Our twisted sobriety – Eugene Ionesco and the tapestry of perception

Art by Martin Wittfoot

Our twisted sobriety – Eugene Ionesco and the tapestry of perception


Is there nexus in the absurd?

“Do rhinoceroses cough?”


How your inner perception can differ from the outward assessment?

The way you see your next is not the same as one sees oneself. Have you ever stopped to think about it?

Why our world views are so granular and how the phenomenon of totalitarianism can only exist as by-product of a levelled collective perception of reality.

“I have always been suspicious of collective truths.”


Eugene Ionesco

Ionesco’s journey in search of meaning

Eugene Ionesco was born in Slatina – Romania, 1909; spent his childhood in France, moving back to Romania in 1925, to study French literature at the University of Bucharest, developing professionally as a French teacher. Though best known as a playwright, plays were not his first chosen medium. He started writing poetry and criticism, publishing in several Romanian journals. He began his theatre career late, in France, writing his first play in 1948 – La Cantrice chauve – first performed in 1950 with the English title The Bald Soprano.

Ionesco’s dive into the realm of perception starts very early with sensory and spatial experiences from his youth which follow his penning throughout life and can be found in his plays.

It all came about in a way that was perfectly simple and perfectly unexpected as well. Yes, it happened in extraordinary silence, in a long, long second of silence… The last time I must have been seventeen or eighteen, and I was in a little country town…I was deeply aware of the unique joy of being alive. I’d forgotten everything; all I could think of was those houses, that deep sky and that sun, which seemed to be coming nearer, within my grasp, in a world that was made for me. Suddenly the joy became more intense, breaking all bounds! And then, oh! what indescribable bliss took hold of me! The light grew more and more brilliant, and still lost none of its softness; it was so dense you could almost breathe it; it had become the air itself; you could drink it like clear water… How can I convey its incomparable brilliance?… It’s as if there were four suns in the sky…”

Berenger in The Killer

The theatrical scenery is then based mainly in aspects of lighting, distance and height variations, the actors’ relative positioning on stage and the disposition of objects turned into ideas. They offer perspective and atmosphere shifts instead of place. The setting is simple, dry and the same, but perspective and atmosphere change.

Noise of the bistro door. They come into the shop: this may be the same corner of the stage where the imaginary greenhouse and then the ARCHITECT’s imaginary office was before. They go and sit down on two chairs by the little table.

The Killer scenery description

The Killer – featuring Kristine Nielsen, Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, and Robert Stanton
Directed by Darko Tresnjak, 2014.
Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn

Ionesco’s cruise into linguistic textures and communication plexuses intensifies after middle-age when he tries to learn a new language, English, through a mnemonic method. His rich Latin lexicon (Romanian and French) ran into the clichés of memorable phrases and the banality of anecdotal talk, that lose meaning and purpose as they trip from mouth to mouth, ear to ear.

“Banality is a symptom of non-communication. Men hide behind their clichés.”


Poor communication and truncated language are the consequences of the decay of mental sharpness, lack of understanding and distortion of perceptions.

In The Killer and Rhinoceros, the plays we analyse for this review, the speeches of different narratives intermingle, mix and pile up, giving the objective appearance of confusion, disorder, anarchy, that subjectively intertwine in a coherent and significant whole through which different universes intersect and overlap; as if we had two levels of communication, one superficial, apparently dissonant, and another deep and resonant.

The way information is generated, processed, disrupted, discharged and controlled also defines the way power flows.

The ways communication develop have a profound impact in the human psyche and in its manifestation as creative power in the world. Our capacities of creation and action are limited or widen by communication.

We live times of information wars, and it became blatant after the Second World War. Ionesco witnessed it partially in Romania, partly in France, the ascension and collapse of ultranationalist movements.

“We moved back to Romania when I was thirteen, and my world was shattered. I hated Bucharest, its society, and its mores — its anti-Semitism for example. I was not Jewish, but I pronounced my r’s as the French do and was often taken for a Jew, for which I was ruthlessly bullied.… It was the time of the rise of Nazism and everyone was becoming pro-Nazi — writers, teachers, biologists, historians … It was a plague! They despised France and England because they were yiddified and racially impure.”


France actually fell under the Nazi spell and the country switched from a democratic republican regime to an authoritarian one, collaborating with Germany and opposing the Allies in several campaigns. A complex and ambiguous situation from 1939 to 1945, since its military forces fought on both sides under French, British, German, Soviet, US or without uniform, often subordinated to Allied or Axis command.

This oblique historical moment is depicted in ‘The Killer’ and ‘Rhinoceros’.

Ionesco’s plays deal with the complexity of human perception and how it can be simplified, distorted, alienated and reduced in society, especially by populist dynamics of persuasion and mass mobilization.

People, listen to me. I’m Mother Peep, and I keep the public geese! I’ve a long experience of politics. Trust me with the chariot of state, drawn by my geese, so I can legislate. Vote for me. Give me your confidence. Me and my geese are asking for power.

The Killer

The Killer – featuring Kristine Nielsen, Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, and Robert Stanton
Directed by Darko Tresnjak, 2014.

What leads the collective to believe in something that does not proceed or to deny something that objectively happened if not the collective blindness?

“A nose that can see is worth two that sniff.”


Mother Peep’s discourse in ‘The Killer’ is particularly illustrative. She is a populist politician with a striking personality who takes on the stage for an election rally in the middle of the narrative.

PEEP: People, you are mystified. You shall be demystified.

I’ve raised a whole flock of demystifiers for you. They’ll demystify you. But to demystify, you must first mystify. We need a new mystification.

I promise you I’ll change everything. And changing everything means changing nothing. You can change the names, but the things remain the same. The old mystifications haven’t stood up to psychological and sociological analysis. The new one will be foolproof and cause nothing but misunderstanding. We’ll bring the lie to perfection.

We’re going to disalienate mankind. To disalienate mankind, we must alienate each individual man… and there’ll be soup kitchens for all!

We won’t persecute, but we’ll punish, and deal out justice. We won’t colonize, we’ll occupy the countries we liberate. We won’t exploit men, we’ll make them productive. We’ll call compulsory work voluntary. War shall change its name to Peace and everything will be altered, thanks to me and my geese.

When tyranny is restored we’ll call it discipline and liberty. The misfortune of one is the happiness of all.

Our political methods will be more than scientific. They’ll be para-scientific. Our reason will be founded on anger. And there’ll be soup kitchens for all. Objectivity is subjective in the para-scientific age.

As for the intellectuals… We’ll make them do the goose-step! Long live the geese! While they’re demystifying the mystifications demystified long ago, the intellectuals will give us a rest and leave our mystifications alone. They’ll be stupid – that means intelligent. Cowardly – that means brave. Clear-sighted – that means blind.

We’ll march backwards and be in the forefront of history… …for history has reason on its side…

If an ideology doesn’t apply to real life, we’ll say it does and it’ll all be perfect. The intellectuals will back us up. They’ll find us anti-myths to set against the old ones. We’ll replace the myths with slogans… and the latest platitudes!…

No more profiteers. It’s me and my geese… me and my geese who’ll dole out public property. Fair shares for all. I’ll keep the lion’s share for myself and my geese… to give my geese more strength to draw the carts of state.

MAN (shouting to MOTHER PEEP): And we’ll be free to criticize?

PEEP (turning to the MAN): Everyone will be free to say if the goose-step’s not well done!

MAN (very drunk): Science and art have done far more to change thinking than politics have. The real revolution is taking place in the scientists’ laboratories and in the artists’ studios. Einstein, Oppenheimer, Breton, Kandinsky, Picasso, Pavlov – they’re the ones who are really responsible. They’re extending our field of knowledge, renewing our vision of the world, transforming us. Soon the means of production will give everyone a chance to live. The problem of economics will settle itself. Revolutions are a barbarous weapon, myths and grudges that go off in your face. (He takes another bottle of wine from his briefcase and has a good swig.) Penicillin and the fight against dypsomania are worth more than politics and a change of government.

PEEP (to the MAN): Bastard! Drunkard! Enemy of the people! Enemy of history! (To the crowd:) I denounce this man: the drunkard, the enemy of history.

MAN: I’m a hero! I’m a hero! I don’t think like other people! I’m going to tell them!

The Killer

Needless to say it all ends in violence and repression.

Here we can find clear-cut elements of both, the populist rhetoric and the totalitarian discourse. Have you ever heard any politician or propagandist using them? Yes, they have in many subtle ways used these same elements that are here reinforced in slapstick humour and caricatures.

“Drama lies in extreme exaggeration of the feelings, an exaggeration that dislocates flat everyday reality.”


Ionesco’s characters take a plunge into the search of meaning. And this is the incredibly coherent tone of all his work and dramatic expression.

Ionesco introduces us to the world through the eyes and anguishes of his maximum protagonist and anti-hero – Berenger. The common man, who lacks heroic attributes such as courage, conviction, willpower, persistence, discipline, mental clarity, and social prominence, but who is, nevertheless, deeply linked to his feelings and perceptions, and thus, questions the reality presented as certain or inevitable.

BÉRENGER: Year after year of dirty snow and bitter winds, of a climate indifferent to human beings… streets and houses and whole districts of people who aren’t really unhappy, but worse, who are neither happy nor unhappy, people who are ugly because they’re neither ugly nor beautiful, creatures that are dismally neutral, who long without longings as though they’re unconscious, unconsciously suffering from being alive. But I was aware of the sickness of life. Perhaps because I’m more intelligent or, just the opposite, less intelligent, not so wise, not so resigned, not so patient. Is that a fault or a virtue?

The Killer

Berenger is a coward, a snowflake, a neurotic, a nobody, to whom cannot be denied the aggrandizement of doubting; he does not comply, he feels that there is something out of place and he becomes involved, responsible, co-author of his reality.

Berenger is naive, sentimental, romantic – a poet, a dreamer, an altruist, a mystic; and despite his little knowledge and rudimentary culture, these characteristics are the core and essence of his humanity, of our humanity, which is lost without them.

BERENGER TO THE KILLER: I’m going to talk frankly. Just now I meant to have my revenge, for myself and the others. I wanted to have you arrested, sent to the guillotine. Vengeance is stupid. Punishment’s not the answer. I was furious with you. I was after your blood… as soon as I saw you… not immediately, not that very moment, no, but a few seconds later, I… it sounds silly – you won’t believe me, and yet I must tell you… yes… you’re a human being: we’re the same species; we’ve got to understand each other; it’s our duty; a few seconds later, I loved you, or almost… because we’re brothers, and if I hate you, I can’t help hating myself…

The journey of Eugene Ionesco’s anti-hero is singular – from a coward, frightened, flawed sinner, he grows in the plot as the only one who persists and insists on the arid path of humanity.

BÉRENGER: I don’t understand you any longer, Daisy. You don’t know what you’re saying, darling. Think of our love! Our love…

DAISY: I feel a bit ashamed of what you call “love” – this morbid feeling, this male weakness. And female, too. It just doesn’t compare with the ardour and the tremendous energy emanating from all these creatures around us.


He is the guardian of all human vulnerabilities. His skin does not get thicker. He will never turn into a ‘rhinoceros’. And this is the ultimate metaphor, not losing sensibility.

BERENGER: They’re the good-looking ones. I was wrong! Oh, how I wish I was like them! I haven’t got any horns, more’s the pity! A smooth brow looks so ugly. I need one or two horns to give my sagging face a lift. Perhaps one will grow and I needn’t be ashamed any more – then I could go and join them. But it will never grow! (He looks at the palms of his hands.) My hands are so limp – oh, why won’t they get rough! (He takes his coat off, undoes his shirt to look at his chest in the mirror.) My skin is so slack. I can’t stand this white, hairy body. Oh, I’d love to have a hard skin in that wonderful dull-green colour – a skin that looks decent naked without any hair on it, like theirs! (He listens to the trumpeting.) Their song is charming – a bit raucous, perhaps, but it does have charm! I wish I could do it! (He tries to imitate them.) Ahh, Ahh, Brr! No, that’s not it! Try again, louder! Ahh, Ahh, Brr! No, that’s not it, it’s too feeble – it’s got no drive behind it. I’m not trumpeting at all; I’m just howling. Ahh, Ahh, Brr. There’s a big difference between howling and trumpeting. I’ve only myself to blame; I should have gone with them while there was still time. Now it’s too late! Now I’m a monster, just a monster. Now I’ll never become a rhinoceros, never, never! I’ve gone past changing. I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating!


He is a loner and his solitude is not due to misanthropy, but to his deep sense of non-conformity. By seeking himself he does not become crowd or mob, he does not become rebel or martyr, but hero.

“Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.”


Ionesco’s ‘anti-plays’ satirized modern society while discovering new uses of language and stage techniques, overturning the conventions of contemporary theatre and having a profound effect on new generations of playwrights.

All this cultural wealth, aggregated and translated by an insightful and ingenious mind was properly called avant-garde but reduced to ‘absurd’. He objected to the label, preferring the term derision.

If we see aberration in the metaphors of our daily lives, it is because we forgot to clean our mirrors.

Everything in Ionesco makes uninhibited sense and is prodigiously revealing. If our steam condenses into the grotesque, it is not the poet’s fault.

Despite his reputation for controversy, he saw himself as a preserver of theatre, a classicist and “a supreme realist.” He insisted that he wrote archetypes, not stereotypes.

I let characters and symbols emerge from me, as if I were dreaming. I always use what remains of my dreams of the night before. Dreams are reality at its most profound, and what you invent is truth because invention, by its nature, can’t be a lie. Writers who try to prove something are unattractive to me, because there is nothing to prove and everything to imagine. So I let words and images emerge from within. If you do that, you might prove something in the process.”


Eugene Ionesco

“My work has been essentially a dialogue with death, asking it, Why? Why? So only death can silence me. Only death can close my lips.”




  1. Ionesco, Eugène. The Bérenger Plays: The Killer, Rhinocerous, Exit the King, Strolling in the Air . Calder Publications Ltd.
  2. The New York Times obituaries – Eugene Ionesco is dead at 84, stage’s master of surrealism – Mel Gussow, 1994.

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