THE KILLER by Eugene Ionesco
directed by liam lonegan
February 7th-10th | THE GALLERY @ ACCESS THEATER
Despite its immaculate beauty, our city is losing light. Quickly. We know who’s responsible, and finally there is a citizen determined enough to stop him. Originally produced in Paris in 1959, this play's bleak absurdism speaks to the current moment more than we’d like to admit.
by Jonathan Kalb
One of the 20th century’s most acclaimed and enduringly mysterious playwrights, Ionesco was a Romanian who spent most of his life in France and wrote mostly in French. Born in the provincial town of Slatina, he was brought to Paris at age 2 when his father enrolled in law school there. His father left for Bucharest in 1916, ostensibly to fight in WW I, and never returned, allowing his family to believe he had been killed. In 1922 he used forged documents to obtain a divorce and legal custody of his children, then insisted that Eugene and his younger sister come live with him and his new wife. Forced to leave his beloved mother and learn Romanian at age 13, Ionesco deeply resented this arrangement. The father’s moral cowardice—particularly the later legalistic rationales by which he accommodated himself to the rise of Romanian fascism in the 1930s—would figure importantly in the son’s writings.
Ionesco graduated from Bucharest University with a degree in French literature and showed early talent as an arts journalist and literary critic. Yet in the Dadaist spirit of his compatriot Tristan Tzara, he merrily skewered artistic respectability, publishing an essay collection Nu (No) at age 21 that described Romania’s greatest literary lions as pompous windbags and fools and calling literary criticism “nothing but a game.” This juxtaposition of clownish, nihilistic mockery and sharp, learned seriousness would mark his entire oeuvre. Ionesco returned to France in 1939 to pursue a doctorate in literature (never finished) and settled in Paris after the war with his wife and newborn daughter.
He first burst onto the theater scene in 1950 with a hilarious, aggressively nonrealistic work called The Bald Soprano, inspired by the absurdly simple and obvious statements in an English conversation textbook he had used. Together with The Lesson, this play has been running continuously at a small Paris theater for more than 60 years. Ionesco wrote four other “anti-plays” in this same vein—The Chairs, Jack, or The Submission, Victims of Duty, and The New Tenant—all with similarly unexplained cyclical repetitions, accelerating rhythms, and illogical dialogue. The Killer, written in 1957, is the first of his four plays featuring the hapless, inadvertently heroic Everyman-character Berenger (the others are A Stroll in the Air, Exit the King and his most popular play Rhinoceros).
Ionesco ultimately wrote 28 plays as well as novels, short stories, and essays. He often said he was haunted by a terror of death and meaninglessness, and was extremely eloquent about that in his extraordinarily moving philosophical memoirs Fragments of a Journal and Present Past, Past Present. He once described his writing as an effort “not to die completely, not to disappear all at once, although everything must perish in the end.” In old age he turned to painting as his preferred form of “therapeutic” artistic expression.