Ionesco’s Influence

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Ionesco knows how I feel when an assignment is due for college

Well by this time next week, my next assignment for college will be done and dusted. It’s for my Theatre of the Absurd module. Every module with college, stretches me and opens my eyes to other ways of doing theatre and throughout the last few years, I’ve gained a list of theatre practitioners that I’ve grown to love and admire their work.

Ionesco is the one for me from this module. As my tutor has remarked he is quite “unfashionable” at the present time, and this is represented by the lack of material on him and his work available in English. This is a real shame, as I’ve found his plays, witty, thought-provoking and in the context of The Theatre of the Absurd and theatre generally, very influential.

I saw his play The Chairs last year and I reviewed it here. I mentioned at the time, that I wasn’t too keen on how they’d presented it, and the more I’ve read of Ionesco’s own writings and thoughts on that and other plays of his, I have to say I think they missed the mark from what Ionesco envisaged.

Unlike other Theatre of the Absurd writers (especially Beckett), Ionesco wasn’t shy of telling others what his intentions were. While part of Beckett’s enigma is his refusal to define or talk about his writings (even though he was exacting on how they were to be performed and that his text was definitive), Ionesco in many cases leaves no doubt as to what is representing what. As someone who is writing academic papers on him, it’s refreshing to be able to quote and consult the writer. His plays do however give the audience and performers the chance to bring their own thoughts and interpretations to it, and he frequently changed his work while it was being originally performed, based on how it was being received by the audiences seeing it being performed live.

His book, Notes and Counter Notes is certainly in my top ten of favourite books on theatre (I must do a post and perhaps create a page dedicated to them), and I recommend it wholeheartedly to you if you have an interest in theatre or Theatre of the Absurd. Some choice gems are;

” One must write for oneself, for it is in this way that one may reach others.”

“A genuine dramatist has the theatre in his bones, he expresses himself spontaneously in the medium of drama, which is his natural idiom.”

“There is only one thing that I’m sure of. It is that my plays make no claim to save the world or prove that some men are better than others.”

“A play is a whole performance, the subject is only a pretext, and the text is only a score.”

As part of the Theatre of the Absurd movement, his work is obviously part of that mindset and influenced by existentialist writings and the turmoil of post war France. While the world has moved on, I find there is much in these writings that resonates with me and I agree with Ionesco’s concern to express the absence of meaning in life. His allusions to fascism and totalitarianism while more pertinent in 1950’s France, there are still similar political and religious regimes still with us, and may well be in ascendency in the next few decades.

So while much is rightly owed to Beckett, I feel that perhaps Ionesco has been sidelined, his play The Bald Soprano was the first absurdist play put on in France and the his play The Lesson the first absurdist play put on in UK and the innovations that genre brought to theatre as an art form do seem to be forgotten by some.

Influencers of The Theatre of the Absurd

Another reason Ionesco and his writings have appealed to me is his influence by the great early movie stars such as Charlie Chaplain, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton (who would later appear in Beckett’s Film) and the Marx Brothers (whom Ionesco cited as his greatest influence). These acts had their grounding in theatre and many of their theatre skits were transferred direct onto celluloid. Again many forget these stars theatrical roots. The Marx Brothers would tour and perform their skits before theatre audiences, find out what worked best with the live audience before committing it finally to film. The absurdity of these performers is perhaps easier to see with hindsight. Slapstick humour, absurdity of language and visual imagery all key components of Theatre of the Absurd and its genesis can be seen in these early films. It’s also been great that as a fan of these films I can watch them and claim it’s for my college course!

So if you’re not aware of Ionesco, I recommend finding a copy of some of his plays and giving them a read, or seeing a play of his if one is put on near you. Two of his plays are constantly running in Paris (The Bald Soprano and The Lesson) and have been since 1957! I’m keen to try to catch them later this year if at all possible. Other plays of his I’ve enjoyed are The Chairs,and Rhinoceros (regarded by many as his best). Once my assignment is done, I’m looking forward to working my way through all his works. Which shows how much I like his writings as very few writers have I wanted to and read all their works.

Anyway, I’d better crack back on with my assignment as I don’t get marks for my blog posts unfortunately!

An Elderly Couple, an Orator and Dozens of Chairs – Review of The Chairs by Ionesco, Ustinov Theatre, Bath

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Ciaran McIntyre and Janet Amsden

I’m studying Ionesco this year at college, I thought I should use the Ustinov theatre in Bath’s production as an excuse to see one of his plays, while spending the day out and about in one of my favourite cities.

The Ustinov is a wonderful studio theatre in Bath and puts on a great line up of new plays and revivals of work such as The Chairs.

Martin Crimp’s translation was the one used and Janet Amsden and Ciaran McIntyre played the parts of the Old Woman and Old Man respectively. It’s a play that puts huge demands on the actors as they have to imagine the entire rest of the ensemble apart from The Orator, who was played by Geoff Nursey, and most of his part is when the couple have left the stage. Janet Amsden and Ciaran McIntyre played their parts with panache.

I enjoyed this play, but for me something was missing. Having recently read it for college, I have to say I think the Donald Watson translation I read was better. I felt that Martin Crimp had tried to modernise the dialogue too much. I’m going to get a copy of the play in French and read it myself to see which of the two are nearer Ionesco’s. I also felt that the designers by not following Ionesco’s own stage notes created a piece that wasn’t quite as dynamic. The key part of Ionesco’s set I feel are the 9 doors that the old man and woman are repeatedly going in and out of to collect the chairs. The inherent humor of going in one door and out of another door, was not really present in this production and I feel suffered for it.

I also felt The Orators costume was also wrong, this production had him in a military uniform as opposed to how Ionesco describes him; “He looks like the typical painter or poet of the last century, a wide-brimmed felt hat, a loosely tied cravat, an artists jacket, moustache and goatee beard.” The military uniform they gave The Orator, seemed to be taking and inferring things Ionesco never put in the play about The Orator.

I also want to check the original language of the play as in this translation The Emperor was repeatedly referred to as the “King of Kings”, which to me was giving too much attention to a Christology that isn’t in the Donald Watson translation and perhaps not the original.

I also felt that the arranging of the chairs and some of the physical humor didn’t go far enough, the pace wasn’t quite “firing on all cylinders” I thought. The programme tells me that there were three Directors (a director Maria Aberg, assistant, Ailin Conant and movement director, Ayse Tashkiran), perhaps this accounts for why I felt the play didn’t quite reach the punch, I got from reading it. As it did feel a bit muddled rather than having a clear directorial focus, which I feel this play needs.

Don’t let my criticisms put you off though, I did enjoy it, and this play is seldom put on, so it’s worth going to see it as you never know when it’ll be on next. I just wish they’d stuck a bit closer to what Ionesco had written.