The Lesson Analysis
The Lesson is a 1950s absurdist play with a theme that is relevant even today. Eugene Ionesco has skillfully camouflaged political criticism and philosophical thought in the garb of wit and comedy. There are only three characters: the brusque Maid, the earnest Pupil, and the intense Professor. The play is set in the Professor's apartment. The Pupil comes for her lesson in the hope of earning her doctorate. The Professor, a caricature of an academic personality, attempts to help her.
Soon, the student's spontaneous and instinctive methods clash with the Professor's intellectual approach and the result is complete chaos. In his efforts to teach the Pupil the fundamental principles of mathematics, the Professor confuses her. Gradually, the lesson makes little or no sense to her. As the Professor gets intimidating, the unhappy Pupil starts suffering from a toothache. In the face-off between the teacher and the student, we observe the chasm that lies between knowledge and the ability to grasp that knowledge.
At the climax of the play, the frustrated Professor murders the student. The play ends with the Maid greeting a new pupil. The conclusion conjures a vision of another hapless pupil who is striving to learn the lessons of life. The play criticizes the tendency to enforce compliance and destroy dissension. It comments on the dangers of blind authority and demagoguery.
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 a polytechnician.” Consequently, the Professor decides to prepare her only for a partial doctorate. As he prepares to move on to the subject of philology, or the meanings of language, he is interrupted again by the Maid, now called Marie, who pulls on his sleeve...
(The entire section is 1,776 words.)