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Eugene Ionesco was a late bloomer as far as playwriting goes. He was in his forties when his first play, The Bald Soprano, was produced. Ionesco became inspired to write the play while trying to learn English from a primer. Basically, he kept copying over and over again simple sentences, like "The ceiling is up" and "The floor is down." As he did this, the seemingly simple statements of fact started to take on whole new meanings. Here's what Ionesco had to say about it:
A strange phenomenon took place. I don't know how—the text began imperceptibly to change before my eyes. The very simple, luminously clear statements I had copied so diligently into my notebook, left to themselves, fermented after a while, lost their original identity, expanded and overflowed. The clichés and truisms of the conversation primer, which had once made sense [...] gave way to pseudo-clichés and pseudo-truisms; these disintegrated into wild caricature and parody, and in the end language disintegrated into disjointed fragments of words. (source)
Sounds like a pretty trippy English lesson. This experience had a hard-core effect on Ionesco. He set out to capture it in a play and, a little while later, spewed out The Bald Soprano. The play got shown to Nicolas Bataille, a director of an avant-garde (experimental) theatrical troupe. He must've really dug it, because he directed the play's premiere at Théâtre des Noctambules on May 11, 1950.
The Bald Soprano didn't get much attention at first. Soon, though, it was discovered by some big wigs in Paris's avant-garde theatre movement. Before too long, Ionesco was an international theatrical superstar. Since 1957, The Bald Soprano has been in repertory at the Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris. It has now become one of the most performed plays in French (source). Not too shabby, Eugene.
In 1962 Martin Esslin wrote a little book called the Theatre of the Absurd, which basically defined an entire genre of theatre. Esslin placed several playwrights, including Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, and later Harold Pinter under this label. Though some of the playwrights disliked being labeled as any one particular thing, you can definitely see similarities in their work. All of them seem to have been inspired by or at least to sympathize with the famous Albert Camus's idea of the Absurd. Camus outlines his philosophy in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. To make a long story short, he proposed that life is meaningless and therefore everything humans do is essentially absurd.
Ionesco and his Absurdist buddies used many of the same techniques to express the idea of the Absurd. In many of their plays characters are trapped in repetitive meaningless situations, speak in clichés, and exist in decidedly non-realistic realities. Absurdist plays also often use clowning techniques borrowed from Vaudeville and the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Ionesco kept writing plays way into the '80s, but none of them ever seemed to rock quite as hard as his early stuff. In March of 1994, he died at the age of 84. Though his body lies in a Paris graveyard, his influence lives on. Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee, and many other famous playwrights all owe a debt to our buddy Eugene. His horrifically comic anti-plays helped to redefine the theatre as a whole. Ionesco and his Absurdist buddies changed the language of drama forever.
Have you ever felt like no one understands you? Have you ever felt like no matter what you say, your thoughts and feelings just aren't being comprehended by those around you? We're pretty sure most people have felt this way. This includes people now and people back in the 1950s, when The Bald Soprano first premiered. Shoot, it probably even includes cavemen. Hmm, maybe that's why cavemen invented speech. Maybe, they longed to express themselves to their hairy buddies.
Of course, Ionesco, the writer of The Bald Soprano might say the cavemen didn't do such a good job with the whole inventing communication thing. One of the main points of the play is that language can sometimes be an ineffective means of communication. The characters in The Bald Soprano speak in all kinds of crazy gibberish and barely seem to communicate at all. We can see why Ionesco dubbed the play a "Tragedy of Language" (source). Though the play may seem totally out there to some people, it's getting at a basic human problem everybody can understand – sometimes, words just aren't enough.
Here's a great site for all things Ionesco.
This website is a good resource for info on Ionesco and all things theatrical.
Hey look, there's a theatre festival of nothing but Ionesco.
Here's a link to the many articles published on Ionesco in the NY Times.
"The Bald Soprano: The Tragedy of Language"
This is a great essay on the play written by none other than Ionesco himself.
Here's a caricature of the playwright.
A photo of the playwright.
The Bald Soprano and Other Plays
Here's the cover of the edition we used.
Théâtre de la Huchette
This is a poster for the production of The Bald Soprano that's been running since the '50s.