The Bald Soprano
Eugene Ionesco and Theater of Absurd
Romanian born French playwright, essayist, novelist, autobiographer and critic. One of the
major figures in modern European experimental drama, Ionesco is best known for his
innovative techniques using things and words in the theater and his association with the
movement of the 1950s and 1960s known as the “Theater of the Absurd.” His “anti-plays,”
which push both speech and action past the limits of rationality, cast doubt on traditional,
naturalistic theatrical conventions and established assumptions about language and human
nature, stressing the absurdity of life, humans' ever-present awareness of death, and the
impossibility of communication. These and the related themes of human alienation and the
destructive forces of modern society are presented in his plays with a surface humor that
comments upon and serves to counterpoint the horror and anguish of human life that lies
beneath. Like his contemporary and fellow “absurdist” Samuel Beckett, Ionesco replaces
customary plots, structure, and language with fragmentary, contradictory, and often
nonsensical dialogue and surreal images in order to present a world of chaos that mocks
established institutions and conformity. His revolutionary approach to theater and his darkly
comic vision reveal his distrust of all forms of ideology, as he urges his audiences to explore
their own imaginations and awaken themselves to the potentialities of their own existence.
Although Ionesco spent his dramatic career deriding the establishment, in 1971 he was elected
to the conservative Academia Françoise, a sign not that the playwright had changed his earlier
radical views to conform to the mainstream, but rather that his unique approach had altered
the institution of theater in France and the world.
Major Works
Some of his works are mentioned below:
The Lesson (1951)
The Chairs (1952)
The Leader (1953)
Victims of Duty (1953)
The Killer (1958)
Rhinoceros (1959)
The Bald Soprano
The first play written by the French writer Ionesco was “The Bold Soprano”. It was written in
1948 and performed in 1950 in Paris. Today is one of the most performed plays in France, even
though the first performance wasn’t a success.
The plot begins and develops in the Smith’s home. Their home is described as a typical English
home. In the beginning mister, Smith spends his days reading the newspaper and he finds out
that Bobby Watson is dead. When his name is mentioned, the author introduces us to the
Watsons. Everyone in that family is named Bobby, whether it’s a woman or a man. The maid
Mary enters the plot. She comes around occasionally. She always gives the audience
information that is contradictory to what they find out from the Smiths. She describes her day
and in the same time she presents herself as the maid. One part of the play is dedicated to her
monolog and the Smiths repeat her sentences alluding to their hopes that that was exactly how
she had spent her day. The Smiths are visited by the Martins and the fireman’s chief and they
have a typical conversation with them but the conversation becomes meaningless by irregular
stringing of letters and words. Elizabeth and Mister Donald Martin is a married couple that
comes to the Smith family and they all sit around a table. The only problem was that, after
entering the house, they didn’t recognize each other anymore. Then they introduce
themselves, say their stories, state some facts from their histories and in the end they come to
the conclusion that they live in the same place and that they moved to London in the same
year. Also, they realized they had identical children and that they live together. After some time
they conclude that they are a married couple. Then Mary comes back to the plot and says that
the statements made by the Martins are lies. The Smiths were absent the whole time, even
though everything took place in their dining room, and they came to the table to start a
conversation with the Martins when they hear the doorbell ringing. Miss Smith checked the
door several times but every time the doorbell rang there was no one there. When she gave up
her husband went to open the door and then he saw the fireman’s chief there. He was there for
a short period of time. He always came by the Smiths to tell them his false adventures. He was
always worried about having to leave. Even though both of the families knew he was telling
meaningless stories, they like him. When he sat at the table they first wanted to be sure if he
was at the door before and when they concluded that he wasn’t he started telling his
adventures. The only thing he thought about has to leave if they call him. The Martins liked him
so much that they begged him to tell more stories. Mary comes again and there is an obvious
attraction between her and the chief. He then left and everyone came back to the table. Then a
completely meaningless conversation starts. The sentences had no meaning and they were
divided into words and the words were divided into letters. The characters were shouting
because of no apparent reason or order. The plot ends in a completely absurd way.
Plot Type:
The play purposely does not have a plot, so it does not fit into any of the typical story lines.
Ionesco did think of the play as a “tragedy of language”, but it just does not resemble Booker’s
idea of tragedy at all. Ionesco’s “anti play” breaks all the rules.
Play begins by describing the setting as “A middle-class English interior, with English armchairs”.
It tells about “An English evening” does not say much else about the room expect that there is
an “English clock” which “strikes seventeen English strokes” we have noticed a certain word
repeated over and over again in these stage directions. Yep, you are right- it’s English. “This
probably means that the play is set in England. The set design the play is does not inform the
audience that set in England from the moment the lights come up, Mrs. Smith’s first lines make
it pretty damn clear. She tells us that her family has eaten “English Salad” and that the children
have “drank English water” the play is often described as a satire of the English middle class,
making its sub urban setting particularly appropriate. The text certainly seems to secure Middle
class values and norms throughout. It can be seen as satirizing middle class society everywhere.
It is really even bigger than that. Ionesco uses his English setting as a lens through which we
may view society as whole. The playwright is doing far more than satirizing the English middle
class; he is satirizing the state of human existence.
Language and Communication:
The play seems to be criticizing the emptiness of our everyday conversations and even
language itself. It also questions popular concepts of reality and even the nature of human
existence. As in the play many times, we can see that the one character asks something and the
given answer is totally different.
Mrs. Smith: "We've drunk the soup, and eaten the […] English salad. The children have
drunk English water. We've eaten well this evening. That's because we live in the
suburbs of London and because our name is Smith."
So, why is Mrs. Smith telling her husband these things? What is she trying to communicate? Mr.
Smith was around all evening. He ought to know what they've eaten. Well, it's widely recorded
that Ionesco based The Bald Soprano on a language primer from which he was trying to learn
English. He copied down lots of sentences like these in his studies. The book was filled with one
obvious fact after another. Ionesco said that, "The very simple, luminously clear statements I
had copied so diligently into my notebook, left to them, fermented after a while, lost their
original identity, expanded and overflowed" (Perhaps, when these seemingly simple statements
were repeated over and over again they began to take on new meanings. Perhaps, they began
to mean nothing at all. Perhaps, it's both of these things at the same time.
“Stage Direction: Mr. Smith [continues to read, clicks his tongue]”
This stage direction is repeated over and over again throughout the first couple pages of the
play. All the time Mrs. Smith is babbling about the things that have happened earlier that
evening, Mr. Smith only reads and makes noises with his mouth. Is he really listening to her?
Does he ever? Could this opening scene be suggesting that nobody ever really listens to
anybody else?
Memory and the past:
The characters in the play have seriously awful memories. They can't remember whether
friends are alive or dead. Sometimes they even forget what their own spouses look like. When
they try to recount the past it often comes out as a nonsensical jumble. The play seems to be
asking some pretty big questions about the reliability of memory. How do we know the past
was real? Even though most people's memories aren't anywhere near as bad as the characters
of The Bald Soprano, memory is still a pretty unreliable thing
Mrs. Smith: "We've drunk the soup, and eaten the fish and chips, and the English salad.
The children have drunk English water. We've eaten well this evening."
Mrs. Smith begins the play by speaking only of the very recent past. The fact that she feels the
need to bring up things that have only just happened is a little weird. It seems to make even
normal day-to-day things, like eating dinner, out to be a little absurd.
Mr. Smith: "Fortunately, they [the Watsons] had no children."
Mrs. Smith: "That was all they needed! Children!"
Mr. Smith: "She [Mrs. Watson] might very well remarry."
Mr. Smith: "But who would take care of the children?"
The Smiths have the worst memories ever. They can't keep it straight from one minute to the
next whether the Watsons have children or not. They can't even seem to remember if Mr.
Watson is alive or dead. You find this same trait in many of Ionesco's characters.
Mrs. Smith: "We were expecting them [the Martins]. And we were hungry. Since they
didn't put in an appearance, we were going to start dinner without them. We've had
nothing to eat all day."
Here's another example of Mrs. Smith's terrible memory. What do you mean you didn't eat,
lady? You started off the play by listing every single thing you had for dinner. All these absurd
examples of inaccurate memories in the play make us start to ask bigger questions. How do we
know if anything in the past really happened? Memory is a pretty unreliable thing. Is the "now"
all we really have in life?
Versions of reality:
Reality is constantly mutating in The Bald Soprano. We're never quite sure where we stand. The
play opens with what seems to be a totally normal couple sitting in a totally normal living room.
By the end, though, this seemingly "realistic" world has been completely destroyed. Absurdist
playwrights, like Ionesco, were big fans of messing with reality. This is probably because, in the
Absurdist view, there's really just no such thing as reality at all – or, at least, objective reality. To
the contrary, your average everyday Absurdist would tell you that reality is totally subjective,
meaning that whatever a person thinks is real is real. The characters in The Bald Soprano seem
to have no idea or what is real. Perhaps, this is why reality is constantly shifting in the play.
Stage Direction: [The English clock strikes 17 strokes.]
Mrs. Smith: "There, it's nine o'clock."
Right from the beginning the play starts questioning reality. The clock strikes seventeen times,
which is already weird because it would seem to indicate that it's 17 o'clock. Then Mrs. Smith
declares that it's, in fact, 9 o'clock. We talk about this more in our section on the theme of
"Time," but we thought it was important to point out here because it's the first hint in the play
that reality is distorted. Before this clock incident, everything seems pretty normal in the
Smiths' living room. As soon as the crazy clock gets going, however, we're clued in to the fact
that we're going to be in for a pretty weird evening.
Mrs. Smith: "We shall have to go to their [the Watsons] wedding, I suppose. […] How
sad for her [Mrs. Watson] to be left a widow so young."
The Smiths seem to be really confused about reality in general. They're completely convinced at
one moment that the Watsons will soon be married, and in the next moment they think that
Mr. Watson is already dead. It seems that in the world of The Bald Soprano reality is steadily
Mr. Smith: "Fortunately, they [the Watsons] had no children."
Mrs. Smith: "That was all they needed! Children! […]"
Mr. Smith: "She [Mrs. Watson] might very well remarry. […]"
Mr. Smith: "But who would take care of the children?"
Here's more reality bending centered around those pesky Watsons. So, do they/did they have
children or not? Once again, the Smiths' banter seems to warp the reality of the world outside
their comfy living room.
We can conclude that The Bald Soprano is the one of the best example of the Absurd theatre
and Eugene Ionesco wrote it in fantastic way describing the social norms and condition of that
Prepared by: Rida Majeed
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