Victims of an Absurd Disease:
Jeux de Massacre and Ionesco's Theatre of the Absurd
by Alexandra Silber & Justin Flagg
(these consequentially became the programme notes for Here Comes A Chopper, Glasgow, May 2005)
Man: We are the victims of an absurd disease.
- Eugene Ionesco, ‘Here Comes a Chopper’, 1970
Paris, 1968. The French establishment is rocked to its centre as the country is brought near to civil war by student and worker protests. The times are rife with civil unrest: in America, the Vietnam War has caused a massive popular backlash; in Eastern Europe, the Prague Spring provided a glimmer of hope for those struggling under the yoke of Soviet domination, before being brutally crushed by Russian tanks. To this maelstrom of clashing mobs of humanity, Ionesco offered a ridiculous reply.
Born in Romania in 1909 and raised in France, Ionesco toiled variously under Romanian monarchy, German fascism, Russian communism, and French socialism. He watched his father blindly (or perhaps deftly) switch allegiances at the drop of a hat, believing power to be the only true virtue. Over the course of his life, Ionesco saw the people of his Europe arbitrarily slaughtered in two world-wars, abandoning their ancient religions in droves, and living under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. They were the victims of the most absurd disease of all: their own society.
“Two fundamental states of consciousness are at the root of all of my plays. … These two basic feelings are those of
evanescence on the one hand, and heaviness on the other; of emptiness and of an overabundance of presence; of the
unreal transparency of the world, and of its opaqueness. … The sensation of evanescence results in a feeling of anguish, a
sort of dizziness. But all this can just as well become euphoric; anguish is suddenly transformed into liberty. … This state
of conciousness is very rare, to be sure. … I am most often under the dominion of the opposite feeling…”
- Eugene Ionesco, 'Le point du départ’, 1955
This play is about death: how each of us will face it for ourselves. Do we gracefully surrender to the inevitable end, or do we fight until our bodies collapse beneath us? Who will bury us? Who will inherit? Who will weep for us? Who won’t?
It is also about loss: how we face the death of our friends, our family, our lovers; parents losing children, husbands losing wives; losing control of our daily life, our food, our water; losing the sense of our responsibilities and our place in the universe.
Finally, it is about society: does it really have the power to save us from the scourge, or is it in itself the secret cause of our disease?
The allegory of a town seized by plague, and ultimately destroyed in spite of the best efforts of the council and the populace has clear connections to the world we know. One need only consider the unavoidable headlines that assault our senses on a daily basis: The endless debates over the cause and response to global terrorism; epidemics, poverty and starvation in Africa; AIDS, Cancer, MRSA and an ageing society; and the scientific and religious quarrels over the beginning and ending of life, to name just a few. Reflecting on our own predicament, the absurd behaviour of Ionesco’s fictional townspeople becomes hauntingly recognisable.
“Laughter alone does not respect any taboo, laugher alone inhibits the creation of new anti-taboo taboos; the comic alone
is capable of giving us the strength to bear the tragedy of existence. The true nature of things, truth itself, can be
revealed to us only by fantasy, which is more realistic than all the realisms.”
- Eugene Ionesco, ‘La démystification par l’humour noir’, 1959
Throughout our creative process we have, to use Ionesco’s own words, attempted “to communicate the uncommunicable”. We have employed many different genres, toyed with notions of gender, incorporated multimedia elements, and pushed the limits of popular taboos (perhaps exceeded them), all within a stark and grimly disturbing landscape. And we have tried never to forget our sense of humour in an attempt to present an absurd existence that allows us to realise how close to absurdity our own existence really is.
It was Ionesco’s hope that through confrontation with the harsh and terrifying truth of our condition, we can learn to accept it. Only then will we be liberated from our overwhelming despair. Of course, Ionesco would be the first to suggest that the whole exercise may be doomed to failure from its inception. But that’s for you to decide.
Mme Martin: Quelle est la morale?
Le Pompier: C’est à vous de la trouver.
- Eugene Ionesco, ‘La Cantatrice Chauve’, 1948