My life with Eugene Ionesco has been an odd one.
I saw my first Ionesco play as a high school student. “The Bald Soprano” featured utter linguistic confusion as two couples, the Smiths and the Martins, traded non sequiturs in the Smiths’ prim living room. Miraculously, the director had squared the confusion by casting two pairs of identical twins as the leads. As the curtain fell, I had no idea what I had just seen. I only knew that this was different from the usual Arthur Miller staged at our local community theaters.
When I was studying theology in Paris, I directed a school production of “Vacation,” a short Ionesco play about provincial tourists loose on the Right Bank. They quickly fall into the sewers, plunge out of a window in the Louvre and take a wrong turn at Notre Dame, ending up 480 miles south in Marseilles. I always remember the farce as tinged with tragedy. The three actors in the cast all fell seriously ill afterward; one actress unexpectedly died on the operating table.
And then I met Ionesco in person. In 1981 the new Socialist government of France announced that it would fund abortion under the national health care plan. Abortion had been legal in France since 1975, but the previous government had treated it as an evil tolerated in cases of distress, not as a right or an entitlement. Laissez-les-vivre, France’s leading pro-life organization, had organized a protest demonstration near the National Assembly in Paris. As we stood in the drizzle, I noticed a paunchy, balding, diminutive man across from me in a large raincoat. It was Ionesco. He briefly took the microphone and said words to the effect that this is what we’ve come to, that we shouldn’t be silent and that the only causes worth fighting for are the lost ones. He handed the microphone back, pulled up his coat collar and sauntered out into the rain. When I returned to the Bibliothèque Nationale, I discovered “The Inalienable Right to Life,” Ionesco’s 1975 essay lambasting the growing European movement to exempt the incurably ill and the unborn child from the legal ban on homicide.
I encountered Ionesco again this spring when Loyola Maryland’s dramatics society staged a production of his 1959 play “Rhinoceros.” The plot is simplicity itself. In a small French provincial town, the residents are turning into rhinoceroses, one by one. By the end of the play, one man, Berenger, refuses to join the rampaging herd. At its original opening, left-wing critics claimed that the play was a critique of fascism; right-wing critics argued that it condemned communism. Suspicious of all political utopias, Ionesco rejected the efforts at a partisan recuperation of the drama.
With the Cold War behind us, the philosophical steel of “Rhinoceros” seems clearer. The alcoholic anti-hero Berenger confronts a series of modern creeds that have destroyed the dignity of the human person. His friend Jean is a thoroughgoing naturalist. There is no difference between humans and other animals. “I’m sick of moral standards! Morality is against Nature! The law of the jungle suits me just fine!” The hyperlogical Dudard is a relativist. “Morality is a matter of opinion. Who can say where the normal stops and the abnormal begins?” Berenger’s girlfriend, “Daisy,” is a social conformist. The majority determines what is right. “We must be sensible. We must adapt ourselves and try to get along with the rhinoceroses. They look happy.” Before each of these characters turns into a rhinoceros, each had already made a theoretical surrender of his or her humanity. The human soul had disappeared long before the bellowing transmutation.
At the play’s conclusion, Berenger stands alone. “I’m the last man left. I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating!” Ionesco never hid the fact that Berenger, the decrepit anti-hero who haunts his later plays, was an autobiographical mask.
Berenger/Ionesco seems to have walked off the pages of Henri de Lubac’s Drama of Atheist Humanism. He cannot explain why we must resist the growing loss of our humanity. He cannot appeal to God as the source and end of the soul. He can only shout that we must resist. In the rain with a gaggle of dispirited demonstrators, he can only urge us to refuse the allure of our new culture of death. It is a moral imperative, not the prospect of political victory, that galvanizes the long resistance. The absurd has become the pellucid.