Parlez-Vous Français?

French Tries, by Romanian Eugene Ionesco, Come Alive

For the last half century, French playwriting's been dominated by two masters of language who in some ways couldn't be less French: the Irishman Samuel Beckett and the Romanian Eugene Ionesco. Beckett's small, somber tributes to the human spirit's gift for negativity are familiar friends to New Yorkers, but Ionesco, who died in 1994 at the age of 82, has nearly slipped off our radar screen. It's understandable: Where Beckett's work shrank into ever tinier intensities, Ionesco's expanded, evolving from his taut early one-acts into free-flowing, multi-character dreamscapes. And where Beckett made his own immaculate English versions, Ionesco, linguistically twice-removed, has always depended on the kindness of translators, some of whom have been less than helpful.

But the man who found the dizzying dementias of The Bald Soprano in the dialogues of an English-for-foreigners textbook is about to find glory and recognition downtown. For 13 verbally disorienting weeks this fall, the Ionesco Festival (September 6-December 9) invades a variety of Off- and Off-Off venues, offering productions or readings of all 39 of Ionesco's works for the stage, plus a retrospective of his cinema work at Anthology Film Archives.

The Festival's highlights include a rare production of the stark, sardonic Exit the King (September 13-October 21, Pearl Theatre, 80 St. Mark's Place, 598-9802); a guest company from Mexico (Investigadores del Arte) performing the linked one-acts Jack and The Future Is in Eggs in Spanish (October 22-28, Clemente Soto Velez, 107 Suffolk Street, 260-4080, ext. 16); and, in a turnabout of Soprano's origins, a translation of Ionesco's Conversation Exercises at various venues for Americans studying French.

Thinker and dramaturg Ionesco finds glory downtown.
courtesy Marie-France Ionesco
Thinker and dramaturg Ionesco finds glory downtown.

That, of course, only scratches the Festival's surface. There'll be bills of short plays, late-night shows, adaptations from Ionesco's fiction, and even Ionesco-linked improvisation. Two major works, Amedee (November 6, Clemente Soto Velez, 107 Suffolk Street, 260-4080, ext. 16) and A Stroll in the Air (October 28, Clemente Soto Velez, 107 Suffolk Street, 260-4080, ext. 16), will get staged readings in English, which means the latter will have been seen here twice.

That paradox, in a way, sums up Ionesco, who is a sublimely great writer in a language you never wholly understand. In his plays, logic moves so rapidly that the bottom may drop out of reality at any moment. Objects and corpses proliferate; language dribbles away while meaning drowns in a sea of alternatives. Two strangers recognize each other only to discover they've been married for years; a professor kills a student by wielding the word knife. The sinister monks in Hunger and Thirst keep two starving men imprisoned: One will be fed if he accepts God, the other if he denies God. If France supplied the rigor and clarity behind Ionesco's studies in the madness of reason, the violence and the strange, wistful melancholy suffusing his work can easily be traced back to his native Romania. The latter also gave France one of its greatest modern philosophers, Ionesco's close friend E.M. Cioran, who declared that living was no problem once you got over the terrible mistake of having been born. It's easy to see, in the playwright's extravagant leaps of fantasy and the verbal precision with which he cuts them down, the sensibility the two men share. The title of one of Cioran's books, The Temptation to Exist, could be the theme of most of Ionesco's plays, with their constant journeys and desperate restartings from square one.

"I'm not capitulating!" cries Beranger, Ionesco's Everyman, at the end of his best-known full-evening play, Rhinoceros. All of Beranger's friends have turned into rhinoceroses; the streets are full of them, thundering along, bellowing at the top of their lungs. But Beranger, ordinary though he is, refuses to follow the pattern. He's not capitulating. Neither, one might say, did Ionesco. He could have spent his later career turning out carbon copies of his earlier forays into the Absurd. Instead he journeyed, like his adventurous heroes; he traveled through dreams, passions, lies, and sins, waltzing with his memories, contemplating Death, and eavesdropping in the corridors of Power. Like the great voyager-writers of the past, he brought back news, enchanting and glittering, from these mysterious worlds—exotic places that, when we experience them, turn out, to our terror, to be just like our own homes. Which doesn't make the traveler's tales less magical—if anything, the reverse is true. In that married couple who meet as strangers, neither, it turns out, is the person the other thinks. In Ionesco, even the surprises have surprises.

Opens September 5
The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, 255-5793

Japanese writer Junichiro Tanazaki inspires Big Dance Theater's latest, about a blind musician in 19th-century Osaka. Music by Glenn Branca and Obie winner Cynthia Hopkins. Gale Gates's Michael Counts lends his considerable set-design skills.

Opens September 5
The Signature Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street, 244-7529

Sam Shepard's new play concerns—surprise—two brothers and the American West. Here's hoping Shepard takes a new path through his familiar terrain. Directed by longtime collaborator Joseph Chaikin, with actors Guy Boyd, Ethan Hawke, Arliss Howard, and Sheila Tousey.

Opens September 6
P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue, 477-5288

Clarinda Mac Low and the Voice's James Hannaham collaborate on an impressionistic theater piece about Dr. Ernest Everett Just, a black American biologist who conducted pioneering research on cell division during the 1920s and '30s.

Next Page »