Eugene Ionesco FTW!

To attack the Absurdity
written by Director of Dramaturgy Kate Farrington 

As some of you know, The Pearl rescheduled its planned production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros to an expanded run in the fall. But a great deal of the dramaturg’s work happens well in advance of a production, and so I’m already hip deep in Ionesco research. And he is just the coolest guy, so I wanted to share a little of his wit and wisdom with you.

Ionesco’s story starts with a truly awful childhood, blighted by a domineering father who first abandoned his young family and then turned up five years later to essentially steal his children back. Eugene was forced to leave France, the country he’d grown up in to make a life for himself in Romania. Spoiler alert—he hated Romania. Reading became his escape and his coping mechanism.

At 17, Eugene left home to pursue an academic career in literature. He started as an essayist with a talent for mocking provincial Romanian writers and their outdated literary forms, then became a respected critical writer in France (where he and his wife relocated during WWII). But it was after the war, in the moody artistic atmosphere of Paris, that he rose to fame—and it wasn’t through his talent as an essayist or literary critic, but as a playwright.

And this is maybe my favorite part of Ionesco’s story, because it’s a salient reminder that sometimes it’s the outside perspective or talent that forces change. Ionesco had absolutely no intention of becoming a theatrical luminary. He wanted to be a writer, but had no theatre background or aspirations. Which makes it all the more fantastic that when he turned to playwriting he helped to revolutionize the Western world’s approach to theatre. His first play, The Bald Soprano is one of the earliest pieces labeled a Theatre of the Absurd play.

By the way, it wasn’t an immediate success. On the first night of Bald Soprano there were more people in the cast than in the audience. But Ionesco was hooked. In the following years he produced a slew of plays with insanely out-there imagery—empty chairs that somehow aren’t empty at all, inflating corpses (one of my personal favorites), rampaging rhinoceroses (woot!), and giggling killers. But for all their strangeness, these plays were taking on issues as deep and diverse as mortality, love, personal freedom, and political turmoil.

And the way Ionesco talks about the possibilities of theatre is . . . humbling. He didn’t just enjoy playwriting, he embraced it as some kind of salvation from the miseries of the world. He has such hopes for what theatre can do—it makes me want to rise to the challenge he sets.

So I wanted to share a few of my favorite Ionesco quotes—the ones that inspire me to think about my profession with more imagination and more openness. Enjoy!

“Does a play seem realistic? Then it is a bad play . . . As is true for all the arts, the theater’s mission is knowledge. Knowledge does not come from imitation, but from diving into, disassociating, purifying realities.”

“Language should almost break up or explode in its fruitless effort to contain so many meanings.”

“I have the feeling, in my plays or my prose writing, that I am exploring a dark forest, groping through the night.” 

“Perhaps I succeeded by means of the theater in arousing in people what is most intimate, most solitary. At least that is a hope.”

“I personally would like to bring a tortoise on to the stage, turn it into a racehorse, then into a hat, a song, a dragon, and a fountain of water. One can dare anything in the theatre, and it is the place where one dares the least. I want no other limits than the technical limits of stage machinery. People will say that my plays are music-hall turns or circus acts. So much the better—let’s include the circus in the theatre!”

“To attack the absurdity [of the human condition] is a way of stating the possibility of non-absurdity.”

And one just pure fun one!

“It is obviously difficult to write a play; it requires considerable physical effort. One has to get up, which is tiresome, one has to sit down, just when one had got used to the idea of standing up, one has to take a pen, which is heavy, one has to get some paper, which one cannot find, one has to sit at a table, which often breaks down under the weight of one’s elbows . . . It is relatively easy, on the other hand, to compose a play without writing it down. It is easy to imagine it, to dream it, stretched out on the couch between sleep and waking. One only has to let oneself go, without moving, without controlling oneself. A character emerges, one does not know whence; he calls others. The first character starts talking, the first retort is made, the fist note has been struck; the rest follows automatically. One remains passive, one listens, one watches, what is happening on the inner screen.”