Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7221
Virgil Nemoianu (review date 6 February 1987)
SOURCE: "Intuitions and Subversions," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4375, February 6, 1987, p. 141.
[Nemoianu is a Romanian-born American educator and critic. In the review below, he comments on Ionesco's concerns and literary method in Non.]
Those who have marvelled at Ionesco's radical experimentalism may not realize that his mature work was actually a toning-down of the much more ferocious radicalism of his youth. At twenty-two he was still in Bucharest. He had read widely, but unsystematically. His intuitions and emotions were surprisingly deep, varied and precise for such a young man, and he had an incredible self-confidence and capacity for challenging whatever was accepted. His first book was called simply No [Non] and more than half of it is a calm and relentless demolition of some of Romania's greatest living writers. These (Arghezi, Barbu, Camil Petrescu) were not venerable traditionalists, but the shining lights of the Modernist wave, often resented for their novelty. Yet in 1934 Ionesco saw in their works the outlines of an emergent canon, and immediately set about subverting it. In the book he is paradoxical, violent and unjust, but also brilliant and amusing, and above all right on the broader issues, even when he is being prejudiced on specific ones.
To repair some of these local injustices the present French translation [of Non] is accompanied by two critical essays (by Eugen Simion and Ileana Gregori), by the translator's notes and by a generous introductory disclaimer from Ionesco himself. Here he makes the melancholy observation that the fifty years that have elapsed have turned a text that was intended as a critique of the (normal) vicissitudes of any literary commonwealth into a celebration of a society brimming with freedom, variety, and creative ferment. This is only to some extent an effect of nostalgia, and much more a result of the dreary and stupefying dictatorship that has kept hold of Romania over the past four decades.
The interest of the book is not primarily historical, however, but to be found in its tragi-comical musings about literature and life. Ionesco first reveals himself as a critical relativist. Even as he is lambasting the poetry of Arghezi, he remarks that he might well decide one day to argue the opposite case. Whenever I engage in a polemic, he suggests, an inner voice tells me that the other side is right. He illustrates this ambivalence very spiritedly by taking the first novel of his friend, the future historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, and writing two directly opposite reviews of it, one highly laudatory, the other remorselessly panning. Ultimately aesthetic value itself is cast into doubt—a shocking heresy in a culture like that of Romania, in which the beautiful had traditionally been thought of as higher than either the true or the good. That God must go the same way is inevitable. Ionesco writes: "If God exists, why write literature? And if He doesn't, why write literature?" He perhaps means to say, even more paradoxically, that if literature has no value, then it matters little whether God exists or not. What certainly did matter to this bright and sassy young man was the existence of death: the most moving and hilarious pages in the book are his "intermezzi" on human identity and its cessation. Aptly enough the crowning essay argues for the relativity of death itself, but this, like whistling in a graveyard, seems to offer only a contrived optimism.
Along the way there are many delightful things in Non: portraits of literati and instructions to the ambitious literary beginner, in the ironic vein of an eighteenth-century essay; and many amusing displays of arrogance, as when Ionesco proclaims his competence at provoking scandals, or when he favourably compares his own talent, rhythm and verve as a writer to a rival's lack of coherence and plodding style. (Marie-France Ionesco's translation here catches very well the scapegrace charm and self-deprecatory posturing of sensibility and intelligence that had not yet found their vehicle.)
Not that Non is always self-indulgent and whimsical. Ionesco intimates more than once that he should be seen as a follower of the nineteenth-century junimist movement, which advocated continual self-criticism if Romania was to develop towards civilization, and which itself gained some political power in its day. His negative attitude towards established Romanian writers is usually based on references to the literary values of Proust or Valéry. Similarly, his approach to literature only seems anarchical: in fact it displays an intuitive and effective use of what we would now call deconstruction or reception theory.
Finally, there are scattered but often memorable comments here on metaphysical alienation and on loneliness, on the impossibility of authentic self-expression in language, or the limits of morality, and in particular on the way in which the poetic, the absurd, and the imaginative coincide. "We emerge from nothingness not with a discourse, but with a scream or an astonished glance", the twenty-one-year-old Ionesco admonishes his readers. These are the views and perceptions that were to become the mainstay of his oeuvre and can be much better understood after reading Non.
Marguerite Dorian (review date Spring 1987)
SOURCE: A review of Non, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 272-73.
[Dorian is a Romanian-born novelist, poet, and short story writer who now lives in the United States. In the following review, she remarks favorably on Non.]
Surfacing in Marie-France Ionesco's excellent translation half a century after the scandal it caused upon its original publication in Bucharest in 1934, the mélange of literary criticism, texts on Romanian literature and culture, and philosophic and existential notes titled Non is, more than anything else, a contribution to an inquiry into creativity, as we observe the metamorphoses that a writer's themes and motifs undergo with time and in relation to the circumstances of his life. Among writers in exile, displaced and alienated, with their struggle to adjust or resist adjustment and their performance in a foreign language from within a foreign culture, Eugène Ionesco is yet another extraordinary case: perfectly bilingual, taking his French from his mother and his Romanian from his father, Ionesco spent his childhood in France and his adolescence and youth in Romania, in the midst of Romanian literary life. He returned to France as a mature man and an obscure Romanian writer to become the playwright who has altered contemporary theatre. Non is a book from Ionesco's first literary career in Romania, an episode practically unknown to his Western readers.
Without much concern for structure, the kaleidoscopic material of the book is divided into two parts: a series of critical essays intended to demolish the glory of three literary lions of the time, the poets Tudor Arghezi and Ion Barbu and the novelist Camil Petrescu; and a collection of texts on Romanian culture and literature attempting a methodology of literary criticism. The work's unity resides in the aggressive and contemptuous tone of the young author, who does not hesitate to provoke and insult his readers while making his point, and in the young Ionesco's theory of "the identity of opposites," which he develops and applies throughout. The theory demonstrates gleefully—and brilliantly at times—the vanity of attempting to take a position in literary criticism, as Ionesco writes parallel reviews on the same subject and demolishes in one what he has just praised in the other.
The theatre seems absent from the preoccupations in Non, yet one can sense the future dramatist in the language always at high tide and in the way Ionesco stages his argumentations. It is this verbal energy, undiscovered at the time, which often thrusts the book out of its intended literary genre and into the realm of drama.
Written in the early thirties, the essays on Romanian culture should be read in the context of that time. In the disenchanted aftermath of World War I the generation of Romanian intellectuals concerned with the cultural crisis of their country are faced with two choices: cultural isolation brought on by an emphasis on Romanian traditional values as a source of creativity or an adaptation of Western values to Romanian cultural life, resulting in "cultural colonization." Ionesco offers the second alternative as a remedial program to what he believes to be a second-rate culture. His attitude is dictated not only by his bilingual and bicultural makeup, but also by a reaction to the tragic and complex circumstances of the thirties, when the ideologues of the rising Romanian fascism began to adapt some of the ideas of this generation, particularly the ones which exalt Romanian traditional values.
If the demolition of Romanian literary idols and the literary gossip of the thirties are less interesting to Ionesco's readers today, the personal notes scattered throughout Non complete the author's Romanian diaries, published partially in his Présent passé, passé présent and in Journal en miettes and invite a rereading of the interviews in Entre la vie et le rêve. Disengaged from the catcalls and the grimaces of the enfant terrible, they disclose the terrors and epiphanies of the writer and offer the fragile and vibrant poetry of Ionesco's future prose, a poetry which does not surface in his theatre. His feud with the terror of dying and the betrayal of language, two of the themes of his future plays, are also sketched here.
Non is a book against literature, a paradox sustained by the verbal energy of its author. "It was written by an angry adolescent," Ionesco warns in his 1986 preface, but "aside from some clumsiness and incoherences, what was said then, I continue to say and write, in the deepest and most spiritual sense, throughout my life." Indeed, one of the more recent interviews with Ionesco contains almost word for word a leitmotiv from Non: "The basic problem is that if God exists, what is the point of literature? And if He doesn't exist, what is the point of literature? Either way," adds the present-day Ionesco, "my writing, the only thing I have succeeded in doing, is invalidated."
Two helpful essays, "Portrait of an Epoch" by E. Simionescu and "The Irony in Non" by I. Gregori, provide the necessary background information and a knowledgeable commentary.
Victor Brombert (review date 15 February 1988)
SOURCE: "Le misérable," in The New Republic, Vol. 198, No. 7, February 15, 1988, pp. 39-41.
[Brombert is an American educator and critic who specializes in nineteenth-century French literature. In the following review, he offers a mixed assessment of Ionesco's attack on Victor Hugo in Hugoliad.]
When young Eugène Ionesco wrote his outrageous attack on Victor Hugo, ridiculing among other things Hugo's institutionalized glory as an Académicien, little did he know (he, the rebel who claimed to cherish failure) that he himself would one day be solemnly installed as an "immortal" member of the Académie Française. Such are the ironies of literary fate; and Ionesco's Hugoliad, a "demolition" of the great French poet, and an attack on all literary ambition, is ironic in more sense than one.
Hugoliad: or The Grotesque and Tragic Life of Victor Hugo, first published in a Romanian journal of the 1930s, is a preposterous text. On second thought, however, the unlikely encounter between the future dramatist of the absurd and Hugo seems almost unavoidable. Ionesco, the 26-year-old demystifier, was bothered, as were so many writers of his generation, by what was regarded as Hugo's grandiloquence, theatrical postures, pretenses at spiritual elevation, flabbiness, and hopelessly naive faith in human progress. Ionesco's debunking of Hugo is an anti-biography as much as it is an anti-hagiography.
The picture of Hugo presented in this ferocious deflation is that of a literary parvenu with limited intelligence but a monstrous capacity for work, a manipulator of extravagant metaphors totally lacking in lucidity, a master of self-praise endowed with nothing more than a resonant "tenor's voice" that hardly qualified him to pose as philosopher, statesman, reformer, and prophet. According to Ionesco, Hugo was completely perverted by vanity, he never lived authentically, and his body of writing amounts to nothing but a big "void."
Hugoliad is a book of laughter and excess. Caricature alternates with pastiche and nasty paraphrase of Hugo's most sentimental verses, which are taken out of context. Ionesco relentlessly fictionalizes ludicrous, intimate scenes in which Hugo insists on reading his own lines to his wife and to his mistress. Even while making love he cannot stop versifying. In fact, everything around Hugo seems to be contaminated with logorrhea; the flowers themselves produce Hugolian rhymes.
The mockery is occasionally amusing and inventive, but it is heavy-handed, and ultimately tedious. Only the aphoristic verve keeps the text going. Right or wrong, Ionesco will score with amateurs of wit-at-any-cost when he asserts that Hugo "spoke of silence with noise," that he is a master of "platitudes in color," that the only reason his work survived is that it is unreadable. When Ionesco speaks of Hugo's congenital bad taste and unscrupulousness, however, and accuses him of being simultaneously a hypocrite and a prodigy of mediocrity, even admirers of epigrammatic raillery might wonder, Why such a loathing, such acerbity, such wild overstatements?
The answers may well be more interesting than the animosity (real or feigned) toward the man and the writer named Hugo. For Hugoliad goes beyond an individual case, no matter how notorious. In its sarcastic and violently unjust way, it is a meditation on literary success, on the nature of genius, on literature as an institution. This "exercise in mischief" (Ionesco's own term), written in large part for the pleasure of scandalizing, has broader implications. As Gelu Ionescu puts it in a postcript, Hugo was "the prototype of the author/authority" for Ionesco. He embodied the monstrosity of genius seen as a spiritually deficient being, as the exact opposite of the saint.
The young rebel's venomous satire reveals, then, a deeper need for protest. Ionesco's first book, a collection of criticism characteristically titled No, questioned the status of literature ("If God exists, why write literature? And if He doesn't, why write literature?") in terms that betray not only a distrust of literature and of men of letters, but also a latent idealism. The indictment of the Man of Letters who lays claim to sacerdotal powers, and thereby becomes guilty of "a rape of the soul of things," corresponds to a notion of poetry that, for all its explicitly modernist negativity, hides a hopeless quest for purity. Poetry is thus opposed to literature. For poetry, in this perspective, can never be rhetoric; it is not discourse, but an outcry, a moan free from all logic and immanent in its "transcendental primitiveness." Better still, it is silence.
These yearnings for authenticity and sincerity in (and against) literature, this desire to master literary craft in order to unlearn it and to gain emancipation from eloquence, were features of the anti-Hugo feelings that set in after 1885, the year of his death; it was a reaction that lasted for several generations. Ionesco's stance is thus not at all atypical in a period that produced Gide's famous answer, when asked who was the greatest French poet: "Victor Hugo, alas." Ionesco himself speaks of a "psychology of the historical moment." The young rebel, who may have shocked pious readers in Romania, appears in fact far from original in the context of France, where anti-Hugo virulence was fashionable at the time he wrote Hugoliad. It is revealing that in his anti-Hugolian fervor, Ionesco goes so far as to second the disparaging statements of the notorious reactionary and anti-Semite Charles Maurras.
It is indeed remarkable how conventional an enfant terrible Ionesco was. All the smug commonplaces of the anti-Hugo set are here. But that is precisely why Hugoliad is such an interesting document, why it deserved to be exhumed from an old Romanian review, translated from Romanian into French, and then from French into English. As a verbose epigram, it helps give Cocteau's witty quip its full value (for Cocteau's words imply admiration too): "Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo."
Genuine wit tolerates no redundancy. One might leave it at that, were it not that Hugoliad also contains a great deal of vituperative nonsense. To describe Hugo as enrolled in "the school of vanity and insensitivity," to dismiss his writings as "only a spilt bucket, straw and dirty water," is bad enough. But it is downright silly to claim that the notoriously limited Adèle Hugo had a much greater poetic sensibility than her husband, that the poet could have learned the meaning of poetry and authenticity from her. And it is absurd, to say the least, to assert that the author of Les Contemplations was "too busy to be able to think of either his life or his death." Even more deplorable is young Ionesco's bad taste, as he makes crude fun of Hugo's grief on hearing of his daughter's death by drowning (Ionesco describes Hugo in the process of downing his beer, chewing sausage, and gulping an "insufficiently masticated crumb of bread"), accusing him moreover of converting his grief into literature, and of being in the habit of defiling his dead.
Ionesco knows no bounds in his zest to revile the posthumous glory of Hugo. He accuses him (the ultimate absurdity) of political cowardice and betrayal, of having been a fellow traveler joining each political party as it came into power. The truth is exactly the opposite, as was demonstrated by (among many other less momentous episodes) Hugo's early endorsement of Louis Bonaparte in the brief days of the Second Republic, and by his fierce opposition to him after the dictatorial coup d'état of 1851, which transformed the president into an emperor and drove Hugo into almost 20 years of uncompromising exile.
To set the record straight after so many patent falsehoods would be pedantic. Only two points need be made. First, belittling Hugo's poetry in the name of modernity, which according to Ionesco "demolished" his poetic edifice, does not take into account the very apostles of modernity—Baudelaire, Flaubert, Rimbaud in particular—who stood in awe of the enormity of Hugo's genius, and of the splendor of his verse and vision. Mallarmé would not allow anyone to speak ill of Hugo in his presence. Second, belittling Hugo the man and public figure makes hardly any sense at all in view of his life-long struggle against the death penalty, against cruelty and oppression of every kind, and his ceaseless defense of the disinherited and the exploited—which was not merely verbal or literary. Among other acts of courage, Hugo offered his hospitality to the hunted members of the defeated Commune, at considerable risk to his own safety.
Ionesco's distortions are surprising. But even more surprising is the insensitivity to what is radical, and radically modern, in Hugo's work: his sense of the grotesque, his subversion of the tragic code, his fictions about the revolutionary laughter of the slave rebelling against the laughing master. It is ironic that Ionesco, whose sense of the grotesque informs so much of his work, should have been so unaware of the significance of the poem "Le Satyre" or the novel L'Homme qui rit (The Man Who Laughs).
Ionesco's notion of the grotesque is evidently of a lesser nature. It tends to reduce the human figure to the ridiculous and the deformed ("hairs, bulges on top of and underneath other bulges …," as he puts it in Hugoliad). Hugo integrated his sense of the ludicrous and the absurd into a broader, more generous vision. By contrast, Ionesco's skepticism about any rhetoric of ideals may well be a form of frustrated idealism, but such intolerance of the language of ennoblement has its limitations. Hugo may have known that our human sorrows are, as Ionesco puts it, "earthworm sorrows"; but he also believed that human beings can and should rise above them.
John Weightman (review date 15-21 April 1988)
SOURCE: "A Pair of Despairers," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4437, April 15-21, 1988, p. 416.
[Weightman is an English educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he presents a mixed assessment of La quête intermittente.]
On reading this latest, and bleakest, instalment of Ionesco's diary, La Quête intermittente, I am reminded of the well-worn anecdote I first came across in the old Gaspey-Otto-Sauer German-Language Manual. An anonymous patient comes to consult a nerve specialist about his depression. The doctor listens to his complaints, prescribes a placebo and concludes with the suggestion: "Go and see a performance by the clown, Grock. He's sure to cheer you up." "Alas!" replies the patient, "I am Grock."
Ionesco, who has made millions laugh, at least with his early plays, is, from his own account, the unhappiest of mortals, and now, in his late seventies, his depression is so acute that it no longer transmutes itself into art, but goes straight down on to paper in a sort of ritual of self-purging lamentation. As he says, the function of a writer is to write, so, in the absence of creative ideas, he just describes the anguish of everyday living as he endures it, along with Madame Ionesco, in a country rest-home belonging to the French Society of Authors. The only sign of art in the book is that he loads every rift with gloom, until the blackness is sometimes on the point of toppling over into humour in spite of itself.
His title would seem to indicate that the root of his misery is metaphysical, and indeed he can be considered an archetypal case of the lapsed, or would-be, believer trying in vain to establish communion with the transcendent. He repeats the religious polarity of the light and the dark which, for many years now, has been running through his plays. At some very rare moments in the past, he enjoyed experiences of ineffable illumination, and he longs, without success, to return to the state in which they were possible. Meanwhile, existence is an excruciating martyrdom: his health is a constant concern, he worries about his wife and daughter, his celebrity seems to be on the wane (he now has to spell out his name to ignorant telephone operators), people are even forgetting that it was he who invented the Theatre of the Absurd, how unfair that the Nobel Prize should have been given to Beckett rather than to him, and so on.
Any average depressive, who relishes learning about the miseries of the rich and famous, will get great satisfaction from this book. But it raises the question: how far is Ionesco's wretchedness the dark night of the soul in the absence of God, and how far a pathological affliction, a clinical depression, that is, an unfortunate consequence of his body chemistry? He himself doesn't try to distinguish between the two mental states, either because it doesn't occur to him to do so, or perhaps because he senses that critical self-analysis might destroy the unity of his Jeremiah or Job-like tone. However, it is precisely in this connection that a welcome gleam of apparently unintended comedy creeps back into the text.
This is clearest in a passage about the sanitary arrangements in the rest-home. The provision of lavatories is inadequate, so that Ionesco's erratic bowel-functions cannot be catered for in peace, but involve him in a distressing game of hide-and-seek with the other guests. Now, it is an obvious proof of our Fallen Nature that we have bowels—the Angels are free of such encumbrances—but, on the everyday level, the problem is not metaphysical but practical. Ionesco, who owns more than one private residence and is presumably not short of cash, could depart immediately for any number of comfort stations. If he chooses to stay, it must be because he needs the discomfort to feed his neurosis which, in this case at least, is not a metaphysical worry or quest but an unexplained pathological syndrome looking for justifications. Had he seen things fully in this light, his diary, instead of being an honest but one-dimensional document, might have become a partly comic work, with himself as the central character—a sort of Don Quixote of the Misdirected Complaint.
Rosette C. Lamont (review date Summer 1988)
SOURCE: A review of La quête intermittente, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 435-36.
[A French-born American educator and critic, Lamont is the author of Ionesco (1973) and The Two Faces of Ionesco (1977). Below, she favorably assesses La quête intermittente.]
Dedicated to his wife and daughter Rodica and Marie-France, Ionesco's latest intimate journal [La quete intermittente], possibly the ultimate volume of his pensées, is a moving love letter to the guardians of his life, the two women without whose watchful love he feels he would not remain alive. Again and again, Ionesco speaks of his hope that he will not outlive his frail, tiny wife, who took upon her narrow shoulders the full weight of a sacred trust:
Elle vit dans le dévouement. Elle va m'accompagner jusqu'au bout…. Elle ne mourra pas avant moi … elle a reçu de façon mystique cette mission de ma mère, à laquelle elle n'a pas failli…. Cela va au-delà du mariage, au-delà de l'amour le plus fort, c'est un engagement mystérieux, spirituel et religieux qu'elle a tenu, qu'elle tient.
The book begins with a description of the 12 July 1986 celebration of the Ionescos' golden wedding anniversary. It is being held in the Swiss village of Saint Gall, where the publisher of art books, Francesco Larese, has given the writer the possibility of developing his talent as a painter and lithographer. Ionesco writes: "La couleur, ô ma vie, couleurs, mes paroles dernières, couleurs … accompagnez-moi, aidez-moi, vivez pour que je sois, couleurs, vous, figures vivantes, signes de la vie, parures." Many friends have gathered for this important occasion, but Ionesco also names the dead friends and relatives who have remained part of his conscious and subconscious life. Wars and revolutions have tossed this typical European family all over the world: "On ne compte que quelques survivants de cet immense naufrage."
One of the moving aspects of Ionesco's confessional memoirs is his mea culpa vis-à-vis his wife: "Ô, ma Rodi, ma femme, la jolie demoiselle Burileanu que j'ai épousée, et que je na'i pas su rendre heureuse. Je lui ai fait du mal, je l'ai trompée, je l'ai insultée parfois,… j'ai honte devant ma fille, devant moi-même, devant Dieu." The writer also worries about their daughter, a spinster who chose to devote her life to the care of her aged parents. Although Marie-France teaches dramatic literature at the school of "la rue Blanche," her father is haunted by the unrealistic fear that the two women may remain destitute after his death. When this happens, will Marie-France still keep her identity, the only self-definition she has: "Sera-t-elle encore la fille d'Eugène Ionesco? Saura-t-on, ne saura-t-on pas qui ètais-je. Pour savoir ce qu'elle est, qu'elle est."
The title of the book betrays Ionesco's religious doubts punctuated by the need to believe that God exists. He prays: "God, make me believe in You!" The overwhelming emphasis on doubt, however, brings him close to Montaigne, without the latter's enlightened serenity. Like the ailing creator of the essay, Ionesco does not hesitate to describe in detail the body's failings: rare, difficult bowel movements coaxed by a suppository every second day, the race for the facilities in the château's long hallways, a deficient circulation which reminds the writer of the icy end of life, a pronounced limp. Can one become reconciled to such a paltry existence? And yet it is still life: looking at an abundant, joyous French street market, he exclaims, "Le marché au dessus, et en dessous les égouts à merde."
Alas, the mind is no purer than the body, and Ionesco lets some of his literary envy surface. Above all, he reveals his rage at the esteem enjoyed by Samuel Beckett. People ought not to say that Beckett invented the absurd, he claims: "Les journalistes et les historiens littéraires amateurs commettent une désinformation dont je suis victime, et qui est calculée." He was the first, he almost shouts, with La cantatrice chauve in 1950. He even claims to have written his first absurdist text in Romania, in 1943: "Je peux facilement en fournir des preuves." This indignation is demeaning. The rest of the book, however, reveals once again a complex, sensitive man, one who has never grown into adulthood. Perhaps an artist must remain a child.
Michael Sheringham (review date 25 September 1992)
SOURCE: "Honours for a Mad Baby," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4669, September 25, 1992, p. 15.
[In the following review of Théâtre complet, an edition of Ionesco's plays edited by Emmanuel Jacquart, Sheringham surveys the themes of Ionesco's works.]
It is good to know that a rainy afternoon in Paris can still be enlivened by exposure to the world of Ionesco at the pocket-sized Théâtre de la Huchette. La Cantatrice chauve has been running there uninterruptedly since 1957, clocking up those eminently forgettable statistics, familiar from The Mousetrap—this many changes of cast, this many thousand performances, this many costumes, vases, antimacassars…. Still crazy after all these years, the Smiths chunter on in their amiably sinister way, the Martins play out theatre's sexiest recognition scene, the fire-chief, hit by recession, hustles door to door for even the teeny-weeniest conflagration, while the maid, who has clearly foresuffered all, keeps a forensic eye on the proceedings, knowing it will probably end as usual with all parties barking of birth, copulation and death. As one staggers out in the quest of liquid refreshment, it is odd to recall that the man responsible for these avant-garde shenanigans has become a pillar of the establishment, who proudly sports a French Academician's sword and regalia, has his plays performed at the Comédie Française, and has now been consecrated by incorporation in the Pléiade collection alongside Molière and Claudel.
Although tempting, it would be misleading to plot Ionesco's career as a course from young turk to old buffer. A quadragenarian in the decade where he contributed, less absent-mindedly than Samuel Beckett, to one of the greatest upheavals in theatre history, the author of La Cantatrice chauve, first performed in 1950, was by then a survivor with a complex personal history already imprinted in the lugubrious eyes, the way with a bottle and the somewhat frantic temperament which, for the fellow dramatist and névrosé Arthur Adamov, gave him the air of a "bébé fou". Born in Bucharest in 1909, transplanted to France at the age of two, Ionesco was brought up speaking French while his overbearing Romanian father beavered away at his law exams, paying scant attention to the impoverished family. Surprisingly, in circumstances that remain mysterious despite Emmanuel Jacquart's probings, Ionesco returned at the age of thirteen to Romania, whither his father had decamped some time earlier, divorcing his French wife on a trumped-up pretext and marrying a woman who, it seems, could scarcely bear to be in the same room as him and was in turn duly loathed by her stepson.
Between 1922 and 1938, Ionesco learnt to be a Romanian, playing the part so well that by the age of twenty-nine he was a prominent figure on the literary scene, well known for his poems and iconoclastic critical essays. But as the sound of jackboots grew uncomfortably loud, he found it expedient to sign up for a Sorbonne doctorate (quickly abandoned) on "Sin and Death in French Poetry since Baudelaire", and by the outbreak of war he was in Paris with his young wife, learning once more to be an alien.
The universe of Ionesco's early one-act plays and sketches is at once domestic and linguistic. It is in the couple's drawing-room, the family home, the scholar's den, the old folk's abode, the bachelor pad that talk ceases to be merely the currency of human exchange or the barometer of psychological truth and, shoving aside identity, communication and motive, becomes a perilous and disquieting zone. But language here is double. Allowed to proliferate at the expense of sense, words replace thought, scouring out the inner life and leaving their victims prey to the merely atavistic, or else, as in La Leçon, subject to a lethal coercion the more frightening for being clearly beyond the control of those ostensibly in charge.
Yet for Ionesco, words can also be the harbingers of wonder. Freed of its craven subordination to logic, language can become a playground; ride the surf of words, Ionesco suggests, and you may experience the euphoric release which attends the fundamental experience (recollected from childhood at La Chapelle-Anthenaise) he calls évanescence. While the old man in Les Chaises clings doggedly to the idea that he has a message for humanity, he is beset only by the void, manifested unforgettably by the rows of empty chairs. More sagacious, his wife Sémiramis urges him to make up his own world in his head, to make himself a nest in words relieved of their impossible mission to anchor down a stable reality. The doubleness of language is especially patent in Jacques ou la soumission, where it is the mind-numbing idiolect of the family group which exacts Jacques's submission to bourgeois conventions, but where, equally, it is a ludic and childlike manipulation of words (notably the word chat), a revelling in the free play of the signifier, which provides him and Roberte with their escape route into a private world of freedom and fantasy.
Ionesco's early plays work best when waves of psychic disquiet with which they are imbued (and whose autobiographical basis is progressively disclosed in works such as Journal en miettes, 1967), are transmitted not simply by mean of oneiric atmosphere but via concrete stage images. Where Beckett's is a world of progressive deprivation, Ionesco is the poet of proliferation: more and more chairs, more cups and saucers, more briefcases, more rhinoceroses. In Le nouveau locataire, the tenant, deaf to the landlady's prattle, fusses over the exact disposition of his furniture, but is only satisfied when, as more and more desks and chairs and sideboards are piled insanely on top of each other, he cocoons himself in the last empty corner and politely asks for the light to be extinguished. Apart from the visual image, the key here is the build-up, the sure sense of theatrical rhythm, the feeling for ritual (the same performance every night) and an idiom which, however paroxysmic, remains rooted in comedy, a mode Ionesco finds harsher, less forgiving than tragedy.
Stung by the accusation (levelled by Kenneth Tynan among others) that his plays were irrelevant, Ionesco eschewed Beckettian silence and lambasted his critics for their ideological blindness—the age's great malady, as he has never stopped insisting. But he also changed his act. The more elaborate plays of his middle period, centred on the Everyman figure of Bérenger, have as their main theme the opposition between various forms of false consciousness and the acute sense of the human condition available only to the solitary individual. If Bérenger alone (in Tueur sans gages) tries to fight the killer who lurks in the radiant city, it is not because he is better or smarter than others but because his lack of social standing immunizes him against the terrible indifference of the crowd. Similarly, in Rhinocéros (1960), it is not the power to resist which prevents Bérenger from joining the stampede to become a rhinoceros but a radical naiveté, a lack of "side", which simply won't allow him to ditch his humanity even when he wants to.
Rhinocéros, graced by Barrault and Olivier in the part of Berenger, was an international success, and so, after the inane Le Piéton de l'air, was the last play of the cycle, Le Roi se meurt (1962), where King Bérenger gives moving testimony to what was by now emerging as his creator's central obsession, the absurdist's absurdity, the fact of death itself. These more substantial and accessible plays made Ionesco acceptable to a wider theatre-going public, but it took all the craft of skilled directors to bring off what the playwright called "la projection sur scène du monde de dedans", to make something manageable out of a "matière théâtrale" dredged up from "mes rêves, mes angoisses, mes désirs obscurs, mes contradictions intérieures …". If part of Ionesco's charm continued to lie in the brightly lit, weightless French (closer to Tintin and Astérix than to Racine or Giraudoux) in which his characters conversed, he was all too ready to provide it in vast quantities, encrusting his dramatic structures with a cladding his cannier directors found it necessary to thin out.
It is a pity in this regard that Jacquart's generally scrupulous and comprehensive edition [Théâtre complet] provides only the final performed version of the texts even when earlier ones are extant. In its original version (still the one most generally available), Tueur sans gages comprised vast tracts of material which held up the action disastrously but cast interesting light on Ionesco's strengths and limitations, and it would be interesting to view this alongside the "version pour la scène". Jacquart, it must be said, makes ample amends by including very interesting production notes commissioned from some of Ionesco's most distinguished directors—Barrault, Lavelli, Serrault, Mauclair, Planchon—and by providing stage photographs, many of them featuring Ionesco regulars (such as Tsilla Chelton, latterly a hit as the outrageous old lady in the film Tatie Danielle), about whom much useful information is given.
La Soif et la faim, staged by Jean-Marie Serrault at the Comédie Française in 1966, marked a second major turning-point. From then on, Ionesco does not so much write plays as supply compliant producers with the latest fragmentary bulletins from the inner theatre of his memories, dreams and fantasies, often already recorded in his diaries (Passé présent, présent passé, 1968). Spiritual autobiography becomes the predominant mode of his theatre, the quest its principal motif, and the discontinuous series of tableaux its staple device (Ionesco in this last respect falls in with the dominant dramaturgical trends of the period). At its least successful, as in Ce formidable bordel! (1973) or L'Homme aux valises (1975), the results can be fairly dire—on both page and stage. Unlike his friend and compatriot Mircea Eliade, Ionesco has little flair for comparative religion, and the eclectic myths and symbols in which he clads his personal search for tranquillity often have a woefully superannuated air. Things liven up when he resumes the struggle with his doughtiest antagonist—death. Jeux de massacre (1970), and to a lesser extent Macbett (1972), Ionesco's grand guignol version of Shakespeare, convey something of the old mayhem. Gross and frenetic, the tableaux of Jeux de Massacre involve a wide range of settings—prison, hospital, town hall—and characters of all ages and types who have one thing in common: by the end of the scene in which they appear, they will have been mown down by the plague which stalks the town in the shape of a hooded monk.
Just as deathly but twice as weird is Voyages chez les morts (1981), adapted by Roger Planchon at Villeurbanne in 1983 under the title Spectacle Ionesco. The denizens of Death City turn out to be mostly long-gone members of the Ionesco family circle, including his mother, father and stepfather, and the author seemingly wants us to witness his attempts to square things with them once and for all. If it looks as if this was destined to be his last play, it is good to see from Jacquart's chronology that the play-wright has kept busy in the past decade, travelling, painting and searching for peace. He deserves it: warts and all, Ionesco is to be cherished, not least because the "bébé fou" still lurks beneath the academician's uniform.
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