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Eugène Ionesco | Biography

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Eugène Ionesco was born in Slatina, Romania, on November 26, 1909. The following year the Ionesco family moved to Paris. As a boy, Ionesco developed an early interest in theater by watching puppet shows, especially the ones performed in the Luxembourg Gardens, which he attended on Thursdays. Ionesco's parents divorced in 1916, and his father returned to Romania. Both Ionesco and his sister Marilina suffered from poor health. As a result, their mother sent them for a rest cure to a peasant family in La Chapelle Anthenaise in northwestern France, where they stayed for several years.

In 1925 Ionesco joined his father in Romania, attended high school, then enrolled in the University of Bucharest in 1928, where he studied French literature. In 1931 he published a volume of surrealist poetry called Elegy of Miniscule Beings. Three years later he released a collection of essays entitled No, meaning "now" in Romanian. Ionesco married Rodica Burlanu in 1936 and began teaching in a Bucharest high school. However, he continued his literary pursuits and in 1938 received a government scholarship to research and write about the theme of death in French poetry. Around this time Ionesco had his first contact with fascism, a political ideology that places nation and race above individualism under a dictator, that was gaining momentum in Romania among other places in Europe. He moved with his wife to Paris, but the threat of fascism followed them when the Nazis invaded France in 1940. Because of this, Ionesco and Rodica moved again, this time to Marseilles, where they stayed for the duration of World War II. In 1944 their daughter Marie-France was born.

In 1945 Ionesco and his family returned to Paris, where he worked as a proofreader for a company that published administration materials. In learning English Ionesco found the process of copying and memorizing passages ridiculous. Most of these passages conveyed mundane truths, such as a week consisting of seven days and the floor being down and the ceiling being up. Although he knew these statements to be true, Ionesco began to see them absurdly. He imagined two strangers having a conversation in which they manipulated the truisms of these statements. They became "pseudo-clichés and pseudo-truisms; they disintegrated into wild caricature and parody." Eventually, the conversation disintegrated into "disjointed fragments." This line of thinking greatly affected Ionesco's future writing.

Ionesco decided eventually to convey this experience in a play called The Bald Soprano (1950). This work rejected the traditional development of plot and characters and created a new type of comedy, which emphasized the meaninglessness of people's lives in a random universe. The play deals with two strangers who exchange everyday banalities, such as comments on the weather and where they live, and in the process discover by chance that they are married. For many The Bald Soprano explores themes of communication and self-alienation.

The Bald Soprano was Ionesco's first play, performed in Paris at Le théâtre des Noctambules in front of very few people with borrowed costumes and scenery. It quickly became a sensation, thereby thrusting the middle-aged Ionesco into the spotlight. News about this absurd play soon spread throughout Europe and the United States. Ionesco followed this work with other short, absurd plays including The Lesson (1951), The Chairs (1952), and The New Tenant (1955). Soon critics divided into two camps concerning Ionesco's plays. One camp led by the critic Kenneth Tynan attacked these works as an attempt to destroy traditional realism in theater. However, the other camp led by Ionesco claimed these plays were trying to call attention to the meaninglessness of cultural practices and the futile nature of most attempts at communication.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ionesco wrote several longer plays, including Rhinoceros (1959). Many critics view Rhinoceros as being Ionesco's finest work. This play explores one man's struggle to resist the seductive force of conformity by maintaining his unique identity. Also, the play reflects Ionesco's experiences with fascism and his concern about how banalities can inhibit meaningful communication. Like previous works by Ionesco, critics tended to view Rhinoceros from either a pro-absurdist or anti-absurdist viewpoint. However, the pro-absurdists often reached varying conclusions about the meaning of the play. For example, the critic Howard Taubman claims Rhinoceros is satirizing traditional ideas and established institutions. Critic Rosette C. Lamont asserts that the play attempts to debunk rationalism by showing how it can be used to blind a person to horrible events. Other critics, such as David Caute, state that the play explores conformism and mob hysteria.

Ionesco's plays became part of a movement called the Theater of the Absurd, which included the authors Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter. Following the success of Rhinoceros, Ionesco continued to write longer plays, including Exit the King (1962) and Stroll in the Air (1963). In 1970 Ionesco was elected into the greatly prestigious Académie Française and became a knight of the Légion d'Honneur, which is an order of high merit in France. He died at his home in Paris on March 28, 1994.

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