ionesco.gif Eugène Ionesco (1912-1994)

Living is abnormal.

--from The Rhinoceros

The Romanian-born Eugène Ionesco, b. Nov. 26, 1912 [d. 1994], is one of the foremost playwrights of the Theater of the Absurd. The son of a Romanian father and a French mother, he spent most of his childhood in France, but in his early teenage years returned to Romania, where he qualified as a teacher of French and married in 1936. He returned to France in 1938 to complete his doctoral thesis. Caught by the outbreak of war in 1939, he settled there, earning his living as a proofreader for publishers.

Ionesco came to playwriting almost by chance. Having decided to learn English, he was struck by the emptiness of the cliches of daily conversation that appeared in his phrase book. Out of such nonsensical sentences he constructed his first play, The Bald Soprano (1950; Eng. trans., 1958), which satirizes the deadliness and idiocy of the daily life of a bourgeois society frozen in meaningless formalities. Greatly surprised by the success of the play, Ionesco embarked on a career as a writer of what he called antiplays, which characteristically combine a dream or nightmare atmosphere with grotesque, bizarre, and whimsical humor. In his work the tragic and farcical are fused. In The Lesson (1951; Eng. trans., 1958), a teacher gains domination over his pupil through his superior use of language and finally kills her. In The Chairs (1952; Eng. trans., 1958), an old couple attempt to pass on their total life experience to humanity by inviting to a gathering a vast crowd of guests who never arrive but whose nonpresence is symbolized by a proliferation of empty chairs. Having convinced themselves that the crowd is assembled, the old people kill themselves, leaving the revelation of their message to an orator they have engaged who, as an added irony, turns out to be a feebleminded deaf-mute.

The image, typical of Ionesco, shows his frustrations as a dramatist who is trying to convey his life experience to a crowd of vacant chairs through the mediation of actors who do not understand his message. Similar images of despair concerning the isolation of the individual in the universe and the inevitability of death dominate Ionesco's work. His break-through into the English-speaking theater came with Rhinoceros (1959; Eng. trans., 1960), in which totalitarianism is depicted as a disease that turns human beings into savage rhinoceroses. The hero of this play, Berenger, a simple sort of Everyman, who is also a self-image of Ionesco, reappears in The Killer (1958; Eng. trans., 1960), Exit the King (1962; Eng. trans., 1963), A Stroll in the Air (1963; Eng. trans., 1965), and Hunger and Thirst (1964; Eng. trans., 1966).

Elected a member of the Academie Francaise in 1970, Ionesco has also published theoretical writings, Notes and Counternotes (1962; Eng. trans., 1964); Fragments of a Journal (1966; Eng. trans., 1968); and a novel, Le Solitaire (1973), on which his 1971 film La Vase (with Ionesco playing the lead) was based. Journeys Among the Dead (1980; Eng. trans., 1984) is a later play.

Martin Esslin

Bibliography: Coe, Richard N., Eugène Ionesco: A Study of His Work (1968); Hayman, Ronald, Eugène Ionesco (1976); Lamont, Rosette C., comp., Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays (1973); Lamont, R.C., and Friedman, M.J., eds., The Two Faces of Ionesco (1978); Lazar, Moshe, ed., The Dream and the Play: Ionesco's Theatrical Quest (1982); Lewis, Allan, Ionesco (1972); Pronko, Leonard C., Eugène Ionesco (1965).

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