Eugène Ionesco

Eugène Ionesco, born Eugen Ionescu (November 26, 1909 Slatina – March 28, 1994 Paris), Romanian playwright and dramatist, one of the foremost playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd. Beyond ridiculing the most banal situations, Ionesco's plays depict in a tangible way the solitude and insignificance of human existence.


His father, a Romanian lawyer, was also called Eugen Ionescu. His mother, Thérèse Ipcar, was the daughter of a protestant French engineer who had settled in Romania because of his work. When they married, Thérèse converted to the orthodox religion. Their son Eugen was baptised and remained orthodox until his death, in spite of the long periods of metaphysical doubts he went through. Shortly after Eugen's birth, the family moved to Paris, where his father continued his studies and eventually became a doctor of the Faculty of Law in Paris. His father went back to Bucharest in 1916, just when Romania entered the First World War, but his wife and the two young children remained in Paris and had to manage all by themselves. In Ionesco's writings, this period is depicted as the most peaceful and harmonious period of his life. In this period he wrote a "heroic" play in two acts (32 pages in an exercise book) and a comic scenario. These texts were unfortunately lost. He attended the school in rue Dupleix.

Eugen therefore returned to Romania in May 1922 together with his sister. He learned Romanian and attended the college Sfântul Sava (Saint Sava) in Bucharest and eventually passed the baccalaureate at the secondary school in Craiova in 1928. In 1928 he had his debut as a poet in Bilete de papagal (Parrot Notes), which appeared daily and was famous for its tiny format. From 1929 to 1933 he studied for a French degree at the University of Bucharest. He published his first article (on Ilarie Voronca) in the Zodiac review in 1930. In 1931 he wrote Elegii pentru fiinţe mici (Elegies for tiny beings) (poetry) influenced by Francis Jammes.


Between 1928 and 1935 he wrote articles for Romanian reviews; in 1934 he wrote Nu! (No!), (articles and diary notes) - this collection of critical, protest essays provoked an enormous scandal in the Romanian literary world, by its devastating, subversive attack, perpetrated in a lively and sarcastic style, against the established values of Romanian literature. This volume received a prize from the Royal Foundations Publishing House, granted by a jury chaired by the literary critic and theorist Tudor Vianu.

In 1938, he obtained a Romanian state grant to go to Paris to write a thesis (which he never finished) on: "The topic of sin and the topic of death in French poetry since Baudelaire". In Paris, he became interested in the writings of Emmanuel Mounier, Berdiaev, Jacques Maritain, Gabriel Marcel. In 1939 he met Henri Thomas and the group behind the Esprit review. He went to Marseilles (contacts with Les Cahiers du Sud and Léon-Gabriel Gros). From Paris he sent reports to the prestigious literary and scientific monthly review Viaţa Românească (Romanian Life).

When the 2nd World War was declared the same year, he went back to Romania. The situation in Romania was so bad that he bitterly regretted having left France and, after many failed attempts, he finally returned to France in May 1942 with his wife, thanks to friends who helped them to get travel documents. At first they lived in Marseilles, they had great financial difficulties. Eugène Ionesco was appointed to the cultural services of the royal Legation of Romania in Vichy. He eventually became cultural attaché. His daughter Marie-France was born on August 26, 1944.


In March 1945 they moved to Paris, where they resided in rue Claude-Terrace 38 until 1960. Life was difficult and work scarce at that time. He worked as a proofreader for an administrative publisher. From 1945 to 1949, he translated the works of Urmuz (1883-1923), a Romanian writer, who was a forerunner of surrealism, the literature of the absurd and the anti-prose. During this period the Ionesco family received financial help from a relative.

In 1948 Ionesco started writing the play that was later to be entitled The Bald Prima Donna, and which was performed for the first time on May 11, 1950 at the Théâtre des Noctambules, under the direction of Nicolas Bataille. It was far from being a success. Only a handful of intellectuals appreciated it and supported him. Ionesco associated with André Breton, Luis Buñuel, Arthur Adamov and Mircea Eliade. In rapid succession Ionesco wrote a number of dramas, including The Lesson (1951), a picture of the erotic thrust of tyrannical power, Les chaises (1952), in which the real and the imaginary coincide in a single semicircle of chairs, and Victimes du devoir (1954), a detective-story parody. Amédée (1954) portrayed a couple who share their apartment with a slowly growing corpse. Bérenger, a little Everyman, was featured first in Tueur sans gags (1958). By 1955 Ionesco's reputation was established in France. Gradually he was acclaimed as one of the leading exponents of the theatre of absurd. Among Ionesco's other well-known plays are Le Roi se meurt (1963) and Les Rhinocéros (1959); when The Rhinoceros was produced in Germany, it had fifty curtain calls and the next day the papers wrote, "Ionesco shows us how we became Nazis".


He sought and was granted French citizenship. His taste for fun, adventure and nihilism led him to become a member of the College of Pataphysics (with Boris Vian, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert, Marcel Duchamp and Michel Leiris). Over the following years, many of his works were published in Cahiers du Collège de Pataphysique. 1958 was the year of the "London Controversy" where Ionesco defended his theatre and his vision of the theatre in a virulent polemic with the English critic, Kenneth Tynan from The Observer. In 1959 he participated in the Helsinki talks on the avantgarde theater.

On May 8, 1969, he received the Medal of Monaco and in December the Great National Theater Prize. On the 22th of January 1970, Eugène Ionesco was elected a member of the French Academy, to take over the seat of Jean Paulhan. The same year he received the Great Austrian Prize of European literature. On April 30, 1973 he received the Jerusalem Prize and in June the Medal of the town of Vichy. In 1974 he became honorary doctor of the University of Warwick (UK) and in March 1975 of the University of Tel-Aviv. He received the Max Reinhardt Medal in August 1976 during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Salzburg Festival. In November he participated, with Tom Bishop, Emmanuel Jacquart, Françoise Koutilsky and Rosette Lamont, in a round table at the University of New York, in front of an audience of 900. In January/February 1982 Ionesco gave a conference at the University of Bonn where he received the German Order of Merit. On April 16, 1985 Ionesco received two medals: that of Mayenne and that of La Flèche. In May, he received the Monte-Carlo International Prize of Contemporary Art. He was a member of the jury of the Venice Film Biennial. On 22 November he received the T.S. Eliot-Ingersoll Prize in Chicago, in presence of Saul Bellow and Mircea Eliade. In March 1987 he received the Medal of the city of Paris and in October two gold medals: that of Saint-Etienne and that of Saint-Chamond. On May 7 1989, Eugène Ionesco and Jacques Mauclair both received a Molière Prize. On December 30, Ionesco and Cioran became members of honor of the French Writer's Union. On November 27, 1992 the Uniwersytet Śląski, Katowice, Poland, gave Eugène Ionesco the title of honorary doctor. The ceremony took place in Paris. Ionesco was a member of the C.I.E.L. (Comité international des écrivains pour la liberté) which militates for the observance of human rights in all countries and for freedom of scientists, writers and artists.

Eugène Ionesco died on March 28, 1994 in his residence in Paris. He was buried in the Cemetery of Montparnasse.

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