Great European of the Week: Eugène Ionesco

The so-called absurdist movement flourished in Europe after 1945, one of the many and varied intellectual attempts to deal with the political devastation of the early 20th Century. Bearing something of a family resemblance to both surrealism and existentialism, the absurdists – Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, Eugène Ionesco foremost amongst them – made it their goal, through black comedy and sheer nonsense, to expose the illusions of modernity which they saw as having caused the great cataclysm.

3060819012_43379a574a_oIonesco was born on 26th November 1909 to Romanian parents with French links and, having spent some time in France as a child, he returned to his home country to study at the University of Bucharest in the late ’20s. At the outset of the Second World War, he was able to make his way back to France, where he remained until liberation.

His first play, La Cantatrice Chauve, was performed in 1950, followed by a series of other works which he termed anti-pièces due to their dark yet playful deconstructions of social norms. It is in Rhinocéros (1959), perhaps his most famous theatrical work, that this trend reaches its zenith: in scenes reminiscent of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the characters are one by one transformed into the eponymous creature.

After two decades further work, Ionesco retired from writing in 1981, and died on 28th March 1994. Although recognition of his work came late and only slowly, he received many accolades during his life, including membership of the French Academy and honourary degrees from the Universities of Warwick, New York and Tel Aviv. His is now recognised as one of the greatest playwrights of the last half-century, combining experiences and influence from both eastern and western Europe. Whilst the pessimism of the absurdist moment may have faded, the work of Ionesco and his fellows continues to exert influence on a younger generation of writers.

Image: ‘Eugène Ionesco’ courtesy to Père Ubu’ via flickr, released under Creative Commons.

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