An Interview With Eugene Ionesco

At first, there's just a thickening of the skin. Suddenly the gloves and shoes become hooves; a horn sprouts menacingly
By James Ulmer

At first, there's just a thickening of the skin. Suddenly the gloves and shoes become hooves; a horn sprouts menacingly from the forehead. Finally, a few angry grunts...voila, a rhinoceros. Thus does Eugene Ionesco give birth to his favorite symbol of modern "bourgeois" man. When, in Rhinoceros, the creature starts multiplying into a nasty herd, you have the beginning of an ugly, conformist and "sloganized" society that has become the playwright's chief target for over two decades of political and theatrical writing.

Ionesco has always remained astray from the "herd." A staunch anti-conformist, he sees the individual artist, and not politics, as the vehicle for genuine social change. He remains resolutely opposed to politically "committed" theatre and, since 1960, has proclaimed himself a "right-winged anarchist" critical of any form of government whatsoever, especially of the disciplined structure of a socialist society.

In short, a solitary man. But his solitude seems greater in this country than elsewhere simply because of the patronizing attitude towards him. Too many Americans view him merely as a veteran writer of a moss-grown movement called the "Theatre of the Absurd" (he prefers the name "Theatre of Derision"), whose one-act plays are occasionally performed in high-school French classes. Few people know anything of his latest plays, and fewer still of his politics. (His latest work, a collection of political essays entitled Antidotes (1977), has yet to arrive in Boston.)

So it was especially lucky for Ionesco-philes that the author stopped in Boston for the first time last week during a three-week national lecture tour. During a reception at the French Consulate in Boston, he managed to spare twenty minutes for an interview, parts of which are excerpted in this article. Also interviewing Ionesco at this time was Victor Gaeton, a Ph.D. candidate at Tufts studying the political aspects of Ionesco's plays.

A roundish man with silly-putty lips, Ionesco spoke slowly and deliberately about his political views.

Crimson: You have been said to be very isolationist regarding the artist's relation to politics--that is, denying any common meeting ground between art and politics.

Ionesco: Yes--and yes and no. That's to say, art allows you everything. Art can exist outside the immediate contingencies. The artist can be above political parties, he can belong in a political party, he can act in politics. Right now, there is a series of articles in Le Monde where they say that art and culture are the expression of argument and revolt....But all this doesn't matter. Art goes beyond politics. Even if there are writers who are involved in politics, eventually, in one or two centuries, it's not their politics which is going to count, but the fact of having given life to feelings, of having created characters and made a living work of art.

Crimson: Have you been politically committed in your art? For example, were any of your plays written in reaction to May 1968 or the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Russia?

Ionesco: I have taken a very clear position, but not in my plays. In lectures and in my articles in Antidotes, I have taken a position against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. But in my plays, no. I have been committed to anti-commitment.

Ionesco has had his share of buffetting by the leftist-controlled French press. Gaetan relates a story Ionesco told him once about one of his first encounters with the "doctrinaire" press.

"After The Chairs and other early plays were first performed in Paris, it was decided by certain leftist critics that Ionesco had talent. Soon, one high official of the French Communist Party went and spoke to Ionesco. 'Look,' he said, 'you certainly are gifted. But you lack a direction--you need to deliver a message. The Party will give you the right direction."

Ionesco's stubborn refusal to align his art with the politics of these "engaged" critics and Party members had its consequences. Several months later, after seeing an untouched revival of The Chairs, the same critics who had previously lauded him now apologized for their mistaken praise. "They simply said the play was not worth seeing," says Gaetan. "He was told he no longer had the talent."

Ionesco, of course, survived this estrangement from ideology. But beginning in 1968, with the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, he writes heavily in protest of the continual censorship of non-leftist artists by these "petit bourgeois leftist intellectuals who think they are revolutionaries." (He has also called them "Nazi intellectuals from the Sixteenth Arondissement," the wealthiest section of Paris where Sartre, Barthes, Simone de Beauvoir, Godard, Duras and others live.) In his book, Present Past, Past Present (1971) he notes: "We (in France) have a liberal press and a censorship by a literally authoritative opposition"--an opposition which until a few years ago was exemplified by the overwhelming majority of French publishing houses under intolerant Communist control. The "oppressed" writers, consequently, were more often than not afraid of being denounced in Le Monde, Le Nouvel Observateur and other leftist publications. Or they feared that their works might be banned by the Ministry of Culture. The heretics uncomfortably remained under the curfews of silence.

Given the risks involved, Ionesco's outspokenness is impressive. "He never really worried about being called a reactionary by the leftists," remarks Gaetan. "As he himself once said, 'I wasn't afraid of their calling me Bolshevik in the 1940's when I was anti-Nazi, so I'm not going to be now because I'm anti-Marxist.'"

Perhaps the most important part of this outspokenness was its insistence upon the Eastern European and Soviet dissidents as models for a truly progressive liberalism in France. Ionesco sees the very fact that the voices of these intellectuals could still be heard under the mechanisms of state oppression as an optimistic sign for France's censored writers. It is proof that with a spirit of "real and genuine liberalism" there can be hope of non-doctrinaire artistic expression.

What Ionesco anticipated then was an alternative to the imperatives of the bourgeois intellectuals. That alternative finally found a chance in 1973, when Russian dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn, Maximov, Siniavsky, Goma, Amarik and Bukovsky began trickling into France.

Gaetan: You have suggested several times that the great voices of the dissident authors of Communist countries have taken us out of our torpor. Do you think that the spiritual strength of their testimony can at least retard the expansion of the Soviet system? ...Are you optimistic about the future of the spirit of freedom?

Ionesco: Yes, I am optimistic, but one must go through a long period of purgatory. I think there is an awakening now and it is especially manifested in France with the "new philosophers"--Jean-Marie Benoit, Berbard Levy, Lardreau, Glucksman, Emmanuel Todd and others. That's to say there is a new tendency to go beyond politics towards metaphysics. I think this is very important, and moreover, these young philosophers whom the whole world should know about--including the United States--are demystifiers of Soviet Marxism.

With this hopeful alternative of the new philosophers, Ionesco sees the end of bourgeois-leftist criticism. These intellectuals are the non-ideologues who, unable to concertedly voice their opinions for two and a half decades after World Ware Two, can now feel free to criticize the establishment. Moreover, they can serve to usher literature past politics and into the realm of metaphysics where it can become truly creative.

So Ionesco's central idea is a nihilistic one: now that the new philosophers are being heard, humanity will soon reach a stage where politics won't be necessary at all. How will this come about? Through the sheer force of the human spirit itself. No revolution will be necessary, according to Ionesco, because the metaphysical truths expressed by the new philosophers will rise above ideological dogma and be naturally understood by the masses. These ideas will supercede even such bourgeois inventions as language and literature themselves, which Ionesco in his plays shows to be filled with media-jargon and platitudes that hinder communication.

Throughout his career Ionesco has held different views on the importance of literature.

Ionesco: Listen, I have had several points of view about literature.

I have believed and I believe from time to time in literature as testimony of the truth, and that what is more true is more valuable. On the other hand, now I consider literature as a school of the useless. But there is a usefulness in the useless. When you go to see a soccer game or a rugby game, you can realize to what degree useless and gratuitous things are necessary.

For me, art and literature have been too committed to political ends, especially in countries which are highly "ideologized," like Russia, for example. Now people should be reeducated in the following direction. they must be shown the necessity of play and the fact that literature is a game.

But beyond questions of culture, what most Americans undoubtedly will find hardest to swallow about Ionesco's outlook is its total lack of methodology. You might try to argue, for example, that his political views are extremely specious--but then, he really has no "politics" at all. Providing you can get by this, however, what really becomes most interesting about the present-day Ionesco is his increasing optimism in the last two years that this metaphysical world is imminent. Before this he spoke often of his own social isolation and of the leftist's need to "redeem their crimes with suffering."

But with the coming of the new philosophers, he feels himself part of a strong movement destined to succeed. He speaks directly of this in his Antidotes, but his most fascinating expression of it lies in his most recent play, Man With Bags (1975).

It's hero, known simply as "first Man," is modeled after the Soviet dissidents who came to France in the early seventies. Wandering through a nameless country (perhaps the U.S.), he is jostled by the authorities (the leftists), losing one suitcase to them while his other two grow heavier and heavier (his conscience?). It is Ionesco's most metaphysical and optimistic play, for like the new philosophers it claims that from the ashes of politics will rise a phoenix of art.CrimsonMark Lennihan