Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Eugène Ionesco was one of the founding members of the Theater of the Absurd—a tradition of European theater in the mid-20th century that focused on the triviality of human affairs and the futility of human efforts.

The Theater of the Absurd in large part gives theatrical presentation to the philosophical school of existentialism. Existentialism is, as the name suggests, a school of thought that maintains that the individual is responsible for giving meaning to the world. This is, therefore, a rather destabilizing philosophy, as it presupposes that the individual is responsible for his or her own happiness and unhappiness, which can lead to a sense of meaninglessness. It is in the spirit of this philosophy that Ionesco wrote his 1962 play, Exit the King (le roi se meurt). The play features the ailing King Bérenger, who is allegedly over 400 years old when told by his doctor of his imminent death. In addition to the doctor, the king is joined by his first and second wives on the stage. The king is left alone at the end, overtaken by darkness, which signals his death. The themes are death and the ego, and the intersection of the two. The human ego has a difficult time accepting mortality. The rather supernatural circumstance within the play that the sun is not rising and falling on time, and that the cows do not produce milk, is a reflection of the ego. The projection of the individual to construct a reality is a hallmark of existentialism. The king’s reality may be deteriorating, or it could be his illusion, but the point is moot, according to existential philosophy. The play ultimately, of course, demonstrates how humans invariably struggle with their own mortality. The king epitomizes this conflict. As his ego is greater, his struggle is greater.

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