Obituaries And Tributes
Mel Gussow (obituary date 29 March 1994)
SOURCE: An obituary in The New York Times, March 29, 1994, pp. A1, D21.
[Gussow is an American editor, educator, biographer, and critic. In the following obituary, he provides an overview of Ionesco's life and works.]
Eugène Ionesco, whose wildly innovative plays, among them Rhinoceros, The Bald Soprano and The Chairs, overturned conventions of contemporary theater and had a profound effect on a new generation of playwrights, died yesterday in Paris, where he lived. He was 84.
His death was announced by the French Cultural Ministry. The cause was not reported.
Mr. Ionesco's "anti-plays" satirized modern society while discovering new uses of language and theatrical techniques. Inspired by silent film clowns and vaudeville, he was a playful playwright, clownish in his own personality as well as in his work onstage. With outrageous comedy, he attacked the most serious subjects: blind conformity and totalitarianism, despair and death. Repeatedly he challenged—and accosted—the audience and his critics. As he said, "The human drama is as absurd as it is painful."
Along with Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, he was one of a trinity of pioneering experimental playwrights who lived and worked in Paris. Although there were thematic bridges among the three, Mr. Ionesco's distinction was in his fanciful surrealism and sense of Dada. Among the playwrights he influenced were Tom Stoppard, Fernando Arrabal, Edward Albee, Tina Howe and Christopher Durang. Mr. Ionesco was among the playwrights often grouped as practitioners of the Theater of the Absurd. He objected to the label, preferring, he said, the Theater of Derision.
In his work, he turned drawing-room comedy on its head (The Bald Soprano), had a stage filled with empty chairs (The Chairs) and transformed man into beast (Rhinoceros). Although his playwriting career did not begin until he was 40, he wrote 28 plays as well as several books of memoirs. The plays have been performed around the world in various languages, although in recent years his work has been neglected in the United States. Throughout his career, he was an imaginative iconoclast who could create the most bizarre imagery.
Rhinoceros, in its 1961 Broadway production, proved to be his breakthrough play, enriched by Zero Mostel's virtuosic performance, in which he transmogrified himself from man to rhinoceros without altering his makeup or costume. Roaring, bellowing, hilarious Mostel put the playwright on the international theatrical map, and Rhinoceros ran for 241 performances. But the play was only one of many that insured Mr. Ionesco's stature.
Despite his reputation for controversy, he saw himself as a preserver of theater, a classicist and "a supreme realist." He insisted that he wrote archetypes, not stereotypes. As he said in 1958, "I believe that the aim of the avant-garde should be to rediscover—not invent—in their purest state, the permanent forms and forgotten ideals of the theater." He added: "I make no claim to have succeeded in this. But others will succeed, and show that all truth and reality is classical and eternal."
He was "the Molière of the 20th century," said Rosette C. Lamont, the author of Ionesco's Imperatives: The Politics of Culture and an acknowledged authority on Ionesco's work. "Like Molière in his late plays," she continued, "In Ionesco's plays, there is a seamless amalgam of the comic and tragic." In her eyes, he was a master of the "metaphysical farce," an oxymoron that the playwright accepted as accurate.
Eugène Ionesco was born in Slatina, Romania, on Nov. 26, 1909, although he took three years off his age and claimed 1912 as his birth year, presumably because he wanted to have made his name before the age of 40. His father was Romanian, his mother French.
As a child, he lived in Paris. In an article titled "Experience in the Theater," he remembered his introduction to a world that would preoccupy him for a lifetime. The Punch and Judy show in the Luxembourg Gardens fascinated him as the puppets "talked, moved, clubbed each other." It was, he said, "the spectacle of the world itself … presented itself to me in an infinitely simplified and caricatured form, as if to underline its grotesque and brutal truth."
In 1922, he returned to Romania, where he went to high school and later studied at Bucharest University. At first he wrote poetry, not plays (except for a historical drama he wrote at 13). He married Rodica Burileanu in 1936; eight years later, their daughter, Marie-France, was born. Both his wife and daughter survive.
In 1939, Mr. Ionesco moved back to France and worked for a publisher. He became a French citizen and remained there for the rest of his life. During World War II, he and his wife were in hiding in the south of France.
The Bald Soprano (La Cantatrice Chauve) was inspired by his own attempts to learn English by using an English-French conversational manual. Copying out phrases, he realized he was relearning obvious truths, that there are seven days in a week and that the ceiling is above, the floor below. Carrying that premise to ridiculous, word-spinning heights, he wrote his first play—and no bald soprano appeared onstage. An actor improvised those words, and Mr. Ionesco seized upon them and changed the play's title from "English Made Easy."
The play was intended, he said, as "a parody of human behavior and therefore a parody of theater, too." Presented in 1950 at the tiny Théàtre des Noctambules in Paris, it received some initially hostile reviews but became the catapult for his career. More than 40 years later, the play is still running in another theater in Paris.
The Bald Soprano was quickly followed by The Lesson (1951), Jack or the Submission and The Chairs (1952) and Victims of Duty (1953), all of which certified his avantgarde credentials. In Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It (1954), a corpse grows larger and larger until it takes over the stage, and in The New Tenant (1956), a man rents a new apartment and the furniture takes over the stage. These and other works are filled with sight gags and silent comedy as well as intricate plays on words.
Rhinoceros brought him his widest public. Jean-Louis Barrault starred in the play in Paris and Laurence Olivier in London. But it was the Broadway production, directed by Joseph Anthony and starring Zero Mostel and Eli Wallach, that brought him his greatest celebrity. Mostel later starred in an unsuccessful film version of the play, directed by Tom O'Horgan. Rhinoceros and other plays charted the progress of Mr. Ionesco's Everyman, a character named Berenger.
In 1960, The Killer, a comedy about a serial killer in "the radiant city," had a brief run Off Broadway, and in 1968 Ellis Raab directed Exit the King on Broadway. From then on, Mr. Ionesco was often absent from the New York theater. Some of his plays were presented in regional theater,...
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