Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 223
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.
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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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 964
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 and warns him that philology leads to calamity. He warns Marie that she is going too far, that he is not a child, and orders her out. Stage directions indicate that his voice changes during the play, starting off thin and reedy but growing stronger and stronger, as he becomes ever more authoritarian, until at the end it is extremely powerful. His domination reduces the Pupil to passivity, until she becomes “almost a mute and inert object.”
The Professor proceeds to give a vacuous lecture full of absurdity, circular reasoning, and double-talk on the philology of various “neo-Spanish languages,” including references to jai alai, a game resembling handball. He reproaches the Pupil for parading her knowledge, then lectures her on articulation in a flight of clumsy metaphors and clichés. The Pupil now begins to complain of a toothache. She continues to do so for the rest of the play, while the Professor lectures, ignores her increasing pain, and tries to force her into obedience. He threatens to extract her teeth. Then he tries to silence her by threatening to bash in her skull. He twists her wrist and she cries out. In a rage, he continues to lecture on languages.
Finally, the Professor is exasperated by the Pupil and calls in the Maid to help, but she refuses, warns him that once again he is going too far, and exits. He goes to a drawer and finds a big knife, “invisible or real.” The lewd gleam in his eyes becomes “a steady devouring flame.” He brandishes the knife happily, says that it will serve for all the languages, and orders the Pupil to look at it while repeating after him the word “knife.” When she finally yields and repeats after him, he stabs her. They both cry “Aaah!” at the same moment. She flops onto a chair by the window in “an immodest position.” He then stabs her to death, convulses, and collapses into a chair. When he returns to his senses and realizes what he has done, he calls in the Maid again. Marie lectures him, saying that “every day it’s the same thing,” and this pupil makes his fortieth murder; she warns him that soon he will run out of pupils. The Professor tries to strike Marie with the knife, but she overpowers him. He apologizes, she slaps him, and he cowers like a child. Then she forgives him and says that he is a good boy in spite of being a murderer.
With forty coffins to bury, the Professor is afraid that someone will notice. The Maid assures him that the sight is so commonplace that people wll not ask questions. Around his arm she puts an armband with an insignia, “perhaps the Nazi swastika.” If he wears this armband, she says, he has nothing to fear. They exit, carrying the corpse. After several moments, the doorbell rings. As at the beginning of the play, the Maid appears, goes to the door, and ushers in the next Pupil.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461
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 in the Professor. Approaching the end, exaggerated shadows are also appropriate.
Early in the play the Professor uses imaginary matches to illustrate a math problem, then writes at comical length on an imaginary blackboard with an imaginary piece of chalk. The leap from the commonplace to the absurd capsulizes Eugène Ionesco’s method as a dramatist: requiring the audience to respond in a figurative rather than merely a literal mode. Similarly, stage directions say that the big knife may be invisible or real, but two subsequent references are made to “the invisible knife,” implying that the knife should be seen as a metaphor. The murder is spiritual. The Pupil is killed by the word, an instrument of ideology that deprives her of independent life.
At the end of the play, the insignia on the armband is “perhaps” a Nazi swastika, indicating that it represents more than a single political movement. Some critics object that this reference contradicts the otherwise antididactic tone of the play. Others say that a larger meaning is conveyed if the insignia used is not a Nazi swastika but resembles or evokes one, and that this play, like Rhinocéros (pr., pb. 1959; Rhinoceros, 1959), may be reduced by too literal an interpretation of its symbols.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 128
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.