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Ionesco, Eugène 1912–
Ionesco is a French dramatist and major figure in 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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
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It is disconcerting to experience the world on the stage, but in The Killer, it is there all the same. The atmosphere hovers over the action, a metaphysical cloud in our midst; on the stage, the machinations of our humdrum, hurried world….
We are aware that the play is about the System, the Establishment, the State, and we feel good because we have labelled a part. There is security in labelling. We know that the play has characters representing the crowd, the bureaucrat—all those who have sacrificed individual will to functions. Fine! So far the world is familiar. Everybody is writing about those people. What begins to bother us is that at the point where his contemporaries instruct, Ionesco remains silent. Just where does he stand? His characters, except for Berenger, are all devoid of passion; they have no sympathy for each other; there is no human understanding or communication; rapport among individuals is impossible; no one shares interest in the affairs of others. Each is solely concerned with his individual function; love is unknown as is its meaning; human relationships are cold, blunt, and uncaring. These are not unique characteristics, but are found in the work of many artists. In fact, there is general agreement that modern man is alienated, selfless, loveless, etc. So why, we think, doesn't Ionesco come up with a new plan? (p. 224)
To begin with, Ionesco does not believe that we can change social conditions for the better by the techniques by which we normally manipulate them. What revolutions rule out is man's irrevocable subjection to the boundaries of the human condition…. "Is not man," Ionesco asks, "the sick animal?" It is the symptoms and the nature of this illness that comprise the body of Ionesco's work. What is wrong is not the weakness of this system or that, but the inevitable transformation of idealism into despotism…. Ionesco seeks commitment to the human condition as a whole. This is necessarily an artistic commitment. The human condition as a fact has always confronted man, and art is the record and testimony of their meeting. (pp. 224-25)
Ionesco, instead of rejecting one system for a better one, as we do, prefers to reject SYSTEM. His is not partisan rejection but a total negation of the power of manipulation regardless of who or what is pulling the strings. Ionesco questions the basic assumption of 20th Century society. One of the contributions of this era to the science of manipulation has been the introduction of lawlessness into language…. Ionesco, so often thought of as the writer of anti-theater, the distorting and rendering meaningless of language, prefers instead to restore language. Communication is not possible until language is reclaimed. "The problem is to get down to the source of our malady, to find the non-conventional language which is nothing but cliches, empty formulas and slogans." Ionesco attacks this problem in each of his plays. He formulated one of the crucial questions of our age, and well he knows the consequences of an answer. "If man cannot communicate, can he expect to control his destiny?"
To a consideration of this problem, we are given the world of The Killer, with its dehumanized humans, the petit bourgeois; with its ideological distortions of language taking place in the streams of verbiage coming out of Mother Peep; with its calculating, rational and efficient Architect-Policeman; indifferent to the world about them; reconciled to the death of their fellows; and with Berenger, an ordinary human being…. While he lives, we do. He is the being who always was, but who may no longer be.
Ionesco again restates the ambivalences of our existence: that the man most willing to do battle with the Killer is the man most alive: that the man who finds protection from the Killer is already dead. It is the paradox of our being that man is most unwilling to accept the human condition, and most willing to accept the tyrannies of his social condition. Berenger is the only man capable of laughter, of the joy of living, of beauty. We are all faced with the choice: laughter and life or new "truth" and the silence of death. Berenger, or the radiant city. Which shall it be? (p. 226)
Barry N. Schwartz, "Golgotha Again?" in Modern Drama (copyright © 1971, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. XIV, No. 2, September, 1971, pp. 224-26.
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The Dance of Death and the Triumph of Death are themes that appeared across late medieval and Renaissance Europe in the visual arts, poetry and drama. Death snatching people away became a favourite subject of didacticism. In Germany, France and Switzerland, particularly, the lasting impressions made by extant murals, verses and plays have continued into our time. (p. 107)
In Ionesco, we find [a] most stunning use of the medieval Dance of Death. In his [Massacre Games], the ominousness of Death, his dignity and irresistible power are vested in the allegorical Black Monk, who stalks his victims. Anonymous type characters come and go. Above all, the metaphysical aura, so strong in this author's later work, obtrudes in the midst of universal dying. Though devoid of theological meaning, this aura signifies man's helplessness before transcendence. Although the appearance of Death is sombre, Ionesco has injected the Grand Guignol farce in which he is now an expert, and in this context, it reflects the comic cavorting of the corpses in numerous Dances. Ionesco rejects realism categorically, of course, and by doing so he locates his work in fantasy. Rapid changes of scenes, simultaneous staging and use of lighting reinforce the vagueness of location. (p. 108)
For its graphic details the play is based on Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year (1722)…. Allegory is prominent in the figure of the Black Monk. The dramatic quality inheres in the separate scenes.
Ionesco believes that one must laugh at death. In 1969 he asserted that a dead person is derisible because he is no longer master of himself. Death is the deliberate joke in Massacre Games. The title alone stresses the play element in Ionesco's approach. A jeu de massacre is the game "Aunt Sally," played at fairs, in which the players throw sticks at the pipe in the mouth of a wooden woman's head. In this play, Death plays his grisly game with human beings. The basic irony in this game resembles that of the merry dance to which Death invites his reluctant guests. Ionesco also makes death itself ridiculous by dehumanizing all the characters, creating the effect of a gigantic puppet show. The surrealism of the Black Monk is emphasized by the marionette-like appearance and movements of the other characters, and the possible use of actual puppets and dummies on stage….
The resemblance of the play to the Dance of Death is in the use of allegory, social types and the theme of mass dying. The choice of the plague as the means of death is an even more significant resemblance. (p. 112)
In adapting Defoe and the Dance of Death, Ionesco modifies his satire. The impersonal element derived from more primitive theatre neutralizes it. Both puppets and stilts, and the mechanical repetition of acts, the depersonalized mass dying and the brevity of scenes disallowing audience identification, render the play as uncommitted as possible. The satire itself is pushed to the limits of improbability. (p. 113)
By his ingenious combination of history with surrealism and symbolism, Ionesco has created a unique Dance of Death play that reflects the allegorical quality of the medieval Dances. Of primary importance is the Black Monk mounted on stilts…. The frequent, silent appearances of the Monk create the uncanny feeling that the Dance of Death plays and Everyman must have raised in their original audiences. Like the medieval Dances, too, Ionesco's play evokes no pity, and so his omission of Defoe's pathetic and sentimental scenes is deliberate. All suggestions of charity and religious reverence for God's punishment, however, are suppressed or distorted. Ionesco also omits three scenes he could have exploited for comic effect: Defoe's tales of the living piper accidentally carried out in the dead cart, of the man stricken with plague who swam the Thames and thereby was cured, and of the reconciliation of the religious sects. It seems that these were passed over because they end happily. In Ionesco, too, government and authority are presented in a foolish or sinister light, whereas Defoe defends them. By these means Ionesco's Dance of Death has stripped away every trace of secular glory depicted in the Dances from the beginning. For the medieval and Renaissance mind this world was intensely attractive; for Ionesco it is so only in snatches and then for immaterial reasons.
Without a theological centre, Ionesco's mystical bent … leads him to experience moments of brightness and euphoria followed by terrible obscurity and heaviness…. This transcendence possesses something of the medieval otherworldly quality; we realize here the presence of the intangible, the visionary, the mysterious. (pp. 114-15)
Sister Corona Sharp, "The Dance of Death in Modern Drama: Auden, Dürrenmatt and Ionesco," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1977, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. XX, No. 2, June, 1977, pp. 107-16.∗
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[By accentuating and accelerating the disjointedness of character, setting and situation] the theater of the absurd turned the professor into a central figure for the representation of man's condition in the modern world, in a way neither Mr. Chips nor his cousins, Molière's Docteurs, could have represented it.
Ionesco's Professor [in La Leçon is] … obviously steeped in the tradition of the stage professor, a tradition which for both its comic and tragic effects supposes a link with everyday life and reality. This link survives, though it has become extremely tenuous, and though the figures on stage now seem to re-enact everyday nightmare in patterns that are as unlife-like as possible, yet more compelling than ever for all involved. Overcoming the grotesque distortion of displacement and acceleration, this new professor holds the center of the stage and shows disturbing marks of kinship with the more heroic figures whose place he has usurped. (p. 138)
Ionesco has continued to be faithful to [the] conception of theater as a universe where the archetype has a privileged position and the intensely private blends with the commonplace…. The case of the professor in La Leçon is, in this respect, particularly interesting, for it recalls not only the mountebank, but, with him, the tradition of the Carnival contrasto; as a result, "la propre mythologie de l'oeuvre" emerges by contrast with the Dionysian myth, going against the grain of Western drama. (p. 141)
[La Leçon] is the first of Ionesco's paradoxical machines …, namely, presenting interaction of rather clearly distinguished "gear" and "pivot" figures (personnage-rouage and personnage-pivot) thoroughly undermined in their respective roles…. The main paradoxical effect of this play results from the dramatization of impotence: like all dead things, it becomes frightening when set in motion, especially at the infernal pace suggested here.
La Leçon is Ionesco's second play, still very much a part of the revolution he was bringing to the theater. La Cantatrice chauve, subtitled anti-pièce, has the function of clearing the stage of all the associations of pièce, all that passed for theater…. La Leçon, subtitled drame-comique, was to establish on the newly cleared stage something violent which would revert to the sources of drama: "violemment comique, violemment dramatique."… In the traditional theater, which Ionesco claims to have despised at the time, drama had relentlessly followed the Dionysian pattern, featuring the young man, hero or god, come to challenge an old order. Comedy, the full cycle, demanded a compromise: the old more or less graciously accepted the secondary role in a new order, allowing the young to mate and procreate—the happy ending…. La Leçon parodies all this: far from creating hope, the conjunction of young and old brings out the all-pervasive sterility of the established order as well as of its potential challenger, the young student…. La Leçon is governed by the cycle [of life/death, hope/despair] from the start. What had seemed to be just another bit of nonsense in the mouth of Mr. Smith …, has now become a technique of representation: take the natural cycle, the familiar figure with which we associate hope and continuity, accelerate its motion by means which need no disguise, and the comforting rhythm will cease. (pp. 142-43)
Obviously, Ionesco understands the doctors very well, since in every one of his plays after La Leçon, not excluding L'Impromptu, he dramatizes the refusal to yield to human and cosmic encirclement. (All circles are not vicious, but it is easy to become confused and claustrophobic.) When he launches into his diatribe against theatrologists, Ionesco tells the audience that, like him, Bartholoméus I, II and III hold some fundamental truths, but whereas they translate them into pedantry and systems, he creates visions and images in the theater which he will not subject to any ideological tyranny. This being his favorite topic for polemic, it is not surprising that he becomes professorially long-winded about it and merits the doctorate in the end. (p. 145)
In Ionesco's private mythology, the figure of the professor has obviously retained all its ambiguity and fascination. When it does reenter his literary world, however, it seems to have been tamed, reduced to the status of a mask (the doctor-astrologer-executioner in Le Roi se meurt), a reverberating image (the logician in Rhinocéros demonstrating basic arithmetic by deducting paws from cats), or a new breed of pedagogue with a new breed of students who do not flinch at the absurdities used to liven up their new lesson and, in fact, meet them tit for tat (Philippe, Dick and their élèves in Exercices de conversation et de diction françaises pour étudiants américains). (p. 146)
Alexander Fischler, "The Absurd Professor in the Theater of the Absurd," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1978, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. XXI, No. 2, June, 1978, pp. 137-52.∗
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[Rhinocéros is not an allegory.] Few readers are likely to agree at the outset with this assertion, because for most interpreters of the play, starting with its author, Eugène Ionesco, Rhinocéros is indeed allegorical—or at least broadly symbolic. The meaning of the drama must be explained in dualistic terms, so the argument goes: good versus evil, Bérenger against the world, humanity refusing to succumb to the grotesque epidemic of rhinoceritis, the individual—flawed but admirably courageous—celebrating selfhood in defiance of conformism or totalitarianism, language holding its own in the face of rampant noncommunication. (p. 207)
If we disregard external evidence …, we discover that the thematic import of Rhinocéros is less transparent than has often been contended. Having stripped away all elements foreign to the text, one must attempt to answer some fundamental questions about the nature of literature in general and about this dramatic work in particular. (1) What relationships, if any, exist between a concept in literature and its empirical applications? (2) What does it mean to be human—in the implied internal definition of the term found in the play? (3) How effectively does Bérenger defend the human condition? (4) Is rhinoceritis necessarily bad, in light of the play's dynamics, or is it an understandable response to the condition it replaces—human form essentially devoid of humanness?
In the first place, it must be made clear that Bérenger is not a spokesman for any real-life notion of humanity, nor is Ionesco's version of rhinoceritis a pragmatic phenomenon suitable for the research projects of social scientists. Rhinocéros, like any significant literary work, does offer its audience an implied analogy with human experience. But analogy is never identity. Bérenger exists only in the text. He has no knowledge of the struggles of the individual in our society…. Those who insist on treating Bérenger as an advocate of a historical concept of humanity must decide at the outset which concept they will have him defend and which collective threat they will have him attack. Since the play does not answer these important questions, partisans of this approach to literature find themselves free to mold Bérenger like a lump of soft modeling clay: Bérenger the anti-fascist today; Bérenger the anti-Communist tomorrow…. Playing the parlor game of pin-the-parable-on-the-personage may be intellectual fun, but as a substitute for critical method it is a pastime too undisciplined to be illuminating. (p. 209)
From the outset we find little in Bérenger's life that would appear to be worth defending…. Since Bérenger has failed in his own life to achieve a full and rewarding sense of humanness, we should not be surprised to discover that he does not manage to plead the cause of humanity persuasively or even coherently when pachyderms replace human beings as the norm in his world. (p. 210)
Bérenger does try to argue the cause of the human race. But he is an ineffectual debater. An important scene in this regard is the second tableau of act II, in which Bérenger witnesses Jean's metamorphosis from man into rhino. Jean is fully prepared to make this transition. He looks forward to living in the jungle. His new life will permit him to rediscover what he calls "l'intégrité primordiale" [the primordial integrity] of existence. Those who would join Georges Versini in asserting that Rhinocéros is a "violente satire de l'instinct grégaire" [violent satire of the gregarious instinct] must rely largely on a set of expectations drawn from the socio-physical world that we inhabit. From Jean's perspective, given the apparent inevitability of the physiological and emotional changes he is experiencing (and given especially how little he has to lose), this attitude is rooted in terre-à-terre pragmatism. Bérenger is incapable, however, of considering these new circumstances from Jean's point of view. He chooses instead to counter with a platitude about human values…. This is at best Edenic nostalgia. In truth, no such value system operates in Rhinocéros. All that remains of human civilization in the play is an almost unintelligible human-like verbal debris, unconnected fragments of logic, hollow figures posing as human beings. (p. 212)
If we analyze Rhinocéros on its own terms, the play's ultimate lesson might indeed be that individualism in defense of non-humanity is no virtue, and that bestial conformism as an alternative to unreasoning human existence is no vice. (p. 214)
G. Richard Danner, "Bérenger's Dubious Defense of Humanity in 'Rhinocéros'," in The French Review (copyright 1979 by the American Association of Teachers of French), Vol. LIII, No. 2, December, 1979, pp. 207-14.