Saturday, November 26, 2016

Birthday: "You can only predict things after they have happened."

Eugene Ionesco (1909-1994)
Playwright, critic

Absurdism has never been appreciated in America, having long been relegated to politics, economics, and evangelical religious practice. Ionesco once wrote, “Why do people always expect authors to answer questions? I am an author because I want to ask questions. If I had answers, I'd be a politician.”

For those growing up in Europe in the last century, absurdism was a way of life. Take Ionesco’s. Born to a Romanian lawyer, he was raised in France, where his father read for an advanced degree. In the middle of World War I, the father returned to Romania and dropped out of touch. The family thought him killed in action. He resurfaced in 1925, having had a very good war in the Romanian government. He used his influence to obtain a divorce, claiming his wife ad abandoned him and moved abroad, and married a wealthy woman in 1917. His decree granted Eugene’s father the custody of his children, who were shipped back to Romania.

Possession, rather than affection, drove the father, and the step-mom, who was straight out of central casting in the Brothers Grimm Studios. Eugene returned to France after a year, and took a degree in French literature. Eking out a living as a teacher, he married in 1936, with exquisitely bad timing he moved the family to Romania in 1939. It took three years to get the clearances from the Nazis and Vichy to return to France.

Long a fan of Alfred Jarry- author of the scandalous Ubu Roi- and the rather more respectable Surrealists and Dadaists, still later, Samuel Beckett- Ionesco began teaching himself English by copying sentences out of primers and memorizing them. This one-inch-from-the-ground approach led him to develop a highly literal view of words and their meanings (a comparable, modern example is British comedian Eddie Izzard’s sketch in which he constructs a visit to France using only the contents of a French phrase book).

This feeling only intensified with the introduction in later lessons of the characters known as "Mr. and Mrs. Smith". To his astonishment, Mrs. Smith informed her husband that they had several children, that they lived in the vicinity of London, that their name was Smith, that Mr. Smith was a clerk, and that they had a servant, Mary, who was English like themselves. What was remarkable about Mrs. Smith, he thought, was her eminently methodical procedure in her quest for truth. For Ionesco, the clichés and truisms of the conversation primer disintegrated into wild caricature and parody with language itself disintegrating into disjointed fragments of words. Ionesco set about translating this experience into a play, The Bald Soprano (1950). It was far from a success and went unnoticed until a few established writers and critics, among them Jean Anouilh and Raymond Queneau, championed the play.

Something clicked, and Ionesco began writing one act plays at the age of 48.

In them Ionesco rejects a conventional story-line as their basis, instead taking their dramatic structure from accelerating rhythms and/or cyclical repetitions. He disregards psychology and coherent dialogue, thereby depicting a dehumanized world with mechanical, puppet-like characters who speak in non-sequiturs. Language becomes rarefied, with words and material objects gaining a life of their own, increasingly overwhelming the characters and creating a sense of menace.

He wrote 26 of his 34 stage works between 1950 and 1970, building an international reputation. His works enjoyed favor in more, and less, democratic societies: in the latter, censors rarely understood what they read, and for audiences, there was much that directors and actors could stuff between the lines. He told an interviewer,

Béranger [the protagonist in Rhinoceros] represents the modern man. He is a victim of totalitarianism — of both kinds of totalitarianism, of the Right and of the Left. When Rhinoceros was produced in Germany, it had fifty curtain calls. The next day the papers wrote, “Ionesco shows us how we became Nazis.” But in Moscow, they wanted me to rewrite it and make sure that it dealt with Nazism and not with their kind of totalitarianism. In Buenos Aires, the military government thought it was an attack on Perónism.

From Rhinoceros (1959):

Logician: A cat has four paws.
Old Gentleman: My dog had four paws.
Logician: Then it's a cat.
Old Gentleman: So my dog is a cat?
Logician: And the contrary is also true.

In a Paris Review interview, Ionesco explained his work to comparing it to Beckett’s:

Beckett shows death; his people are in dustbins or waiting for God. (Beckett will be cross with me for mentioning God, but never mind.) Similarly, in my play The New Tenant, there is no speech, or rather, the speeches are given to the Janitor. The Tenant just suffocates beneath proliferating furniture and objects — which is a symbol of death. There were no longer words being spoken, but images being visualized. We achieved it above all by the dislocation of language. … Beckett destroys language with silence. I do it with too much language, with characters talking at random, and by inventing words.

In the 1970s his productivity slowed; as appreciation for his work grew, honors piled up. He was elected to the French Academy in 1970. “My work has been essentially a dialogue with death, asking him, “Why? Why?” So only death can silence me. Only death can close my lips.”

When he died, at 84, he was buried at Montparnasse. His headstone reads, Pray to the I- don't-know-who: Jesus Christ, I hope

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #EugeneIonesco #Absurdism

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