Theatre of the Absurd
Eugene Ionesco’s
Eugene Ionesco (1909-1994)
b. Romania, near Bucharest, raised Paris
Father a lawyer, back to Romania during WWI
1922 return Romania to his father, now remarried
1928 debut as poet; degree in French 1933; continued
poetry, reviews, literary criticism
1936 married; 1938 back to Paris
1945 worked in publishing house in Paris
1948 begins writing plays (Bald Soprano)
Pataphysics – science of imaginary solutions w/ other
artists; he acts and writes with them
Became a French citizen (50) and member French
Academy (70)
Leading figure of literary avant-garde
Activist for human rights, esp in Romania
“It seemed to me that {people} allow themselves to live, as it were,
unconsciously. Perhaps it's because everyone, all the others, are
convinced in some unformulated, irrational way that one day everything
will be made clear. Perhaps there will be a morning of grace for humanity.
Perhaps there will be a morning of grace for me.” (Hermit, 1973)
I’m pot -bellied, dumpy, small, I’ve short legs. I’m a peasant from the
Danube, as I’ve said.” (Critical Inquiry, 1975)
“I don’t know if you have noticed it, but when people no longer share
your opinions, when you can no longer make yourself understood by
them, one has the impression of being confronted with monsters,
rhinos, for instance. They have that mixture of candour and ferocity.
They would kill you with the best of consciences.” (Le monde 1960)
Pot-bellied, dumpy, small ….
Rhinoceros, 1959
• Ionesco’s response to fascism; the terror of brute
force becomes “beauty”
• The struggle of one man to keep integrity (see
Miller’s essay on common man tragedy)
• BBC radio 1st production (on heels of debate over
realism w/ Kenneth Tynan)
• Staged 1960 at Odéon in Paris by Barrault and
Orson Welles directed at Royal Court, London
• 1962 Martin Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd names
Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, Adamov, Pinter
“absurdists” – defines new anti-realism trend
Theatre of the Absurd
• Term from Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, 1942; out of
harmony, but “one must imagine Sisyphus
• “If the world were clear, art would not exist.”
• Esslin says the authors all face the senselessness
of human existence and the inadequacy of
rational explanations (philosophy, religion,
• Absurd in this case means devoid of purpose
• Among the absurdists, Ionesco deals more with
social situations than individual, ethical choices
that have ramifications
Dramaturgy of Absurd
• Plot: logical development would be antithetical;
exposition is lacking; rarely a climax. Circular structure
is common.
• Characters: often devoid of history except as defined in
stage actions. Often trapped in meaningless situations.
Often can’t communicate effectively. Find meaning in
absurd actions, relationships, social gestures.
• Theme: dramatic symbols often dominate all other
elements. Background image, anyone?
• Language: devolves into cliché or routine; rhythm and
sound may overtake denotative meaning
• Spectacle: stage use, objects, relationship to audience
commonly symbolic and address audience as such
• Quaint French village; Act 1 very idealized
• I:I Village with restaurant, grocery, street.
Sunday, noon, summer
• I:ii Law publishing office. Next morning
• II Jean’s room, Monday afternoon
• III Berenger’s room, a few days later
• Big challenge is the visual of rhinos; especially
Jean’s onstage transformation in Act II. Your
next group project is to design this.
• Berenger: the absurd hero. Never bought the values of
his community. Drinks too much; gets to work late.
• Jean: his foil; he fits into his small town world, the
values of work, dress, socializing
• Daisy: ingenue
• Mr. Papillon: boss
• Botard: in office, a hard worker, populist
• Dudard: young man at work w/ bright future
• Logician: is totally misleading in this case; who cares
how many horns when people are transforming?
• Mr. and Mrs. Boeuf
• Townspeople: Grocer, Housewife, Old Gentleman
• Is never directly mentioned.
• “It is my duty to stick by them. I have to do my duty.”
and “If you are going to criticize them, it’s better to
do so from the inside.” Dudard, p. 114
• “I feel responsible for everything that happens. I feel
involved – I can’t just be indifferent.” Bérenger p. 98
• “(shouting out front) I’ll never join up with you!”
Berenger p. 106
• Botard says “we must move with the times” p.109
• “everyone has a relative or close friend among
them” p. 111 Daisy, so they can’t be contained
• Logic is used to support fascism; Berenger – never
good at logic – knows intuitively it’s wrong
How explicit would you be
in production?
Influence Today
• Next generation of writers after Ionesco include
Tom Stoppard (R&G are Dead), Edward Albee
(Virginia Woolf), Arthur Kopit (Wings), Caryl
Churchill (Top Girls), Vaclav Havel, Mamet and
Shepard to a lesser extent.
• Young writers today: Suzan Lori Parks
(Topdog/Underdog or The America Play), Tracy
Letts (Bugs), Geneseo students…
• And even though it doesn’t matter: both species
of African Rhinos have 2 horns. 1 of the 3 species
of Asian rhinos has 2 horns.

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