History of Literature

French literature


Eugène Ionesco

born Nov. 26, 1909, Slatina, Rom.
died March 28, 1994, Paris, France

Romanian-born French dramatist whose one-act “antiplay” La Cantatrice chauve (1949; The Bald Soprano) inspired a revolution in dramatic techniques and helped inaugurate the Theatre of the Absurd. Elected to the Académie Française in 1970, Ionesco remains among the most important dramatists of the 20th century.

Ionesco was taken to France as an infant but returned to Romania in 1925. After obtaining a degree in French at the University of Bucharest, he worked for a doctorate in Paris (1939), where, after 1945, he made his home. While working as a proofreader, he decided to learn English; the formal, stilted commonplaces of his textbook inspired the masterly catalog of senseless platitudes that constitutes The Bald Soprano. In its most famous scene, two strangers—who are exchanging banalities about how the weather is faring, where they live, and how many children they have—stumble upon the astonishing discovery that they are indeed man and wife; it is a brilliant example of Ionesco’s recurrent themes of self-estrangement and the difficulty of communication.

In rapid succession Ionesco wrote a number of plays, all developing the “antilogical” ideas of The Bald Soprano; these included brief and violently irrational sketches and also a series of more elaborate one-act plays in which many of his later themes—especially the fear and horror of death—begin to make their appearance. Among these, La Leçon (1951; The Lesson), Les Chaises (1952; The Chairs), and Le Nouveau Locataire (1955; The New Tenant) are notable successes. In The Lesson, a timid professor uses the meaning he assigns to words to establish tyrannical dominance over an eager female pupil. In The Chairs, an elderly couple await the arrival of an audience to hear the old man’s last message to posterity, but only empty chairs accumulate on stage. Feeling confident that his message will be conveyed by an orator he has hired, the old man and his wife commit a double suicide. The orator turns out to be afflicted with aphasia, however, and can speak only gibberish.

In contrast to these shorter works, it was only with difficulty that Ionesco mastered the techniques of the full-length play: Amédée (1954), Tueur sans gages (1959; The Killer), and Le Rhinocéros (1959; Rhinoceros) lack the dramatic unity that he finally achieved with Le Roi se meurt (1962; Exit the King). This success was followed by Le Piéton de l’air (1963; A Stroll in the Air). With La Soif et la faim (1966; Thirst and Hunger) he returned to a more fragmented type of construction. In the next decade he wrote Jeux de massacre (1970; Killing Game); Macbett (1972), a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth; and Ce formidable bordel (1973; A Hell of a Mess). Rhinoceros, a play about totalitarianism, remains Ionesco’s most popular work.

Ionesco’s achievement lies in having popularized a wide variety of nonrepresentational and surrealistic techniques and in having made them acceptable to audiences conditioned to a naturalistic convention in the theatre. His tragicomic farces dramatize the absurdity of bourgeois life, the meaninglessness of social conventions, and the futile and mechanical nature of modern civilization. His plays build on bizarrely illogical or fantastic situations using such devices as the humorous multiplication of objects on stage until they overwhelm the actors. The clichés and tedious maxims of polite conversation surface in improbable or inappropriate contexts to expose the deadening futility of most human communication. Ionesco’s later works show less concern with witty intellectual paradox and more with dreams, visions, and exploration of the subconscious.

Les Chaises (English: The Chairs) is an absurdist "tragic farce" by Eugene Ionesco. It was written in 1952 and debuted the same year.

The play concerns two characters, known as Old Man and Old Woman, frantically preparing chairs for a series of invisible guests who are coming to hear an orator reveal the old man's discovery which is implied as being the meaning of life, this is never actually said. The guests supposedly include "everyone" implying everyone in the world; there are other implications that this is a post-apocalyptic world. The Old Man, for example, speaks of the destruction of Paris. The invisibility of the guests implies that the Old Man and Old Woman are the last two people on the planet. As the “guests” arrive, the two characters speak to them, and reminisce cryptically about their lives. A high point in the happiness of the couple is reached when the invisible emperor arrives. Finally, the orator arrives to deliver his speech to the assembled crowd. Played by a real actor, the orator's physical presence contradicts the expectations set up by the action earlier in the play.

The old couple then throw themselves out of the window into the ocean; they commit suicide because they claim at this point, when the whole world is going to hear the Old Man's astounding revelation, life couldn't get any better. As the orator begins to speak, the invisible crowd assembled in the room and the real audience in the theatre discover that the orator is a deaf-mute.

At the end of the play, the sound of an audience fades in. Ionesco claimed this sound of the audience at the end was the most significant moment in the play. He wrote in a letter to the first director, “The last decisive moment of the play should be the expression of ... absence,” He said that after the Orator leaves, "At this moment the audience would have in front of them ... empty chairs on an empty stage decorated with streamers, littered with useless confetti, which would give an impression of sadness, emptiness and disenchantment such as one finds in a ballroom after a dance; and it would be after this that the chairs, the scenery, the void, would inexplicably come to life (that is the effect, an effect beyond reason, true in its improbability, that we are looking for and that we must obtain), upsetting logic and raising fresh doubts." The oddity here is that in the version of The Chairs published by Puffin, we are told that "When first produced, the curtain fell during the moaning of the dumb Orator. The blackboard was omitted." This implies the 'last decisive moment' was ignored by the director whom Ionesco had written to highlighting its importance.

Rhinoceros (French original title Rhinocéros) is a play by Eugène Ionesco, written in 1959. The play belongs to the school of drama known as the Theatre of the Absurd. Over the course of three acts, the inhabitants of a small, provincial French town turn into rhinoceroses; ultimately the only human who does not succumb to this mass metamorphosis is the central character, Bérenger, a flustered everyman figure who is often criticized throughout the play for his drinking and tardiness. The play is often read as a response to the sudden upsurge of Communism, Fascism and Nazism during the events preceding World War II, and explores the themes of conformity, culture, philosophy and morality.


This piece is divided into three acts, each showing a stage in the onset of rhinoceritis.

Act I
Loose rhinos cause the first shock and surprise the characters. Jean can't believe what he saw was real and states "it should not exist." The grocer lets out a cry of fury when he sees the housekeeper leave with her bloodied cat: "We can not allow our cats to be crushed by rhinos or anything else." As with the start of any extremist movement, people are initially afraid.

Act II
People are beginning to turn into rhinoceroses and to follow the rhinoceritis movement. This is where the first opposition is clearly made, as Botard, an old-fashioned French schoolmaster and staunch adherent of the Enlightenment, remarks that it is "a nonsense story," "It is a shameful machination". He does not believe that rhinoceritis is real . Yet, he too will turn into a rhinoceros despite these prejudices, saying that even the most resistant are misled by the rhetoric of the dictatorship. People are starting to turn into rhinoceros: in the case of Mr. Bœuf, followed by his wife: "I can not leave him like that," she said to justify herself. The firefighters are overwhelmed by the increasing number of rhinos in the city.

Jean, at first concerned and disturbed by the presence of rhinos in the city, transforms into a rhino under the desperate eyes of his friend Bérenger. Thus we witness the metamorphosis of a human being into a rhinoceros. Jean is at first sick and pale, he grows a bump on his forehead, breathes loudly and has a tendency to growl. He then gets greener and greener and his skin begins to harden, his veins become prominent, his voice becomes hoarse, and his bump grows into a horn. Jean stops his friend from calling a doctor, he paces in his room like a caged beast, his voice becomes more and more hoarse and he starts bellowing. According to him, there is nothing extraordinary in the fact that Bœuf had become a rhinoceros, "After all, rhinos are creatures like us, who have a right to life just like us". He who was so learned, so well-read, suddenly proclaims "Humanism has expired! You are an old ridiculous sentimentalist."

Finally, everyone becomes a rhinoceros except for Bérenger, Dudard (a male co-worker), and Daisy (another co-worker and a "scientist", with whom Bérenger had been hopelessly in love). Dudard trivializes the transformation and becomes a rhino because his duty is "to follow [his] leaders and [his] peers, for better or for worse." Bérenger and Daisy agree to resist rhinoceritis and marry to restore the human race. Soon afterwards, however, Daisy refuses to "save the world" and follows the rhinos, suddenly finding them beautiful, as she admires their enthusiasm and energy. After much hesitation, Bérenger decides not to surrender: "I am the last man, I will stay till the end! I do not give up!" He ends up weeping because now he cannot become a rhinoceros even if he wanted to.




Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy