Ionesco, Eugene (Vol. 1)
Ionesco, Eugene 1912–
Rumanian-born French experimental playwright, Ionesco is associated with the Theater of the Absurd. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)
Molière's twentieth-century disciple is Eugene Ionesco who—noting that "scientific" political movements like Nazism offered contemporary proof of his master's axioms—not only adapted Molière's short interlude in The Lesson but made its moral central to his entire work. In Rhinoceros, he has not varied his theme; he has merely found another form through which to express it.
Robert Brustein, "The Enormous Sum of Zero: Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco" (1961), in his Seasons of Discontent: Dramatic Opinions 1959–1965 (© 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc.), Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 119-22.
Ionesco has had, and continues to have, many detractors, for he is a controversial figure. Of his significance, however, there can be no doubt, for his voice, while strikingly original in its expression, speaks for a large segment of thinking people today, a voice of freedom in a world of conformity. (p. 3)
The Bald Soprano, and indeed most of Ionesco's one-act plays, are built about a simple situation which, beginning in more or less realistic terms, slowly is disarticulated, exploded, exaggerated until something monstrous and violent is achieved. This situation, or a state of euphoria or anguish, is pushed to the extreme, intensified beyond the point of return. Consequently there are rarely denouements of a conventional kind. (p. 7)
Ionesco is attempting in his early plays to focus our attention on the theatrical structure itself, rather than on any specific ideological content…. Already in The Bald Soprano we can see that language is being used as a kind of property rather than in the usual literary way. The words and sentences become brittle and take on an almost solidified existence of their own. (pp. 8-9)
Although Ionesco eschews a particular ideology in his plays, he does hope to make some kind of statement regarding man and his situation. If he is strenuously opposed to the political commitment of Brecht and Sartre, he is just as critical of the superficial commercial plays that treat theater as pure entertainment. For, if drama is to have a lasting value, it must take some position on fundamental issues. But since it is drama, and not philosophy or sociology, it must take its position in a general, indirect way, rather than attempting to direct the thoughts and attitudes of its audience. (pp. 9-10)
In an early essay Ionesco points out that there are two fundamental feelings at the origin of all his work: one of lightness, evanescence, strangeness, and the other of heavy, gray opacity. When the former dominates, he writes comedy, and when the latter is foremost, drama. Most often, however, they both occur within the same play, which frequently starts in an atmosohere of light and happiness and ends in silence, opacity, and death—what Ionesco has described as the victory of the antispiritual forces. This leads, of course, to an interweaving of the tragic and comic, for as Ionesco envisions it, the two are inextricable. In fact, he is not certain what differentiates them, for the comic is the intuition of the absurdity of a universe in which man has neither dignity nor absolutes, and therefore a more starkly depressing universe than that of tragedy, which confers upon man a certain nobility and meaning in the midst of his defeat. Ionesco's theater, like that of the other experimental dramatists writing in France today, the so-called theater of the absurd, constantly mixes the tragic and the comic, and in such a way that there is no clear distinction, for we are meant to shudder at some of the comedy, and to laugh at the tragedy of man's situation, which is treated in derisory terms. (p. 11)
Ionesco has been one of the moving spirits in the renewal of theater in the middle of the twentieth century, and his dramatic output in fourteen years of activity, from 1949 to 1962, reveals him as one of the most original dramatists alive today. (p. 44)
Leonard C. Pronko, in his Eugene Ionesco, Columbia University Press, 1965.
[The Bald Soprano] is an attack against what Ionesco has called the 'universal petty-bourgeoisie … the personification of accepted ideas and slogans, the ubiquitous conformist'. What he deplores is the levelling of individuality, the acceptance of slogans by the masses, of ready-made ideas, which increasingly turn our mass societies into collections of centrally directed automata….
Ionesco regards spontaneity as an important creative element. [He contends that he has no ideas before he writes a play; that, for him, artistic creation is spontaneous.] But this does not mean that he considers his writing to be meaningless or without significance. On the contrary, the workings of the spontaneous imagination are a cognitive process, an exploration….
From The Bald Soprano to Rhinocéros, [Ionesco's classicism, his attempt to rediscover 'the mechanism of the theatre in its pure state,' is the] condensation and intensification of the action [which] represent[s] the basic formal principle, the shape of Ionesco's plays, in contrast to those of Beckett and Adamov (until his breach with the Theatre of the Absurd), which have a circular shape, returning to the initial situation or to its equivalent, a zero point from which the preceding action is seen to be futile, so that it would have made no difference if it had never happened….
The pattern of Ionesco's plays is one of intensification, acceleration, accumulation, proliferation to the point of paroxysm, when psychological tension reaches the unbearable—the pattern of orgasm. It must be followed by a release that relieves the tension and substitutes a feeling of serenity. This liberation takes the form of laughter. And that is why Ionesco's plays are comic….
Ionesco's theatre has two fundamental themes, which often coexist in the same play. The lesser of these is the protest against the deadliness of present-day mechanical, bourgeois civilization, the loss of real, felt values, and the resulting degradation of life. Ionesco attacks a world that has lost its metaphysical dimension, in which human beings no longer feel a sense of mystery, of reverent awe in facing their own existence. Behind the violent mockery of fossilized language, there stands a plea for the restoration of a poetic concept of life….
But if Ionesco savagely assails a mode of life that has banished mystery from existence, this does not mean that he regards a full awareness of the implications of human existence as a state of euphoria. On the contrary, the intuition of being that he tries to communicate is one of despair. The main themes that recur in his plays are those of the loneliness and isolation of the individual, his difficulty in communicating with others, his subjection to degrading outside pressures, to the mechanical conformity of society as well as to the equally degrading internal pressures of his own personalitity—sexuality and the ensuing feelings of guilt, the anxieties arising from the uncertainty of one's own identity and the certainty of death.
Martin Esslin, "Eugene Ionesco: Theatre and Anti-Theatre" (© 1961, 1968, 1969 by Martin Esslin; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.), Doubleday-Anchor, revised edition, 1969, pp. 100-65.
The first thing one can say about Ionescoland is that it is a gray, damp, muddy country. Those who are condemned to live in its cities inhabit basement apartments which themselves slowly sink into the slimy soil. There is no sun, except if you climb to great heights, or if you encounter the ersatz light of the radiant city. The inhabitants of this country are mostly middle-aged or very old. Their faces are careworn and lined, their hair gray as the snow on the pavement of dirty sidewalks. The couples are more often than not childless, drawn together by habit, and an anguished, tender pity. The wives are the mothers of their childlike husbands.
In this strange country people are objects, and objects seem endowed with independent existence. Mushrooms proliferate in damp rooms, under the growing legs of a corpse who has taken over the bedroom and conjugal bed of a couple. Indeed, the rhythm of disaster is marked by the hysteria of matter. Not unlike the cells of a cancerous growth, objects multiply, engulfing the protagonists: empty chairs carried in at dizzying speed by the Old Woman who must keep up with the delirious expansion of the imaginings she and her husband share, pieces of furniture piling in a pyramid around the "new tenant" buried under possessions, tea cups ceremoniously carried in by the overhospitable wife of a man cross-examined in his own home by an unexpected policeman, huge eggs hatched by a young husband and yielding indiscriminately turnips and onions, bankers and pigs, employers and employees, officious officials, radishes and radicals, chaotic matter doomed by future wars to become messy omelettes….
On the surface Ionescoland seems parallel to our own. The overstuffed pieces of furniture, the clichés which go for conversation lure us into thinking that we are still in familiar surroundings. Soon, however, we know that we are on the other side of the looking glass. We must run as fast as we can just to stay in place. Under our feet the earth sinks, the air sucks us up. The fire we started to warm our bones engulfs our planet. A little love becomes 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 toward us." It is the world of our private nightmares, issuing from "a very ancient deposit to which all manking 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.
Rosette C. Lamont, "The Topography of Ionescoland," in Modern Occasions, Fall, 1971, pp. 536-46.