EUGENE IONESCO was the central and the youngest figure in what Martin Esslin has labelled the 'Theatre of the Absurd', which in the very early Fifties challenged the three dominating schools of French drama: the committed theatre of Sartre and Camus, which examined political and philosophical problems; the literary theatre of Paul Claudel, Jean Anouilh and Jean Giraudoux, which combined the themes of French classical and poetic drama with social theatre; and the popular theatre of the day of Andre Roussin and others, consisting of situation comedies and farces.
Three names became linked together as the creators of a new drama, Arthur Adamov, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, of which Ionesco was the last survivor. Performed in small theatres in Paris, they attracted public curiosity and critical acclaim, and drew to them a breed of specialised actors and directors, some of whom were already known from the Surrealist theatre, to which the Absurdists owed a heavy debt, as well as to such earlier experimenters as Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire. The advocacy of the critic Harold Hobson in particular brought these plays to the attention of British theatre directors in the mid-Fifties, who adapted them for London and the small provincial theatres that were looking for newsworthy plays that were cheap to do.
Adamov was really a political playwright and soon moved more in the direction of Bertolt Brecht and Sean O'Casey, while Beckett's theatre, in spite of Absurdist elements, is really classical drama that looks back to Greek and Shakespearian tragedy. But Ionesco was certainly an Absurdist, whose work had two facets: first, the distortion and disintegration of language to explain or to add to the real confusion of the world; second, the depiction of situations that have lost their context and often gone completely out of control, so that the audience sees a distorted mirror-world that reflects our own in such a way that we perceive absurdities of life previously overlooked. Ionesco made frequent use of his dreams, especially to convey his two main fears, failure and death.
Ionesco's stage dialogues are fast-moving and entertaining, and in the earlier plays often very funny, always with darker undertones, but without the profundity of Beckett. A naturally droll person, Romanian-born and writing in his second language, Ionesco noticed that not only do objects have different names in two tongues but are often understood differently, and that there are many comic ways of presenting the many unexplained incidents that crop up in everyday life.
His first play, The Bald Prima Donna, was performed in 1950, directed by Nicolas Bataille, and is based on a visit to Bristol, where Ionesco tried to learn English. In it he depicts a typical English home, characters with English names, Mr and Mrs Smith and Mr and Mrs Martin, and what he imagines is a typical English conversation with examples of English humour that break down into a potpourri of the slogans, catchphrases, mottoes and expressions that he had learnt from a primer. Language becomes a labyrinth of half-understood meanings and associations. The play was premiered in London in English in 1956 at the Arts Theatre Club and thereafter Ionesco was a household name in advanced theatre circles and at the universities, his plays performed at the Arts and Royal Court theatres in London and in many provincial theatres.
The Lesson (1951) and The Chairs (1962) became with The Bald Prima Donna his best-known early plays. In The Chairs a very old man, with an important message to give the world, hires an orator who will deliver the message. The stage is filled with chairs put out by the man and his wife for an invisible audience. When the orator finally appears after great preparations, he is unable to get out more than a strangled cry or to write more than gibberish on a blackboard.
With growing international celebrity Ionesco started to write for larger theatres and his greatest successes were undoubtedly Rhinoceros (1960), which Jean-Louis Barrault interpreted in Paris and Laurence Olivier in London, and Exit the King (1962), played by Jacques Mauclair in Paris and Alec Guinness in English at the 1963 Edinburgh Festival and then in London.
Both these plays feature his alter ego Jean Berenger, who is also the hero of virtually all his later work. In Rhinoceros all the cast, one by one, turn into rhinoceroses, a metaphor for conformism. What he is attacking is however more the conformism of the Left than the Right: he became increasingly conservative politically after he began to earn higher royalties. Berenger is very much Ionesco himself, always in the middle of a problem - a marriage gone sour, an ideally planned city terrorised by a motiveless killer, a plague; or else trapped inside a dream where his fears become real. In Exit the King, perhaps his most moving play, the king is told he will die at the end of the performance in two hours' time and, having gone through stages of fear and panic, finally resigns himself; but the knowledge of his own approaching death makes him less of a monster and he begins to understand the everyday problems and suffering of others because for the first time he realises that all humanity is in the same boat.
Ionesco's ability to drop a level of consciousness and to look at a situation with innocent eyes, seeing what is happening but not quite understanding the external forces that lie behind the event, brings him close to Surrealism. Freeing the mind from its full conscious state is a pre-condition of Surrealist automatic writing. But with Ionesco his strange world of floating reality is based on genuine puzzlement and miscomprehension. Coming to France as a child from Romania, he had to learn everything over again and it is that child's vision of an alien country that he manages to retain as the hallmark of his writing.
Ionesco's appeal is therefore not so much to the intellectual, as to ordinary people able to see their own insecurities, misunderstandings and humiliations arising from ignorance, put on the stage in a way that they recognise: dramatising those moments when they are not sure if the whole world is against them or if their own inadequacy is responsible. Ionesco does not try to resolve the contradictions of life or to explain them but he presents them as he sees them for others to recognise.
As Ionesco, rather like King Berenger in Exit the King - the drama which marks the break between the self-absorbed early plays written for small theatres and the later works written on a more epic scale - allowed himself to become more aware of the great horrors of the world and to equate them with his own fears of failure and death, he began to look into the abyss with a flood of language and long soliloquies that are often embarrassing in their self-pity. Tact and discretion have never been part of his work; their absence gives it a disarming frankness that accounts for much of his popularity with audiences that would find Beckett boring. The plays are not deep: almost anyone can quickly see what the metaphors he invents refer to, but he makes his audience aware of something that they know exists in themselves, but have never consciously realised or thought about.
The link with Surrealism, which is the principal ancestor of the 'Theatre of the Absurd' is in some ways more apparent in Adamov, Beckett and Fernando Arrabal than in Ionesco, writers who were consciously more deliberate in what they were doing, but there is a definite resemblance to and influence of Roger Vitrac in the early work. Vitrac's Coup de Trafalgar, written in 1934, is a direct ancestor of The Bald Prima Donna.
Surrealism is more a method than an art-form and no Surrealist drama is wholly successful on that account. Ionesco's work is the thing itself, instinctive but finished drama, not an illustration of a method. The large-scale later works, written after 1962, on the other hand, owe something to Brecht. Once one is accustomed to the Absurdism in Ionesco and has understood the underlying fears and lack of inhibition, which latter is really a naive aspect of his writing, his work becomes not so far removed from French social drama of the Beaumarchais style. It has the humour and the farcical elements, if not the elegance.
Born in 1912 in Slatina, Romania, he was brought to France the following year by his mother and returned to his native country in 1927, where he remained until 1938, the year he made France his home with his wife, Rodica, whom he had married at the age of 24. They spent the Second World War in Marseilles under considerable financial stress; the fear of poverty remained with Ionesco all his life, as well as the fear of being forgotten and no longer performed. He earned a living at various occupations including proof-reading and teaching until 1948, when he wrote his first play. Within five years he was able to live from writing.
In addition to 33 plays, Ionesco wrote one novel, The Hermit (1975), and a collection of short stories, The Colonel's Photo (1962), which consisted of sketches for plays, in the same way as Pirandello derived his material from his fiction. He also wrote several volumes of memoirs, articles on theatre, diaries containing his random thoughts, and expressing his angoisse at the worries of his life and career, insisting that he, with his early plays, was the first to establish the new anti-boulevard theatre.
In particular he expressed a rival's fear of Beckett, whose Nobel Prize must have been a considerable blow. Eugene Ionesco was however much honoured in France and was elected to the Academie francaise in 1970, occupying the chair that was previously Jean Paulhan's. In Ionesco's last decade he started to paint and became a colourist in a style reminiscent of Miro. He is survived by his wife, and by one daughter, who as an actress has performed in some of his plays.