The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco


I've recently had a chance to see The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco. I took it.


I really enjoyed this particular production. David Ferry, under the direction of Soheil Parsa makes a great role out of the increasingly dictatorial professor. Michelle Monteith has a great supporting performance, while Costa Tovarnisky reminds how somewhat of the Cantatrice Chauve, while his authentic Romanian accent, which he reveals at the very end while cajoling the Professor and taking over as the dominant character, is more than symbolic considering Ionesco’s own Romanian roots. This gender reversal is somewhat to be expected in this play, where as of late the pupil may be shown as a “dazed and confused” male while the teacher could be a feminazi. (cg link below)

The mechanics of this production are minimalist but top notch. The Professor wears a full doctorate regalia, the decor is simple but fully functional, while the sound effects complement the movement and action perfectly. Before discussing the play, let us get to know its author.

Born in Slatina, Romania, of a Romanian father and a French/Greek / possibly Jewish mother, Ionesco spent most of his life in France. He claims to have underwent a mystical / formative experience in Romania and that is not the only questionable claim about his past he’s ever made. According to Wikipedia,

Much of his later work, reflecting this new perception, demonstrates a disgust for the tangible world, a distrust of communication, and the subtle sense that a better world lies just beyond our reach. Echoes of this experience can also be seen in references and themes in many of his important works: characters pining for an unattainable "city of lights" (The Killer, The Chairs) or perceiving a world beyond (A Stroll in the Air); characters granted the ability to fly (A Stroll in the Air, Amédée); the banality of the world which often leads to depression (the Bérenger character); ecstatic revelations of beauty within a pessimistic framework (Amédée, The Chairs, the Bérenger character); and the inevitability of death (Exit the King).

Much like Nietzsche, Ionescu did not have much respect for his intellectual forefathers, trying to make a name for himself by putting them down and criticizing them:

Though best known as a playwright, plays were not his first chosen medium. He started writing poetry and criticism, publishing in several Romanian journals. Two early writings of note are Nu, a book criticizing many other writers, including prominent Romanian poets, and Hugoliade, or, The grotesque and tragic life of Victor Hugo a satirical biography mocking Victor Hugo's status as a great figure in French literature. The Hugoliade includes exaggerated retellings of the most scandalous episodes in Hugo's life and contains prototypes for many of Ionesco's later themes: the ridiculous authoritarian character, the false worship of language.

Though he contributed theoretical works as well, his most innovative works are considered his early plays, of which The Lesson is the second:

Ionesco's earliest works, and his most innovative, were one-act nonsense plays: La Cantatrice chauve (1950), La Leçon translated as The Lesson (1951), Les Chaises translated as The Chairs (1952), and Jacques ou la soumission translated as Jack, or The Submission (1955). These absurdist sketches, to which he gave such descriptions as "anti-play" (anti-pièce in French) express modern feelings of alienation and the impossibility and futility of communication with surreal comic force, parodying the conformism of the bourgeoisie and conventional theatrical forms. In them Ionesco rejects a conventional story-line as their basis, instead taking their dramatic structure from accelerating rhythms and/or cyclical repetitions. He disregards psychology and coherent dialogue, thereby depicting a dehumanized world with mechanical, puppet-like characters who speak in non-sequiturs. Language becomes rarefied, with words and material objects gaining a life of their own, increasingly overwhelming the characters and creating a sense of menace. (..)

Ionesco is often considered a writer of the Theatre of the Absurd. This is a label originally given to him by Martin Esslin in his book of the same name, placing Ionesco alongside such contemporary writers as Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov. Esslin called them "absurd" based on Albert Camus' concept of the absurd, claiming that Beckett and Ionesco better captured the meaninglessness of existence in their plays than in work by Camus or Sartre. Because of this loose association, Ionesco is often mislabeled an existentialist. Ionesco claimed in Notes and Counter Notes that he was not an existentialist and often criticized existentialist figurehead Jean-Paul Sartre. Although Ionesco knew Beckett and honored his work, the French group of playwrights was far from an organized movement. (..)

Ionesco’s own comments further place the play in its logical and literary context (as quoted by Catherine Masson, whittier):

The Lesson embodies what he called a "pure" drama that represents an "exemplary action of a universal nature." It is an exemplary action of enough importance that he considered it in his notes on theatre: "I would like to be able, sometimes, for my part, to strip theatrical action of all that makes it a theatrical action; its plot, the accidental features of the characters, their names, their social status, their historical background, the apparent reasons of the dramatic conflict, all justifications, all explanations, all the logic of the conflict.... " (..)

With The Lesson, Ionesco gives us a perfect example of a theatrical construction as he defines it: "A play is a construction, made up of a series of situations or states of consciousnesses which intensify, become increasingly dense, then knot themselves up, either to unravel or to end in unbearable complexity" (..)

"I always had the impression that communication was impossible, an impression of loneliness, a gap; I write to fight against this imprisonment; I also write to shout out my fear of dying, the humiliation dying makes me feel" (..)

Though Ionesco made a big deal out of his attempt to learn English through the Assimile method, which resulted, apparently, in disillusionment with language and meaning in general, while critics saw the obvious criticism of dictatorial tendencies in the societies he lived in as well as a certain discomfort with the educationvral experience in general.

The-Lesson---Soheil-ParsaIt is interesting that the director has the Pupil (Monteith) play her toothache more for tragedy than for comedy (as it is usually done), punctuating it even with a sound effect. This is most likely due to his Iranian background and the implicit sympathy for the victims of oppression. The director has difficulties making fun of authoritarianism, its memories are far too vivid in his mind, and he seems concerned that a Western audience would too easily dismiss it otherwise. Still, Hitler’s recording seems to be either a too narrow restriction on the symbolism of the play or simply an overdone an unnecessary explanation.

One parallel that keeps this play universal and actual would be comparing the Professor’s seemingly misogynistic remarks to those of Larry Summers (Harvard’s former president) who was accused in 2005 of having made disparaging comments toward women while trying to stimulate discussion on the topic of female achievement in math (nyt).

The multiple possibilities of interpretation and of extracting meaning may leave some lost in the realm of knowledge. Writes Kelly Nestruck in Globe and Mail:

English-speaking critics, especially those with leftish leanings, have long had a problem with the post-war metaphysical masterpieces lumped together as the “theatre of the absurd.” Just recently, the Guardian’s Michael Billington argued that absurdism was essentially irrelevant, “a movement that has lost its momentum and one that is of little help in explaining to us the complexities of today’s world.” Indeed, if you like your theatre to “explain” things, then you may find The Lesson frustrating. But the serious problem with that human desire for explanations delivered by artists or teachers, prophets or politicians, is one of the still-fresh themes of this early Eugène Ionesco work.

We grasp more context from the same source:

Written in 1951, The Lesson functions as a kind of dramatic companion to George Orwell’s famous essay on politics and language; it’s an attack on a degraded form of discourse that the Romanian-French writer Ionesco would later deride as “nothing but clichés, empty formulas, and slogans.” Nothing relevant to our public discourse today, of course.

Like Orwell, Ionesco – whose father was a Nazi, then a Stalinist stooge – was opposed to totalitarianism, left or right. (His skepticism of socialist rhetoric was the subtext of his 1958 battle with the Brecht-loving British critic Kenneth Tynan.) Those concerns are clearest when the Professor’s maid – played here by a deliciously dry, cross-dressing Costa Tovarnisky – arrives on the scene late in the play to clean up her employer’s mess. She hands the gibbering teacher an armband: “If you’re afraid, wear this, then you won’t have anything to be afraid of.”

It is particularly its vagueness and universal appeal that make this play forever actual and always relevant.

Sources / More info: gm, fb, sd, now, sl, vr, whittier, cg, pidhii, wiki-ionesco, sabillaaa, di, imdb-costa, ct

Favorite quotes:

  • Professor: “Il faut aussi désintégrer. C’est ça la vie. C’est ça la philosophie. C’est ça la science.  C’est ça le progrès, la civilisation”.
  • Maid : [She takes out an armband with an insignia, perhaps the Nazi swastika]
    Wait, if you’re afraid, wear this, then you won’t have anything more to be afraid of.
    [She puts the armband around his arm]
    …. That’s good politics.

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