Let me begin by quoting an expert: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more, nor less.” The statement is of course ventriloquial: Since Mr. Dumpty was in no position to speak for himself, the above words were put into his mouth by a certain Lewis Carroll, who in real life was not actually named Lewis Carroll. You might remember that the same semi-fictitious Lewis Carroll put into yet another fictive figure’s mouth another expert statement regarding poetry: “Take care of the sounds, and the sense will take care of itself.”
Are we all now thoroughly disoriented? Good. Because, just as Tennessee Williams claimed that dialogue was only one of a playwright’s means of communication, I contend that words used rationally are only one of a critic’s means of communication. Unhooking them from their sequential links to common sense might be an excellent way to begin discussing Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano (Pearl Theatre).
When Ionesco wrote The Bald Soprano in 1950, the stage was still an orderly place. The world had been through a traumatic upheaval, with the Holocaust and the atom bomb left as permanent scars on its conscience, but in the theater, playwrights were still supposed to question the human condition civilly, through plays in which somebody confronted its challenges straightforwardly, in a sequential narrative. Modernism had brought other kinds of plays, decades before, but they had been absorbed into the system as dressy “experimental” oddities, to be staged occasionally by college theater departments as a way to show how “advanced” their administrators were, and how eagerly they accepted “the new.”
Ionesco did not bother claiming to be the new, or the old, or anything else. He simply wrote what he wrote. Of binational parentage, he had spent his childhood in France, had come of age in Romania, and had gotten back to France in time to avoid Bucharest’s adventures with both Fascism and Communism. Thinking to learn English—in modern times, you never know when you might need to find a new homeland—he found the characters in his textbook’s drab dialogues taking on a terrifying three-dimensionality, and The Bald Soprano was born.
Nonsense has always been part of theatrical experience. The verbal extravagance that tips words over into meaninglessness, the physical subversion that renders them pointless as they’re being spoken, the reduction of them to inanely reiterated syllables by music, are all standard components of popular entertainment. Ionesco, however, was the first to present nonsense as the substance of a serious theatrical work. In The Bald Soprano, nonsense is reality—the reality of upper-middle-class English suburban life, circa 1950. The scene being England, appearances are kept up—the civility with which the insane conversation is carried on is often its most jaw-droppingly funny aspect—but their meaning and the purpose behind them have vanished, like treasures lost in the last wave of wartime bombing.
Language, which formerly conveyed fact, now offers only contradiction and irrelevance: The everyday world has become ominously arbitrary. Not surprisingly, Ionesco followed The Bald Soprano‘s leap across the sanity barrier with plays in which language itself gets physical; in one of them, the word “knife” becomes a murder weapon. In The Bald Soprano, words don’t yet kill, but they destroy everything as it’s being built up.
In their placid suburban English home, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Bradford Cover and Rachel Botchan) are enjoying a restful after-dinner chat, but when their dinner guests, Mr. and Mrs. Martin (Brad Heberlee and Jolly Abraham) arrive much later, Mr. Smith complains furiously about having delayed dinner so long. The Martins, it develops, have been waiting on the doorstep for hours because Mary (Robin Leslie Brown), the Smith’s maid, wasn’t there to let them in. Naturally, the Smiths scold Mary for having taken the evening off, even though they gave her permission. (At times, the dialogue sounds eerily like contemporary political discourse.)
The Martins never do get any dinner. Instead, the two couples gnaw awkwardly on slim conversational pickings till the unexpected arrival of the fire chief (Dan Daily), who’s either the rescuing life of the party or the embarrassing bore who wrecks it, and who also might or might not be Mary’s long-lost lover, just as the Martins might or might not actually be each other’s spouse. It depends not only on whom you believe but also on which line of dialogue you believe when. Trust, in Ionesco, is a consistently misplaced object.
Once the fire chief’s gone, either to start a fire or to put one out (we’re never quite sure), all hell breaks loose verbally, in a phrase-flinging free-association sequence, utterly hilarious in the French original that’s every translator’s despair; it famously includes the reiterated remark, “What cascades of caca.” The bedlam climaxes in a total breakdown, leading to a conclusion, of sorts, in which order, of sorts, is restored. One leaves exhilarated, brain-frazzled—and a great deal more cautious about one’s word use.
Hal Brooks’s Pearl revival, using the old Donald M. Allen translation in which America first made the play’s acquaintance, pays Ionesco’s script the compliment of taking it seriously, thus firmly eschewing the misstep that trips up so many directors. Trying to make this play funny tends to make it seem pointlessly facetious. While stylizing the banal gestures, and inventively orchestrating the verbal rhythms, Brooks plays the substance for real. The result, as Ionesco intended, mixes the ha-ha funny with the disquieting and the scary. Only rarely does anyone onstage give a slight hint that these shenanigans might not be wholly in earnest.
Botchan and Brown are fine, as expected, Abraham delicately amusing. Cover takes another strong step in the steady growth of his range of characterization; Heberlee, new to the company, is a distinct find. And Daily, drolly resisting all self-conscious humor, makes the fire chief yet another of those roles he was apparently born to play. But the real star, as befits the Pearl’s mission, is Ionesco, who had the gall to understand that people who always say exactly what they mean don’t necessarily mean anything at all. At least, I think that’s what I believe he thought he meant. Maybe you’d better go and ask Lewis Carroll. Words are not always a critic’s optimal means of communication.