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.
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
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.
1967 Ionesco made a visit to Israel and, in the second volume
of his autobiography, affirmed his Jewish origins.
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.
Ionesco died at age 84 on March 29, 1994, and is buried in the
Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris, France.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).