Eugène Ionesco Ionesco, Eugène (Vol. 9) - Essay

Ionesco, Eugène (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ionesco, Eugène 1912–

French dramatist Ionesco is a leading figure in European avant-garde theater. His work reveals his obsession with the absurdity of life, of death, and even of the play itself, creating the "anti-play." Ionesco's plays are typically humorous on the surface, but have dark undercurrents of horror beneath. A common theme is man's alienation and the difficulty of communication. His characters speak in ridiculous clichés and fragments, creating what Ionesco calls "a theatre of violence—violently comic, violently dramatic," a surreal caricature of life. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Both early and late in Eugène Ionesco's drama occur aspects of the comic that were analyzed by Henri Bergson in his classic study Le Rire…. Specifically, I refer to Ionesco's Le Piéton de l'air, for its hero is his only one, the Bérenger of Rhinocéros, Tueur sans gages, and Le Roi se meurt. In the first two plays of the cycle, Bérenger is the special person, the unique individual. In Rhinocéros, he is the only person who does not become an animal, who does not conform. Briefly he thinks perhaps the others are right, but soon he discovers that he wishes to remain human…. In Tueur sans gages, Bérenger is the most innocent, the best, the purest person, who initially believes the Architect in the City of Light and who tries to reason with the Murderer at the end. Bérenger is the human being capable of thought, and it is his tragedy that the world is not what it should be. Trying by logic to talk the killer out of murder is fruitless; appealing to ethics or humanity in today's world is pointless, suggests Ionesco, at least in that pessimistic play. Bérenger is out of place, but tragically, not comically. (pp. 297-98)

Ionesco admits that, as with the theatre of Feydeau, his own plays, Les Chaises and Le Nouveau locataire, show a mechanism gone awry and adds that in La Leçon, this phenomenon, centering on language, leads to the tragic. (p. 301)

The setting for Le Piéton de l'air is a dreamy landscape replete with a fanciful cottage; the scene itself is Bergsonian, for the philosopher once described the relationship between comedy and dreams as one in which both share a dislocation of logic. Into this setting comes a naughty little boy who hits two old ladies with a ball. His parents repeat profuse excuses that the child is loath to make and then repeat a series of compliments to the parents of a well-behaved little girl. "Madame" and "Monsieur" and a series of "Sorry, sorry" speeches are pronounced by the four English parents. The stress on the nationality recalls La Cantatrice chauve. Like automatons the two old ladies, also very British, cry, "Oh! quel vilain petit garçon!" when he thumbs his nose at his unobservant parents. The inadvertent, the absent-minded, and the distracted are subjects of comedy, according to Bergson …, and one can laugh at the child's parents without taking the boy's rudeness seriously.

In the stage directions and dialogue between Ionesco's hero and an interviewer occur two other devices discussed by Bergson: the play on words, in which two similar sounds recur with variations, and the celebrated Jack-in-the-box…. After they both repeat singular and plural versions of question(s), Ionesco establishes the ridiculous variant "journal-journaliste" and the excuse that a paper has nothing to do with reporters, all of this dialogue punctuated by the reappearing and disappearing head of the hero…. And a little later, when Bérenger confesses he has realized he "had no reason to write," the newspaperman picks up the words and twists them in a funny and timely way, into a spoof of metaphysical anguish…. (pp. 301-03)

Still playing tricks with language, this passage leads Bérenger into explaining his difficult choice between nihilism and existentialist action. According to Bergson's distinction between the humorous and the witty, wit makes us laugh at a third party or at ourselves and thus gives an added dimension to the comic…. By that definition, Ionesco's dialogue in [this] scene … is, then, not only humorous but witty, for the parody is directed at Sartre's philosophical discourse. It is significant too that Bergson counts professional jargon as material suitable for exploitation by comic dramatists…. Bérenger talks inflatedly of renewing himself internally, of the course of events, and of the relationship between neurosis and truth. As Bergson says, making small things big and deflating great issues are satirical techniques…. (p. 303)

Still another Bergsonian example of comic absurdity is the reduction of the sublime or divine to the ridiculous or mundane, spirit debased to matter…. In Le Piéton de l'air, the silly reporter assures Bérenger of a sizable check for his philosophical musings, in return for the anguish he has voiced aloud, cheapened, popularized, publicized…. Perhaps the effect produced on the spectator is a twisted smile as he recognizes the irony of Bérenger's situation.

If treating big issues as trivial produces le rire jaune, the reverse contributes to heartier laughter. Bergson noted that attention to small details rather than momentous matters makes us laugh because there is a disproportion between the cause and the effect. This contrast is successfully exploited by Ionesco when Joséphine regrets the premature announcement of her father's funeral ceremonies and decides to send out [an "announcement of the resurrection"]. Actually more is involved here. Not only is it silly to worry about announcements, but to juxtapose such a powerful, theologically-charged word as "résurrection" with "announcement" accentuates the lack of proportion. The event of magnitude—life rather than death—is reduced to the trivialities of printing and mailing; the holy is denigrated to the worldly. Rebirth phrased in Christian terms is cheapened to the physical—to ink and paper. So too Bergson notes that the mood is lightened whenever attention is called away from the spirit to the body, from the mental to the physical.

Bergson's theories are explicitly recalled when one reads Ionesco's stage directions describing John Bull "comme une énorme marionnette" [like a large puppet], slowly taking off his hat, wiping away perspiration both in it and on his forehead, putting back the handkerchief, then donning the hat again, "turning slowly toward the public," and after this series of gestures, standing with his legs apart, arms behind his back…. By his very name, John Bull is allegorical or caricatural; by his movements he is less than human and therefore capable of eliciting laughter.

Automatism recurs shortly thereafter as the little English girl starts to sing, really to utter "des trilles, exactement comme ceux d'un petit rossignol mécanique" [trills exactly like those of a little mechanical nightingale]…. These trills are repeated several times by all the English people, and the mechanical musical display is paralleled by a visual one, while the English fathers merely smile. Normally a person smiles because, spontaneously and thus without coaching, he finds something pretty or amusing. When a smile is natural, it is delightful; when artificial, it is laughable rather than lovable. (pp. 304-05)

Although Ionesco's use of repetition [in one scene] provokes a comic response, his similar practice has a different outcome in [another scene]. Bérenger, his wife Joséphine, and their daughter Marthe, left to their French selves, repeat a number of phrases in lyrical, oneiric vein. They speak of turning around, rejoicing, holding hands without thought or worry, looking at the trains that pass like toys. But as they do not repeat verbatim, they do not seem like automatons…. Rather they are human beings…. (p. 305)

Ionesco is not writing to a thesis, however, and for that reason does not limit his sympathetic characters to one lofty type: the spiritual, imaginative, and intuitive. Bérenger has all these qualities, but Joséphine is very likable even though she is more of a rationalist than either her husband or daughter. In fact Joséphine hopes Bérenger will return to writings couched in clearer (i.e., duller) prose. She is more fully aware than he of space and time. She wants factual answers to questions about columns and nothingness; she says quite honestly whether something is visible to her, whether it seems impractical or wonderful or strange.

Because Joséphine lacks hypocrisy and possesses a refreshing frankness, she must be ranked with the other sympathetic characters, her husband and child. Despite her complaints, she does not resemble the Madeleine of Amédée. (p. 306)

At the same time, because Joséphine does display a diminished sensitivity in comparison with her loved ones, she is a pivotal figure in Ionesco's play, who occupies an intermediate point between her family and the automatons. Furthermore she provides Bérenger and Marthe with the opportunity to expound their visions of the marvelous. Joséphine is quizzical and skeptical yet receptive to those explanations which stand up to the scrutiny of sense and the senses. When the column and the tree alternately appear and disappear, the couple discuss nothingness, will power, and the divine intoxication of a certitude that life is beautiful. As a person Joséphine requires precision of thought and Cartesian proof, but her love for Bérenger permits her to accept the possibility that he may be right. She would prefer to base life's beauty on oxygen and reason but sees, like her daughter, a shining bridge of silver and calls out therefore to Bérenger her approval of his views. (p. 307)

When Bérenger returns in the nick of time, he describes the Apocalypse, the end of the world in flames, the guillotined people, and the whipped victims…. The English automatons lose interest … when he speaks of "Mud, fire, blood."… He knows all is Nothingness …, but of what interest is that to machines? From beginning to end of Ionesco's strikingly theatrical Le Piéton de l'air, the puppets contrast with the human, the dullards with the dreamers. These disparate elements fuse and blend comically to lighten the spectator's metaphysical anguish through the use of the very devices that Henri Bergson analyzed. The value of the play lies precisely in its comic aspects…. (p. 309)

[This] play is not metaphysical but comic and, just as Bergson described that genre, social in nature, using satirical and farcical techniques…. Bergson … was right about inversion, for the topsy-turvy does makes us laugh…. Le Piéton de l'air is not a parody, bitter like Adamov's La Grande et la petite manoeuvre, but an outright féerie. Rather than representing the mixed genres of Ionesco's absurdist plays and even his later ones, Le Piéton de l'air is pure fantasy and laughter. Even the apocalypse reported by Bérenger does not destroy the underlying mood of the comic. After all, such masters as Molière and Shaw allowed serious thoughts to enter their theatre without writing tragedy or philosophy. No bow to these latter dramatic categories is in order, so much as is a curtain call for Henri Bergson. (p. 310)

Charlotte F. Gerrard, "Bergsonian Elements in Ionesco's 'Le Pieton de l'air'," in Papers on Language and Literature (copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville), Summer, 1973, pp. 297-310.

L'Homme aux valises is a dream play. As such it is projected out of linearity onto the vertiginous spiral of the time/space continuum. This does not mean, however, that the atmosphere is unreal, vaguely symbolist; on the contrary, it is characterized by that peculiar sharpness and vividness of detail which is inherent to the dream state. In the latter, we are not surprised to meet our ancestors and talk with them as though they were contemporaries, and we can be at the same instant in Paris and Venice simply because Paris is Venice and Venice Paris. As Jung explains: "Dreams … are the facts from which we must proceed."

Ionesco, who is deeply indebted to Jungian analysis, is aware that he is working with archetypes. In this play, however, he is conscious of dealing with what he calls "cultural archetypes." (p. 21)

The man carrying luggage is an eloquent symbol for the state of estrangement and spiritual exile which characterizes contemporary man. To wander aimlessly, to be exiled and self-exiled, to lose one's roots, one's papers, one's name and identity, such is our lot. We are all men without shadows…. L'Homme … is never given a name so that he is both Everyman and NoMan, the latter being the way in which Odysseus identifies himself to the Cyclops…. (pp. 23-4)

The protagonist of L'Homme aux valises is doomed to travel through [wars, revolutions, and catastrophes] in search of his personal and ancestral past. (p. 24)

If one of André Breton's noble obsessions was the creation of "the dream-text," then it can be said that in L'Homme aux valises Ionesco pursues his self-declared program of creating an oneiric universe upon the stage. Like the Surrealists who were his masters Ionesco believes that an interpenetration occurs between the conscious day life and the subconscious night existence, for dreams contain fragments of the day's impressions, and the latter are encrusted with bits and pieces severed from the psyche's intense activity in its nightly revels. To use one of Breton's own titles, the two modes of apprehension must be viewed as "des vases communicants." (pp. 24-5)

Two themes constitute the leitmotivs of Ionesco's L'Homme aux valises: the loss of one's identity, and the hope of survival on the very brink of dissolution. (p. 29)

L'Homme aux valises is an attempt to dramatize the search for the presentness of life, such as it was experienced at the Mill, with its seasons "spread out in space." Even Baudelaire, Ionesco's favorite poet, could not persuade the dramatist that "this world is a hospital where everyone is possessed by the desire of exchanging his bed." (p. 33)

L'Homme aux valises ends with a fête, a particularly threatening one, at once a child's vision of post-war Paris, and an intimate sexual fantasy. (pp. 33-4)

The final image of this play is that of l'Homme sitting on one of his valises in the midst of a busy throng. Suddenly everyone of the dancers turns into a traveler, each carrying one suitcase. They seem terribly busy as they rush from one side of the stage to the other. Some begin to pile up their luggage around the protagonist who does not move, watching this hustle and bustle with a bemused smile. An Ionesco-logue is reminded of the end of Le nouveau locataire, with the tenant literally buried under the pile of furniture carried up by the movers. Here, however, the familiar mechanism of proliferation, one of Ionesco's favorite devices, is used to a different end. The sudden immobility of l'Homme does not suggest death as much as a state of contemplation. It is as though, after much searching and running, the protagonist had at last reached the center of the mandala, and this only as a result of his final renunciation, his transcendence of desire. The suitcases carried by the others symbolize their life. Some are still rushing headlong, others set down their existence at the feet of the sage. He watches, at once solitaire and solidaire like Camus' Jonas. It is a splendid image of the artist as the eternal Adam…. [This is] the ultimate metaphysical image, that of Man as inveterate dreamer, and by this very fact, perfect mediator. As Wandering Jew, he brings to his fellow-creatures the wisdom of centuries of suffering, and the knowledge that comes from a refusal to be committed to the transitory. To be truly present to oneself, and to others, one must be of No Place and of Every Place, to be No Man and Everyman. Only then can one found relations based on mutual reverence for the spirit, though it be assigned to this grotesque and vulnerable dwelling, mortal flesh. As Ionesco declared in the course of an unpublished lecture delivered in March 1976: "The reason for writing is to cast up to heaven our cry of anguish, and to let other men know that we have existed." (pp. 34-5)

Rosette Lamont, "'L'Homme aux valises': Ionesco's Absolute Stranger," in Performing Arts Journal (copyright © 1976 Performing Arts Journal), Fall, 1976, pp. 21-35.

No one familiar with their work would seriously ask whether Beckett or Ionesco belonged by rights in the liberal or radical or conservative camp. Such loose, time-worn labels do not fit their case. Their productions clearly show that their envisagement of the human condition transcends the values and the motives implicit in the vocabulary of politics that move men to act. Ionesco's plays, for example, point up the futility of all human striving. His characters find it impossible to justify their existence. His metaphysical drama of the absurd "reveals existence as having no reason to exist and the unjustified as existing in superabundance. In short, the world is superfluous." Ionesco's plays breathe a spirit of utter disillusionment with all terrestrial affairs. They entertain no possibility of hope through the agency of politics and sound no evangel of redemption. (pp. 186-87)

Though he admires Breton, Ionesco is no Surrealist. He belongs, in fact, to no school. It is not likely that a genuine believer in the absurd will be a follower of some literary movement. The literature of the absurd is, by definition, sui generis. Unlike Surrealism, it does not surrender the principle of control or deny the need for form. Spontaneity is essential, but the energy that streams forth from the cornucopia of the unconscious must be expressed with lucidity. The work of art, be it Surrealist or absurdist in inspiration, calls for selectivity, the imposition of order and form.

Apolitical in his Weltanschauung, Ionesco is not the type of writer who can be dragooned into espousing a set of abstract ideas, noble causes, utopian projects. He will not march in military formation in the ranks of the Left or the Right…. He has no intention of converting the theater into a political forum, a sounding board for ideologies. He despises both the formal theater and the theater of ideas. Realism, especially Socialist realism, furnishes only a truncated, impoverished version of reality. He believes in the truth revealed by the heart of desire, the truth of dreams. In his diatribe against the theater of ideas and the thesis drama, he warns of the danger of allowing the theater to be perverted to political ends. Though he does not deny that all drama is "social" in content, this is not tantamount to saying that it must be Socialist in its orientation. The art of the drama at its best gives expression to moments of luminous insight, intuitions and epiphanies that reach far beyond the temporal plane or the exigencies of the historical situation. (pp. 187-88)

Ionesco is intransigent in his opposition to the politically committed theater. He draws an important distinction between being "social" and being politically partisan. He is no admirer of Brecht's propagandistic plays or his gallery of exemplary "heroes." Ionesco proceeds to unmask the true character of "Brechtian man," who is one-dimensional. The politically committed playwright furnishes a distorted and fundamentally false picture of a given historical period because his ideology restricts his field of vision. This is the purblindness common to ideologists and people "stunted by fanaticism." Metaphysical in his perception of "realities" that transcend the categories of time and the pleasures of history, Ionesco seeks to capture intimations of the universal. The great plays of the past convey this sense of the inevitability of death. Empires perish, kings are hurled from their thrones. Nothing endures. It is this haunting, inescapable experience of mortality, when contrasted with man's obdurate and irrational longing for eternity, that gives rise to the tragic vision. (p. 188)

Ionesco is not taken in by the specious argument that everything under the sun is affected by politics. He insists that the distinction between ideology and reality, propaganda and art, must be reinstated. The economic society that the revolutionary activists hope to establish moves us in the direction of social conformism and "the world of alienation." Just as Valéry waged a bitter, lifelong campaign against the mystagogic ideas of Pascal, so does Ionesco concentrate his attack on the dramaturgic theories of Brecht, especially the theory of Entfremdung that Brecht attempted to apply to his later plays. Brecht sternly forbids—and endeavors to prevent—any emotional participation on the part of the audience. The spectator is denied the pleasure of empathy; he is not allowed to identify himself with the characters Brecht presents. (pp. 189-90)

Ionesco is the antithesis of the didactic writer. For him as a playwright, political and economic problems are of secondary importance. Why should he be preoccupied with them since he knows: "(1) that we are going to die, (2) that revolution saves us neither from life nor from death, (3) that I cannot imagine a finite universe, an infinite universe, nor yet a universe that is neither finite nor infinite." Since everything in the world seems to him arbitrary, contingent, absurd, he eschews the partisan spirit. Too many ideologies are at bottom rationalizations of hidden aggressions, outlets for the destructive instinct. "The saviors of mankind have founded inquisitions, invented concentrations camps, constructed crematory ovens, established tyrannies." To call for "commitment" on the part of the writer is, in effect, to deprive him of his creative freedom…. An anarchist as well as absurdist at heart, Ionesco resists the aggressive designs of the professional revolutionaries, who demand that the artist, to save his soul, give unconditional obedience to the Cause, the anointed Leader, the Party. He has repeatedly stated that he has no faith at all in the Revolution. Today, Ionesco contends, it is the Left that provides the most shocking example of ideological tyranny. (pp. 190-91)

What Ionesco finds singularly lacking in this age of political fanaticism is the metaphysical vision, the hunger for the absolute. It is unfortunate that the fever of contemporary politics has supplanted the archetypal quest of man for the absolute. (pp. 191-92)

For Ionesco the supremely ironic fact that we shall soon turn to dust renders everything else in the world insignificant by comparison. Why burst into a frenzy of anger, resentment, and vindictive hatred? Why not fall into silence? For the convictions we so passionately defend—all this will be utterly forgotten in the grave. How account for the thanatophobic upsurge that leads twentieth-century man to indulge in idolatry of the State, the Nation? Why should anyone worship the State, which is only an abstraction, an administrative system? It is not God but an idol made of clay. It is a spurious entity. But this abstraction is endowed with the attributes of the sacred and invested with the power of dispensing justice, or what it mistakes for justice. As Ionesco demonstrated with trenchant dramatic force in his play Rhinoceros, for those who were transformed into rhinoceroses "the State has become God."… It is these pernicious abstractions, the hypnotic mumbo jumbo of politics, that are chiefly responsible for the alienation of the modern self.

It is the knowledge that all men are doomed to die that fills Ionesco with a nameless but oppressive anxiety. This obsession will not let him go. How can it be, he wonders, that he is still afraid of death, how can it be that he does not "fervently desire it?"… He cannot reason his way out of these painful existential dilemmas…. Though he realizes that there is no answer to the tormenting enigma of existence, Ionesco will never stop asking the same question: why? This is the type of non-sense question that the logical positivists have proscribed. Ionesco interrogates the universe of death. Precisely because there are no answers does man persist in asking this question. "We are here. We don't know what that means."… (pp. 192-93)

Charles I. Glicksberg, "The Politics of the Absurd," in his The Literature of Commitment (© 1976 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Associated University Presses, 1976, pp. 186-93.

What was obvious in L'Homme aux valises is … the dramatists's slow but persistent turn to the classical tradition. (p. 732)

At first glance, there is nothing very much different in [the play] from standard Ionesco-type situations. The problems which beset the main protagonist are those of numerous other characters encountered in his plays. What is different is the language used. Words, which in the classical tradition are imbued with meaning, and have direct relationships between them and the objects or concepts to which they refer, are, to a surprising extent, those which Ionesco writes in his play. If L'Homme aux valises is still reminiscent of the Ionesco of old, it is because the language used must be adapted to the oneiric situations it describes. Such an adaptation results, of course, in what the author called "un langage un peu déformé, un peu irréel." Although it is no longer necessary to have a code and to decipher its elements, the dialogue nevertheless retains a complexity which is at times baffling and which requires a more than average intelligence for immediate comprehension. (p. 733)

[Ionesco] extracts from words all the marrow which they contain, all that they hold as known and unknown, and almost always every nuance in between. Words are no longer used merely as tools, they are abused as slaves. They are qualified by other words or phrases, they are broken down, compounded, sucked dry of meaning, which may then be reinforced, altered, or even contradicted altogether. The thought-processes of the hero using them are thus always becoming, as befits the oneiric situations within which he moves. There is neither logic nor an entire absence of it, there is no reality but there is a border to it, and one can look beyond and see its landscape even if one remains nevertheless incapable of crossing the frontier. This is as close as Ionesco gets, in L'Homme aux valises, to the classical tradition…. Language, then, if still "un peu déformé," if still "un peu irréel," still relates to the characters…. (p. 734)

That Ionesco who would manueuver language in order to destroy it seems relegated to the distant past. The dramatist who devised characters without thoughts, or with no thoughts worth expressing, or with expressions that berated all attempts at thinking; the playwright who camouflaged, changed, contradicted, and even abolished thought by his language, has now gone a step further, or rather backwards….

Ionesco's style in L'Homme aux valises … seeks to convey distinctions, degrees of subtlety and of truth, for the dream images he describes are necessarily fleeting and therefore in dire need of being slowed down by careful, punctuated, and dissecting analysis. To proceed differently would be to make of the spoken or written word a less than concrete manifestation of the ordering and interrelationship between images. Not that oneiric images are usually ordered or connected. But whatever link there may be is given a degree of precision hitherto unencountered in Ionesco's plays.

Precision, of course, is a word that can be understood differently in different contexts. When applied to Ionesco's style in L'Homme aux valises it should not lead one to think that it is really possible to summarize the work, or to know exactly what is going on. In fact, there is really no story to summarize, there are only very few details which can be pointed out, and vagueness persists…. In his latest play one begins to recognize that a character's discourse on stage can validly encompass the maximum extension of both meaning and form just as it could validly, in an earlier play, degenerate into engaging and extremely comical repetitions of the word chat. (p. 735)

Alfred Cismaru, "Ionesco's 'L'Homme aux valises': The Absurdist Turned Classic," in French Review, April, 1977, pp. 732-36.