Ionesco, Eugene (1909 – 1994)

‘Life is unliveable’; a superb essay on the avant-garde by one of its most important proponents

A superb four-page (four separate pages) autograph manuscript by Eugene Ionesco, signed by the author to the conclusion; apparently an early draft of his essay — with corrections — of the playwright’s preface to L’Avant-garde Théâtrale, published in 1970 and edited by Tom Bishop. Written in French, in blue and black ink.

In full: ‘The featured authors in Thomas Bishop’s anthology have illustrated what was called  the theatrical avant-garde between 1950 and 1960. This Parisian avant-garde proliferated just as much within France as outside her. Many are dramatic authors who became inspired by is in America, in  England, in Germany, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia. A new manner of envisaging the playfulness of theatre, a new manner of writing had been invented. In fact, this theatre constituted, in one way, a new way to envisage life and, in another way, an opposition to mainstream theatre, to theatrical farce. The new dramatic authors had other themes, other problems to the mainstream authors. They concentrated on man’s fundamental problems, on his existential condition. Well, it was an examination of the human condition, of theatre, of theatrical language, of language itself. The “new” theatre also opposed “serious” theatre. It wasn’t educational theatre, or a “re-education”, it wasn’t theatre with a message, it wasn’t a theatre of answers, rather a theatre of questions: the author posed offered riddles, but without handing over the key. Besides, it was now clear that all the keys handed to us by ideological theatre, Brechtian or other, were false keys. They didn’t open any doors, they provided no solutions. There aren’t, in fact, any solutions, for the moment, to the human condition. Socialism and liberalism have both failed. Life is unliveable. The new theatre was a metaphysical theatre, more metaphysical than nihilistic. The authors of this new theatre asked readers and spectators to try to respond, to try to find in themselves explanations or at least some clarifications of the problems. The poet is not a prophet, nor is he omniscient. The poet is someone who knows how to see problems where others do not see them; the poet quite simply presents problems as evidence.’

‘We describe avant-garde literature or avant-garde theatre a literature or a theatre that breaks with habitual, established forms of writing, changes the manner of it, imposes or introduces a new manner, a new style. Is that what it actually is? On the one hand, yes. This is proven by a wealth of new works that belong to this Parisian “school”. On the other hand, no, because mainstream theatre still continues to exist. We need theatre for everyone, and sometimes we go to the theatre simply to be entertained. We must allow both kinds of theatre to coexist. But the fact that the Parisian school has spread, and became a school, proves it’s truth, it’s usefulness. An avant-garde ceases to be one when it has been exceeded, that’s to say when it’s been exhausted, replaced by a new style, a new language, when it’s become academic. This doesn’t seem to me to be the case of the theatre that was born between 1950 and 1960. In reality, this avant-garde only constituted a break in relation to the theatre of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In a sense, it was the mainstream, bourgeois theatre that constituted a break, or an end that still hasn’t ended. In France, psychological theatre, for example, was simply a disfigured continuation of the theatre of Racine: the passion becoming amusement, the love becoming adultery, the triangle. Also, I dare to assert that the new theatre is simply a return to traditional theatre, a return to the same sources of tragedy or the human condition, destiny unfolding. The theatre that is called “avant-garde” was at the same time traditional and new, it was a tradition re-found. The works of Beckett remind us of the book of Joab.’

‘Has anything been done since what I call the dramatic school of Paris? There have really only been some fairly elementary technical attempts: revolts between actors and directors, then revolts between comedians and directors. There have certainly been some interesting results. Moreover, there has been a surge of erotic neurosis which, at the moment, use means only a little more daring than the Folies-Bergères to captivate the audience. But these are just brief moments that stop short. There can be no theatre without text. That’s the reason that there is nothing really new. And it’s for that reason that the avant-garde of 1950 – 1960 is still an avant-garde. Eugene Ionesco.’

Some slight creasing and minor fraying to edges, otherwise fine. A superb and compelling piece.