When confronted by real-life tragedy, art can seem embarrassingly impotent, even downright frivolous. In times of emergency, blood, money, and muscle are needed, not Chekhov. Yet crisis has a way of intensifying our hunger for aesthetic reflection. We seek consolation and guidance from our artists, but there’s something even more profound we’re looking for. Though he recognized that “poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden understood how the poet’s strange attention to the forms and fermentations of language makes possible the renewal of perception and meaning. There is, in short, social value to art that seems to have little to do with CNN.
Yes, even the avant-garde can have a conscience and a heart. The Eugene Ionesco Festival—a multi-theater retrospective of the absurdist playwright’s work—provides an opportunity to explore the human underpinnings of a comic innovator who was sometimes criticized for ignoring the problems of his postwar days. Kenneth Tynan, for example, began a public feud by complaining that Ionesco’s anti-realistic cartoons were a repudiation of the artist’s explicit duty to teach us how to live.
Ionesco countered by claiming that his helium-filled metaphysical jests were an attempt “to get to the source of our malady . . . by breaking down the ‘social’ language which is nothing but clichés, empty formulas, and slogans.” Instead of offering three-dimensional Polaroids of the commonplace, Ionesco hoped to foment “an upheaval in our mental habits.” All the while he remained vehemently opposed to the notion of the artist as public savior (“I beg of you Mr. Tynan, do not attempt by art, or any other means, to improve the lot of mankind . . . if you really wish them well”). More ambitiously, he aspired to “broaden the frontiers of known reality” by calling attention to our hidebound structures of thought and speech.
To this end he applied maximum giddiness. His first play, 1950’s The Bald Soprano, was inspired by an English primer filled with banal phrases and pseudo-truisms, which Ionesco parodied into a pandemonium of middle-class niceties. The short piece Foursome (1959), which serves as a curtain raiser for some of the festival productions at the Connelly Theater, picks up the tragicomic send-up of language. Two florists incessantly volley “But I said yes”/”But I said no,” seemingly oblivious of their point of contention, though locked ludicrously at loggerheads. Another florist joins them, reminding them repeatedly to “mind the flowerpots,” while expanding the disagreeing duo into a brawling trio. Finally, an unsuspecting woman enters and, after entreating the men to stop fighting, has her limbs ripped from her body by the merchants’ competitive solicitations. Under Glory Simms Bowen’s clear-eyed direction, the young cast offers an appropriately vertiginous introduction to Ionesco’s methodical madness, which recognizes that our patterns of communication have a cracked mind all their own.
Adapted from an Ionesco story about a hangoverish father who tells his toddler daughter bizarre fables to keep her quietly entertained, Tales for Children Less Than Three Years Old (1968) is more of a sketch than a well-crafted play. The piece, however, jauntily lays out Ionesco’s thematic preoccupation with the way our minds are duped from the outset by parental chicanery. It also displays the playwright’s peculiarly literal-minded sense of humor. Josette (wonderfully played by Uma Incrocci and a walking doll-puppet) accepts whatever her dad tells her, including his newfangled definitions of words, which he routinely scrambles to cover his tracks. Needless to say, she doesn’t come off as one of the brighter kids on the block; even her own mother seems alarmed by the depths of her confusion. Staged with Pop Art panache by Edward Einhorn (the festival’s artistic director), Tales for Children offers a comic book perspective on erroneous childhood education.
Director Ian W. Hill takes a purposefully slow approach to The New Tenant (1953), an hour-long Ionesco skit revolving around a somber gentleman moving into his new apartment. After deflecting his relentlessly gossipy landlady with stern silence, he instructs his hired help to bring up the boxes. The lugging seems endless, not only because of the huge number of belongings, but because of how carefully the owner wants to choreograph their delivery. Eventually settling into a centrally positioned armchair, he allows himself to be entombed by his material goods. Hill clearly wants us to experience the absurd weight of the new tenant’s possessions. Unfortunately, the monotonous tempo compounds the one-note aspect of the piece, resulting in a grinding build to the obvious.
Rhinoceros remains Ionesco’s best-known play, yet its more conventional dramaturgy hampers the playwright’s daft zeal. Tynan was on target in his assessment of Ionesco as “a brilliant, anarchic sprinter unfitted by temperament for the steady, provident mountaineering of the three-act form.” With its game though uneven young cast, Einhorn’s production makes the text seem like a never-ending Mount Everest. Displaying none of the visual élan that lit up his staging of Tales for Children, the revival amounts to little more than an academic airing of a classic—one that lacks the courage to grapple with the overwritten slog of the second and third acts.
Rhinoceros‘s fame, however, is easy to understand, as the play has something Ionesco’s other work doesn’t need: a memorable character. Depressed by the enforced conformity of quotidian existence, Berenger (an impassioned Andrew Price) still has enough integrity to resist the bestial trend taking over his city. One by one, his neighbors are transforming into rhinos, renouncing their humanity for four hooves and a razor-sharp horn. The original Broadway production featured a legendary performance by Zero Mostel as Berenger’s friend, denying his metamorphosis even as his skin turns green and his desire for grazing grows fierce.
Einhorn’s ensemble can’t compete with the starry precedent, though it would have made sense for them to have cut down the dramaturgical animal to a more manageable size. But dizzying ambition is what animates every aspect of this sprawling festival, which generously provides New Yorkers in the grip of a dark time an opportunity to encounter an unfailingly inventive playwright’s response to his own traumatic age.