Eugène November Ionesco

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2983

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, with the United States premiere of Macbett at the Yale Repertory Theater in 1973. Taking off from Shakespeare, he regarded Macbeth as a grotesque joke. How else could he explain mass murder, a favorite subject for his dark comic contemplation?

Throughout his life, he said he was apolitical, a fact he often disproved in his plays, especially those in his later period, like A Stroll in the Air, (a cosmic walk with reference to World War II and the Holocaust) and Man With Bags, a play about exile, in which a traveler is adrift in a world without place names. (Is there life without geography?) His last play, Journeys Among the Dead was scheduled to be performed at the Guggenheim Museum in 1980 but never opened. In his own life, the playwright often took strong stands on public issues, speaking out about the rights of dissidents.

Mr. Ionesco also wrote a novel (The Hermit) and short stories, dramatic theory (Notes and Counter Notes), memoirs (Fragments of a Journal, Present Past Past Present and The Intermittent Quest) and fairy tales for children. He also painted and made lithographs; in the 1980's he stopped writing plays, and devoted much of his time to painting and exhibiting his artwork.

In 1970, he was elected a member of the French Academy. In his address to the Academy, he spoke of his faith in illogicality, the confusion of rules and the impotence of intelligence.

On a number of occasions, he visited the United States, in 1988 for the first New York International Festival of the Arts. He delivered a lecture titled "Who Needs Theater Anymore?" His pithy answer: "Tout le monde." Looking back at The Bald Soprano, he said that at the time "it was a pleasure to destroy language." Now, he said, he found "the disintegration of language tragic."

In his early 20's, he wrote about his reasons for wanting to be a writer: "To allow others to share in the astonishment of being, the dazzlement of existence, and to shout to God and other human beings our anguish, letting it be known that we were there."

Edward Albee (essay date 10 April 1994)

SOURCE: "Edward Albee Salutes a Great Vaudevillian," in The New York Times, April 10, 1994, p. 12.

[A three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Albee is an American playwright, scriptwriter, poet, and short story writer. In the following tribute, he remarks on how Ionesco influenced his approach to drama.]

While I wasn't exactly born in a trunk—well, I may have been, for I never knew my natural parents, their habits—my adopting family was involved with vaudeville. They were not jugglers or comedians—more's the pity—but owner-management, the Keith Albee Vaudeville Circuit.

The house I tried to grow up in was frequented by performers, and the likes of Ed Wynn and Victor Moore dandled me when I was a tot. My family had me go to the theater when I was a little boy, and my first theatrical memory is of Jumbo at the old Hippodrome—Jimmy Durante and an elephant, great Rodgers and Hart songs, and a toy they hawked in the auditorium to kids like me, a Krazy Kat-like flexible figure on a hand-held board, manipulated from beneath by rings on strings. Doubtless I enjoyed the songs, the elephant and Durante; I know I loved the toy.

Time passed. I moved through my bewildered adolescence and into my chaotic 20's, accumulating theater experiences on the way. (I was lucky: I lived in New York.)

When I was 14—and subjected to military school for my sins—I found Shakespeare, and reasoned that the problem was the language; maybe a rewriting, a simplification, would allow us to follow the plots better. I abandoned this theory when I left military school. Later, I experienced Chekhov, Pirandello, Ibsen—feeling no need to rewrite them.

Chance and good fortune took me to the premieres of The Iceman Cometh and The Skin of Our Teeth and The Glass Menagerie. I was still writing not very good poetry then but had given up on the novel as too much work. I had not yet realized that with the short story—at least in my case—practice does not make perfect, and, in drama, the three-act sex farce I had composed at 13 had not led me to further attempts at writing plays.

But what an exciting time we all had in New York City in the late 40's and 50's—those of us who lived in and with the arts: the concerts of avant-garde music at McMillan Theater at Columbia University, the exhibits of Constructivist and Abstract Expressionist paintings at the galleries, the explosion of foreign authors in translation—Sartre, Camus, the Nouvelle Vague, the Italian Realists Berto, Verga, Moravia, and on and on.

And in the theater in the 1950's there occurred a series of events that changed the rules of playwriting—the premieres in America of plays by that great vaudeville act, Beckett, Ionesco and Genet.

So profound was the effect of these playwrights that the term Theater of the Absurd was invented to encompass (and isolate, alas) their accomplishment, although Ionesco was the only one of the three for whom the term was valid.

The reactionaries were applied, the audience for conventional plays was bewildered, and an entire generation of us suddenly decided to be playwrights, liberated by these three. The exuberance, the during, the sleight-of-hand, the deepest laughter in the deepest dark broke all the rules for us and showed us that the familiar, the safe, the predictable was the true Theater of the Absurd.

If we can tie Beckett to the Existentialists and Genet to a kind of solitary confinement of the spirit, then we must relate Ionesco to Dadaism and Surrealism—movements not a part of mainstream American culture. Ionesco's preoccupation with the collapse of language, as well as such matters as major characters who never appear, furniture (and corpses) growing as the drama proceeds, and people becoming rhinoceroses before our (very) eyes, influenced a lot of us.

As Pinter's debt to Beckett can be found in much of his work, my own stylistic sources for The American Dream and The Sandbox are clearly to be found in Ionesco. (Indeed, the first several pages of The American Dream were so obviously an intended homage to the Romanian-French master that I was startled when some critics insisted it was imitation—an Ionesco-like situation?)

We would diminish Ionesco, however, 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.

Beckett has gone on to be an acknowledged master, albeit almost buried by the scholars; Genet is still sniffed suspiciously by the wary, who are profoundly frightened by the primal violence of his vision, and Ionesco—the most playful of the three, the most purely "experimental," though every bit as reality grounded and tough as the others—has been neglected.

There's no point in dwelling on this. A hundred years down the line—unless the viruses have taken over—we'll see it all sort itself out.

And now Ionesco can write no longer; he has joined the others. As a character I like says, in a play I admire, "That particular vaudeville act is playing the cloud circuit now."

What an act it was, and what a hard act to follow!

John Lahr (essay date 11 April 1994)

SOURCE: "Eugène Ionesco," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 8, April 11, 1994, p. 94.

[Lahr is an American critic, nonfiction writer, playwright, and novelist. In the following tribute, he surveys the themes and techniques of Ionesco's works.]

Eugène Ionesco, who died last week, was an entrepreneur of his own uncertainties. "There are no alternatives," he said about his first, short play, The Bald Soprano (1950). "If man is not tragic, he is ridiculous and painful, 'comic' in fact, and by revealing his absurdity one can achieve a sort of tragedy." Giddy with a sense of absence and of abdication, Ionesco's plays sounded a new note of frivolity at the beginning of the fifties which tweaked both the committed ideologues of the left and the boulevardiers of the right, and pushed theatre beyond the boundaries of logic and sociology. His plays often spoke in hilarious non sequiturs (The Bald Soprano; The Lesson, 1951; The Chairs, 1952), in the crazy symmetry of dreams (Victims of Duty, 1953), and in fantastical transformations (Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It, 1954; Rhinoceros, 1960)—and they all announced a refusal to suffer while acting out the dislocation and the strange emptiness he found in the world.

Born in Romania in [1909], Ionesco spent most of his first thirteen years in France, dreaming alternately of being a saint and a warrior. Between the ages of thirteen and twenty-seven, he lived in Romania, and then he returned to Paris to live and write in his second language. His estrangement from his native tongue gave him a feeling for the confusion created by language and its inadequacy to make sense of reality, and also left him with an exile's rootlessness, which comes across in the floating world of his plays. His first experience of theatre, he wrote in 1958, was in Paris: growing up near the Luxembourg Gardens, he frequently watched puppet shows there. "I could stay there, entranced for whole days … spellbound by the sight of these puppets that talked, moved and clubbed each other. It was the spectacle of the world itself." Ionesco's plays, with their surrealist narratives and acid thoughts, almost immediately embroiled him with the literary establishment. "I think that writers like Sartre, Osborne, Miller, Brecht, etc., are simply the new auteurs du boulevard, representatives of a left-wing conformism which is just as lamentable as the right-wing sort," Ionesco, an anarchist in the face of all orthodoxies, wrote.

Ionesco was a pint-size renegade. He had a clown's face—a rutted forehead and a bald pate that gave him a memorably comical double-dome appearance. It seemed apt that he wrote clown plays that disguised their intellect and insolence in the high jinks of visual surprise. "The theatre is the appearance of the unexpected," he said. His best jokes were sight gags whose impact was multiplied by a comic exaggeration and conveyed, in lucid metaphors, an almost childlike appreciation of life's weirdness. In The Chairs, the stage is inundated with a whirlwind of seats for an invisible audience, which never comes to hear an orator who turns out to be mute; in Amédée, Ionesco's first full-length play, a couple share their apartment with a corpse (a symbol of their dead love), which gets bigger and bigger; in Rhinoceros, an allegory of totalitarian conformity, the world proliferates with rhinos. Ionesco's theatrical world was one of danger, disconnection, and daring. "Personally, I regard existence as a misfortune," he said. Ionesco was a kind of Zanni of remorse. As he lets a character in Jack, or the Submission (1955) sing, "There's no one else like me on earth / I'm full of light and gloom and mirth."

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