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Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994)


Romanian-born French dramatist, whose one-act antiplay, La Cantatrice chauve (1950; The Bald Soprano), inspired the Theater of the Absurd (see also Samuel Beckett, Alfred Jarry). Ionesco's later, full-length plays centre around a constant, semiautobiographical figure, Bérenger. Since the 1970s, his writing were mainly non-theatrical. Ionesco's earlier works were characterized by the logic of nightmare, but later he began to employ a more straightforward plot line.

"All my plays have their origin in two fundamental states of consciousness: now the one, now the other is predominant, and sometimes they are combined. These basic states of consciousness are an awareness of evanescence and of solidity, of emptiness and too much presence, of the unreal transparency of the world and its opacy, of light and of thick darkness." (foreword in Plays I, 1958)

Eugène Ionesco was born in Slatina, Romania, of a French mother and Romanian father. Shortly after his birth, his mother, Thérèse Icard, brought him to Paris, where he spent the years 1914-25. The marriage was not a happy one, and Ionesco's father, , a lawyer, moved back to his home country on the outbreak of World War I. At the age of nine, Ionesco spent with his younger sister some time in the village of La Chapelle-Anthenaise in Mayenne, which later became an archetypal image of Eden in his plays. Thérèse returned to Romania with her children in 1925. There she found out that her husband had managed to divorce her and retain custody of the children.

Ionesco hated Bucharest and its mores, its anti-Semitism, but perfected his knowledge of his father's language and began to write essays and poems. He pronounced his r's as the French do and was often taken as a Jew. Ionesco's father remarried and his new wife's family was very right-wing.

Ionesco studied literature in Paris and in Romania and eventually took a degree in French at the University of Bucharest. After his graduated, he lived in Bucharest teaching French and writing poetry and literary criticism. His book of criticism, Non, appeared in 1934. In 1936 he married Rodica Burileano, a student of law and philosophy. Two years later he received a scholarship that enabled him to return to France, where he planned to write a thesis on 'The Themes of Death and Sin in French Poetry.' Ionesco did research at the National Library but came to the conclusion that the French – Pascal, Péguy, and others – had no feeling for death and never felt guilty. "The basic problem is that if God exists, what is the point of literature?" Ionesco once said. "And if He doesn't exist, what is the point of literature? Either way, my writing, the only thing I have ever succeeded in doing, is invalidated." (Ionesco in 1984, from Playwrights at Work, ed. by George Plimpton, 2000)

Ionesco got involved with the Collège de 'Pataphysique' and became friends with Raymond Queneau and Boria Vian, who were its most active members. The Collège was dedicated to nihilist irony, practical jokes, and the demolition of culture. It had a commission which was preparing a thesis on the history of latrines. Ionesco's physical appearance gave the impression of a sad clown – he had protuberant eyes, overgrown ears, potato like nose, and stomach hanging over the belt. Life is a farce, he used to said. During World War II Ionesco lived with his wife in Marseilles. Their daughter, Marie-France, was born in 1944. They returned to Paris after its liberation from the Germans. Ionesco worked as a proofreader and in 1945 he was awarded a doctorate.

While learning English in 1948, Ionesco conceived the idea for his first play, La Cantatrice chauve (The Bald Soprano), produced in 1950. At the premiere, twenty to thirty members of Collège turned up wearing their gidouilles on their lapels. The Bald Soprano was inspired by the repetitive and nonsensical phrases of his Lingaphone record. It consists mainly of clichés of a foreign-language phrase book, and a series of meaningless conversations between two couples that eventually deteriorate into babbling. This the play went first unnoticed but arose attention when such writers as Jean Anouilh and Raymond Queneau started to campaign for it.

In rapid succession Ionesco wrote a number of dramas, including La Leçon (1951), a picture of the erotic thrust of tyrannical power, Les Chaises (1952), in which the real and the world of make-believe collide on a stage filled with dozens chairs with invisible guests, and Victimes du devoir (1954), a detective-story parody, in which his characters search for "Mallot with a t." Amédée ou Comment s'en débarrasser (1954) portrayed a couple, Amédée and his wife Madeleine, who share their apartment with a slowly growing corpse, possibly killed by them years ago. Bérenger, a little Everyman, was featured first in Tueur sans gages (1958). Intriguingly, they were labelled as "anti-plays", "comic dramas", "pseudo-dramas", "naturalistic comedies", and "tragic farces" which only added to their success. By 1955 Ionesco's reputation was established in France. Gradually he was acclaimed as one of the leading exponents of the theatre of absurd.

Among Ionesco's other well-known plays are Le roi se meurt (1963) and Les Rhinocéros (1959). "When Rhinoceros was produced in Germany, it had fifty curtain calls. The next day the papers wrote, "Ionesco shows us how we became Nazis." But in Moscow, they wanted me to rewrite it and make sure that it dealt with Nazism and not with their kind of totalitarianism. In Buenos Aires, the military government thought it was an attack on Peronism. And in England they accused me of being a petit bourgeois." (from Playwrights at Work) Rhinoceros, set in a small provincial town, was described by Ionesco as "an anti-Nazi play". In the background of the story was Ionesco's disgust when he saw how his friend slowly accepted Nazism. Bérenger, an average middle-class citizen, shows little interest in the fact that a rhinoceros has appeared in the town, he is bored, but other people are willingly transform themselves into rhinoceroses. He quarrels with his friend Jean and Daisy, his pretty secretary. In the office Bérenger witnesses that also the staff is gradually joining the rhinoceroses. Finally Daisy and he are the only human beings, and when Daisy too turns into rhinoceros, Bérenger decides to defend himself with a gun. He is not going to capitulate. Rhinoceros was received with enthusiasm. In London it was produced at the Royal Court Thearte. The director was Orson Welles.

Most of Ionesco's dramas are long one-act-pieces, or untraditional three-act plays. He has also written essays, published in Notes et contre-notes (1962), textbooks for children, and a novel, Le Solitaire (1973). Its anonymous narrator is a clerk. He has lived for twenty years in a dingy hotel and worked in a small-time business. After inheriting a small fortune he can start a new life. "Now I was able to stroll at will along the main thoroughfares, the broad avenues of the big jail. It was a world comparable to a zoo in which the animals enjoyed a kind of semi-freedom, with man made mountains, artificial woods, and imitation lakes, but at the far reaches there were still the same old fences." The protagonist wants to see "what is behind the walls" but in his boredom he falls into the abyss of his own mind.

Ionesco's characters seem like robots, often enslaved by the dictatorial will of an unseen manipulator. From the beginning Surrealism and Dadaism influenced his work, especially Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty concept and the black humor of André Breton, Robert Desnos, and Tristan Tzara. Also Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and Beckett were important writers for him. His dramas deal with suffering, fear, and destruction, the emptiness of polite conversation. "There are no alternatives; if man is not tragic, he is ridiculous and painful, "comic" in fact, and by revealing his absurdity one can achieve a sort of tragedy," Ionesco once said. "In fact I think that man must either be unhappy (metaphysically unhappy) or stupid." (Ionesco in the New York Times, June 1, 1958)

In The Killer (1960), which has been compared with Kafka's The Trial, Bérenger tracks down an elusive murderer who destroys for the sake of destroying in a perfect neighborhood. At the end, Bérenger is unable to escape the menace that has taken over the town. Ionesco has admitted that often got ideas from dreams. Language, with its clichés, is inadequate medium when portraying reality and many things in his plays are left unexplained. His pessimism about the work of writers he expressed in 1970: "But for some time now, science and the psychology of the subconscious have been making enormous progress, whereas the empirical revelations of writers have been making very little. In these conditions, can literature still be considered as a means to knowledge?" Ionesco was elected in 1970 to the Académie Française. His seventieth birthday was celebrated in 1982 worldwide. Hugoliades, his satirical portrait of Victor Hugo, which he wrote at the age of twenty, was published decades later by Gallimard. In his last years Ionesco abandoned writing and devoted himself to painting and exhibiting his works. He died in Paris on March 28, 1994.

For further reading: Eugene Ionesco, ed. by Harold Bloom (2003); The Clown in the Agora: Conversations About Eugene Ionesco by William Kluback, Michael Finkenthal (1998); Eugene Ionesco Revisited by Deborah B. Gaensbauer (1996); Ionesco's Imperatives by Rosette C. Lamont (1993); Eugène Ionesco: A Bibliography by G. Hughes and R. Bury (1974); Ionesco by R. Frickx (1974); Le théâtre de dérision by E. Jacquart (1974); Eugène Ionesco; ou, À la recherche du paradis perdu by T. Saint (1973); La dynamique théatrale d'Eugene Ionesco by P. Vernois (1972); Ionesco, A stydy of his plays by R.N. Coe (1971); Brecht and Ionesco by T.H. Wulbern (1971); The Theatre of the Absurd by Martin Esslin (1961)

Selected works:

  • Elegii pentru fiinţe mici, 1934
  • Nu!, 1934
  • La Cantatrice chauve, 1950 (prod., in Théâtre I, 1954)
    - The Bald Soprano (tr. in Plays I, 1958; Tina Howe, 2004)
    - Kalju laulajatar (suom. Hilkka-Maija Laitinen, 1959; NeOn-teatteri, 1995)
  • Les Salutations, 1950 (prod. 1970, in Théâtre III, 1963)
    - Salutations (in Plays VII, 1968)
  • La Leçon, 1951 (prod., in Théâtre I, 1954)
    - The Lesson (in Plays I, 1958) / The Bald Soprano and The Lesson: Two Plays (translated by Tina Howe, 2007)
    - Oppitunti (suom. Esko Elstelä, 1960)
  • Sept Petits Sketches, 1954 (prod., includes Les Grandes Chaleurs; Le connaissez-vous?; Le Rhume onirique; La Jeune Fille à marier; Le Maître; La Nièce-Épouse; Le Salon de l'automobile - La Jeune Fille à marier included in Théâtre II, 1958; Le Maître in Théâtre II, 1958, Le Salon de l'automobile in Théâtre IV, 1966)
    - Maid to Marry (in Plays III, 1960); The Leader (in Plays IV, 1960); The Niece-Wife (in Ionesco by Richard N. Coe, 1971); The Motor Show (in Plays V, 1963)
  • Amédée; ou, Comment s'en débarrasser, 1954 (prod., in Théâtre I, 1954)
    - Amédée (translated by Donald Watson, 1958)
  • Les Chaises, 1954 (prod. 1952, in Théâtre I, 1954)
    - The Chairs (tr. in Plays I, 1958; Martin Crimp, 1997)
    - Tuolit (suom. Outi Nyytäjä, 1985)
  • Victimes du devoir, 1954 (prod. 1954, in Théâtre I, 1954)
    - Victims of Duty (translated by Donald Watson, 1958)
    - Velvollisuuden uhrit (suom. Kari Salosaari, 1969)
  • Jacques, ou la Soumission, 1954 (prod. 1955, in Théâtre I, 1954)
    - Jack (in Plays I, 1958)
  • Théâtre I, 1954
  • Le Nouveau Locataire, 1955 (prod., in Théâtre II, 1958)
    - The New Tenant (translated by Donald Watson, 1958)
  • Le Tableau, 1955 (prod., in Thèâtre III, 1963)
    - The Picture (in Plays VII, 1968)
  • L'Impromptu de l'Alma; ou, Le caméléon du berger, 1956 (prod., in Théâtre II, 1958)
    - Improvisation; or, The Shepherd's Chameleon (in Plays III, 1960)
  • L'avenir est dans les œufs, 1957 (prod., in Thèâtre II, 1958)
    - The Future Is in the Egg; or, It Takes All Sorts to Make a World (in Plays IV, 1960)
  • L'Impromptu pour la Duchesse de Windsor, 1957 (prod.)
  • Plays I, 1958 (The Chairs; The Bald Soprano; The Lesson, Jack, or Obedience; as Four Plays, 1958)
  • Théâtre II, 1958
  • Tueur sans gages, 1959 (prod., included in Théâtre II, 1958)
    - The Killer (in Plays III, 1960)
  • Plays II (Amedee, or, How to Get Rid of It; The New Tenant; Victims of Duty)
  • Le Maître, 1958
    - The Leader (in Plays IV, 1960)
  • Les Rhinocéros, 1959 (prod., in Théâtre III, 1963)
    - Rhinoceros (translators: Derek Prouse, 1960; Martin Crimp, 2007)
    - Sarvikuono (suom. Aili Palmén, 1964)
    - film 1974, dir. by Tom O'Horgan, starring Zero Mostel, Karen Black, Gene Wilder, Robert Weil, Joe Silver
  • Scène à quatre, 1959 (prod., in Thèâtre III, 1963)
    - Foursome (in Plays V, 1963)
  • Apprendre à marcher, 1960 (ballet scenario, in Théâtre IV, 1966)
    - Learning to Walk (in Plays IX, 1973)
  • Plays III, 1960 (The Killer; Improvisation, or The Shepherd's Chameleon; Maid to Marry)
  • Plays IV, 1960 (Rhinoceros; The Leader; The Future Is in Eggs, or, It Takes All Sorts to Make a World)
  • La Vase, 1961
  • Délire à deux, 1962 (prod., in Théâtre III, 1963)
    - Frenzy for Two (in Plays VI, 1965)
  • Notes et contre-notes, 1962 (rev. ed., 1966)
    - Notes and Counter Notes: Writings on Theatre (translated by Donald Watson, 1964)
  • La Colère, 1962 (screenplay, episode in Les Sept Pêchés capitaux)
  • La Photo du colonel, 1962
    - The Colonel's Photograph (translated by Jean Stewart, with the exception of The stroller in the air, translated by John Russell, 1967)
  • Le roi se meurt, 1962 (prod.)
    - Exit the King (translated by Donald Watson, 1963)
    - Kuningas kuolee (suom. Pirkko Peltonen, 1964)
  • Le Piéton de l'air, 1962 (prod., in Théâtre III, 1963)
    - A Stroll in the Air (translated by Donald Watson, 1965) / The Stroller in the Air (translated by John Russell, 1967)
  • Théâtre III, 1963
  • La Leçon, 1963 (ballet scenario for television, with Fleming Flindt)
  • Plays V, 1963 (Exit the King; The Motor Show; Foursome)
  • La Colère, 1963
    - Anger (in Plays VII, 1968)
  • La Soif et la Faim, 1964 (prod., in Théâtre IV, 1966)
    - Hunger and Thirst (translated by Donald Watson, 1969)
    - Jano ja nälkä (suom. Väinö Kirstinä, 1965)
  • La Lacune, 1965 (prod., in Théâtre IV, 1966) [The Gap]
  • Le jeune homme à marier, 1965 (ballet scenario for television, with Fleming Flindt)
  • Plays VI, 1965 (A Stroll in the Air; Frenzy for Two)
  • Au Pied du Mur, 1966
  • Bonnefoy, Claude. Entretiens avec Eugène Ionesco, 1966
    - Conversations with Ionesco (translated by Jan Dawson, 1970)
  • Leçons de français pour Américains, 1966
  • Pour préparer un œuf dur, 1966 (prod., in Théâtre IV, 1966)
  • Théâtre IV, 1966
  • Journal en miettes, 1967
    - Frangments of a Journal (translated by Jean Stewart, 1968)
  • Présent passé, passé présent, 1968
    - Present Past Past Present (translated by Helen R. Lane, 1971)
  • Plays VII, 1968 (Hunger and Thirst; The Picture; Anger; Salutations)
  • Contes pour enfants, 1969-75 (4 vols.)
    - Story Number 1, For Children Under Three Years of Age (with pictures by Etienne Delessert; translated by Calvin K. Towle, 1968); Story Number 3; For Children Over Three Years of Age (with pictures by Philippe Corentin; translated by Ciba Vaughan, 1971)
  • Découvertes, 1969 (illustrated by the author)
  • Mise en Train, 1969 (with Michael Benamou)
  • Jeux de massacre, 1970 (prod.)
    - Killing Game (translated by Helen Gary Bishop, 1975)
    - Tappoleikit (suom. Helena Häyrynen, 1986)
  • Monsieur Tête, 1970 (screenplay, animated film)
  • The Triumph of Death, 1971 (ballet scenario for television, with Fleming Flindt)
  • Plays VIII, 1971 (Here Comes a Chopper; The Oversight; The Foot of the Wall)
  • Réception à l'Académie française. Discours de réception d'Eugène Ionesco et réponse de Jean Delay, 1971
  • Macbett, 1972 (prod.)
    - Macbett: A Play (translated by Charles Marowitz)
  • Ce formidable bordel!, 1973 (prod.)
    - A Hell of a Mess (translated by Helen Gary Bishop) / Oh What a Bloody Circus (in Plays X, 1976)
  • Le Solitaire, 1973
    - The Hermit (translated by Richard Seaver, 1974)
    - Erakko (suom. Olli-Matti Ronimus, 1976)
  • Plays IX, 1973 (Macbett; The Mire; Learning to Walk)
  • Théâtre V, 1974
  • L'Homme aux valises, 1975 (prod.)
    - Man with Bags (adapted by Israel Horovitz; based on a translation by Marie-France Ionesco) / The Man with the Luggage (in Plays XI, 1979)
  • Plays X, 1976 (Oh What a Bloody Circus; The Hard-Boiled Egg)
  • Antidotes, 1977
  • Entre la vie et le rêve: Entretiens avec Claude Bonnefoy de Eugène Ionesco, 1977
  • Un homme en question - essais, 1979
  • Plays XI, 1979 (The Man with the Luggage; The Duel; Double Act)
  • Le blanc et le noir, 1981
  • Voyages chez les morts ou Thèmes et variations, 1980
    - Journeys among the Dead (translated by Barbara Wright, 1985)
  • Voyage chez les morts, 1981
  • Théâtre VII, 1981
    - Plays XII (Journey among the Dead, 1983)
  • Hugoliade, 1982
    - Hugoliad, or The Grotesque and Tragic Life of Victor Hugo (translated by Dragomir Costineanu, Marie-France Ionesco, Yara Milos, 1987)
  • Littérature roumaine: suivi de Grosse chaleur, adapté de I.-L. Caragiale, 1998
  • La cantatrice chauve: anti-pièce, 2009 (edited by Alessandro Pontremoli)

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