Watching the detectives

Article published by Culture Compass website, 2009


Please spare a few moments to step back from the absurd pre-Christmas frenzy and consider, on the centenary of his birth, the work of a great absurd-ist playwright. Because – judging by the total lack of UK theatre productions this year – nobody else seems to be doing so.

Eugène Ionesco was born on 26th November 1909.

Or was he? His birth date used to be three years later - an error due to vanity on Ionesco's part: when his first play was performed, he is said to have lied about his age to fit into a new generation of "young" authors including Samuel Beckett. And here the anti-plot thickens, because Beckett was himself three years older than Ionesco...

In keeping with this jumbled logic, I shall leapfrog the biography (his childhood in Romania and France, a father who served both Nazis and Communists and accused Eugène of being "on the side of the Jews") and get straight to my theme: logic.

Logic is the great dominating force of theatre that Ionesco’s plays attacked. Whether in the ancient Greek tragedies, Elizabethan history plays or the existentialist plays of Sartre and Camus, logic has always been drama’s sacred cow. It has underlain everything from medieval morality plays to Spooks. And in our 21st-century world, it still exerts its iron grip on television, cinema, the Internet, even Playstation. You just can't get away from it.

Ionesco himself put it very eloquently through his character Choubert in the play Victims of Duty: "Drama's always been realistic and there's always been a detective about. Every play's an investigation brought to a successful conclusion.There's a riddle and it's solved in the final scene. Sometimes earlier... You might as well give the game away at the start."

How true this is. And not just in the literal, "I-saw-it-coming" way. The whole idea of plot is a straitjacket for drama. Everything has an identifiable cause and effect. Exposition-climax-denouement is our unquestioned staple diet. The same goes for characterisation. However bizarre and random the characters' behaviour, you always discover a reason behind it. Flashbacks show they were raped as a child. Monologues reveal their secret lust for power. And the language, however poetic, is always anchored in the rational. We are supposed to go away with a deeper understanding of society, with our humanity reinforced.

So why do we so often fail to be moved?

The problem is that the more logical a play becomes, the less scope there is for shock. And I don't mean shock about what happens on stage (there's nothing like a bit of sex, violence or political incorrectness to keep audiences on their toes). I mean being shocked by our own reactions, questioning our view of reality, even our very existence. Ionesco destroyed plot and characterisation and subverted the rational language we use to define our world, and in so doing he invented a new kind of humour:

MR SMITH: (still reading his paper) Tsk, it says here that Bobby Watson died.

MRS SMITH: My God, the poor man! When did he die?

MR SMITH: Why do you pretend to be astonished? You know very well that he’s been dead these past two years. Surely you remember that we attended his funeral a year and a half ago.

MR SMITH: Oh yes, of course I do remember. I remembered it right away, but I don’t understand why you yourself were so surprised to see it in the paper.

MR SMITH: It wasn’t in the paper. It’s been three years since his death was announced. I remembered it through an association of ideas.

MR SMITH: What a pity! He was so well preserved.

MR SMITH: He was the handsomest corpse in Great Britain.

(Extract from The Bald Prima Donna)

To complete his offensive, Ionesco devised outlandish scenes on stage. "One can dare anything in the theatre and it is the place where one dares the least," he wrote. So he created a bride with multiple noses (Jacques, or The Submission), a giant corpse floating out of a window (Amédée) and people turning into rhinos (Rhinoceros). Today we are accustomed to surrealism in the media, whether it be in Green Wing or Smirnoff ads. It has become another kind of staple, inflated with ever wilder special effects. Its very strangeness has developed a logic of its own.

Ionesco's work, however, goes beyond mere wackiness. It explores - with great poetic force - the tragi-comedy of human life, covering themes like suffering, conformism, love and the inevitability of death. In the theatre, in particular, his plays have a lasting power for those seeking an escape from the relentless logic of TV drama.

For the others... well, they can just keep watching the detectives.

Tom Jensen.

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