the artist is peace.” In a rather broad sense one might say that Ionesco’s theater as a whole is a long and vehement injunction to the society of men to leave him in peace. But beyond this, there is nothing systematic about his ideas. Hence his frustration when his concept of art as “the expressive elaboration of impressions,” to use Croce’s words, is challenged. This aesthetic would hardly in itself, however, account for the stage-world he has set up, although as we have seen, it does correspond to his natural inclination. What remains unexplained is the connection of those impressions to the forms of drama he has elaborated.

It may come as a surprise that Ionesco considers “wonder” as the most fundamental of those emotions that opened up his way toward creation. In Découvertes he designates wonder as the “deepest reaction” of his consciousness. He describes it as the physical state, of elation or euphoria in the presence of light which he considers the fundamental experience of his childhood. “It is in order to speak of that light, to speak of that wonder, of a light, a sky, a wonder stronger than anguish, dominating anguish, that I turned to literature” (60). Wonder or, as Ionesco also notes “stupefaction” in the presence of the everyday spectacle of the world is connected to an immediacy of apprehension that can inform—as Gide would say—both the absurdist’s and the mystic’s illumination. Ionesco, in a recent interview, seemed to designate the first when he spoke of the “negative illuminating” of his childhood concerning death and annihilation.7 Their obsessive role in the shaping of his theatrical idiom has been abundantly discussed. But no one, to my knowledge, before Ionesco himself has stressed the “positive” illuminations which appears in Découvertes as dominant in his work. This is certainly paradoxical.

The assertion, it is true, has come late. Ionesco himself had heretofore stressed rather his state of “conflict with the universe” as the only “capital” faction in his psychic make-up. The more affirmative statement seems to coincide with a recent cast of mind and to have accompanied Ionesco’s desire, as play-wright, to transcend certain limitations in his work.

Since the sixties, notably, Ionesco has become an ever more active participant and in fact protagonist in his own plays. Whereas the Béranger of Rhinoceros is hardly more than a state of mind, King Bérenger I in Exit the King,8 Herbert Bérénger, the “stroller in the air” and Jean, the central character in Hunger and Thirst are far more obvious projections of the author. And in the last two plays he has included not only himself, but the family trio, himself, his wife and daughter. Ionesco has recently carried this development into film. He appears as actor, for the first time, in a film entitled La Vase (Slime); and as sole actor portraying his own disintegration and absorption into the slime of a river-bed.

In the three plays, all produced in the sixties, Ionesco does seem to me to have conceived his stage-space and sets in a new fashion although in some aspects it is anticipated in the early Chairs and The Killer. Herbert Bérenger may well be very close to his creator when he declares “literary activity is no longer a game, can no longer be a game for me. It should be a passage toward something else” and adds that he seeks “inner renewal.” One might suspect of course that Ionesco is mocking some “serious” theory of art; but in the light of Découvertes it does not seem so: he speaks in quiet earnestness. With all due caution passing from the ambiguous stage experience of Herbert Bérenger to the autobiographical Découvertes one notes that Ionesco, speaking of the “light” and “wonder” that flooded his childhood, also speaks of himself as moving at present, along “an upward slope”: “Perhaps even today, after tens of years, it is still that light which nourishes me, which keeps me alive, which has proved stronger than my bouts of distress and my depressions, has guided me through abysses and allowed me to find the path, if not to the top at least to the upward slope” (61).

In spite of the simplicity of its language, Découvertes presents rather startling assertions. Several times Ionesco refers to what he calls “the Manifestation,” capitalizing the word, relating it to those moments of wonder that are flooded by light: “We do not know the essence of things or of the Manifestation, but we can use things or compose with them” (28). “Thought expresses itself in or through language, language being the reflection of the universal Manifestation which expresses the pre-existent thought of God” (44). “In the immobility of the recaptured plenitude of awareness, I mean of an awareness in which I recover myself, it is the essential event only that I recover, the primordial event, the Manifestation, like a luminous veil through which I glimpse the shadow of what is manifested. In the immobility of my attentive gaze, it is not time that flows past, it is the Manifestation which unfolds as in a space outside time, without time” (83). And again, after describing moments of depression, Ionesco returns to his image: “There will be, there are new dawns, the fête. Yes all can change, suddenly. I can recover childhood.9 And the world can be made to fit me. Tomorrow, tomorrow there will perhaps be a different universal Manifestation, another Creation and I shall be dazzled by it once again, absorbed in contemplation, vainly trying to orient myself in it … Tomorrow, a completely new world, more astonishing than ever, with another or other suns, in another sky” (126). The illumination of the world from some unknown source unfolding before the immobile contemplative “I-eye” situated somewhere within it now as spectator sends us back to the child in the pram, to the child-spectator of the puppet-show, to God’s thought immanent in his creation.

Most individuals inclined, to contemplation have experienced comparable moments of stillness and harmony; but not perhaps with the same intensity of “illumination.” Clearly Ionesco here has borrowed the esoteric language of the initiates to transmit what he sees as a recurrent quasi-physical and essential relationship with the world, lost and found and lost again, but nonetheless always there “beyond the gates.” I am not suggesting that Ionesco ever immersed himself in Sufism for instance or other forms of oriental cults. But the vocabulary is indicative: path, light, immobility, plenitude, vision, veil, timelessness, strangeness, Manifestation. Whatever the origin of the vocabulary the experience it relates seems genuine enough and seems to be connected with Ionesco’s renewal of his dramatic idiom in the sixties. His attempt to express the transcendent on the stage does not seem to have proved satisfactory to Ionesco himself: “I have never been able to say this adequately,” he notes of those moments of recovery, “What I say is never true enough, the words are not right enough, I have not yet found the appropriate language for these thoughts, feelings, emotions, for the unsayable truth that I keep trying to express which is stronger than all anxiety” (75). Somewhat self-consciously, Ionesco seems here to be combatting the negative image of himself as the destructive playwright of the absurd. But Jean, the protagonist of Hunger and Thirst, when urged to give an account of his extensive travels, proves as inarticulate as his creator. “Illumination” is not easy to translate into words. There seems to be a further admission of defeat in Découvertes. Ionesco will, he says, henceforward “write no more dramas” remaining content to “construct small make-believe worlds” just to amuse himself. It is a fact of course that of those three plays of the sixties so intimately connected with his own tête-à-tête with himself, the only one to enjoy success was Exit the King (1962). French audiences and critics reacted coldly to the spectacular fantasy of A Stroll in the Air (1963), while the most ambitious of all Ionesco’s plays to date, Hunger and Thirst (1966), was an unmitigated failure.

The year 1972 opened with a production of Macbett,10 the first major Ionesco play since that failure. It could hardly be described as a success. Ionesco’s description of the play suggested that he was trying for something beyond parody, but yet more removed from his own universe. While still struggling with the theme of death, though in a more detached frame of mind, Ionesco proposed to dramatize the “problem of power, ambition and nefarious action.” Reversing a current cliché, as he so likes to do, Ionesco proposed as a solution to man’s inhumanity to man, a society governed by a computer, carefully programmed by a few sages whose distributive justice—social and economic—would be free from men’s propensity to exploit and enslave other men. From that standpoint what better remedy than the “dehumanization” of the computer? The play, whatever its merits or demerits, seems closer in type to Rhinoceros than to the three more subjective and introspective plays of the sixties. A phase perhaps in Ionesco’s development is over.

I propose to examine briefly the three plays of the sixties from the point of view of and in relation to the essays of the same period. The articles collected in Notes … (1962) go back to the fifties. Consequently, I shall refer primarily as I have already done to Fragments of a Journal (1967) and Découvertes which with the three plays comprise the bulk of Ionesco’s work between the popular Rhinoceros and the dubious Macbett.

The first and most striking feature of the three plays is the manner in which Ionesco makes use of the stage space. In the stage direction to Stroller in the air, Ionesco refers to “primitive” painting which he distinguishes from the “surrealistic.” He was pointing to the use medieval artists make of the flat space of the picture to suggest other dimensions of the story depicted. In his three plays, he clearly wanted to give the sense of different spheres of consciousness co-existing within the same space. The basic action in the three plays is that of “passage.” The departure, journey, or “stroll” are fundamental metaphors in all three and, in fact, constitute the action. In Exit the King the king must pass from his rapidly disintegrating habitat into a limitless space. In Stroller in the air, the “anti-world” impinges upon Herbert Bérenger’s given world, and a visible bridge entices him into the vast reaches of that world. In Hunger and Thirst each episode takes place in its own compartment, each connected to the other by Jean’s long journeying. At the end, beyond the walls and bars that hold him prisoner, Jean sees, as in a medieval painting, the idyllic garden with his wife and child, out of reach but co-existent and self-contained within its own space. Obviously Ionesco was attempting to overcome the spatial limitations of the stage. Ionesco has always used the stage, like the expressionists, as a metaphor to objectify an inner ambience. But in no sense did his stage suggest the presence of a quasi-metaphysical dimension in the character’s existence; this is surely what the new “architecture” of the three plays of the sixties conveys. Ionesco seems to have wanted to project his doubles onto a cosmic plane, “a space outside time,” suggestive of a destiny beyond. The new dimensions are awesome and inhuman, it is the “universal landscape” to which he alludes in Découvertes. Herbert Bérenger leaps light-heartedly into the world beyond, but he returns a sobered man bearing tales of devastation and a terrifying void. As to Jean, he measured his own solitude in the rarefied atomosphere and “pure light” of a terrace suspended in the void of the “kingdom of light.” The “grand route” and the circle are recurrent images, but the journey to the center of the circumference remains inconclusive. The necessary passage can be made only in solitude. King Béranger’s palace, like his kingdom, crumbles and decays; Jean runs away from the disintegrating basement apartment into which he has just moved with his wife and child and in A Stroll in the Air as the play starts, a bomb destroys Bérenger’s pleasant English house. What matters in a writer’s work, says Ionesco, are the questions he asks and he defines his work as an “architecture of question”—disposed as it were in three layers—“What is all this here?” “Who am I?” “Why am I here, surrounded by all that?” For Ionesco the metaphor of the voyage is linked to the metaphysical why: it is “only by travelling from one why to the next as far as the why that is unanswerable; that man attains the level of the creative principle.” (Fragments … 26) Thus the theme of the solitary journey seems intentionally connected with the attempt of the play-wright to transcend the former limits of his stage. And yet the “architecture of questions” is not quite clear. For Exit the King seems rather a statement on how to die than on “Why do I die?” and Bérenger’s adventures bear more on confrontation with the unanswerable than on the questioning of it. In these plays Ionesco attempted to situate his protagonist beyond the way and in relation to the unanswerable: death, the immense spaces of the “anti-world,” the solitary heights of Jean’s journey towards the light. If it is not always very clear on stage in what terms he is asking the why, it seems certain that it is not in rational terms. The three plays attempt to create moods, hence situations, in which the rational underpinning of everday life is no longer operative; the structure of the plays is thereby affected. This “leaving behind” of the world of the real and ordinary has always been characteristic of Ionesco’s stage. But not until the sixties did he attempt to do more, through the interplay of setting and the distortion of language, than use the stage in parodic fasion, somewhat like one of the Surrealists’ autodestructive machines.

It might be surmised that it was in part the growing success of Brecht in France, from 1954, when the Berliner ensemble took Paris by storm, into the sixties, that moved Ionesco both to the kind of self-analysis evident in the essays and to a deeper concern with the structure of his own stage-world. In this perspective Rhinoceros might well be considered as a transitional play, a ferocious attack upon the Brechtian ideological stage. Exit the King, A Stroll in the Air, Hunger and Thirst use and reverse Brechtian patterns: the insatiable appetite of Jean recalls the craving for food or drink of many Brechtian characters from Schweik’s friend Baloun on; as does King Bérenger’s obligation to consent to his own death. Above all, it is Jean’s confrontation with and his imprisonment by the burlesque and sinister monastic order which provide a bitter comment on Brecht’s call to the individual to accept social discipline in the interests of a higher cause. Ionesco seems furthermore to have confronted somewhat the same problems as a playwright: how to connect the inner world of feeling to outer reality so as to establish it concretely on stage. His problem, however, was the obverse of Brecht’s since the French dramatist’s theater has consistently been founded on feeling, on a visceral distrust of all formalized social compartments. His own sensibility then is the only ground he trusted for the foundation of his stage world. The shift from the negative and gleeful parodic destruction of everyday reality to the sense of the play as communication to the audience of the positive feeling for existence that justified the destruction of illusory reflections posed the question of a new theatrical language. How could a playwright project concretely on the stage the inarticulated and ambivalent perceptions which he describes in Découvertes? The statement could only be metaphoric and individual—thence the open use of the autobiographical “double” as protagonist.

In a quite different way from Brecht’s, Ionesco turned to a narrative form of drama, transferring feeling into fantasy. Whereas in his first plays he manipulated language itself to estrange the spectator while ruthlessly gearing him to the destructive mechanisms of the play, in these later plays the fantasy could come alive only through the emotional power of the character’s situation as revealed in his language. The main difficulty for Ionesco seems clearly to lie in the initial metaphor that establishes the character’s world, the stage world of the play. He had to turn his former stage world inside out and obtain the identification of his public with the protagonist—himself—rather than bring about a shared estrangement. Bérenger in Rhinoceros is a typical example of this turnabout, although it is already adumbrated in The Killer. But in both of these plays the protagonist’s posture is refusal. And, it may be inferred, useless refusal. He is destroyed along with the situation with which he enters into conflict.

There is no doubt at all that the Crocean conception of the intuited form seems to apply to Ionesco. He has amply documented the wholly emotional quasi-physiological origin of the basic, and complex, metaphors that put so personal a stamp upon his plays. His dilemma is that the strongest of these psychic moods or “climates” coincide with a loss of the sense of reality. The sense of reality for Ionesco coincides with immobility, with himself as “eye” and center to the world: “The earth and the stars moved around me who stood still at the center of everything. The earth and its fields and its snow and rain all moved around me.” (Fragments … 22) This creates a positive view of the world as spectacle, and is hardly dramatic. What is dramatic is a loss of the equilibrium. Ionesco has repeatedly described the two forms of disequilibrium that plague him: one is elation, that sense of “taking off” physically from an imponderable world, which furnished the end metaphor of How to get rid of it, (Amédée’s exit in a balloon) and the whole movement of A Stroll in the Air; the other, the sense of slow suffocation and dissolution in slowly rising mud, Ionesco’s metaphor for routine and habit.11 This is the more predominant of his stage building blocks.

For Ionesco, the room, peculiarly well suited for transferral to the stage-set, is no symbol of refuge; it is charged with a sinister metaphoric meaning. The house sinks “into the ground like a basement, with damp walls and slits for windows … always on the point of sinking in … of being flooded, of falling to pieces …” The earth on which it rests is not a refuge either: “For me, earth is not a foster mother, it means mud … decomposition … death which terrifies me … tombs.” But the dangerous and disquieting element is water: “Water for me does not mean abundance, nor calm, nor purity; it generally appears to me as dirty, anguish.” The primarily concrete terms in which Ionesco’s fears and obsessions beset him are clearly symbolic. “When I dream of the inside of a house, it is always sinking down into the damp earth.” And the house can be a transparent subterfuge to ward off the reality of time: “I settle down in the moment, I surround myself with the walls of the moment, I shelter under the roof of the moment.”12

The “good-evil” duality in this dramatic system is ambivalent both physically and conceptually. The stage world itself is a temporary structure set up in a spatialized, boundless continuity, within which outer and inner spaces operate, interpenetrate, exclude one another or coincide. These are the spheres out of which Ionesco has sought to fashion his plays, not out of events or ideas: “What I want to concretize,” he stated, “is the expression of origins. Not what comes to pass, but what does not come to pass or does not pass.” (89) The spatialization of mood and the synthesis into a single image are characteristic: the rising mud is both fear and time; the act of levitation is ecstasy and freedom to view a world “deployed” outside time. But it shuts Ionesco out of the world. “I could not hear nor see anything that took place. They no longer heard me from the world which had become for me a forbidden space … a closed world … wrinkled as it were, fissured, metallic, infinitely hostile … in a light without light.” (Découvertes, 104).

If the intimate, the familiar, the customary become potentially dangerous and disastrous, so does the alluring unknown, new and untried. A double movement animates Ionesco’s perception of himself in regard to reality and it fashions the spatial images through which he projects himself. His stage world is in fact a physical extension of that perception, an attempted exorcism of inner danger via the stage. Only occasionally does Ionesco “become again the spectator of the whole spectacle.” And, if he started to write plays, it was, in order to “surround himself with a world, to speak from out of that world, from that stage-world to the world.” (Découvertes 91).

The personal concerns of Ionesco are clearly stated through the metaphors that shaped the stage-world of the three later plays: the disintegrating palace and kingdom are correlatives for the decay of a body, and of the whole system of relations of which it is the center; Bérenger’s “Stroll in the air” leads him, via the magic bridge into hostile cold spaces where he is “shut out” from human warmth. Jean’s escape from the mud-invaded family basement lifts him to the exalted but solitary peaks, thence into a prison for those who hunger and thirst for certainty, an illusory refuge whose symbolism I shall explore later. Ionesco has taken pains to emphasize the personal and emotive source of the play: “I had written the work so that I might learn to die. It was to be a lesson, a sort of physical exercise, a gradual progress, stage by stage towards the ineluctable end, which I tried to make accessible to other people” (Fragments … 88), he says of Exit the King. When discovering A Stroll in the Air, he notes that it was born of a long-time dream of an English holiday and his biographical allusions to Hunger and Thirst are innumberable: “I have travelled in search of an intact world over which time would have no power. The food I hunger for, the drink for which I thirst are not an infant’s food or drink. Knowledge is what I hunger and thirst for. If I really knew what I hunger and thirst for I should feel easier … The man who gives everything becomes like someone dying of hunger and thirst, lying on the grond, pale, gasping, begging for a glass of water. It is going to be an endless business feeding him. The man who has given everything takes everything back. He is insatiable.” (Fragments 11, 60, 89) In this context, the pseudomonastery of the play, with its suave brainwashing techniques and ruthless apparatus of coercion and constraint, is Ionesco’s symbolisation of totalitarian attempts to control and exploit that inner craving, itself expressed in the vision of the garden just out of reach—the garden enclosing the loved wife and child, removed from the trivialities of everyday living.

These three plays unquestionably reveal an aspect of Ionesco which has heretofore remained elusive, but they are also a key to his limitations. They develop through initial metaphors that cannot evolve dramatically; it seems plausible to surmise that the cinema would prove a more satisfactory medium. The most successful of these plays is Exit the King, where the situation, the stage metaphor and the personal emotion at its source are particularly well integrated. But the difficulty with which Ionesco must contend is nonetheless obvious. Once the image of the disintegrating world has been posed in terms of the physical environment of the king, only through reports can its step-by-step progress be registered in the play until it actually reaches the body of the king. In other words, the metaphor can only be reiterated and diversified, not greatly extended. A baroque verbal inventiveness alone reflects the struggle between the king’s failing hold on life and the final relinquishment of life in death. The baroque and rather lugubriously comic visions of the king’s real decrepitude visible in the physical space around him function a surface diversions rather than as expressions of a growing inner awareness. Much in the same way the fantasy world of Stroller in the Air is presented visually rather than dramatically; it is episodic in structure. Although, in my eyes at least, the fairy-tale quality is real and both theme and techniques valid and innovative, the actual stage display overshadows the personal communication Ionesco intended: levitation in space, like physical disintegration, does not harbour many dramatic possibilities. In other words, since in these plays the essential theme is visually expressed, language is in fact accessory. This is disconcerting for the audience at a loss to relate the visual to the commentary it elicits. What Ionesco seems to have tried to do is paradoxical. An “inventive or creative” language, he notes in Découvertes, is the attempt to “seize, state, integrate and communicate something incommunicable to still uncommunicated”; and in order to make his statement the writer must “disarticulate” language, make it transparent so that the world can appear “through it in its original strangeness.” But in fact, as he “organizes his phantasms”—to use his terms—on stage in A Stroll in the Air, the actual language through which the “world,” Ionesco’s world, appears is largely hieroglyphic. The central theme is the physical “take off” of Bérenger into the spaces beyond, his disappearance and return and his unwelcome attempt to communicate the emptiness and void he has encountered. The idea is simple and the stage metaphor through which it is enacted is simple too, an adaptation to the stage of circus acrobatics. But the ambience within which Bérenger’s exploit takes place is intricate, involving criss-cross patterns of situation and mood, in pure Ionesco style, developing one out of the other through the interplay of language. One may fully enjoy the “fête” as Ionesco calls it of changing perspectives, as language effectively disrupts rigid patterns of behavior to display mood—a mood of delight in things, and harmony with them. It is possible too to follow the development of the situation as Bérenger’s elation turns into vision, and the “anti-world” begins to invade the real. But from there on any creative use of language is lost as the significance of the situation is polarized in the concrete image of Bérenger’s acrobatics in space. The stage image, is not strong enough or rich enough to give the play a continuing impetus, and it weakens what appears to be Ionesco’s intent: to communicate his own sense of a man’s immense curiosity for and confrontation with the unknowable. Hunger and Thirst seems to have been Ionesco’s attempt at a total objective statement of the contradictory inner experience born of his “encounters with the world.” He seems to have sensed the limitations put upon the development of the play by the metaphoric extension of mood to a physical outer stage space. Hunger and Thirst seems to evidence his desire to move out of the one-act single situation pattern prevalent in his theater. It certainly suggests a cyclical pattern: in the first act Jean’s sense of the familiar world of wife and child as intolerable routine and limitation is symbolized in the disintegrating basement of the stage set and the conflict between his love for his wife and his revolt ends with his disappearance; the emergence of Jean on the high mountain summit outside a museum in pure and dazzling light is the locus of the second act, a dead end where Jean’s expected rendez-vous with “her” does not take place. In the third act Jean, worn out and starved, arrives at the ambiguous innmonastery where he is held. Through the bars he glimpses his goal, the ideal garden in which the wife and child he left fourteen years before dwell in harmony. The metaphor of the voyage links the three main scenes. But again they themselves are static. And the drama seems to reside in their immutability, and one might infer, in their co-existence. It would of course be necessary to study in greater detail the play of language within each unit so established, but this would go well beyond the limits of this paper.

What I have attempted to establish is that the three plays in question constitute an earnest and deliberate effort on the part of Ionesco to communicate, via the stage, a view of life as provisional, sincere, problematic, yet positive. It is an attempt to transcend the closed world of the individual ego. If the dramatist did not fully succeed, I have suggested that it is largely because his initial awareness of existence is essentially contemplative and passive, embodied in the spatial metaphors by which his characters are bounded and which elicits their reactions. The drama in the three plays of the sixties arises from the central character’s obligation in Exit the King or, in the other two plays, his impulse to “pass beyond,” a passage only realized in death.

Ionesco has been reproached for his foray into metaphysics. Yet, in terms of the playwright himself it corresponded to a need; and though as a result, these plays except for Exit the King have been less successful than the earlier ones, they are undoubtedly far more interesting as a key to the man’s sensibility, and perhaps to his limitations. For Ionesco a play is essentially a “projection of the self into that substance which is the world … that is to say a pattern, a shape, an architecture.” (Fragments, 129) It would be idle to attempt to differentiate between the three words as applied to his work. But all three point to an overall static design rather than to any dynamics within the structure. In the last analysis one is tempted to conclude that, in a very real sense, Ionesco’s language was used in his first plays as a form of collage, a sonorous outer substance. The last plays are attempts at regaining conscious control of one’s emotions; they present mature forms of structuring that seem uneasily poised between the episodic fable, personal and didactic, and the lyrical quest with its episodes of departure, alienation, return and reconciliation. But in neither case is the basic “pattern”, “shape”, or “architecture” dramatic, except insofar as it is a spectacle wherein Ionesco as playwright re-establishes himself as “eye” confronting, first through the malleable stuff of language, then through his mythical doubles, his disturbing “encounters” with the world.


  1. “I was eyes, wide open in stupefaction and incomprehension.” Découvertes (Geneva: Editions Albert Skira, 1969), p. 28.

  2. Notes et Contre-notes, Gallimard. Collection “Idées” 1962 (295-96). I shall refer to the volume as Notes … “Apparitions” and disappearances whether of people and things have been a constant, sometimes refreshing, sometimes tiresome feature of Ionesco’s stage-craft. They are obviously connected with his perception of reality as gratuitous spectacle and transferred to his stage via the mediation of puppet show techniques; the puppet show in itself, as Ionesco has often said, was one of the most memorable “apparitions” in his childhood world.

  3. Fragments of a Journal (New York: Grove Press, 1969), p. 11.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ibid., p. 147.

  6. Croce’s clear-cut distinction of the intuitive-aesthetic and logical-demonstrative, his attack upon “historical intellectualism,” his insistence upon the “non-logical, non-historical character of the aesthetic fact” are all echoed in Ionesco’s essays. One might summarize Ionesco’s fundamental point of view by quoting Croce as follows: “The aesthetic fact is altogether completed in the expressive elaboration of impressions. When we have achieved the word within us, conceived definitely and vividly a figure or statue, or found a musical motive, expression is born and is complete; there is no need for anything else” (Aesthetic translated by Douglas Ainslee [New York, The Noonday Press, 1960]. p. 50).

  7. Le Figaro littéraire, January 7, 1972.

  8. He identifies himself as King, not only in his illustrations but in Fragments of a Journal: “I am the principal figure, the center of the cosmos (that developed over the years)” p. 109.

  9. Ionesco specifically connects the Manifestation with childhood, with a world from which “the shadows disappear” and in which “wonder” enlarges his eyes once more as the world opens up again.

  10. “Never have I written with so much pleasure on a theme or themes that are rather sinister,” said Ionesco of Macbett. “In spite of all that is going on around me I was seized as I progressed, in spite of Pakistan, Ireland, India, Africa, Asia, America, Europe, by a happiness I don’t understand myself.” Op. cit.

  11. He links it with his childhood terror at the flooding of his house by the rising water of the Seine.

  12. Fragments of a Journal, pp. 117, 134, 147.

Nancy Lane (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6421

SOURCE: “Human/Non-human Relationships in Ionesco’s Theatre: Conflict and Collaboration,” in Kentucky Romance Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer 1983, pp. 240-50.

[In the following essay, Lane examines the role of décor in Ionesco’s plays, asserting that the external surroundings interact with other “characters” on stage in a wide range of relationships, for example as antagonists and collaborators.]

One of the most striking features of Eugène Ionesco’s theatre is the prominent role accorded to décor. In fact, so many critics have commented upon this subject that there might appear to be little or nothing left to add to the volumes already written. Nearly all critics (relying perhaps too much on lonesco’s own extraordinarily verbose commentary on his motives and personal obsessions1) have viewed the role of décor as metaphorical, without defining exactly what a theatrical metaphor might be, or distinguishing such a figure from metaphors found in poetry, prose fiction, or essays. The proliferation of objects, for example, has been interpreted as a metaphor translating Ionesco’s metaphysical anguish when confronted by the “trop plein” of the material world and the ontological “vide” of human existence. Rosette Lamont compares the proliferation of matter in Ionesco’s plays to Sartrian nausea, summoning up a “private nightmare of all men, of Man, in fact, when he becomes aware of his human situation in the oppressive, heavy world of material presences.”2 Similar is Dubrovsky’s well-known analysis of the same phenomenon in what he calls an “ontological” theatre: “Cette croissance géométrique et incontrôlable d’objects pour la plupart de fabrication humaine et qui finissent par chasser l’homme traduit à la fois le vain effort de l’homme pour se donner par une production matérielle insensée l’être qui lui manque et la victoire ontologique inévitable de l’en-soi sur le pour-soi. Les choses sont le cauchemar de la conscience.”3 References to dreams abound in Ionesco criticism, even as above in critics who see Ionesco’s work as basically metaphysical in its orientation, and a number of critics (including Ionesco himself) analyze the role of décor in psychological terms; décor becomes the objective correlative of oneiric, Jungian archetypes. For Paul Vernois, as for many others, it is axiomatic that Ionesco’s theatre is oneiric, originating in images and symbols associated with personal as well as archetypal myths. Referring to recurring objects, Vernois states: “Eléments essentiels d’une technique onirique, ils poussent au délire les pulsions et les répulsions des personnages: à travers eux se renforce jusqu’à l’absurde le caractère insolite de la mise en scène.”4 Closely linked to such analyses are those which take as their point of departure Ionesco’s widely-quoted pronouncement that at the origin of his theatre is the opposition between “evanescence” and “lourdeur.”5 Richard Coe’s analysis follows this line of inquiry, for example: “La vision, chez Ionesco, d’un univers instable entre le diaphane et l’impénétrable, la volatilité de l’esprit et la lourdeur du plomb … trouve son expression dramatique dans des effets de lumière et de décors. D’un côté, la fluorescence verte triste et nue de Jacques et des Chaises, le rayonnement froid de Tueur sans gages ou du scénario de ballet Apprendre â marcher; de l’autre côté, l’annihilation progressive de l’esprit et de la vie de l’être humain par la prolifération des objects.”6

All of these critics, whether they view décor as metaphysical metaphor or psychological projection, have provided valuable insights into Ionesco’s theatre, but they have also sometimes given the mistaken impression that the relationships between the human and non-human domains in these plays is a personal phenomenon arising from the playwright’s inner visions. Furthermore, such analyses often fail to take into account the unique semiotic system of the theatre, ignoring differences as fundamental as those between plays and other types of discourse, or between dramatic characters and human beings.7

Rather than being an exclusively personal characteristic of Ionesco’s theatre, the elevation of the status of décor arises from a recognition and exploitation of theatre as a performed genre distinguishing much of 20th-century French theatre from traditional “realistic” theatre. Strictly speaking, the play itself exists only on the level of the performed. Elements of the performance (lighting, props, sound effects, etc.) which are clearly non-human in the world of the performance are equally capable of performing a character in the play as is a human actor. In fact, the blurring or elimination of boundaries separating the human and non-human codes is one of the hallmarks of the work of playwrights as diverse as Apollinaire, Cocteau, Ribemont-Dessaignes, Ivan Goll, Ghelderode, Tardieu, Adamov, Arrabal, Weingarten, Vian, Vauthier, and Beckett. In such plays, non-human elements of décor are no longer servile accessories in the world of the play; neither are they metaphors, signifiers limited to a role of psychological projection. Rather, they are true actors, performing characters involved in dynamic relationships with other characters, who may or may not be performed by human actors.8

Such dynamic relationships between human and non-human elements fall into one of two very general categories. In the first category are instances where human characters interact with a vivified non-human domain which remains separate from the human characters. In plays such as Beckett’s Comédie (in which a spotlight interrogates the human characters) or Vian’s Les Bâtisseurs d’empire (where a mysterious noise and its ally—le Schmürz—terrorize and finally murder the human family), for example, each character (human or non-human) is a discrete entity, and these characters relate to each other as antagonists. A second type of relationship exists when there is interpenetration of the two codes, so that a human character is not just at odds with a vivified environment, but is, to some degree, indistinguishable from it. That is, some of the signs which constitute a given dramatic character may be dispersed throughout the environment of the play, creating dynamic relationships of a sort different from those which operate between two separate characters.

Generally, most of Ionesco’s early plays fall into the first category outlined above. The clock in La Cantatrice chauve, the piles of furniture in Le Nouveau locataire, the eggs of L’Avenir est dans les oeufs, the teacups in Victimes du devoir, the cadaver/balloon of Amédée, or the chairs in Les Chaises are all examples of non-human performers which are hostile to the human characters. With the last two plays mentioned, however, the distinction between separate characters begins to blur; one frequent interpretation of the cadaver and mushrooms of Amédée is that they are symbolic exteriorizations of the human characters’ guilt and remorse.9 Such an interpretation is strongly seconded by Ionesco himself: “J’ai essayé, par exemple, d’extérioriser l’angoisse … de mes personnages dans les objets, de faire parler les décors, … de donner des images concrètes de la frayeur, ou du regret, du remords, de l’aliénation, …”10

As Ionesco’s craft matured, the relationship of human to non-human became the sort described in the second category. The proliferating object either disappeared or assumed a role less dominant than in the early plays,11 and other elements of décor (particularly lighting) began to perform, creating dynamics more sophisticated and complex than simple antagonism between separate human and non-human characters. An early example of this use of décor appears in Les Chaises, where the lighting at the end of the play brightens as the old couple’s emotions reach their peak, and fades to gloomy somberness with their death. Thus, there is collaboration between the light and the human characters. Even more than collaboration, however, there is a certain degree of identity between character and environment; the characters’ joy and death are exteriorized in an environment which participates with the human actors in performing the two aged characters. A similar use of décor appears much later in Scene 10 of Ce Formidable bordel! The main character’s sudden euphoria caused by a single ray of light is exteriorized in a complete transformation of the atmosphere of the bistro where he is seated: the light is bright and cheerful, the orders of the other customers are nearly sung rather than spoken, movements become dance-like, and even the sound of rattling dishes becomes melodious. This last example represents, however, more the exception than the rule in Ionesco’s most recent dramaturgy, where the role of décor has either become more clearly “spectacular” (as in La Soif et la Faim, for example) or has faded into relative insignificance alongside the increasingly verbal, stridently polemic, or specifically oneiric concerns of plays such as Ce Formidable bordel!, Jeux de massacre, or L’Homme aux valises.

While the role of the non-human domain is apparent in those plays filled with invading objects, it is in the complex, humanized plays of the “Bérenger” cycle that the role of décor, though perhaps less obvious, is dramatically richest, translating into dramatic signs man’s ambiguous relationship to his environment and even to himself. This essay will explore how the non-human elements of décor interact with the human domain in patterns of conflict and collaboration in two of these plays.

The role of lighting in Tueur sans gages12 has been remarked by nearly every critic of the play and by Ionesco himself; it is nearly universally accepted to be the re-creation of the euphoric feeling experienced by the playwright during his childhood at La Chapelle-Anthenaise.13 Not only is it the single most important element of décor, not only is it a potent symbol—it is, in fact, an active character in the play, both the accomplice and the enemy of Bérenger, the principal human character. From the moment the curtain rises on a nearly-empty stage, light is to play a major role. As Ionesco’s lengthy stage directions clearly indicate, apart from the human actors, light alone serves to establish the calm atmosphere and tone of the first act. Although lighting is practically the only décor, the “cité radieuse” in the world of the play is full of houses, trees, and flowers. Thus, the “cité” is unseen only for the spectator and not for the characters in the play.

This visit to a heretofore unknown part of the city is an overwhelming revelation for Bérenger. In the first place, it represents an absolute contrast to his everyday life in another part of the city. The bleak, grayish light of the very beginning of the play (before the appearance of the “cité”) had reflected the atmosphere which reigns throughout the rest of the city, where “le ciel est gris comme les cheveux d’une vieille femme” (p. 67). The contrast between the gray light in the rest of the city and the brilliance of the “cité radieuse” signifies far more than a simple difference in weather, however. In the play, the light—and all the rest of Bérenger’s surroundings—are inextricably linked to his emotions and desires. In his neighborhood, and, more specifically, in his apartment, “tout est humide: le charbon, le pain, le vent, le vin, les murs, l’air, et même le feu” (p. 67). As the Architect indicates, this state of affairs is not coincidental, but is rather the concrete manifestation of the mood of the inhabitants: “Je vois, c’est moral” (p. 66). By contrast, the light of the “cité” has the power to dissipate both meteorological and emotional gloom.

It would perhaps seem, at first glance, that the effect of the light on Bérenger’s emotional state is nothing more than the normal reaction good weather produces in one’s mood. In this play, however, the significance of the light is far greater; it is, in fact, a vitally important extension of Bérenger himself. The true significance of the light’s impact on Bérenger is quite clear in his lengthy explanation of his new-found joy, which is worth citing in its entirety:

Un décor, cela n’est que superficiel, de l’esthétisme, s’il ne s’agit pas, comment dire, d’un décor, d’une ambiance qui correspondrait à une nécessité intérieure, qui serait, en quelque sorte … le jaillissement, le prolongement de l’univers du dedans. Seulement, pour qu’il puisse jaillir, cet univers du dedans, il lui faut le secours extérieur d’une certaine lumière existante, physique, d’un monde objectivement nouveau. Des jardins, du ciel bleu, un printemps qui correspondent à l’univers intérieur, dans lequel celui-ci puisse se reconnaître, qui soit comme sa traduction ou comme son anticipation, ou ses miroirs dans lesquels son sourire pourrait se réfléchir … dans lesquels il puisse se reconnaître, dire: voilà ce que je suis en vérité et que j’avais oublié, un être souriant dans un monde souriant …En somme, monde intérieur, monde extérieur, ce sont des expressions impropres, il n’y a pas de véritables frontières entre ces soi-disant deux mondes; il y a une impulsion première, évidemment, qui vient de nous, et lorsqu’elle ne peut se réaliser objectivement, lorsqu’il n’y a pas accord total entre moi du dedans et moi du dehors c’est la catastrophe, la contradiction universelle, la cassure. (p. 73; emphasis added)

Bérenger thus establishes an identity between “monde intérieur” and “monde extérieur,” an identity which serves as the basis for dramatic tension in the play. The light in the “cité” is the “objective” exteriorization of the energy and “élan vital” which Bérenger had thought lost long ago; “ce foyer puissant de chaleur intérieure,” “une lumière rayonnante, des sources lumineuses de joie” (p. 74)—the very terms which he uses to describe this energy demonstrate the identity of internal and external worlds. The whole play is based upon a dichotomy between light and darkness, both interior and exterior. In a very concrete sense, light equals energy and life, while darkness equals fatigue and death. From the moment he enters the “cité radieuse,” Bérenger’s very existence is dependent upon his making of his environment an accomplice in his search for self-realization. In the internal and external radiance which he discovers here, Bérenger believes that he has finally found “un accord total entre moi du dedans et moi du dehors.”

This “accord total” is soon shattered, however, with Bérenger’s discovery that a mysterious assassin is decimating the population of the “cité.” The killer drowns two or three victims a day in a pool which appears suddenly on stage. (It is appropriate that this discordant note in the “cité” should appear to the audience, probably by means of projection. With the rest of the décor in the “cité” consisting solely of lighting, the sudden appearance of the pool is all the more shocking and sinister.) With the introduction of this jarring element, harmony—or collaboration—between character and environment is destroyed, and, as Bérenger had said, without harmony, “c’est la catastrophe, la contradiction universelle, la cassure.” The environment which Bérenger had thought was his accomplice has become his enemy, and he is plunged again into darkness and fatigue, now all the more intolerable because he has just experienced light and energy. Thus, Bérenger is compelled to begin his search for the killer, who seems to be immune from detection and capture. This search is no ordinary manhunt, but rather Bérenger’s desperate attempt to end conflict between the internal and external worlds, i.e., between the character and a hostile environment. This killer is a creature of darkness; by removing him, Bérenger hopes to reestablish harmony, to make an accomplice rather than an enemy of his environment.

In contrast to the stark brilliance of the first act, the décor of the second act is gloomy, “lourd, laid, et contraste fortement avec l’absence de décor ou le décor uniquement de lumière du premier acte” (p. 100). The setting is Bérenger’s apartment, the scenic exteriorization of the gray, damp, chilly existence which his visit to the “cité” has made intolerable. Armed with physical evidence supplied by a friend, Bérenger sets out to enlist the aid of the police in capturing the killer. As the spectator must suspect, and as the final act will reveal, the nature of the killer is such that he is invulnerable to anything so mundane as arrest by the police.

The final confrontation scene between Bérenger and the killer stands in symmetrical contrast to the beginning of the play. As in the beginning, light is almost the only element of décor, the rest of the set having faded into obscurity to leave Bérenger alone in the dim light of dusk. Just as the brilliant light of the “cité” was the exteriorization of confident energy and hope, this “lumière blafarde” is the exteriorization of Bérenger’s vulnerable, discouraged fatigue.

In the stage directions, Ionesco offers two alternative suggestions of how the character of the killer should be performed. The killer may either be performed by an actor or: “Une autre possibilité: pas du Tueur. On n’entend que son ricanement. Bérenger parle seul dans l’ombre.” (p. 162.) In our opinion, the second alternative is by far the better choice. In the first place, an unseen killer establishes or reinforces the symmetry of the play. The “cité radieuse” was a city of light, and the killer is a creature of darkness; the absence of a human actor to perform the killer thus corresponds to the absence of a detailed set in the “cité.” A human actor in this role might even detract from the killer’s impact, for the somber lighting and Bérenger’s own fear make the killer’s presence just as palpable and, perhaps, even more threatening than would be the case if a human actor were to perform this role. With an “invisible” killer, the light-darkness dichotomy upon which the play is based is maintained. The gloom of the play’s ending balances the radiance of the beginning; the radiance, which was Bérenger’s accomplice in his quest for life, is finally vanquished by darkness. Bérenger finds an enemy rather than a benevolent collaborator in his environment, and the triumph of darkness over light is the triumph of death over life—the catastrophe which Bérenger had earlier feared.

An unseen killer is thus indicated by the opposition of light and darkness in the play. There is, however, an even more compelling reason why the killer should not be performed by a human actor. Bérenger’s search for the killer was based on his assumption that his relationship to the killer is one of simple conflict with a being separate from himself. By eliminating the killer, he hopes to reestablish harmony with his environment. With a human actor in the role of the killer, this assumption would tend to be confirmed, and Bérenger’s death would be the result of conflict with a hostile alien force. As Bérenger has said, however, there are no barriers between the internal and external worlds, and we have hypothesized an identity between these two worlds as being of fundamental importance in this play. Viewed from this perspective, the killer is the exteriorization of Bérenger’s own fear to the same degree that the “cité” was the exteriorization of his hopes, and what seems at first to be conflict between character and environment becomes collaboration or complicity instead. First, as Ionesco indicates at the beginning of the final scene, the killer’s presence is a function of Bérenger’s fear: “On devra sentir la proximité de sa présence par la montée même de l’angoisse de Bérenger” (pp. 158-59). Then, Bérenger attempts to enter into dialogue with the killer, trying to find out what motivates him and what might placate him, but the killer’s only response is an occasional chuckle. In fact, it is Bérenger himself who supplies all of the killer’s responses.14 With an “invisible” killer, this scene is more clearly monologue than dialogue, in spite of Bérenger’s assumption to the contrary. Ultimately, Bérenger’s failure to elicit any answer from the killer stems from the fact that Bérenger is, finally, the killer’s accomplice; as the stage directions indicate: “Bérenger trouve en lui-même, malgré lui-même, contre lui-même, des arguments en faveur du Tueur” (p. 62). With all attempts to enter into dialogue necessarily proving fruitless, Bérenger makes one last desperate effort to vanquish the killer by shooting him, but this last spasm of life asserted against death is doomed to failure.15 Once again, the absence of a human actor in this role would be effective here, underscoring the futility of Bérenger’s struggle. As the play ends, he drops the pistols with which he would have shot the killer, assumes a position of complete submission, and gives up the struggle.

In spite of Bérenger’s assertions to the contrary, the relationship between this character and the killer is one of collaboration rather than conflict. Since the interior and exterior worlds are inextricably linked with each other, the conflict between light and darkness—between the “cité radieuse” and the killer—is the exteriorization of the conflict between life and death within Bérenger himself, and the character’s death is not so much a murder as it is suicide. Schematically, the tensions in the play may be represented as shown in the diagram.

By the projection of conflicting aspects of Bérenger’s personality into his surroundings, Tueur sans gages illustrates interpenetration of character and environment. Le Roi se meurt, on the other hand, presents collaboration between character and environment in its most extreme form.

In an article entitled “Ionesco and the Phantom,” Kenneth Tynan criticized Ionesco in the following terms: “M. Ionesco, I fear, is on the brink of believing that his distortions are more valid and important than the external world it is their proper function to interpret. To adapt Johnson, I am not yet so lost in drama criticism as to forget that plays are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven. But M. Ionesco is in danger of forgetting; of locking himself up in that hall of mirrors which in philosophy is known as solipsism.”16 It is not our concern here to debate whether or not Ionesco is “guilty” of solipsism; in any case, we do not agree that the “proper function” of a play is to “interpret the external world.” The word “solipsism” is, however, particularly appropriate when applied to certain characters in some of Ionesco’s plays; collaboration between a character and his surroundings ultimately implies a certain degree of solipsism. In Le Roi se meurt17 the world of the play is, in fact, completely solipsistic with regard to its central character, King Bérenger I.

As the title indicates, the play is concerned with the last few hours in the life of Bérenger. It is not about death so much as it is about the process of dying: when Bérenger finally dies, the play is over. Bérenger’s first wife Marguerite clearly establishes this identity between the play and Bérenger’s final agony when she tells him: “Tu vas mourir dans une heure et demie, tu vas mourir à la fin du spectacle” (p. 22). The ending of the play is thus fixed from the beginning; the question is not whether the king will die, but rather how he will die.

Tension is established between opposing forces which try to pull Bérenger in opposite directions. Marguerite and his doctor tell Bérenger that he must abdicate “moralement, administrativement,” and “physiquement” (p. 23). Defying these forces which advocate acquiescence is Marie, the king’s young second wife, who urges him to refuse to give his consent to death. In the middle is Bérenger, who begins by refusing to accept Marguerite’s assertion: “Je mourrai quand je voudrai, je suis le Roi, c’est moi qui décide” (p. 23). The progression (or “plot”) of the play consists of Bérenger’s moving from this position to one of acquiescence.18

A second source of dramatic interest in the play is the collaboration of the “exterior” world in Bérenger’s death. As was the case in Tueur sans gages, there are no boundaries separating “monde intérieur” from “monde extérieur” in King Bérenger’s solipsistic world. At one point, he even echoes Tynan’s remark about the “hall of mirrors” in which Ionesco is allegedly trapped: “Je me vois. Derrière toute chose, je suis. … Je suis la terre, je suis le ciel, je suis le vent, je suis le feu. Suis-je dans tous les miroirs, ou bien suis-je le miroir de tout?” (p. 67.)

As the play progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the entire world of the play exists totally as a function of Bérenger’s will, an exteriorization of the character himself. Before the character even appears, his imminent death is reflected in the state of disrepair into which the palace is falling. The Guard tries to heat up the room, to no avail: “Chauffage allume-toi. Rien à faire, ça ne marche pas. Chauffage, allume-toi. Le radiateur reste froid. Ce n’est pas ma faute. Il ne m’a pas dit qu’il me retirait la délégation du feu!” (p. 10.) The floor is covered with dust and cigarette butts; during the night, a crack has appeared in the wall, and Marguerite announces that it is “irreversible.” Toward the end of the play, it is the widening of this fissure which signals the imminence of the character’s death. After the king’s kidneys stop functioning the loud beating of his heart literally shakes the palace, causing the walls to tremble and fall.19

It is not only the on-stage world, but also the off-stage world of the play which is falling into ruin and chaos. As his two wives remark, Bérenger and his kingdom grew up together, and they are disappearing together (p. 62). The cow in the stable can no longer give milk, and the only children left in the kingdom are “quelques enfants goitreux, débiles mentaux congénitaux, des mongoliens, des hydrocéphales” (p. 22). The country’s borders and mountains are shrinking, and the whole kingdom is dying.20 Ruin extends even beyond the kingdom into the cosmos itself. Mars and Saturn have collided, the Sun has lost most of its energy, snow is falling on the Sun’s north pole, the Milky Way is congealing, and the comet, exhausted and moribund, has curled up with its tail around it, like a dying dog (p. 17). As Juliette the maid observes: “La terre s’efface avec lui. Les astres s’évanouissent. L’eau disparaît. Disparaissent le feu, l’air, un univers, tant d’univers. … Il emporte tout cela dans son gouffre.” (p. 62.)

Bérenger’s surroundings thus reflect and collaborate in his death; the world of the play is indeed an extension of the character. It is during Bérenger’s final dying moments, however, that the solipsism of the world of the play becomes absolute. First of all, the other characters disappear one by one; when the king is no longer able to see or remember them, they cease to exist. First Marie, then the Guard, Juliette, and the Doctor disappear, until Bérenger is left alone with Marguerite to guide him through the final steps toward death. Bérenger dies, and the stage directions show clearly that the world of the play dies with him.21 Ionesco’s emphasis on the importance of this final “jeu de décor” underlines the vital role décor must play in any production of Le Roi se meurt. By capitalizing on the capacity of non-human elements to perform, just as the human actors perform, the play powerfully presents the process of dying viewed from the perspective of a character whose whole world disappears along with him. Solipsism is no defect here, but rather the primary source of the play’s considerable impact.

The theoretical framework offered here, because it is based on appreciation of performance rather than on texts alone, will provide a useful analytical model for dealing with the role of décor, not only in Ionesco, but in the many other plays which exploit human/non-human relationships. This does not contradict interpretations based on literary, metaphysical, or psychological grounds; rather, it complements them, providing a specifically theatrical field to which such grids may be applied. Once décor is accorded the status of actor, the character it performs becomes capable of interacting with other characters in a wide range of relationships, only two of which—antagonist and collaborator—are studied here.


  1. The most illuminating of Ionesco’s remarks on theatre remain those in the collection of essays Notes et contre-notes (Paris: Gallimard, 1962), in the journal extracts published in Journal en miettes (Paris: Mercure de France, 1967) and Présent passé passé présent (Paris: Mercure de France, 1968), and in the Entretiens avec Eugène Ionesco (Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1966), a series of interviews done by Claude Bonnefoy. Although they contain some important texts, the more recent collections—Antidotes (Paris: Gallimard, 1977) and Un Homme en question (Paris: Gallimard, 1979)—are less useful in providing insight into Ionesco’s work, since they are repetitive and devoted in large part to denunciations of political tyranny.

  2. Rosette C. Lamont, “The Proliferation of Matter in Ionesco’s Plays,” Esprit Créateur 2 (1962), 193.

  3. J. Serge Dubrovsky, “Le Rire de Ionesco,” Nouvelle Revue Française (Feb., 1960), p. 317. This article appeared first in English under the title “Eugène Ionesco and the Comedy of the Absurd” in Yale French Studies 23 (1959), 3-10. For similar discussions of the proliferating object, see Claude Abastado, Eugène Ionesco (Paris: Bordas, 1971), p. 244, and Jacques Guicharnaud, Modern French Theatre from Giraudoux to Genet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), pp. 221-28.

  4. Paul Vernois, La Dynamique théâtrale d’Eugène Ionesco (Paris: Klincksieck, 1972), p. 167. Several other critics have used a Jungian or psychoanalytical approach to this question, often with fascinating results. In the chapter on Ionesco (“Ionesco: Paroxysm and Proliferation”) in his book The Psychology of Tragic Drama (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), Patrick Roberts associates proliferation (of words as well as objects) with infantile anxieties. In “La Proliferation dans le théâtre d’Eugène Ionesco,” published in Paul Vernois, ed., L’Onirisme et l’insolite dans le théâtre français contemporain (Paris: Klincksieck, 1974), Michel Lioure calls proliferating objects “métaphores obsédantes” deriving from a ‘mythe personnel” (p. 135), and also finds that proliferation of matter is but a sub-category of proliferation of all kinds: verbosity, procreation, contagion, and death, extending to the plot and structure of the plays. Ionesco has written at length about his own dreams. See especially Journal en miettes (pp. 35-37, 44-45, 54-55, 81-143), which contains many accounts of dreams as well as Ionesco’s thoughts on Jung and Freud; also, Entretiens. … pp. 10-11, 38-41, 74-75.

  5. See, for example, Entretiens … p. 41: “Vous dites qu’il y a dans mon théâtre beaucoup de boue, d’enlisement. Cela correspond à l’un de mes deux états. Je me sens ou bien lourd ou bien léger, ou bien trop lourd ou bien trop léger. La légèreté c’est l’évanescence euphorique qui peut devenir tragique ou douleureuse quand il y a angoisse.”

  6. Richard Coe, “La Farce tragique,” Cahiers Renaud-Barrault 42 (1963), 48. See also Leonard Pronko, “The Anti-Spiritual Victory in the Theatre of Ionesco,” Modern Drama 2 (1959), 29-35; and Rosette C. Lamont, “Air and Matter: Ionesco’s Le Piéton de l’Air and Victimes du devoir,French Review 38 (1965), 349-361.

  7. Unlike a human being, a dramatic character neither lives nor dies, but only appears; a dramatic character is seen and heard, but only during a dramatic performance, and can never be touched. A dramatic character is a set of gestures, “une entité psychologique sans physiologie” (Robert Champigny, Le Genre dramatique [Monte Carlo: Regain, 1965], p. 139).

  8. Several critics have emphasized the use of object as actor. Simone Benmussa, in “Les Ensevelis dans le théâtre d’Eugène Ionesco,” Cahiers Renaud-Barrault 22-23 (1958), 197-207, states that “l’objet posséde une vie propre” and says that Ionesco’s work differs from contemporary realism because “l’objet y joue un rôle indépendant” (p. 201). In his Le Théâtre de dérision (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), Emmanuel Jacquart speaks of what he calls “le langage scénique” in a fashion quite reminiscent of Artaud: “Décors, costumes, accessoires, éclairages, bruitages et dialogues [and, one might add, the body and voice of the human actor] n’ont plus d’existence propre. C’est par leur convergence, leur complémentarité ou leur contradiction qu’ils donnent le jour au sens.” (p. 150.) For Jacques Poliéri, “L’objet dans le théâtre de Ionesco … est considéré comme un personnage parmi d’autres” (“Notes sur le texte, le décor et le geste dans le théâtre de Jean Tardieu,” Cahiers Renaud-Barrault 22-3 [1958], 208-210).

  9. Robert Tener, in “These Places, This Private Landscape: First Suggestions for a Topological Approach to Ionesco’s Bérenger Plays,” Papers on Language and Literature 13 (1977), 391-400, discusses the intimate relationship of inner and outer realities in Ionesco’s theatre: “The sense that a human being is spatially analagous to an inner and outer world and reflects a similar binary configuration in the universe permeates Ionesco’s thought.” Richard Schechner finds, in “The Inner and the Outer Reality,” Tulane Drama Review 7 (1963), 187-217, that dialectical tension between inner and outer reality—never in harmony with each other—replaces plot, and that proliferation of objects is symbolic of characters’ alienation from themselves and from the world. Both of these analyses are similar, in part, to the approach I will use below in explicating two Bérenger plays.

  10. Notes et contre-notes, p. 86.

  11. According to Schechner, in the article cited above, this is because the characters in the later plays are no longer alienated, are no longer ontologically insecure. As for the proliferation of suitcases at the end of L’Homme aux valises, these objects do not engulf or dominate the human characters as is the case in the early plays.

  12. Eugène Ionesco, Théâtre, 5 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1954-74), II, 59-171. References to this play will be documented parenthetically in the text.

  13. See, for example, Journal … pp. 68-70; Entretiens … pp. 14-15.

  14. “Elle est trop loin, la Préfecture? Ou est-ce moi qui ai parlé? (Ricanement du Tueur.) Vous vous moquez de moil! J’appelle la police, on va vous arrêter. (Ricanement du Tueur.) Vous dites que c’est inutile, on ne m’entendrait pas d’ici?” (p. 162.)

  15. “Oh—que ma force est faible contre ta froide détermination, contre ta cruauté sans merci! … Et que peuvent les balles elles-mêmes contre l’énergie infinie de ton obstination?” (p. 171.)

  16. Kenneth Tynan, “Ionesco and the Phantom,” The Observer (6 July 1958), p. 15.

  17. Théâtre, IV, 7-74. References to this play will be given parenthetically in the text.

  18. Ionesco’s obsession with the whole matter of death and dying is well-known; most critics have viewed this play as a ritualized apprenticeship, inspired by Ionesco’s readings in non-Western mystical or religious writings, and providing an optimistic alternative to nihilism. Rosette Lamont, in “The Double Apprenticeship: Life and the Process of Dying,” in The Phenomenon of Death: Faces of Mortality, ed. Edith Wyschogrod (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), pp. 198-224, sees the king’s death as metamorphosis into Bodhisattva. M.S. Barranger follows in the same direction, using Tibetan Yoga as the basis for seeing the end of the play as a triumph rather than a tragedy (“Death as Initiation in Exit the King,Educational Theater Journal 27 [1975], 504-07). Warren Tucker, in “Le Roi se meurt” et les Upanishads,French Review 49 (1976), 397-400, uses Hindu mythology as the basis for his equally positive interpretation of the play. Although Tucker never mentions Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s study of terminally-ill patients On Death and Dying (New York: Macmillan, 1969), he mentions that the king passes through exactly those five stages experienced by terminally-ill patients: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is my opinion that it is Ionesco’s profound insight into the psychology of dying which explains the stages through which Bérenger passes, rather than an optimistic belief in the achieving of some sort of serenity after death. All of Ionesco’s self-described moments of euphoria are accompanied by intense light, brilliance, and evanescence. The ending of this play is somber and dark in the extreme, which would seem to undermine an interpretation of the play as a serene acceptance of death as metamorphosis.

  19. “ … Un coeur fou. Vous entendez? (On entend les battements affolés du coeur du Roi:) Ça part, çca va trés vite, ça ralentit, ça part de nouveau à toute allure. (Les battements de coeur du Roi ébranlent la maison. La fissure s’élargit au mur, d’autres apparaissent. Un pan peut s’écrouler ou s’effacer).” (p. 63; it is the doctor who is speaking.)

  20. “Le printemps qui était encore là hier soir nous a quittés il y a deux heures trente. Voici novembre. Audelà des frontières, l’herbe s’est mise à pousser. … Chez nous, les feuilles se sont desséchées. Elles se décrochent. Les arbres soupirent et meurent. La terre se fend encore plus que d’habitude.” (p. 17.)

  21. “Le Roi est assis sur son trône. On aura vu, pendant cette dernière scène, disparaître progressivement les portes, les fenêtres, les murs de la salle du trône. Ce jeu de décor est très important.

    “Maintenant, il n’y a plus rien sur le plateau sauf le Roi sur son trône dans une lumière grise. Puis, le Roi et son trône disparaissent également.

    “Enfin, il n’y a plus que cette lumière grise.

    “La disparition des fenêtres, portes, murs, Roi et trône doit se faire lentement, progressivement, très nettement. Le Roi assis sur son trône doit rester visible quelque temps avant de sombrer dans une sorte de brume.” (p. 74.)

Lynne Retford (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1434

SOURCE: “Irony in Ionesco,” in French Literature Series, Vol. XIV, 1987, pp. 174-77.

[In the following essay, Retford explores four categories of irony in The Lesson, The Bald Soprano, The Killer, and Victims of Duty, and asserts that Ionesco uses irony to reflect and world in flux and as a statement of his metaphysical sentiments that life is both tragic and comic.]

Eugene Ionesco transmits an extreme awareness of the plight of contemporary man through an artistic act of defiance at the absurdity of existence. This note, using the four plays La Leçon. La Cantatrice Chauve, Tueur sans gages and Victimes du devoir, explores four categories of irony: Cosmic Irony, Personal Irony, the Irony of Systems, and Artistic Irony.


Cosmic irony is a given in the Ionescian world. There is a metaphysical conflict which is productive of irony: on one hand, the endeavor of man to judge the universe in terms of an ultimate ideal or goal, and on the other, the perception of non-rationality and lack of purpose which constitute that universe.

This is the key theme of cosmic irony, but Ionesco works more specifically with other manifestations. For him, because death is inescapable, life is absurd. Life is constantly in a state of breaking down:

Le Professeur: Il ne faut pas uniquement intégrer. Il faut aussi désintégrer. C’est ça la vie. …1

In Tueur sans gages we see death as being everywhere, affecting men, women and children without discrimination, and knowing everything: to Ionesco, it is this fact which makes life so unreal. He shows, however, that death does not work in a vacuum, for the victims and the killer in Tueur sans gages are accomplices. Outside of literature, in this day of terrorism and hostage-taking, this collusion is commonly known as the “Stockholm Syndrome.”


Ionesco’s view of man is pessimistic, and indeed, derisory. His characters are not so much persons as they are personnages. Their lives are banal and their most trivial experiences merit the word fantastique. Characters have become automatons, which leads to comic results, and also tragic irony.

They refuse to take personal responsibility for their actions. Both Victimes du devoir and Tueur sans gages are plays about the rupture between private and public lives. We know what this attitude leads to: Madeleine allies herself with the policeman in torturing her husband, and does it in the name of hospitality. Other Ionesco plays also reveal this theme: in La Leçon, the maid is an accomplice to the professor’s crime, and in Tueur sans gages, we are led to fault Edouard for the murders as we do the Killer. Fear of assuming risks only leads to ugliness and destruction. People even refuse to accept the responsibility for finding meaning in their own lives. In Victimes du devoir, Choubert’s father states: “Tu naquis, mon fils, juste au moment où j’allais dynamiter la planète. C’est ta naissance qui la sauva. Tu m’empêchas, du moins, de tuer le monde dans mon coeur …” (p. 205).

They cannot and/or will not think for themselves. Madeleine suggests that Choubert speak with some “authorized person” before he decides on the validity of his artistic theories, and in the same play the policeman calls himself a soldier who does not think, but only carries out the orders he receives. What Ionesco does is show us the essence of humans (care, acceptance of responsibilities, thought) broken down. People kill in order to live: “La mort n’a pas à être appuyée par une idéologie. Vivre c’est mourir et c’est tuer: chaque créature se défend en tuant, tue pour vivre.”2


Ionesco’s pessimistic world view finds yet another expression in the ridigity of systems. His condemnation of systems is enormous in scope, covering educational, psychological, political, philosophical and artistic systems in the four plays. The idea of causation is mocked, first in La Cantatrice Chauve, and then in Tueur sans gages, when the concierge explains to the mailman: “Ça c’est trop fort! Il peut pas être sorti. Peut-être qu’il dort, mais c’est pas dans ses habitudes! Frappez plus fort. Moi, je vais voir!”3 (p. 114).

Bérenger’s argument with the Killer at the end of Tueur sans gages is useless for two reasons: first, because Death is inescapable, and second, because no system can hope to convince because they are all impractical and unworkable. The characters, nonetheless, continue to believe in the various systems although they have been proved not to work.

In his Notes et contre-notes, Ionesco makes these observations about political and social systems: “Aucune société n’a pu abolir la tristesse humaine, aucun système politique ne peut nous libérer de la douleur de vivre, de la peur de mourir, de notre soif de l’absolu. C’est la condition humaine qui gouverne la condition sociale, non le contraire …” (p. 143). In many instances, man is defined through his social utility, and not through his “human” attributes, an attitude which creates the rupture between personal and public life. Ironically, the people who make the most sense in the Ionescian world are those who are not involved in a formal, organized system. These are the members of the lower classes (the concierge who has read Marcus Aurelius and other philosophers, but who finds philosophical systems not suitable for everyday living), and the outcasts.

Ionesco’s burlesque of theatrical conventions is also based on the charge of rigidity. He faults them for turning what could be exciting and alive into something static and inert, that is, another system. It is here that we enter into creative irony.


André Malraux has stated that an artist creates a work of art as a revenge against a meaningless world, and Ionesco corroborates with “écrire c’est agir.”4 Artistic irony occurs in many forms: intervention of the artist in his own work, characters discussing the playwright and his works, discussion in the work itself of methods of presentation, interspersed hints which are not cleared up until the end, manipulating the reader. Ionesco uses many of these techniques.

He has often been called an author who believes that words are meaningless; the irony resides here in the use of words by someone who so obviously distrusts them. There is a distrust because there is a duplicity inherent in language, and because language gives a false sense of security. In La Leçon and La Cantatrice Chauve, there is a complete breakdown in language, where language becomes an instrument of aggression, pain and even death. Language manipulates people, who are not able to use it to serve themselves.

In Victimes du devoir, Ionesco develops a technique already used in embryo in La Cantatrice Chauve, the discussion of an experimental fable at the beginning of the play. The main artistic theme of the play is the validity of Aristotelian versus non-Aristotelian drama, and Ionesco undermines traditional drama by presenting a non-Aristotelian play. He succeeds in many ways, by destroying the unities of time, place, character and genre (the play moves from detective to psychological to literary to domestic types), and by confusing the spectators with the actors. Despite Ionesco’s attempts, the play still contains a certain sequence of action, a certain structure. In addition, the murder of Nicolas is a fine example of a deus ex machina!

Ionesco presents traditional characters to us, whose appearance contradicts their actions: one would never expect a professor to be a murderer, nor a mild-mannered common man like Bérenger to be a man of action. He plays on our sense of sound and language. He throws us a sentence such as “J’aime mieux pondre un oeuf que voler un boeuf” from La Cantatrice Chauve, and we almost let it go: it looks and sounds like a sentence, its rhyme scheme makes it sound like a proverb, it has all the grammatical necessities of a sentence, but it doesn’t have the intentionality of a sentence.

Irony is always double-edged, and one of the reasons it is used by Ionesco is to reflect a world in flux, an unsure world, a world of multiple perspectives, free of rigidity. It is in addition a statement of his metaphysical sentiments, his view that life is both tragic and comic.


  1. La Leçon, in Eugène Ionesco, Théâtre I, (Gallimard, 1954), p. 69. All further parenthetical references to Ionesco’s plays are to this edition.

  2. Eugène Ionesco, Notes et contre-notes, (Paris: Gallimard, 1966), p. 221.

  3. Théâtre II, p. 114.

  4. Notes … p. 16.

Robert L. Tener (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “Scenic Metaphors: A Study of Ionesco’s Geometrical Vision of Human Relationships in the Bérenger Plays,” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring 1987, pp. 175-91.

[In the following essay, Tener treats the use of d&eacaute;cor and other visual and aural theatrical metaphors as the dramatic expression of internal and external forces that surround the protagonist in Ionesco’s Bérenger plays.]

An important characteristic of drama closely related to characters and plot is the scenic space wherein the actions take place. For Anne Ubersfeld, “l’espace scénique peut aussi apparaître comme un vaste champ psychique où s’affrontent des forces qui sont les forces psychiques du moi. La scène est alors assimilable à un champ clos où s’affrontent les éléments du moi divisé, clivé” [the scenic space may also appear like a broad, psychic field where forces face each other which are the psychic forces of the self. The stage is then similar to a medieval list where the elements of the divided, cloven self face each other].1 While some playwrights seem unaware of the importance of the scenic space (most seem to view drama not as an art form but as a representational slice of life), others, such as Eugene O’Neill, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and Eugène Ionesco tie the psychological implications of inside and outside, up and down, closed or open, repetitive or non-repetitive, circular or linear actions closely to the themes of their plays. Scenic space for Nancy Lane appears to be part of the semiotic system Ionesco uses, evident especially in the décors which she says are not “servile accessories.” Playing down the poetic importance of visual as well as aural images, she finds in Ionesco’s early plays that the non-human characters are hostile to the human ones.2 Other critics interpret décor or scenic space in metaphorical, psychological, or even oneiric terms. For Paul Vernois, for example, the basis of Ionesco’s work is oneiric, drawing on images and symbols associated with personal and archetypal myths. His book-length study, indebted to Leo Spitzer’s principles of linguistic criticism and illustrated with various schemata, discusses the elements of polarization and modalities of knowledge. Closely linked to such analyses is the work of Mary A. Witt. More restricted than my own approach, despite some overlapping, she narrows her study to a primary discussion of evanescence and heaviness, light and darkness, the feeling of being closed in and that of flying through space. In this study I treat the décor and other theatrical metaphors (both visual and aural—taking metaphor to mean the implicit and explicit images suggested by what one sees and hears) as the dramatic expression of forces both external and internal that surround or affect Bérenger. At the heart of the Bérenger plays the scenic metaphors suggest Ionesco’s mistrust of rational models of reality as solutions or approaches to life’s problems. Vernois sees the source of these metaphors in Ionesco’s oneiric vision; I see it in his habit of viewing the world through images much as a poet perceives experiences. For Ionesco especially the dramatic vision of life manifests itself through spatial metaphors, geometrical patterns as it were, that lend themselves to analogic descriptions of life processes and forces in which human beings are involved, much as the sine wave can be used to describe the variations in a writer’s career.

One of the earliest critics to see this characteristic in Ionesco’s plays, Georges Matoré, asserts

Fréquemment, dans son théâtre, l’espace scénique se rétrećit suivant un tracé qu’on pourrait assimiler à une spirale ou à des cercles concentriques:les objects envahissant peu à peu la scène (les Chaises, la Nouveau locataire) de manière à ne plus laisser au personnage principal que l’espace exiger d’une cellule de condamné à mort. Ce lent rétrécissement physique est lié à un encerclement moral, à un ensevelissement. L’espace de Ionesco est une peau de chagrin.3

[Frequently, in his theater, the scenic space shrinks according to a pattern that one might liken to a spiral or to concentric circles: little by little objects invade the scene (Les Chaises, La Nouveau locataire) so as to allow the main character no more than the space demands of a cell for those condemned to death. This slow material shrinking is bound to a moral encircling, to a shrounding. Ionesco’s space is a wild animal’s skin that expands or contracts according to passion expended.]

This geometrical vision of human relationships and processes, while evident in all of Ionesco’s plays, appears as a dominant element in the dramas written from 1952 through 1959 when he was exploring the dramatic and artistic possibilities of space and language. As Paul Vernois has pointed out, the plays written between those years have a to-and-fro or an up-and-down movement, a “mouvement scénique primordial destiné à être repris et orchestré dans les grandes pièces” [a primordial scenic movement intended to be revived and orchestrated in the major plays].4 In addition most of the plays written during this period, which includes the Bérenger series, have a visual and aural contracting action moving from a wide, loose perspective to a small, private world. Each also presents an intimate living area as an entrapping spatial form polarized in terms of the oneiric house opposed by an apartment or throne room. And each reveals that life or its representations tend to invade or contaminate not only the rational models but also the intuitive or idealized dreams mankind creates in an attempt to give life meaning by stopping its chaotic movement. Nancy Lane finds that the role of the “non-human domain,” which involves the décor, in the Bérenger cycle translates “into dramatic signs man’s ambiguous relationship to his environment and even to himself.”5

Not only the to-and-fro but also the up-and-down movements are realized metaphorically in Tueur sans gages.6 Within its three-act form, Ionesco places Bérenger at the center of visual and aural images which suggest forces of harmony and content or those of logic and rationality. In other instances they reflect Bérenger’s internal state. The connotations of the stage images are then altered through a falling or descending action as in Les Chaises and Amédée. The total effect suggests the generalized destructive impact of life on dreams of harmony or rationality. As a consequence Bérenger cannot remain in the scenic center and be restored to his emotional, intellectual, and physical well being. The action begins in the first act with the description of the radiant city as an architectural utopia. Logically it is the ideal city. But logic is not life in Ionesco’s dramatic world. Because it models an abstraction, like the ideal group gathering to hear the ideal speech, we cannot see it directly, being told about it by Bérenger, who intrudes by chance into this ideal region. The radiant city is characterized by a cluster of images which suggest its rationality and obsessive systemization rather than any organic fullness of a garden of paradise. Unlike a harmonizing image poised between physical reality and the abstract cultural world, it stands neither as a place for life nor as a work of art. According to Nancy Lane, Bérenger tries to make the city his accomplice to end conflict between him and the environment.7

Once Ionesco has established these characteristics, however, he informs us that Dany, the architect’s secretary, wants to resign from the civil service and that stones are often thrown in the city although the inhabitants are not injured by them. The first event suggests a movement out from the city’s center, the second a downward pattern. The psychological nature of the scene changes with the sound of a falling stone, acquiring negative and destructive overtones. To emphasize this new direction, Ionesco informs us that the inhabitants are leaving this city, which fragments man just as it has its designer, who had divided his two ears and eyes between Bérenger and the borough. The images suggest that the city has fallen morally, acquired a defect, as though its life-supporting qualities have been contaminated by intruders with no feeling for logic and order.

The second act presents Bérenger’s apartment as a closed area cut off from harmonious relationships with the physical reality around it. Although as his home it is supposed to be a source of strength, a variety of intrusions have actually contaminated its power. Just before Bérenger reaches his apartment, Ionesco provides a scene filled with loud, clichéd talk from a variety of people about the cost of living, sickness, and their dog’s life. In the background are heard the intrusive metallic sounds of hammers, motorcycles, sirens. The entire scene forms a cluster of contaminating sense impressions engulfing the apartment. Every element suggests that the apartment is isolated from the social world and that its door helps shut out what Bérenger dislikes, the emotional chaos of a society that does not function logically.

Bérenger’s apartment offers no place of repose to reorganize his thoughts and to integrate his experience with his childhood memories. Instead the place seems to hold ugly, old, and comically askew elements which lack a warm revitalizing touch. Nor can it keep out all of the exterior comic ugliness. The scenic image focuses on Édouard sitting in the middle of the room, a position that dominates the scene visually. His description suggests that he is a contaminating intruder. He has a thin body, a withered right arm, lung trouble, a bad cough, a temperature, and a pale face. The scenic image of Bérenger’s apartment-home is conceived as a repository of qualities that could constrict or destroy him, presenting an aura of tense irony and fragmented existence. What once reinforced life now seems not only old fashioned but also slightly dangerous.

A new action is precipitated by a falling movement indirectly associated with the killer. As Édouard picks up the briefcase which contains the killer’s plans, its contents spill out onto the table. Feeling now that he has evidence of the killer’s timetable and pattern of operation, Bérenger wants Édouard to accompany him to report the matter to the police.

The action of the last act starts with a conceptual image, adds intruders, then changes through a falling movement, and ends with an enclosing metaphor. The visual image is conceived in terms of surrealistic elements associated with a public bench, a street in far perspective, a setting sun, and a raised pavement section like a wall in back hiding a street leading far in the distance toward the buildings of the Préfecture, the symbol of law and order. Thus two separate visual areas are immediately established by the presence of the wall. The drift of the psychological action is to move from one area (a rational or ideal place contaminated by chaos) through or past a barrier to another area (a place of logic or order), a movement reflected in Bérenger’s unsuccessful attempts to persuade others to adopt his views or to let him pass. Mother Peep’s campaign actions, Édouard’s need to rest, the discovery that the briefcase had been forgotten, and the appearance of the unusually tall policeman function as barriers preventing Bérenger from reaching the Préfecture. Soon other barriers fill the scene. A second policeman on stilts and army trucks appear. Then a traffic jam develops. In comparison with the barriers which seem gigantic or overpowering, Bérenger (the symbol of confused life?) appears quite small. Inexplicably, politics, physical tiredness, the ineffectual bureaucracy of the police and the army, metallic and mechanical objects, and ordinary things like a bench seem to exert a force that prevents or inhibits the horizontal movement of the action.

Suddenly the scenic image alters in preparation for the dominant downward flow of the psychological action. Its negative elements suggest visually the gradual loss of vitality in Bérenger. The stage becomes empty; the avenue is deserted. The stage directions emphasize Bérenger’s isolation. So far in the distance rises the Préfecture toward which Bérenger moves, that the perspective creates the impression of a long passageway leading into “un guet-apens” (159) [a trap]. All at once the killer appears, standing on the bench or wall. His description reinforces the sense of loneliness as well as the absence of harmonious and restorative qualities. He jumps down to ground level, not in an act of submission to Bérenger (though he is quite small), but in a manner visually echoing the falling stones, the dropped photographs, the movement down from the abstract regions of thought to earth, the pattern by which chaos and the irrational conquer life’s idealism and energy.

Similarly at the end, Bérenger repeats the dominant visual image of the play when he kneels to beg the killer. The image is re-emphasized when he lowers his “deux vieux pistolets démodés” (172) [two, old, outmoded pistols], bends his head, and waits. From this final event there exists no exit. The blazing fire in Bérenger, his source of light, wells of joy and enormous energy have been overcome. Ironically the irrational and inexplicable, man’s primal fear, remain uninfluenced by the rational and the dream, both of which are impotent in the end.

In his analysis of Rhinocéros8 Paul Vernois commented that,

La hantise de la verticalité diminue apparemment dans Rhinocéros mais elle n’est pas tout à fait éliminée de la structure de la pièce. Pendant la moitié de l’action, à l’acte II en particulier, l’intrigue se déroule sur deux plans: le bureau de Bérenger après la destruction de l’escalier est devenu une sorte de mirador pour la chasse aux fauves. … Rejoindre les rhinocéros, c’est faire une chute jusqu’au moment où ceux-ci ont envahi. Le mythe est si bien ourdi que la notion même de culpabilité ou de valeurs (esthétiques en particulier) disparaît quand la dénivellation des humains et des rhinocéros est abolie.9

[The haunting sense of verticality diminishes apparently in Rhinocéros but it is not entirely eliminated from the structure of the play. During half of the action, in act 2 particularly, the plot unwinds in two schemes: the office of Bérenger after the destruction of the stairs has become a kind of watch tower for the hunting of wild animals. … To join the rhinoceroses is to fall until only those predominate. The myth is so well woven that the very notion of guilt or values (aesthetic in particular) vanishes when the difference in kind between human beings and rhinoceroses is abolished.]

Despite Paul Vernois’s response, the verticality of Rhinocéros does not seem diminished to me. Rather, it seems emphasized more as the general direction of the scenic images, unlike that in Tueur sans gages, is gradually upward. The action moves from an exterior, public, ground-level social center in a small French village through an area of rationality located visually on the upper levels in a printing office, into two interior, private, intimate second-floor apartments. In the first meeting between Jean and Bérenger, set on a Sunday in the center of a small village, Jean is identified with a sense of logic, order, self-discipline, and present time, while Bérenger is associated with disorder, feeling, irrationality, and past time. Into this innocuously pleasant setting comes a series of intrusions or invasions which contaminate the effect and expand the natural oppositions between order and disorder, public and private, already evident. The first invasion is the sound of a rhinoceros. Next Le Logicien and his friend intrude on the scene; soon Daisy comes by; and sounds of a rhinoceros are repeated.

But the cluster of social images with its impressions of pleasant soporific order and little physical activity has altered with many characters entering and leaving the area. Their frenzied activities provide a horizontal thrust to the general stage image. At the end of the act, all the characters except Bérenger leave so that in effect he remains isolated. Instead of feeling refreshed and given a new view on life, he is quite upset and drinks brandy to escape reality. For him the center of socializing influences has changed into a place of isolation.

Emphasizing verticality, Ionesco moves the scenic image from ground level into the upper regions suggestive of abstract activities as in Le Piéton de L’air or Les Chaises.10 The setting is the second-floor legal printing offices of M. Papillon, an obvious ironical focus of order, logic, rationality as the repository of mankind’s rules for governing. Again there is a series of intrusions and invasions. The impact of the rhinoceros is felt through the highly disorganized and often irrational discussion taking place about the cause and nature of the happening. Bérenger’s coming to work late revives the disordered argument. Other intrusions follow: Madame Boeuf comes with mistruths; a trumpeting rhinoceros is heard; and the stairs collapse.

With the destruction of the stairs, the major physical link between this center of rationality and the outside lower world has been removed. But the exterior ground world, rapidly being inhabited by giant animals, has ceased to have any positive correlation with the inner models Bérenger has of his known world. The public, social area has turned into a center of animality removed from the power of rationality to invest it with meaning. There is apparently no escape for these characters from the centers of rationality except through some other rational model such as a metaphor (an ironical, even satirical, escape). Thus with the aid of the firemen, the employees leave through the window, an ironical action suggesting metaphorically that they float out on their own line of sight. Their sanctuary of rationality and order has been turned into a trap, the first major visual image to suggest the play’s dominant state of consciousness, the “sensation of being closed in” as in Amédée.11

The location of the action continues on the upper level for the remainder of the play, emphasizing its negative relationships to mental models and especially to personal, intimate space. The last scene of act 2 focuses on Jean’s apartment; all of act 3 occurs in Bérenger’s place. What is important spatially is that in Jean’s home there are two centers of action, the bedroom where Jean talks with Bérenger and the bathroom where he becomes a rhinoceros. In the sequence developed through these two areas, the thrust of the action is horizontal in a to-and-fro manner, reflecting the rhythm of the first act. Paul Vernois suggests encirclement.12 Jean goes back and forth between the two rooms, each time becoming more rhinoceros-like. Thus, in his home, supposed to have a stabilizing effect through its associations with logic and rationality, Jean metamorphoses into a rhinoceros.

From this area of metamorphosis which has trapped Jean, as though rationality and logic are the real enemy from which mankind cannot flee, Bérenger has no immediate escape. At each of the exits, doors and window, he sees only the huge animals. Finally he throws himself against the back wall, as though to deny physical reality, and as it crashes down, flees from the horror of a home that has failed its inhabitant. Beyond a logical reality, the scene is surrealistic. Ionesco does not explain how Bérenger keeps from falling down to ground level.

In exploring his idea of encirclement, Paul Vernois provides a valuable comment in understanding what has happened to Jean and Bérenger:

À l’encerclement par la matière répond l’encerclement par l’idéologie dans Rhinocéros. … Bien vite les occupants, de moins en moins nombreux, vont comprendre leur situation critique car les rhinocéros qui se sont rendus maîtres de la ville vont tout envahir. … Les têtes des rhinocéros encombreront non seulement la coulisse, mais les fenêtres, côté cour et côté jardin et la fosse d’orchestre. La salle sera malicieusement assimilée au troupeau d’animaux et de ce fait l’encerclement du plateau deviendra complet et provocant.13

[The encircling by the ideology in Rhinocéros corresponds to the encircling by the material. … Quite quickly the inhabitants, less and less numerous, will understand their critical situation because the rhinoceroses which have made themselves masters of the city are going to spread everywhere. … The heads of the rhinoceroses will congest not only the wings, but the windows, the court side and the garden side and the orchestra pit. The room will be slyly likened to a herd of animals and for that reason the encirclement of the stage will become complete and provocative.]

The major focus, however, has always been on Bérenger, the center of disorder, feeling, irrationality, and nostalgia. As all places identified with the power of the mind to impose order have become areas of animality, Ionesco shows that Bérenger’s home, which is supposed to help him keep his human shape and identity, no longer functions as an emotionally unifying source.14 Despite intrusions from the lower world—rhinoceros’s sounds, Dudard, and Daisy—Bérenger remains isolated, as at the end of act 1, in the midst of what cannot restore him to harmonious feelings and from which he cannot escape. He is like a fixture in the human past, trapped in an intimate space without even a surrealistic exit and isolated from physical reality by a matrix of fear.

Indeed the play seems to show that the basic models of man’s rationality have failed to give Bérenger meaning. All that is left is the irrational dream. Pictures of old men and a huge worm have become ugly in contrast to all the beautiful rhinoceroses’ heads lining the walls, door, and footlights. His room has become a gallery. Uncertain of himself and his human condition, he finds the rhinoceroses beautiful, dull green colors wonderful, and their song charming. The characteristics that define the human condition seem meaningless. Smooth brows are now ugly.

Fixed conceptually in time and space and artistically in the play, he alone represents immobility and loss of relationships (an ambivalent stubbornness of the human will?), becoming, as he says, “un monstre” (117) [a monster]. G. Richard Danner finds little in Bérenger’s life “worth defending.”15 Ironically the only way Bérenger can resist rhinoceritis is by denying a fundamental characteristic of life, the ability to change and adapt. His behavior illustrates the dilemma of modern man, who is often blinded to the pattern of life by his species’s centeredness. While on one level he clearly represents the solitary individual who resists the power of political movements, on another level the events of the play suggest that rational as well as emotional and intuitive models of reality are just that, models. Before the Pirandellian flux and irrationality of life, such models during crisis periods offer little help and direction to human beings. G. Richard Danner suggests that rhinoceritis is “an alternate life-style well worth trying.”16

The irrationality of life and its chaotic power seem also to be the theme of Le Roi se meurt.17 But in this play, instead of establishing a physical symbol like the oneiric house to stand in a harmonizing relationship with King Bérenger, Ionesco has created a cluster of metaphors and spiraling movements which seem to constrict and delimit King Bérenger until he is squeezed into nothingness. Mary A. Witt finds this play has the quality of imprisonment suggested by its language, revealing the “eventual closing of doors around the king.”18 For Paul Vernois, the central characteristic is reflected in a circle image:

Cette impression angoissante de cercle qui se referme commande la dramaturgie du Roi se Meurt ou l’on retrouve à tout instant l’image obsédante de la peau de chagrin. Sans doute le royaume rapetisse de jour en jour comme l’entourage des familiers du roi, mais il y a plus grave: le domane qu’embrassent les sens du mourant rétrécit lui aussi.19

[This distressing impression of a circle which closes again orders the dramaturgy of Le Roi se Meurt where one rediscovers at the same instant the haunting image of the wild animal’s skin that expands or contracts according to passion expended. Without a doubt the kingdom shrinks from day to day like the king’s intimate entourage, but there is something more serious: the domain which feels the senses of dying shrinks also.]

At the most obvious level, the metaphor is theatrical space and time, that is, King Bérenger’s world is the play in which he appears as a character. Because the entire play takes only an hour and a half to produce, Marguerite says to Bérenger, “Tu vas mourir dans une heure et demie, tu vas mourir à la fin du spectacle” (22). [You are going to die in a hour and a half, you are going to die at the end of the play.] Every event in Bérenger’s kingdom has a cyclical external life limited by this fact (as though Life is limited by Art), to be repeated at every performance. While the play is an abstract fictive work, having been written and printed, it has also become a part of the physical world to be experienced. Thus it has a line of action carefully programmed for the activities of its characters and other elements, like a map providing the exact coordinates for the lineal and temporal progress of a journey. Marguerite even says that Bérenger is like a man on a journey. Nor can this plot or journey be reversed. It runs with its own entropy downward in one direction to the fall of the curtain, its theatrical end. As if to emphasize this point, Ionesco has Marguerite say that “Elle est irréversible” (11) [It is irreversible].

Embedded within this old theatrical metaphor that all the world’s a stage is the metaphor that the King is the universe; the universe is the King. Because the movement is from a general to a more specific metaphor, the action of the play starts to spiral down and inward. He apparently has had the power of gods in whom all things reside and take their being. He has been able to command the sun, to cause trees to germinate, to make rain fall and thunderbolts to occur. He even has the power to decide when he wants to die, providing that he has the time and can make up his mind. King Bérenger and the universe form a closed system limited, however, by the duration of the primary metaphor, the play’s production. But he is aging rapidly and losing power; his universe has clouded over, has cracks in the walls, and its mountains are sinking.

Indeed everything is quickly shrinking to a third metaphorical level wherein the King is the state and the state the King, all implying that the state of the King is that of his country. In this metaphorical relationship his palace is falling down, his country’s boundaries are diminishing, and his people are aging. Even his army, like his guard, cannot move. His crown drops off, his scepter falls down, and the law for the first time seems to limit him. Everywhere one looks, the sources of life and experience are losing their vitality.

The action now moves to a fourth metaphor: Bérenger presented as an ordinary person with memories, loves, and other personal relationships, qualities needed to help him stand and be himself. As his desire for Marie rapidly weakens, his recollections fade. In the midst of these delimiting events a minor vertical pattern temporarily emerges: when Bérenger stands there is a sense of life, and when he falls there is a suggestion of death. But like the other concepts and feelings, love finally goes as Marie vanishes. All the other people continue to disappear until only Bérenger and Marguerite are left. Perhaps she is the last to remain because she is the projection of his power of habit or will-to-be, which has provided heretofore a core of meaning for Bérenger, like the stubborn resistance of Bérenger in Rhinocéros. But she goes too. Everything now collapses into the final center of nothingness as even Bérenger and his throne disappear, leaving only a “lumière grise” (74) [gray light] in the neutral space of the stage.

The metaphorical movement in the play is downward with a simultaneous inward horizontal thrust. Both of these suggest that the playing area is a crossing where some quality of mankind’s perceptions of reality stops. Thus King Bérenger enters and immediately leaves, his action capturing the essence of the play. Before long all the characters cross the audience’s visual and aural fields and exit. Then the play settles down and Ionesco allows us to see the spiraling collapse of this theatrical metaphor. Nancy Lane says that the play “presents collaboration between character and environment in its most extreme form,” finding “no boundaries separating ‘monde interieur’ from ‘monde exterieur’ in King Bérenger’s solipsistic world.”20 All the time, however, Ionesco keeps us aware that the entire play as a dramatic construction is set within the real world of the audience and that the mysterious “they” which Bérenger insists had promised him that he could choose the time when he would die is, in the audience’s world, Ionesco the playwright and the audience. If they like the play, it will repeat itself in every performance; if they do not, it will die on the boards.

While the metaphorical movement in Le Roi se meurt is a descending spiral, the dynamics of Le Piéton de l’air shifts from horizontal to dominant vertical scenic images with an overpowering sense of enclosure. It is as though Ionesco creates a landscape suggestive of a container from which there is no exit for its dramatis personae, just as an element of a painting cannot escape from its frame, or a character in a novel from its pages (both forms of art being, like language, ways to fix and delimit events). In this play Mary A. Witt finds a concentration on the open space image related to the “dream of transcending human limits,” the latter being expressed metaphorically as a flight that “follows a kind of curve.” But because “the experiment with liberation has failed … Bérenger remains as if dangling between finitude and infinity.”21 On the other hand Paul Vernois sees the play’s quality as a spiral:

Le Piéton de l’Air matérialise sur scène l’hélice géométrique d’une façon spectaculaire si l’on s’en rapporte à la disposition des praticables décrite par l’auteur dans son texte de l’édition Gallimard. … Si le mouvement hélicoidal est un jeu scénique de cirque, il peut prendre la forme beaucoup plus angoissante d’un maelström, d’un tourbillon, c’est-à-dire d’une spirale dans l’espace qui engendre vertige et désarroi.22

[Le Piéton de l’Air objectifies on stage the geometrical spiral in a spectacular manner if one relies on the arrangement of the moveable stage props described by the author in his text from the Gallimard edition. … If the helical movement is a scenic circus game, it can take the more distressing form of a maelstrom, of a whirlwind, that is to say of a spiral space which creates vertigo and confusion.]

The scenic image presents an artistic stereotype of spring, one probably based on Ionesco’s memories of his transcendental childhood experiences.23 But it is also an abstract utopia-like world whose surrealism is constantly emphasized through the sudden appearance of flowers, a ladder, John Bull, dead people, a German war bomber, and a visitor from an anti-world. What we see, instead of the traditional form of a play, is Ionesco’s dramatic model of a fictive reality with its own qualities and laws; it is not a reflection or a map of the spectator’s reality in any one to one sense.

The quality that is finally achieved, or the statement the play seems to make, is that the spatial condition seen on the stage is a trap. Life itself is a dead end. But the limits which define the cul-de-sac are not part of the scene. As with a framed picture, the inhabitants cannot escape the confines of the art form. The act of inclusion restricts the definition of life and its qualities. Even though Bérenger can fly, he cannot soar out of the scenic image.

The spatial sense of the plot as a container that traps rather than unifies is closely associated with verticality. Seeing nothing but walls around her, the First Lady feels like a prisoner. When the visitor from the anti-world appears, Bérenger explains that it is as if the man had fallen from the blue, “est passé du l’autre côté du mur” (145) [has passed to the other side of the wall]. The image becomes obvious when Bérenger says that the cosmos is “une sorte de boîte” (152) [a kind of box] and that when he flies he reaches the ridge of a “toit invisible” (196) [invisible roof]. The scenic image depresses and delimits the self instead of restoring it to harmonious relationships; nor does it present an account of reality. Indeed, as we have seen in the other plays, reality for Ionesco cannot be grasped either by fictional, that is artistic, models or by other paradigms of the conscious mind.

Not even language can reveal reality. Rather, as Loren Eiseley has noted, “language implies boundaries.” Through language man “has created an unnatural world of his own, which he calls the cultural world, and in which he feels at home. It defines his needs and allows him to lay a small immobilizing spell upon the nearer portions of his universe.” But “it transforms that universe into a cosmic prison house which is no sooner mapped than man feels its inadequacy and his own.”24 In effect what Bérenger seems to be implying in the interview with the journalist, when he says that literature cannot account fully for reality, is that his mental models have no correspondence with reality, are no longer positive unifying forms like the oneiric house poised between reality and the world of the mind able to fix memories and dreams into a satisfying whole.

After the interview scene Ionesco subtly changes the scenic image to suggest a model of the brain’s memory and thought. Dead and fictional characters appear and behave like real people. Madame Joséphine is surprised to learn that her father is as young looking as he was at twenty-five. The entire sequence represents an intrusive and ironic projection of Joséphine’s memory and thoughts which, instead of creating harmonizing relationships, can only continue to fragment meaning. The quality repeatedly revealed through these scenic images is that everything is a terrible trap: setting, characters, language, thought, memory. Even the sounds of music seem to come from “les sirènes” (141) [the sirens].

Having established the visual and aural impression of an overpowering enclosure, Ionesco presents a different sensory cluster. A visitor from the anti-world appears and a flowered column rises. The new scenic image suggests that this sequence occurs at the boundary between two worlds of abstraction: the play which is a form of art consciously visualized and the anti-world, a form of the Ideal not consciously seen but which the mind wishes could transcend rational limitations. Rosette C. Lamont has much the same interpretation in her view that “Bérenger’s apocalyptic vision reveals that the green meadow of Gloucestershire provides a kind of truce between the uncreated void and Non-Being.”25 While elements from the anti-world can appear in both universes, the inhabitants of the world of the landscape play cannot leave theirs. Because their world is a metaphorical conception, it can only fragment them.

With this much established, Ionesco begins the dominant vertical images. Bérenger says that he feels “si léger” (155) [so light]. Other things occur to suggest that the anti-world has some effect on Bérenger’s universe. A bridge appears, and time seems to Bérenger as if the years were empty sacks. Amidst this fusion of time and entrapment, Bérenger loses corporality and floats or flies away. He is able to move into the far reaches of the sky paralleling metaphorically those of the imagination. As he explains, to fly is to recover an innate but long lost ability. But he cannot ascend to a harmonizing center able to integrate experience for him, despite his transcendental efforts to unify space and time.

The confining characteristic of the play, which suggests that the processes of the brain, its concepts, memories, and dreams are cul-de-sacs, is now more clearly determined by the scenic images. Joséphine says that her friends are “des objects vides dans le désert … enfermés dans leur carapace” (180) [empty objects in the desert … enclosed in their shell]. She herself feels “minuscule dans ce monde énorme” (180) [tiny in this enormous world]. John Bull appears as a fat man chasing a little boy who does not want to be put back in his cell, and a hangman dressed in white appears with a gibbet. Everything seems to reflect metaphorically the nothingness of the mind that, box-like, encloses one. To reinforce this effect, Ionesco has the stage darken as though it too were a container. Then it is filled with “lueurs rouges et sanglantes; grands bruits de tonnerre ou de bombardements” (190) [red and bloody flashes; loud noises of thunder or of shellings]. As the voice of the descending Bérenger is heard, stage, lighting, and sounds theatrically reflect the delimiting aspects of man’s imagination.

Such scenic images reveal the loss of home and other basic concepts which relate man harmoniously to reality.26 Berenger’s description of what he saw on his flight is like a series of details from a Hieronymous Bosch painting, filled with overlapping and inconsistent naturalized images causing fear: “des hommes qui avaient des têtes d’oies,” “des hommes qui léchaient les culs des guenons, buvaient la pisse des truies,” “des colonnes de guillotinés marchant sans têtes,” and “des sauterelles géantes, des anges déchus, des archanges vaincus” (195) [some men who had heads of geese, some who licked the asses of monkeys, drank the piss of sows, several columns of guillotined people marching without heads, some giant grasshoppers, some fallen angels, some defeated archangels]. None of these images acts as a model of reality with any unifying and restorative power. Instead they create further impressions of the delimitation of life and the threat of being confronted by a continual enclosing process. For example, Bérenger says that he reached “l’arête du toit invisible … où se rejoignent l’espace et le temps” [ridge of the invisible roof … where space and time are joined together] and gives a prophetic vision of the destruction of everything, of infinite pits and millions of universes “qui s’évanouissent” (196-7) [which vanish]. His description suggests that the concept of space as a product of the mind has limits or boundaries that can be touched but not penetrated.

The movement of the play has been affected by the horizontal and vertical qualities in the scenic images, which have emphasized the nature of the limitations implicit in the mind’s concepts. Although Ionesco places his dramatic projections and images at the boundary between the outer and inner worlds as Pinter did in No Man’s Land, he suggests that ideas have lost their harmonizing and imaginative power to fix memory, dream, and experience into a satisfying whole. In one sense Ionesco has developed his Bérenger plays through a dialectic of images to communicate more vividly than words his feeling for man’s inability to escape the concepts which the brain by necessity has to create and which often turn out to be alienating or fragmenting models of reality. Thus the oneiric home and its related representations of thought have lost their humanistic function in Ionesco’s plays and remain as part of his personal nostalgic investment in his boyhood past.

For Ionesco the mind apparently creates its own worlds, transcends them, and then annihilates everything, reducing thought to an empty neutral grey. Yet ironically the Bérenger plays, as plays per se, artistic products of Ionesco’s mind, tend to deny the conclusion that all thought is reductive or that Ionesco preaches a personal form of nihilism, as Kenneth Tynan fears.27 As dramas they survive for others to discuss and provide subtle ideological models which tend to act as limited oneiric forms for Ionesco. They enable him to externalize his thoughts and feelings. Clearly they are not mental traps for him, as literature seems to be for Bérenger. Instead they offer the possibility that Ionesco’s stage has its own concrete language and that the dramatic world of his plays is its own organization, a thing as separate from those who occupy it as it is from being a map of physical reality. Indeed, for Ionesco the play appears to replace the oneiric house.


  1. Anne Ubersfeld, Lire Le Théâtre (Paris: Éditions Sociales, 1977) 170. See also the following: Robert L. Tener, “ ‘These Places, This Private Landscape’: First Suggestions for a Topological Approach to Ionesco’s Bérenger Plays,” Papers on Language and Literature 13 (1977): 391-400; Paul Vernois, La Dynamique Théâtrale D’Eugène Ionesco (Paris: Éditions Klincksieck, 1972) 5, 26-8; Mary A. Witt, “Eugène Ionesco and the Dialectic of Space,” Modern Language Quarterly 33 (1972): 312-26; Eugène Ionesco, Présent passé Passé présent (Paris: Mercure de France, 1968) 43-4, 80-1, 210-11. For an excellent discussion of space and drama see the following: Etienne Souriau, “Le Cube et La Sphere,” Architecture et Dramaturgie, ed. Ernest Flammarion (Paris: Bibliotheque D’Esthetique, 1950) 63-83; Yi-Fu Yuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1977); Diana Agrest, “Design versus Non-Design,” Oppositions 6 (Fall 1976): 45-68. Note: I am responsible for all translations.

  2. Nancy Lane, “Human/Non-human Relationship in Ionesco’s Theatre: Conflict and Collaboration,” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 30.3 (1983): 240-41. For further comments on this idea see the following: Rosette C. Lamont, “Air and Matter: Ionesco’s ‘Le Piéton de l’air’ and ‘Victimes du devoir,’ ” French Review 38.3 (1965): 349-61; Eugène Ionesco, “Experience du théâtre,” Le Nouvelle Revue Française 62 (1958): 247-70. In “Experience du théâtre,” Ionesco says ‘Le théâtre est autant visuel qu’auditif. Il n’est pas une suite d’images, comme le cinéma, mais une construction, une architecture mouvante d’images scénique. … Il est donc non seulment permis, mais recommandé de faire jouer les accessoires, vivre les objects, d’animer les décors, de concrétiser les symboles” (262). [The theater is as much visual as auditory. It is not a sequence of images, like the cinema, but an edifice, a moving architecture of scenic images. … It is then not only permissible, but adviseable to set the properties into action, to cause things to come alive, to animate the scenery, to make the symbols concrete.]

  3. George Matoré, L’Espace Humain, Sciences et Techniques humanies 2 (Paris: La Colombe, 1962) 210.

  4. Vernois 60. His comment applies to the plays between 1952 and 1959.

  5. Lane 241-42.

  6. All references to Tueur sans gages are from Eugène Ionesco, Théâtre (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1958) 2: 59-172, and are cited parenthetically by page number in the text.

  7. Lane 243-44.

  8. All references to Rhinocéros are from Eugène Ionesco, Théâtre (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1963) 3: 7-117, and are cited parenthetically by page number in the text. See also Vernois 60.

  9. Vernois 65.

  10. All references to Le Piéton de l’air are from Eugène Ionesco, Théâtre (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1963) 3:119-98, and are cited parenthetically by page number in the text.

  11. Witt 312.

  12. Vernois 79.

  13. Vernois 79-80.

  14. In her discussion of Ionesco’s use of space, Mary A. Witt says that “imprisonment is both a personal experience and a universal situation” and suggests it is the quality of the petty bourgeois living room for Ionesco (313).

  15. G. Richard Danner, “Bérenger’s Dubious Defense of Humanity in Rhinocéros,French Review 53.2 (1979): 210.

  16. Danner 213.

  17. All references to Le Roi se meurt are from Eugène Ionesco, Théâtre (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1963) 4: 7-74, and are cited parenthetically by page number in the text.

  18. Witt 317.

  19. Vernois 80.

  20. Lane 246-47.

  21. Witt 320.

  22. Vernois 96-7.

  23. See Ionesco, Présent passé Passé présent 35-6, 218-19, 269-70.

  24. Loren Eiseley, The Invisible Pyramid (New York: Scribners, 1970) 31-32.

  25. Lamont 358.

  26. See Pat Burnett, “Behavior Geography and the Philosophy of Mind,” Spatial Choice and Spatial Behavior, ed. Reginald G. Golledge and Gerard Rushton (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1976) 25. Burnett indicates that it is generally “held that human beings employ mental models of the world to organize their spatial behavior, that is, ‘the mind mediates between the environment and behavior in it.”’ Ionesco has interesting ideas about this in Notes et contre-notes (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1962) 32, 33, 85.

  27. Kenneth Tynan, “Ionesco: homme du destin?,” in Eugène Ionesco, Notes et contre-notes 70-71.

Rosette C. Lamont (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Ionescoland ” in Ionesco’s Imperatives: The Politics of Culture, University of Michigan Press, 1993, pp. 13-20.

[In the following essay, an earlier version of which appeared in her volume, Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays published by Prentice Hall in 1973, Lamont explores the bizarre world of Ionesco’s dramas, where the protagonists are in search of perfection as they live in dreariness; where objects seem to be endowed with independent existence; where a feeling of heaviness hangs over people; where relief from drudgery is usually fleeting; where the absurdities of existence are expressed in a dislocated language of clichés; and which looks familiar but is disturbingly other and leaves visitors feeling stimulated and estranged.]

Marcel Proust once stated that every artist is the citizen of a foreign country whose topography, moral landscape, climate, and customs he or she interprets in his or her works. This land, governed by its own laws, exists within each artist as his or her private universe.

Eugène Ionesco takes Proust’s assertion a step further when he claims that every writer creates an autonomous world parallel to the one we believe is “real.” For Ionesco, the writer must not hold a mirror up to nature, as nineteenth-century realists proclaimed, but represent the life of those who inhabit the space on the other side of the looking glass. Yet, Ionesco considers himself a modern realist since the suprareality he crystallizes on the stage is a complete kind of reality that comprises both the conscious and the subconscious worlds.

How do we, readers and viewers of his plays, approach this bizarre world? Proust might have advised us to become travelers, open-minded tourists. Certainly we must be ready to wander and wonder, to proceed like people who enter an unfamiliar house. We go from room to room, floor to floor, often in the dark. Gradually, we discover where the hallway leads, what lies behind each door. If the house is sensibly constructed, the novelty of its architecture shall not prevent us from dwelling in this habitation. In fact, its peculiar charm will grow on us, make us feel that this intriguing house is a home.

If, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, we step through the looking glass into Ionescoland, we will find a gray, muddy soil, an overcast sky. Everywhere there are fissures in the ground, treacherous crevices, holes that open upon the void. Marshes await the unwary traveler. Occasionally, one happens upon an isolated village, one of those untouched rural communities bypassed by so-called technological progress. There, the daily round of activities is dictated by traditional occupations: farming, cooking, religious holidays. These rare outposts are oases in the wasteland, mirages, places out of time, crystallizations of things past.

More often than not, Ionesco’s characters are city dwellers. They inhabit basement apartments that slowly sink into the slimy soil beneath. Rain falls steadily with no sun breaking through the low clouds. And, in the winter, the snow turns sooty. However, once in a while, an amazing illumination occurs, an epiphany: a wall of one of these dank lodgings grows transparent, revealing a hidden garden. The flowers, shining brightly in the grass like scattered precious stones, the single tree at the center, are magical. But, like those of the Cluny tapestry depicting the Unicorn and the Maid, these mystical apparitions are doomed to fade.

Haunted by this momentary lifting of the veil, Ionesco’s protagonists set out in search of perfection. Sometimes, after climbing to great heights, they catch a glimpse of a dazzling sky, its unblemished azure teasingly out of reach. At other times, the wanderer reaches an orderly city neighborhood, a technological paradise. The light created by the engineer of this utopia is reminiscent of the glow experienced on the solitary heights, yet there is nothing spiritual about it; it is an ersatz, machine-controlled illumination. This urban marvel may be free of the vagaries of climatic alterations but not of evil, crime, and death. In fact, it is in these very places that killers tend to go on a rampage, as though this perfect setting elicits the surfacing of the monsters of the subconscious. In Ionescoland, the utopian dream is synonymous with dehumanization. Like Dostoyevsky’s jaundiced “underground man,” Ionesco harbors a strong dislike of Crystal Palaces.

The citizens of Ionescoland tend to be middle-aged, or even very old. Their careworn faces are deeply lined; their hair is the gray of the sooty snow covering the pavement of city sidewalks. More often than not, couples are childless, staying together out of habit, or an anguished, tender pity for their life companions. The wives slowly become mothers of their childlike husbands. Together they wait for death that comes inexorably, entrapping and crushing them. In the meantime, they huddle in tiny rooms crowded with heavy pieces of furniture. Outside these paltry havens there is nothing but silence and darkness.

In this peculiar country people are objects, while things seem endowed with a kind of independent existence, a will of their own. Mushrooms proliferate on the floor of a damp room under the growing legs of a corpse who has mysteriously taken over the couple’s bedroom, and the conjugal bed. The rhythm of disaster is marked by the hysteria of matter. Objects multiply, like the cells of a cancerous growth, overwhelming, entombing the frantic protagonists: empty chairs carried in at a dizzying pace by the Old Woman (The Chairs), who must keep up with the delirious expansion of the imaginings she and her husband share; pieces of furniture piling up to form a kind of Egyptian pyramid around “the new tenant” trapped by his possessions; coffee cups brought in at breakneck speed by the over-hospitable wife of a man cross-examined in his own home by an unexpected detective (Victims of Duty); monstrous eggs hatched by a young husband who watches with amazement a progeny of things and people, chaotic matter doomed by future wars to become a mass of scrambled eggs (The Future Is in Eggs). Thus, we are made to witness the triumph of a brutal technology crowned by the looming of the atomic mushroom.

According to Ionesco, the Enlightenment’s vision of limitless progress was a dangerous illusion. He recognizes within himself two fundamental states of consciousness that make up the polar principles of a personal dialectic: a feeling of heaviness due to the oppressive presence of matter, and a sense of airiness, lightness, freedom. The drudgery of daily existence weighs upon human beings, plunging them into opaque, viscous matter. At rare moments of grace everything seems easy, light, transparent. When this occurs, Ionesco’s protagonist experiences a miraculous recovery of the state of childhood. The dazzling glow he espies is not of this world; it is similar to the light into which Dante, led by Beatrice, ascends when they scale the sublime region of Paradise. Most of the time, however, Ionescoland is overcast by the somber shadows that characterize our all too solid and sullied world.

There are some avenues of escape. The protagonist might discover that he possesses the wondrous gift of levitation. Bursts of optimism propel him upward to the level of tree tops, then still higher, into the galaxy. Encapsulated in his longing for freedom, this self-sufficient astronaut, whose envelope of flesh is his only flying machine, is able to explore space by walking through the skies around the planet earth. The character’s short triumph, however, proves illusory since, as he looks down upon the universe, he sees hellish regions where biological life cannot endure. How does one continue living with such dreadful knowledge? Ionesco believes that laughter, a sense of humor—the distinguishing human characteristic—may tame anguish. Wit and lucidity are powerful weapons in the struggle against all-devouring time, power-hungry tyrants, and even the forces of our subconscious. In the hands of an artist and a poet, wit becomes a rapier, humor a shield.

Ionescoland rises from the moist, intimate, sexual substratum, the watery principle associated with the female. It is a difficult birth. Once expelled from the visceral crib of the womb in which humans would like to linger, the inhabitants of Ionesco’s country dream of escaping to ethereal regions. However, they are unable to forget that they issued from the depths. Descent is the attraction of the abyss, a longing to be unborn, uncreated, a desire for annihilation. The opposite dream of flight, of a positive escape, is associated, as Gaston Bachelard points out in L’Air et les songes, with a philosophy of the will. Therefore, the protagonists of Ionesco’s plays are driven simultaneously in two polar directions, attracted to God and Satan at once. This is what Baudelaire calls in one of his essays “the simultaneous pull” downward and upward.

Ionesco was deeply influenced by Baudelaire’s fundamental duality. The future playwright, who returned to France from Romania on the eve of World War II, owed his escape from fascism to a fellowship granted him for a projected doctoral dissertation on Baudelaire’s treatment of the theme of death. Both in Ionesco’s plays and in his private journals one hears echoes from the nineteenth-century poet’s ironic, unfinished, moral autobiography, My Heart Laid Bare. Baudelaire and Ionesco are equally aware of the ascensional/descensional human impulse. Although double-edged, it stems from the psychic need of transcendence. One of Baudelaire’s finest prose poems bears the English title “Anywhere Out of this World.” The text presents a speaker and a listener. The first offers his friend various remote places where he might find peace of mind and discover amazing sights. The second does not react in any fashion to these suggestions, until, at the very end, he bursts out with the desperate, bitter exclamation: “Anywhere out of this world.” Ionesco’s antiheroes share this sentiment.

Ionesco is a poet of the four elements, a cosmic visionary. For him, as for many of the poets he admires, earth is the most alien of the four elements, a place of exile. Below the thin crust of our globe burns the fire that threatens to consume the universe. Fire, air, and water haunt the poet-dramatist’s imagination while he must sojourn on this earth.

Fire is intimately tied to an apocalyptic vision. In The Bald Soprano, a universal fire is prophesied by the maid. In fact, she recites a comic poem announcing the end of the world; it is written in honor of her lover, the Fire Chief. At the end of Killing Game flames spread through the plague-ridden city, destroying those few people spared by the epidemic that ravaged the community. Although this tragicomedy follows closely Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, culminating in events that evoke the great fire of London, the conflagration engulfing the unnamed city acquires cosmic dimensions since the flames spread from town to country, engulfing the entire planet.

Fire in Ionescoland is akin to the unearthly illumination that breaks into the life of the mystics that the dramatist studied and continues to read: St. John of the Cross, the Neoplatonists, Plotinus, the Hesychasts, the Hassidic story tellers. In his first published volume of memoirs, Fragments of a Journal, Ionesco tells the following story culled from Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hassidim: “Rabbi Dov Baer, the maggid of Mezritch, once begged Heaven to show him a man whose every limb and every fibre was holy. Then they showed him the form of the Baal Shem Tov, and it was all fire. There was no shred of substance in it. It was nothing but flame.”1

In his essay “Eugène Ionesco and ‘La Nostalgie du Paradis,’ ”2 Mircea Eliade detects an influence on the dramatist of the Byzantine mystics. Eliade explains that like many Romanian writers of his generation Ionesco was attracted by the Byzantine spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. In the Balkans, as in Russia, there has always been a pull in two geographic and cultural directions: the West, particularly French culture, and the Orient. Ionesco attempts to fuse the philosophies of East and West, but his aversion to Cartesianism, to classical logic, reinforces the mystical influences of Buddhism, Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism.

Ionescoland may be a kind of no man’s land because it is situated at the crossroads of various cultures. It is a place where people of the most varied backgrounds live side by side, where one expects to hear seven or eight languages, or perhaps a composite tongue made up of all of these. “I’m just a peasant from the Danube!” Ionesco likes to quip. He comes from a part of Europe where there are Turks, Sephardic Jews (what’s left of them), Greeks, Albanians, Armenians, Gypsies. Ionesco, a French Romanian, is what the American painter R. B. Kitaj calls, when describing himself, “a Diasporist.” As such, he is a man with a hundred eyes, half of them behind his head.

What the eyes see the tongue must express. For Ionesco, the absurdity of being can still be put into words, although language itself has become fractured, and discourse deconstructed. Ionesco claims that he writes and speaks in order to find out what he thinks. Perhaps because the dramatist divided the first part of his life between France and Romania, he never took either one of his two native languages for granted. In fact, he harbors a tender feeling for his mother tongue, which was indeed his mother’s tongue. The French he writes is characterized by classical purity, even when his word games betray his multilingualism, which brings him closer to James Joyce, and to a number of his contemporaries: Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Fernando Arrabal—an Irishman, a Russian, and a Spaniard, all writing in French. Like the prophet Abraham, they are “strangers and sojourners.”

The language of Ionescoland is intentionally made up of clichés. Like proverbs, the latter reflect popular wisdom, but, as they pass from mouth to mouth, they lose their initial pungency. The trite expressions used and misused by the concierges and the petty bourgeois of Ionesco’s plays weave an aural tapestry, the monotonous music of popular culture. The protagonists of the plays are surrounded by these flat utterances. Although they themselves do not use clichés, they are being used by them, manipulated by ambient platitudes. The subsidiary characters who come in contact with the protagonists are embodiments of hackneyed thoughts. Yet this language, “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable,”3 has nevertheless terrifying power. Events seem shaped by words. As Richard Schechner states: “Words are no longer the vehicles of thoughts and feelings; they are themselves actions—the initiators of dramatic events.”4

In Ionescoland, linear discourse becomes dislocated. No inner logic governs the sequence of words; the rules of syntax have evaporated. Words float like bits of wreckage, coming together as though magnetized by sound alone. Signifier and signified fall apart, broken asunder. Some of these techniques stem from surrealist free association, but Ionesco’s intentions are not playful. As Leo Spitzer demonstrated, neologisms may be rooted in the known, but they journey toward the new, the unknown, perhaps the unknowable.5

Ionesco intends to shake our faith in what lies behind the word, what is hidden at the core of so-called civilized discourse. He mounts a concerted attack on language because he intends to shake his reader, his audience, out of a natural propensity to lethargy, to the unquestioning acceptance of certain values or premises. The dramatist’s fantastic isomorphisms, grotesque onomatopoeias, enumerations, numerologies, pseudo-Pythagorean calculations, mock-logical constructs and syllogisms constitute an intellectual circus act of great elegance and daring. It is a verbal walk on a tight rope stretched over the Void. As he peers down, he exclaims:

What a flood of images, words, characters … symbolic figures, signs, all at the same time and meaning more or less the same thing, though never exactly the same, a chaotic jumble of messages that I may perhaps in the end understand but which tells me no more about the fundamental problem: what is this world?6

Ionesco created Ionescoland to question that “chaotic jumble.” His “country” may look familiar at first, but it is actually teasingly, disturbingly other. The untranslatable French word the dramatist favors is insolite (the dictionary offers the translation unwonted). What Ionesco means to suggest is his desire to introduce the reader, or audience, into a strange universe, to create a positive, stimulating sense of estrangement. He wishes to lure us into his diasporic state by flipping open his refugee’s suitcase full of trinkets from various epochs and cultures. Like Kitaj, this “man with bags” refuses to be caught in amber. In fact, he welcomes a creative misreading, for the gathering he envisions is that of the dispersed.

For Ionesco, the literary artist is the sum of his or her dreams, and of the expression these dreams are given in the work. By creating a new literary form, the writer attempts to race against time. For time will uncreate the artist since death is unavoidable; but, in the brief interim passage between birth and the ultimate dissolution, one is able to shape a world in one’s own image. Thus, by degrees, the disappearing human being, Ionesco, becomes absorbed in his creation, Ionescoland.


  1. Ionesco, Fragments of a Journal, trans. Jean Stewart (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 70.

  2. Mircea Eliade, “Eugene Ionesco and ‘La Nostalgie du Paradis,’ ” in The Two Faces of Ionesco, ed. Rosette C. Lamont and Melvin J. Friedman (Troy, NY: The Whitston Publishing Company, 1978), 22.

  3. William Shakespeare, Hamlet (I.ii.133).

  4. Richard Schechner, “The Bald Soprano and The Lesson: An Inquiry into Play Structure,” in Ionesco, ed. Rosette C. Lamont (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973), 25.

  5. In his Essays in Historical Semantics (New York: S. F. Vanni, 1948), Spitzer states: “Not to deal with the meaning of learned words means simply to shy away from the whole semantic content of our civilization” (5).

  6. Ionesco, Fragments of a Journal, 119.

Michael Holland (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Ionesco and Tradition,” in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 35, No 1, Spring 1996, pp. 53-66.

[In the following essay, Holland argues that Ionesco, the radical innovator, restored Tradition to theater with his discovery of the inherent theatricality of language, as he moved away from the defeatist and fatalist attitudes of other modernists and brought theater back to the stage in the form of original work.]

In a lecture given in Helsinki in 1959 and subsequently published under the title ‘Discours sur l’avant-garde’, Eugène Ionesco claims that his theatre originates in ‘[un] refus du traditionnalisme pour retrouver la tradition’1 Because an original author seeks to say something radically new, he might appear, by virtue of his originality, to be in conflict with tradition. But according to Ionesco the opposite is in fact the case:

dans la mesure où le poète a le sentiment que le language ne cerne plus le réel, n’exprime plus une vérité, son effort est justement de cerner ce réel, de le mieux exprimer, d’une façon plus violente, plus éloquente, plus nette, plus précise, plus adéquate. En cela il essaie de rejoindre, en la modernisant, une tradition vivante, qui s’est perdue.2

On the surface, it would seem difficult to apply Ionesco’s words to his own career. Initially, he made his name through forcefully rejecting everything that was traditional about the theatre; then, once his name was established, he became associated with the sort of traditionalism that has become synonymous with political and social conservatism. What then is the ‘tradition vivante’ to which he refers?

Traditions abound, but there is only one Tradition. For a given age, it is the true legacy of the past. In the modern age, it became a dubious gift: a poisoned chalice. Rather than being enfolded comfortingly in its mantle, an heir to Tradition was singled out and left alone to bear a burden that previous ages had failed to lighten: the burden of change. That burden had now become unbearable. Tradition turns time into history through the medium of changing forms. An age in history emerges when a change takes place in this relation to changing form. The age derives its historical identity and its character from the reflection on change to which it gives rise, and from the particular emotional attitude which accompanies that reflection. In a given age, to be a true traditionalist is thus not to be a guardian of inherited forms; it is to be aware of what Tradition truly signifies: the demand placed upon human beings by historical consciousness of time to change their relationship to change with time. Historically, the traditionalist is therefore always a potential revolutionary. In an article entitled ‘Toujours sur l’avant-garde’, published the year before his Helsinki lecture, Ionesco explicitly links tradition and revolution to a common attitude towards history:

[l’]expérience révolutionnaire de l’avant-garde [… apparaît nécessairement, pour ainsi dire d’elle-même, au moment où certains systèmes d’expression se sont fatigués, usés; lorsqu’ils se sont corrompus; lorsqu’ils se sont éloignés d’un modèle oublié. [… Et cette redécouverte, nécessitée par l’histoire artistique dans laquelle les modèles et les formes se sont détériorés—s’est faite grâce à un art, un language tirant sa source d’une réalité extra-historique.3

To be an heir to Tradition is thus to reflect historically on change from outside of history, constantly to scrutinise the changeability of change with reference to a timeless model of perfection, towards which changing form tends through time. But for the age into which Ionesco was born, this awareness of Tradition took the form of an anguished paralysis. Modernity was installed as an age of profound negativity, since it seemed that the only change that could henceforth be made to the way forms change was a stop to change. The modern age thus received Tradition as a sign of defeat. Hence the fatalism of its political and social ‘traditionalists’. In art and culture, that defeat was experienced more acutely than in any other domain. At the same time, as in no other domain, defeat provided the conditions for a renewal and a continuation of what, as Tradition, seemed at an end, announcing a radical change of age (of epoch) whose threshold still remains to be crossed. If only in passing, Ionesco’s theatre plays a significant role in this revival of Tradition.

The age whose inheritance Ionesco shares is a profoundly negative one because it is characterised by a generalised encounter with the limits of existing forms of expression. As Post-Romanticism declined into Decadence, writers found themselves confronted ever more insistently with the fact that there was nothing more to be said. What Mario Praz acknowledged to be the essence of Romanticism, name ‘that which cannot be described’,4 came to the fore in the last years of the nineteenth century. If ‘it is romantic to consider concrete expression as a decadence, a contamination’,5 by that stage the trappings of Romanticism had fallen away, leaving only a core of paralysed mutism. For Maupassant, ‘tout est rengaine’;6 for Vallès, ‘tout est copié’.7 Huysmans describes in retrospect how the Naturalism he fled ‘était condamné à se rabâcher, en piétinant sur place’, so that it had become an ‘impasse,’ a ‘cul-de-sac’;8 while the hero of Barrès’s Sous l’oeil des barbares declares: ‘Peu à peu, jour sombre, on se l’avoue: tout est dit, redit: aucune idée qu’il ne soit honteux d’exprimer (… rien ne vaut que par la forme du dire’.9

The discovery of the limits of existing form at the end of the nineteenth century is certainly the most powerful blow to Tradition there has ever been. Something had gone fundamentally wrong with the historical process of transmitting and receiving forms through time, something which exposed the very movement of Tradition to doubt. Tradition lives through change. Forms succeed forms, tending ever closer to a model of perfection. The artist of Tradition, plunged into history as he changes the forms he inherits from the past, also stands outside of history as he scrutinises the gradual fulfilment through formal change of a perfection which is neither past nor future, since it is beyond time. With the modern age, the harmony and balance of this process were definitively disrupted. In itself, the discovery that no more could be said was nothing new: it is an integral moment in Tradition considered as change to forms through time. What made it decisive was the resignation that accompanied it, the disillusioned lucidity expressed by Jacques Vaché when he wrote of ‘l’inutilité théâtrale (et sans joie) de tout. Quand on sait’.10 Yet such lucidity in its turn had always had its place in developing Tradition, as that scrutiny of change which is the mark of the true traditionalist. If living forms had become ‘uselessly theatrical’, the knowledge that this was the case ought just as well to have been an insight that change must go on. Tradition has come to a halt yet forms remain imperfect. Since Tradition must continue, change must change.

Yet the process did come to a halt. Dissatisfaction with existing form became dissatisfaction with form itself. History therefore stopped, but stopped short. What Auerbach called the ‘living historicity’ of ‘figure’,11 that productive difference between timeless model and historically changing form, collapsed and as it were died. The model had become debased. No difference existed any more between perfection and perfectibility. Form was simply form, and as such, inadequate. The lucidity with which the traditionalist had always scrutinised the process of change from without now became the disillusioned contemplation of a catastrophic sham. Meanwhile all the human energy invested, as desire, in the process of perfectibility which Tradition had inspired, deprived of an outlet, remained pent up yet uncontainable. Exiled from form, adrift in what Rimbaud called l’informe,12 it had no way of externalising its own now radical changeability in the form of new modes of expression (‘trouver une langue’).

In short there occurred, in modernity, what may be termed a radical polarisation of experience in the domain of art and culture. Tradition had always required of the traditionalist that he be both inside and outside of history. Now, not only had that extra-historical perspective opened on to nothing (since form as such could no longer be discerned outside the limits of existing form); there was no longer any field of exercise within the domain of existing form for the passions and energies which provided the source of change. These too therefore found themselves somehow ‘outside’, as a pure excess of raw emotion, defined and characterised by nothing save its essential changeability. It is thus that the Subject of modernity found himself defined as an absolute ‘outsider’: his reason and his emotions thrust together in a stifling yet horizonless claustrum. This situation—a plenitude of lifeless form, outside of which, in a formless dimension of negative lucidity, emotion without object or direction expended its energy in a state of absolute instability—is, I would argue, the ultimate legacy of Western Tradition, handed down to the modern age and bringing History considered as progress and perfectibility to a halt. As such, it is therefore the end of Tradition. Though it is not possible to examine it further here, the polarised, paralysed stance into which it locks the modern Self underlies all artistic and cultural awareness from the later nineteenth century onwards. It presents an extraordinary combination of fixity and instability, out of which a whole range of responses to the limits of existing form emerged, from the backward-looking resignation of l’art pour l’art and its ultimate expression: Decadence, to the innovative search for a language of l’informe going from Rimbaud through to Dada. It is from within this stance that Ionesco emerges as an original writer for the theatre.

Ionesco’s accounts of his outlook and experience prior to his turn to the theatre when he was nearing forty, mark him out unmistakably as a modernist. As early as 1941 he wrote:

être libre, être hors de l’Histoire, ne pas être dans l’ordre du monde, ne pas être un instrument de l’orchestre ou une note de la symphonie. Ne pas être sur la scène. Tout voir et entendre de la salle. Comme hors de l’univers. Si on est sur la scène, si on fait partie de l’orchestre, nous n’entendons que le tumulte, nous ne saisissons que les dissonances.13

The stability provided here by the dualism of the theatre metaphor (scène / salle) will subsequently disappear from his retrospective accounts of the state he was in before he discovered the reality of theatre. Time and again he will emphasise the instability of the ‘outside’ to which he found himself exiled, once the paradise of childhood was left behind, and from which he would never escape. As he said to Claude Bonnefoy in 1966: ‘toute réjouissance avait comme un trou à l’intérieur d’elle-même qui la dévorait’.14 In ‘L’auteur et ses problèmes’ (1963) he writes:

Tout à fait au fond du moi-même c’est la nuit que je trouve … la nuit, ou plutôt une lumière aveuglante.15

While later in his conversation with Bonnefoy he observes:

Vous dites qu’il y a dans mon théâtre beaucoup de boue, d’enlisement. Cela correspond justement à l’un de mes deux états. Je me sens ou bien lourd ou bien léger. La légèreté c’est l’évanescence euphorique qui peut devenir tragique ou douloureuse quand il y a angoisse. Quand il n’y a pas angoisse, c’est la facilité d’être. (p. 41)

There is thus, Bonnefoy observes, a sort of incoherence or disequilibrium at the origin of Ionesco’s theatre, to which Ionesco replies:

Oui. A un moment donné les choses me paraissent claires. Je peux discourir plus facilement mais je n’écris pas. A d’autres moments, c’est comme s’il y avait un tremblement de terre dans mon microcosme, comme si tout s’effondrait, et c’est une sorte de nuit, ou plutôt un mélange de lumière et d’ombre, un monde chaotique. (p. 79)

It is between what he calls his ‘deux états’, made up of opposing visions and conflicting emotions, that he swung painfully and uncontrollably throughout his life. Excluded from the domain of forms, unable to write, his was an exemplary experience of the polarisation of existence which is the defining characteristic of all modernity. Until, that is, the theatre provided him with an equilibrium. To understand the complex nature of that equilibrium, which, it must be noted, does not enable Ionesco immediately to write, it is necessary to examine carefully the ways in which modernity sought to emerge from the crisis which defined it.

Ionesco was a latecomer to the modern condition. Well before he found himself the heir to a Tradition that had died, others had sought a way of disengaging culture from the impasse constituted by the paralysed, polarised stance which was the ultimate legacy handed down by Tradition. Extremes such as suicide (Vaché) or renunciation (Rimbaud) were less frequent than attempts at channeling the energies that had been deprived of an outlet in form, into a new temporal relation with form. Vallès’s political activism, Barrès’s nationalism, Huysmans’ mysticism (and Péguy’s choice of all three options) have in common the emotional and practical espousal of forms existing, or called on to exist, in an a-temporal present, either metaphysical or ideological. Their responses seek, each in its way, to convert the collapse of model into form which had expelled the present from History, into an attempt at establishing the model in the present, either metaphysically or ideologically, as form, and so redeeming History, harnessing the energy of human desire and reviving Tradition.

However, though these responses and others like them provide much of the history of modernity and its response to Tradition, the true heirs to what Tradition hands down to the modern age are neither those who simply succumbed to paralysis, nor those who sought to convert it into the paradox of active conservatism, but those who were willing to sustain the lucid insight into the changing nature of forms which is the mark of the true traditionalist. In revealing, at the end of the nineteenth century, that the changeability of forms was at an end, so that they could only endure or else decay, this insight imposed upon art and culture as never before a demand for silence in response to Tradition.

Music and painting, which are arts of silence from the standpoint of language, took the lead in searching for a way beyond the end to change of form. Paradoxically, their revolutions permitted the arts of language (in particular the novel) to hang back from making the move that they had made, by providing them with a metaphor for formal change which they would not themselves undergo until considerably later. For its part, however, theatre appeared incapable of change. As Ionesco wrote more than once, it remained squarely ‘en retard’: ‘L’avant-garde a été stoppé au théâtre, sinon dans la littérature’.16 Ionesco blames this rather cursorily on the wars and tyrannies that arose in the first half of the twentieth century. Frantisek Deak has recently offered a more probing sociological explanation, arguing that the decline in theatre can be attributed to a decline in the theatricality of social life, the replacement of court by street.17 Given the unique social function of drama, a sociological interpretation of the crisis of theatre at this time is inevitable. Yet the apparent homology between stage and world should not encourage a simplified understanding of that crisis. Once theatre is drawn into the generalised collapse of form which occurs with the dawn of modernity, it separates out to display two distinct formal levels, each of which ‘represents’ the world as a whole: the level of mimetic reflection (human beings in a situation) and the level of language. Though these two levels of form are also present in the novel, the nature of theatrical performance separates them from each other absolutely, since each calls on a different means of representation in order to fulfil its social role. For each, however, the illusion of presentness achieved through representation relies on real presence: that of objects, light and sound on the one hand, that of language itself in its spoken form (voice) on the other. With the terminal crisis of form that occurred at the end of the nineteenth century, that illusion of presentness was discredited. Yet theatre seemed to offer nothing else. It therefore appeared impervious to the breakdown of form affecting modernity, and hence no more than a crude illusion. It is from this perspective that theatre came to be seen as ‘en retard’.

Nevertheless, within the retarded frame provided by real presence, changes were happening at the level of language, which now began to assert its autonomy from the mimetic forms which had hitherto determined its role. Peter Szondi has shown how theatre as Drama played a key role in defining the modern, ‘interpersonal’ world which emerged at the Renaissance, through being essentially an art of dialogue.18 Hence theatre could not accommodate the breakdown in communication occasioned by the discovery that ‘tout est dit’. In an attempt at doing so, dialogue in the theatre gave way to monologue. According to Jean-Pierre Sarrazac:

L’intrusion dévastatrice du monologue sur le territoire du dialogue dramatique—on pouvait suivre depuis Ibsen, Tchékhov et Strindberg les péripéties de la guerre de mouvement que se livraient ces deux principes contradictories—témoigne que la lutte est engagée contre le trop homogène de la langue du théâtre.19

For Sarrazac, however, this response to the limits of form (their ‘homogeneity’) leads directly to new forms of theatrical language:

il s’agit moins, en fait, de consacrer le monologue comme forme hégémonique du texte moderne que d’instituer l’hétérogénéité dans les formes du language. [… A l’organicité du dialogue, les textes théatraux d’aujourd’hui répondent par le choc des blocs de language étrangers voire réfractaires les uns aux autres. Par la lutte des langues. (p. 136)

In his view, this development, which he calls a hybridisation (p. 137), is traceable back through the history of the monologue (hence via the pre-modern age which Szondi evokes) to ‘un partage dialectique du sujet’ found in the philosophical soliloquies of Antiquity (p. 129). However, Sarrazac is reaching too far back and too far forward in this explanation of the rise of modern theatre. He thus ignores the precise nature of the present in which, faced historically with the collapse of Tradition and the end of change, modernity sought to respond. At that moment, monologue in the theatre was neither dialectical nor heterogeneous (part of a ‘polylogue’ as Sarrazac also puts it (p. 134)): it was the voice of solitary individualism confronting the unsayable from without, the form given to language by a mind exiled beyond the limits of form. Ultimately, monologue under such conditions could lead only to silence. Theatre thus became, in its turn, an art of silence like music and painting, and Maeterlinck was its author.

Yet the status of theatre as an art of silence, compared to either music or painting, was profoundly ambivalent. Like them, it began to provide a wealth of those metaphors for silence thanks to which the arts of language kept silence at bay. Unlike music or painting, however, it remained bound up with the language it had reduced to silence. Its retard must therefore be examined very carefully, if its true import is to be grasped. The theory of a simple trajectory, in the evolution of theatre towards its modern or ‘avantgarde’ incarnation, misses out the key phase constituted by that retard. In fact it is precisely thanks to its enduring backwardness that the art of theatre acquired a key role in the development of modern art forms at the turn of the century.

Everything hinges on the emergence of two distinct levels of form in the theatre which I have referred to. At the level of social representation, theatre’s retard amounted to the persistence of forms which were henceforth inadequate. Such backwardness could only inspire a flight from the theatre. But at the level of language, the retard took a form which on the contrary delayed that flight. The Symbolist theatre of silence, which was an attempt at overcoming the retard at the level of representation by disengaging language from it, finally achieved the opposite goal. As dialogue tended towards monologue, and monologue towards silence, the mutism of its figures and the emptiness of its stage became a mirror for the paralysed, polarised stance which was the final legacy of Tradition. Hence, left behind in so far as it could do no more than hold up an imperfect mirror to modernity, theatre nevertheless clung on by offering, as an alternative, the consolation of fascinated Narcissism to the subject of modernity. With nothing to offer except silence, it continued to provide a silent reflection of that silence.20

In one way, therefore, the dual nature of its retard locked theatre more decisively than any other art into the paralysis affecting change of form in the late nineteenth century, by turning it into a paralysing phantasm of the modern condition. Yet precisely for this reason, it also offered greater potential for a renewal of change than any other art. But between the moment when Tradition ground to a halt with the advent of modernity, and the working-out of a ‘post-modern’ response to its end, what the term ‘theatre’ refers to underwent total change. Notwithstanding the perennial nature of its old forms, there is, strictly speaking, no direct relation between what theatre was up until the end of the nineteenth century, and what it is today. This is because, having become thanks to its theatricality what no other art of language could be without ceasing to exist: an art of silence, theatre was taken over, in its pure theatricality, by that purest of the arts of language, poetry. What poetry discovered in theatre was not just an art-form en retard, but one with the capacity to retard the reduction of the arts of language to silence with the discovery that ‘tout est dit’, by containing that moment of silence within the limits of its own empty form. Theatre had become the site of a highly unstable paradox: what lay beyond the capacity of the human mind to express it was nevertheless located within the most elementary expressive frame there is: that of representation by means of real presence. Presence with nothing to represent had become the signifier of language with nothing to say. Such was the instability of this ‘degree zero’ situation that theatre itself could do no more than refine upon it: no evolution could possibly occur without theatre, in its turn, succumbing totally to silence and ceasing to exist. The paralysis at that level was as total as it was at the level of modernist subjectivity, whose fixation the theatre sustained. As the modern age took stock of the collapse of Tradition that had brought it about, the theatre (la scène) began to provide poets in their turn with a metaphor for their condition, just as music and painting had. More often than not, however, this was once again a means of warding off the challenge posed by the crisis of form. Thanks to one man, however, a relation developed between theatre and poetry at this time which went much further, amounting to an absolute transformation of each of them. Not only did he abolish the existing distinction between the two by subsuming them both within language; in so doing he displaced the distinction, in language, between imagination and thought, literature and philosophy, to produce what may be called a ‘theatricalisation’ of language which has since become the identifying mark of all ‘post-modernity’.21 That man was Stéphane Mallarmé. Though he never wrote for the theatre, he transformed its identity decisively. No understanding of what Ionesco achieved in the theatre is possible without taking account of how Mallarmé revolutionised Tradition.

Much has been written about theatricality in Mallarmé's work. Yet time and again, writers stop short of acknowledging what nevertheless seems undeniable: Mallarmé married the arts of poetry and theatre by introducing into language as poetry what theatre alone had hitherto been capable of placing there: namely a silence which, though a reflection of the limits of language, did not amount to an extinction of language, but rather a step back which offered a perspective upon language at its limit. Mallarmé, who lived the experience of the limits of form more acutely and more painfully than almost any other writer, saw in the theatre of silence not so much a mirror-image of his own sterile paralysis (which he dramatises repeatedly in his earlier verse), as a hitherto ignored or unused dimension to language itself. A dimension whose substance is silence, in that it lies beyond the limits of expressive form; but one whose silence lies, at the same time, within the bounds of expression, as theatre had shown. The theatre of silence had put an end to the living presence of language in its changing forms. The enduring presence of the physical stage, deprived of its mimetic function, had then became the asemantic signifier of silence: the meaningless support for the meaningless it signified. Theatre, in its raw physicality, thus provided a perspective on language in the totality of its forms. What Mallarmé saw in this was a means of representing or staging language in a way which had never hitherto been possible.

There thus occurs, in Mallarmé’s writing, a theatricalisation of language for which the physical theatre provides, at the very most, a means of access, no more (what Mary Lewis Shaw has recently termed ‘an aperture onto metaphysical truth’).22 The outer stage, in its empty visibility, is henceforth merely a crude projection of what he terms la scène intérieure, the inner stage of the mind, which, in a reference to Hamlet, he calls ‘[le] prototype du reste’,23 and whose existence is not determined by vision. His repeated reference back to Hamlet, ‘la pièce que je crois celle par excellence’, is also significant for the way it allows him to distance himself from the contemporary theatre of silence, and break its hold over the silent theatricality of the inner stage. In ‘Planches et feuillets’, he decisively contrasts the latent drame to be found even in a reading of Shakespeare with its absence in Maeterlinck’s work:

Lear, Hamlet lui-même, Cordélie, Ophélie, je cite des héros reculés très avant dans la légende ou leur lointain spécial, agissent en toute vie, tangibles, intenses: lus, ils froissent la page, pour surgir, corporels. Différente j’envisageai la Princesse Maleine, une après-midi de lecture restée l’ingénue et étrange que je sache; où domina l’abandon, au contraire, d’un milieu à quoi, pour une cause, rien de simplement humain ne convenait.24

There is thus more to this move from outer to inner stage on Mallarmé’s part than mere disaffection. Unlike Maeterlinck, he wishes to carry over from theatre into language something much more basically physical than even the crudest of staging could ever be, since it is always present at a distance. To read La Princesse Maleine is merely to be aware of the physicality of the visible stage in absentia. To read Shakespeare, on the contrary, is to experience the upsurge of a physicality present in everyone: the intense and even violent physicality of the body in its invisible immediacy. Far from spiritualising the function of the stage, as Haskell M. Block has claimed,25 Mallarmé is seeking rather to theatricalise the mind, and hence allow it to accommodate for the first time what is its absolute antithesis: the body. Mallarmé’s aim is to introduce into the sphere of language, considered as limited form (‘tout est dit’) that exorbitant moment of silence to which modernity has been reduced, and which it dramatises as a polarisation separating a mute self and a closed world of forms. That silence, captured in the theatre by means of the ‘retarded’ materiality of the outer stage, already exists within each person, as the raw immediacy of sentiment and sensation which Mallarmé sought from the outset to introduce into the language of his poetry.26 Mallarmé discovers that the paralysed stance in which modernity is caught is no more than a reaction of horror to what has been revealed beyond the limits of form with the collapse of Tradition: not the negativity of a pure absence, but the unstable, impure presence of the body in its inconceivable but all too imaginable immediacy. At the absolute crisis-point arising from the collapse of Tradition, the retard by which theatre lived on (as Symbolism), beyond the encounter with its own limits (its Naturalism), allowed a poet caught outside the limits of language to see a chance of overcoming the paralysis affecting all forms of expression at the time, by opening up the language, by way of its own physicality, to the formlessness and changeability which characterise its real ‘outside’: the body.

Language henceforth offered a ‘perspective’ upon itself by becoming its own ‘stage’. Once discovered, that ‘inner stage’ offered what modernity despaired of: a mode of changeability which took account of the fact that forms themselves could not change. By extinguishing vision, it transformed the perspective on nothing which the collapse of Tradition had opened up (the ‘terrifying obviousness’ of an ‘unthinkable blankness … beyond’ to which Malcolm Bowie refers in relation to Un Coup de dés)27 from being a source of horrified polarisation into a mobile presence within the sphere of language: displacing it, interrupting it and undoing it in response to the unstable quantum of bodily subjectivity (sentiment and sensation) that lies simultaneously outside and inside the bounds of expression. In so translating what the polarisation of experience had rendered chaotic into a new poetic order, Mallarmé brought about a revolution in Tradition with implications for all art, and in particular the theatre. He was the first to distinguish, within the polarisation of the modernist stance, a dynamic duality unaffected by the paralysis it displayed. He thus opened up the modernist ‘outside’ in which subjectivity was exiled, and, by making it accessible to language, established a new site on which to explore the relationship between mind and body. In so doing, he collapsed the illusory poles between which subjectivity in the modern age was caught, and so eliminated the stance by which the age defined itself. He thereby dispelled at a stroke the emotional form taken by the pathos of modernist experience: that nihilistic anguish which he himself endured for much of his creative life, and whose only ‘language’ was silence. In both of these respects, his revolution rendered the theatre in its existing form defunct: neither its mimetic frame not its modes of language (whether dialogue or monologue) could accommodate the serene exorbitancy of expression allowed by the theatricalisation of language which he proposed. In the wake of this revolution, if the theatre were to discover new forms, these could only be derived from the theatricalisation of language and the shift from outer to inner stage which were accomplished in Mallarmé’s work. Theatre could only return to the stage by way of language. For any playwright finding himself an heir to Tradition, the revolution by which Tradition moved on, thanks to Mallarmé, beyond the discovery of the limits of form, overturned the traditional hierarchy of forms in the theatre irrevocably. If the outer stage had hitherto provided a container for the language of a play, henceforth the theatricality of language would dictate the nature of theatre performance: the outer stage would be at the service of the inner stage of language.

A proper appreciation of Ionesco’s theatre requires that it be seen as just such a return, using the outer stage in relation to the theatricality of language in order to overcome the breakdown of form and the collapse of Tradition. As he himself said: ‘tout est language au théâtre (. … Tout n’est que language. Un language essayant de révéler l’ahistoire, peut-être même d’intégrer celle-ci dans l’histoire’.28 I have already indicated to what extent Ionesco’s experience confined him within a modernist stance. The challenge presented by his turn to the theatre with La Cantatrice chauve is to see how, like Mallarmé, he found a way of translating that experience into a relationship with form, while sustaining and promoting the perspective on form opened up by the collapse of Tradition. When he states, in his Helsinki lecture, that ‘une chose dite est déjà morte, la réalité est au-delà d’elle’,29 he is unmistakably reaffirming that ‘traditionalist’ perspective. On the surface, however, La Cantatrice chauve appears to offer a response of a very un-Mallarmean nature. There can be no doubt that it introduces into the domain of limited form—demoted to the status of banal cliché— an ordering principle which these forms themselves cannot accommodate. But the new ‘order’ thus created ultimately seems indistinguishable from total disorder. It does not so much recall the serene deconstructions of Mallarmé as the jubilant destructiveness of Dada. As with Dada, the fact that the scene of such destruction is the stage appears coincidental.

This is where Ionesco’s now classic account of how he came to write for the theatre offers up its true lesson.30 On one level, his experience of learning English brought to a head the situation in which he had long found himself. Sentences such as ‘il y a sept jours dans la semaine’ or ‘le plancher est en bas, le plafond est en haut’ are, as Ionesco observed, ‘indiscutablement vraie[s]’ (p. 248). They are thus instances of language at its limits. What he calls ‘[leur] caractère indubitable, parfaitement axiomatique’ (p. 249) means that, in each case, no more can be said in the form in which it has been said. Confronted with these ‘véritès fondamentales’, these ‘constatations profondes’ (p. 248), Ionesco found that words had suddenly lost their sense and become ‘des écorces sonores’ (p. 252). In response, he found himself ‘pris d’un véritable malaise, des vertiges, des nausées’, and obliged to lie down on the sofa, ‘avec la crainte de le voir sombrer dans le néant; et moi avec’ (p. 252). Language experienced as living form had collapsed for Ionesco, opening up a dizzying perspective on a void to which he henceforth felt exiled, mind and body.

Already, however, the changes which allowed him to break out of this stance had begun to occur: left to themselves, the perfect but useless sentences in his notebook had begun to alter in shape from within. Something was going on inside them which would transform them directly, by Ionesco’s account, into the work of theatre known as La Cantatrice chauve. But although, by that account, the play begins to sound like latter-day Dada (the verbs Ionesco uses to describe the changes are all negative: ‘se corrompirent’, ‘se dénaturèrent’, ‘se déréglèrent’), something is present in both his experience and his play which orients his response decisively away from Dada. At the level of his experience, this is provided by the fact that the language in which it occurs is not his own: it is a foreign language. The speaker of a foreign language occupies an ambivalent position: both ‘inside’ it in so far as it expresses what he or she has to say, but at the same time at a distance from it, since the true forms of that expression are to be found in another language. That distance is never entirely suppressed, for as long as the foreign speaker remains a foreign speaker. Ionesco’s experience with the sentences in his notebook was thus very different from what it would have been, had they been in French (his mother tongue). Because what would have been lacking, in that case, is some vantage-point from which to observe the whole process while enduring it at the same time. What the stance offered to the speaker of a foreign language ensures is that, at all times, he appears to himself to be both inside the language and outside of it: both speaker and listener, in a relation of simultaneous alternation which differs absolutely from any to be found within his own, since he listens from what, in relation to the foreign language, appears as an absolute outside. This is, of course, a total illusion. The detachment we have as speakers of a foreign language is one provided by language: any ‘outside’ nevertheless lies within language. Significantly, it is the very same illusion which determines the late nineteenth-century response to the collapse of Tradition: the stance according to which subjectivity was felt to lie outside of the confines of language. If certain writers saw a way beyond the paralysis imposed by this inhibiting phantasm, it was simply because, in a variety of ways, they saw through the illusion. Their task, as artists, was then to seek ways of expressing, through language, what it is to find oneself outside of language; to discover in language a dimension of exteriority: in Mallarmé’s terms, to prise open an inner stage and bring about a theatricalisation of language.

In the process, as Ionesco has said, theatre itself remained en retard. If the experience of language he describes led him to the theatre, therefore, it is not because theatre appeared as a convenient container for that experience. On the contrary, he felt nothing but distaste for the theatre as it existed. It was rather that he became aware, with an acuteness arising from the Verfremdung of speaking a foreign language, of the theatricality of language itself, that inner margin of silence lying beyond the limits of its ability to give form to experience through expression, but passing within those limits in such a way that to occupy it and give expression to its silence opens upon an entirely new relation in and to language.

In itself, therefore, Ionesco’s expérience du théâtre was neither original nor strictly theatrical: it was the discovery of what writers had been exploring since the end of the nineteenth century, namely the inherent theatricality of language. So profound was that experience in his case that it thrust Ionesco dizzily into the writerly disposition he had for so long lacked, and provided him with an original project for the theatre. His nausea and astonishment were the signs of an absolute awakening to what Tradition had become. But what ensures Ionesco’s true originality is that the theatricality he had awoken to was not just theatrical: it required the theatre to give it expression. Whereas Mallarmé could say of ‘L’Après-midi d’un faune’ that it was ‘non possible au théâtre, mais exigeant le théâtre’, for Ionesco the theatricality of language demanded the theatre and to be possible as theatre.

In what was and remains the most decisive theatrical gesture in the twentieth century, Ionesco did no less than restore theatre to the stage in the form of original works. Eschewing the doctrinal efforts of Artaud, he transformed his experience of theatre (which could only be an experience of language and hence non-theatrical) directly into theatre. The illusion created in the speaker of a foreign language that he is both inside and outside language allowed Ionesco to break free of the illusion, shared with the entire modern age, that experience lies outside the limits of language’s ability to express it. But what allowed him to escape the corresponding illusion: that the alternative to that polarisation can only be chaos and cacophony, was his recognition of a dimension in language which could be explored using the illusory outside provided by the material stage.

From La Cantatrice chauve to Les Chaises but no further (hence only in passing), Ionesco returned to what, in his Helsinki lecture, he called ‘un modèle intérieur de théâtre’,31 where what he calls ‘les schèmes permanents, profonds, de la théâtralité’, and elsewhere ‘les schèmes mentaux permanents du théâtre’32 are to be found. Then if only then, Ionesco can justifiably be said to be a writer of Tradition.


  1. Ibid., p. 87.

  2. Ibid., pp. 85-6.

  3. Ibid., pp. 85-6.

  4. Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970 [1951]), p. 14.

  5. Ibid., p. 15.

  6. Guy de Maupassant, letter to Marie Bashkirtsef, April 1884, cited in Marie-Claire Bancquart, Maupassant conteur fantastique (Paris: Ardires des Lettres Modernes, 1976), p.14.

  7. Jules Vallès, ‘Victimes du livre’, in Œuvres Complètes, edited by L. Scheler (Paris: Editeurs Français Réunis, 1950-), vol. 7, p. 143.

  8. J-K Huysmans, ‘Préface écrite vingt ans après le roman’ [1903], in A Rebours (Paris: Fasquelle, 1955 [1884]). pp. 7-26 (pp. 7, 10, 11).

  9. Maurice Barrès, Sous l’oeil des barbares (1888), in Le Culte du moi, préface de Hubert Juin (Paris: U. G. E., 1986), p. 46.

  10. Jacques Vaché, letter to André Breton dated 29 April 1917, in André Breton, Anthologie de l’humour noir (Paris: Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1966 [Livre de Poche]), p. 380.

  11. Erich Auerbach, ‘Figura’, in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (Gloucs: Massachusets, Peter Smith, 1973 [1959]), p. 56.

  12. Arthur Rimbaud, letter to Paul Demeny (the so-called ‘Lettre du Voyant’), 15 May 1871, in Œuvres, edited by Suzanne Bernard (Paris: Editions Garnier, 1960), pp. 344-50 (p. 347).

  13. Eugène Ionesco, Passé présent, présent passé (Paris: Mercure de France, 1968), pp. 74-5.

  14. Claude Bonnefoy, Entretiens avec Eugène Ionesco (Paris: Editions Pierre Belfond, 1966), p. 13.

  15. Notes et contre-notes, p. 22.

  16. ‘Discours sur l’avant-garde’, op. cit., p. 89.

  17. Frantisek Deak, Symbolist Theatre (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 14

  18. Peter Szondi, Theorie des modernen Dramas (Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1963), p. 15.

  19. Jean-Pierre Sarrazac, L’Avenir du drame (Lausanne: Editions de l’Aire, 1981), pp. 135-6.

  20. In the fourth of Rilke’s Duineser Elegien (11. 52-6) this stance is represented as an attitude of intense waiting before an empty stage.

  21. See Jean-François Lyotard, ‘The unconscious as mise-èn-scène’, in Performance in Post-Modern Culture, ed. Michel Benamou and Charles Caramello (Madison: Wisconsin, Coda Press, 1977), pp. 87-98: ‘[T]he most simple utterance carries with it a primitive rhetoric. Its being uttered, its arrangement have already made it a diminutive stage’ (p. 90).

  22. Mary Lewis Shaw, Performance in the Texts of Mallarmé (University Park PA, Pennsylvania University Press, 1993), p. 68. As her use of the term ‘metaphysical’ might suggest, however, Shaw in her turn remains reluctant to envisage Mallarmé’s theatricalisation of language in its full implications.

  23. Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘Hamlet’, in ‘Crayonné au théŒatre’, (Euvres Complètes (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliotheque de la Pléiade, 1945), pp. 299-302 (p. 300).

  24. Op. cit., pp. 328-30 (p. 329).

  25. Haskell M. Block, ‘Mallarmé and the materialisation of the abstract in modern drama’, in Aux Sources de la vérité du théâtre moderne, ed. James B. Sanders (Paris: Editions Minard, 1977), pp. 41-51 (p. 43).

  26. Of ‘Renouveau’ he wrote to Cazalis in 1862: ‘C’est un genre assez nouveau que cette poésie où les effets matériels du sang, des nerfs sont analysés et mêlés aux effets moraux, de l’esprit, de l’âme.’ Cited in Œuvres Complètes, op. cit., p. 1425.

  27. Malcolm Bowie, Mallarmé or the Art of Being Difficult (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), p. 116.

  28. Notes et contre-notes, p. 197.

  29. Notes et contre-notes, p. 77.

  30. See ‘La Tragédie du language’, in Notes et contre-notes, pp. 247-54.

  31. Notes et contre-notes, p. 86.

  32. Notes et contre-notes, p. 190.

Richard Schechner (interview date 1963)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1608

SOURCE: “An Interview with Ionesco,” in Tulane Drama Review, Volume 7, No. 3, Spring, 1963, pp. 163-68.

[In the following conversation, Ionesco is characteristically reluctant to classify his plays and ideas, and reveals his annoyance at the tendency for “literary specialists” to ask irrelevant questions about the artist’s work.]

Schechner: If there is a central theme to your work, it seems to be the search for the self. Your characters either don’t know who they are (the Smiths, the Martins), or they are forced to abandon their identity (Jack, the Pupil), or else they are tortured in their effort to find themselves (Choubert). Yet, with Berenger, you have created a character who is himself. Could you discuss this aspect of your theatre’s development?

Ionesco: That is only one of my themes. The others, it seems to me, are: death, evil, political and social ills, old age, nothingness or absence. If “Berenger is himself,” that’s fine. I, however, cannot discuss this “development,” nor the essential reality of the character. It’s up to you to do that. Forgetting, if you please, everything that the critics have said about it. Commentaries become oppressive. Or rather, they constitute a screen which is placed between the reader and the work itself. Act as though you had read none of what the critics, favorable or unfavorable, have said. It’s the work that we should read first; and it’s to the work itself that we must constantly return.

Schechner: What effect, if any, have Sartre and his analysis of the self in Being and Nothingness had upon your work? Has Nausea influenced your work?

Ionesco: Not at all. Besides, I don’t think much of Sartre. I believe also that my fundamental reaction is the very opposite of his. Consciousness, the awareness of existence provokes in me an astonishment which is a source of joy. This astonishment is like a state of grace. I am depressed when it forsakes me, when I am not astonished, when existence becomes routine because of exhaustion, lack of awareness, or distraction. This is what happens most of the time.

Schechner: You have stated that the archetype is hidden within the stereotype. Is this one of the reasons why you, while making fun of clichés, continue to use them? Does the cliché hide a vacuum in the individual at the same time that it reveals a universal truth, especially in The Killer and Rhinoceros?

Ionesco: An archetype is universal, of course. It is essential truth, a source. A stereotype is routine. Routine and cliché separate man from himself, hide him from himself, separate him from his deepest truth. In The Killer and Rhinoceros, Berenger destroys his own clichés as he speaks. And so, he sees beyond them. His questions no longer have easy answers. Perhaps he arrives in this way at fundamental questions which lie beyond false answers, that is to say ready-made answers (made by others, of course) which are not real answers. After all, to have no answer is better than to have a false one.

Schechner: Would you say that the Berenger plays are written in a more classical style than the plays which preceded them?

Ionesco: Perhaps. I don’t know. It’s a secondary problem, a problem of literary technique.

Schechner: Is Berenger an everyman, an archetype? Is he a bourgeois hero?

Ionesco: What is a hero? What is a bourgeois? What is a non-bourgeois hero? You’re falling into clichés. The Marxist double talk is lying in wait for you! Communist conformity is as bourgeois as bourgeois conformity.

Schechner: You write that the inner and outer worlds correspond just as do your personal world and the world of others. Is this identity the source of what you call classicism? What do you mean by “inner world” in such plays as Bald Soprano and The Maid to Marry?

Ionesco: You’re giving me a headache! Decidedly, you are a literary specialist. Let’s say that The Bald Soprano is the expression of my personal feeling of the astonishing (insolite). A state of astonishment that breaks through clichés, which bursts clichés, by stressing those very clichés. The universe surprises me. The universe of clichés surprises me also. In The Maid to Marry, it seems to me that I am dealing chiefly with the impersonal world of clichés. The two characters are lost in their clichés. Lost. The illogic of the ending should shake up the spectators.

Schechner: Was there a turning pont in your life, or in your idea of the theatre, between Amédée and The Killer? Your theatre seems to find a new existence with The Killer.

Ionesco: I have no ideas about the theatre. Or at the most, about technical problems. With each play, everytime I begin to write, I ask myself how I can best express what I want to say. May I repeat, this is of minor importance. A turning point? There are always turning points. Everything is transition. We turn, and turn. But what can my “life” matter to you? My life in the final analysis is only the time that I have been able to write my works, to see, to listen, to write. What is written counts. I’ve lived for my work. It is my work which expresses, it is my life, or life in general. It is in my works that you must look for my life.

Schechner: Also, you seem to abandon the theme of the couple in your Berenger plays. Before The Killer, your plays were constructed around the man-woman relationship, or about the family.

Ionesco: Woman, or the members of the family, are also others. As well as being another aspect of oneself. Others are everywhere, and oneself is also in others. I abandon the couple, I take it up again, I abandon it, I take it up again, I abandon it, and so on. Whether I speak of, or express, the reality of another, of one or of several, it’s about the same thing: the same “world” is manifested. A single person can represent others; a person alone also “bathes” in his epoch, speaks for others or for me.

Schechner: Are you concerned by the political situation in France? If such concern exists, does it find expression in your work?

Ionesco: Like all my countrymen, I feel concerned. But I don’t feel concerned alone by the immediate current events. Current events are always the reflection of something more profound. Today’s current events may or may not appear in my work. Perhaps they already do appear? I need distance to perceive it.

Schechner: What relationship is there between words and objects in your work? Are the disarticulation of language and the proliferation of objects two phases of the same phenomenon?

Ionesco: Perhaps. I believe so. What do you think? They aren’t phases; they are simultaneous processes.

Schechner: What influence, if any, has Artaud had on you?

Ionesco: I read him recently. It may be a case of the meeting of minds.

Schechner: What influence has the cinema had on you?

Ionesco: I think it must have had one, since I’ve been going to the movies for years and years. You figure it out. That’s your work.

Schechner: You’ve said yourself, that you are not a “man of the theatre.” Yet, your work is by far among the most theatrical of our day. How did you learn stage language without ever having worked on the stage?

Ionesco: That proves that I’m a man of the theatre anyway. How did you learn to breathe from the first second of your life without anyone ever teaching you? The theatre is a natural function also.

Schechner: What authors and directors are closest to you? What young writers do you prefer?

Ionesco: Shakespeare, Calderon, Kleist, Chekhov, and others. Dubillard, Weingarten, and others.

Schechner: You have said that once a form of art is accepted, it is outmoded. How do you look upon your early works today? Where is the avant-garde?

Ionesco: That’s true. Acceptance of an art form outmodes it. I don’t know what to think of my early works today. To find the avant-garde all you must do is look around you. Besides, the avant-garde doesn’t exist, or else it always exists. Everything is the avant-garde of something; there’s no stopping.

Schechner: Would you like to see your plays performed in a theatre like the TNP or on the Boulevard?

Ionesco: Why not? It’s all the same to me. But the TNP has already congealed into a set form of Masses, ceremonies; its politico-ideological inhibitions, its obsessions.

Schechner: Has Camus influenced you? Particularly his Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger? And Kafka?

Ionesco: Camus? Perhaps. I esteem him very highly. Kafka has certainly influenced me.

Ionesco’s P. S.—History and Literary Criticism. A man speaks to you. Instead of listening to the profound meaning of his words, instead of realizing what he wants to tell you, for he is speaking to you (or he is speaking alone, out loud, but his speech has a certain coherence; or else he is building a world, a structure appears), you do not receive this world, you only listen to the sounds. You say: how strangely he pronounces his “r,” his “e,” his “o”; say, where does that archaic expression come from? Or: where is his accent from? South of the Loire? Or: say, someone already told me the same thing he’s saying; I wonder if he agrees with the other fellow?

Eugène Ionesco (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6963

SOURCE: “Why Do I Write? A Summing Up,” in The Two Faces of Ionesco, The Whitson Publishing Company, 1978, pp. 5-19.

[In the following essay, Ionesco sums up his reasons for writing, which include trying to recapture the paradisiacal light of his childhood and reveal it to others; communicating what he considers to be the dazzling miracle of existence, complete with its joys and horrors; and affirming through the creative act his presence in the universe.]

I am still asking myself this question. I’ve been writing for a long time. When I was thirteen, I wrote my first play, at about eleven or twelve I was writing poems, and I was all of eleven when I started my memoirs: two pages of a school notebook. It isn’t as though there was a lack of things to say. I know that at that time I still had a clear recollection of my early childhood, when I was two or three years old, a time which has now become the memory of a memory of a memory. Seven or eight was the awakening of love; I was deeply attracted by a little girl of the same age. Then, when I was nine, there was another, Agnes. She lived eight kilometers from the Mill of the Chapelle-Anthenaise where I spent my childhood, a farm at St-Jean-sur-Mayenne. I made faces to make her laugh, and laugh she did, closing her eyes, revealing dimples, and tossing her blond hair. What has become of her? If she is still alive, she must be a fat peasant woman, perhaps a grandmother. There would also be other things to tell: the discovery of the cinema, or the magic lantern; my arrival in the country, the barn, the hearth, and old man Baptiste with his missing thumb on the right hand. Many other things: the school, the teacher, old man Guéné, the priest, Durand, the tippler, who returned dead drunk from his rounds of the farms of the commune. Everywhere he went they’d give him cider, or pear brandy.

Then there was my first confession when I said yes to all the priest’s questions because I couldn’t make out what he was saying—he was muttering under his breath—and it seemed better to take upon myself imaginary sins rather than to let any slip by. I could have spoken of my little friends, Raymond, Maurice, Simone, and of the games we played. But all this required training which one acquires later. We speak of our childhood when we’re no longer in it, when we no longer understand it very well. Of course, we also fail to understand what we are when we are children, but, at any rate, I was conscious of being alive when I lived in the Mayenne, I lived in happiness, joy, knowing somehow that each moment was fullness without knowing the word fullness. I lived in a kind of dazzlement. The first rift occured when I had to leave the Chapelle-Anthenaise. But with time the light dimmed, and now I realize I was not suited to being a farmer, ungifted as I am for manual labor. Some of my school pals from the école communale, Lucien, Auguste, have become wealthy farmers. To me, however, it seems that they lead quite a hard life, and that there’s little play left in their daily existence. They cast an indifferent eye on frolicking children. Perhaps I might have been the village teacher but my only vacations would have been school holidays which are not real holidays for adults.

One of the real reasons for which I write must be to find once again the marvellous element of childhood beyond daily life, joy beyond drama, freshness beyond hardship. Palm Sunday, when the tiny village streets were strewn with flowers and branches, was a transfiguration under the April sun. On religious feast days, I would climb the narrow, rocky path, guided by the church bells, and the church itself would appear little by little, first the top of the bell tower with its weathercock, then the whole steeple outlined against the blue sky. The world was beautiful, and I was conscious of it, everything was fresh and pure. I repeat: it is to find this beauty again, intact in the mud, that I write literary works. All my books, all my plays are a call, the expression of nostalgia, a search for a treasure buried in the ocean, lost in the tragedy of history. Or, if you prefer, what I am looking for and seem to find from time to time, is light. This is my basic reason for writing literature, and for having nourished myself by it. Always in search of this light, its presence beyond the shadows a certainty. I write in the night, in anguish, by the brief flicker of humor. But this is not the light I’m seeking, not that lighting. I want a play of intimate confession, or a novel to remain shadowy until one issues into the light. In my novel, Le Solitaire (The Loner), as one comes out of a long moral tunnel, one is greeted finally by a dazzling landscape with the morning sun shining on a flowering tree, a green bush. In Hunger and Thirst, Jean, the wanderer, sees a silver ladder rising from the earth into the azure of the heavens, and in Amédée or How to Get Rid of It, the hero flies up in the direction of the Milky Way. In The Chairs, however, the characters have but a dim recollection of a church standing in a luminous garden, then the light fades and the play opens into the void. And so on.

Most of the time these images of light, quickly fading, or, on the contrary seeming to arise naturally at the end of a lengthy journey, have not been willed into existence but found. Or, if they appear in the conscious mind, it is because they first came to me in dreams. I mean by this that in my plays, or my written meditations, I have the feeling of embarking on a voyage of exploration, of groping my way through a dark forest, in the middle of the night. I do not know whether I will ever reach my goal, or even if a goal exists. I proceed without a clear outline, and the end comes of its own accord. It can be an awareness of failure, as in my last play, L’Homme aux valises, or of success providing that the end resembles a new beginning.

I am in fact seeking a world which has recovered its virginity; I would like to repossess the paradisiacal light of my childhood, the glory of the first day, an untarnished glory, and of an intact universe which would appear before me as though it were new born. It is as though I wanted to witness the event of creation before the Fall, looking for it within myself, as if attempting to swim up the stream of History, or within my characters who are other incarnations of my self, or who are like those others who resemble me in their quest, conscious or not, of an absolute light. It is because they have not mapped out a road to follow that my characters wander in the dark, the absurd, in incomprehension and anguish. It has often been suggested that I speak a great deal of my anxieties. I rather think that I refer to those of human beings caught in the grayishness of daily existence, or in misfortune, people who mistakenly believe that they are prisoners of the impasses of history and politics, but who, as a result, become ready victims of exploitation, repression and wars. To return to what I way saying, I would like to stress that the state of childhood, and a certain intensity of light are indissolubly fused in my mind. All that is not light is anguish, sinister shadows. I write to find anew this light and communicate it to others. This light is at the outer edge of the absolute which I lose, and find again. It is also astonishment. I see myself in my childhood photos, eyes wide open, amazed by the very fact of existence. I haven’t changed. The primordial wonder is still part of me. I am here, I’ve been put here, surrounded with all of this and all of that. I still don’t know what happened to me. I’ve always been deeply touched by the beauty of the world. When I was eight, and then nine, I lived two months of April, and two months of May I will never forget. I ran along a path edged with primrose, gamboled through fresh green meadows, full of an indescribable joy of being. These colors, this dazzling light, haunt my mind so that when I say that the world is a prison I am not being truthful. In the Spring, I recognized the colors, the beauty, the light of a paradise whose memory I have kept. Even now, in order to escape from my anguish, I place myself marginally, peering with profound attention at the world, as though I were seeing it all for the first time, on the very first day of consciousness. Standing back, away from the world, I contemplate it as though I were not part of it. Then it may still happen that I will feel transports of joy. Wonder having reached its zenith, I no longer doubt anything. I feel certain that I was born for eternity, that death does not exist, that all is miraculous. A glorious presence. I am grateful then to witness this Manifestation and participate in it. And since I participate in this particular Manifestation, I will take part in all the Manifestations of the divinity, for all eternity. It is at such moments, beyond the tragedy and anguish of the world, that I am certain of being fully, truly conscious. I recover the age when I would walk, hazel stick in hand, among primroses and violets, and the sweet smells permeating the light of spring. The world and I were just beginning. Yes, it is to speak of my wonder that I write. But joy is not always part of wonder, or rather I am rarely sufficiently astonished to reach this kind of joy, this ecstasy. Most of the time the sky is dark, most of the time I live in anguish, used to feeling anguish, habituated to the habitual. The click which illumines everything happens with increasing rarity. I try to remember, I attempt to hold on to the miracle of light, and at times I succeed, but with age it becomes increasingly difficult. The passing years of personal history are like the stormy, tragic, demoniacal centuries of universal History. A tumultuous past, thick as memories, or as the collective memory of the world separates me, and all of us, from the beginning. We live inured to anguish and misfortune, and if on occasion I perceive that the world is a celebration, I also know, as all of you do, that it is misery.

There was to begin with the initial amazement: the conscious awareness of existence, an astonishment which I might call metaphysical, a pure surprise experienced in joy and light, free of any judgment brought to bear on the universe, the kind of astonishment which I recover only at moments of grace, in themselves extremely rare. Then a second type of amazement was grafted onto the first, the ascertainment that evil exists, or perhaps more simply that things are bad. This discovery that evil is among us, that at this moment it gnaws away at us, destroying us, preventing that we take cognizance of the miraculous, as though it were not part and parcel of the miracle of existence, is a frightful knowledge. Thus, the joy of being is strangled, submerged by misfortune which is as inexplicable as existence, tied to existence. Misfortune is a profound enigma. This theme has been debated by countless philosophers, theologians, sociologists. I myself will not dwell on this insoluble problem. I simply want to state that as a writer universal misfortune is my intimate, personal business. I must transcend evil in order to reach, beyond evil, not happiness, but a transient joy. In a naive, awkward way, my works are inspired by evil and anguish. Evil has squelched my joy. It is my circumambient atmosphere, and yet it continues to amaze me as does the light. It weighs more heavily than the light. I feel its weight upon my shoulders. In my plays I did not seek to discuss it, but to show it. The fact that it is inexplicable renders all our plans, all our acts absurd. This is what I feel as an artist. I found the existential enigma acceptable, but not the mystery of evil. And what is all the more unacceptable is the fact that evil is law, and that human beings are not responsible for its existence. But of course it suffices to look at a drop of water under a microscope to see that cells, that microscopic organisms, fight among themselves, kill and devour one another. What takes place on the level of the infinitely small, happens at every level of universal greatness. War is indeed the law of life. That’s all it is. All of us know this, but we no longer pay attention. If only we were to be conscious of it, to even give it some thought, we would realize that this is not the way things should be, that life is impossible. It is already puzzling to be squeezed between birth and death, but to be forced to kill and be killed is inadmissible. The existential condition is inadmissible. We live in a closed economy; nothing comes to us from outside, and we are forced to devour one another. Go in peace and eat each other. I have the feeling that creatures are not in complete agreement with this state of things. We make one small gesture and precipitate the catastrophic end of protozoan worlds, dig in our shovels and destroy a nation of ants. Every gesture, every movement, be they insignificant, provoke disasters, catastrophes. I walk through this meadow without thinking that all the plants in it struggle for vital space, and that the roots of these magnificent trees, by reaching deeper in the earth, bring about suffering, tragedies, kill. Every step I take also kills. And so I say to myself that the beauty of the world is a deception.

Later in life, at about fifteen or sixteen, when we are all disciples of Pascal, without necessarily having read Pascal, but simply by looking at the stars, I was seized by the vertigo of infinite spaces. The infinitely small is even more vertiginous than the infinitely large. To be unable to conceive a limitless world, to be unable to imagine the infinite, is our fundamental infirmity. Nor do we really understand what we are doing. We are made to do things we do not understand, of which we are not responsible. For a superior intelligence, we are all ridiculous wild beasts, tamed to perform meaningless acts in a circus, performing them with no understanding of what they are. We are being mocked; we are someone’s plaything. If at least we could know. we are plunged in darkest ignorance, doing the opposite of what we think we’re doing, not masters of ourselves. Everything eludes our control. We make revolutions to institute justice and freedom. We institute injustice and tyranny. We are dupes. Everything turns against us. I have no idea if there is meaning or not, if the world is absurd or not, for us it is absurd, we are absurd, we live in the absurd. We were born deceived.

Condemned to know nothing, except that tragedy is universal, we are now being told that death is a natural phenomenon, that suffering is natural, that we must accept it because it is natural. This is no solution. Why is it natural, and what does natural mean? The natural is the incurable, something I refuse to accept; it is a law I deny, but there is nothing one can do, and I am in the trap of what appears to be the beauty of this world. Still, there is one thing we can be conscious of: all is tragedy. To explain this by original sin is no explanation. Why was there original sin, and did such a thing really exist? What is far more extraordinary is that finally each and every one of us is conscious of universal tragedy. Also that each of us is the center of the universe, each human being lives in a state of anguish he cannot share with billions of other human beings who nevertheless experience the same anguish. Each one of us is like Atlas who bears alone the full weight of the world. And yet, they tell me, I can discuss this with a friend who will not necessarily murder me, I can go this evening to a concert, or a play. To hear what, see what? The same insoluble tragedy. I can go on to a good restaurant for a fine meal, and I will eat animals they have killed for it, and vegetables whose life span I interrupted. What I can do is not think of it. But let’s watch out, for the same menacing force weighs upon our lives. We will be killed by other men, or germs, or on account of a psychic imbalance. There are moments of respite, short recesses at the expense of others. I realize of course that I am proferring the most banal of statements. At least one calls them banalities, when they are fundamental truths which people try to push aside in order not to think of them and go on living. We are told that we musn’t be obsessed by things, that it is abnormal that things should obsess us. It seems to me that what is abnormal is that things should not obsess us, and that a thirst for life, a desire to live put our consciousness to sleep. We are all metaphysically alienated. Unconsciousness is added on to our alienation.

In these conditions, a man I call conscious, a man for whom these elementary truths are present, can he accept to go on living? I have a friend, a philosopher of despair, not at all insensitive, who lives in pessimism as in his natural element. He speaks a great deal, is a brilliant conversationalist and a jolly person. “Modern man,” he likes to state, “fiddles with the incurable.” That’s exactly what he does. Let’s do likewise. We live on various levels of consciousness. Since there is nothing we can do, since we are all doomed to die, let’s be merry. But let’s not be duped. We ought to keep, in the background of our consciousness, what we know. And we must also come out with it to set people on the right path. First, let’s try to kill as little as possible. Ideologies do nothing but prompt us to murder. Let’s demystify. It is now obvious that colonial empires have been erected, and massacres perpetrated in the name of Christianity and love. Other colonial empires are being formed at the price of even greater slaughter perpetrated in the name of justice and human fraternity. It is essential to come to the realization that so called ideologies are nothing but convenient masks used by those who yield to the explosion of the irrational or extrarational forces of crime inscribed in the very fibers of our nature. If there is a battle to wage, let it be against criminal instincts which find alibis in ideologies. If we cannot avoid massacring plants and animals, let us at least stop killing human beings. Neither philosophies, nor theology, nor Marxism have been able to solve the problem of evil, nor to explain its presence. No human society, above all not the communist one, has succeeded in averting or even diminishing it. Wrath is everywhere. Justice is not equity, it is vengeance and punishment. If the evil perpetrated by men upon one another undergoes a change of aspect, it remains fundamentally the same in its deepest nature.

Thus, I have written also to ask myself this particular question, to probe this mystery. It is the theme of my play, The Killer, in which the hero questions the assassin to ask him, in vain, what are the reasons for his hatred. Hatred must have excuses; it has no reasons. A murderer kills because he cannot help himself, without motive, with a kind of candor and purity. By killing others, we murder ourselves. To live beyond good and evil, to consider a thing to be beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche wished, is not possible. He himself went mad with pity when he saw an old horse slump down and die. There is pity then, not Eros but Agape. But charity is grace, a gift.

There is perhaps one way out still; it is contemplation, the wonder in the face of the existential fact as I said earlier. This might be, after all, a way of being beyond good and evil. I know it is difficult to live in the state of astonished wonder when one is serving a life sentence, undergoing forced labor with machine guns turned upon you, or simply having a toothache. Still, let us live in that state of wonder to the extent that it is possible. The richness of creation is infinite. No man resembles another, no signature is alike. One can never find two men with the same fingerprints; no one is anyone other than himself. This fact can also plunge you into amazement. It is also a miracle. In America, modern men of science have transcended atheism. Physicists, mathematicians, researchers in the natural sciences believe they know that creation has a finality, a plan, that it is the grand design of a conscience which directs it. No individual can be born for nothing. If there is a final plan to the universe, then there must also be some kind of plan for the individual, and for every particle of matter. We must keep faith. This too will pass. The world may be merely a gigantic joke played by God on man. That’s what the protagonist of my play, A Hell of a Mess, comes to realize at the end of it when he bursts out laughing; his whole life has been spent questioning himself and the mystery of creation, and all at once he sees that it’s all been a terrible gag. I have no doubt been inspired by the story of a Zen monk who, in old age, having spent his whole life in search of a key, the seed of an explanation as to the meaning of it all, receives an illumination. Looking about himself with new eyes, he exclaims: “What deception!” and cannot stop laughing. I’m also thinking of an Italian film whose title I have forgotten along with the name of the director. I saw the film long ago, right after the Second World War. It showed German soldiers occupying a convent. Italian partisans attack the convent and the Germans leave, except one, more absent minded. He wears glasses, must be an intellectual. Alone in the convent, he is chased by a knife-wielding partisan who pursues him into the very chapel. This place will not prove to be a sanctuary. In his precipitous flight, the German knocks down a statue of the Virgin, then a cross bearing a tormented, bloody Christ. The Italian catches up with the soldier, and knifes him in the back. He falls. He looks about him, as though seeing the world for the first time in all its horror, takes off his glasses, and asks out loud: “Why, but why?” and dies. Here also there’s a kind of illumination, and this ultimate question is in fact an ascertainment. This is the first and the last time that this man has thought about the world, and he has come to the realization of existential horror. Why this horror, why the absurdity of horror? This question can be posited from the very birth of consciousness, as it can also at the end of our existence. But throughout our life we are all plunged in horror as though it were the understood state of affairs, without ever questioning it. We are so used to things as they are that it is the act of questioning which seems absurd, when, in reality, what is senseless is not to question. Thus, to posit this fundamental question is already an illumination. It is at least the full realization of the basic problem: why horror?

I repeat that I don’t have the feeling that I have said things that are new, but rather that I experienced intensely two contradictory apprehensions: the world is at once marvelous and atrocious, a miracle and hell, and these antithetical feelings, these two obvious truths, constitute the backdrop of my personal existence and my oeuvre. I said at the beginning of this lecture that I was wondering why I wrote. When I analyze myself I come up with a temporary yet substantial answer. I write to give account of these fundamental truths, these absolute questions: why existence, or rather how, and also how is evil possible, and how does it fit in with the existential miracle. I write to remind people of these problems, to make them aware of them so that they watch out and never forget. It is enough if they remember it from time to time. Why not forget, but, on the other hand, why not remember? We must be conscious of our destiny in order to know how to situate ourselves in relation to others, and to ourselves. Our social awareness flows out of our metaphysical consciousness, out of our existential intuition. By not forgetting who we are, where we’re at, we will understand ourselves better. A human fraternity based on the metaphysical condition is more secure than one grounded in politics. A questioning without a metaphysical answer is far more authentic, and in the end useful than all the false and partial answers given by politics. Knowing that each individual among billions is a whole, a center, and that all the others are ourselves, we will be more accepting of ourselves, that is to say, for it is the same thing, of others. We must consider that each one of us, paradoxically, is the world’s navel. Thus, every individual will be able to acquire a greater importance, we, ourselves, a lesser one, with the greater one being accorded to the others. We are, at one and the same time, unimportant and very important, and our destiny is identical. New human relationships can spring from this awareness. It is the feeling of amazement and wonder in the face of the world we contemplate, tied to the intuition that everything is at the same time suffering, which can constitute the fundamental basis of human fraternity, and of a metaphysical humanism. As Jean Paul Sartre wrote in No Exit, hell is other people. The others are us, we could answer. If we cannot make our common existence a paradise, we can nevertheless transform it into a less thorny, disagreeable passage.

The theatre that some of us have written since 1950 is radically different from boulevard theatre. In fact, it is its opposite. Contrary to boulevard theatre which is free of problems and questions, and is entertainment, ours, despite its humor, its derisive snicker, is a theatre which puts in question the totality of human destiny, of our existential condition. Whereas popular theatre puts consciousness to sleep since it neither disturbs nor reassures, we have been told that we are disquieting, and that since there is good dose of disquiet in the world already, it would be nice not to increase our problems, at least for a time. But this time passes quickly and we find ourselves face to face with our anguish. Personally, boulevard theatre increases my anguish more than anguish. It is unbearable, so empty and useless does it seem. But as to us, we do not want to chase anguish away. We try to make it familiar so that it can be surmounted. The world can be comical, or derisory, it can also seem tragic, in any case it isn’t funny. Nothing is funny.

Nor do we write political theatre, or, at least, not purely political. Politics seem to me to be also entertainment, a horrifying kind of entertainment, but entertainment nevertheless. That is to say that politics cannot be detached from metaphysics. Without metaphysics, politics do not express a fundamental human problem. They constitute in such case a limited, secondary activity, stripped of ultimate implications. Two centuries of politics and revolutions have instituted neither liberty, nor justice, nor fraternity. Politics offer no answer to the fundamental questions: who are we, where do we come from, where are we going? They are maintained within strict limits, cut away from transcendental roots. Metaphysics have also been unable to offer definitive answers, and such is the case of science, and the philosophy of sciences. The only possible answer is the question itself. It reactualizes within our consciousness the certainty of our fraternity in ignorance, beyond social class, beyond the barriers of our fundamental identity, beyond the differences between human beings. This consciousness cannot cancel out anguish, but it is able, as politics are not, to stop provoking wars and massacres. Politics are alienation, and can be experienced only as the analyzable, or unanalyzable reflection of the passions which direct them, dominate them, making us into puppets. Political theatre can bring only a very limited illumination. Ideological theatre is inferior to the ideology it wishes to illustrate, and of which it is the tool. Since political theatre reflects ideologies familiar to us, it is tautological. For a century, and above all in the last fifty years, it has rehashed the same themes. Thus, political theatre makes us as unconscious metaphysically as boulevard theatre. We must depoliticize theatre. Political theatre can teach us nothing new.

I would not be telling the whole truth if I were to affirm that the reasons I have just given are the only ones which impelled me to write. Many of the latter came to me in stages, as I progressed in my career in the theatre and found myself confronted by the diverse theatre guides, masters of the mind, directors of human conscience who came forward to give me proper orientation. I also met along the way recruiters of committed art and theatre. Some twenty years ago, or more, Jean Vauthier and I were summoned by a Mr. Panigel whom we did not know. After slight hesitation, we accepted his invitation. Mr. Panigel was a member of the Communist party, at that time extremely pro-Stalin. He addressed us in the following terms: “Boys, you have a bit of talent, but no ideas. You can’t write theatre without ideas. I’ll instruct you. It is I who will provide you with ideas. We’ll meet periodically, and I will teach you how to write.” Obviously, we never returned to see this gentleman. At about the same time, or perhaps a year later, Bernard Dort wrote a lengthy article, a whole page in L’Express on Adamov and on me. Our two photographs illustrated the text in the paper. What did Dort say in his article? It appeared that, as he saw it, both of us had done until then good negative work: we had criticized bourgeois or petty bourgeois society, which was fine but not sufficient.—Of course, this sort of criticism was the least of my own concerns, but this was not clear from the piece.—The latter went on to say that Adamov and I had a good deal of talent, and that we could become the two greatest men of contemporary theatre. One condition had to be fulfilled. No more negative criticism, from now on we had to make positive statements or we would suffer the consequences of having nothing to say. To renew ourselves, to become adult writers who have reached their majority, there was only one possibility: become committed writers. One spoke a lot of commitment at that time. It was essential to take part in the social, political struggle. We had to create a revolutionary theatre, not only in form, but in content, and in underlying intent, for this was commitment. To become committed did not mean to opt for the cause you were interested in, but simply to become a card carrying, militant member of the Communist party. Only this was commitment and nothing else. Our theatre had to become one of Marxist instruction. Such was the new definition of popular theatre: to educate the masses in this particular way, not even solely in Marxism, but rather train them to follow the orders of the day. The latter, issued by the governments of the countries of Eastern Europe to the intellectuals of these countries, from which independent thinkers wish to escape, and do so, at the price of enormous personal sacrifice, are the very one the occidental ideologues wanted to impose on us. In France, as in England and Germany, the opposition, or rather the ideological fashion brought to bear, or attempted to exercise a veritable form of censorship. I felt that I belonged to a minority, crushed between bourgeois convention and the new ideological convention. I was alone, in disagreement with everyone, ill at ease, deprived of a spiritual family. Of course, I did not give in. Adamov did not resist; he accepted commitment, converted to an elementary kind of Marxism and Brechtianism and was applauded by the ideological critics. But he did not receive the plaudits of the public. A minority of bourgeois thinkers, who thought of themselves as revolutionary, people with no contacts with humanity at large, were his only supporters. Arthur Adamov denied his early plays and lost himself as a writer and an artist. I know that at the end of his life he regretted this action.

The young bourgeois, reactionary by nature, now no longer young but still intent on indulging in literary criticism, believed they were getting “close to the masses,” to the will of the masses, and that they would teach the proletariat what the proletariat is supposed to be. But we know that for them, “the masses” and “the proletariat” were nothing but abstract ideas. They never worked in factories, nor in the fields; all they knew were society’s salons.

I myself wrote committed plays. Such a one is Rhinoceros, as is The Killer, and a number of others, in spots. Only, I did not commit myself in the direction desired by the ideologues. I pointed out the existence of evil in a thousand different societies, in thousands of different aspects. The ideologues held this against me. From that time on they began to write both in newspapers and in literary reviews that my works were worthless, that I had been untrue to myself whereas in reality I was listening to myself alone. Because I was not in agreement with them, because I had not obeyed them, they decreed that I had no talent, and that they were bitterly sorry to have mistakenly attributed some to me earlier on. They went so far as to attempt to take back what they had published about me, declaring, as Bernard Dort did in the course of a lecture delivered on a trip through Europe, that I had been given “too much importance” when, in actual fact, it was he who had at first lavished this attention upon me. But let us leave for some other time these personal polemics despite their curious insight into what goes on behind the curtain not of a theatre, but of literary criticism in general, and dramatic criticism in particular, at least that of contemporary critics who are never objective being much too passionately involved. One can make mistakes when one is passionate about objectivity, but one makes conscious mistakes, or lies to oneself, when the passions have ideological orientation. Thus, it must be said that if one accords “too much importance” to anything these days, it is to contemporary criticism.

I would like to return to the first impulses which propelled me to write. I have said that I wanted to communicate my dazzlement by the very fact of existence, then, after the apprehension of the existential miracle, that of horror and evil, and finally, as I explored existence in detail, I had ideas to express. But, in order not to withhold anything, I must add the gratuitous joy of writing, of inventing, the delight of imagining, and telling things which never happened to me. In short, the joy of creation, that is to add to the universe things which were not there before, to add on a small universe, or universes, to the universe. Isn’t it true that each writer, each artist, each poet wishes to imitate God, doesn’t he wish to be a little God who can create gratuitously, without reason, in sport, because he is free and in a way that is totally free?

When I went to the école communale, the older children of the next class would tell me about the strange and difficult homework they had to do: composition. They had to write stories, or improvise upon a theme. I was impressed, and I decided that it must be very hard indeed, but very beautiful. I couldn’t wait to try it myself. For most of my school friends this was the worst of chores. For me it held a mystery. Finally, the following year, as I graduated from one class to the next, I was put to the test of composition. We had just had a village fair. We were asked to write about it. I described an imaginary fair, with bits of dialogue. I got the highest mark, and the teacher read my composition out loud in the classroom. What seemed to impress him most was that the story was in dialogue form, contrary to all the others. The teacher congratulated me for inventing dialogue, which, he said to me, had been invented long ago. I went on writing more compositions, always with the same sense of joy. Since we were not assigned enough compositions in class I began to write stories, just for myself. I can say that I’ve been a writer since the age of nine, that is to say since forever. A born writer. I’ve never been able to do anything but literature. Literature gave me great pleasure, my own and that of others. I also began to love paintings, those that tell stories, like Breughel for example where there are country fairs with lots of people, or Canaletto where you can see unreal looking people walking through the unreal town of Venice, a whole life, a universe taken from reality but become imaginary, and then Dutch interiors, ancient portraits where the quality of the art work is deepened by the documentary, human quality. Yes, there’s a whole world which may be real or not, a world which used to fill me with nostalgia for things which could have been, or had existed once but were no longer there, worlds offered yet defunct. And I wrote to offer worlds in turn, possible worlds, other possible worlds. So, it was in childhood that I experienced the purest pleasure of writing, and that my vocation came to the fore. The miracle of the world was such that I was not only dazzled by it, as I have just said, but that I wanted to imitate this miracle by making miracles of my own. Creation.

Thus, it is in this dazzlement before the world, in this astonishment at the thought of the marvel of the world, and in the joy of invention that I find the fundamental, conscious or semi-conscious, or subconscious reasons for writing, for artistic creation. The other reasons, more adult, therefore less pure, less naive, came later. When I entered the ring of polemics, I began to answer, to explain, to explain myself, to deliver messages and anti-messages, but always I went on questioning, for it is this interrogation above all things which is closest to the impulses of childhood.

There is one more reason which you must guess since it is not only that of artists but of each and everyone of us: to do everything so that the world I have seen, the people I have known, the landscape of my childhood and other landscapes I saw later, would never be forgotten, lost in nothingness. One writes to perpetuate all this, to perpetuate oneself, to triumph over death. We are here with our paintings, our music, our poems, our books, in search of a kind of immortality. One writes in order not to die completely, not to die at once, since everything perishes in the end. And I believe that among all these reasons, the two strongest are the following: to allow others to share in the astonishment, the dazzlement of existing, in the miracle of this world of ours, and to shout to God and to other men our anguish, letting it be known that we existed. All the rest is secondary.

Further Reading

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Barranger, M. S. “Death as Initiation in Exit the King.Educational Theater Journal 27 (August 1975): 504-07.

Examines Exit the King in the context of Tibetan philosophy, seeing the end of the play as a triumph rather than a tragedy.

Coe, Richard. Ionesco: A Study of His Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1961. 120 p.

Comprehensive, analytic survey of Ionesco's work that includes photographs, bibliography, and a translation of the play The Niece-Wife.

Cohn, Ruby. “Berenger, Protagonist of an Anti-Playwright.” Modern Drama 8 (1965): 127-33.

Examines the development of Ionesco's Everyman, Bérenger, in the four plays in which he appears.

Coleman, Ingrid. “The Professor's Dilemma: The Absurd Comic Principle in Ionesco's La Leçcon.Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 7 (1981): 44-53.

Assesses the absurdist comic humor in the play that is set off by the mutual misunderstanding of the two main characters.

———. “Memory into ‘Message’”: The Forgetting of the Myth of Origins in Ionesco's Les Chaises. Perspectives on Contemporary Literature Vol. 9 (1983): 60-8.

Views the old couple in the play as the sole survivors of a world destroyed by a flood who suffer from a senile loss of memory.

DeFuria, Richard. “At the Intersection of Freud and Ionesco.” Modern Language Notes 87 (1972): 971-76.

Compares the notion of the joke in Freud's thought and its use in Ionesco's dramas.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. New York: Doubleday, 1961. 364 p.

Important work that introduced the notion of the theater of the absurd; contains an essay on Ionesco.

Gaensbauer, Deborah B. Eugène Ionesco Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996. 364 p.

Survey of Ionesco's career, emphasizing that much of his work is autobiographical; includes an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary literature.

Hayman, Ronald. Eugène Ionesco. London: Heinemann, 1972; rev. ed. New York: Ungar, 1976. 214 p.

Important critical study with chapters analyzing individual plays; includes an interview with Ionesco.

Ionesco, Eugène. Notes and Counter-Notes: Writings on the Theatre. Translated by Donald Watson. New York: Grove Press, 1964, 271 p.

Collections of essays, addresses, and lectures on drama largely written in response to what other people have said about Ionesco's theater.

———. Fragments of a Journal. Translated by Jean Stewart. New York: Grove Press, 1968, 271 p.

What Ionesco calls an “exploration in the tangled impenetrable forest in search of myself.”

Jacobsen, Josephine, and William R. Mueller. Ionesco and Genet: An Early Comparative Study. New York: Hill and Wang, 1968. 242 p.

Comparative study of the plays of Jean Genet and Ionesco in the absurdist context.

Klaver, Elizabeth. “The Play of Language in Ionesco's Play of Chairs.” Modern Drama 32 (1989): 521-31.

Argues that the Ionesco's words in The Lesson “go beyond discourse, performing dramatic action.”

Kyle, Linda Davis. “The Grotesque in Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It.Modern Drama 19 (1976): 281-89.

Examines the elements of the grotesque in the play, including the central symbol of the corpse.

Lamont, Rosette C. “The Proliferation of Matter in Ionesco's Plays.” French Review 32, No. 4 (February 1959): 319-28.

Asserts that the proliferation of objects in Ionesco's plays emphasizes the anguish of the human being in the oppressive world of material presences.

———. “The Hero in Spite of Himself.” Yale French Studies 29 (1962): 73-81.

Examines the character of Bérenger, protagonist of Rhinoceros, who is seen as an unlikely champion, an anti-hero who is a true hero, and emblem of our troubled epoch.

———. “From Macbeth to Macbett.Modern Drama 15 (1972): 231-53.

Compares Ionesco's work to Shakespeare's tragedy, noting similarities and differences and characterizing the former as an angry, witty, and serious examination of political tyranny.

———, editor. Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays. Twentieth Century Views. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973. 188 p.

Includes essays by some of the foremost Ionesco scholars: J. S. Doubrovsky, Richard Schechner, Richard N. Coe, and Lamont.

———, and Friedman, Melvin J., eds. The Two Faces of Ionesco. 283 p. Troy, NY: Whitson, 1978.

Volume of criticism including important essays by Mircea Eliade, Robert Champigny, and Lamont; includes a bibliography of secondary literature organized by year of publication.

———. Ionesco's Imperatives. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. 328 p.

Detailed study by the foremost scholar of Ionesco's writing; emphasizes the political and historical background that informs the playwright's work.

Lane, Nancy. “Expressing the Inexpressible: Ionesco and the Struggle with Language.” Postscript (1991): 1-7.

Maintains that Ionesco's career represents his lifelong struggle against words, and that it is through language that his characters try to recover the lost paradise that preceded language, or to “express the inexpressible.”

———. Understanding Eugène Ionesco. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994. 242 p.

Comprehensive survey of Ionesco's work divided up into discussions of particular themes or plays; includes biographical material and an extensive bibliography of secondary sources.

Lazar, Moshe, editor. The Dream and the Play: Ionesco's Theatrical Quest. Malibu, Calif.: Undena, 1982. 176 p.

Published proceedings of the 1980 symposium on Ionesco's work held at the University of Southern California; includes important pieces by leading scholars and an essay by Ionesco.

Martin, George. “Berenger and His Counterpart in ‘La Photo du colonel.’” Modern Drama 17 (1974): 189-97.

Compares the dramatic character Bérenger to the protagonist of one of Ionesco's short stories.

Messenger, Theodore. “Who was that lady… ? The Problem of Identity in The Bald Soprano.North Dakota Quarterly. Vol. 36, No. 2 (1968): 5-20.

Analyzes a recurring problem in the play—of how one identifies himself or anyone else.

Purdy, Strother B. “A Reading of Ionesco's The Killer.Modern Drama 10 (1968): 416-23.

Attempts to bring together the various “symbolic correspondences” in the play to show that they make sense, or “order,” together.

Schechner, Richard. “The Inner and the Outer Reality.” Tulane Drama Review 7 (1963): 187-217.

Argues that the dialectical tension between the inner and outer reality replaces plot in Ionesco's plays, and that the many objects that appear in the drama are symbolic of characters' alienation from themselves and the world.

Tener, Robert L. “These Places. This Private Landscape. First Suggestions for a Topological Approach to Ionesco's Berenger Plays.” Papers on Language and Literature 13 (1977): 319-40.

Discusses the intimate relationship of inner and outer realities in Ionesco's theater.

Additional coverage of Ionesco's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 55; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 4, 6, 9,11, 15, 41, 86; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British;DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Dramatists Module; DISCovering Authors: Most-studied Authors Module; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Something about the Author, Vol. 7; Something about the Author, Obit 79; World Literature Criticism.

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Eugène Ionesco World Literature Analysis


Ionesco, Eugene (Vol. 1)

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