Ionesco, Eugène 1912–
Ionesco is a French dramatist and major exponent of the theater of the absurd. He creates a darkly comic portrait of the human condition, exposing man's tragic alienation, his obsession with violence and power, and the impossibility of true communication. In this world, the grotesque is exaggerated, the ordinary made surreal. To Ionesco, "theater is the projection on the stage of the world within." Though personal and dreamlike, this vision assumes universal proportions. An experimentalist, he has also written short stories, a novel, and a screenplay. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
In the play Rhinocéros (1959) Eugène Ionesco creates a dynamic pattern by juxtaposing the archetypal motif with its infernal inversion. The audience, while watching society's spiritual decline and hopeless loss of identity, witnesses the rebirth of a slovenly drunk, unable to cope with life, who becomes a staunch, defiant defender of humanity. The first act opens with a picture of society in which everyone follows his narrow interests. And though people (an alcoholic, a grocer, a café owner, a logician, a housewife) live side by side, they fail to establish a truly human relationship—in the sense of Schiller, Buber, Camus, or Heidegger—because they lack the courage for existential encounter with each other. When their mode of life is threatened by the sudden appearance of a rhinoceros they are momentarily united by a common feeling of loathing and terror.
But as soon as they relate the strange phenomenon to their experience, each individual's perception, reflecting his isolation, becomes a divisive factor…. [As] the beasts increase in number and form a herd, united by savage instinct, the people begin to respond to the essence of "rhinoceritis." And while some still argue the necessity of a policy toward the phenomenon, others have begun to embrace the menace. The atavistic relapse into a primitive, instinctive, and pre-human condition holds the promise of salvation for all who are unwilling to develop their spiritual potential and commit themselves to a life which requires respect and love for others. As the action progresses and the metamorphoses spread, the audience becomes painfully aware of the complete renunciation of human values…. (p. 94)
While Bérenger, the lone alcoholic, sees person after person … transformed and absorbed in the indistinguishable herd, he experiences a true spiritual rebirth. Initially unable to face life, he scarcely notices the appearance of the first rhinoceros. But as society changes around him, he becomes deeply concerned for others, offers help and compassion, and finally defends humanity: "Come on, think, you'll realize that we have a philosophy that these animals don't have, an irreplaceable system of values. Centuries of human civilization have built it."… [He] begins to contemplate the riddle of human existence and … becomes fully conscious of the challenge confronting man: "I am the last man. I will remain so to the end! I will not capitulate!" To interpret these last lines of the play as optimistic would express a humanistic view but do injustice to the nature of the archetypal motif. Béenger, though he understands the essence of the existential commitment, cannot turn toward others and live in the world, because he is left alone. He transcends himself, represents the view of an ennobled man, but stands in total, tragic isolation. (pp. 94-5)
Horst S. Daemmrich, in MOSAIC: A Journal for the Study of Literature and Ideas (copyright © 1972 by the University of Manitoba Press; acknowledgment of previous publication is herewith made), Vol. 5, No. 3 (Spring, 1972).
When speaking of his dramatic writings, Ionesco has always insisted on their obsessional nature and … before...
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the first performance ofRhinocéros in Paris, he described as his starting-point a particularly haunting obsession, the mutation of people into dangerous monsters once they have succumbed to some new fanaticism or ideology. Had not the preceding 25 years proved that they not only looked like rhinoceroses, but had really been turned into these ferocious beasts? That was as far as Ionesco was prepared to go at that moment in explaining his play. In February 1961, in a private conversation, that is to say after he had read the various interpretations offered of his play, Ionesco said that Rhinocéros was not a play against Nazism but against any fanaticism which makes of men killer-animals, and in his personal experience this fanaticism was Nazism. Throughout the play Ionesco insists on the thickening and greening skin of those undergoing the metamorphosis. For the French, during the last war, green was the symbol of the German soldier and thus of the Nazi brute. (p. 296)
Strangely enough, to turn a 'herd' into a 'society' used to be the preoccupation of political philosophers, whereas Ionesco now seemed to be suggesting that the 'herd' is already over-socialized. It was not socialization that made the Nazis so terrible, but their dehumanization. By replacing 'nazification' by 'massification' Ionesco was either underlining a subsidiary theme, or else he was deliberately side-stepping the main issue. There is a further subsidiary theme which accounts for the universal success of [Rhinocéros], that is to say the theme of depersonalization. Ionesco has claimed that by treating this theme he had put his finger more or less subconsciously on a burning problem of the day, common to all countries whether in the East or in the West. It is, of course, one of his favourite themes, witness La Cantatrice chauve and Jacques ou la soumission, in which people are presented as empty shells. (pp. 303-04)
Time and time again in his writings since 1961, [Ionesco] has returned to his obsessive idea that every new system of expression, once generally adopted, becomes another convention, another ideology and thereby loses its essential truth, that every revolution when successful becomes in its turn just another established régime—Ionesco conveniently passes over the matter of the character of the revolution or régime. Such an attitude is clearly apolitical…. Yet the fact remains that with Tueur sans gages, his first Bérenger play, and Rhinocéros, Ionesco, yielding apparently to the Brechtian vogue, had ventured outside the four walls in which the actions of the personal dramas of his earlier plays had been confined, into the political and social arena. His withdrawal therefrom was, however, immediate, and is made clear by Bérenger's final speech which gives no lead as to how to combat the rhinoceritic disease, but is turned instead inward on the self…. Indeed any form of commitment in art is anathema to him, as he believes that no political system can 'free man from the pain of living'. Shall we, on the other hand, look for an aesthetic explanation of this opposition? Political commitment in writing is incompatible with his particular notion of art, which he sees as the transcription of a sudden and intuitive experience, a direct vision of the world divorced from conceptual thought. (p. 305)
Ionesco's dramatic work as a whole is expressive of his defence against the world, against the invasion of his personality by the common language and ordinary customs. Ionesco is always 'Jacques' striving desperately to avoid soumission. Ionesco-Bérenger is incapable of uniting with others in active resistance; only a passive, isolated resistance is implied in Rhinocéros. It is here that the real ambiguity of the inspiration—rather than the 'meaning'—of Rhinocéros is to be found. It may be argued that a play has no 'meaning' outside itself, even a play of ideas, but it has an intention and a direction. On the one hand the play expresses a precise political experience; on the other it expresses a timid man's retreat into himself and final stand against a frightening outside world, referred to by Ionesco's own expression 'naturellement allergique à la contagion'…. Neither the personal nor the political experience produced a positive response in the dramatist, whose work depends for its artistic unity, which is very real, on a negation. (p. 306)
Dorothy Knowles, "Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceroses: Their Romanian Origins and Western Fortunes," in French Studies, July, 1974, pp. 294-307.
Ionesco has always been such a master of the banal that he has run the risk of seeming either trivial or merely satirical. In his early absurdist plays "The Bald Soprano," "The Lesson" or "The Chairs," he pushed the polite conventionalities of middle-class life to the point of madness—mad refusals to deal with failure, danger, old age, suffering or anything else that good manners are compelled to ignore. The object of his contempt appeared to be the smug bourgeoisie, and since ridiculing the bourgeoisie is a venerable national sport, as insipid and familiar a French pastime as one could hope to find, after a while Ionesco came off as a bit of a bore himself.
In recent years, however, he has revealed himself to be far more complex and anguished, and his first novel, "The Hermit" … forces us to revise our old impression of Ionesco's work altogether. Quite simply, Ionesco is afraid to die. His fear is not a fashionable intellectual posture, but rather an abiding visceral pain, an agony that he dramatized brilliantly in his play, "Exit the King," that he described with childlike sincerity in "Fragments of a Journal," and that now he has elaborated with great skill in his novel….
Ionesco has not been lampooning middle-class pieties; rather, he has been watching with horrified fascination a cocktail party in a tumbrel inching toward the scaffold. How can they laugh like that? How can they talk, flirt? How can they do anything but shiver in solitude?
The hero of "The Hermit" does withdraw and shiver….
Am I being gullible in assuming that the hermit speaks for Ionesco? Perhaps Ionesco has invented a foolish little man who, like Bouvard or Pécuchet, receives an inheritance and sets out to solve the world's problems—not the problems of horticulture or metallurgy that Flaubert's buffoons essayed, but rather modern philosophical problems (alienation, the nature of the infinite, existential dread, determinism and so on). Perhaps the entire book is a witty spoof and I've been taken in.
I think not. That the hermit is a clerk, neither young nor old, handsome nor ugly, intelligent nor stupid, simply makes him representative. He is as pathetic and as solemn, as pedantic and as touching as Gogol's clerks, as we all are. And he is as suspicious of patriotism, ideology, ambition as Ionesco himself. Indeed, the hermit's voice is indistinguishable from Ionesco's own in his autobiographical "Scattered Images of Childhood."… (p. 6)
Edmund White, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 27, 1974.
Like Beckett, [Ionesco] does not take literature seriously, though he keeps on writing plays. He acknowledges his indebtedness to Kafka, who shared his obsessions. His plays, like the fiction of Kafka, are not intended to convey a message, a rationally defined meaning. He composed The Bald Soprano in order "to prove that nothing had any real importance."… He finds existence "sometimes unbearable, painful, heavy and stultifying, and sometimes it seems to be the manifestation of God himself, all light."…
It must take a great deal of courage for a dramatist of the absurd to write at all. He must fight his own battle of the mind against the enervating feeling of futility. He is caught in the meshes of the destructive logic that supports his aesthetic of the absurd. If life, insofar as he can make out, is without meaning or purpose, then why take the trouble to repeat the lugubrious theme that life is without meaning or purpose? If, however, he is not bothered by the need to justify his creative venture, he is brought up short by the difficulty of embodying his vision of a reality that cannot be framed in words. How, as he practices the art of the absurd, can he name the unnameable? How give flesh and form to the ineffable experience of nada? (p. 223)
In order to capture the elusive features of the Absurd, Ionesco focuses on the elements of the comic, the grotesque, and the contingent in the life of man. Death for Ionesco represents the upsurge of the uncanny, the threat of nothingness, the quintessence of the Absurd. He protests against the fate of death, though he realizes that his protest is but an ineffectual gesture, an empty outburst of rhetoric. The finality of death reveals the distinctive character of the Absurd. The tragic and the comic interpenetrate. The drama of the Absurd is born of the dismaying insight that modern man, despite all his technological conquests, cannot escape his mortal lot…. The absurdist hero struggles fiercely against annihilation, but in the end, as in Ionesco's The Killer, he is overcome.
The type of drama called forth by this numinous encounter with the Absurd eliminates the possibility of tragic affirmation in the manner of the ancient Greeks. The absurd is simply there, a tremendum mysterium that is neither to be worshiped as divine nor assailed as diabolical; it is a haunting consciousness of the nothingness that waits for man. The tragedy of the absurd, like the nihilistic tragedy, seems to be a contradiction in terms. There is nothing the dramatist of the Absurd can affirm. Born of paradox and culminating in paradox, his plays abandon all illusion, though he is aware that these illusions constitute the essential humanity of man, his never-ceasing search for transcendence. The intimations of the Absurd emerge from this conflict between these all-too-human illusions and the adamantine in-difference of the universe. The absurdist hero is defeated and dragged under, but he never pretends that the outcome will be other than it turns out to be. A dauntless truthseeker, he prefers, like Bérenger, the protagonist of The Killer, to know the worst that will befall him rather than to remain deluded. He is able to endure the wounds that existence can inflict upon him and laugh at his mortal predicament. (pp. 224-25)
The humor Ionesco employs is at bottom a method for ordering the inchoate mass of material that the world places at the disposal of his imagination. (p. 225)
[Ionesco] is the visionary poet who can never get used to the strangeness of existence. He can make no sense of this phantasmagoric universe, these phantom presences that represent people, these moving lights and shadows and the all-enveloping curtain of darkness. He looks on the world as a rare spectacle, an incomprehensible and yet amusing show and he reacts to it with a sense of wonder, but it also induces anxiety and dread. He is caught in a series of irreconcilable contradictions. "Nothing is atrocious, everything is atrocious. Nothing is comic. Everything is tragic. Nothing is tragic, everything is comic, everything is real, unreal, possible, impossible, conceivable, inconceivable." His work, despite its exploitation of the comic vein, gives expression to an obsessive pessimism. Death is the epitome of the Absurd…. Death overtakes all men, regardless of their merit, and if that is so, then what is the purpose of living? Ionesco remarks: "We are made to be immortal, and yet we die. It's horrible, it can't be taken seriously." He cannot forget himself because he cannot forget that he must die, those he loves will die, and the world will ultimately come to an end.
Death is the supreme humiliation man is made to suffer, the outrage he is powerless to prevent. Death is meted out to all; and it is this knowledge that leads Ionesco to stress the vanity of life. All his reading, all the works of art he has studied, emphasize the implacable truth he perceived early in life: the inevitability of death. Why should he concern himself with the social, economic, and political problems of the hour when he knows that we are slated to die and that no revolution can save us from death. (p. 227)
Though Ionesco's obsession is fixed on death, it is not, like the work of Edward Young and Thomas L. Beddoes, morbid in content. It voices a universal theme. It is a source of anguish, and it is this metaphysical anguish, which never lets up, that incites him to creativity. By writing he keeps the issue of mortality alive even though this intensifies the anguish he feels, anguish born of the "fear of nothingness."… It is this accursed knowledge that we are doomed to die that turns us into killers. Death is the tormenting question mark for which we can find no answer. Though this perpetual "Why" that we ask gets us nowhere in the end, we continue to interrogate the world of being. Why for millennia should the sons of Adam resign themselves to the intolerable imposition of death? If they begin to love life, they are soon overcome by the certainty that it will shortly be taken away from them. "This is the incredible thing: to love a life that has been thrust upon me and that is snatched away from me just when I have accepted it."… He is afraid that in dwelling repeatedly on this archetypal theme he may yield to the vice of self-pity or indulge in sentimentality. He writes: "I have been, I still am tormented at once by the dread of death, the horror of the void, and by an eager, impatient desire to live. Why does one long to live, what does living mean?"… He does not know the answer. It is the thought of death that makes living an impossible burden to bear. Like Camus, Ionesco rejects suicide as "unforgivable failure; and we must not fail."…
Ionesco comes to grips with the theme of death in The Killer and, later, in Exit the King. (p. 228)
Offhand no theme seems less promising than the one Ionesco has chosen to deal with in [Exit the King.] What dramatically fruitful results can be derived from the thanatopsian motif? The agonizing struggle to cling to life of a king who is dying and knows he is dying—what, after all, can the most gifted and original playwright do with such refractory material? The words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, the poignant cry of memento mori, the Dance of Death, the sermons and sonnets of John Donne, the lucubrations of the Graveyard School of poets—the potentialities of such an essentially static and sterile theme have already been exhausted. Nothing new can be added; no genuine conflict can possibly arise. The battle the condemned person wages is cruelly unjust. As in Andreyev's play The Life of Man, Death is always the winner. There is never a moment of doubt as to the final outcome. However desperate his resistance, the chosen victim must give in. It is only a matter of time. Here is the grim drama each man acts out at the end of his life: a drama that lacks the element of suspense. The plot must, of necessity, follow a preestablished pattern. Why did Ionesco revert to this theme that he had already sounded in The Killer?
Because it sums up the distinctive aesthetic of the Absurd. Because … death is Ionesco's constant obsession, the primary source of his inspiration. In Exit the King he is writing a twentieth-century version of Everyman, in which the theological and moral gloss is left out. There is no God to pass judgment on life or to intercede for the dying man. Heaven and hell no longer exist. After death, there is—nothing.
Ionesco invests the theme with universal overtones. Each man is the virtual ruler of a kingdom, his body, which he is forced to surrender after a comparatively brief reign. The outlying provinces renounce their allegiance; the parts of the internal kingdom refuse to obey their sovereign. Or they break down, one by one, and are no longer capable of responding to his commands. He ceases to be in control of his subjects; he lacks the strength to support his crown and scepter. (pp. 229-30)
Charles I. Glicksberg, "Ionesco and the Comedy of the Absurd," in his The Literature of Nihilism (© 1975 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Bucknell University Press, 1975, pp. 222-33.
The generic difference between [Le Solitaire, a novel, and Ce Formidable Bordel!, a play,] is actually slight, beyond obvious and superficial differences in form. Whether or not the generic question be judged a fruitful subject for debate aǵain matters little. The novel is full of "dramatic" techniques and over half the play is built on "non-dramatic" chunks of prose appropriate to a novel…. What I find compelling about this symbiotic pair, however, is not the havoc they play with generic labels, but the images they project of our struggle with the demons of existence. The demons have not changed appreciably since the plays of the '50s, indeed since long before that. What has changed in Le Solitaire and Ce Formidable Bordel! is the intensity, I would even say the authenticity, of the struggle. Le Solitaire and Le Personnage, Ionesco's unnamed protagonists, try very hard to understand what is happening to them as the hated but protective routine of daily life dissolves into an amorphous disponibilité, time passes, revolutions come and go, and still the awaited event, the ordering agent, does not make itself known. (p. 689)
With some minor divergences and a major one at the end, [the two works] follow the same narrative line, include most of the same characters portrayed similarly, and even share numerous phrases, snatches of dialogue, and techniques of sceneic development. Without presenting my remarks as an "argument" or a "case," I will simply record some reasons why Le Solitaire and Ce Formidable Bordel! speak to me of a solid, increasingly convincing artistry in Ionesco.
These reasons derive in one way or another from the obsessional presence of death in the novel and the play. Death, or the awareness of death, is not the only interest in either work, but it is the driving force behind their structure, imagery patterns, and minimal plot line. In this sense, Ionesco is offering a kind of extension of Le Roi se meurt (1962)…. Others among Ionesco's more recent plays show this preoccupation with death: Le Piéton de l'air (1963), in which Bérenger, believing in nothing, flies off into space, leaving his daughter behind to recite a litany of dim hope whose key word is "peut-être"; La Soif et la faim (1966), whose setting is progressively swallowed up in mud, the viscous mire of existence and the sign of encroaching death; Jeux de massacre (1970), whose epidemic and famine are presided over by a funereal black monk; Macbett (1972), with its perverse victor Macol who will create a kingdom where evil reigns and death will overtake the inhabitants before their natural term. It is obvious from these plays that Ionesco has tried over a period of years to come to grips with the demon of death. Though it does not dominate the plays of the '50s so insistently as it does those just mentioned, the fact of death is never absent from Ionesco's theatre…. (pp. 690-91)
In Le Solitaire and Ce Formidable Bordel! death is not personified; it does not nakedly stalk the streets, nor is it embodied in any one character or event or object (as it was, for example, in [earlier plays] …). The awareness of eventual death is the impetus for the very movements of Le Solitaire and Le Personnage. I say "movements" rather than action, since these nameless protagonists, operating in a mode now conventional to post-modern art, displace themselves in space without incurring any of the involvements or repercussions that an act would entail. The sharp and aching knowledge of their own imminent non-being provides a trunk onto which Ionesco grafts the bizarre plants of his imagination, those intertwining growths that reach out through twenty-five years of his plays. These projections, [consistent components of Ionesco's work,] which converge in Le Solitaire and Ce Formidable Bordel! are (1) the repetitious banality of everyday conversations; (2) the proliferation of objects and the related motif of the sameness of people; (3) the passage of time; and (4) the fact of solitude. Underlying them and eventually crowding them out is the spector, occasionally the vision, of death. (p. 691)
However empty [the parrot-like] utterances may be, they help develop the dominant theme of death in both works. They underscore the desperate search of Le Solitaire and Le Personnage for that elusive something, that message from the unknown which will somehow infuse meaning into life before the life itself is swallowed up into the ontological void. (The phrase "vide ontologique" is Ionesco's own, which he uses to describe the sense of non-being that permeates the consciousness of his heroes who are surrounded by objects and propelled by time, but who are unable to establish their own place in either space or time …). (p. 693)
That the banality of these conversations and monologues is intimately tied to the theme of death can be seen clearly in the old woman who sells Le Personnage his new apartment…. [A short, typically Ionescan series of nonsense statements] sets the old woman off on a revery. It is a beautiful revery, telling of the death of the woman's husband and her own awakening to the reality of death…. The wonder of this passage is that it avoids the trap of bathos and balances finely between the ordinary details of this ordinary woman's life, and the sudden lyricism of her confession. Though probably not on a conscious level, the conceit of the oxymoron is at work here apparent opposites, everyday trivia and a personal intimacy with death, become so interrelated as to suggest a new reality of their own. This fusion is effected throughout Le Solitaire and Ce Formidable Bordel! The terror of death's nearness is increased by the vacuity of life, by the very fact that no advances are ever made toward an understanding of life itself, which soon will end. (p. 694)
The last scene of Ce Formidable Bordel! presents a neat complement to the overstuffing at the end of Le Solitaire. Whereas Le Solitaire is caged by objects, Le Personnage finds himself surrounded by nothing…. His furniture quietly disappears until he is alone in his armchair on a deserted stage. This reversal of the proliferation process was used to great effect in Le Roi se meurt…. In Ce Formidable Bordel!, it functions like the overstuffing in Le Solitaire: in one case, the protagonist is figuratively hemmed in; in the other, he is literally so. The effect is the same. The obsession is also the same, this fertile mania for eschatological images which pervades Le Solitaire and Ce Formidable Bordel!
Le Solitaire and Le Personnage see the people in their lives as scarcely more compelling than the objects…. The people are interchangeable, the names are interchangeable, they multiply or disappear like objects…. The soldiers who swarm the streets in Le Solitaire and Ce Formidable Bordel! owe an obvious debt to an earlier herd of pachyderms. These techniques are, of course, nothing new with Ionesco…. [Interchangeable] and protean creatures have [always] inhabited Ionesco's plays. (pp. 695-96)
Le Solitaire, in particular, tries beyond human bounds to identify one jot of sense in the chaos around and inside him, before his time is up. His effort perhaps comes across more amply than that of Le Personnage because the protagnoist of the play is generally silent, while the first-person narrator of Le Solitaire documents his struggle from its meanest detail to its grandest hallucination. It is the very oversupply of people in the long history of the earth that most puzzles Le Solitaire…. Could they all, he wonders, have been as bewildered, as unanchored, as he is? Could they have died without enlightenment? This sense of exile within the timeless continuity of human life underlies the third major theme of Le Solitarie and Ce Formidable Bordel!—the passage of time.
Although it rather lurks below the surface until the '60s with Le Roi se meurt, the passage of time has haunted Ionesco's plays of the last fifteen years…. This ancient theme, usually dignified by the name tempus fugit when poetry is under discussion, reaches a paroxysm in Le Solitaire and Ce Formidable Bordel! In the pathological sense, the term paroxysm indicates a crisis or recurrent intensification of a disease; this is precisely what occurs in the novel and the play. In approximately the last third of both …, careening time and violence combine to paint a nightmarish picture of death as it overtakes its victims. (p. 696)
The only antidotes to total disorientation in Le Solitaire and Ce Formidable Bordel! are drink, sleep, and sex (an occasional and unsuccessful antidote). All three of these induce a temporary oblivion which both imitates and delays the final oblivion….
Once Le Solitaire and Le Personnage reach the depth of alienation at which all temporal reality loses its meaning, the end is in sight. We might expect either of them to stop eating and simply die, or walk outside and be shot by a stray bullet left over from the revolution, or succumb to some random agent of destruction. But they survive, and here the two works diverge; the titles are explained by the final scene. In Le Solitaire, a miraculous tree sprouts from the mound of refuse in the inner courtyard (a figure of the protagonist's inner life)…. The tree is bathed in bright light and accompanied by other trees. A silver ladder leads into the clear blue sky. As this vision comes closer to Le Solitaire, it fades and disappears altogether. But, he says, "Quelque chose de cette lumière qui m'avait pénétré resta."… In Ce Formidable Bordel! a similar vision—the same tree, the same light, but no ladder—elicits a fit of wild rage from Le Personnage, who laughs maniacally, repeats "quelle bonne blague," and shouts directly at the spectators, "Quel bordel! Oh la la, quel formidable bordel!"… (p. 698)
From the novel to the play, either Ionesco had a change of heart or he decided to indulge in paradox once again. Le Solitaire … sees a sign of something beyond the present agony; Le Personnage sees more of what he has already seen, which is nothing…. [The] quiet watchfulness at the end of Le Solitaire is more satisfying than the gigantic joke which closes Ce Formidable Bordel! In each case, the passage of time has catapulted the protagonist into the judgment seat; the judgments passed by Le Solitaire and Le Personnage are, on the face of it, worlds apart. Yet they may be heads and tails of the same coin, of the ancient fact that the nature of death is unknowable.
There remains the chief structuring element in the two works, solitude itself, [which is],… one of Ionesco's major preoccupations. This claim is verifiable in almost all his plays, indeed in the very principle of metaphysical isolation which he illustrates at such harrowing lengths. A lesser known side of Ionesco's view of solitude, however, is revealed in his diaries, interviews, and occasional writings. It is this side of solitude, the "luminous" side, that informs Le Solitaire and Ce Formidable Bordel! and helps explain the sudden visitation of light at the end.
Like Le Solitaire and Le Personnage, the varying personas who speak with the mouth of Eugène Ionesco seek solitude. They seek it as a means of combatting the pressures of collectivism, bureaucracy, social necessities, and noise. They seek it also as an asylum where they can study their own terminal illness and prepare themselves to die…. Is solitude the complement of non-communication? [No, for Ionesco maintains that solitude is essential, and that modern man suffers from lack of it.] (pp. 698-99)
In Le Solitaire and Ce Formidable Bordel! are concentrated Ionesco's best efforts to date at sustaining a hero who does know how to be solitary, or at least one who is learning the art. (p. 700)
The divergent endings, and … the titles of the novel and the play, probably give us the clearest sign we may expect of whether or not Ionesco has made peace with his demon. The answer, of course, is first yes and then no…. Le Solitaire and Ce Formidable Bordel! come closer than any of his previous works to dealing effectively with the obsessional subject of death; to my taste, the novel comes closest. A gathering of references to conversion of manners and transcendence in these sibling creatures would extend to some length and might suggest a pattern in Ionesco's conception of eschatology….
[In the closing scenes of both works,] the scene is theatrical in the extreme …, the reaction of the protagonist is clearly stated, if ambiguous in meaning. This ambiguity, or ambivalence, is true to what we know of Ionesco's [negative] way of seeing the world. (p. 701)
[The] configuration derived from light is a fascination of long standing with Ionesco. It returns to serve as a matrix for Le Solitaire and Ce Formidable Bordel! Whether its positive or negative aspect prevails in the end will probably remain a moot point. For Le Solitaire, it is the positive, for Le Personnage, the negative. For Ionesco, the constant maintenance of the paradox is becoming a conclusion in itself. The dance with death executed by these lone figures traces, if not a conclusion, then a moving statement on life and death. (p. 702)
Judith D. Suther, "Ionesco's Symbiotic Pair: 'Le Solitaire' and 'Ce Formidable Bordel!'," in The French Review, (copyright 1976 by the American Association of Teachers of French), April, 1976, pp. 689-702.
Since Eugène Ionesco moved on from his first, more purely Absurdist phase to what might be called the Absurdist Symbolism of Tueur sans gages and Rhinocéros, he has tended to produce works which follow the same pattern. There is a central character—often called Bérenger—who is in some respects a projection of the playwright himself, and who undergoes a series of public and private experiences, either because they simply happen to him while he himself remains more or less passive (Le Roi se meurt), or because he bumps into them as he proceeds on a quest for truth, happiness or the transcendent (La Soif et la faim). These plays are Absurdist in that they present a beleaguered consciousness, on the verge of paranoia or even in the grip of paranoiac hysteria, struggling with unreliable and incomprehensible events; and they are symbolist in that they not only make use of overt symbols but also exploit the traditional symbolic polarities of religious sensibility; the light and the dark, the high and the low, the frightening and the reassuring.
The world and Ionesco's temperament being what they are, the conclusion is invariably sombre. In Rhinocéros, all the humans are animalized except Bérenger himself; in Le Roi se meurt, King Bérenger dies as his kingdom collapses about his ears; in La Soif et la faim, Jean Bérenger ends up as the frantic slave of sadistic monks. It is as if these plays were predominantly nightmares, interspersed with brief and inexplicable phases of euphoria, similar to the rare moments of relief that the author himself experiences in his general awareness of the pain of living….
These two latest plays [L'homme auxvalises and Ce formidable bordel!] run true to form in being examples of ambulatory and stationary paranoia, depending on nightmare effects. In L'homme aux valises, the anonymous hero, referred to simply as "le premier homme" and encumbered with two suitcases, is engaged on an unexplained journey, which is a sort of Absurdist pilgrim's progress. Railway stations turn into harbours. Paris does not seem to be where it should be, the members of the hero's family appear and disappear in a bewildering confusion of ages, civil war is apparently raging in various places and, above all, the traveller has to run the gauntlet of different oppressive authorities, such as policemen, doctors and consuls. In the end, "le premier homme" and a large cast of representative characters perform a circular ballet, symbolic no doubt of the meaningless repetitiveness of life's disturbing round.
The hero of Ce formidable bordel!, referred to simply as "le personnage", is a recessive, alienated character to whom things happen. He inherits a fortune, and this prompts his fellow office-workers to show various degrees of envy and spite. He has his meals every day in the same restaurant, and is taken over by an enterprising waitress who becomes his mistress. He buys a flat in a block, where various curious characters display their absurdity in lengthy monologues. An incomprehensible war breaks out, as if society beyond the end of the street were always seething with unreliability. The mistress of "le personnage" leaves him, and he experiences a sort of panoramic vision of life, in which generations of concierges and people he has known appear and disappear. In the last scene, breaking the silence that he has maintained throughout, he cries that nothing is comprehensible and laughs uproariously at the thought that life is "une bonne blague", a great joke, or "un formidable bordel", a colossal mess or mix-up. This is the Absurdist laughter which can alternate with tears of anguish as the fundamental response to existence.
It is interesting to see how Ionesco can ring the changes on the Absurdist/Symbolist obsession, but the admirer of his earlier works cannot help feeling that these later plays are perhaps rather fluid and shapeless in their development; they could be shorter or longer without their essential nature being changed. If the raw dream or nightmare is being used as material, perhaps it needs to be processed more rigorously into an aesthetic form for the waking state.
"Dreams of Absurdity," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 16, 1976, p. 867.