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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Final Bow of a Cheerful Surrealist

If you laugh a lot you live a long time. Eugene Ionesco died Monday at the age of 81, having spent nearly half a century skewering humankind in such plays as "The Bald Soprano" and "Rhinoceros." In the 1950s, when his works were first translated into English, he, along with such disparate French-language playwrights as Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, was thrown by the critics into a theoretical blender: The puree that emerged was dubbed "Absurdism."


Ionesco was the least threatening, least poetic, least revolutionary and least original of the three, though possibly the most "absurd." He took nonsensical situations and gave them an undertone of modernist dread. In "Amedee, or How to get Rid of It," a corpse grows until it fills a room. In "The Lesson," a professor's instruction of his female student turns into an assault, thus demonstrating that all teaching is essentially a rape of the powerless by the power-holding (this is the play Mamet turns not quite on its head, maybe on its side or its rear end, in "Oleanna"). The characters in "The Bald Soprano" sit around in a living room spouting non sequiturs that Ionesco purloined from the textbook from which he learned English. This was widely interpreted as a savage critique of the bourgeoisie and the banality of modern life. In the 1959 "Rhinoceros," creeping conformism is represented by everyone turning into rhinoceroses (in the film version, Zero Mostel turns into the animal while Gene Wilder scrambles around the set trying to keep out of his way).


Born in Romania, Ionesco was raised in France until he was 13. He returned to Romania for high school and college and did not leave again until 1938, when, at age 26, he settled permanently in Paris. In spite of some youthful stabs at poetry, he wasn't really writing at this point, though he worked in a publishing house. Ionesco lived in Paris during the Nazi occupation, an exposure to totalitarianism that may have been what finally energized him into becoming a playwright. Certainly, all of his plays are about power, the power inherent in institutions, the power of language to inhibit rather than to further communication.


His insights into these matters were post-Orwell, and in a sense, his plays about the abuse of language are footnotes to "1984" and a play such as "Rhinoceros" a reworking of "Animal Farm." Original ideas were not Ionesco's strong point. Nor was an investment of strong personal feeling in his work. As with Tom Stoppard -- another anti-communist playwright of a left-wing era -- he wrote with a facile, cerebral cleverness that keeps an audience at a bit of a distance, and his cool intellectualism can come across as shallow and a little smug.


What Ionesco had was an antic sensibility, and he was not primarily a critic of humanity but a surrealist. He cheerfully juxtaposed incompatible objects in impossible situations. Empty chairs pile up. Dead bodies outgrow the house they are in. Found-object language -- such as an English textbook -- is substituted for dialogue. There is a lot of Magritte in his work, and not a little Lewis Carroll -- that sense of the ordinary, domestic props of life as untrustworthy, changeable, not what they seem. In short, though he was hailed in his prime as something new, he was actually one of the last practitioners of an aesthetic that came out of World War I, the historic cataclysm that ushered into Europe the age of angst and absurdity.