It has been interesting to read the critiques of Eugene Ionesco’s works; much of which gives little credit to his skepticism about all political “truths” and impositions such truths make on theatre. His focus on the coercive nature of petty ideas and socialization born of ideology and control through fear and ostracization offers the potential for a critical theatre that, through its own form, is at once antagonistic towards all political movement. His acidic work and insightful understanding of the crippling effects of all societies on individual thought and freedoms is particularly relevant today. It offers the potential for theatre to invest in its own critical thinking independent of popular currencies, belief systems and waves of social movement.

… and isn’t this precisely what all writers, directors, designers and actors within theatre might seek to achieve!

I have been rereading Margot Morgan’s excellent book “Politics and Theatre in Twentieth Century Europe, Imagination and Resistance” comparing the work of George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre and Eugene Ionesco. While providing a fresh comparative treatise, she particularly opened some of the controversies and problematic view of Ionesco’s contribution to an understanding of the art and political nexus. While featuring contributions from Martin Esslin’s famous work that invented the phrase “theatre of the absurd” she also gives prominence to Kenneth Tynan’s very harsh criticism of Ionesco: both the writer and the man.

Ultimately Tynan considers that Ionesco’s anti-political theatre leads to the destruction of theatre itself and so must be condemned. While I am oversimplifying the criticism, Morgan is able to keep this thought as a wall against which to create her appreciation of Ionesco as a paradoxical figure in the political theatre landscape.

She argues that Ionesco considers: “… those who claim that politics can exist as a realm of freedom are either delusional or deceitful.”

The comment might well be paralleled with that of Albert Camus who suggested: “… the divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting , truly constitutes the feelings of Absurdity”. (quoted by Esslin, “The Theatre of the Absurd”)

Whatever the effects of mind affecting drugs, social media pressures, personal attachment to particular agendas and personal situations within social constructs, whatever these effects might be, the theatre may well be one’s devil’s advocate that challenges the shadows within the self and the cultural psyche.

So YES, it creates fictions. It allows the free reign of ideas and “what-ifs”. It is used as a slave to proclaim and advance certain causes and affirm particular belief systems; in much the same way as pornography might stimulate physical responses. It can pander to the lowest common denominator of an audience’s perception; it can easily be Narcissus! And unfortunately, this is what it mostly presents in a postmodern environment and in totalitarian states! Writers and directors seek to outdo each other in presenting works that they hope will impress their colleagues by out doing each other in support of the THE agenda of the era … whatever it might be!

Eugene Ionesco’s early plays provide models for undermining the commonly felt sensibilities of the era. Once something becomes a cause, a momentum and a commonly shared belief the reality is that it has the potential to become a tyranny. Plays that simply play along with this potential tyrrany are the puppets of limited minds or charletans; regardless of how well written or structured they might appear.

As our societies become more semantics driven and human beings become more and more separated from their humanity, so too the necessity for theatre as critical ritual; theatre for cracking open the ediface of semanitics, lies and half-truths! Critical ritual requires the necessary distortion within its artiface in order to draw out the absurdity of the seeming reality of the day-to-day existence.

Where as mainstream theatre presents only what we already know, a theatre of critical ritual surprises and challenges audiences through its techniques and distortions into seeing what is unlikely; what is normally hidden or less obvious … Brecht, Artaud, Beckett and Ionesco each sought the distortions. Yet Ionesco had a way of identifying the absurdity in social concensus and social propagation that few others have achieved.

I doubt that any play can best illustrate the patterns of social concensus forming and hysterical group identity better than Ionesco’s “Rhynoceros”. And if the mask fits we have to wear it. Too easily, writers and directors in theatre cling to the mask of the dominant rhino. In interviews and program notes, the sanctimony of righteous adherence to worthy causes poisons the ultimate possibility for their theatre to reawaken the cultural nerves that trap themselves into comatosed states of irrelevance.

I certainly commend Morgan’s work in relating Ionesco into the political spectrum; all be it in an anti-political way!

s h a d o w h o u s e p i t s will be presenting “The Lesson” by Eugene Ionesco in June 2018.