As part of my MFA comps (comprehensive exams), I’ve been reading Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, and have been startled by how much it resembles the comedy of Monty Python. A little research shows that this is not a unique observation, and troupe member Terry Jones has mentioned it as a foundational element of Python humor. Mr. Ionesco himself claimed to be influenced by the Marx Brothers.
The anarchic wordplay of both are well known, but the questioning of meaning in such famous routines as the Dead Parrot, The Cheese Shop, and the Argument Clinic have roots in the techniques used in The Bald Soprano. And, of course, Lewis Carroll prefigured them all in Through the Looking Glass, when Humpty Dumpty declared, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
It was this issue that prompted Ionesco to write. He claimed that it came about when he was attempting to study English. He ended up marveling at the banality of the phrases in the textbook, and how they resembled conversation but carried almost no semantic content that triggered the play. Even the title (La Cantatrice Chauve in the original) comes not from an attempt to create any symbolic reference, but from a mistake by an actor in early rehearsal, who stumbled over the phrase “institutrice blonde” (the blonde teacher).
In addition to his epistemological playfulness, however, Ionesco is also taking aim at theatrical convention. The bourgeois drawing room drama is thoroughly skewered, especially in the opening pages, where we could easily have a detective mystery gone awry. Dialog that has no purpose but to provide expositional information we will need later is parodied along with silly coincidences necessary to the plot, and the deductive process. Sherlock Holmes is specifically called out.
Ionesco, who subtitled the piece “An anti-play,” observes the form, but not the content. We have an initial situation, there are complications, new arrivals, and an arc that escalates into a dramatic shouting match, but causality and the argument is complete nonsense (“Bazaar, Balzac, bazooka!” / “Bizarre, beaux-arts, brasierre!”).
Unlike the Dadaists or Futurists, who might have also termed their work anti-theatre, however, Ionesco was not arguing that theatre is broken. It’s we who are at fault, spending time talking about trivialities when we should be dealing with essentials. ““Words no longer demonstrate; they chatter … They wear out thought, they impair it.” In a week in which the internet blew up over the color of a dress, we could do worse than to peek inside Ionesco’s fun-house mirror and ask what it all really means.
[Photo modified from an original by Jenny Downing.]