Playwright Eugene Ionesco once provided a definition of his favorite mode of literary examination that positively overflows with existential weight: “The Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose.” Some would suggest that every time Ionesco put pen to paper to craft a new play, he was writing something devoid of purpose. Of course, the same people might well have looked at a painting by a young unknown artist in Arles named Vincent and seen nothing of artistic note. Such was the view that Eugene Ionesco took toward the state of stage drama that he witnessed in 1948.
The Bald Prima Donna (also known as The Bald Soprano) is a direct reaction against the brain-dead mainstream statement of stage comedy at the time which Ionesco suffered only by unleashing the full extent of creative inspiration against the foolishness of the success enjoyed by the strain of mediocrity being produced by his contemporaries. What Ionesco wanted to do with this—one of his very first forays into the world absurdist existential comedy he nearly single-handedly created—was to reveal the way in which the world of the stage had taken actual human discourse and boiled it down to a collection of empty platitudes spouted as self-contained truths existing without context to any particular specificities of time and place.
While working on the play, Ionesco disclosed its content to Nicolas Bataille who was the impresario of an avant-garde theatrical group; a collection of men and woman just about as ideal as one can imagine for tackling the distinctive style of and content of The Bald Prima-Donna. That disclosure resulted in the first production of the play on May 11, 1950 at the Theatre des Noctambules. The rehearsals leading to that production revealed something that the makers of the Hollywood comedy Airplane! would realize themselves some thirty years later: the satirical point of a dramatic story is enhanced not through parody, but by playing it straight. In other words, the cast first tried to play the dramatic narrative of The Bald Prima-Donna first as a comic parody of itself only to learn that the humor was finely sharpened to a point by playing it as completely straight.
Nevertheless, the world was not quite ready for such a bold experiment. The first production was hardly received as intended, but in a heartening example of how every theatrical innovation only needs time before its genius is revealed, just a decade later Ionesco’s absurdist commentary was already being translated into dozens of languages and being performed around the world, thus setting the stage for existential comedy ranging from Monty Python to….Airplane!