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...
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When speaking of his dramatic writings, Ionesco has always insisted on their obsessional nature and … before the first performance of Rhinocéros 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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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