25 August 2011

Eugène Ionesco: La Cantatrice chauve (1950), La Leçon (1951), Rhinocéros (1959), and Le Roi se meurt (1963)

La cantatrice chauve was Ionesco's first play, and was inspired by his learning English through Assimil. The stage directions in the opening paragraph are only just over eight lines long, although the word 'anglais' is used to describe this 'bourgeois' setting sixteen times. The first scene introduces Mr and Mrs Smith, and the husband's first words I translate as:

'I say, it's nine o'clock. We've eaten soup, fish, potatoes in pig fat, English salad. The children have drunk English water. We've eaten well tonight. That's because we live near London and our name is Smith.'

Obviously some form of parody is intended here, probably of both the lessons and the English people. The conversation between Mr and Mrs Smith degenerates as exaggerated realistic moorings get lifted and the play moves into – well – Absurd waters, and the name 'Bobby Watson' is used for a whole family: confusion begins to become part of the norm.

When Mr and Mrs Martin knock, the Smiths retire to dress (which they don't actually do), and the Martins are left alone to play out a farce in which they 'discover' (as if they are long lost friends) that they have not only come from the same city but they live on the same road and share the same bed, etc. As they fall into each others' arms and fall asleep, the maid returns to explain that they aren't who they say they are, and that she (Mary) is Sherlock Holmes.

When the Smiths return, the conversation between the two couples becomes a trading of meaningless and rather mindless facts, with a number of mock exclamatory words of surprise for the most banal details, as if, again, Ionesco is parodying these bourgeois types. The entry of the fire chief (Capitaine des Pompiers) into the scene takes the play to a new level, when the characters exchange meaningless stories full of paradox, plays on words, non sequiturs, and it is deeply mediocre. But humorous too, of course: Ionesco has a gift for making the boring enjoyable.

He originally intended to call the play 'L'anglais sans peine' ('English without Tears'), but a change in the dialogue by the actor playing the fire chief – from 'l'institutrice 'blonde' ('the blond schoolteacher') to 'la cantatrice chauve' (translated as 'the bald soprano') – proved far preferable a title.

On the fire chief's exit to attend to a fire that probably is so insignificant as not to be worth attending to, the language degenerates even further, with the characters voicing largely meaningless invented proverbs and rhymes ('Prenez un cercle, caressez-le, il devient vicieux' (Take a circle, caress it, it becomes vicious')/'Mon oncle vit à la campagne mais ça ne regarde pas la sage-femme' ('My uncle lives in the country but that's of no interest to the midwife')). Isolated words or phrases are uttered and repeated, or changed according to a whim of assonance, etc, until 'C'est pas par là, c'est par ici' ('It's not that way, it's this way') is repeated over and over, and the curtain falls.

The use (or rather abuse) of language is evidentally all-important in Ionesco's world.

La Leçon illustrates the tyranny of language, or the tyranny of power represented by a member of the bourgeoisie – a professor. Overwhelmingly, this is a dialogue between the fiftysomething Professor and his eighteen-year-old new student, with Marie the maid making several brief appearances.

The Professor begins rather timidly, and the student confidently, although this situation is rapidly reversed, with the Professor gaining total control over the helpless student. The lesson begins with extremely basic arithmetic, and the student has no problems, even later being able to swiftly calculate the multiplication of quadrillions. But she is incapable of even the most basic substraction: it is as if she's resisting loss, or death.

In spite of Marie warning about the grave danger of the Professor moving from Mathematics to Philology, he pitches into it in a frenzied, crazy lecture in dictatorial fashion, not allowing the student to say anything, and ignoring her increasingly impassioned pleas that she has toothache: his words are causing her great pain. She is completely in his control, and he stabs her to death with one knife blow, and the directions tell us it is either a real or an imaginary knife, but the effect of the word 'couteau' (knife) - which is repeated many times by the Professor - obviously has a profoundly violent physical effect on the Student anyway. The phallic nature of the weapon is obvious to the audience, and the Student's widely spread legs also suggest a sexual attack.

Just before the next student arrives, the Professor and Marie get rid of the body, which we learn is the 40th in a week.  

Bérenger – a name that appears in several Ionesco plays – is the main character in Rhinocéros, which begins with Bérenger talking to his friend Jean in a café one morning in the small unnamed provincial town where they live. Bérenger is a little dishevelled from a drinking session the previous evening, and the responsible and respectable Jean disapproves of his friend's behavior. The conversation – and the peace of the day – are scattered by the appearance of one of two rhinoceroses: it isn't clear if it's the same one seen twice, and there is much debate over this.

The next day, when Bérenger arrives at the office, he finds the people there hotly discussing a snippet in the paper about a rhinoceros killing a cat: the boss Monsieur Papillon, who is anxious that the workers don't spend all there time gossiping about the odd occurrence; Daisy, with whom Bérenger is madly in love; Dudard, who is a rival for Daisy's heart; and Botard, a pedantic ex-schoolteacher who disbelieves in the rhinoceros's existence. However, it soon becomes evident that the rhinoceros is real, as it destroys the bottom of the office stairs, effectively imprisoning them until the fire brigade can rescue them. Madame Boeuf, who has come to excuse her husband for being unable to come to work, discovers that the attacking rhinocero is in fact Monsieur Boeuf.

Bérenger goes to see Jean, who left the café in disgust with Bérenger, although he doesn't remember anything about it, and nothing of the rhinoceros either. At the beginning, the two men find each other slightly odd, although Jean is not feeling very well, and in fact he very rapidly turns into a rhinoceros before the eyes of Bérenger, who is forced to flee for his life, although he meets a a herd of rhinoceroses outside, which are making a terrible noise.

The next day Bérenger is doing what perhaps most other people would do under the circumstances – tranquillizing (or immunizing, as he would prefer to call it) himself with alcohol – when Dudard enters, and there is much talk of the rhinoceros 'epidemic'. Slowly, Dudard breaks the news to Bérenger that Monsieur Papillon has also turned into a rhinocereros, although Bérenger thinks that he had the strength to resist it.

Later, Daisy joins the two men and informs them that Botard has become a rhinoceros, along with others she knows. When Dudard leaves, Bérenger confesses his love, and Daisy is in love with him too, although all the time, as the monstruous noises of the rhinoceroses sound more musical, and the brutes themselves appear to have a certain beauty, Daisy is seduced, and leaves Bérenger to his own devices.

In spite of the strange attraction the beasts can have, Bérenger stands firm: 'Vous ne m'aurez pas, moi. [...] Je reste comme je suis. Je ne vous suivrai pas, je ne vous comprends pas. Je suis un être humain. Je suis un être humain.' ('You won't take me. [...] I'm staying as I am. I won't follow you, I don't understand you. I'm a human being. I'm a human being.') And it is this stance which makes Bérenger – a man with an obvious propensity to alcoholism and little regard for his personal apearance – a slightly unconventional hero. Ionesco intended the play to be understood in the light of Nazism, which is perhaps only too obvious, although  by extension the rhinoceros madness can be seen as conformity in general, refusal to join the crowd, refusal to accept assimilation. Certainly, there is some similarity between Bérenger's defiant final words, 'Je ne capitule pas !' and Hugo's final words in Sartre's Les Mains sales: 'Non récuperable !'

Ionesco's Le Roi se meurt is titled Exit the King in the English translation, in which the king is Béranger I, who has two wives, the first being Marguerite and the second Marie. This has been thought by some critics to be Ionesco's most Beckettian play, as things gradually disappear from the stage, contrary the proliferation in Ionesco's usual sets.

Bérenger is dying but refuses to accept it: 'Je mourrai quand je voudrai, je suis le roi, c'est moi qui décide' ('I'll die when I want to, I'm the king, I make the decisions.')

In the end the characters leave him to die and he sits alone, while around him the doors, windows, and walls slowly disappear, as does the king himself.

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