The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.