Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 296

Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco is a meditation on life and death, and how power is just a social construct, or a man-made illusion, perhaps even a delusion. The king is inept and his authority is dependent exclusively on the title and designation he was born into.

When the...

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Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco is a meditation on life and death, and how power is just a social construct, or a man-made illusion, perhaps even a delusion. The king is inept and his authority is dependent exclusively on the title and designation he was born into.

When the king's health deteriorates, his entourage leaves him, showing him that he only wielded his power over others because they depended on him. When he was no longer dependable, his entourage abandons him. It also illustrates the fragile nature of the king-subject dynamic: the king is only powerful when he has subjects to reign over, just as a slave master's power is linked to obedient slaves.

His kingdom is a failure and its gradual fall from grace parallels the king's own life. His two wives—Queen Marguerite and Queen Marie—represent reality and illusion, respectively. Queen Marguerite and the king's trusted physician tell him the facts of his medical condition, but Queen Marie tries to shield him from the truth by convincing him that he will be fine.

The latter's attempts leads to the king's initial denial regarding his impending demise. However, he realizes that like his crumbling empire, he will soon die. In the end, the king is completely alone, illustrating the solitary nature of death.

Since monarchy is based on man-made ideas of social and political hierarchy, and an empire—or even a society or civilization—is composed of social constructs, the world symbolically dies with the king. After all, the king is supposed to represent a divine entity on Earth, and when a deity dies, so does the universe it has created. However, in actuality life moves on after a king's death, thus reiterating that a king's accomplishments and power are nothing but illusions.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1130

To the strains of seventeenth century courtly music, derisively played, the curtain rises on Exit the King to reveal a shabby throne room. On either side of the King’s throne are two smaller thrones for the two queens, Marguerite (the King’s first wife) and Marie (his second, and younger, wife). The room has several windows and doors; one small door leads to the King’s apartment. The King, his queens, the Doctor, and Juliette are announced by the Guard, who remains onstage with Queen Marguerite and Juliette, the servant. There is a brief glimpse of King Berenger the First, bedecked with crown and crimson robe, holding a scepter.

All is not well. It is soon apparent from the severe comments of Queen Marguerite that Berenger is losing control—of his court, his kingdom, nature, and himself. The central heating has gone out, there are cigarette butts on the floor, and the sky is overcast; even the sun has refused to cooperate with the orders of the King. The court is awakening to its last day, and as the Guard mentions a new crack in the wall, even Marguerite admits that things are moving more rapidly than she expected.

Queen Marie returns to the stage, eyes red from sobbing over the impending death of the King. Marguerite offers little sympathy: Since death is natural and inevitable, Berenger the First (of all people) should have kept this fact always in view, should have organized his life for a “decent” departure. Marguerite is determined in these last moments “to do what ought to have been done over a period of years.”

The universe seems to be folding up as well. The doctor-cum-astronomer reports to the queens that the sun is going out, that Mars and Saturn have collided and exploded, and that time itself is speeding up, with cows giving birth twice a day. However, the King, as he enters at last, slipperless, through one of the doors, is more concerned with his stiff legs and sore ribs, and the strange noises at night that have kept him awake. When Marguerite tells Berenger that he is going to die, he brushes the message aside; everyone is going to die, he says, and he will too—when he gets around to it. The queen, however, is adamant: “You’re going to die in an hour and a half, you’re going to die at the end of the show.”

Marie urges the King not to abdicate his moral and titular position, but with an act of the will to order his kingdom restored and death put at bay. But the Guard is mysteriously paralyzed, unable to speak or carry out His Majesty’s wishes. The King, provoked by Marguerite’s announcement, stands up, then falls, over and over again. Stage directions suggest that the scene be played “like a tragic Punch and Judy show.” Berenger regains his feet and insists that the kingdom is falling apart only through his own neglect. The Guard does not respond: Marguerite can command him, but the King cannot. Queen Marie begs Berenger to command her, but she, too, can only obey the others.

Time is running out. The Doctor reports that there is “a gap in the sky that used to house the Royal Constellation. In the annals of the universe, his Majesty has been entered as deceased.” With this, the King’s demeanor abruptly changes. He shouts that he does not want death. Already he has aged fourteen hundred years; the King calls for someone to save him, but Marguerite offers little comfort: Because the King did not prepare for this time, he must do all of his thinking about death in an hour. Berenger’s shouts through the window that he is dying produce only an empty echo.

He screams and moans, “Why was I born if it wasn’t forever?” and confesses he never had time to think about death. Before, Berenger himself commanded the hand of death, executing his brothers and all his rivals—even Marguerite’s own parents. Now it is his turn to face the inevitable, but Marie will allow no reverie. Death is just a word, she tells him, and who knows what it means? Berenger must join the present moment and forget the rest. “It’s you, all the life in you, straining to break out. Dive into an endless maze of wonder and surprise, then you too will have no end, and can exist forever. . . . Escape from definitions and you will breathe again!”

Marie’s speech is drowned by choking sounds from the King. Marie calls on Berenger to grasp the light within, but instead the King calls on the sun to save him, though he knows it is futile. “I’m dying, you hear, I’m trying to tell you. I’m dying but I can’t express it, unless I talk like a book and make literature of it.”

Finally Berenger asks to be taught resignation, and stage directions indicate that as the others lead him in an examination of his life, the dialogue becomes almost a chant and the movements of the characters like a ritualistic dance. The King, collapsing into a wheelchair, quizzes Juliette on her life, which is poor and miserable, but Berenger insists that she see life itself as a miracle. The Doctor notes that the King is no longer panic-stricken and that his death (though far from noble) will at least be respectable.

The Guard narrates a history of the world with Berenger himself as the main player: He wrote the works of William Shakespeare and split the atom; he was the master of his kingdom and of all creation. The sound of the King’s heart, beating loudly, shakes the room; a wall collapses. The King is able to stand, but more and more he resembles a sleepwalker. He says the name Marie, but without understanding. The King is blind, and Marie (as the stage directions have it) simply disappears. The Guard and Juliette disappear as well, and the Doctor, bowing and scraping mechanically, leaves through one of the doors.

Only Marguerite and the King remain. She orders him to stand motionless as she cuts the invisible cords binding Berenger to this life. The stage directions have her remove an invisible ball and chain, take a sack from his shoulders, and grasp a toolbox and an old saber. She orders the King to walk by himself as she speaks to imaginary wolves and rats not to interfere. She directs Berenger the First to his throne and orders him to sit. Marguerite disappears; the throne room, its doors and windows, have quietly disappeared as well. At last, the King on his throne fades into a gray light, into a mist.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 390

One of the most “literary” of Ionesco’s plays, Exit the King examines the traditional metaphor in which the king and his kingdom represent the universe and its order, and concludes that in an absurd world (the modern world) such order is a chimera. Using the absurdist techniques of ritualistic action, farce, and stylized and clichéd language, the play distances the audience from Berenger and his entourage: No willing suspension of disbelief is possible. The king himself, reduced to being a clown or puppet, is an object of the audience’s derisive laughter. However, the play is less “alien” than some of Ionesco’s earlier plays, in which the illogic on the stage served to make words into “things” and to force the audience to look into the face of absurdity. Exit the King employs more conventional stage language, with the characters of Berenger and the queens, and even Juliette, being more than mere marionettes.

Berenger the man is only partially realized onstage, and his inner debate with death is manifested, often in ritualistic fashion, in and through the other characters (representing aspects of himself). By the end of the play, speech and movement have been united in a ritual preparation for death. The King’s increasing loss of command over the elements is portrayed onstage by the growing powerlessness of his words. They can no longer command his Guard; even Marie responds only to Marguerite’s orders. The King’s order for a bugle to sound produces only a ringing in his own ear.

Toward the end, the King becomes an invalid, being wheeled around in his blankets and supplied with a hot water bottle by nurse Juliette. Ironically, as the others are celebrating Berenger’s great accomplishments and his command of his vast kingdom, the King’s fear of loss causes his heart to beat loudly, widening cracks in the wall and creating others. The movement of the play is both temporal and psychological, with its self-referential insistence that Berenger as a man will last only the length of the play. The wordplay, the debate between Marie and Marguerite, and the connection between Berenger’s fate and that of the universe (a universe presumably containing the play’s audience) serve to sustain Exit the King until the universe and the King disappear into a sea of gray.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 147

Sources for Further Study

Coe, Richard N. Ionesco: A Study of His Plays. Rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1971.

Dobrez, L. A. C., ed. The Existential and Its Exits: Literary and Philosophical Perspectives on the Works of Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter. London: Athlone, 1986.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. 3d ed. London: Methuen, 2001.

Hayman, Ronald. Eugène Ionesco. London: Heinemann, 1976.

Ionesco, Eugène. Notes and Counter Notes. Translated by Donald Watson. New York: Grove Press, 1964.

Ionesco, Eugène. Present Past, Past Present: A Personal Memoir. Cambridge, England: Da Capo, 1998.

Kluback, William, and Michael Finkenthal. The Clown in the Agora: Conversations About Eugène Ionesco. New York: Lang, 1998.

Lamont, Rosette C., ed. Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Lewis, Allan. Ionesco. New York: Twayne, 1972.

Plimpton, George, ed. “Eugène Ionesco.” In Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Seventh Series. New York: Viking, 1986.

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