Eugène November Ionesco Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eugène Ionesco November 26, 1909–March 28, 1994

Romanian-born French playwright, essayist, novelist, autobiographer, and critic.

For further information on Ionesco's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 4, 6, 9, 11, 15, and 41.

A key innovator along with Samuel Beckett and Jean Genêt in creating the "Theater of the Absurd," Ionesco produced darkly comic portraits of the human condition by exploring such themes as alienation, the impossibility of communication between human beings, and the destructive forces of modern society. Born in Romania, he spent his first thirteen years in France, then lived in Romania for fourteen years before settling in Paris. Ionesco wrote primarily in French, and such critics as John Lahr contend that "[Ionesco's] estrangement from his native tongue gave him a feeling for the confusion created by language and its inadequacy to make sense of reality." The problematic nature of language and communication is a dominant theme in Ionesco's early works. In La cantatrice chauve (1950; The Bald Soprano), for instance, the dialogue among the characters disintegrates from clichés to meaningless sounds. To address the absurdity of life, alienation, and the loss of identity experienced by people in the twentieth century, Ionesco often employed the metaphor of multiplying objects; for example, in Les chaises (1952; The Chairs) an old man's desperate belief in reason and rationality is mocked by the play's setting—a room that becomes increasingly filled with empty chairs. Beginning in the late 1950s, he wrote four plays centering on Bérenger, a modern-day Everyman. In Rhinocéros (1959; Rhinoceros), in which everyone except Bérenger becomes a rhinoceros, Ionesco attacked mindless conformity and mob mentality. Death also became an overriding concern in many of Ionesco's later works. His last play, Voyages chez les morts (1980; Journeys among the Dead), for example, features protagonists that engage in conversations with the deceased. Ionesco quit writing plays in 1980 and subsequently devoted his time to painting and autobiography. Commenting on Ionesco's significance to contemporary theater and his innovative techniques, Edward Albee has argued that "we would diminish Ionesco … were we to suggest he was little more than a bag of tricks. His concerns with individual freedom, identity and rationalism place him higher than that. He was a major force in shaping nontraditional drama in the second half of the 20th century."