Unbridled from its traditional companion, The Lesson (a much darker play about how bad teachers and education destroy students), Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, currently playing at the Pearl Theatre Company, is a madcap, loose cannon of a one act, whose subversion is directed at insipid language textbooks, circa 1950 (when the play was first performed in Paris).  Although we may know the origins, we usually don’t think about the underpinnings very much, probably because The Bald Soprano and The Lesson mean Absurdism, they represent and introduce this world view, much larger than themselves, which, at various times, has had enormous aesthetic power, being able to destroy a realist like William Inge and throw Tennessee Williams into career upheaval.  Politically, we’re even hearing about it right now.  Like the appropriateness of “surreal” to describe 9/11, “absurd” may be becoming the right word for the historical moment. On 9/30, Charles Krauthammer used it in Human Events to describe Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter becoming Palestinian territory. On 9/28,  Der Spiegel quoted an article from Bild, “Obama’s lecture on the euro crisis . . . is overbearing, arrogant and absurd.” Most infamously, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyah, during his speech before the U.N. General Assembly on 9/25, said: “[Israel is] singled out for condemnation more than all the nations of the world combined. . . . It’s the theater of the absurd [italics mine]. It doesn’t only cast Israel as the villain; it often casts real villains in leading roles: Gadhafi’s Libya chaired the U.N. Commission on Human Rights; Saddam’s Iraq headed the U.N. Committee on Disarmament. . . .” 

In isolation, looking at The Bald Soprano today, the play—it only runs about an hour–may seem akin to one of Lee Breuer's newer works, where a metaphor is allowed to live on the stage for itself (for example, his monologue about an American capitalist pig, Ponzi Porco, is the story of a stuttering American businesspig during the current recession, dying with the system).  Breuer actually credits his inspiration as coming from the absurdist playwright (also French), Alfred Jarry, and the theory of Pataphysics (“the philosophy of magical solutions”).  Ionesco wrote, recalling the origins of The Bald Soprano, “Consciously, 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 I already knew; that the floor is down, the ceiling up, things I already knew as well, perhaps, but that I had never seriously thought about or had forgotten, and that seemed to me, suddenly, as stupefying as they were indisputably true.”

A play about a bad primer used for language courses, which, in the kind of middle-class English home it’s supposedly referring to, comes alive:  A wife describes her shopping list, husbands and wives explain how people are related to each other, vocabulary-building maxims are spouted, along with mottos, sayings, colloquial phrases, anecdotes—even the time goes awry.  Of course the characters become frustrated—they’re denied the right to make meaning, becoming ever more socialized as they progress, becoming more and more the same. 

If we look at the text used for the Pearl’s production, translated by Donald M. Allen (which has been in use since 1958), Ionesco’s immediate needs for creation are what are reinforced. For example, in Allen’s version, Mr. and Mrs. Martin use exactly the right wrong words in their well-known repetitive riff describing the fact that they might known each other, much less be married , “How curious that is, how bizarre!” (it’s very funny as performed by Jolly Abraham and Brad Heberlee at the Pearl because the language has no context, it has no local vernacular. It would be like saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs” to street hustlers in Chelsea during a flash thunderstorm—it just wouldn’t fit.*)  Ionesco may have been locating the rough edges of language or he may have been registering an insoluble issue for hack language-instruction editors. He probably didn’t know he was creating half of a grand design, half an existential philosophy for an international following.  Simply for the theatrical tour de force that it is, by itself, alone, and not as the turning point it would become, The Bald Soprano is worth being curious about.   

(*Editor’s note: Joining the Martins are the rest of a fine production team and a cast with terrific timing:  Bradford Cover and Rachel Botchan as the Smiths, Robin Leslie Brown as the maid, Mary, and Dan Daily as the Fire Chief.  The direction is by Hal Brooks and the set–with all those platters–is by Harry Feiner.)

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A new absurdist to watch is Neo-Futurist adapter and director Christopher Loar, whose most recent foray into the ridiculous is The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays (it has been extended until October 8 at the Kraine Theatre in the East Village). Danny Burnam, Brendan Donaldson, Cara Francis, Connor Kalista, Jacquelyn Landgraf, Erica Livingston, and Lauren Sharpe, dressed in gray with black suspenders, except one, must react–as “they are, where they are, doing what they are doing”—to the unspoken words of O’Neill’s starter texts. (Oh, and a number of them get to play sharks, too.) Even if there’s a one-note aspect to the proceedings, it’s an interesting down-and-dirty little experiment and a gallant nod to the avant-garde by the avant-garde (besides, where else are you going to be able to hear parts of The Web, Thirst, Bound East for Cardiff, Before Breakfast, and Now I Ask You)? O’Neill’s stage directions, of course, are dumped upon ad nauseam by much of the theatre world, when the reality is, as John Guare has pointed out, the Nobelist lived in a day when people actually bought plays and read them (they wanted the additional information). The show seems something of a reconciliation, nevertheless: as a playwright, O’Neill’s reputation was tarnished by the absurdist wave of the ‘50s and ‘60s, too–fortunately, it hasn’t lasted and the late realist plays are what they are: masterpieces (he was, of course, also very experimental earlier in his career with works like The Emperor Jones, Mourning Becomes Electra, and Strange Interlude, among others). The absurdities of the Israeli-Palestinian question, as well as the monetary crisis may prevail, but here, now, in terms of theatre, maybe realists and absurdists are finally at a point where they can share one big dressing room–or, at least, not care so much that they are doing so.  The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of William Inge/Last Plays, anyone?

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2011 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photo: From L to R: Brad Heberlee (Mr. Martin) and Jolly Abraham (Mrs. Martin); Photographer: Jacob J. Goldberg. All rights reserved.

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