[Twenty-five years ago, my friend Kirk Woodward, a frequent contributor to this blog, attended a talk by the great 20th-century playwright Eugene Ionesco (1909-94). As he usually did, Kirk made notes about the experience and he’s used that contemporaneous account as the basis for this article. Ionesco died six years after the appearance at Columbia University, and the world lost one of the most important figures of modern theater post-World War II, a founder of the Theater of the Absurd, and a man of strong opinions. Kirk has a few opinions of his own, as readers of ROT will know by now, so he’s turned his interpretive powers back onto this unique experience and shares with us the results of his consideration. I’m pleased to post those thoughts on ROT for you all to read. ~Rick]
On Wednesday, June 15, 1988, the playwright Eugene Ionesco gave a talk at the Kathryn Bache Miller Theatre at Columbia University, an event in the First New York International Festival of the Arts. (The festival was held again at least the following year, but as far as I can tell no longer continues, at any rate under its original name.) The talk, I gather, is still fondly and enthusiastically remembered by those who were lucky enough to be there, and I was one of them.
Afterwards I wrote my friend Steve Johnson:
A report, hot off the presses, on a real Cultural event. This is the month (?) of the New York International Festival of the Arts (I think it’s called). I happened to see in the paper that one of the first events was a lecture by Ionesco on the topic “Who Needs Theater, Anyway?,” at Columbia, and I went, and having gone I don’t really feel the need to attend any more events. I can only soak up so much greatness . . . .
The plays of Eugene Ionesco (he was born in 1909 and died in 1994) have passed through three distinct phases of criticism. In the first, in the 1950s and 1960s, he was lionized as one of the leaders, with Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, and Jean Genet, of what Martin Esslin described in his landmark 1961 critical study as The Theatre of the Absurd. Many of Ionesco’s most famous plays were written at that time, including his early one-acts such as The Bald Soprano (running in Paris since 1952),The Lesson, and The Chairs.
The second phase began sometime in the 1960s and coincided with Ionesco’s beginning to write full length plays. In this phase, despite his association with avant-garde theater, he began to be considered somewhat old-hat. Many people were now writing “Ionesco plays,” so he no longer startled. Another factor may have been that his longer plays were not as concise as his shorter. This comment may sound self-evident but no one wants a restless audience, and there was a feeling in theatrical circles that the long form was not his strength. In any case, he began to be taken for granted, a process that accelerated over the next decades. His plays were still performed but he was no longer looked to as a leader of the theater.
The third phase has been gaining momentum for a while: Ionesco is now recognized as a worthwhile playwright, not having to be associated with a “school” of playwriting to justify his importance. At least two of his long plays seem solidly established today. Exit the King (1962) was produced in a stunning and critically acclaimed production on Broadway in 2009, with Geoffrey Rush winning a Tony Award as King Berenger, and Rhinoceros is frequently performed – it was recently discussed by Rick in this blog (http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2012/10/rhinoceros.html).
I predict that this third phase will continue, and that his later plays, such as Hunger and Thirst (1966), on the subject of religion, and the very entertaining A Stroll in the Air (1963), will be increasingly performed, partly because there are not all that many good plays around, partly because Ionesco is not at all a “difficult” playwright; on the contrary, his plays are accessible and in many ways classic in content if not in form. (It is appropriate, in this sense, that he was made a member of the Académie française in 1970.)
I first realized how accessible Ionesco’s plays are when a friend, in college, told me he had just read the one-act play The Chairs and had no idea what it was all about. I’d never thought about it, but it was easy to ask, “What are they doing in the play?” “They’re setting up for a speech.” “And what happens?” “No one comes.” “Well then, it’s probably about difficulties of communication.” My friend was relieved and pleased, but also at the same time a little deflated, as though somebody had just explained a magic trick to him.
To generalize slightly, we – especially those of us trained in college literature classes – tend to focus on what a work of art is “about,” as though each art work comes with a special secret key, and as though when we find that key and use it, we’ll discover something astonishing that no one has ever thought of before. Surely we should have learned by now not to expect the unthought-of? William Goldman, in his delightful book The Season, writes about Harold Pinter:
And The Birthday Party, if you really want to know what it’s about, is about this: there is no hiding place. Does that make it a better play? Does that make the two hours any more pleasant while you’re sitting there? Pinter is also saying, “There is no God.” Or maybe he isn’t. But in either case, it’s pretty cornball, right? Examine any art work down to the bone and you find cliché. That’s one of the things that’s so painful about graduate school. You take some pretty poem, some poem that really moves you, and you examine it and pore over its imagery and decipher the philosophy, and what do you come up with? Keats is saying, “Love thy neighbor.”
Ionesco, it seems, when pressed to talk about what his plays “mean,” embraced the idea of the Absurd, maybe even a bit much to take without a grain of salt – he surely knew that was what his listeners wanted to hear. In an article in The New York Times the day Ionesco gave his talk at Columbia, Mervyn Rothstein quoted the playwright as saying:
“Theater doesn’t exist at the moment,” he said, through a translator, in his suite at a midtown hotel. “It’s bad everywhere. Between 1950 and 1960 it was good. Beckett, Genet, Adamov, moi. It was theater where you posed a problem, the most important problem of all: the problem of the existential condition of man – his despair, the tragedy of his destiny, the ridiculousness of his destiny, the absurdity of his destiny. 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.”
. . . .
“I will tell you a story from Kafka. Men wanted to construct a tower to climb to God. But when they reached the third floor they started to disagree about how to build it, and they completely forgot God. So God got angry, and smashed the tower with His fist. The people were scattered through all parts of the world, speaking different languages, and they have never understood each other since. It’s been that way for tens of thousands of years. Therefore I find the disintegration of language tragic. When I wrote ‘The Bald Soprano,’ I laughed as I made the language fall apart. But I laugh no longer.”
“Let me recall some words from Dostoyevsky, from ‘The Idiot,’“ Mr. Ionesco said. “‘Why do you not love yourself? Why do you love money? Why do you not embrace each other? That would be so simple.’“
It may be fair to say that Ionesco’s thought is profound but not surprising. Why, then, be interested in him at all? The answer, I would say, is: because of the verve, the delight, the excitement he conveys. Those are the same qualities that he demonstrated in his talk at Columbia, qualities that made the morning unforgettable.
I tried to capture the experience in my letter:
It was an interesting experience from top to bottom. Levels. First of all there was the audience, mostly young, all enthusiastic, many there a long time before the door opened so they could try for tickets. I was thinking, What kind of show will this be? Lasers? How funny [I imagined] – just to hear someone read a speech, probably not that much different from the things he’s written, or for that matter from the article in the Times this morning.
Anyway, on another level, there was Ionesco the celebrity coming out on stage with all the flash attachments going off, and the fulsome introduction linking him with all the great names of drama of the past that come to mind.
(As I recall, I am not exaggerating; the introduction for Ionesco couldn’t have been more fulsome if he had been described as an amalgam of Homer, Shakespeare, and all the extant Greek dramatists, both tragic and comedic. I remember wondering how Ionesco was taking this extravagant praise. My recollection is that he was impassive.)
And then Ionesco, the actual person up there on stage, a tiny, frail man with features so sunken that he looked, when not talking, like an oriental clown. And then Ionesco the guru, because he spoke in French with an interpreter (a drama critic!), so those of us who don’t know much French were listening to the voice speaking incomprehensible things, straining to pick up a hint of meaning as the Swami droned on . . . om om om om . . . you know what I mean.
It strikes me now, but didn’t then, that this experience, which I remember vividly, is a perfect “Ionesco situation” – the exaggerated importance of the event, the crowds waiting for the word from the Great One, the communication that goes nowhere. I hope Ionesco appreciated the irony.
And then Ionesco the professional, academic, and playwright, who knows quite well how to handle himself in this situation, thank you, and who has an impassioned way of speaking, whimsical eyes, and extremely expressive hands. And the fans in the audience, who would cheer when he would get off a particularly good one about the human condition . . .
The Times article has a photograph of a droll Ionesco, tiny, with an enormous forehead, seated looking at the camera, languidly staring straight ahead with his chin on his hand. A natural comedian, I’d have said, if I’d had no more evidence than the photograph. Rothstein writes, “He is now ‘75, 76 years old, maybe a little less, maybe a little more,’ and he walks with a cane, but the diminutive Romanian-born French playwright – he settled in Paris in 1938 – has lost none of his fire, or his playful humor, in defending his kind of theater.” He continues:
Mr. Ionesco has long criticized the American realistic, or naturalistic, theater as naïve and simple-minded. “Realism does not exist,” he said. “Everything is invention. Even realism is invented. Reality is not realistic. It’s another school of theater, a style.”
He paused and smiled. “What is real, after all? Ask one of the most important geniuses of science, physics or mathematics. He will not be able to give a definition of real. The only reality is that which comes from inside – the unconscious, the irrational, our thoughts, images, symbols. They are all truer than the truth, than realism.”
Ionesco makes these points in more detail in articles and interviews collected in Notes and Counter Notes: Writings on the Theatre (Grove Press, 1964). Particularly notable is his back-and-forth with the critic Kenneth Tynan, who took the point of view of what Ionesco describes as “realism.” Both make good points; neither gets very far, because both their arguments are about style, not substance. Tynan wants Ionesco to engage with the “real world;” Ionesco is engaged with the real world, to the point where some of his plays seem almost too obviously “political” – not in the sense of endorsing one party or another, but as critiques of the way the world operates. (Rhinoceros has received both blame and praise for this reason.)
An odd personal incident at the time illustrated this blend of the public and the imaginative. In my letter I write:
A week or so ago I had an experience that made me see all this from a different angle. We have numerous analysts and programmers at Time [Inc., where I worked then] who came from behind the Iron Curtain, and I mentioned to a Romanian friend that I was going to be seeing a compatriot [of hers], Ionesco. Oh yes, she said, she knew him, and knew his daughter quite well. The daughter is active in a sort of Romanian Association of Arts and Letters in exile [the Communist regime was in power at that time], and Ionesco had spent time with them at their annual meeting last year, in Paris. I thought, small world, and especially for exiles!
And what was it like to hear Ionesco talk? I wrote in my letter, “The title question [Who Needs Theater Anymore?] remains unanswered.” In the Times article, though, Ionesco is quoted as answering:
“Tout le monde. People have needed the theater for thousands of years,” he said. “There’s no reason for this to change.”
But why do they need theater?
“For nothing,” he said. “The theater is useless, but its uselessness is indispensable. Why do people need football? What purpose is there?
And even though there is no good theater now, he says, there will be a renaissance. “It will come necessarily” he said. “Because it must. Because theater is a pure necessity of man.”
But isn’t it useless?
“In appearance it seems unnecessary,” he said. “But uselessness and superfluousness are things that are necessary.”
Continuing my account of the speech:
After suggesting that the theater was indispensable because it was so primitive, so basic, he went into a description (for “the younger ones, who may never have heard of it”!) of the Theater of the Absurd, a name he said he wasn’t really comfortable with, although since it referred to a specific time and group of writers, it was [to that extent] useful.
If the Absurd means anything, he said, it means thinking about the absurd [italics mine], not some sort of static principle.
He restated his belief that the only significant human contributions came from “the irrational, the unconscious.” Pirandello, for example, he said, had “ideologies” of psychology which limited him, but his plays are still worth watching because his characters come from far deeper than any theory. (Beckett’s plays, he said in a brilliant phrase, “border reality.”)
He also expressed what many of us found a surprising interest in religion – again, as a project, not a Thing – and in what is happening to the environment.
The really valuable human activities, he said, are art (of the sort he champions), contemplation, and prayer!
In the question and answer period, someone asked if, since he had mentioned “the sacred” as an area worth our attention, some day there might not be a theater of the sacred which also used music and dance (he had said earlier that these were the only living arts at the moment, and the Times says he’s currently writing a libretto for an opera). “It’s what I live for,” he said, “but I suspect that, with the ozone layer and the atom bomb, we won’t last that long.”
The opera is Maximilien Kolbe (1988), with music by Dominique Probst, about a priest in the Holocaust who gives his life to save another prisoner. It has received a number of productions.
He was always droll, and often funny. [In the question and answer period] an actress said she was in an acting school which taught a realistic method, and what did he advise? “GET WELL QUICK!” he said [in English, as I remember it] – “detoxify yourself!”
My last memory is of Ionesco, at the end of his talk, leaving the room, and his wife, a woman even smaller than he was, scurrying after him, ready to protect him from anyone who might bother him. Years ago, I recall reading, someone spotted Ionesco in a Paris movie theater one night, making what the writer said was a typical Parisian picture – sitting with one arm around his wife, the other holding a popsicle.
From his talk:
Those who are to be pitied are those who spend their time in politics, in entertainment, in business, instead of kneeling before the incomprehensible.
[I have only one Ionesco anecdote of my own; I’ve related it on ROT at least once already, but it’s too apt not to repeat on this occasion. It happened one evening as I was walking my dog preparatory to going uptown to the theater. As I was returning to my apartment, a pack of youngsters passed me on my block. They looked like high school students, but I suppose it was college. Anyway, just as they walked by me, one young man in the center of the group asked loudly, “What do you know about Ionesco?” A little fellow in front—he really did look like he hadn’t graduated from high school yet—spun around and declared, “Ionesco? I love Ionesco!” At that moment, he backed right into a woman making her own way down the sidewalk. If this had been a scene from a Beckett play, they'd all have fallen into a heap on the pavement. But they didn't. Just a brief pinball effect.]