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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

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 painting), in which the characters turn to face the audience (rather than each other), stating their names, identities, habits, tastes, acts…All this, of course, is very familiar, the canonical modern style in the theater. Most of the interesting ideas in Notes and Counter Notes are watered-down Artaud; or rather Artaud spruced up and made charming, ingratiating; Artaud without his hatreds, Artaud without his madness. Ionesco comes closest to being original in certain remarks about humor, which he understands as poor mad Artaud did not at all. Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, as he called it, worked the darker registers of visual ghastliness, complete with melodramatic acts, bloody apparitions, screams, hysteria. Ionesco, noting that any tragedy becomes comic simply if it is speeded up, has devoted himself to the violently comic. Instead of the cave or the palace or the temple or the heath, he sets most of his plays in the living room. His comic terrain is the banality, the oppressiveness of the “home”—be it the bachelor’s furnished room, the scholar’s study, the married couple’s parlor. Underneath the forms of conventional life, Ionesco would demonstrate, lies madness, the obliteration of personality.

But Ionesco’s plays, it seems to me, need little explanation. If an account of his work is desired, Richard N. Coe’s excellent little book on Ionesco published in 1961 in the English Writers and Critics series offers a far more coherent and compact defense of the plays than anything in Notes and Counter Notes. The interest of Ionesco on Ionesco is not for its author’s theory of theater, but for what the book suggests about the pubbling thinness—considering the richness of his themes—of Ionesco’s plays. The tone of the book tells a great deal. For behind the relentless egoism of Ionesco’s writings on the theater—the allusions to unending battles with obtuse critics and a bovine public—is an even more insistent, plaintive uneasiness. Ionesco protests, incessantly, that he has been misunderstood. Therefore, everything he says at one point in Notes and Counter Notes, he takes back on another page. (Though these writings span the years 1951-1961, there is no development in the argument.) His plays are avantgarde theater; there is no such thing as avant-garde theater. He is writing social criticism; he is not writing social criticism. He is a humanist; he is morally and emotionally estranged from humanity. Throughout, he writes as a man sure—whatever you say of him, whatever he says of himself—that his true gifts are misunderstood.

What is Ionesco’s accomplishment? Judging by the most exacting standards, he has written one really remarkable and beautiful play Jack or the Submission (1950); one brilliant lesser work, The Bald Soprano, his first play (written 1948-49); and several effective short plays which are pungent reprises of his current themes. The Lesson (1950), The Chairs (1951), and The New Tenant (1953). All these plays—Ionesco is a prolific writer—are “early” Ionesco. The later works are marred by a diffuseness in the dramatic purpose and an increasing, unwieldy self-consciousness. The diffuseness can be clearly seen in Victims of Duty (1952), a work with some powerful sections but unfortunately over-explicit. Or one can compare his best play, Jack, with a short sequel using the same characters, The Future Is in Eggs (1951). Jack abounds with splendid harsh fantasy, ingenious and logical; it alone, of all Ionesco’s plays, gives us something up to the standard of Artaud: the Theater of Cruelty as Comedy. But in The Future Is in Eggs, Ionesco has embarked upon the disastrous course of his later writings, railing against “views” and tediously attributing to his characters a concern with the state of the theater, the nature of language, and so forth. Ionesco is an artist of considerable gifts who has been victimized by “ideas.” His work has become water-logged with them; his talents have coarsened. In Notes and Counter Notes we have a chunk of that endless labor of self-explication and self-vindication as a playwright and thinker which occupies the whole of his play, Improvisation; which dictates the intrusive remarks on playwriting in Victims of Duty and Amédée; which inspires the oversimplified critique of modern society in The Killer and Rhinoceros.

Ionesco’s original artistic impulse was his discovery of the poetry of banality. His first play, The Bald Soprano, was written almost by accident, he says, after he discovered the Smiths and the Martins en famille in the Assimil phrase book he bought when he decided to study English. And all the subsequent plays of Ionesco continued at least to open with a volleying back and forth of clichés. By extension, the discovery of the poetry of cliché led to the discovery of the poetry of meaninglessness—the convertibility of all words into one another. (Thus, the litany of “chat” at the end of Jack.) It has been said that Ionesco’s early plays are “about” meaninglessness, or “about” non-communication. But this misses the important fact that in much of modern art one can no longer really speak of subject matter in the old sense. Rather, the subject matter is the technique. What Ionesco did—no mean feat—was to appropriate for the theater one of the great technical discoveries of modern poetry: that all language can be considered from the outside, as by a stranger. Ionesco disclosed the dramatic resources of this attitude, long known but hitherto confined to modern poetry. His early plays are not “about” meaninglessness. They are attempts to use meaninglessness theatrically.

Ionesco’s discovery of the cliché meant that he declined to see language as an instrument of communication or self-expression, but rather as an exotic substance secreted—in a sort of trance—by interchangeable persons. His next discovery, also long familiar in modern poetry, was that he could treat language as a palpable thing. (Thus, the teacher kills the student in The Lesson with the word “knife.”) the key device for making language into a thing is repetition. This verbal repetition is dramatized further by another persistent motif of Ionesco’s play: the cancerous, irrational multiplication of material things. (Thus: the egg in The Future Is in Eggs, the chairs in The Chairs; the furniture in The New Tenant; the boxes in The Killer; the cups in Victims of Duty; the noses and fingers of Roberte II in Jack; the corpse in Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It.) These repeating words these demonically proliferating things, can only be exercised as in a dream, by being obliterated. Logically, poetically—and not because of any “ideas” Ionesco has about the nature of individual and society—his plays must end either in a repetition, da capo, or in some incredible violence. Some typical endings are: massacre of the audience (the proposed end of The Bald Soprano), suicide (The Chairs), entombment and silence (The New Tenant), unintelligibility and animal moans (Jack), monstrous physical coercion (Victims of Duty), the collapse of the stage (The Future Is in Eggs). In Ionesco’s plays, the recurrent nightmare is of a wholly clogged overrun world. (The nightmare is explicit with respect to the furniture in The New Tenant, the rhinoceroses in Rhinoceros.) The plays therefore must end either in chaos or non-being, destruction, silence.

These discoveries of the poetry of cliché and of language as thing gave Ionesco some remarkable theatrical material. But then ideas were born, a theory about the meaning of this theater of meaninglessness took up residence in Ionesco’s work. The most fashionable modern experiences were invoked. Ionesco and his defenders claimed that he had begun with his experience of the meaninglessness of contemporary existence, and developed his theater of cliché to express this. It seems more likely that he began with the discovery of the poetry of banality, and then, alas, called on a theory to bulwark it. This theory amounts to the hardiest clichés of modern criticism of “mass society,” all scrambled together—alienation, standardization, dehumanization. To sum up this dreadfully familiar discontent, Ionesco’s favorite word of abuse is “bourgeois,” or sometimes “petty bourgeois.” Ionesco’s bourgeois has little in common with that favorite target of Leftist rhetoric, although perhaps he has adopted it from that source. For Ionesco, “bourgeois” means everything he doesn’t like: it means “realism” in the theater (something like the way Brecht used “Aristotelian”); it means ideology; it means conformism. Of course, none of this would have mattered were it merely a question of Ionesco’s pronouncements on his work. What mattered is that increasingly it began to infect his work. More and more, Ionesco tended to “indicate” shamelessly what he was doing. (One cringes when, at the end of The Lesson, the professor dons a swastika armband as he prepares to dispose of the corpse of his student.) Ionesco began with a fantasy, the vision of a world inhabited by language puppets. He was not criticizing anything, much less discovering what in an early essay he called “The Tragedy of Language.” He was just discovering one way in which language could be used. Only afterward was a set of crude, simplistic attitudes extracted from this artistic discovery—attitudes about the contemporary standardization and dehumanization of man, all laid at the feet of a stuffed ogre called the “bourgeois,” “Society,” etc. The time then came for the affirmation of individual man against this ogre. Thus Ionesco’s work passed through an unfortunate and familiar double phase: first, works of anti-theater, parody; then, the socially constructive plays. These later plays are thin stuff. And the weakest in all his oeuvre are the Bérenger plays—The Killer (1957), Rhinoceros (1960), and The Pedestrian of the Air (1962)—where Ionesco (as he said) created an alter ego, an Everyman, a beleaguered hero, Bérenger, a character “to rejoin humanity.” The difficulty is that affirmation of man cannot simply be willed, either in morals or art. If merely willed, the result is always unconvincing, and usually pretentious.

In this Ionesco’s development is just the reverse of Brecht’s. Brecht’s early works—Ball, in the Jungle of Cities—give way to the “positive” plays which are his masterpieces: The Good Woman of Setzuan, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Mother Courage. But then—quite apart from the theories they espouse—Brecht is simply a much greater writer than Ionesco. To Ionesco, of course, he represents the arch-villain, the arch-bourgeois. He is political. But Ionesco’s attacks on Brecht and the Brechtians—and on the idea of a politically committed art—are trivial. Brecht’s political attitudes are, at best, the occasion for his humanism. They allow him to focus and expand his drama. The choice Ionesco insists on, between political affirmation and affirmation of man, is spurious, and dangerous besides.

Compared with Brecht, Genet, and Beckett, Ionesco is a minor writer even at his best. His work does not have the same weight, the same fullbloodedness, the same grandeur and relevance. Ionesco’s plays, especially the shorter ones (the form for which his gifts are most suited) have their considerable virtues: charm, wit, a nice feeling for the macabre, above all the-atricality. But the recurrent themes—identities slipping out of gear; the monstrous proliferation of things; the gruesomeness of togetherness—are rarely so moving, so appalling, as they might be. Perhaps it is because—with the exception of Jack, where Ionesco lets his fantasy have its head—the terrible is always, somehow, circumscribed by the cute. Ionesco’s morbid farces are the boulevard comedies of the avant-garde sensibility; as one English critic has pointed out, little really separates Ionesco’s whimsy of conformity from Feydeau’s whimsy of adultery. Both are skillfull, cold, self-referring.

To be sure, Ionesco’s plays—and writings about the theater—pay strenuous lip service to the emotions. Of The Bald Soprano, for instance, Ionesco says that it is about “talking and saying nothing because [of] the absence of any inner life.” The Smiths and the Martins represent man totally absorbed in his social context, they “have forgotten the meaning of emotion.” But what of the numerous descriptions which Ionesco gives in Notes and Counter Notes of his own inability to feel—an inability which he takes to rescue him from being, not to turn him into, a mass man? It is not protest against passionlessness which moves Ionesco, but a kind of misanthrophy, which he has covered over with fashionable clichés of cultural diagnosis. The sensibility behind this theater is tight, defensive, and riddled with sexual disgust. Disgust is the powerful motor in Ionesco’s plays: out of disgust, he makes comedies of the distasteful.

Disgust with the human condition is perfectly valid material for art. But disgust for ideas, expressed by a man with little talent for ideas, is another matter. This is what mars many of Ionesco’s plays and makes his collection of writings on the theater irritating rather than amusing. Disgusted with ideas as one more foul human excrescence. Ionesco flails about in this repetitious book, at once assuming and disavowing all positions. The recurrent theme of Notes and Counter Notes is his desire to maintain a position that is not a position, a view that is no view—in a word, to be intellectually invulnerable. But this is impossible, since initially he experiences an idea only as a cliché; “systems of thought on all sides are nothing more than alibis, something to hide reality (another cliché word) from us.” By a sickening glide in the argument, idea somehow become identified with politics, and all politics identified with a fascistic nightmare world. When Ionesco says, “I believe that what separates us all from one another is simply society itself, or, if you like, politics,” he is expressing his anti-intellectualism rather than a position about politics. This can be seen with special clarity in the most interesting section in the book (pp. 87-108), the so-called London Controversy, an exchange of essays and letters with Kenneth Tynan, representing a supposedly Brechtian point of view, which first appeared in the English weekly The Observer in 1958. The high moment of this controversy is a noble and eloquent letter from Orson Welles, who points out that the separation between art and politics cannot emerge, much less prosper, except in a certain kind of society. As Welles wrote, “Whatever is valuable is likely to have a rather shopsoiled name,” and all freedoms—including Ionesco’s privilege to shrug his shoulders at politics—“were at one time or another, political achievements.” It is not “politics which is the arch-enemy of art; it is neutrality…[which is] a political position like any other…. If we are doomed indeed, let M. Ionesco go down fighting with the rest of us. He should have the courage of our platitudes.”

What is disconcerting about Ionesco’s work is, then, the intellectual exhaustion it sponsors. I have no quarrel with works of art that contain no ideas a all; on the contrary, much, if not most, of the greatest art is of this kind. (Think of the films of Ozu; Jarry’s Ubu Roi; Nabokov’s Lolita; Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers—to take four modern examples.) But intellectual blankness is one (often very salutary) thing, intellectual surrender is another. In Ionesco’s case, the intellect that has surrendered is not interesting, relying as it does on a view of the world that sets up an opposition between the wholly monstrous and the wholly banal. At first we may take pleasure in the monstrousness of the monstrous, but finally we are left with the emptiness of banality.

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