Scholarly article on topic 'Teaching Absurd Literature – Ionesco's Transgressive Dramatic Discourse in Dialogue with other Texts'

Teaching Absurd Literature – Ionesco's Transgressive Dramatic Discourse in Dialogue with other Texts Academic research paper on "Languages and literature"

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{metatextuality / "dramatic discourse" / Ionesco / intertextuality / "theatre of the absurd."}

Abstract of research paper on Languages and literature, author of scientific article — Adriana Lazăr

Abstract The literary work has continually been subjected to comments. Any literary text can convey regular meta-linguistic and meta-pragmatic elements, and may call on codes and meta-linguistic and meta-pragmatic skills to eliminate misunderstandings or misconceptions. Our work aims to address the manner in which Eugene Ionesco's absurd dramatic texts fall under the sign of metatextuality and how this approach was integrated in a theatre of the absurd course at university level, in order to foster students’ thorough understanding of Ionesco's plays. Through a well structured theory presentation and through concrete analysis of some of Ionesco's plays, students have managed to see how the dialogue with other texts can become meaningful and eventually understand the author's message in detail.

Academic research paper on topic "Teaching Absurd Literature – Ionesco's Transgressive Dramatic Discourse in Dialogue with other Texts"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 1S0 (2015) 365 - 370

The 6th International Conference Edu World 2014 "Education Facing Contemporary World

Issues", 7th - 9th November 2014

Teaching absurd literature - Ionesco's transgressive dramatic discourse in dialogue with other texts

Adriana Lazar*

University of Pitesti, Pitesti 110044, Romania


The literary work has continually been subjected to comments. Any literary text can convey regular meta-linguistic and meta-pragmatic elements, and may call on codes and meta-linguistic and meta-pragmatic skills to eliminate misunderstandings or misconceptions. Our work aims to address the manner in which Eugene Ionesco's absurd dramatic texts fall under the sign of metatextuality and how this approach was integrated in a theatre of the absurd course at university level, in order to foster students' thorough understanding of Ionesco's plays. Through a well structured theory presentation and through concrete analysis of some of Ionesco's plays, students have managed to see how the dialogue with other texts can become meaningful and eventually understand the author's message in detail.

© 2015TheAuthors.PublishedbyElsevier Ltd.This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of The Association "Education for tomorrow" / [Asociatia "Educatie pentru maine"]. Keywords: metatextuality; dramatic discourse; Ionesco; intertextuality, theatre of the absurd.

1.1. Introduction

Metatextuality refers to a form of intertextual discourse in which one literary text makes critical commentary on another text. This concept is related to Gerard Genette's conce pt of transtextuality in which a text changes or expands on the content of another text. Ionesco's plays are intended as a sort of commentary on earlier dramatic texts by rejecting traditional theatrical conventions. Reflections on literature and art appear throughout his

* Adriana Lazär. E-mail address:

1877-0428 © 2015 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of The Association "Education for tomorrow" / [Asociatia "Educatie pentru maine"]. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.02.130

life in critical texts, but also in the very lines of his characters. Metatextual commentary strongly incorporates the actual act of production of the dramatic text, and is the natural confluence between the playwright as a writer and the playwright as a reader, between the person who writes the plays and the one who observes his writing.

When teaching a theatre of the absurd course at university level, one may come across some issues caused by the fact that students find it hard to understand the authors' message thoroughly. The theatre can bet on entertaining its readers. Ionesco won this bet. The most interesting fact is that the dramatist managed to get his message through in spite of a broken communication, and his plays, based on a routed dialogue, touched his readers but aroused strong and often contradictory reactions. To help students feel less confused when studying Ionesco's plays, this paper gives one possible solution: approaching Ionesco's discourse from a pragmatic point of vie w with a stress on Grice's transtextuality.

After a theoretical approach to the concept of metatextuality developed by H. P. Grice, we carried our students into a concrete analysis of some of Ionesco's most well-known plays. Literary texts are not singular beings, out of all categories. The reader builds his/her understanding of a literary text by detecting certain gender characteristics contained in the text. These characteristics produce certain expectations and facilitate the reader's thorough interpretation of the text. Readers need to know how to relate the work they read to a literary genre - that is to say - to a directory of standards - in order to understand it. Through a practical analysis of the corpus we conducted our students to see how Ionesco's work falls under the sign of metatextuality as his plays are intended as a sort of comment to earlier dramatic texts, by rejecting traditional dramatic conventions.

1.2. On literary conventions

The categories shaped by Gérard Genette in literary theory open ample perspectives to discourse analysis. When elaborating, so as to show its implications, Bakhtin's notion of translinguistic, Genette focuses his research on transtextuality, by defining it as the textual transcendence of the text, or "anything that, openly or secretly, connects a text with other texts" (Genette, 1982). In this respect, the linguist isolates five types of transtextual relations viewed from an ascending order of abstraction, implication and globality. These types do not represent, in any way, some definitely fixed theoretical boundaries. They tend to operate in interference and thereby better reflecting the different levels of stratification of the text/texts under study: the intertextuality (the actual presence of a text within another text); the paratextuality (the connections between literary accessories such as titles, forewords, epigraphs, facts of prosody and mimo-gestures); the metatextuality (the commentary, the fact that one text talks about another or about itself); the architextuality (the relation to literary genres) and finally, the hypertextuality (which covers the entire relationship between a hypertext and a subtext on which it is grafted).

The literary texts are not singular creations, out of any category. The reader proceeds to the comprehension of a literary text starting from some genre features that can be found within the text itself. These features produce certain expectations to help the reader at the interpretation of the text. Readers need to know to which category a text belongs to, in order to fully understand it thoroughly. We can even say that the reader needs to include the text he/she reads in a genre - that is to say in a directory of norms - to understand it.

To better understand the way literary genres function, L. Jenny gives the example of the booksellers who generally range contemporary literary texts in different departments, such as novels, poetry, drama, etc. " Il s'agit là d'un système des genres rudimentaire et dont on devine qu'il est assez approximatif. En fouillant dans le rayon roman on risque fort d'y trouver des récits non fictifs comme le témoignage de Robert Antelme sur les camps de la mort, L'Espèce humaine. " (Jenny, 2003). This type of classification becomes ineffective if it applies to the theatre of the absurd texts. For example, we do not exactly now where to range Eugene Ionesco's plays in which the action seems no longer to exist, the plot can hardly be located, and the characters launch themselves in monologues rather than in dialogues with the others.

1.3. On metatextuality

Based on the theory of Kristeva's notion of intertextuality, Leyla Perrone-Moises observes, in her article "L'intertextualité critique", what is special about this notion when applied to critical texts where the interaction of a text with another one is explicit and declared. A hierarchical relationship is then established between the

commentary and the subject work that postulates a series of rules, based on the quote. Such obvious type of intertextuality is also the most "waterproof' one, as each text remains within its sphere across a well coded textual device. Consequently, it is easy to observe that there is no question of intertextuality in the sense that Kristeva describes it, as one of the characteristics that defines it, "an external text" is no longer within the text itself, but outside of it and it is used for its literary analysis. The study of three famous critics, Barthes, Butor and Blanchot, will lead to Leyla Perrone-Moises's original definition of the critical intertextuality (l'intertextualité critique). Many times, these three critics have broken the traditional device of the critical text and they primarily represent a real critical intertextuality that Leyla Perrone-Moises summarizes while resuming Kristeva's formulation: a critical text is intertextual when there is an absorption and transformation of the subject text in the commentary, when there is a piece of writing.

From this perspective, the intertextuality only makes sense in a historical and literary context where genres are disrupted because of a notion that each of the critics has uniquely invented: the writing.

That's what Gérard Genette denotes through his third type of transtextuality: the metatextuality, a broad category of a "commentary" phenomenon, but that may not be explicit, since, for example, « Hegel, dans la Phénoménologie de l'esprit, évoque, allusivement et comme silencieusement, Le Neveu de Rameau »» (Genette, 1982:11). This « relation (...) qui unit un texte à un autre »» is valid both for the journal and for the autobiography and it can occur in all literary genres.

The literary work has continuously been subjected to comment. The critical text cannot dissociate the writing itself from the literary works as it shows the interdependence between the existing works and those written before or after that. It is not discursive but appears, from this perspective, like an important dimension of the text, as Genette suggested in Palimpsestes when he gave the example of metatextual category by a non-explicit reference (Diderot in Hegel). As a result, the critical intertextuality or metatextuality would not be a kind of sub-category of the intertextuality, but any intertextuality would be fundamentally critical. The two dimensions, the intertextuality and the metatextuality represent a single reality of the text. Any literary text that can convey metalinguistic and metapragmatic elements either in the dialogues between the characters or throughout the literary text uses metalinguistic and metapragmatic codes and skills to remove misunderstandings or misconceptions. The metatextual code exceeds the linguistic level to engage textual facts in the transtextual dimension. It includes paratextual, architextual and intertextual elements endowed with a metatextual function. Whenever the elements belonging to a different code are used, beyond their primary function, to "comment" other texts within the literary text itself, or to comment upon itself, it plays a metatextual role. Any text, in a broader sense, carries with it, more or less explicitly, its metatext, because of the coincidence of saying and doing, which a characteristic of the literature. The metatextual commentary is intimately integrated into the act of production of the text, it is there, in the disjunction of the author -the creative being who watches himself/herself while creating.

1.4.Ionesco's metatextuality

The present article aims to show how the playwrights of the theatre of the absurd - Eugene Ionesco particularly -transgress the normal dramatic construction, that is to say - normative - while revealing that the linguistic and literary rules are not only some empty forms that are unable to ensure a consistent and coherent structure of the dramatic discourse. With their structures and dialogues, the plays of the theatre of the absurd play with their formal incoherence which eventually leads to nonsense; they seem to refuse to render intelligibly any message and prefer to confront the readers directly to the anarchy of the world and the emptiness of the existence.

The authors create, each in his/her way, a new manner of thinking the dramatic texts, using every resource of theatricality, disturbing our conception of a normal dramatic performance and ultimately letting the viewer work out a sense where there is no sense: "le théâtre de l'absurde est né avec cette pensée de certains que les certitudes et les articles de foi du passé ont été balayés (...), sont tombés en discrédit, (...) tenus pours illusions sans valeur, infantiles." (Esslin,1997:19). This comment seems to suggest that faith is coming to a decline and that the man, in front of his mortel destiny, seems to sink into a sense of metaphysical anxiety and that life itself loses its meaning and becomes absurd.

For Ionesco, the theatre of the absurd represents a too fashionable concept. He thinks that the absurd cannot be found within one's existence but it is only due to the fact of existing: "L'absurde c'est, en quelque sorte, à l'intérieur de l'existence qu'on le place. Or, pour moi, à l'intérieur de l'existence, tout est logique, il n'y a pas d'absurde. C'est le fait d'être, d'exister, qui est étonnant." (Ionesco, 1966:176). Ionesco's entire literary work falls under the sign of metatextuality because all his plays are intended as a sort of "comment" on previous dramatic texts by refusing the traditional dramatic conventions. Eugene Ionesco creates such a complex relationship with the literary tradition that it is quite hard to express it in words. But the author of The Bald Soprano is still among the most important intellectuals of the XXth century. Because he represented himself two different cultures, French and Romanian, and raised several fundamental questions about human freedom, power, regimes crushing the individual, and the human identity, the playwright showed high sensitivity and vigilance. Gifted with a deeper sensitivity than the other authors of the theatre of the absurd, as he was a foreigner in Paris carrying his Romanian life in his luggage, he closely observed what happened around him and transferred the considerable message of the human condition to his literary works. By declaring his radical rejection of any literary heritage, Eugene Ionesco surprised and even shocked his contemporaries. It is an attitude that Gabirel Marcel called "a return to a kind of a raw state" while pointing out in consternation that: "Ce qui me paraît tout à fait inouï dans ces textes, c'est la désinvolture avec laquelle l'auteur liquide à peu près tout le théâtre qui l'avait précédé, sans paraître avoir un seul instant l'idée qu'il devrait peut-être se mettre lui même en question, que les innombrables spectateurs qui restent les fervents de Molière, les admirateurs d'Ibsen, ne sont peut-être pas de simples fossiles, que l'aberration n'est peut-être pas de leur côté à eux; et que, d'autre part, il est douteux qu'un coup de matraque puisse favoriser en aucune manière cette sorte de nouvelle prise de conscience que l'auteur réclame." (Marcel, 1973:23)

But, in fact, his theoretical statements as well as the presence of the literary tradition in his works prove that the literature concerns the playwright, it arouses his interest and even obsesses him: "Si la littérature est dans l'impasse (...) c'est parce que ses matériaux sont périmés, uses" (Ionesco, 1966:360). All his literary experience is dotted with reflections on literature and art, a fact that is widely presented by Michel Lioure in À quoi bon la littérature ?Lioure notes that the playwright feels harassed between the temptation to write and the conviction on the vanity of all books. Ionesco's conflicting opinions on the value of the literature as a field of professional activity is summarised in Lioure's certainty that: "Très tôt cependant il manifestait envers ses propres activités littéraires et la littérature en général une indifférence apparente, une défiance ironique allant jusqu'au mépris." (Lioure,1996:25). Yet, he said later in his study that "Quels que soient alors le narcissisme et la vanité de l'écrivain, l'écriture est un 'témoignage', à la fois personnel et universel, sur un soi, sur autrui, sur un individu et sur l'humanité." (Lioure, 1996:33) "L'on conçoit que Ionesco, perpétuellement déchiré entre la tentation d'un scepticisme universel et le désir forcené de l'absolu, entre sa passion d'écrire et la conviction de la vanité de tous les livres, ait oscillé constamment entre le respect et le mépris de la littérature, affirmant tour à tour ou simultanément, sans redouter la contradiction, qu'elle est ou n'est pas une chose sérieuse". (Lioure, 1996:33)

When reading this excerpt which is quite representative for understanding Ionesco's views on the literary tradition, we realize that the playwright was, in fact, hunted by literature. Moreover, this excerpt effectively portrays how Ionesco plays with literature and leads us to discover new perspectives in approaching literature. We cannot talk about Ionesco without mentioning the other playwrights and vice versa. From this point of view, his rewriting, his dialogue with the literary tradition appears profitable for Ionesco, particularly in his efforts to overcome his inability to establish a dialogue with his contemporaries.

In order to help our students to understand the metatextuality in Ionesco's work, we will look at the practical analysis of two of his plays where the metatextual phenomenon is brought to light.

In Victims of Duty, Ionesco overtly outlines the principles of the new current in theatre, of which he is, obviously, the best and the unique promoter: "Nous avons Ionesco et Ionesco, cela suffit! " exclaims Nicolas, one of the characters of this play. Although it surprises through the characters' lines, the play is submitted to a particular aesthetic, that of the dream, the dark humour, the impaired logic, which already belongs to a certain tradition. Thus, The character Mallot who finds himself in the centre of the investigation, represents a pretext to build a false detective story. In addition, the play follows a guiding principle mentioned in the text by the author's voice: "Nicolas : Je rêve d'un théâtre irrationaliste (...) Le théâtre actuel, en effet, est encore prisonnier de ses vieilles formes, il n'est pas allé au-delà de la psychologie d'un Paul Bourget (... Il) ne correspond pas au style culturel de notre époque, il n'est pas en accord avec l'ensemble des manifestations de l'esprit de notre temps. (...) Il est

nécessaire pourtant de tenir compte de la nouvelle logique, des révélations qu'apporte une psychologie nouvelle... une psychologie des antagonismes. (...) Nous abandonnerons le principe de l'identité et de l'unité des caractères, au profit du mouvement, d'une psychologie dynamique. Nous ne sommes pas nous-mêmes. La personnalité n'existe pas. Il n'y a en nous que des forces contradictoires ou non contradictoires. Vous auriez d'ailleurs à lire Logique et contradiction, l'excellent livre de Lupasco (...) Quant à l'action et à la causalité, n'en parlons plus. Nous devons les ignorer totalement, du moins sous leur forme ancienne trop grossière, trop évidente, fausse, comme tout ce qui est évident. Plus de drame ni de tragédie: le tragique se fait comique, le comique est tragique, et la vie devient gaie." (Ionesco, 2007: 242)

This type of discourse which exploits Ionesco's literary principles is leading us to the next play, The Impromptu of Alma. It is a satirical play, sprinkled with sharp and pertinent reflections on the stupidity of the pseudo-intellectuals. In 1956, when this play was first performed, Ionesco joins a battle that will oppose supporters of the theatre of the absurd and French followers - so-called "the left" - of Brechtian theatre. Here's how he presents his work in Notes and Counter Notes: "L'Impromptu de l'Alma est une mauvaise plaisanterie. J'y met en scène des amis : Barthes, Dort, etc. En grande partie cette pièce est un montage de citations et de compilations de leurs savantes études : ce sont eux qui l'ont écrite. Il y a aussi un autre personnage qui est Jean-Jacques Gautier.Il n'est pas réussi." (Ionesco, 2003: 187)

The Impromptu of Alma is a parody of "la bêtise de l'intellectualisme ", a satirical declaration of desperate humour. It is a somehow exaggerated farce savante, qualified as mauvaise plaisanterie by its own creator, which remains in the memory of the public through its fine construction and its aggressive and sarcastic lines about the characters who proclaim the freedom of art. The play resembles to a sort of settling of scores where Ionesco exposes his altercations with an intransigent criticism, just as Molière did in his Impromptu of Versailles. Ionesco responds to his opponents who speak in tirades, like those of Molière or those in the Italian farces who are, at the same time, ridiculous and horrifying.

The scholars of ridiculous seriousness were, in reality, the leftist critics Roland Barthes and Bernard Dort from the Théâtre populaire review, two authentic doctors of knowledge in garbage theories and frenzied verbiage, who set themselves up as the guardians of the social and pedagogical theatre, such as Bertolt Brecht. Without feeling any embarrassment, Ionesco uses, in his dialogues between the characters, the very words of the previously mentioned critics, taken from their articles. He does this precisely to reaffirm his strong rejection against the dogmatic ideas proffered by the intellectuals who seemed to think that they were the only ones in the world to hold the absolute truth. The playwright clearly expresses his opinion: every artist has the right to create his own universe. He adopts a violent attitude towards the official criticism which ridiculously pursues an author; he also rises against any authority individual that would oppress the creators. It is interesting to remember the discussion about the very nature of the theatre, between the Bartholomeus characters:

"Bartholoméus I: Le théâtre, monsieur, est une leçon sur un événement instructif, un événement plein d'enseignement. Il faut élever le niveau du public. Bartholoméus III : Il faut le baisser. Bartholoméus I : non le maintenir!

Bartholoméus II : On doit venir au théâtre pour apprendre! Bartholoméus I : Non pas pour rire Bartholoméus III : Ni pour pleurer! Bartholoméus I : Ni pour oublier!

Bartholoméus II : Ni pour s'oublier!" (Ionesco, 2007:439) 1.4. Conclusion

The theatre can bet to entertain us. A quite certain way not to disappoint us would be, at this level, to surprise us, to amaze us at every turn. In fact, there is nothing worse than actually being able to guess the course of events in a play. The impossible should flirt with the unpredictable. The whole game consists in choosing between the real, ordinary words and the words invented, imagines; between a possible world and an impossible one. The

role of the playwright is then to extract remarks from the reality and to adjust them according to his own point of view, to amplify them. Ionesco won this bet. He managed to pass the massage in spite of a broken communication and the defeat of the dialogue; the readers can grasp the playwright's message and has strong, often cconfhcting reactions towards it.

Ionesco was, at the same time, the cause and the witness of this crisis, as well as a sign of success in revolutionizing the theatre. Clearly, he was the victim of the close-minded critics but he also received their approval. After leaving his print on the theatre of the absurd and contributing to the reputation of its great playwrights, Ionesco's work received the approval of his contemporaries and successors, a fact which gave the genre a well -established status.

As we have seen in this article, Ionesco's plays are intended as a sort of commentary of earlier dramatic texts by refusing the traditional dramatic conventions. His reflexions on literature and on the art, in general, appear throughout his life in his critical texts, but also in the dialogues between his characters. The metatextual commentary is highly integrated with the act of production of the dramatic text, and lays at the natural confluence between the playwright-writer and the playwright-reader, between the one who writes the play and that who observes his writing.


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