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Ionesco's plays deal with things tailing apart: the absurdity of the human situation, of ideologies, of history. What Yeats took to be the tragic theme of modern consciousness, Ionesco reduced to a joke, a vaudeville. Yet beneath the mechanical picture of language and behavior, the spoof of gentility (ogres prattling in the living room), the comedy of conformism (the Berenger series where his Chaplinesque hero is alternately mocked and exalted), one senses a mind thoroughly conservative in its social attitudes and romantic in its sensibility. This is particularly apparent in Ionesco's memoir, Present Past, Past Present, where everything he despises -- political rhetoric, mass society, modernist cliches -- seems to engulf his identity, swamping it with intellectual bitterness (he cannot record the name Satire without cringing) or adolescent anguish (""shut up in words while being escapes us""). His topsy-turvy childhood in Rumania, the glancing recollections of his scoundrel father or the Hitler years or expatriate days in France -- these are given us not so much as poignant decipherings of character and circumstance, or as testaments of a beleaguered age (think of what Celine and Lind made of similar material), but rather as one more occasion to rant against Nation and Race and ""New Man,"" to simultaneously assume and disavow all assumptions (""Metaphysics is the only purity""; ""Purity is a hoax""), to indulge the glibly paradoxical: ""Those who wage war continue to ask fundamental questions, but they don't know they're asking them."" Ionesco's flashing originality rested on a world of fantasy close to nightmare; thus he was able to objectify, a meaningless future through a mask of horrendous whimsy. When he shows his true face, alas, we see that he is our old friend the clown endlessly grimacing to circus tunes while his heart is breaking.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1971
Publisher: Grove