Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Eugène Ionesco (Romanian spelling: Eugen Ionescu) (November 26, 1909 – March 29, 1994) was one of the foremost playwrights of the theatre of the absurd. Beyond ridiculing the most banal situations, Ionesco's plays depict in a tangible way the solitude of humans and the insignificance of one's existence.
Ionesco was born in 1909 in Slatina, Romania, to a Romanian father and a French-Jewish mother. Many sources cite his birthdate as 1912, this error being due to vanity on the part of Ionesco himself (see 'Eugène Ionesco's Life', on www.ionesco.org). He spent most of his childhood in France, but returned to Romania with his father in 1925 after his parents divorced. There he studied French Literature at the University of Bucharest from 1928 to 1933 and qualified as a teacher of French. While there he met Emil Cioran and Mircea Eliade, and the three became lifelong friends.
In 1936 Ionesco married Rodica Burileanu. Together they had one daughter for whom he wrote a number of unconventional children's stories. He and his family returned to France in 1938 for him to complete his doctoral thesis. Caught by the outbreak of war in 1939, he remained there, living in Marseilles during the war before moving with his family to Paris after its liberation in 1944.
In 1967 Ionesco made a visit to Israel and in the second volume of his autobiography he affirmed his Jewish origins.
Ionesco was made a member of the Académie française in 1970 (accession speech, in French). He also received numerous awards including Tours Festival Prize for film, 1959; Prix Italia, 1963; Society of Authors Theatre Prize, 1966; Grand Prix National for theatre, 1969; Monaco Grand Prix, 1969; Austrian State Prize for European Literature, 1970; Jerusalem Prize, 1973; and honorary doctorates from New York University and the universities of Leuven (Belgium), Warwick (England), and Tel Aviv (Israel).
He died at 84 and is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris, France.
Although Ionesco wrote almost entirely in French, he is one of Romanians' proudest citizens. There is much resentment over what could be called the French's "adoption" of him, specifically the fact that most of the world knows him as Eugène Ionesco, rather than his birth name and name in his native Romanian language, Eugen Ionescu.
Ionesco the author
The origins of his first play
Like Beckett, Ionesco came to the theatre late: he did not write his first play until 1948 (La Cantatrice Chauve , first performed 1950, English title The Bald Soprano or The Bald Prima Donna). At the age of 40 he decided to learn English using the Assimil method, conscientiously copying whole sentences in order to memorize them. Re-reading them, he began to feel that he was not learning English, rather he was discovering some astonishing truths such as the fact that there are seven days in a week, that the ceiling is up and the floor is down; things which he already knew, but which suddenly struck him as being as stupifying as they were indisputably true.
This feeling only intensified with the introduction in later lessons of the characters 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, 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, La Cantatrice Chauve, which was performed for the first time in 1950 under the direction of Nicolas Bataille . 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.
Ionesco's earliest works, and his most innovative, were one-act nonsense plays: La Cantatrice chauve (1950), La Leçon (1951), Les Chaises (1952), and Jacques ou la Soumission (1955). These absurdist sketches, to which he gave such descriptions as "anti-play" (anti-pièce in French) express modern feelings of alienation and the impossibility and futility of communication with surreal comic force, parodying the conformism of the bourgeoisie and conventional theatrical forms. 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.
The full-length plays
With Tueur sans gages (1959; his second full-length play, the first being Amédée, ou Comment s'en débarrasser in 1954), Ionesco began to explore more sustained dramatic situations featuring more humanized characters. Notably this includes Bérenger, a central character in a number of Ionesco's plays, the last of which is Le Piéton de l'air .
Bérenger is a semi-autobiographical figure expressing Ionesco's wonderment and anguish at the strangeness of reality. He is comically naïve, engaging the audience's sympathy. In Tueur sans gages he encounters death in the figure of a serial killer. In Rhinocéros he watches his friends turning into rhinoceroses one by one until he alone stands unchanged against this tide of conformism. It is in this play that Ionesco most forcefully expresses his horror of ideological conformism, inspired by the rise of the fascist Iron Guard in Romania in the 1930s. Le Roi se meurt (1962) shows him as King Bérenger 1st, an everyman figure who struggles to come to terms with his own death.
Ionesco's later work has generally received less attention. This includes La Soif et la faim (1966), Jeux de massacre (1971), Macbett (1972, a free adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth) and Ce formidable bordel (1973).
Apart from a libretto for an opera which was never produced, Ionesco did not write for the stage after Voyage chez les morts in 1981. However, La Cantatrice chauve was still playing at the Théâtre de la Huchette in 1993 having moved there in 1952.
- La Cantatrice chauve (1950, The Bald Soprano or The Bald Prima Donna
- La Leçon (1951, The Lesson )
- Les Chaises (1952, The Chairs )
- Rhinocéros (1959, Rhinoceros)
- Tueur sans gages (1958, The Killer)
- Le Roi se meurt (1962, Exit the King )
- Le Piéton de l'air (1963, A Stroll in the Air )
- La Soif et la faim (1964, Hunger and Thirst )
- Macbett (1972)
- Productions, 1972 to present (in French)
- Notes and Counternotes (1962)
- Fragments of a Journal (1966)
- Le Solitaire (1973)
- Journeys among the Dead (1980)
- The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French, (ISBN 0198661258)
- Ionesco : Théâtre complet, Pléiade edition (ISBN 2070111989)
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