Ionesco: the Theater of the Banal

Notes and Counter Notes: Writings on the Theatre

by Eugène Ionesco, translated by Donald Watson
Grove, 271 pp., $5.50

Eugene Ionesco
Eugene Ionesco; drawing by David Levine

It is fitting that a playwright whose best works apotheosize the platitude compiled a book on the theater crammed with platitudes. I quote, at random:

Didacticism is above all an attitude of mind and an expression of the will to dominate.

A work of art really is above all an adventure of the mind.

Some have said that Doris Vian’s The Empire Builders was inspired by my own Amédée. Actually, no one is inspired by anyone except by his own self and his own anguish.

I detect a crisis of thought, which is manifested by a crisis of language; words no longer meaning anything.

No society has ever been able to abolish human sadness; no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute.

What is one to make of a view at once so lofty and so banal? As if this were not enough, Ionesco’s essays are laden with superfluous self-explication and unctuous vanity. Again, at random:

I can affirm that neither the public nor the critics have influenced me.

Perhaps I am socially minded in spite of myself.

With me every play springs from a kind of self-analysis.

I am not an ideologue, for I am straightforward and objective.

The world ought not to interest me so much. In reality, I am obsessed with it.

Etcetera, etcetera. Ionesco’s essays on the theater offer a good deal of such, presumably unconscious, humor.

There are, to be sure, some ideas in Notes and Counter Notes worth taking seriously, none of them original with Ionesco. One is the idea of the theater as an instrument which, by dislocating the real, freshens the sense of reality. Such a function for the theater plainly calls not only for a new dramaturgy, but for a new body of plays. “No more masterpieces,” Artaud demanded in The Theatre and Its Double, the most daring and profound manifesto of the modern theater. Like Artaud, Ionesco scorns the “literary” theater of the past: he likes to read Shakespeare and Kleist but not to see them performed, while Corneille, Molière, Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello, Giraudoux and company bore him either way. If the old-fashioned theater pieces must be done at all, Ionesco suggests (as did Artaud) a certain trick: one should play “against” the text, as by grafting a serious, formal production onto a text that is absurd, wild, comic; or treating a very solemn text in the spirit of buffoonery. Along with the rejecnon of the literary theater—the theater of plot and individual character—Ionesco calls for the scrupulous avoidance of all psychology, for psychology means “realism,” and realism is dull and confines the imagination. His rejection of psychology permits the revival of a device common to all non-realistic theatrical traditions (it is equivalent to frontality in naive…

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