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The Tragedy of Language How an English Primer Became My First Play

Author(s): Eugène Ionesco and Jack Undank

Source: The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Mar., 1960), pp. 10-13
Published by: The MIT Press
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Accessed: 11-06-2016 17:50 UTC

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The Tragedy of Language
How an English Primer became my first

In 1948, before writing my first play, The Bald Soprano, I had no

idea of becoming a playwright. My only ambition, quite simply, was to
learn English. The study of English does not necessarily lead to play-
writing. On the contrary, it was because I had no luck with English
that I turned to the stage. Nor did I write these plays to avenge my
failure, although some have said that my Bald Soprano was a satire of
the English bourgeoisie. If I had wanted to learn Italian, Russian or
Turkish and not succeeded, they would have claimed, by the same
token, that the play resulting from that futile effort was a satire of Italian,
Russian or Turkish society. Perhaps I ought to explain. Here is what
happened: nine or ten years ago, in order to learn English conversation,
I bought a French-English Primer. I set to work. Conscientiously, I
copied whole sentences from my Primer with the purpose of memorizing
them. Rereading them attentively, I learned not English, but some
astonishing truths: that, for example, there are seven days in the week,
something, moreover, I already knew; that the floor is down, the ceiling
up, things I already knew as well perhaps, but which I had never
seriously thought about or had forgotten and which seemed to me,
suddenly, as stupifying as they were indisputably true.
I probably have enough of a philosophical bent to have realized that
what I was copying into my notebook were not simple English sentences
in French translation, but fundamental truths, profound observations.
I didn't give up English quite yet. Fortunately so, because, after uni-
versal truths, the author of the Primer went on to disclose private ones;
probably inspired by the Platonic method, he expressed them by means
of dialogue. From the third lesson onward, two characters were pre-
sented whose real or fictive existence I am still not sure of: Mr. and Mrs.
Smith, an English couple. To my great astonishment, Mrs. Smith in-
formed her husband that they had several children, that they lived in the
vicinity of London, that their name was Smith, that Mr. Smith was a
clerk, that they had a servant, Mary, English like themselves, that for
the past twenty years they have had friends by the name of Mr. and
Mrs. Martin, that their house was a palace, for "the home of an English-
man is his true palace."
I really supposed that Mr. Smith was probably somewhat abreast of
all this, but can one be sure; there are people that absent-minded.

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Moreover, it is wise to remind our fellow men of things they may forget
or of which they are insufficiently conscious. Besides these permanent,
private truths, there were other truths, truths of the moment, which
became apparent: for example, the fact that the Smiths had just finished
their dinner and that it was nine o'clock at night, according to the
clock-English time.
I should like to point out the irrefutable, perfectly axiomatic char-
acter of Mrs. Smith's assertions as well as the entirely Cartesian manner
of the author of my English Primer, for what was truly remarkable
about it was its eminently methodical procedure in its quest for truth.
In the fifth lesson, the Smith's friends, the Martins, arrive; the four
of them begin to chat, and, starting from basic axioms, they build more
complex truths: "the country is quieter than the big city," some of them
contend; "yes, but the city is more heavily populated and there are also
more shops," the others reply-which is equally true and proves, more-
over, that opposing truths can very well coexist.
It was then that my idea came to me. Perfecting my knowledge of
English was now out of the question. To concentrate on enriching my
English vocabulary, to learn words, to translate into another language
what I could just as well say in French, without bearing in mind the
"content" of those words, what they revealed, would have been to
stumble into that sin of formalism which our thought-directors of today
rightly condemn. My ambition had become greater: to communicate
to my contempories the essential truths of which the French-English
Primer had made me aware. And what is more, the dialogues of the
Smiths, the Martins, the Smiths and the Martins, were really theatre,
theatre and dialogue being one and the same thing. I had only to put
it into a play. That is how I came to write The Bald Soprano, a point-
edly didactic, theatrical work. And why is this work called The Bald
Soprano and not English Without Toil, the title I first thought of giving
it, or The English Hour, a title I thought of subsequently? That is too
long a story: one of the reasons why The Bald Soprano has its present
title is that no soprano, bald or otherwise, appears in it. That ought
to be sufficient comment. A good part of the play is composed of sen-
tence fragments drawn from my English Primer and set end to end.
The Smiths and Martins of the Primer are the Smiths and Martins of
my play; they are one and the same, mouth the same maxims, perform
the same actions or the same "inactions." In all "didactic theatre,"
you are not supposed to be original, to say what you yourself think:
that would be a serious mishandling of objective truth; you have only
to transmit, humbly, the instruction that has been transmitted to you,
ideas that have been handed down. How could I take the slightest
liberty with words expressing absolute truth in so edifying a fashion?
My play, authentically didactic, was not meant to be original nor intended
to show my talent to advantage.

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12 The Tulane Drama Review

... Nevertheless, the text of The Bald Soprano was a lesson (and an
act of plagiarism) only at the start. A strange phenomenon took place,
I don't know how: the text began imperceptibly to change before my
eyes, and in spite of me. The very simple, luminously clear statements I
had copied diligently into my schoolboy's notebook, left to themselves,
fermented after a while, became denatured, expanded and overflowed.
The repartee which I had, in careful and precise succession, copied from
the Primer, became a jumble. Which is what happened to that certain,
irrefutable truth: "the floor is down, the ceiling is up." Assertions-as
categorical as they were solid: the seven days of the week are Monday,
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday-collapsed,
and Mr. Smith, my hero, now proposed that the week consisted of three
days, namely: Tuesday, Thursday and Tuesday. My characters, my good
bourgeois, the Martins, husband and wife, were suddenly afflicted with
amnesia: although they continued to speak to and see one another
every day, they no longer recognized each other. Other alarming things
happened: the Smiths now told of the death of a certain Bobby Watson
whose identity was unrecognizable because, as they mentioned else-
where, three quarters of the town's inhabitants, men, women, children,
cats and pseudo-philosophers were named Bobby Watson. A fifth char-
acter now unexpectedly burst upon the scene and added to the con-
fusion of the couples' peaceable domesticity: the Fire Chief, who told
stories which had something to do with a young bull supposedly giving
birth to an enormous heifer, with a mouse giving birth to a mountain-
then, the fireman went off to catch a fire which he had foreseen three
days in advance (he had marked it on his calendar) and which was
scheduled to break out at the other end of town. Whereupon the
Smiths resumed their conversation. Alasl the wise and fundamental
truths they exchanged, each carefully linked to the next, had gone wild,
their language had become disjointed; the characters disintegrated:
their words became meaningless absurdities; the entire cast ended up
quarreling. It was impossible to grasp my heroes' motives in this quarrel.
They didn't fling retorts at one another, not even sentence fragments or
words; all they spoke were syllables, consonants and vowels! ...
... It represented, for me, a kind of collapse of reality. Words had
become empty, noisy shells without meaning; the characters as well, of
course, had become psychologically empty. Everything appeared to me
in an unfamiliar light, people moving in a timeless time, in a spaceless
While writing the play (for it had become a kind of play or anti-play,
that is, a parody of a play, a comedy of comedy), I felt sick, dizzy, nause-
ous. I had to interrupt my work from time to time and, wondering all
the while what demon was prodding me on, lie down on my couch
for fear of seeing my work sink into nothingness, and me with it. All
the same, once I had finished, I was very proud. I fancied myself having
written something like the tragedy of language! ... When it was staged,

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I was almost amazed to hear the audience laugh; they took it lightly
(and still do), believing that it was a comedy, if not an outright farce.
Some people (Jean Pouillon among them), those who sensed the uneasi-
ness in it, were not fooled. Others noticed that I was poking fun at
Bernstein's theatre and his actors. Nicolas Bataille's troupe was the
first to notice this; they acted out the play (especially in its initial per-
formances) as though it were a melodrama.
Serious and learned critics, analyzing the work later on, interpreted it
as no more than a criticism of the Th&atre de Boulevard (popular the-
atre). I have just said that I believe that interpretation valid; however,
in my mind, it is not a satire of petty bourgeois mentality associated with
any particular society. It is, above all, concerned with a kind of uni-
versal petty bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie being the personifica-
tion of accepted ideas and slogans, the ubiquitous conformist. His auto-
matic use of language is, of course, what gives him away. The text of
The Bald Soprano or of the English (or Russian or Portuguese) Primer,
composed of ready-made expressions and the most tired cliches, made
me aware of the automatic quality of language and human behavior,
"empty talk," speaking because there is nothing personal to say, the
absence of inner life, the mechanical aspect of daily existence, man
bathing in his social environment, becoming an indistinguishable part
of it. The Smiths, the Martins, can no longer talk because they can no
longer think; they can no longer think because they can no longer be
moved, can no longer feel passions; they can no longer be, they can
"become" anybody, anything, for, having lost their identity, they assume
the identity of others, become part of the world of the impersonal; they
are interchangeable: you can put Martin in place of Smith and vice
versa, no one will notice. The tragic character does not change, he is
crushed; he is himself, he is real. Comic characters, fools, are people who
do not exist.

Translated by JACK UNDANK

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