A Conversation With Eugene Ionesco

Eugene Ionesco
Eugene Ionesco

I noticed the post a few days ago on the production of Ionesco's Bald Soprano and The Chairs at The Garage Theatre in Long Beach and was prompted to post this piece in support of the Theatre (May 10 - June 8). A portion of it was published in the Canadian Review. At the time I was also a close friend of Henry Miller in his last days and Ionesco wanted very much to meet Miller but Miller demurred saying "Oh, I don't want him to see me like this, how I am now...if Ionesco could see me now, that's something he could write a play about." Instead I took a set of books inscribed to Ionesco from Henry. When Miller died a few months later, Ionesco sent me a moving letter of condolence. I've attached a brief introduction and excerpt from the Ionesco interview which was conducted in the spring of 1980.

"A Conversation With Eugene Ionesco"


Staged all over the world during the 60s and 70s, Ionesco's plays were once among the most performed works in the theatrical repertoire. With his plays The Bald Soprano, The Lesson and The Chair he helped inaugurate a new type of theater which came to be known as "theater of the absurd." Ionesco's 'theater,' which included Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Arthur Adamov, was a theater that posed a problem; it was not a theater of entertainment. The problem they dealt with was "the existential condition of man, his despair, the tragedy of his destiny, the ridiculousness of his destiny, the absurdity of his destiny, the existence of God."

When asked by a New York Times journalist in 1988 to list his compatriots in the Theater of the Absurd Ionesco named Beckett, Genet, Adamov and Shakespeare. Shakespeare? "...Shakespeare is the King of the Theater of the Absurd," Ionesco stated. He said:

Macbeth, for example, says that the world is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. That is the pure definition of the Theater of the Absurd -- and perhaps of the world. Shakespeare was the great one before us. His place was between God and despair......Another interesting problem is the existence of a God, a divinity, as Beckett writes about in Waiting for Godot. Man without God, without the metaphysical, without transcendence is lost.

Not surprisingly, he went on to criticize American realistic and naturalistic theatre as naïve and simple-minded.

Ionesco's work characteristically combines a dream or nightmare atmosphere with grotesque, bizarre and whimsical humor. His first play, Bald Soprano (1950), satirizes the deadliness of bourgeois society frozen in meaningless formalities. Ionesco referred to his plays as anti-plays; it was Martin Esslin who dubbed the work "Theatre of the Absurd."

Amédée (1954) was Ionesco's first three-act play. It portrays the lonely, bitter life of a couple who share their apartment with a corpse, a symbol of their dead love. As the play progresses, the corpse grows to gigantic proportions. Ionesco subsequently created a character named Berenger, a simple sort of Everyman, who is also a self-image of himself; Berenger appears in 5 of his plays, including the classic Rhinoceros (1959) and Exit the King (1962). In Rhinoceros, his break-through play in English, totalitarianism (Nazism and fascism) is depicted as a disease that turns human beings into savage rhinoceroses. The hero Berenger stands alone watching as his friends turn into horned beasts. In Exit the King, the 400-year-old King Berenger confronts and comes to terms with his own death. Some of the dialogue includes various characters saying that at the beginning of his reign the "population was nine thousand million;" now there are only "a thousand old people and they are dying as we speak."

In an article he wrote for The USC Chronicle on the occasion of the 1980 international symposium and celebration of his work held at the University of Southern California, Ionesco gave an opening talk. The following are a few excerpts:

Culture cannot be separated from politics. The arts, philosophy and metaphysics, religion and the sciences, constitute culture. Politics are the science or art of organizing our relationships to allow for the development of life in society. But, in our time, politics have overtaken all other manifestations of the human spirit...Developing as they have by trampling on man's other activities, they have made men mad. Politics have become nothing more than a senseless struggle for power that mobilizes and monopolizes all the energies of modern man.

We know very well that Western humanism is bankrupt. We also know very well that the leaders of the Eastern countries no longer believe in Marxism. Absolute cynicism and a great biological vitality are all that remain of the East's revolutionary faith and all that keeps it leaders in power -- active in the struggle for power and world supremacy.....Life has become, then, a deadly combat without scruple, since all ideologies and moralities have vanished; a combat for the conquest of the planet and its material riches.

At the end of this talk he refers to one of Dostoevski's characters who says that if God does not exist, then all is permissible. "Therefore," Ionesco writes, "we are now in search of permanent foundations of behavior that will once again moralize politics. The crisis is fundamental. It's a quest of human survival -- and humanity survives only through culture....and culture is the expression of our continuity and of our multisecular identity across time and space." He continues saying that culture is learned behavior and is transmitted "by members of a given society to its offsprings through the medium of artistic, scientific, religious and philosophical traditions, political and technical customs and the thousand mores that characterize daily life.

For Ionesco politics lie, art, true art, cannot lie. "Politics separate men by bringing them together only superficially. Art and culture unite us in a common anguish that is our only possible fraternity, that of our existential and metaphysical community."

An excerpt from "A Conversation With Eugene Ionesco"

The following conversation took place in May 1980 at the University of Southern California where Monsieur Ionesco participated in a three-day symposium devoted to and in honor of his work. An excerpt from this interview was originally published by the Canadian Theatre Review, 1981. They prefaced the interview, writing:

Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco has not granted many interviews in the course of his long and distinguished career. An extended interview with him is therefore of considerable significance. CTR is therefore pleased to be able to publish the following interview done by Barbara Kraft for National Public Radio in the United States. Edited for reasons of space, it was conducted this past spring during an international colloquium on Ionesco's work at the University of Southern California. It appears in print for the first time anywhere.

BK: There is an old saying that fame always comes for the wrong reasons. Do you think your audience understands your work and salutes you with knowledge of what you're really saying?
EI: It's a very complex problem. Commentators of writers' works generally express their own problems and their own obsessions through analyzing the work of a writer. And what concerns my work -- my first plays were very favorably commented on by the leftist critics and strongly criticized by the rightist critics. The critics of the left, thinking that my plays were basically a criticism and satire of the bourgeois, therefore liked my works. And that's the basic reason why the critics of the right did not like them at all. When the critics from the left noted that my works don't deal at all with that particular satire of the little bourgeois, they also stopped liking my works. For that same reason the critics of the right started liking my works more and more. In reality, to say the truth, left and right are not any more points of view valid for any criticism. There's no meaning at being at the extreme right or the extreme left.

These concepts have no meaning anymore. And what concerns the silent majority or the applauding majority? I have not really investigated on which side the majority is. But I think the audiences have started some time ago already understanding my plays and liking them and I've drawn great audiences. They understand my language. It is a very clear language, a very primal language and a very visual language. Only sclerotic bourgeois mentalities or other people restricted by their own ideologies have thought at the beginning that this was a theatre written only for a very limited audience. So when my first plays started to be performed all over the world I think that the audiences who were not dependent on specific ideologies, who were open to new trends in theatre, they received very favorably my plays all over the world. My plays have been performed before children, workers and peasants and they have well understood the meaning of my theatre. What is needed for people to watch my theatre is a freshness and openness of mind. They must go to this theatre without any prejudice. Nevertheless, it could be said that my plays are criticisms of kinds and forms of mental sclerosis; any good work of art should also be critical.