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...
Eugene Ionesco was born in 1912 to a French mother and a Romanian father. He spent most of his childhood in France, where he claimed to have had a singularly transformational experience. As Deborah B. Gaensbauer describes in Eugene Ionesco Revisited, the young boy was in a small French town, walking in the sunlight under a blue sky, when he experienced a sudden luminosity. He felt a sensation of floating off the ground and great peace within himself. When he returned to the ground, he perceived the world as full of dirt and decay, corruption, and meaningless action. The strange juxtaposition of euphoric peace with meaningless reality would come to influence his life and work.
After Ionesco moved to Romania as a teenager, his parents divorced. He studied French literature at the University of Bucharest. Ionesco married Rodicia Burileanu, and they had one daughter, to whom he dedicated a number of unusual children's stories. The family moved back to France and lived in Marseilles during World War II. After the war, they relocated to Paris.
Ionesco would earn critical acclaim as a playwright, but he did not write his first play, The Bald Soprano, until 1950. Having decided to learn English at the age of forty, Ionesco found inspiration in, of all things, his language primer. Simple sentences constructed by simple words struck him as alternatively profound, mysterious, tragic, and hilarious. He wrote The Bald Soprano to satirize the construction of a middle-class family trapped in a world defined by meaningless formalities and stale routines. To his surprise, the tiny production received critical praise and catapulted the middle-aged man into a vibrant writing career.
Ionesco's most famous work includes The Lesson (1951), The Chairs (1952), and Rhinoceros (1959). His plays, or "anti-plays," as he called them, break theatrical traditions of plot and sequence. They are particularly modern in the degree to which they do so. The plays explore mortality and existential conundrums with fanciful and often fantastical humor. The line between fiction and reality consistently blurs as Ionesco depicts meaningless worlds ruled by chance.
In 1962, Martin Esslin identified Ionesco as a leading writer in the "Theater of the Absurd." Other writers grouped under this heading included Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov. They shared similar concerns about life's meaning—or rather, its meaninglessness—and its mystery. To express and explore the problems of living in seeming meaninglessness, these writers not only challenged traditional theatrical models but revolutionized the art of writing itself.
In his most noteworthy theoretical essay, "Experience of the Theatre," Ionesco challenged the traditional premise of theater in plain terms. He claimed to have hated going to the theater as a child because it did not provide an interactive experience—or, at least, not as interactive an experience as he preferred. He described his view of an "imagined truth" that can be much more interesting than realistic theater. In criticizing realism and Brechtian theater, he separated himself from many contemporaries, including Kenneth Tynan, with whom he shared an ongoing, heated debate.
Ionesco was made a member of the French Academy (L'Académie française) in 1970. He went on to publish more theoretical writings and more plays. He also won a number of prizes, including the Tours Festival Prize for film, Prix Italia, Society of Authors Theatre Prize, Grand Prix National for theatre, Monaco Grand Prix, Austrian State Prize for European Literature, Jerusalem Prize, and honorary doctorates from New York University and the universities of Leuven, Warwick, and Tel Aviv.
Ionesco died at age 84 on March 29, 1994. He is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. Although the celebrated thinker wrote almost entirely in French and lived so long in France, Romania still considers him one of its most talented artists.
Study Guides on Works by Eugene Ionesco
The Chairs is an absurdist play by Romanian-French playwright Eugène Ionesco, first performed in 1952. It details the life of an unnamed, elderly married couple as they attempt to organize a speech and look back on their life together.
Rhinoceros catapulted Ionesco's career to an international level. Though he had written several plays by Rhinoceros in 1959, the English translation of the play caught both public and critical attention around the world. In 1973, a film...