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Eugene Ionesco; Godfather of Theater of Absurd

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eugene Ionesco, the Romanian-born playwright who was considered the godfather of the theater of the absurd and wrote the genre’s best-known work, “The Rhinoceros,” died Monday. He was 81.

Ionesco, who had recently suffered from bronchitis, died in his Paris home during a post-lunch nap, his wife, Rodika, said. For many years, he had had arthrosis, a disease of joint deterioration.

Ionesco often referred to the body of plays that peaked with “Rhinoceros” as theater of “derision” or the “improbable” rather than the more popular tag “absurd.”

As with his other classics--"The Bald Soprano,” “The Lesson,” “The Chairs,” “Exit the King” and “Jack or the Submission"--a dominant theme of “Rhinoceros” was the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of communication.

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Produced first in France, Germany, England, Poland, and Japan, “Rhinoceros” moved to Broadway in 1961 starring Eli Wallach and Zero Mostel. It was made into a popular movie in 1973.

An allegory protesting totalitarianism, “Rhinoceros” involves townsfolk in a French village on a quiet Sunday morning who hear that a rhinoceros is charging through the streets. Illustrating that ordinary people find it difficult to resist the extraordinary, all the characters--except the publisher’s clerk, played in America by Wallach--eventually turn into rhinoceroses.

When the play opened in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1959, there were 58 curtain calls. Over the years, critics interpreted it as anti-Hitler, anti-Peronist, anti-Communist, anti-Leftist and more.

“I first thought of the rhinoceros image during the war (World War II), as I watched Romanian statesmen and politicians and later French intellectuals accommodate themselves to Hitler’s way of thinking,” Ionesco said in a 1985 interview. “They might say something like, ‘Well, of course the Nazis are terrible, terrible people, but you know, you must credit them with their good points.’

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“And you wanted to say to them: ‘But don’t you see, if you start granting them a good point here, a good point there, eventually you will concede everything to them.’ Which is exactly what happened.

“But they looked upon you as an alarmist, then a nuisance, finally an enemy to be run down. They looked like they wanted to lower their heads and charge.”

Ionesco said that he was equally hostile to socialism on the political left and Nazism on the political right.

“The only things I have ever been hostile to,” he told another interviewer trying to pin political labels on him, “were stupidity and the violation of human rights.”

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Born in Slatina, Romania, Ionesco spent his early childhood in Paris. He returned to Romania until his colleagues’ bow to Adolf Hitler prompted him to flee permanently to France. Eventually, he became a French citizen.

“The supreme trick of mass insanity is that it persuades you that the only abnormal person is the one who refuses to join in the madness of others, the one who tries vainly to resist,” he said in a 1983 discussion of “Rhinoceros” and other works based on his World War II observations. “We will never understand totalitarianism if we do not understand that people rarely have the strength to be uncommon.”

Ionesco worked as a professor of French in Romania, and then for a publishing house when he moved to France. When Ionesco decided to transform his views on the absurdity of life into plays, his devoted wife helped support them by working in a lawyer’s office.

Although critics were initially unimpressed when Ionesco’s first play, “The Bald Soprano,” premiered on May 11, 1950, word of mouth prompted a surge in ticket sales. Ionesco was so encouraged he decided to devote all his time to writing plays as fast as he could turn them out.

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By the 1952 production of “The Chairs,” Ionesco was winning praise from Samuel Beckett and others who were to become his colleagues in the theater of the absurd.

Although his plays were increasingly translated into many languages and performed worldwide, finding special success in the United States, Ionesco worked solely in French. After his only child, Marie-France, grew up, she frequently traveled with him as translator for his interviews and remarks to theater audiences.

“It’s an infirmity I regret,” he once told former Times theater critic Sylvie Drake when she asked--in French--why he never spoke or wrote in English.

“I can only read English,” he said. “I can ask a policeman for directions, but I don’t understand his reply.”

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His aborted attempt to learn English spurred him into playwriting--"The Bald Soprano” includes such dialogue from his grammar book as “the ceiling is up, the floor is down.”

Ionesco always emphasized that he did not set out to be a playwright.

“I would have preferred becoming a saint,” he would say with tongue only slightly in cheek.

“But when I was very young, someone explained that saints were not concerned with fame--and that gave me pause because I was not entirely indifferent to fame.”

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Ionesco said he became a writer because literature seemed the surest path out of “abhorrent anonymity.”

Among the trappings of fame he achieved were entry into the Academie Francaise in 1970, the Ingersoll Foundation’s annual T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing in 1985, and a commendation from the Los Angeles Theater Alliance in 1983.

Ionesco was frequently described as a “pessoptimist” because of his contradictory swings between amusing, highly optimistic commentaries and a truly pessimistic outlook on the world condition.

In his frequent visits to Los Angeles during his later years, he charmed theater goers and students with upbeat comments such as: “I love life, in spite of everything. I have in me a life force stronger than despair. I have a good appetite. I love beautiful country.”

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Drake once described Ionesco’s physical appearance as “a cross between a serene Buddha and a mischievous Alfred Hitchcock,” and he often demonstrated Hitchcock’s dry wit in his work and words.

But critic Martin Esslin, credited with coining the phrase “theater of the absurd,” frequently told of his early encounter with Ionesco backstage when “The Bald Soprano” first attracted attention.

“Your husband must be a very happy man,” Esslin said to Madame Ionesco.

“Oh, no, monsieur, he is very sad,” she replied, despite the play’s evident success.

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“Why would he be sad?” asked an uncomprehending Esslin.

“Because,” she said, revealing the playwright’s fundamental fear, “he is afraid to die.”

Ionesco frequently tried to explain that seeming contradiction by saying he feared death because he so loved life, including his literary success, “despite all the horrors and suffering that exist in it.” Many people who believe in God as he did, may fear facing God and also love the world too much to leave it, he said.

The playwright continued to try new ventures well into his 70s, writing a novel, “The Hermit” which became the play “A Hell of a Mess.” He also began sketching and painting watercolors, and did well enough that his work was exhibited in Switzerland.

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Writing, painting, virtually everything he did, was a spiritual quest, Ionesco explained in 1988, shortly after his nonfiction book, “The Intermittent Quest,” was published.

“Sometimes I tell myself that the world is a huge practical joke God has played on humanity and that the only solution is to join in the game, to play and to laugh no matter what, in spite of mounting catastrophes and cadavers,” he said in 1988.

“I am, alas, not able to laugh all the time and I very quickly slump back into what constitutes the average of my days: sadness, anxiety, the emptiness of this world where only love and art will have allowed me to survive.

“What’s anguishing,” he emphasized in the interview, “is to ask myself: ‘Who put me here?’ At the same time, I’m afraid to get out. I don’t know if I’ll find anything on the other side.”

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