Ionesco, Eugene (Vol. 4)
Ionesco, Eugene 1912–
Ionesco is a Rumanian-born French dramatist associated with the Theatre of the Absurd. His essentially comic plays nevertheless most often take the form of nightmares, in which his main themes—loneliness and isolation of the individual—are developed in intentional non sequiturs and grotesque metamorphoses to the point of paroxysm and unbearable psychological tension. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
The first thing that strikes me about Ionesco's work is its theatricality. What Ionesco does is to take ideas which are now in the air—some people would say à la mode—and make arrestingly vivid stage images of them. The effect in general is usually macabre and witty while the writing is both sprightly and sharp with overtones of pathos….
Attentive spectators will find [his] plays understandable … if they do not seek to grasp every word in a literal or information-bearing sense. What must be followed is what the eyes take in (for example, the weird clock in The Bald Soprano) and the line of action in each scene. The form of the plays rather than the details of each speech carries most of the message. The speech is understandable too, but in a suggestive or "symbolic" rather than a strict sense. The whole is related to meaning as we know it in contemporary painting and in modern verse. What is mainly to be noted in such a play as Jack, for example, is that traditional scenes from bourgeois drama with almost conventional action (the mother entreats, the sister reasons, the father moralizes, the boy protests, the would-be in-laws storm, the boy begins to yield, the bride cajoles, love scenes ensue, etc.) are transformed into grotesqueries by the author's thematic intention and poetically stylized dialogue….
Ionesco utters his truth in specific stage terms which are startling and often brilliant. What he has to say, moreover, is justified by the routine of our daily living. The lack of spiritual content in our civilization has been the major outcry of European drama since Ibsen. Ionesco has carried this idea to the climactic point of savage caricature.
Harold Clurman, "Eugene Ionesco: 'The Bald Soprano' and 'Jack'" (1958), in his The Naked Image: Observations on the Modern Theatre (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966 by Harold Clurman), Macmillan, 1966, pp. 83-5.
Ionesco is a formidable parodist, a sardonic sceptic, and an almost irrepressibly gay nihilist; he is as effective in comedy as in pathos. He is capable of challenging reflection while outraging sensibility or tickling our funny bone with his clowning, and of depressing and amusing us almost in the same breath. The fact that thus far all his successful plays have been less than full-length pieces only strengthens the impression that in Ionesco we have had a major theatrician but a decidedly minor writer. We may be sure that this opinion, far from perturbing Ionesco, would actually please him. He would be fortified in his opinion that theatre is "what cannot be expressed by writing literature."
John Gassner, in his Theatre at the Crossroads: Plays and Playwrights of the Mid-Century American Stage (copyright © 1960 by Mollie Gassner; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, 1960, pp. 261-62.
[Rhinoceros] was originally a short story; it is overlong as a three-act play. Its apparent point is made at least three-quarters of an hour before its final curtain. I speak of an "apparent" point because there is something more in the play's message than is contained in the symbol of men who turn into rhinoceroses—the comedy and terror of conformism. For the play, despite the central figure's ultimate defiance of bestiality, is essentially anarchistic, bitter, very nearly hopeless.
The rational mind and logic are absurd, Ionesco tells us; they have little relation to the truth (which is the chaos) of life. Intellectuals are fools. Most organized radicals are not only clowns but robots—ready under pressure to swing from extreme Left to extreme Right. The conventional middle-class gentleman is a moron; the smooth little subaltern of the business community is a fraud; favored hirelings of the status quo are grotesque; the sweet young thing whom we regard as the sweetheart of the world is spineless. Ultimately, they all turn into monsters of blind energy, cruel forces of destruction.
A little man—confused, uncertain, without direction except for some nameless grace of disposition—will resist, though he too is probably doomed. (He acknowledges that the person who wishes to remain an individual always ends badly.) Destined to defeat or not, he does resist—all by himself—which may be described as a pathetic absurdity. In almost all the other Ionesco plays the counterpart of Berrenger (the helpless "hero" of Rhinoceros) is always done in by the Monster—the mysterious Evil which dominates all. In this sense Rhinoceros may be said to mark an "advance" for Ionesco, a stirring of conscience against complete despair, an anguished sign of protest against surrender.
Philosophically this is an unsound, as well as an unsatisfactory, position. Humanly, it is quite understandable: many people the world over feel as Berrenger does, both lonely and afraid of others…. Ionesco's merit as an artist is that he finds theatrically telling means to reflect this contemporary fright. His plays are brilliant statements for the stage; his, therefore, is an authentic and original theatre talent.
Harold Clurman, "Eugene Ionesco: 'Rhinoceros'" (1961), in his The Naked Image: Observations on the Modern Theatre (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966 by Harold Clurman), Macmillan, 1966, pp. 85-7.
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, unwieldy 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…. 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….
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….
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-garde 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….
Disgust is the powerful motor in Ionesco's plays: out of disgust, he makes comedies of the distasteful.
Susan Sontag, "Ionesco" (1964), in her Against Interpretation and Other Essays (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966 by Susan Sontag), Farrar, Straus, 1966, pp. 115-23.
The meaning of [Ionesco's] plays is never explicit. His work is characterized, instead, by what may be termed a purposeful vagueness. His plays, in other words, are full of possible meanings, but void both of specific polemic purposes and of solutions. Ionesco is not committed to a point of view because he realizes that all points of view are useless. His plays are demonstrations of the incongruity between the human condition and the human being's desires. As such, they are true tragedies, for tragedy, as Ionesco himself points out, lies in the unbearable. His plays are "demystifications." They strip the veils off man's everyday actions and expose the unbearable, tragic impasse beneath. Reality is tragic, Ionesco tells us, and it will always remain so, no matter what form the masks take. Committed playwrights, such as Arthur Miller or Bertolt Brecht (Ionesco's particular bête noire), are merely attempting the contemptibly superficial task of changing the masks….
Ionesco's first play, The Bald Soprano (La Cantatrice Chauve, 1950), was the ground-breaker for the current avant-garde tradition on the stage. It illustrates, first of all, the dramatic technique which the avant-garde derived from Antonin Artaud; but, more important still, it illustrates the basic philosophical premise on which the whole avant-garde drama is based. This philosophical premise, the importance of which cannot be overestimated in a study of the avant-garde drama, is the concept of the absurd in human affairs…. Ionesco concentrates mainly on showing his audiences the mutual isolation of human beings and the meaninglessness of the daily actions which constitute the major portion of their existence on earth….
Ionesco uses the device of nonsense speech as a means of showing one aspect of the absurdity of everyday life through the breakdown of semantics. Since everyday life, whether absurd or not, depends for its coherence entirely on the coherence of speech patterns, it follows that if our speech patterns are absurd, everyday life in general is absurd as far as we are concerned (it is possible that to an individual the world does not appear absurd, but since he has no means of communication with other people except through intrinsically senseless speech patterns, it follows that his view is actually nonexistent in practice). Even if the world appears ordered and coherent to everyone, Ionesco is saying, it is still absurd because each person is trapped inside his own individual cell by the inadequacies of his means of communication. The only possible type of communication is the indirect method of paradox….
We can see from this examination of Ionesco's plays that the main themes of his early plays (1950–1953) are (i) the paradox of the isolation of the individual in the midst of his fellows; and (ii) the paradox of the ultimate meaninglessness of actions, which, taken together, constitute the sum of human existence. In the plays of his second period (The Killer and Rhinoceros) Ionesco abandoned the view of pessimistic fatalism in which man is a helpless puppet futilely and despairingly hammering against incomprehensible forces that always overwhelm him. Instead of the doctrinaire determinism which he derived from Antonin Artaud, Ionesco gave man a certain amount of free choice within the context of his temporal life…. In his latest (and probably last) phase, Ionesco has openly become an intensely personal writer. The King Dies and The Aerial Pedestrian are about Ionesco's preoccupation with his own finiteness.
George Wellwarth, "Eugene Ionesco: The Absurd as Warning," in his The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1964 by New York University), New York University Press, 1964, pp. 261-62.
The chief limitation of Ionesco, about which many critics agree, is his failure of growth, partly because of the inability of the absurd to be extensive. Yet, within these handicaps, Ionesco has occasionally provided some interesting theater.
Harry T. Moore, in his Twentieth-Century French Literature Since World War II (© 1966 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966, p. 155.
[The] very spontaneity [of Ionesco's plays], the very freedom with which he allows characters and situations to take shape, constitutes the basis and source of their purity of form: plays like The Chairs or The Lesson are enjoyed by their audiences as above all formal patterns of great simplicity and perfection. His own experience has convinced Ionesco that the spontaneous reproduction of the structures of the subconscious imagination is bound to emerge in the form of structurally satisfying patterns…. In other words, if a play represents the process by which the author's inner, subconscious conflicts are brought into the open and sublimated by being externalized, the very fact that this externalization has taken place implies that the conflicts have reached a state of equilibrium and will therefore, necessarily, already appear in the shape of a balanced pattern that unifies the contradictions and as such has significant form….
Far from being a showman, a seeker of the limelight, a clown full of gimmicks, as he is so often represented in the popular press, which is characteristically apt to misunderstand and misinterpret the vagaries of a creative personality both difficult and complex, Ionesco … [is] an artist of uncompromising purity who fully recognizes the precariousness of a creative personality dependent on the workings of forces outside his own control, and he boldly confronts this dilemma of the creative process.
Martin Esslin, "Ionesco and the Creative Dilemma," in his Reflections: Essays on Modern Theatre (copyright © 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Martin Esslin; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), Doubleday, 1969, pp. 115-26.