Eugéne Ionesco’s death on March 28 was hardly noticed by the American press. While European newspapers ran two-page spreads on the renowned playwright—whom they variously referred to as “prince of the absurd,” “dynamiter of conformisms,” “genial dramatist,” “old child,” and “melancholy watchman”—the New York Times marked the event with only a standard obituary. But alas, outside of introductory French classes, Ionesco has for years now been neglected in the United States.
Ionesco, who won the Ingersoll Foundation’s T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing in 1985, was born in Slatina, Romania, on November 26, 1909—although he claimed 1912 as his birth year, so as to have made his fame by the age of 40. His father was Romanian, his mother French, and he spent his early years in France. In 1922, he returned to Romania, where he attended high school and college. In 1936, he married Rodica Burileanu, with whom he relocated (permanently, this time) to France during World War II. They had one daughter, Marie-France. Although he had dabbled at writing since his youth, Ionesco did not begin his nonetheless productive career in letters until 1950, with the production of his play “The Bald Soprano” at the Theatre des Noctambules. His breakthrough came in 1960 with the production of “Rhinoceros,” which was enthusiastically received on both sides of the Atlantic. In all, Ionesco wrote some 30 plays, as well as a novel, short stories, dramatic theory, children’s fairy tales, and several books of memoirs. He also painted and produced lithographs, activities he preferred, in his later years, to writing. Ionesco’s literary accomplishments did not go unnoticed by France’s cultural establishment: in 1970, he was elected to the Academic Française and, in 1991, his collected plays were published in the elite “Pleiade” edition.
In his plays, Ionesco strove to return to the sources of theater. Rejecting the “social realism” of more ideological playwrights like Sartre and Brecht, he sought to delve deeper into the more fundamental reality of universal man’s dreams, obsessions, and fears. His tools in this endeavor were banality, caricature, exaggeration, parody, repetition, illogicality, violence, symbolism, puns, rhythm, gesture, and props. Following the modern painters who had rediscovered and rejuvenated painting by reducing scenes and objects to their most basic units, Ionesco aimed at purifying drama by pulling apart conventional characters and breaking down false theatrical idioms. While this style is often termed “Theater of the Absurd,” he preferred the label “Theater of Derision”; he argued that life is by nature absurd (as well as tragic) and that the best way to reveal absurdity is through derision. “[T]he comic is tragic,” he wrote in an essay entitled “Experience of the Theater,” and “the tragedy of man is pure derision.” This conception of drama was influenced by the Punch and Judy shows that he enjoyed as a young child in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris: “It was the very image of the world that appeared to me, strange and improbable but truer than true, in the profoundly simplified form of caricature, as though to stress the grotesque and brutal nature of the truth,” he later noted.
Ionesco’s dramatic explorations of this truth met with criticism from both the right and the left. Ionesco was often dismissed as a joker; he was also frequently disdained for his lack of a social or political conscience. Kenneth Tynan and George Orwell, for example, criticized him (in a series of exchanges in the London Observer in the late 1950’s) for his inaction in society and his abdication of politics; Ionesco’s refusal to take part in the ideological battles of the Cold War era was, in their eyes, tantamount to surrender. The playwright’s response to such detraction illustrated his deep understanding of the human condition. Arguing that it is not any particular society that is derisory but rather man himself, Ionesco gave the lie to the liberal fallacy that humans can be saved through social or political means. Unlike Tynan, who hoped that we may “some day . . . free ourselves from the rusty hegemony of Angst,” Ionesco realized that Heaven is not now and will never be of this world. Conscious of man’s original sin, he knew better than to believe, like so many deluded modernists, that man can implement what God has not wrought: “No society,” he wrote in reply to Tynan, “has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute; it is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa.” In accepting this basic reality (and in depicting it in his plays), Ionesco was the very opposite of neutral or disengaged: battling despair, he kept on creating, attempting through his writing to increase awareness of the way things are. For him, what mattered was his “conflict with the universe.” As the French newspaper Le Quotidien summarized his outlook, “He knew that man is embarked on this voyage. He trembled before the eternal silence of the infinite spaces. But he cupped his ear to listen.” And, buried in his writings, there was a glimmer of hope. In a written answer to a question posed to him by a publication called Bref, he anticipated a revolt that would “restore man’s inner life, his real humanity, his freedom and equilibrium.”
Yet, because his attitude was more existential than religious, Ionesco did fear death. Indeed, this fear permeates his work. As Roger Planchon asserted in Le Figaro on the day after his death, Ionesco was “an author who, his whole life, meditated about death. . . . All of his plays concern death. All his life, he reflected on this subject, pen in hand. He makes me think of those monks of the 16th century who slept in their coffins, surrounded by heads of the dead, and had always in mind the idea of death.” In what he termed his “literary testament” (first published in Le Figaro in December 1993), Ionesco revealed the profound sense of fear and anguish he felt in his last days: “[God] did not abolish death for me, something that I find inadmissible. . . . Man does not appear on earth in order to live. He appears in order to decline and die.” Although Ionesco certainly felt this most strongly in his old age, it was something that had obsessed him for a long time. In a talk that inaugurated the Helsinki Debates on the Avant-Garde Theater in 1959, he referred to Brendan Behan’s “The Quare Fellow,” in which “death has the leading role” as all of the characters await the execution of a condemned man. The same could also be said of Ionesco’s own play “Amedee Or How to Get Rid of It,” in which a petit-bourgeois couple is persecuted by a corpse that has been in their apartment for 15 years. As the body literally grows to fill the two rooms of the apartment, the couple realizes how much time they have wasted tiptoeing around the “skeleton in [their] closet.” Toward the beginning of the play, the wife remarks in reference to the ever-expanding (and ever-aging) corpse that “the dead grow old faster than the living. . . . The dead are terribly vindictive. The living forget much sooner.” May Ionesco rest in peace from what he feared so much, and may the living (even in America) not forget the real literary testament that he has left to us.