We readers are marked forever by great authors—they are never really dead. We carry them around with us.
I write them letters.
Eugène Ionesco, although born in Romania (November 26, 1912-March 29, 1994), spent most of his life in France where, in 1970, he was elected to the Académie Française. His first play, “La Cantatrice Chauve” (“The Bald Soprano,” which has no soprano, bald or otherwise) has been playing continuously in the same theatre since its 1950 opening. Self-alienation, estrangement, and the impossibility of communication find a unique form of expression in the black humor of Ionesco’s tragicomedies.
Alice Kaplan, author of the intellectual memoir, French Lessons, and chair of Yale’s French Department describes in her recent Dreaming in French, how transformative the semester abroad experience is to women of letters. It certainly was for me.
During the 1966-67 academic year, I lived in Paris and saw several plays a week, including five by you. Our charming, dynamic theatre teacher, Madame Chauvet, arranged a private meeting with you and our class at your favorite bookstore, La Pochade. On your arrival, when the owner who was your friend asked what he could offer you, you replied without hesitation, “Un Scotch!” Madame Chauvet’s charisma was such that she was an inch away from getting us a meeting with the reclusive Samuel Beckett, but more about that later. I’m not sure whether her being the daughter of a distinguished Sorbonne Professor helped or hindered her success in persuading important people to meet with us. But your new play "La Soif et la Faim" which we had just studied and seen was being performed at La Comédie Française. She made sure we saw all of your plays of that season, including “The Bald Soprano,” “The Lesson,” “Le Roi Se Meurt” (“Exit the King”), and “Rhinocéros.”
Forty years later, it was a special thrill to bring my own students from the Yale Program to the little Left Bank theatre where your “La Cantatrice Chauve” and “La Leçon” have continued to play for six decades. Each time I start to teach the timeless “Rhinocéros,” whose important message continues to resonate with today’s Yalies, I like to make a point of going around the room to shake everyone’s hand. Then I can announce that they are all in “direct” contact with Eugène Ionesco, because I had shaken hands with you at La Pochade in 1966. To be an old dinosaur has its advantages! (I try to gloss over my having asked you about the possible symbolism of the color blue, a predominating element in Robert Hirsch’s Comédie Française production, which was NOT the type of question you liked to answer.) Please forgive me.
There were many moments during that year when to live around the corner from the Pantheon with the Peguillan family felt like living in one of your plays. I realized this especially after seeing “The Bald Soprano” in which the figure of the “pompier” (fireman) has a funny cameo. Since little boys of my generation used to want to grow up to be a fireman, it came as a surprise to learn that to the French, the fireman, with his elaborate uniform and helmet, has the reputation of being a comic figure who is not very bright.
The Peguillans were proud of their apartment’s description in Sartre’s autobiography, Les Mots. There were a lot of things that my roommate Karen and I did not understand about our family’s vast apartment, which had probably changed little from young Sartre’s days. Among them was that while we were eating dinner together, we would often hear the front door open and close, followed by footsteps traipsing through to the kitchen area. This was in 1966, back in the days when two-hour dinners were the norm, and conversation was sacred. But nobody ever wanted to talk about the mysterious visitors.
One evening, instead of the mere turning of a key followed by footsteps, dinner was interrupted by very loud banging at the front door. Who should it be but a gaggle of fireman who looked straight out of a Ionesco play requesting permission to drag a length of fire hose through our hallway! Apparently there was a fire upstairs on the top floor that had historically housed the servants of these elegant buildings. Except for our tiny, posh elevator, the only access to that floor would have meant a six-story climb up a nasty, wooden back stairway, so the enterprising firemen had chosen another route.
A small, smoky fire had started in the room of Mme. Jannot, the old woman who had been Monsieur’s nanny. Although she no longer worked for the family, out of respect for her, they allowed her to keep her room, and to take the fancy elevator to our fifth floor. Madame had her own key to our apartment so that she could pass through the kitchen and only have to walk up one flight. Aha! So that’s where that perpetually locked door in the kitchen led! One day when we saw it open, Karen and I could not believe our eyes: what lay beyond that door was a world entirely removed from our upper-middle class luxury.
The fire was fortunately brought quickly under control, but the former servant’s life savings, which she had been keeping in a box under her bed, were lost; however, our ever-loyal French “father” replaced it all.
We later found out that the heavier foot falls we used to hear belonged to the elegant, young Monsieur Favarel, the art student who, although coming from an aristocratic family, had rented one of the top-floor servant rooms, perhaps the better to experience the life of a starving artist. I think that he, too, would have made a good addition to the cast of one of your plays.
On a different topic, from the standpoint of my decades of teaching French, I want to thank you for your thoroughly unique effort to make a textbook, “Mise en Train” (1969), that we French profs could enjoy. Although it was not in use for long, I loved teaching from it. Its surrealistic skits and dialogues put the humor from the nonsensical Assimil method (at which you poke fun in “The Bald Soprano”) to good use. As I recall, my Rumanian grandmother had no sense of humor, but it’s reassuring to know that some of her countrymen like you did.
Another surrealistic Paris experience in which I cannot accuse you of having played any part involves my memorable dinner with a surprisingly lecherous actor (known for being the French film voice of Beatle George Harrison) and the actor’s more famous TV-star mother. I say “surprising” because it was my very dear and proper Eastman School of Music piano professor whom I presumed was a closet homosexual who had told me to look up this family. And since the actor lived with his mother, I figured it was safe to go there. Further, I might have made some unwise assumptions about the actor’s sexual orientation.
I discovered my error when against my better judgment, I accepted the actor’s offer to drive me home. Fortunately, I was able to make a quick enough getaway. When on my return from my year in France my piano teacher asked me whether I had contacted the “actor family,” I did not tell him the whole story. I think he would have been shocked to learn that he had unwittingly set me up with a French-speaking Beatle who would try to take advantage of his student!
Yale’s spring semester is coming right up, and I will once again be teaching “Rhinoceros” in its lesser known but original short story form. My course chair who likes to change things up far more than I do keeps threatening to remove it from the syllabus, but I always fight back. Even the most casual glance at today’s headlines shows how timely your play still is. The tyranny of the destructive masses to which individuals like your anti-hero, Bérenger, stood up is a metaphor that will never go out of style. You understood the solitude of someone who risks all to say “no” in the midst of the collective hysteria produced by a Hitler. Or the courage of principled, non-egoistic whistleblowers who know something is wrong and act to correct the problem. Or even those willing to brave the fashion or the political correctness police.
As you demonstrate, we humans are weak and all too vulnerable to the seductions of brute force. To side with bullies can give the illusion of safety. In a 1970 “Le Monde” interview you yourself said, “I have been very much struck by what one might call the current of opinion, by its rapid evolution, its power of contagion, which is that of a real epidemic. People allow themselves suddenly to be invaded by a new religion, a doctrine, a fanaticism… At such moments we witness a veritable mental mutation. I don’t know if you have noticed it, but when people no longer share your opinions, when you can no longer make yourself understood by them, one has the impression of being confronted with monsters—rhinos, for example They have that mixture of candor and ferocity. They would kill you with the best of consciences.” (www.theatrehistory.com) I wish it were not so, but it is hard to imagine how anyone could help but see how timeless your observations are.
Although during that year in France I saw the incomparable Jean-Louis Barrault in Paul Claudel’s “Partage de Midi,” I am sorry that I never got to see him in the role of your Bérenger in the 1960 production of “Rhinoceros” that he directed. But just by looking at the stills, I can imagine how perfect the part must have been for him. No one could play an Everyman (or any other role, for that matter) as well as Barrault.
I’m guessing that you would have been surprised to see what American comedian Gene Wilder, who died just yesterday as I write this, made of the role of Bérenger, aka Stanley (opposite Zero Mostel’s tour de force as “John”) in the American Film Theatre’s 1973 production of your play. Why they changed Bérenger’s name to Stanley is anybody’s guess, but having seen “Rhinoceros” several times, I’m wondering if you would have agreed with the harsh criticism of this film version. The way Mostel transforms himself into a rhino before our very eyes, and without special effects is astounding. He won a Tony award for the Broadway production. What would you have thought of Laurence Olivier as Bérenger in Orson Welles’ London production? And of Maggie Smith as Daisy?
As part of our study at Yale, we compare the very different ending of your story version of “Rhinoceros’” with that of your play. We know which you preferred, and I agree with you, even though the Yalies usually go for the less complex, more climactic drama of the play. I and my students also usually have a different opinion about the possible heroism of your protagonist. They tend to view him as weak for having admitted that he was tempted to become part of the crowd, but something about his essence made him incapable of joining the proliferating herd that surrounded him. According to some, true heroes are not supposed to have doubts. To others, a Bérenger honest enough to reveal his internal struggles over the right thing to do is more deserving of our empathy and admiration.
And speaking of honesty, I am not embarrassed to admit that in your honor, I have a collection of rhinos in varying forms. I can’t wait to show my new students the latest addition, which I confess that I swiped from my granddaughter’s set of plastic wild beasts. As part of my legacy, some day I will be returning it to her along with the rest of my collection. That includes the anatomically accurate plastic rhino I bought at the Peabody Museum gift shop when I worked there as a volunteer in 1976. Even though from casual inspection, it is hard for a non-expert like me to determine the sex of this rhino, I have named him “Eugène.” Due to his age, he seems to have suffered a detached paw, which I have dutifully saved. In any case, a resilient fellow, he is able to stay upright on just three legs.
But back to my two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter. I hope that some day she will read your play and love it as much as I do.