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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

French-Romanian poet Eugène Ionesco’s play, Exit the King (le roi se muert), written in 1962, is an absurdist play. The play treats the demise of an aging king who believes he can control the natural forces of the universe, including his own demise. Existentialism suggests that the king actually does control reality as he perceives it.

The King’s guard speaks the play’s opening monologue, in which he says that the king “invented gunpowder,” and furthermore, that
He built the first airplane with his own hands. At first it didn’t work—all the test pilots, Icarus and the others, fell into the sea—but then he decided to pilot the plane himself. I was his mechanic. Long before that, when he was just a little prince, he invented the wheelbarrow. I played with him. Then it was sailboats, steamships, the railway, the automobile. And of course the sickle and the plough, the combine and the tractor.
This quote, in addition to introducing the king, sets the tone for the entire (one act) play. The imminence of the king’s death is set against a dim reality that is the product of the king’s own inflated sense of self. The play develops the king coming to grips (or failing to come to grips) with his death:
All I’ve ever wanted is to be remembered by everyone until the end of time and then also after the end of time – in twenty thousand years, in two hundred and fifty five thousand billion years... but they’ll forget long before that, they’re all selfish. Just thinking about their own little lives.
The king’s sense of worthlessness is ironic given his title and his humorously long longevity (allegedly of over 400 hundred years). His sentiment is, however, part and parcel of the existentialist philosophy that claims that man is the center of his own meaningless universe. Marie, the king’s second wife, is similarly in denial with respect to her husband’s death. Her opening speech (to the king) is as follows:
Stop torturing yourself. ‘Existence', that’s just a word. ‘Death,’ just a word. These are just formulas and ideas that we create for ourselves. Once you understand that, nothing can hurt you. Life is only an unanswered question: what is it... what is? That you can’t answer the question is the answer – let yourself drop into the infinite wonder and chaos and then you too will be infinite. Be amazed! Be dazzled! Everything is strange! Don’t let words define you, break through the prison bars and escape! Breathe!
In many ways, this quote exemplifies the existentialist philosophy. Though Marie’s character is the less pragmatic of the king’s two wives, her contention here that “existence” and “death” are just words are a serious nod to the philosophy whose exemplar Ionesco’s play is.

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