Ionesco, Eugène (Vol. 6)
Ionesco, Eugène 1912–
Ionesco, a Rumanian-French dramatist, has also published essays, a novel, short stories, and two volumes of his journal. Ionesco's work has earned him one of the most outstanding international literary reputations of our century and his plays are frequently produced in most of the world's major languages. Death, the meaninglessness of life, the relativity of truth, and the universality of contradiction are Ionesco's great themes. His favorite dramatic device is the platitude, with which he demonstrates the futility of communication in basically humorous plays which are, at the same time, profoundly and ineradicably pessimistic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Ionesco's plays, which some commentators have tried to dismiss as mere extravaganzas born of the author's dreams and anxieties, are a response to the demands of a given personal situation in history. His feelings are those of a man of his time, plunged in the agony of his century. As he says …: "The creator himself is the only valid witness to his own time, he discovers it in himself, he alone, mysteriously and freely, expresses it." We must therefore understand the very impulses, desires and nightmares which he projects on the stage as constituting his testimony on the present condition of man, in no way inferior to any moral or political preaching. In case we wonder what evidence he intends to give, Madeleine is most explicit in Victims of Duty: "There are always things to say. Since the modern world is in a state of decomposition, you can be a witness to decomposition." If Ionesco's works appear at first so strange and disconcerting and seem so fond of the weird and the monstrous, it is not because they are immured within the universe of dream or delirium, but precisely because they open out into our world.
The aim of a theater of decomposition will be the decomposition of the theater. If the central theme of literature during the last twenty years is the absurdity of a world where man is left alone to fill in the void of God, give a name and a meaning to things and freely, but unjustifiably, create his own values, literary expression, it must be admitted, up to Beckett and Ionesco, had trailed far behind philosophical intent. In the same manner as Pascal strove to ruin reason in the eyes of the libertine by virtue of a rational dialectics, Sartre and Camus, in the exploring of absurdity which they undertook in Nausea or The Myth of Sisyphus, use an admirably logical language to express the illogical, the internal necessity of their sentences to convey the total contingency of the world, and resort to literature in order to negate literature. A genuine experience of the absurd, however, will invent its own language and create forms that are not those of rational discourse…. The traditional theater was coherent because the human beings it presented were coherent. In this respect, even writers of the absurd, like Sartre or Camus, remain, in their plays as well as in their style, very conservative. Sartre's plays especially are exemplars of the "well-made" play and Les Mains Sales is a masterpiece of what Ionesco would call the "police" type of drama. The reason for this is that man as the source of "Sinngebung," as a universal dispenser of meaning and the measure of all things, is intact. Although he is like a sickness of being, that sick man retains both his cohesion and his coherence. An authentic rendering of absurdity will demand a double disintegration, that of personality and that of language. (pp. 11-12)
Ionesco's is an ontological theater. He seems to be one of the first playwrights to have taken seriously the philosophical assertion that thought is not a region of being, but, on the contrary, a nothingness in the plenum of the world. In spite of all his theoretical analyses tending to disprove the existence of an ego, Sartre still created characters with a "personality." Hugo in Dirty Hands, for instance, can be described by a series of predicates: bourgeois, weak, idealist, a misfit, etc. It would be very easy to write a non-Sartrian analysis of Sartre's works, in terms of traditional psychology, which is in keeping, of course, with the classical structure of his plays. But if we take seriously the assertion that consciousness is a nothing, personality and character disappear for good…. The characters [in Ionesco's plays], absent from themselves, become as interchangeable as the lines they speak: hence their perpetual duplication, the unending series of Jacques, father, son, mother, sister, etc., all with the same name, the identity of Roberte I and II in Jacques or the Submission, of Amédée and Madeleine I and II in How to get rid of it, etc. If, by that repeated device most characteristic of Ionesco's theater, we are faced with an endless game of hide-and-seek to the point of dizziness, if the selves can thus be substituted for each other and the lines come most weirdly out of the wrong mouth, it is because the identity of the selves is like that of a vacuum. (pp. 13-14)
Within that metaphysical perspective, the traditional "comique de caractère" is replaced by what might be called a "comique de non-caractère." You think you have one human being in front of you and you suddenly find another. This is the kind of comic effect due to abrupt change of balance and cheated expectation which Kant stressed. Hence a sort of vicious circle of human existence and a special brand of comedy which one might term a comedy of circularity. But destinies, like personalities, are interchangeable. There could not be any story or plot, in the usual sense, since these presuppose a linear progression. We are faced with yet another endless vicious circle, which explains why the denouements of The Bald Soprano and The Lesson exactly repeat the beginning, with other characters who happen to be the same; by virtue of the same device, the entrance of Bartholomeus II in The Alma Impromptu is the very replica of that of Bartholomeus I. That eternal return is not an eternal assertion of the self, as it was for Nietzsche, but its perpetual negation. Moreover, to man's absence corresponds the all-pervading presence of things…. The comedy of proliferation, on the level of things, is complimentary to the comedy of circularity, on the human level. The chairs in The Chairs, the cups in Victims of Duty, the pieces of furniture in The New Tenant or the eggs in The Future is in the Eggs are multiplied until they crowd and choke the stage, the corpse and the mushrooms in Amédée keep growing until there is no more room for the characters. Although Ionesco is occasionally tempted to abuse that device, this is no merely mechanical and facile trick. That uncontrollable growth and geometrical progression of objects, for the most part of human fabrication, that finally drive man out, convey both the futility of man's attempt to give himself through boundless material production the fullness of being which he lacks, and the inevitable ultimate triumph of object over subject. Things are like the nightmare of consciousness. Our laughter is tinged with anxiety. Against the spreading tide of things and the dissolution of the human, there remains one barrier, language. This last defense Ionesco will now proceed to storm.
This onslaught is the most striking and destructive element of his comic. "It is in talking that one finds ideas, words, and then ourselves in our own words, and also the town, and the garden, maybe one finds everything again and is an orphan no more," declares the Old Woman in The Chairs. Like Claudel, she believes that language will wed and weld man and the world and that it affords the only access to the truth of things. But her hopes will be dashed and the playwright will expose the duplicity and failure of words on all levels. For we try to conceal our inner void and the absurdity of the world under the veil of the universal logos. The rationality to which we desperately cling only exists in and by our words, it is merely their creation. Unbearable talkers, Ionesco's characters all have a passionate, diseased urge to "understand." (pp. 14-16)
As for Ionesco's reasoners, they demonstrate that language, in its essence, never was anything but systematic delirium. From that viewpoint, his theater can be considered as a complete treatise on the pathology of linguistics…. The Bald Soprano, like all the plays of Ionesco, offers a complete range of that "everyday talk" on which Heidegger is such an acerb commentator and in which human stupidity is deposited in maxims and sayings clearly recognizable as they flit by, since they adorn our daily conversation. Common sense wisdom,… the jargon of critics and the tomfoolery of philosophers, and even the humanist beliefs which are dearest to our hearts,… all that reveals the utter inanity of human logorrhea…. From then on, the poet's imagination plays havoc with words. A French critic had the patience to count up to thirty-six stock tricks in Ionesco's comedies. As far as language is concerned, the latter displays prodigious verbal invention: his accumulation of puns, spoonerisms, equivocations, misunderstandings and a thousand and one other nonsensical drolleries, down to outright disintegration of articulate language into onomatopoeias, brayings and belchings, does not merely betray a childish or diseased inclination, on the part of the author, for verbal fireworks; it is a perpetually renewed act of accusation against language, a language that lends itself to all possible coaxings and inveiglements, torsions and distortions, that can utter contrary statements in one breath and believes itself to be an emanation of the universal Logos! Instead of men using language to think, we have language thinking for men. That mask must be torn from their faces. Thus is the "anti-character" comedy completed by "anti-wit" witticisms and speech-destructive speeches.
Now Ionesco has reached the total decomposition of the stage and achieved the irrationalist theater of which he dreamt. The frame of the stage-world, the fetters of ordinary language are broken. It is like a rebellion of the theater against itself. Yet it must be remarked that this all-out challenge allows a spectacle to subsist which calls for the presence of spectators. Such an "anti-theater" differs toto caelo from the "a-theater" of a Pichette, where action becomes lost in words and the show vanishes into flights of lyricism. There remains in Ionesco's works (and that characteristic is even more emphasized in his most recent play, The Unrewarded Killer) a certain theatrical consistency and structural coherence, which alone would necessitate a long analysis. To simplify matters, let us say that what keeps his plays from being mere rantings and ravings is the very weight and denseness of their reality, one might almost say their realism. For, as far as we are concerned, we refuse to consider those literary works as "dream-like" (oniriques) or "surrealistic." That would mean forgetting the meticulous care with which the playwright stresses, without omitting a single one of them, all the details of his deliberately familiar settings, "a middle-class English home," "a study, used also as a dining-room," "an old dusty armchair in the centre of the stage and a night-table," etc. Even the most fantastic and whimsical plays, like Jacques, are set in a decidedly familiar, everyday environment…. If Ionesco's theater is viewed as compounded of "the stuff dreams are made on," it will lose all its force and be neutralized. On the contrary, once the barrier of language is disposed of, reality will suddenly assume a monstrous appearance…. There is in Ionesco an all-pervading feeling of guilt. It would be a misinterpretation to construe it, as some critics did, as the author's private guilt feeling, in a Freudian sense, for what here becomes manifest is the essential, ontological culpability of man, the author's and ours. Thus we reach a "théâtre total," and it is total not because bits of movies, ballet and song are added to it, but because it involves the spectator in the spectacle totally. Since the subject at hand is human reality and since the actors are nobody in particular, they are precisely ourselves and what they are enacting is our drama…. There is no more separation between the spectator and the spectacle, the latter becomes a mirror, just like consciousness; and what it reflects is our bad conscience. (pp. 16-19)
It is in this perspective that we must ultimately view the comic in Ionesco. One might wonder, indeed, by what miracle that theater of "shame" and "uneasiness" can elicit laughter. The revelation of absurdity is usually accompanied by anguish, the anguish of man's dignity for Camus, that of man's responsibility for Sartre. But if one goes further in the experience of absurdity, man becomes suddenly so unimportant that tragedy turns into a farce, and an absurd laughter bursts forth…. This determination to be gay in face of the utter confusion and final disappearance of all values offers no salvation, it does not conquer absurdity, it stresses it, it does not try to dodge it, it revels in it. It is an act of accusation against man much more than against the world. It is man throwing doubt on the possibility of being a man. In our awkward moments, Bergson saw what he called a mechanical something grafted upon life: in our best moments, we discover ourselves to be but a living something grafted upon mere mechanism. The "useless passion" which existentialists thought man to be now becomes eminently laughable. The laughter that suddenly rings out is Ionesco's. (pp. 19-20)
J. S. Doubrovsky, "Ionesco and the Comic of Absurdity" (originally published in Yale French Studies, No. 23, Summer, 1959; copyright © 1959 by Yale French Studies), in Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Rosette C. Lamont, Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 11-20.
[From] the start Ionesco showed himself a master of movement and stage business, and even more a great arranger of rhythms larger than those of speech, rhythms for speech to be contained in…. But at first everything of this kind is subordinated to the vision of language on its own, self-condemning, ludicrous, pitted against its past and pointing to no sort of future except that of an intensification of its present state of outrage and murderous self-arraignment.
Ionesco, however, had a future, and it was to go beyond the exigencies and fatalities of language, although they were always to remain a condition of his work. His later plays are richer and more complex; in them new lyrical and philosophic modes develop, humor becomes less a matter of linguistic sport than of the tension between appearance and reality, the dramatic consciousness spreads to include fuller states of being and more inclusive attitudes toward the horrifying, the banal, the metaphysically unjustifiable. In his greatest plays—Amédée, Victims of Duty, The Killer—Ionesco has written works of the same solidity, fullness and permanence as his predecessors in the dramatic revolution that began with Ibsen and is still going on. (p. 88)
Richard Gilman, "Earliest Ionesco" (1963), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 87-9.
Appearing to repudiate his former artistic principles, Ionesco reverts to certain methods of conventional theatre [in Amédée], making them, however, entirely his own. In his preceding plays, he had cast out that undesirable: the Persona. The Smiths and the Martins, the Jacques and the Roberts, the Professor and his Pupil are animated by erotic and aggressive impulses, but they do not have any character, any more than they can be said to possess an identity, a social position, a past. The Old Man and the Old Woman, equally anonymous, possess as their only individual personality traits, private obsessions. The Policeman and Nicholas are marionettes whose function it is to make particular demonstrations. As for Choubert, he is content to be the author's spokesman, expressing the latter's ideas on theater as well as his anxieties and phantasmata. In Amédée, for the first time, one finds "characters" in the traditional sense of the word. Here, Ionesco speaks (who would have believed it?) in the voice of François Mauriac. As did the novelist, the playwright claims to allow the beings he creates the exercise of their free will: "They do whatever they want, they control me, for it would be a mistake for me to try and control them…." In the same vein, Mauriac affirms, in The Novelist and his Characters, that he often finds himself blushing at what the heroes of his novels say and do…. Not unlike the author of Knot of Vipers, Ionesco feels himself overcome "by a kind of pity" while following his creatures; when his comedy darkens, however, turning to drama, he is overcome by "revulsion" and, to protect himself against what he considers to be a weakness, transforms the character into caricature. (pp. 40-1)
Ionesco, that smasher of idols, has … come to follow in the path of the great creators of human characters, who from Racine to Mauriac have established a solid tradition. In spite of this concession, he remains faithful to his own dramatic art, a bold innovator, although every now and then he permits himself to use traditional techniques. (pp. 47-8)
Jean-Hervé Donnard, "'Amédée': A Caricatural Ionesco," translated by Judith Kutcher (copyright © 1966 by Lettres Modernes), in Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Rosette C. Lamont, Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 38-54.
According to the author's allegation, the play L'Impromptu de l'Alma, written in 1955, is the only one of his dramatic works whose genesis cannot be traced to what he calls an "état affectif." Here, the creative impulse lies in the desire to dramatize a consciously selected subject which can be summed up in the following manner: "Theater critics attempt to influence an author to abandon his own concepts of the theater and to accept others, perverted ones."
The dramatization of this subject turns into a satirical comedy…. Since the title of Ionesco's play echoes Molière's famous Impromptu de Versailles, one can safely assume that the calque of the title is a form of opening or introduction to a more encompassing parallelism. (pp. 120-21)
Impromptu is a traditional contribution to the reflective type of dramatic literature called "theater about theater," one which he obviously holds in high esteem. (p. 121)
Peter Ronge, "Ionesco's 'L'Impromptu de l'Alma': A Satire of Parisian Theater Criticism," translated by Priscilla Winston Ross (copyright © 1967 Akademische Verlagsges, Athenaion D-62 Wiesbaden; originally published in Polemik, Parodie und Satire), in Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Rosette C. Lamont, Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 120-34.
In Ionesco's "tragic farces" there is no place for the traditional hero or a heroic view of life. Greek tragedy pushed the exceptional man to the limits of his nature, simultaneously exalting the godlike in him and warning him of the dangers of self-intoxication, by centering his being in the active will. Just as Ionesco will not adopt alternatively two ways of looking at man in drama, tragedy and comedy, but insists on juxtaposing them in permanent clash, so he will not permit the magnification of man, or accept a belief in supernatural powers that influence or control his destiny; thus he gives us man suffering, rather than man active. (pp. 313-14)
Even as it placed the tragic hero in high relief, Greek drama bound him to the community; for the ongoing life of the group, its spiritual and physical health, were its basic concern: that was what it existed to celebrate. If the tragic hero was his people's redeemer, it was by becoming a sacrificial victim offered to restore health to man and the earth. Ionesco has no such faith to sustain him. Man's suffering and sacrifice can only appear meaningless to him. The Sphinx propounded the riddle of life to Oedipus. Ionesco's antihero will face the same riddle. His answer will be the same: man. For Ionesco, what else is there? But with what a difference! For he must also add: "One can do nothing." It is the anti-thesis of Gide or Sartre. (p. 314)
As Ionesco's theatre has developed, its unity and consistency have become clearer. Each play tends to throw light on the others, so that beyond the shock of their bizarre theatricality we can see how they are related. In this respect, two plays seem to me especially useful as coordinates in placing Victims of Duty: Amédée, produced the same year, and the later Rhinocéros. In Amédée the protagonist escapes from his intolerable situation simply by flying away with his burden of guilt while protesting to his wife and the neighbors he leaves behind: "I didn't want to run away from my responsibilities. It's the wind, I didn't do anything!… It's not on purpose!… Not of my own free will!… Forgive me, Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm terribly sorry! Forgive me!" This is escape drama in both senses of the term: a vivid fantasy, and an evasion on the playwright's part, as if he could not think how else to end his play. In taking the easy way out, he negates the essence of human nature as he showed it in Victims of Duty, and as it will appear in Rhinocéros. Amédée's resort to flight repudiates his humanity. This transcendence may free him from earth, but it also leaves him alone, cut off from his fellows. (pp. 326-27)
[In Rhinocéros] Bérenger, the frightened "hero in spite of himself," as Ionesco calls him, feels that something must be done to save the world where everyone is going mad and turning into a rhinoceros; he even feels that he alone can do it (though he knows that is not true), but also that others ought not to leave him to do it by himself. So there he sits, half of him wishing he had joined the others in their trumpeting, the other half of him resisting. At the close, he is not even sure that he can hold out. But something inside him—a sense of duty—tells him he must try. Ionesco's dialectic of the absurd reduces itself to two propositions: His duty to humanity is the same as his duty to his own nature; for to betray himself is somehow to betray the others, and to betray the others is somehow to betray himself. Keeping faith (and it is a faith, for he does not know why it is so, only that it is so), he will not be able to say, "I am free." He will probably not be able to say, "I no longer fear death." But by his constancy he will have affirmed something without which neither statement would have any meaning or worth. (pp. 327-28)
What we see in Victims of Duty is a mocking parody of the individual's initiation into society, into a new state of being, but without the supernatural meaning that initiation symbolized in older societies: "'Initiation' means, as we know, the symbolic death and resurrection of the neophyte, or in other contexts, the descent into Hell followed by ascension into Heaven. Death—whether initiatory or not—is the supreme case of the rupture of the planes [of reality]," says Mircea Eliade [in Images and Symbols]. The initiate, having undergone death and rebirth, is by definition one who knows. As Ionesco presents him in Choubert, he is one who, through suffering that is communally inflicted, experiences the most intense life as he approaches absolute reality, both at the center of himself and at the center of the world, but who, afterward as well as before, cannot remember. This ritual of initiation is a ritual of alienation. He returns from his intense inner life to what is, by contrast, a zombie existence, a living death. Choubert's "death" cannot, like Oedipus' exile, lift the plague from society. Society is the plague. All its members are, like Choubert, mutilated. This is not the tragedy of an exceptional man who suffered a peculiarly horrible fate; it is the laughable tragedy of the ordinary man whose fate is irrational, gratuitous, and without meaning, all the more so for being unavoidable.
In the nonreligious world depicted in Ionesco's play, Choubert's quest for the ineffable in himself or in the transcendent world must end in failure, for it is not to be found in the profane life of the modern, desacralized petit bourgeois interior. "All that we dream is capable of realization," Ionesco has said. Artistically, perhaps; existentially, by no means. That is his burden in play after play. He dreams of the absolute, but cannot achieve it; he speaks of God, but cannot believe in him. (pp. 328-29)
What appears to be a brutal police interrogation also resembles psychoanalysis, a technique of remembering that is, however incidentally painful, ultimately intended to heal by bringing the patient to a new state of knowledge. But psychoanalysis itself reflects, on the plane of philosophic naturalism, the initiatory pattern of the ancient religious ordeals; and, as with them, there hangs over the crises in Choubert's unconscious a religious or mystical aura to which Ionesco can give no name.
Once you have grasped the extent of evil, of cruelty and meaninglessness, in this waking world to which the initiate returns, you find it amazing that the playwright can hold to his conviction that man's plight is ridiculous, and that he can exemplify it in plays that are both horrible and funny. Ionesco does not mince words: "If you have been everywhere a foreigner and a stranger, as I have, you find that cruelty and hatred are the dominant factors in human affairs. That's a discovery I've never got over—that people are out to kill one another; if not directly, then indirectly." The guilt in Victims of Duty is only partly irrational—that is, arbitrarily imposed from without. It also springs from a desire to kill one's brother (whatever the actual relationship may be); and that desire, even without the deed, constitutes a grave crime and produces real guilt. What to Ionesco is absurd is that he does not know why this should be so; it simply is so. And if he does not resign himself to it, neither does he deny it.
We cannot, therefore, regard the individual man (Choubert or another) as good, and the group as evil. Ionesco does not subscribe to the old maxim: "The senate is a beast, the senators are good men." Nor will he subscribe to Rousseau's sentimental variant of it: "Men are good by nature and made bad by society." Yet he cannot subscribe to the older view: "Man is a fallen creature with a natural bias to do evil."… It is as if there were a demonic reversal operating at the heart of things. A conscious wish to do good at once releases an unconscious wish to do evil. The process is apparently not reversible: there is no indication that a conscious wish to do evil creates an unconscious wish to do good. That is why it is truly demonic….
It is through hate, not love, says Ionesco, that we are members one of another. We are bound by its invisible web, and there is no escaping it, except at the cost of our humanity or our life—and these turn out to be one and the same. (p. 330)
That Ionesco should emerge as a playwright of affirmation is the most astonishing thing of all, but it is a fact which Victims of Duty demonstrates, and which his subsequent plays make even more apparent. It is why Ionesco can write in his journal: "A dream I will no longer remember will be that of universal existence, the dream of my actual self. 'What did I dream?' I ask myself often as I wake up with a hazy remembrance of captivating things which have disappeared in the night of eternal forgetfulness. The only thing I am left with is the regret of being unable to remember. I will die, torn abruptly from the dream of reality…. I will not remember, nor will there be an 'I' to do the remembering. Yet this will have existed. No one can prevent this from having existed."
Not even God. (p. 331)
Hugh Dickinson, "Eugène Ionesco: The Existential Oedipus," in his Myth on the Modern Stage (© 1969 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois; reprinted by permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press), University of Illinois Press, 1969, pp. 310-31.
[Since] the première of Rhinocéros,… Ionesco has written scenes for the stage (notably, the last act of La Soif et la faim and the "orator" episodes in Jeux de massacre), together with numerous polemical and autobiographical articles … which situate him far more clearly on the political Right [than Coe had previously appraised him], and in the light of which the earlier plays should perhaps be reinterpreted. It is plain that his development has been in two directions, both tending to reinforce his hostility towards left-wing radicalism of the Sartrian type: firstly, towards a fairly traditional type of religious mysticism; secondly, towards what he himself describes as "right-wing anarchism." Yet probably what matters more, at this date, than to re-assess Ionesco's own political position is to query, in the light of events since the middle 1960s, the political implications of the "Absurdist" drama as a whole. It could be argued that all irrational literature is subversive, and that therefore all such literature is important in creating a climate appropriate to revolutionary social change. But it could also be argued that all true human progress has been based on the critical use of reason; that no doctrines were more irrational than those of Hitlerism; and that therefore any literature which exalts the irrational at the expense of the rational is fundamentally hostile to progress and thus, in the long run, reactionary. Ionesco uses the first of these arguments to justify himself, and it was also the argument I adopted [formerly]; but his critics who use the second argument have a strong case in their favour. (p. 153)
Richard N. Coe, a postscript (1970) to his essay "Utopia and After" (copyright © 1961 by Richard N. Coe), in Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Rosette C. Lamont, Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 135-53.
There would seem to be little reason … to doubt Ionesco's assertion that he was strongly influenced by the great comedians of the cinema. When the playwright describes the structure of an Absurd play as a "sequence of events without sequence," he recalls to mind the world of so many film comics who invariably reduce human existence to the level of a madhouse. In his essay, "Comedy's Greatest Era," James Agee speaks of the "nightmare effect" produced by a sequence in a Laurel and Hardy movie, in which the two comics "are trying to move a piano across a narrow suspension bridge. The bridge is slung over a sickening chasm, between a couple of Alps. Midway they meet a gorilla." This weird "nightmare effect" is everywhere discernible in Ionesco's work. The Chairs is shot through with a ballet-like silent movement which [is] one of the hallmarks of Charlie Chaplin's art. Nor is one surprised when the dramatist has the Old Man in his play imitate the month of February by "scratch[ing] his head like Stan Laurel."
However, like so many writers who have been influenced by the movies, Ionesco betrays ambivalence toward the cinema. For example, one of the invisible guests in The Chairs carries an equally invisible motion picture camera in order to record the absurd proceedings for posterity. According to the Old Man, there is even a movie theater on the premises. This would make the home of the Old Man and Old Woman a perfect symbol of a mechanical—or madhouse—world.
In important ways, however, The Chairs is—and properly so—uncinematic. As Ionesco expresses it, a film is "a series of pictures," whereas a play is "a moving structure of scenic images." The distinction is crucial…. Although The Chairs contains much physical activity, Ionesco's play remains—in spite of its cinematic influences—basically histrionic.
Physical movement on stage and physical movement on film are by no means the same thing. In [In Search of Theater], Eric Bentley points out that an authentic playwright "learns not to write for the stage without knowing what he wants in visual terms. The 'literary dramatist' sees the characters in his mind's eye moving about in their natural setting. The genuine playwright sees them in the highly unnatural setting of the stage … as pure color, line, and three-dimensional form, all dominated by … electric light. The Chairs was conceived by a gifted dramatist who knew very well what he wanted in "visual terms"—but within the "highly unnatural setting of the stage." Even [so], it must be owned, some people find Ionesco's work static and boring. (pp. 89-90)
Edward Murray, in his The Cinematic Imagination: Writers and the Motion Pictures (copyright © 1972 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1972.
[Le Solitaire, published in English as The Hermit] is Eugène Ionesco's first and (the blurb states firmly) only novel….
Le Solitaire is written in a straightforward, simple prose throughout, with an attention to physical detail that at times reminds one unexpectedly of Simenon. But realism soon gives way to something more like the old Ionesco. To alienation, anomie and amertume is added absurdity. The narrator cogitates on the world as reflected in the newspapers—mass killings, rebellions, crimes of passion, earthquakes, air crashes, fires, anarchy and tyranny….
This is all good Ionesco knockabout, as is the hallucinatory civil war in which the narrator finds himself involved. Ionesco mixes farce and horror, and takes some shrewd swipes at political ideologies of all kinds, at the enragés of the left and at people of all political colours who are incapable of thinking in anything but slogans. Unlike the earlier part of the book, however, this section is somewhat facile. Ionesco, or at least his narrator, says that all societies are bad and seems rather to suggest, as he does in Macbett, that attempts to improve them are intrinsically ridiculous. But then, if your head is full of a porridge of philosophical torment and metaphysical distress perhaps it really does not make any difference whether you are living in Hitler's Germany or Willy Brandt's, Stalin's Russia or Attlee's Britain. The rest of us will easily find good grounds for preferring one to the other.
There is also something distastefully self-righteous about the way the Ionesco hero is able to remain detached from the struggle. Like Bérenger in Rhinocéros he alone remains uninfected, protected by his own weariness and boredom. His house is caught between two opposing forces, absurdly enough rival factions of the same group. His house is on neutral territory, in no-man's-land, and there he barricades himself in against the world.
A solitaire can mean two things in French: a hermit and a kind of diamond. The parts of the novel concerned with loneliness and being alone are done with considerable insight. But are we supposed also to believe that the narrator is someone of special, even unique, value? He alone is different and exempt from the universal madness. Once more it is Bérenger versus the world. Everyone else conforms, all other people resemble one another. This contempt for the mass of humanity is the corollary of the protaganist's smugness. Pascal knew better. He said that "The more intelligence one has the more people one finds original. Commonplace people see no difference between men."
"The One Sane Man," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 5, 1973, p. 1158.
On the surface Ionescoland is deceptively like our own. The modest clerks, mailmen, police officers, concierges, maids, married couples, maidens to marry, and apprehensive bachelors are the very people we see and overhear on the streets of Paris every day. We are lulled into believing there will be no surprises…. [We] realize quite soon that the overstuffed pieces of furniture so much like the ones we inherited from aunt Marie, the clichés which pass for conversation, have deceived us into believing we knew exactly where we were. We are actually on the other side of the looking glass. There, one is condemned to run as fast as one can just to stay in place. Under our feet the earth sinks, the air sucks us up. The low fire we started in the fireplace to warm our bones becomes a conflagration, engulfs our planet. A little affection turns into an ocean of eros and drowns us. The four elements fuse into "deserts of ice, deserts of fire battling with each other and all coming slowly towards us …" (The Stroller in Air). We have awakened in the world of our private nightmares, issuing from a very ancient deposit to which all mankind may lay claim. This universe of myth, the crystallization of a poet's meditation, is as intimate as the secret recesses of our bodies, and as wide as the unconfined reaches of our dreams. (pp. 1-2)
The Bald Soprano … was not written as a play, but as a kind of exercise coming out of the future playwright's painful attempts to master the English language. Using the Assimil conversation method, Ionesco found himself in the company of an English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The Smiths seemed to find it necessary to inform one another that the ceiling was overhead, the floor underfoot, the week made up of seven days, and that they were having a fine English meal served by their maid Mary. It was at this point in the textbook reading that Ionesco was possessed by a strange excitement, utterly out of proportion either with the discussion held by this dull couple, or the task of learning English…. Intelligence soon registered that what had happened was a take-over by the characters of L'Anglais tel qu'on le parle; the latter were writing their own lines. Thus what had begun as a didactic form of plagiarism obeyed, all of a sudden, mysterious laws surging from some dark night of the soul. Ionesco's Discours de la Méthode which he had considered calling English Made Easy or The English Hour kept on growing into a distorted vision: worthy bourgeois couples, struck with amnesia, failed to recognize one another even upon discovering they shared the same room and bed; inhabitants of a city—"men, women, children, cats and ideologists"—were all called Bobby Watson…. From then on, Ionesco was committed to the wild exaggerations of parody, for in the creation of what he had assumed was "a comedy on comedy," he had actually written "the tragedy of language."
Ionesco's plays are neither tragedies nor comedies but tragicomedies or comitragedies. Since 186 B.C., when Plautus spoke of tragicocomoedia in his Amphitryon, the clearly separated genres began to come together. Till our own era, however, this meant that comic scenes came to relieve tragic events. Today, an interfusion has occurred lending comic coloring to tragic happenings and somber coloring to comic ones. Like Gogol's Dead Souls, the antiplays of Beckett, Ionesco, Adamov, Dubillard, Arrabal, and Weingarten elicit "laughter through tears." (pp. 2-4)
Ionesco's Exit the King is a triumphant example of the tragicomic mode. It is a play about the apprenticeship of death which provides an affirmation of the act of living. This farce manages to blend humor and anguish, echoing at the same time the fear and trembling of Pascal and Kierkegaard, and the patient wisdom in regard to physical suffering of the Montaigne of De l'Expérience. It is a philosophical cartoon, bitter, yet immensely tender.
Nor does the playwright limit himself to portraying a dying man; he depicts a dying world, and the ultimate, apocalyptic disappearance of our planet. Scientific progress and the development of civilization are brilliantly derided in this play…. The unavoidable truth is man's mortality, and by making this the theme of one of his greatest tragicomedies, Ionesco has also written one of the most profound dramatic poems on death and dying in our century.
There are a number of different Ionescos. The author of The Bald Soprano, The Lesson, Jack or Submission sets in motion the mechanism of the theatre to portray aimless passions. Later in Amédée, even in The Chairs, metaphysical considerations are expressed by the motion of objects, the proliferation of matter. Victims of Duty, Ionesco's favorite drama, is confessional, Hunger and Thirst, allegorical. The most philosophic of Ionesco's plays is Exit the King. Rhinocéros, The Killer, and Macbett are mostly political.
Ionesco says over and over again that he is not a political writer. (p. 5)
Though Ionesco may not admit to it, he is passionately interested in politics. His view is not narrow; he neither preaches nor teaches, but he is always ready to denounce the cruelties of so-called ideologies, the inhumanity of man to man, in the name of future generations. His Journals (Fragments of a Journal, Present Past, Past Present), the numerous articles he has written for Le Figaro, testify to his gifts as a pamphleteer, and to his commitment to fighting oppression, or the more subtle pressures of cliché opinions. It will become obvious as one looks back upon his body of work that Ionesco has written some of the most potent political satires of the second half of the twentieth century.
"My hero, if you can call him that," says Ionesco in conversation, "is not so much an anti-hero as a hero in spite of himself." (p. 6)
Ionesco's Bérenger, the protagonist of The Killer and of Rhinocéros is indeed that hero-in-spite-of-himself who has become the central figure of much of our contemporary literature. He is the common man—"Bérenger, an average, middle-aged citizen." Unlike Molière's raisonneur, he speaks for unreason; for however modest or even humble he is, he thinks and feels as poets do. Patience, passive resistance, the silent rebellion of the spirit are his virtues.
Rhinocéros shows an entire community afflicted with rhinocéritis, the malady of conformity. Average men and women, but also philosophers, intellectuals, all catch the bug. Only Bérenger retains his humanity, and towards the end, when he is all alone, he begins to feel most uncomfortable with his white, human skin covered with light body hair since the brutes around him seem to rejoice in their thick, green hides. (pp. 6-7)
Did Ionesco invent a new language or was he invented by it? The question need not be answered though it must be posited. "I write to know what I am thinking," he likes to proclaim. But the manner in which one writes alters one's thought patterns…. A poet must constantly give birth to language anew, and thus reinvent his basic tools. Words are charged with previous associations. To free himself of dead images, to fight his way through the tangle of signs, the writer must strip words of the layers of filth which obscure their meaning, lifting the filmy surface as skillfully as a surgeon removes cataracts…. Once this is done a private vocabulary is formed, what we call style, or literary form. The reader who is invited to enter a private universe is like the child invited to enter a game the rules of which he must learn. These rules create boundary lines, visible only to the initiate, and serve to isolate the magic world created by the artist-magician. The writer may appear to speak the language of everyday life, but actually he never does; the artist's vocabulary is always a language within language. (pp. 9-10)
Rosette C. Lamont, "Introduction" to Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Rosette C. Lamont (© 1973 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 1-10.
Much of the so-called Theater of the Absurd is now far enough behind us to be of marginal interest. It has blended with earlier movements—dada, surrealism, varieties of existentialism—and exerts its influence as part of a large mass of literature protesting the dehumanization of the spirit and the encroachment of mechanization, and it regards modern civilization as a threat to liberty and an object of ridicule. Some of Ionesco's theater fits this movement—from Rhinocéros through Thirst and Hunger, his "middle period." But his first period—from Soprano to Victims of Duty (1949–1953) and including, especially, Soprano, Lesson, Jack, Chairs, and Victims—transcends the movement of which these plays are a part. These works, though having their quotient of despair, are, in my view, celebrations of life-force. The individual is no longer powerful; bourgeois living is empty. But I glimpse in these comedies a celebration of alien life-forms, an acknowledgement (no matter how ironic and grudging) of collective experience and living.
These plays have an original and highly musical style…. Ionesco himself calls Soprano and Lesson "experiment[s] in abstract or nonrepresentative drama […] the progression of purposeless passion." Purposeless because it is not the slave of plot, but the direct apprehension of the flow of energy from within the dramatic structure itself.
Ionesco feels that these plays reveal "monstrous forms that we carry in ourselves." I agree but think of the monstrous as evil only from the perspective of individualism. Otherwise, "monstrous" means only something unusual and rarely glimpsed; and perhaps a harbinger of new times. In Soprano the characters are dying and language is the true protagonist. In Lesson the characters are masks of social compulsions. The Professor, the Pupil, and Marie are the objects of a willful grammar—not merely a language starting to know itself and its hosts, as in Soprano, but of an already highly developed system, a grammar whose chief law is that "arithmetic leads to philology and philology leads to crime." The Professor refuses to believe this, and so he repeats rape/murder again and again. We are leaving an age of individualism and entering a collective age. We are leaving "rationalism" and entering a time of sacral magic. Whether we deplore or welcome these changes will to a large degree condition our response to Soprano and Lesson. What is triumphant to one mind will be horrific to another.
In both plays Ionesco masterfully builds closed systems that are integral and complete. These systems relate to other systems only by analogy: what happens in Soprano and Lesson is parallel and homologous to what happens in society. The plays are not "about" anything; they refer only to themselves. That is why I call their structure musical. But they are not nonsense plays; and there is nothing wrong with pointing out analogies between them and society. I think Soprano and Lesson are good plays for practitioners of the new theater to work with because these plays' structures are compatible with the procedures of the new theater.
Soprano and Lesson will probably stand up very well in time. They do not depend on tricks, but on the cohesion of their parts. They probe deeply, and originally. They are playable and offer performers a creative challenge. Most of all, they suspend in balance a difficult tension—that between the social and the structural. Enough of the mood of the postwar and cold war days is in these plays to give them substance and historicity. But they have been put together by a mind fine and sensitive enough to transcend their historicity. For a long time they will evoke interpretations on stage. (pp. 36-7)
Richard Schechner, "'The Bald Soprano,' and 'The Lesson': An Inquiry into Play Structure" (copyright © 1973 by Richard Schechner), in Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Rosette C. Lamont, Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 21-37.
Ionesco—with all the innocence of a sincere creator whom interviewers and critics persist in making into a thinker—summed up for himself one of the problems of baroque illusionism: faced with the technically perfect representation of magic on the stage, to what degree is the spectator truly taken in? What truly attracts his attention? What is the source of his feelings and his delight?
Obviously, flying machines proliferate in the baroque theatre (in the broad sense of the term …)…. Now it is interesting to note that this baroque art not only had stagehands in the wings and up in the lofts, but also, within the actual world of the plays, had to justify the act of flying. Chariots, clouds, and occasionally winged spirits held up the god or the chosen mortal who was disappearing into the flies. A human being, or some creature in the shape of a human being, does not, in principle, levitate all by himself. Something must lift him up; if he leaves the ground, the deus (or homo) is necessarily ex machina—all of which actually comes down to the fact that, even in the baroque illusionist universe, a minimum of the laws of reason must prevail…. Thus the ambiguity of the baroque, in the case of machine plays, consists in a mixture of astonishment at the sight of incredible wonders (a flying chariot, a solid cloud) and a certain satisfaction of the demands of reason. (pp. 56-7)
In Ionesco's dramatic works there are various attempts to resolve the problems of representing flights, its causality or noncausality, and the resulting conflict between subjectivity and a feeling of objectivity. There is also a relevant oscillation between the "realistic" image, as it were (despite the strange nature of the play's universe), of an ascension during which the character's feet never leave the ground and the actual act of flying: Victims of Duty was followed by Amédée or How to Get Rid of It; after A Stroll in the Air came Hunger and Thirst.
With regard to flying itself, Amédée would seem to be a machine play in which Ionesco respects the baroque tradition's necessary support, however fanciful, for the protagonist is wafted up by a kind of "enormous parachute," "a banner," which is merely a transformation of the corpse that continues to grow during the first two acts…. I do not intend to go into a detailed discussion of the various interpretations of the growing corpse; I mean quite simply to locate it: whether it represents generalized existential anguish, remorse due to some specific crime, or cancer, the airship-corpse issues from Amédée himself, not from some other world or place.
And so the machine at the end of Amédée, while justifying the protagonist's flight in the baroque manner, brings us back to the character himself, rather than suggest some mysterious beyond, since … it is part of him and, ultimately, he himself. The festivities at the end of the play thus correspond to the wondrous liberation through flight that results from an agonized creature managing to take his own agony in hand—all of which is very far indeed from the fantasy of opera. After the spectacle of Amédée's anguish and bad faith when faced with the growth of an embarrassing part of his being, the final integration—however ambiguous—is celebrated in an atmosphere of cosmic and collective rejoicing: comets, shooting stars, fireworks. On a suddenly crowded stage a privileged individual gloriously separates himself from the rest of the world through the dialectic of his personal adventure: obsessed and divided, he has managed to integrate himself by, in fact, trying to "get rid" of himself. An unhoped-for miracle ("I didn't do it on purpose, Madeleine, not of my own free will!"), it is by gathering his sins about him that he disappears into the star-studded paradise of wholeness—an individual saved from his wife and the teeming world of all those others who doubtless experience the same wrenching agony unawares. Madeleine's cry to the disappearing Amédée: "You haven't even finished your play!" is an autobiographical allusion, a confession. And obviously. For would Ionesco (or any artist of similar temperament) continue to write if he managed, once and for all, to come to terms with the corpse whose continuous rotting (or growth) feeds his writing? (pp. 58-60)
The complete Ionesco hero, or anti-hero, is doomed to failure. Cases of ascensions or journeys through light result, for example, in the murder of Bérenger in The Killer, the bitter fall and martyrdom of Choubert in Victims of Duty, the demystification of the radiant plateau followed by Jean's concentration-camp type of imprisonment in Hunger and Thirst. And if the plague is no longer rife at the end of Death Games, it is only so that it could be replaced by the atrocity of fire—Ionesco's other obsession, and one diametrically opposed to that of sinking into slime, but just as destructive. Considering only machine plays, it is thus A Stroll in the Air that would seem one of the most comprehensive and subtle illustrations of the polarities of Ionesco's sensibility, actualized by an objective representation of the act of flying.
The most interesting of such elements in this play is the shifting back and forth between the use of visible machines and pure levitation. In fact, A Stroll in the Air is a little festival of mechanical gimmicks, some of which may, yet again, be compared with the baroque marvels: a case in point is the small, pink, flower-festooned column that suddenly rises straight out of the ground and is a phenomenon akin to those trees and classical ruins which the ingenuity of Italian set designers made appear and disappear right in front of the spectators at performances of court ballets and entertainments. Moreover, there is moving scenery and a floating arch (a vision that relates Ionesco's Bérenger to the Shelley of the Preface to Prometheus Unbound), as well as a little train that might have choo-chooed right out of a store window at Christmas time. A side from episodes such as Joséphine's nightmares, A Stroll in the Air appeals to that childlike ability to be dazzled by naïve and charmingly burlesque gadgets, including—in this play—caricatures of the English, portrayed as barely humanized talking dolls, weaving their way through Bérenger's "stroll" with his family. Now, although the whole universe of the play is animated by obvious machinery not unlike those little automated scenes created for the delight of children, the protagonist's own venture subtly uses but counters the machine. Bérenger begins by levitating on his own, and his terrifying final adventure will be the outcome of his again flying about without any outside help…. The play's step-by-step lesson in the art of flying on a bicycle not only produces the charming effect of street-fair acrobatics, but serves to negate the bicycle—that is, the visible machine. Indeed, as Bérenger gradually rises above the play's characters and the spectators, his vehicle loses its parts one after the other, until nothing is left but Bérenger himself, "moving around in circles, still pedaling like a cyclist." (pp. 60-1)
In other words, while almost everything within the universe of the play is obviously mechanical, the protagonist himself achieves the extraordinary feat of flying under his own power. An incredible accomplishment, an exalting liberation with the help of no one but himself, Bérenger's flight is devoid of any artifice, of any mechanistic pseudo-justification. And it all ends with shattering revelations and a grievous fall. Thus A Stroll in the Air would appear to be, in that respect, the most "complete" of Ionesco's machine plays. On the one hand, the main character travels along the curve characteristic of all Ionesco's heroes: from minor miseries, to joyous exaltation, to a final and more disastrous misery…. On the other hand, from a perspective of theatricality rather than dramatic action, Ionesco, having chosen to represent an actual flight in A Stroll, made his play into a critical statement on the scenic illusion produced by wonder-working machines: he plainly eliminates the equivalent of baroque support (i.e., the bicycle) in order to offer the barest and most precise image possible of the feeling of levitation. (pp. 61-2)
Ionesco's world is one of perpetual astonishment which, in the rare cases that it is pleasing, consists in an exalted dazzlement at the sight of sunny meadows, towns, and gardens, and is experienced as a lightness of one's being, very close to soaring. Indeed, the feeling of entranced admiration provoked by the scenic ingenuity, the "feats" of the mechanicians, the set designers, and the actors, constitutes the theatrical transposition of that basic emotion. Besides, the spectator's consciousness is obviously never all of a piece: if, in the case of Amédée as in that of Bérenger, the spectator is conscious of "being at the theatre" (perhaps even, to some degree, at the circus), he will shift to an attitude of half belief (if only in the form of a wish or a reverie) in the real possiblity of achieving that which is suggested by the very skillfully disguised lie of the spectacle. (pp. 62-3)
Jacques Guicharnaud, "Ionesco Ex Machina" (copyright © 1973 by Jacques Guicharnaud), in Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Rosette C. Lamont, Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 55-63.
[In The Chairs] we are … transported into the universe of science-fiction. We are thus all the better enabled to reach an intuitive grasp of the nature of those apparently strange relations existing between our two characters, the two imaginary "cosmonauts," and the objects surrounding them, which will finally seal their fate: no wonder, then, since they themselves, freed from the earth's gravitational pull, defy the laws of equilibrium—at one point, Ionesco tells us, "they look as though they are on roller-skates"…—that those objects, those chairs, should whirl about on the stage-floor and end up "acting by themselves." A science-fiction fan would not find it difficult to recognize those "things from outer space," half-spiritual, half-physical creatures, and to identify them as "mutants"—in other words, the imaginary products of some future evolution of modern man, reified by materialistic civilization. The ideological message (as is the case, in this respect too, in the best tales of science-fiction) is revealed without much difficulty: those "manless chairs," are they to be the latest offspring of today's "chair-men" who preside over the fate of our humanity?… No need here for this sort of explanation: the "chairs" speak for themselves. Ionesco was at pains to convince a fraction of the critics who, downright "realistic" (in the pejorative sense given to this term by contemporary "poetics"), were completely put off by this kind of fiction. "The subject of the play," he wrote …, "is the chairs themselves…. I quite simply had the image of an empty room filled with vacant chairs. The chairs arriving at full speed and ever more quickly, formed the central image; this for me expressed an ontological void, a kind of eddying void …"…. Experience thus defined brings to mind, in our view, no longer science-fiction, but real scientific activity; that "empty room," in fact, bears a close resemblance to one of those evaporation-basins in which scientists, in atomic laboratories, create a vacuum and perform all sorts of experiments on matter, submitting it to various processes of scission, nuclear fission and polarization of corpuscles, following upon chain reactions at fast and slow speeds. We bring to mind, furthermore, other empty rooms, those decompression space cabins in which cosmonauts in space research centres carry out their preliminary training and get accustomed to their new environment, either in their space ships or on the moon's surface. We summon to mind those televised pictures of the incredible pantomime they perform on the moon … and we return to Ionesco's explanation: "The Chairs," he said, "should contain, at the time of the performance, some "ingredient of pantomime fantasia". (pp. 68-9)
Undoubtedly the theatre itself, according to Ionesco, might be defined along with science and pure fiction as a means to knowledge of the universe. "I do not believe," he asserts, "that there is a contradiction between creative and cognitive activity, for the structures of the mind probably reflect universal structures." "Logic and emotion join hands," he explains …, "and even mathematics is subjective since it is a structure of the mind"…. We know that Ionesco,… far from underestimating questions of technique, attaches considerable importance to them, insofar as they have some connection with his "métier" as a playwright. He does not seek to hide the fact, for instance, that the "medium" of the theatre at first seemed to him unsuitable for the sort of "experiment" he wanted to perform: "It was the presence on the stage of flesh-and-blood people that embarrassed me," he told us. "Their material presence destroyed the fiction. I was confronted, as it were, by two planes of reality—the concrete, material, impoverished, empty, limited reality of those living, everyday human beings, moving about and talking on the stage, and the reality of imagination, the two face to face and not coinciding, unable to be brought into relation with each other; two antagonistic worlds, incapable of being unified, of merging." It is the problem of conceptualization, that is, of "projection" into an unreal universe, that he had to come face to face with when he produced The Chairs; how was he to relativize, within the spatio-temporal framework and material environment of the theatre, beings and objects, "inanimate" beings—the Old Man, the Old Woman, and above all the Orator, who is defined as a "robot"…—and "animate" objects—the chairs, which in his view formed the "subject" and not the "object" of the play—?… Let us think, for a moment, of the part played in Ionesco by chairs and stools, essential elements of the setting. Let us recall, specifically, the fact that the vision of the two characters and their chairs is considered by him to be an "act": "It's a tour de force," he exclaims. "It should have something circus-like about it." But the performance of The Chairs brings to mind mainly a third sort of vision, namely the projection of a cartoon film. The cinema, in general, fascinates Ionesco; he has even written a text for a film…. We find more than one reference in The Chairs to the cinema: the Old Man, for example, "scratches his head like Stan Laurel"…. But, as we can see, it is not the "talkies" which interest Ionesco, but the good old films from the time of the silent cinema, or at any rate comic films which derive their best effects from the repertoire of purely visual gags, in which, as we know, objects play the best part. The cartoon, in this sense, leaves the greatest possible freedom to the creator; the Canadian director Norman MacLaren, filming shot by shot the confrontation between "A Man and a Chair," has created a masterpiece equivalent in the history of the cinema to The Chairs in the history of contemporary theatre.
Ionesco seeks to revitalize space and time, mind and matter, men and things upon a stage-floor trodden by human beings—actors—and strewn with objects seemingly condemned to play insipidly utilitarian background roles. (pp. 75-7)
David Mendelson, "Science and Fiction in Ionesco's 'Experimental' Theatre (An Interpretation of 'The Chairs')," in Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Rosette C. Lamont (copyright © 1973 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 64-98.
In [Ionesco's] drama there is to be no explanation, or exposition, no logical development of character and events. A dislocation of reality is effected before reintegration can be achieved. Thus a pure reality, a deeper truth—vérité as against réalité—is opposed to realism and naturalism. It is by means of this a-logical, a-psychological inner truth that the dramatist hopes to establish a contact of profound poetic significance between his audience and himself, a kind of communion. (p. 154)
Rosette C. Lamont, "Eugene Ionesco and the Metaphysical Farce" (copyright © 1973 by Rosette C. Lamont), in Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Rosette C. Lamont, Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 154-83.
Le Solitaire [published in English as The Hermit] is the first and only novel by the French playwright Eugène Ionesco. The novel possesses a tragic quality characteristic of his dramatic works: an absence of action, and concentration on a single problem. It is the story of a man whose personality is a strange combination of mediocrity and deep concern for the human condition. We also find specifically Sartrian modes of characterization that are also peculiar to Eugène Ionesco.
From the beginning the reader is made aware of the emptiness of time and of life itself. The anonymous narrator, like the protagonists in Ionesco's dramas, always withholds his amazement at people's emotional capacity, excitement and involvement, for he does not really wish to become involved himself nor does he have the ability to do so. He remains at the margin of the situation, becomes a spectator, mainly an observer of the absurd, yet he is aware of the senselessness of his attitude. The fluidity of empty time is often expressed by Ionesco through a triple, rapid reiteration that is quite effective. There seems to be some confusion about what the narrator is watching, though in reality he is perceiving, as Ionesco intends, the symbols of absurdity that sane people miss. Life in the streets and in the restaurant becomes chaotic, bewildering. Yet, the recluse's derangement signifies a very distinct interpretation of life.
The narrator tries to cope with his quotidian anguish more or less unsuccessfully. The fact that he inherits a modest fortune from his American uncle does not liberate him. He abandons his job as an unimportant employee, buys an apartment and retires from life. The trips to the corner restaurant become the highlights of his existence. He even ventures around the block at times. The psychological analysis as usual is exact, detailed, repetitious. Brief psychedelic excursions into the luminous world, the "ailleur," are reminiscent of A. Huxley's probes into that realm. But the narrator's quest for the lost paradise takes a rather naive form. (p. 85)
Olga Prjevalinskaya Ferrer, in Books Abroad (copyright 1974 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 48, No. 1, Winter, 1974.
It is tempting to use adjectives like "existential" and "absurd" when speaking of Ionesco's narrator [of The Hermit]. Indeed his vocabulary favors turns like "nausea of nothingness," "nausea of the infinite," and "metaphysical anxiety." He seems to have much in common with Sartre's Roquentin (Nausea) and Camus' Meursault (The Stranger). Yet in the end, he is an authentic unique, very much a child of Ionesco's imagination. This is the Ionesco who admitted in his memoir, Present Past, Past Present: "I have a tendency, almost always, to be against my time, to be swimming against the stream." The Hermit and its narrator-hero surely appear to be going against the grain of contemporary notions of fictional technique and characterization.
The narrative itself—unlike most recent fiction—proceeds in an unbroken, strictly chronological line. The first-person storyteller, who remains unnamed, painstakingly describes every detail of his existence. He spares us nothing…. This is not to suggest that his narrative habits at all resemble the cataloguing procedures we have grown accustomed to in the novels of contemporaries like Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor and Claude Simon. The Hermit, on the contrary, relies on conventional and even old-fashioned devices that acknowledge the importance of character, plot and theme….
[The narrator] is not unlike the characters in Ionesco's plays. Indeed a knowledge of the drama is very helpful in understanding certain of the fictional strategies at work in The Hermit. Ionesco's almost unique ability to turn reality into phantasmagoria and nightmare, with no warning, gives readers the same chilling sensation in his first novel that theatergoers have been getting for some time from Rhinocéros, The Lesson and The Chairs….
We must end by questioning the credibility of the narrator who describes himself on one occasion as "the constant dreamer." His increasing confusion about reality makes us doubt his reliability….
Ionesco posed an interesting question in Present Past, Past Present: "Who is there who can distinguish reality from a mirage?" Certainly not the narrator of The Hermit. Certainly not the reader of Ionesco's first novel. (pp. 26-7)
Melvin J. Friedman, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 7, 1974.
[In] fiction, minimal men, such as Ionesco's hermit [in his first novel, "The Hermit"], run the risk of dullness or of appearing to have been created for instructional purposes, as a sort of anatomical dummy. Ionesco's hermit is neither tiresome nor schoolmarmy. Ionesco the novelist, like Ionesco the dramatist, is artful and surprising, economical but not skimpy. He concisely surrounds his hero with enough ordinary reality—his new apartment in a semi-suburb of Paris, a concierge, cleaning women, a mistress—so that when his routine is disrupted, his readers, who have found it all plausible, accept the threats to it….
Ionesco's is a serious joke; he turns all the savagery of his wit on the penchant of human beings for seeking any excuse to slaughter one another. Some books touch us because they say things we had never thought of; others (and for me Ionesco's novel is one of them) touch us because they express to perfection something we have already been feeling: "fed up" is the best way to say it—fed up beyond moral reprobation and well into contempt for or disgust with the boring, stupid human will to break things and kill people. The hermit begins by accepting the world's estimate that he is a poor stick. For a while, he cares what other people think; then he ceases to care; he worries, briefly, because he has ceased to care, then stops worrying. With corpses on the streets and cant on everybody's lips, he retreats farther from his fellow-man. Ionesco is a surprising writer; here the surprise is that the hermit, who commences by withdrawing from, turns out to have retreated to. He philosophizes less; he just exists, and, as happens to religious hermits (for that is what he turns out to be), his solitude is repaid. His reward is a beatific vision; a garden beyond, shining in light, lux perpetua. Ionesco's manner is crystalline, his mind prismatic: you may read him to mean that only a psychologically abnormal man, a failure, needs something beyond human existence, or that the price one pays to attain a vision of the supernatural is too great, or (one hopes) that when man fails, God is always willing to be everybody's last resort. (p. 187)
Naomi Bliven, in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 9, 1974.