ARTicles vol. 5 i.4c: Dance and Shout

Scott Zigler and the A.R.T./MXAT Class of 2007 take on Ionesco

“Humor,” said Eugene Ionesco, “is becoming aware of the absurdity while continuing to live in absurdity.” Ionesco, along with Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, startled audiences with plays that created a new stage vocabulary to dramatize Existential dilemmas. Existentialism had sprung up in the cafes of Saint-Germain-des-Pres as a response to the nightmare of World War II. Martin Esslin minted the term “theatre of the Absurd” to explain similarities among these international playwrights living in Paris. Esslin borrowed the term “the absurd” from Albert Camus, who coined it to stand for our longing for meaning in a meaningless universe. Laughter was one of these similarities, laughter that made the audience recognize the absurdity of existence “while continuing to feel love and pain.”

In a letter from 1979, Ionesco wrote he wanted to “blow up the theatre ... I knew very well that I was [writing] ... an anti-play.” In an essay called “False Causality” he dismissed traditional theatre because it eliminated the “wasted moments of real existence.” In the early 1950s, he figured out how to create entertaining anti-theatre from “moments when nothing happens.” Discarding plots, psychology, coherent dialogue, and the distinction between tragedy and comedy, Ionesco wrote tragic farces in which he sought to amuse audiences by finding humor in the absurd.

In his play The Killing Game (Jeux de Massacre), a deadly plague strikes an unknown town. Fear and greed explode, triggering “justifiable” murders. In seventeen short scenes, no one, neither rich nor poor, young nor old, innocent nor guilty, escapes death. Politicians attempt to control the mayhem, making empty promises of victory. Only an old man and woman, who wisely accept the absurdity of their situation, manage to find happiness within their meaningless existence. The old man, tired and bored with life, loves the old woman with all his remaining strength. “I find myself fulfilled,” says the old woman, “by the mysterious presence of the world that surrounds me and by the knowledge that I exist. I never felt the need to know more than that.”

Ionesco based The Killing Game on Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Ionesco was not the first Existentialist to find inspiration in Defoe’s novel and use the plague as a metaphor. Albert Camus’ La Peste allegorizes the Nazi occupation of France as a deadly pestilence. “There have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars,” writes Camus, “yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared.” In his masterpiece, Camus suggests solutions to the Existential riddle.

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, based on London’s 1665 epidemic, assumes that plagues are sent by God to punish the wicked. Defoe pins the blame on the vices of the court of Charles II. For Defoe, no one escapes “the common Grave of Mankind, as we may call it, for here was no Difference made, but Rich and Poor went together.” Both Camus and Ionesco re-interpreted the plague without falling back on a theological justification for evil. Instead of a vengeful God punishing sinners, they see behind the scourge the indifference of a chaotic universe.

In Fragments of a Journal, published two years before the premiere of The Killing Game, Ionesco fantasizes what it would be like to die. In one passage, analyzing Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates’s death affects him deeply. He concludes that great philosophers, for all their words, die. But Ionesco doubts if death can ever be so “serene”. Yet Ionesco believes that art conquers death. “It’s to Death, above all, that I say ‘Why?’ with such terror. Death alone can, and will, close my mouth.” Ionesco’s response was to write to prove after his death that he had once existed. “I have written a whole set of plays,” he notes, “to confirm to myself what I have always known: the strangeness of the universe, the banality of ordinary life shot through by horror."

In the face of death, Defoe sought his audience’s tears; Ionesco seeks their laughter. Defoe’s plague ends in survival, Ionesco’s in oblivion. Characters appear and reappear “as in a Punch and Judy show.” In Notes and Counternotes, Ionesco explains his childhood fascination with Punch and Judy. The squabbling puppets dramatized for him the balance between life’s tragedy and comedy. Puppets that talked, moved, and clubbed each other were for Ionesco “truer than truth…an infinitely simplified and caricatured form, as if to underline [life’s] grotesque and brutal truth.” Calling for a large number of actors to create crowds, Ionesco suggests scenes would be “better with huge dummies, either real puppets or painted papier-mache figures.” Jorge Lavelli, however, who directed the French premiere, staged it with a large cast. The ensemble gave The Killing Game a rhythm that conveyed Ionesco’s mad-cap, illogical world

Scott Zigler, Head of the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, finds “eerie” the degree to which The Killing Game presages the AIDS epidemic. Besides being an ideal ensemble piece for the Institute class of 2007, Ionesco’s play is “a blistering examination of how different parts of society respond to such a crisis."

Zigler, who first encountered the Absurdists by reading Beckett in high school, discovered that they reflected his own view of the world. “I was stunned, heartened, and encouraged to find playwriting that was so elegant and simultaneously so abstract. I felt I was encountering an artist who experienced the world as I experienced it.” Zigler also cites Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. In Sturges’s film, a successful director sets out to make a serious work about the Depression, but through a series of absurd events, the director learns the value of laughter. “Laughter is part of the human experience,” says Zigler. “To entertain in theatre is a worthy aspiration.” The Killing Game, which critics have called one of Ionesco’s most derisive plays, avoids pity by forcing the audience to keep their distance through laughter. “It has been said,” declared Ionesco, “that what distinguishes man from the other animals is that he laughs.” By making us laugh at the inevitable, Ionesco transforms the fear of dying into the joy of living.

“It’s a matter of disposition,” exclaims the old woman, “one is either a refuser or an accepter. I’d dance and shout for joy and if you’d let me, I’d sweep you off you feet with my happiness. Let’s dance.”

Heather Helinsky is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training.

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