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The Bald Soprano and Other Plays: The Bald Soprano; The Lesson; Jack, or the Submission; The Chairs Paperback – 1994
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Drama in 11 scenes by Eugene Ionesco, who called it an "antiplay." It was first produced in 1950 and published in 1954 as La Cantatrice chauve; the title is also translated The Bald Prima Donna. The play, an important example of the Theater of the Absurd, consists mainly of a series of meaningless conversations between two couples that eventually deteriorate into babbling. -- The Merriam-Webster Encylopedia of Literature
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Top Customer Reviews
Apologies to Kentucky, should I have said Oklahoma? Anyway, German backwoods are no different.)
Then I take a big leap with the time machine. No encounters with Ionesco since maybe the 60s. Plenty with Picasso though, who became one of my heroes (and one of my favorite writers, P. O'Brian, wrote a good biography, which I reviewed here, but I pulled the review out since nobody was interested).
And now my daughter, who is doing her IB with drama as elective subject, chose The Lesson for her graduation stage production. I read it first and told her she is crazy. Nobody can play this mad professor who kills his private students after endless absurd monologues on philology (which leads to calamity, as the maid says). As any self-respecting 18 year old would, she ignored my ignorant advice and did it anyway. She found a fantastic actress to do the mad old professor, a 16 year old American Chinese girl who must have been born for this part. And perfect fits for the pupil and the maid as well.
I have not had so much fun in a theatre for a long time. Hail to old Ionesco! And kudos to the producer and director of the play on this day!
As she sat relaxed and untroubled, appearing to be enjoying herself in amicable discourse, she gestured gracefully but without effort, in conventional ways that one expects to see in a conversation among friends. Her expression, always friendly and open, changed in ways that seemed consistent with any casual exchange of views and pleasantries. Her performance was eminently fitting for one genuinely interested in what was being discussed and who had warm feelings for her interlocutors.
Though genuine, I think it makes sense to call it a performance. An unself-conscious performance put on by a genuinely goodhearted woman who had been born and raised in conventional middle class America of the '40's and '50's. That she was more winsome than most was likely due to accidents of birth, circumstances of upbringing, and unforeseen contingencies of the life course. Be that as it may, she had mastered and unself-consciously performed a multitude of conventional manifestations of social grace intrinsic to her station in life, the mannerisms, facial expressions, mode of dress, grooming, and so on.
However, while she comfortably and naturally portrayed the woman that her appearance led us to expect her to be, her speech was completely incoherent. The words were English, clearly enunciated, flowing fluidly, and delivered with commonplace variations in emphasis and tone, but they were in disarray, devoid of regulation by conventional rules of syntax. Everything was there except the organization of conventional words into interpretable phrases and sentences. As it turned out, the woman suffered from early onset dementia, something I never would have suspected until she began speak in a way that was readily discernible as wholly meaningless.
As I watched and listened, however, I was struck by the notion that there just had to be something that was somehow intelligible in what she said. The gestures, the facial expressions, the smooth flow of words ... I began to wonder if there was not a syntax, unknown to me but nevertheless real, that enabled her to put on this compelling presentation of what seemed clearly to be nonsense. After all, the relationships between words or signifiers and the things they refer to or signify are known to be inherently arbitrary. Language, thus, is largely a set of taken-for-granted conventions that we learn through life-long immersion as if it were indisputably real for all time.
The same applies to physical appearances, the organization of households and neighborhoods, the institutions that constitute towns, use of everyday appliances, and so on. In the second decade of the 21st Century, we may be more aware of the socially constructed, inherently conventional, and fundamentally arbitrary nature of much of the world we inhabit in a taken-for-granted way. But in the '50's, when Eugene Ionesco wrote The Bald Soprano & Other Plays, this kind of insight was little known and not thoroughly developed.
To borrow some examples from Ionesco, who's to say that a ringing doorbell should be answered? It seems overwhelmingly obvious to most of us -- why else have doorbells? -- but they and their anticipated responses are still just social conventions that immersion in a particular social world have made seem real in a fundamentally undeniable way.
And why shouldn't three rings of a door bell signal no need to respond? It seems extraneous, gratuitous, even absurd. But say we want a mechanism to indicate that a doorbell mistakenly pushed once was just that -- a mistake. Why not a three-ring "don't respond" code, socially learned and taken for granted by all.
It does seem hopelessly far-fetched for an old couple to stage a public reading in a spacious auditorium for luminaries who are not there. But children play in this sort of make-believe fashion all the time. It's a conventional part of being socialized into a particular social world. Who's to say that something similar couldn't be a conventional part of growing old and dying. Maybe it's a way of getting longed-for but unattained achievements as one leaves this earth. After all, going through the motions -- the ceremony -- constitutes most of the active recognition one might receive. Why not simulate it for ourselves?
Some of Ionesco's material, however, is more difficult to rationalize. Why, for example, would a prospective groom, pushed into marriage by his parents, prefer a bride with three noses to one who had only two? There's no accounting for taste, I suppose, but the mystifying issue is where did these multi-nosed women come from. Let's conveniently put that issue aside and restate the easier question: if you have a choice, why prefer three noses to two? On functional respiratory grounds? Seems unlikely. But we make arbitrary and inexplicable choices every day that have no practical purpose. If there were, in fact, multi-nosed women, we would, I am sure, have inexplicable preferences. That, I think, is Ionesco's point.
I agree that Ionesco pushes this idea awfully far in some of his scenes. But I think his meaning is clear: life is inherently absurd, but covered with a taken-for-granted social veneer, something that was slipping away from the cordially incoherent woman we discussed at the outset. Would Ionesco's characters be less frenetic if they knew all this? I don't know, but they do take their lives, unwittingly absurd though they may be, as seriously as you and I take ours, unwittingly absurd though they may be.