Deconstructing Language and Meaning with Eugène Ionesco

On the 26th of November 1909, the playwright Eugen Ionescu was born in Slatina, Judetul Olt, Romania. Having trained as a French teacher in ‘Little Paris’, as Bucharest had become known between the two world wars, Ionesco followed on to Paris where he completed his doctorate in 1938. He returned to France during the war in 1942 with his wife and child and eventually established himself in Paris where he lived and worked till the end of his life in 1994.

Ionesco, as he chose to call himself thereon, arrived at his theatre career at the relatively late age of 40, like Samuel Beckett. The story of how he decided to become a playwright has become something of a self-created myth. It all started when the writer decided to learn English using the Assimil method, a French invention in foreign language self-tuition, based on repetitive exposure to sound and text. Ionesco conscientiously copied the manual’s sentences in order to memorize them and as he was re-reading them, the English language dissolved, the sentences suddenly stood for astonishing truisms that no one would otherwise dwell on. The book was full of banal, useless phrases, clearly designed to teach the learner the basis of the English vocabulary, but for Ionesco it sparked an idea about writing his first play. “I learned not English, but some astonishing truths: that, for example, there are seven days in the week, something, moreover, I already knew; that the floor is down, the ceiling up, things I already knew as well perhaps, but which I had never seriously thought about or had forgotten and which seemed to me, suddenly, as stupefying as they were indisputably true.” The manual featured the didactic story of the English couple Mr and Mrs Smith. It turned out that they had several children and lived somewhere near London with their housekeeper Mary, finished their dinner at 9pm, socialised with the Martins, etc.; the scenarios in which they participated became the framework for Ionesco’s absurd play. La Cantatrice Chauve (Cântăreața Cheală in Romanian, The Bald Soprano in English) directed by Nicolas Bataille, premiered in Paris in May 1950 and since 1957, has been continuously performed at Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris, receiving numerous awards as one of France’s favourite theatrical performances.

“The text of The Bald Soprano or of the English (…) Primer, composed of ready-made expressions and the most tired clichés, made me aware of the automatic quality of language and human behavior, “empty talk,” speaking because there is nothing personal to say, the absence of inner life, the mechanical aspect of daily existence, man bathing in his social environment, becoming an indistinguishable part of it. The Smiths, the Martins, can no longer talk because they can no longer think; they can no longer think because they can no longer be moved, can no longer feel passions; they can no longer be, they can “become” anybody, anything, for, having lost their identity, they assume the identity of others, become part of the world of the impersonal; they are interchangeable: you can put Martin in place of Smith and vice versa, no one will notice.” (‘The Tragedy of Language. How an English Primer Became My First Play’, by Eugène Ionesco and Jack Undank in The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 4, No. 3, Mar., 1960).

Hungarian-born English critic Martin Esslin coined a term which would define this type of drama in his 1960 essay Theatre of the Absurd. Thus Ionesco came to be associated with dramatists such as Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov who created theatre characterised by exaggerated vaudeville-style comedy, horrific or tragic images, characters caught in hopeless situations compulsively carrying out repetitive or meaningless actions; chicheed dialogues, nonsensical wordplay, cyclical plots and a general parody of the realist, conventional structure of a play. From a theoretical viewpoint, “If a definition of the philosophy of absurdist drama were articulated, it would include the expression of the belief in a godless universe where human existence has no meaning or purpose, where all communication breaks down, and where logical construction and argument give way to both irrational and illogical speech.” (Anne Quinney, ‘Excess and Identity: The Franco-Romanian lonesco Combats Rhinoceritis’, South Central Review, Vol. 24, No. 3, Fall, 2007).

Esslin recalled Albert Camus who used the term ‘absurd’ in his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, yet Ionesco is often mislabeled an existentialist. In Notes and Counter Notes (1964), Ionesco claimed that he did not want to be associated with the theories of existentialism’s figurehead Jean-Paul Sartre: “I don’t think much of Sartre. I believe also that my fundamental reaction is the very opposite of his. Consciousness, the awareness of existence, provokes in me an astonishment which is a source of joy. This astonishment is like a state of grace. I am depressed when it forsakes me, when I am not astonished, when existence becomes routine because of exhaustion, lack of awareness, or distraction. This is what happens most of the time. (…) The Bald Soprano is the expression of my personal feeling of the astonishing (insolite). A state of astonishment that breaks through cliches, which bursts cliches, by stressing those very cliches. The universe surprises me. (…) How did you learn to breathe from the first second of your life without anyone ever teaching you? The theatre is a natural function also.” (‘An Interview with Ionesco, Richard Schechner, Ionesco and Leonard C. Pronko’, The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 7, No. 3, Spring, 1963). Ionesco was of course, right, and a more inviting definition of the theatre would be hard to find…