PRINT March 1987


IN JANUARY, EUGENE LONESCO’S most recent play, Voyages chez les morts, received its premiere, at the Riverside Studios in London, at the same time that his first one. La Cantatrice chauve, was running in Paris at the Theatre de la Huchette, where it has played continuously to full houses for thirty years, in a double bill with his La Leçon. Not far away, at the Théâtre de Poche Montparnasse, was a fourth piece, Amédée ou comment s’en débarrasser, along with an exhibition of the author’s recent paintings. Clearly, lonesco’s early work has kept its interest for modem audiences, while he has continued to produce new writing and to enter completely new fields.

Ionesco lives in Paris, but he is originally from Romania, as I am, and I saw his plays performed there while I was growing up. They made a great impression on me; today, they are banned there. One day last summer, years after I had first seen his work, I woke up with him on my mind, as one wakes up having dreamed about people, not remembering the dream but with a sense of their presence. It seemed important to talk to lonesco, and the following interview is the result.


[The dialogue which follows must be spoken in voices that are drawling, monotonous, a little singsong, without nuances.]

Sanda Miller: What is your opinion of today’s theater? Do you feel that it has changed radically since the ’50s?

Eugène lonesco: I believe that the great moment for theater was between 1950 and 1970. This was the “theater of text.” Now we have the “theater of spectacle.” I think there’s a lack of authors today, although there are quite a number of great theater people in other areas, such as Robert Wilson and Tadeusz Kantor. For the rest, we have rather killed the conventions of theater by disarticulating them. Now, we await what will follow, we await a restoration. I have the impression that this is an interim period, which will eventually sort itself out. This kind of interim occurs in every artistic field, especially in France. I don’t know too much about what’s happening in other countries, but here we are in a period of expectation, of pause.

Such powerful events are happening in the world that this can seem neither the time nor the place to make art, yet art is really the only thing to be done right now. It is much more important to make art than politics. People who can’t find faith should go back to art; it is a contemplation technique. I keep repeating what André Malraux used to say, that the 21st century will be religious or it won’t be at all. With everything that threatens us from every side, I fear that it won’t be at all. We are gnawed at by politics. Politics, the struggle between the major powers, the struggle of domination for domination. . . . Ideologies no longer exist–they are only alibis. Not even the Russians believe in their alibi, Marxism, any longer, but they are such a powerful force they don’t care. Artists have denounced politics, but not forcefully enough.

SM: To the question “Flow did you become a playwright?” you have said that in 1948, when you wrote your first play, La Cantatrice chauve [The bald soprano], your original ambition was to learn English. Is this really the whole truth?

El: Well, what started me was reading an English conversation manual. The remarks of the characters in the book—the Smiths, the Martins—were so banal as to be peculiar. And my plays, especially the early ones, express this peculiarity of the banal, which ultimately has an existential strangeness. The banal is so strange that it sometimes becomes comic, sometimes tragic. It was the commonplace that I found provocative in my early work. It left me in a state of wonder at life, which seemed to me unreal as far as human behavior went. We seemed absurd. But the “absurd” dates farther back, and my basic feeling was very much, “Why is there something rather than nothing?,” to quote a German philosopher. My comic plays, such as La Cantratice chauve, show wonder at existence–at what people do, why do they do it, why they go to so much effort. What does it all mean? What is it about? This was the first stage: wonder. The second question I asked was “Why is there evil rather than good?” The problem racked me. The world seemed first a mixture of the real and the unreal, but beyond that there was evil in it. I dealt with these problems in plays such as Tueur sans gages [published in English as The Killer, 1957], Ce Formidable Bordel! [published in English as A Hell of a Mess, 1973], and L’Homme aux valises [Man with Bags, 1975]. To me, these are the two original feelings, the essential attitudes, that determined my writings.

SM: You once said that you suffer physically when you write.

EI: Yes, of course! Things in the world seem so monstrous that I agree with Emanuel Swedenborg, who said that we are already in hell. Hell is here on earth, or if not hell, at least purgatory. I consider the world we live in so dreadful that we cannot but suffer, we cannot but be anguished, and I ask myself, How can there be people who don’t feel this? Perhaps they fall into a kind of routine of unconsciousness, of superficiality, but if you stop for an instant, just for an instant, to look at what’s happening around you, not only today but since the beginning of the world, there is suffering. To me, this terribleness sometimes transmutes into humor, but a painful humor. Sometimes I have to say that the evil in the world is so great that it’s funny.

You know, I once remarked to a friend of minethat the world was truly so terrible that we might believe ourselves abandoned by divinity. In such a situation, I asked, what are we to do? “Laugh!” she said, “Laugh!” And I laughed, and asked her again, “Laugh, even if you are surrounded by corpses? Laugh among earthquakes, or other catastrophes?” She answered, “You have to laugh; laughter is our only defense.” So what are we to do ? Let’s accept! Let’s enter into the spirit of the divine joke, the tragicomic farce, let’s accept God’s game. It’s not as if it won’t end someday; it won’t last forever, and eventually we’ll see how it turns out. Or maybe we won’t.

SM: I’d like to ask you about Rhinocéros [1958]. In its time the play has been interpreted in reference to both Nazism and Communism. Is “rhinoceritis,” then, a political “disease”?

EI: Of course the rhinoceroses are the Nazis, but they are also the Communists, the Stalinists, totalitarians in general. What I deplore and condemn above all about them is their conformity. I once asked some young Austrians and Germans what they thought about Rhinocéros. What did the play mean to these young people, who had not experienced Nazism directly? “Conformity,” they answered. And that’s what it’s about: conformity. Conformity is yet another way of dying. Conformity is death, or the annihilation of all that is the human spirit.

Rhinocéros was written to encourage young people to think for themselves. In the country where I used to live in the old days, 1 was surrounded by Nazis. There was a Nazi sociology, a Nazi metaphysics, a Nazi political economy, a Nazi morale. It came at me from everywhere: from my teachers and colleagues, from journalism, from books, from every angle. I didn’t want to become a rhinoceros, and I began to ask myself what I could do. I was wondering, as Bérenger wonders in the play, if it was possible to be alone against everyone and to be right to be alone. And of course it is possible. Anyway, in the end I wasn’t alone against everyone, because I came back to France, where I met people who helped me think in another way.

Rhinocéros is equally opposed to the conformity of the left and of the right. But what can the individual do against totalitarianism? Well, the individual must try for freedom of thought, beyond the chains of collective oppression. We must search for the paragons of truth, of good and evil, within ourselves. Utopias, even Plato’s, are dangerous, though it is better to be governed by philosophers than by businessmen—whether capitalist businessmen or those monstrous businessmen on the other side of the Iron Curtain who go by another name. They are all the same, and equally a threat. Politics is the great threat to the modern world, yet politics was created to enable the individual to unfold within society, which had to guarantee his or her freedom. That was the original meaning of politics: people’s freedom and development. What happened was that it became first and foremost politics. This has been going on for a long time. Politics dominates the arts—it also dominates science; you know about the Lysenko case.1 That politics plays such an important role, at the expense of philosophy, free thought, esthetics, and even religion—this is the great malaise, the great calamity, of our age, and it has already lasted a long time.

One has to return to metaphysics, to find faith. This is absolutely indispensable. One has to restore priority to philosophy and metaphysics, one has to find contemplation again. And it is art that leads us to contemplation. Generally, political people are blind and deaf to metaphysical talk or thought. Thus the two great calamities today are politics, with all it generates in the way of war and catastrophe, and conformity. We have the mentality of sheep—each of us is induced to think like everyone else, which generates conformity and turns us into rhinoceroses, that is to say, into animals instead of thinking human beings.

SM: Do you think that people are afraid to speak up?

El: They don’t know what to say.

SM: Would you like to talk about Romania? Since you scorn politics as you do, it is somewhat symbolic that your plays have been deemed unacceptable on political grounds in your “second homeland,” where you were born and in part where you grew up.

El: I have only to say that Romania is an unfortunate country, like all those in the Eastern bloc, and particularly unfortunate since the clan in political authority there is absolutely mad and stupid.

SM: In an answer you wrote to a 1958 attack by Kenneth Tynan in the London paper the Observer, you remarked, among other things, “no society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death.” A message as pessimistic as it is clear.

El: Well, here is how I explain this to myself. We have been making revolutions for two centuries. The French Revolution fought for liberté, égalité, fraternité, but instead of instituting these things it installed the bourgeoisie as the dominant class, the bourgeoisie and the exploitation of man by man. Realizing that the French Revolution had taken the wrong turning, we decided to try again, so we had the Communist revolution—but instead of instituting liberté, égalité, fraternité, instead of instituting justice, that only instituted punishment. Instead of fraternity, the Communists instituted even greater authoritarian privilege, and instead of freedom, an even greater tyranny. This is why politics is dangerous, and why I say that no political system has done us any good. The more people have gotten involved in politics, the more catastrophic things have become.

I’ll tell you a story: A prince is in power. He is wicked, he is evil, he is criminal, he is vicious. A young, handsome, generous prince wants to replace him, and kills him, but in doing so that young prince becomes a murderer, becomes corrupt in his turn. This prince, now wicked himself, replaces the first wicked prince, and another young, handsome, generous prince wants to keep the wicked prince from rule, so he kills him, and in turn becomes a criminal. Another young, handsome, generous cetera. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. In his book Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, the Polish writer and critic Jan Kott makes us understand that revolutions have served no purpose at all. They have ended in Stalinism and similar things. We must find some other means.

SM: Given your conversation, it seems odd that you have always said your plays are not political.

EI: That was the citizen speaking. My theater is not in fact political—it is antipolitical. Tynan once told me, “You could be a great author if you had a wider vision; you could be Brecht. As it is, you can only be Strindberg.” I replied, “This is not a bad comment, but if I were to become a Brecht or even a Brechtian I would only be second in what I did, I would never be first.” And that’s that.

SM: Your theater, too, has in fact been called “antitheater.” What do you think is the role of the artist in society?

EI: The role of the artist is to lead the citizen toward contemplation and away from the misunderstandings of politics. I have a rather paradoxical solution to politics: we should put in power people who detest power, who have no taste for it, but who accept it as a duty. Those in power ought to be obliged to people, obliged to society; they should be performing a public duty rather than seeking pleasure or the fulfillment of their own needs.

SM: Would you say that the overwhelming sense of absurdity in your plays has to do with the human condition rather than with a “theater of the absurd,” a label you neither invented nor agreed with?

El: When it was said that my generation of authors were authors of the absurd, we accepted the label because of the recognition that came with it. But more generally I accepted “the absurd” as a label because I told myself that after all Martin Esslin, who wrote the book The Theatre of the Absurd, had a point: the world is absurd, or is rendered absurd by man. The idea of the absurd has existed for a long time, and its real father is Shakespeare, who had Macbeth say, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more; it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” This is why I consider Shakespeare the great ancestor of the theater of the absurd.

Language and human behavior go together. In an absurd world, language too is absurd. We often hear people talk banally; banality and the commonplace are so enormous, so immense, that they become relatives of the absurd, or are themselves the absurd. On the other hand, if my characters behave absurdly, it is in order to denounce the absurd.

What shocks me is not so much the evil in society, but the fact that the origin of that evil lies in our very existence, such as it is. We live in an existential discomfort, which generates or gives birth to what we might call social discomfort. This discomfort has always existed, which is why I began to write about it. But today the world is more dangerous, more cruel than ever, more cruel than twenty years ago, more cruel than thirty years ago, more cruel than a hundred years ago, more cruel than two hundred years ago.

SM: Does your theater have anything in common with the mentality of the absurd in the plays of the Romanian author Ion Luca Caragiale, or perhaps with Tristan Tzara?

El: Caragiale was a man who detested other men, who mocked other men. He detested the absurd, and he detested his country. Tristan Tzara, who was part of Surrealism, or more precisely of Dadaism, employed the same process I use of disarticulating language in order to show its emptiness.

In my play La Leçon [The Lesson, 1950], I denounce the futility of language. My early plays, in spite of their painful subtexts, were above all comic, even humorous—I was young, and I could bear the absurd lightly. The language of La Cantratice chauve no longer makes me laugh, but in that play language still existed a little, and certainly it not only existed but was even still clear in Le Roi se meurt [Exit the King, 1961]. Rhinocéros made its denunciations through a particular language, the language of ideology, and the same kind of thing happened in plays like L’Homme aux valises. As time has passed, the language of my plays has deteriorated more and more—in my last one, Voyages chez les morts [Journeys among the Dead], the last-act monologue of the main character is composed of assonances, of made-up words, disarticulated utterances. It is no more than a sort of crying. Facing the realization of the hopelessness of communication, of the deterioration of language, of the degradation of all human relationships, I could do only one thing: make my language more and more denunciatory, in fact make it into an antilanguage, a false language.

SM: You are a member of a Paris group involved with the ideas of Alfred Jarry, the Collège de Pataphysique—no ordinary member, in fact, but a “transcendent satrap.” Was Jarry important to you?

El: Jarry, the nihilist father of the college of pataphysics, was clearly a very interesting man, and the college follows a kind of European Zen, of French Zen; it is a school of criticism and nihilism. We mistrust everything and at the same time we laugh at everything; this is why I was an admirer of such pataphysicians as Andre Salmon and Raymond Queneau. Salmon founded the movement, and it did me the honor of nominating me satrap, which 1 ,remain. As Salmon, Rene Clair, and Queneau are all dead, we may say that pataphysics has gone into hiding. Jarry above all was a real encounter for me. We have affinities. When I read his work its mood was already familiar to me as an état d’esprit.

SM: You are mostly known as a playwright; few people are aware that a while ago you took up painting.

EI: I love painting very much. Images say more than words. Try to describe a painting and you will see how difficult it is, even though the image is there, complete and vibrant. It says so many things better than words can say. In fact, this is why I paint, because I’m fed up with words, I’m fed up with talking without having anything to say, I’m fed up with talking and not making myself understood.

SM: What you say is very painful.

El: It is both pessimistic and not, because by saying it I discharge pain, I liberate myself a little, for the moment. If I talk about pain in my theater, if my theater is pained, it is so in order to go beyond pain. We are all full of pain; without it there would be no art, because art, after all, is the expression of our crisis and of our interrogation of it.

In my debate with Tynan in England he reproached me with having no message. It seemed to me stupid to have a message—there is none to give. My theater offers no solutions–messages and ideologies are obsolete. If I were to offer a message I would only be repeating something already said by ideologists turned schoolmasters and pedagogues. Solutions should be found by each of us independently and in an adult way. My theater offers no messages, no solutions, only questions.

Sanda Miller is a writer who lives in London. She is completing a book on Constantin Brancusi.

Translated from the French by Sanda Miller and Marie-Agathe Rodgers.



1. From 1940 to 1965, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, a member of the Supreme Soviet headed the Soviet Academy of Sciences Institute of Genetics. He is known for his theones of heredity which became orthodoxy in the USSR, although widely discredited elsewhere and ultimately abandoned in Russia. —Ed.

The title of this article and the stage direction that follows the author’s introduction are quotations from La Cantatnce chauve.