The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Lesson is set entirely in the Professor’s apartment office, which is also a dining room, with a provincial buffet standing on the right. At center stage is a table that doubles as a desk. The window, upstage, is not very large, and through it the roofs of a small town can be seen in the distance. When the curtain rises, the stage is empty. After a few moments, the doorbell rings.

The stout Maid, wearing an apron and a peasant woman’s cap, enters through a door upstage, to the right, from a corridor of the apartment. She opens the hall door at stage left and lets in the young Pupil, a girl wearing a gray student’s smock with a small white collar and carrying a satchel. The Maid exits, calling the Professor to come down. While waiting, the Pupil takes a notebook from her satchel and looks through it as though she is reviewing a lesson. She is smiling, lively, and dynamic, with a self-assured manner. The Professor enters, a short, aging man wearing pince-nez (eyeglasses with a spring clip) and formal black clothes, with a white collar and a small white beard. He is very timid, polite, and proper, but a lewd gleam comes into his eyes occasionally and is quickly repressed.

After a polite exchange, the Professor says that he has lived in this town for thirty years but would prefer to live in Paris, or at least Bordeaux, and then admits that he has never seen Bordeaux and does not know Paris either. When the Pupil guesses that Paris is the capital of France, he jumps to the conclusion that she is a master of French geography. She needs help in naming the four seasons, yet says that she already has diplomas in both science and arts. Now, she declares, she is at the Professor’s disposal, whereupon the recurrent gleam reappears and is extinguished. The Maid enters, looks for something at the buffet, irritates the Professor by urging him to remain calm, and exits. When the Pupil is able to add one and one correctly, the Professor concludes that within only three weeks she “should easily achieve the total doctorate.”

Thereafter, the Pupil gives answers that are sensible to her but often do not make sense according to the Professor’s mathematics. She solves a massive multiplication problem through memorization but cannot rely on reasoning, so that she will never be “able to perform correctly the functions of...

(The entire section is 964 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Professor says of a military friend, “He managed to conceal his fault so effectively that, thanks to the hats he wore, no one ever noticed it.” The Professor wears a conventional black skullcap, and the absurdities in his dialogue expose his faults of the head in a way that no one can fail to notice. As the absurdities increasingly reveal truths, it is the conventional that comes to seem absurd. Many ironies in the play depend upon sustaining the illusion of the ordinary while subverting it. Absurdity contradicts expectation, and contradiction generates irony. The Lesson reverberates with multiple ironies from beginning to end, and this ironic tone is clarified if the Professor is played with emphasis upon his self-contradictions.

The one window of the set becomes significant at the climax of the play: Just before stabbing his pupil, the Professor changes his voice and says to her, “Pay attention . . . don’t break my window. . . .” He has her where he wants her now in his lust to dominate, and the window is a metaphor of his outlook, which, like the literal window, is not very large. At the beginning of the play, when the Professor is proper, the window looks out upon the town, and the sky is a calm grayish blue. Later, when he stabs the Pupil, she flops into a chair that stage directions place near the window. The view out the window, in particular the color of the sky, may be changed by stage lighting to correlate with the changes...

(The entire section is 461 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Coe, Richard N. Ionesco: A Study of His Plays. Rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1971.

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, Mass.: Da Capo, 1998.

Kluback, William, and Michael Finkenthal. The Clown in the Agora: Conversations About Eugène Ionesco. New York: Lang, 1998.

Lamont, Rosette C. Ionesco’s Imperatives: The Politics of Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Lamont, Rosette C, ed. Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Lamont, Rosette C., and Melvin J. Friedman, eds. The Two Faces of Ionesco. New York: Whitston, 1978.

Lane, Nancy. Understanding Ionesco. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.