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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Ionesco, Eugène (1912 - 1994)
"In the name of religion, one tortures, persecutes, builds pyres. In the guise of ideologies, one massacres, tortures and kills. In the name of justice one punishes ... in the name of love of one's country or of one's race one hates other countries, despises them, massacres them. In the name of equality and brotherhood there is suppression and torture. There is nothing in common between the means and the end, the means go far beyond the end ... ideologies and religions ... are the alibis of the means."

-- Eugène Ionesco


Eugène Ionesco, born Eugen Ionescu, (November 26, 1909 – March 29, 1994) was one of the foremost playwrights of the Theatre of the absurd. Beyond ridiculing the most banal situations, Ionesco's plays depict in a tangible way the solitude of humans and the insignificance of one's existence.

Ionesco was born on November 26, 1909, in Slatina, Romania, to a Romanian father and a French mother. Many sources cite his birthdate as 1912, this error being due to vanity on the part of Ionesco himself. He spent most of his childhood in France, but returned to Romania with his father in 1925 after his parents divorced. There he studied French Literature at the University of Bucharest from 1928 to 1933 and qualified as a teacher of French. While there he met Emil Cioran and Mircea Eliade, and the three became lifelong friends

In 1936 Ionesco married Rodica Burileanu. Together they had one daughter for whom he wrote a number of unconventional children's stories. He and his family returned to France in 1938 for him to complete his doctoral thesis. Caught by the outbreak of World War II in 1939, he remained there, living in Marseilles during the war before moving with his family to Paris after its liberation in 1944.

In 1967 Ionesco made a visit to Israel and, in the second volume of his autobiography, affirmed his Jewish origins.

Ionesco was made a member of the Académie française in 1970. He also received numerous awards including Tours Festival Prize for film, 1959; Prix Italia, 1963; Society of Authors Theatre Prize, 1966; Grand Prix National for theatre, 1969; Monaco Grand Prix, 1969; Austrian State Prize for European Literature, 1970; Jerusalem Prize, 1973; and honorary doctorates from New York University and the universities of Leuven, Warwick and Tel Aviv.

Eugène Ionesco died at age 84 on March 29, 1994, and is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris, France.

Although Ionesco wrote almost entirely in French, he is one of Romania's most honored artists. There is some frustration over the fact that the world considers him a French writer and is not aware of his Romanian roots.

Ionesco the author

The origins of his first play
Like Samuel Beckett, Ionesco came to the theatre late: he did not write his first play until 1948 (La Cantatrice chauve, first performed in 1950 with the English title The Bald Soprano). At the age of 40 he decided to learn English using the Assimil method, conscientiously copying whole sentences in order to memorize them. Re-reading them, he began to feel that he was not learning English, rather he was discovering some astonishing truths such as the fact that there are seven days in a week, that the ceiling is up and the floor is down; things which he already knew, but which suddenly struck him as being as stupefying as they were indisputably true.

This feeling only intensified with the introduction in later lessons of the characters known as "Mr. and Mrs. Smith". To his astonishment, Mrs. Smith informed her husband that they had several children, that they lived in the vicinity of London, that their name was Smith, that Mr. Smith was a clerk, that they had a servant, Mary, who was English like themselves. What was remarkable about Mrs. Smith, he thought, was her eminently methodical procedure in her quest for truth. For Ionesco, the clichés and truisms of the conversation primer disintegrated into wild caricature and parody with language itself disintegrating into disjointed fragments of words.

Ionesco set about translating this experience into a play, La Cantatrice Chauve, which was performed for the first time in 1950 under the direction of Nicolas Bataille. It was far from a success and went unnoticed until a few established writers and critics, among them Jean Anouilh and Raymond Queneau, championed the play.

Early works
Ionesco's earliest works, and his most innovative, were one-act nonsense plays: La Cantatrice chauve (1950), La Leçon (1951), Les Chaises (1952), and Jacques ou la Soumission (1955). These absurdist sketches, to which he gave such descriptions as "anti-play" (anti-pièce in French) express modern feelings of alienation and the impossibility and futility of communication with surreal comic force, parodying the conformism of the bourgeoisie and conventional theatrical forms. In them Ionesco rejects a conventional story-line as their basis, instead taking their dramatic structure from accelerating rhythms and/or cyclical repetitions.

He disregards psychology and coherent dialogue, thereby depicting a dehumanized world with mechanical, puppet-like characters who speak in non-sequiturs. Language becomes rarefied, with words and material objects gaining a life of their own, increasingly overwhelming the characters and creating a sense of menace.

The full-length plays
With Tueur sans gages (1959; his second full-length play, the first being Amédée, ou Comment s'en débarrasser in 1954), Ionesco began to explore more sustained dramatic situations featuring more humanized characters. Notably this includes Bérenger, a central character in a number of Ionesco's plays, the last of which is Le Piéton de l'air.

Bérenger is a semi-autobiographical figure expressing Ionesco's wonderment and anguish at the strangeness of reality. He is comically naïve, engaging the audience's sympathy. In Tueur sans gages he encounters death in the figure of a serial killer. In Rhinocéros he watches his friends turning into rhinoceri one by one until he alone stands unchanged against this tide of conformism.

It is in this play that Ionesco most forcefully expresses his horror of ideological conformism, inspired by the rise of the fascist Iron Guard in Romania in the 1930s. Le Roi se meurt (1962) shows him as King Bérenger 1st, an everyman figure who struggles to come to terms with his own death.

Later works
Ionesco's later work has generally received less attention. This includes La Soif et la faim (1966), Jeux de massacre (1971), Macbett (1972, a free adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth) and Ce formidable bordel (1973).

Apart from a libretto for an opera which was never produced, Ionesco did not write for the stage after Voyage chez les morts in 1981. However, La Cantatrice chauve was still playing at the Théâtre de la Huchette in 1993, having moved there in 1952.

Theoretical Writings
Like Shaw and Brecht, Ionesco also contributed to the theatre with his theoretical writings (Wellwarth, 33). Ionesco wrote mainly in attempts to correct critics who he felt misunderstood his work and therefore wrongly influenced his audience. In doing so, Ionesco articulated ways in which he thought contemporary theatre should be reformed (Wellwarth, 33). Notes and Counter Notes is a collection of Ionesco's writings, including musings on why he chose to write for the theatre and direct responses to his contemporary critics.

In the first section, titled "Experience of the Theatre," Ionesco claimed to have hated going to the theatre as a child because it gave him "no pleasure or feeling of participation" (Ionesco, 15). He wrote that the problem with realistic theatre is that it is less interesting than theatre that invokes an "imaginative truth," which he found to be much more interesting and freeing than the "narrow" truth presented by strict realism (Ionesco, 15). He claimed that "drama that relies on simple effects is not necessarily drama simplified" (Ionesco, 28).

 
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