Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 303

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...

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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.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 413

Exit the King is a play not about death itself but about the process of facing one’s own disintegration. Offered as a kind of debate on death, the play pits the young and passionate Queen Marie (who begs Berenger to be lost in the now) against the older and wiser Queen Marguerite (who insists that death must always inform one’s consciousness). The metaphysical debate is not over the nature of death, which remains mysterious in the play, but over its significance. Science, as represented by the learned Doctor, is powerless to stop the inevitable. The rest of humanity, embodied in the choruslike function of the Guard, is reduced to wooden cliché. For each person death is a unique experience, utterly new, and the most one can hope for is a Marguerite, a “guide” reminiscent of those in the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Exit the King is not a tragedy, for tragedy implies noble defeat in the context of an ordered universe. Berenger and his court are a microcosm of modern man, ludicrously crowned with self-made authority, having lost any connection with a “higher order.” Human finitude thus becomes the object of laughter, even of derision, in its futile attempts to command all creation and give it meaning.

The play might be interpreted solipsistically, with the universe itself fading from existence as the King slips into unconsciousness; yet Marguerite assures the King that “nothing will be forgotten. . . . A grain of salt that dissolves in water doesn’t disappear: it makes the water salty.” In the modern universe, as the Doctor puts it earlier in the play, Berenger would also be remembered—but only as a page in a book in some vast library, and only until the page decays from age or is destroyed by fire. Rather, as Marguerite tells Berenger, “Life is exile,” and he must return to his own land. Solipsism is merely the coward’s hope; life may well be a cruel joke, but each modern human being must nevertheless face the prankster Death. The King, immobile, passionless, seated in kingly fashion upon his throne, fades at the end of the play into a mist, not triumphant, not resigned, but already less (or more) than human. Some have written that the play actually helped them face death, but, in his seventy-first year, Eugène Ionesco responded that, “Alas, it does not help me, since I am not reconciled to the idea of death, of man’s mortality.”

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