One of the truly most creative, surreal and fascinating playwrights of the 20th century Eugene Ionesco stands tall amongst a sea of brilliant existential surreal absurdist playwrights of his time. His works are visceral, hilarious, dark, strange and funny with a cutting view of the insanity of capitalism, fascism, government, society and people. Born in Romania in 1912, he moved to France as a kid and then fluctuated between the two nations for the rest of his life. He managed to survive World War One, the great depression and dodge World War Two, living with his family in Marseilles. The rise of fascism however and the desperate lengths people will go too to survive, fully stuck with him.
Part of a Parisian playwriting group that included Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Arthur Adamov, Ionesco was described as a practitioner of Theatre of the Absurd. Theatre of the Absurd is surrealist theatre that focuses on the search for meaning in a meaningless world. The most famous example being Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Ionesco’s work by contrast is a touch more visceral where Becketts is intellectual. His most famous play, and one of my all time favourites is The Rhinoceros (1959). Set in a small farming village in France, over the course of the play the inhabitants of the town are turned, one by one, into rhino’s as an allegory for the spread of fascism during the 1930’s.
RANKED 25th in our Best Playwrights of All Time
His other most well known work is The Bald Prima Donna (1950) – two families have a dinner party with some unexpected guests. The conversation is banal and pointless, it devolves into sheer non-sequiturs before the curtain falls, and lifts again to have the exact same scene play out but with the family roles reversed, so the Smiths are saying the Martins parts and vice versa. It is hilarious, and strange and funny. A real examination of the pointlessness of politeness and how people talk so much but say nothing at all. The meaninglessness of polite society. A fantastic play and one of many of Ionesco’s that is worth a read.
Best Eugene Ionesco Plays
- The Rhinoceros
- The Bald Prima Donna (The Bald Soprano)
- Exit the King
- The Killer
- Hunger and Thirst
- Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It
- A Stroll in the Air
- The Chairs
- The New Tenant
“Death is our main problem and all others are less important. It is the wall and the limit. It is the only inescapable alienation; it gives us a sense of our limits. But the ignorance of ourselves and of others to which we are condemned is just as worrying. In the final analysis, we don’t know what we’re doing. Nevertheless, in all my work there is an element of hope and an appeal to others.”
KEEP LEARNING: Influential French Playwrights
Ionesco is one of the most wonderful, mind bending and thought provoking playwrights of the 20th century and his works are worth a look if you can find them! Dive on in, and if you would like to practice your surrealist theatre chops, why not sign up to the StageMilk Drama Club.