The density of meaning in The Lesson is evidence to some that Eugène Ionesco was more complex than Samuel Beckett, his rival for leadership of the influential avant-garde movement of the 1950’s, Theater of the Absurd. This play, though less well known than La Cantatrice chauve (pr. 1950; The Bald Soprano, 1956) or Rhinoceros, is a more concentrated, resonant, and powerful expression of artistic vision and makes an excellent introduction to Ionesco.
In his first play, The Bald Soprano, Ionesco wrote with comic effect about what he called “the tragedy of language.” The characters are like mechanical puppets manipulated by their language, which consists mainly of platitudes and clichés. In The Lesson, the dangers of language are emphasized, as the spiritual murder of the Pupil points to the literal murder of millions in World War II and beyond them to the ongoing carnage that is human history. In Ionesco’s fourth play, Les Chaises (pr. 1952, pb. 1954; The Chairs, 1957), the deaf-mute Orator is comparable in his pretentious role to the wordy Professor in The Lesson. While some critics see these and later plays as chaotic and anarchistic, others see preconscious, mythic, or archetypal meaning underlying the absurdity.
Ionesco’s early plays dramatize an existential view of life and represent the beginning of his effort to create an abstract theater, transcending the limitations of realism and the explicit politics of “committed” theater as represented by Bertolt Brecht. The Lesson is especially ironic in the context of Ionesco’s aesthetics. Some believe that it is too didactic, while others, of the political Left, condemn it as not didactic enough. Some see his later plays as efforts to be more politically relevant, while others see consistency. As an antitotalitarian drama, The Lesson is comparable to Tueur sans gages (pr., pb. 1958; The Killer, 1960) and to Rhinoceros, in which everyone except the protagonist turns into a monstrous conformist, a rhinoceros.
Ionesco’s bizarre abstraction, often derived from his dreams, has been related to abstract expressionism in painting and, in particular, to Surrealism. The analogy to painting is especially apt in respect to plays that include characters with multiple noses and breasts, and plays that focus on objects: chairs, eggs, coffee cups, and mushrooms. Because of its intellectual richness and visceral power, The Lesson is perhaps the most comprehensive example of Ionesco’s distinctive qualities.