Ionesco, Eugène

Io·nes·co (ē'ə-nĕsʹkō, yə-), Eugène. 1912-1994.
Romanian-born French dramatist whose plays The Bald Soprano (1956) and Rhinoceros (1959) are classics of the Theater of the Absurd.

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orig. Eugen Ionescu

born Nov. 26, 1909, Slatina, Rom.
died March 28, 1994, Paris, France

Romanian-born French playwright.

He studied in Bucharest and Paris, where he lived from 1945. His first one-act "antiplay," The Bald Soprano (1950), inspired a revolution in dramatic techniques and helped inaugurate the Theatre of the Absurd. He followed it with other one-act plays in which illogical events create an atmosphere both comic and grotesque, including The Lesson (1951), The Chairs (1952), and The New Tenant (1955). His most popular full-length play, Rhinoceros (1959), concerns a provincial French town in which all the citizens are metamorphosing into rhinoceroses. Other plays include Exit the King (1962) and A Stroll in the Air (1963). He was elected to the Académie Française in 1970.

Eugène Ionesco, 1959.

Mark Gerson

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▪ 1995

      (EUGEN IONESCU), Romanian-born French dramatist (b. Nov. 26, 1909, Slatina, Romania—d. March 28, 1994, Paris, France), was a pioneer in the nonrepresentational Theatre of the Absurd, using social parody and broad slapstick to examine ordinary people trying to cope with the relentless anxiety of modern life, the absurdity of bourgeois social conventions, and the impossibility of meaningful communication. Beginning with his first one-act "antiplay," La Cantatrice chauve (1950; The Bald Soprano), Ionesco turned audience expectations and conventional stage techniques upside down, reducing conversation to tedious platitudes and turning an existential pessimism about the human condition into uproarious "tragic farce." In the play's most famous scene, two strangers exchange clichéd pleasantries until they stumble upon the discovery that they are apparently husband and wife. Ionesco, the son of a Romanian father and a French mother, was educated at the Universities of Bucharest and Paris and spent his early years shifting between residence in Romania and France. While working as a proofreader in Paris soon after World War II, he decided to learn English. The stilted sentences and banal platitudes he encountered in his English grammar book served as the inspiration for The Bald Soprano, which opened in Paris to almost universal ridicule. By the late 1950s, however, Ionesco was recognized as a brilliant innovator, and his fanciful, minimalist style was increasingly imitated. His most popular full-length work, Le Rhinocéros (1959; Rhinoceros), was successfully staged in Paris by Jean-Louis Barrault (q.v.), in London starring Sir Lawrence Olivier, and on Broadway with Zero Mostel. In the play Berenger, the "unheroic hero," struggles against the pressure to conform with society as his friends and neighbours gradually change into mindless, bellowing pachyderms. Ionesco's other plays include La Leçon (1951; The Lesson), Les Chaises (1952; The Chairs), Amédée (1954), and Le Roi se meurt (1962; Exit the King). He continued to write in the 1970s, but his later works were less witty and were more concerned with an exploration of the subconscious. Ionesco also published essays, children's books, a personal journal, and a novel. He was elected to the French Academy in 1970.

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▪ French dramatist
Romanian  Eugen Ionescu 
born Nov. 26, 1909, , Slatina, Rom.
died March 28, 1994, Paris, France
 Romanian-born French dramatist whose one-act “antiplay” La Cantatrice chauve (1949; The Bald Soprano) inspired a revolution in dramatic techniques and helped inaugurate the Theatre of the Absurd (Absurd, Theatre of the). He was elected to the French Academy in 1970.

      Ionesco was taken to France as an infant but returned to Romania in 1925. After obtaining a degree in French at the University of Bucharest, he worked for a doctorate in Paris (1939), where, after 1945, he made his home. While working as a proofreader, he decided to learn English; the formal, stilted commonplaces of his textbook inspired the masterly catalog of senseless platitudes that constitutes The Bald Soprano. In its most famous scene, two strangers—who are exchanging banalities about how the weather is faring, where they live, and how many children they have—stumble upon the astonishing discovery that they are indeed man and wife; it is a brilliant example of Ionesco's recurrent themes of self-estrangement and the difficulty of communication.

      In rapid succession Ionesco wrote a number of plays, all developing the “antilogical” ideas of The Bald Soprano; these included brief and violently irrational sketches and also a series of more elaborate one-act plays in which many of his later themes—especially the fear and horror of death—begin to make their appearance. Among these, La Leçon (1951; The Lesson), Les Chaises (1952; The Chairs), and Le Nouveau Locataire (1955; The New Tenant) are notable successes. In The Lesson, a timid professor uses the meaning he assigns to words to establish tyrannical dominance over an eager female pupil. In The Chairs, an elderly couple await the arrival of an audience to hear the old man's last message to posterity, but only empty chairs accumulate on stage. Feeling confident that his message will be conveyed by an orator he has hired, the old man and his wife commit a double suicide. The orator turns out to be afflicted with aphasia, however, and can speak only gibberish.

      In contrast to these shorter works, it was only with difficulty that Ionesco mastered the techniques of the full-length play: Amédée (1954), Tueur sans gages (1959; The Killer), and Le Rhinocéros (1959; Rhinoceros) lack the dramatic unity that he finally achieved with Le Roi se meurt (1962; Exit the King). This success was followed by Le Piéton de l'air (1963; A Stroll in the Air). With La Soif et la faim (1966; Thirst and Hunger) he returned to a more fragmented type of construction. In the next decade he wrote Jeux de massacre (1970; Killing Game); Macbett (1972), a retelling of Shakespeare's Macbeth; and Ce formidable bordel (1973; A Hell of a Mess). Rhinoceros, whose protagonist retains his humanity in a world where humans are mutating into beasts, remains Ionesco's most popular play.

      Ionesco's achievement lies in having popularized a wide variety of nonrepresentational and surrealistic techniques and in having made them acceptable to audiences conditioned to a naturalistic convention in the theatre. His tragicomic farces dramatize the absurdity of bourgeois life, the meaninglessness of social conventions, and the futile and mechanical nature of modern civilization. His plays build on bizarrely illogical or fantastic situations using such devices as the humorous multiplication of objects on stage until they overwhelm the actors. The clichés and tedious maxims of polite conversation surface in improbable or inappropriate contexts to expose the deadening futility of most human communication. Ionesco's later works show less concern with witty intellectual paradox and more with dreams, visions, and exploration of the subconscious.

Additional Reading
Surveys of Ionesco's life and works include Nancy Lane, Understanding Eugène Ionesco (1994); and Deborah B. Gaensbauer, Eugene Ionesco Revisted (1996).

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Universalium. 2010.

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