The Bald Soprano

by Mohammad Khabir Uddin | Published at 12:00am on May 25, 2019

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A scene from The Bold Soprano — Wikimedia Commons

THIS anti-play (anti-pièce) The Bald Soprano translated from the French La Cantatrice Chauve is created by such a literary taskmaster as Eugène Ionesco who, breaking through the traditions of the absurdist mindset developed by his predecessors, has made the connoisseur accept his place in the new French theatre, the group of avant-garde playwrights that included Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, and Jean Genet.
At the time Ionesco wrote The Bald Soprano, serious French theatre was under the domination of writers who wrote very literate plays with serious, intellectual themes. Among them were Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus who, in spite of having shared a philosophical kinship with Ionesco, chose to write in a traditional mode.
Absurdist themes are pervasive in The Bald Soprano. In fact, the work is often critically mined to illustrate absurdist ideas and motifs. Chief among them in Ionesco’s play is the concept of entropy, or the tendency of order to decay into chaos. This collapse is reflected in the speech of the characters, which, in the course of the play, becomes increasingly dysfunctional, resulting in the total breakdown of language as a viable tool of human communication. That is why it has been observed that in the beginning of the play the speeches of different characters bearing whatever absurd meanings have at least been expressed in a complete structure; but the speeches of the same characters have been seen to be gradually turning into a small unit — a word, even a letter! — as reflected in the following comparison between the speech of Madame Smith in scene-I and the word pronounced by both Mr Martin and Mrs Smith in scene XI:

Scène I
Mme Smith: Tiens, il est neuf heures. Nous avons mangé de la soupe, du poisson, des pommes de terre au lard, de la salade anglaise. Les enfants ont bu de l’eau anglaise. Nous avons bien mangé, ce soir. C’est parce que nous habitons dans les environs de Londres et que notre nom est Smith.
(Look, it is nine o’clock. We have eaten soup, fish, potatoes with lard, English salad. The children drank English water. This evening we have eaten well. This is because we live in the vicinity of London and our name is Smith.)

Scène XI
M Martin: I! [around!]
Mme Smith: Ci! [here!]
Such anomalies started getting prominent in literary form and style saturated with the ideas and visions of absurdity. It is because of the fact that with the advent of cruel reality submerged into hatred, tension, frustration bestowed upon human fate after two barbaric world wars along with the literary atmosphere’s getting smoggy and heavier with reckless and desperate speeches, resulted from such psychological factors as anti-God tendency and existentialism, the absurdist mind-set was being inspired by some remarkable precursors like the creator of English Doctor Faustus Christopher Marlowe, the creator of Paradise Lost John Milton, the creator of German Faust Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, neo-Kantian Martin Heidegger, etc. Their influence got actually implanted into the minds of a few writers so much that they began to play later on a very important role in developing a space into the world literature for those other writers who tend to take a deep breath to lighten the burdens of their own lives. Such writers as Franz Kafka (1883–1924), Samuel Beckett (1906–1989), Eugène Ionesco (1909–1994), Albert Camus (1913–1960), Akhtaruzzaman Elias (1943–1997) of the 20th century built up their mind-sets leading their lives and thoughts through the man-made destructions and indifferent surroundings of the hardest periods of human history where human fate was bound to be stranded between atheistic influence of the predecessors and the consequence of two world wars along with domestic conflicts. Still in that horrible holocaust they were able to empower themselves to express their thoughts, whatever absurd they seemed to be, lurking in their subdued minds getting crushed every moment in the then reality they were observing with their sharp and keen insights. Such tensed and terrified reality paved the way for those writers to be prone to an absurdist view into the literary arena. Living in such absurd realm everyone may easily realise the inner pains and pangs of the absurdist mind-set visualised throughout the pieces like The Trial (Der Prozess), Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot), The Stranger/The Outsider (L’Étranger), The Myth of Sisyphus (Le Mythe de Sisyphe), The Soldier in an Attic (Chilekothar Sepai), Tale of Dreams (Khowabnama).
Actually, the literary works like The Trial, Waiting for Godot, The stranger/The Outsider, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Soldier in an Attic, Tale of Dreams, etc have contained some fundamental traits of modern individualism, the determination to trust one’s own experience while distrusting the many and varied forms of authority, the attempt to face the absence of transcendence and to enjoy this life. Truly speaking, these writers did not just confine themselves to anti-God tendency; rather they began to scrutinise the human life and their surroundings from different dimensional viewpoints in a neutral psychoanalytical process.
However, such exposure of anti-God haughtiness of the most prominent connoisseurs getting gradually regarded as ideological inspiration and frankness for some writers of the next generation of the masterminds like Marlowe, Milton, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Heidegger along with the alluring distraction provided by existence of materialism and destructive wars like the world war-I and the world war-II one after another through the centuries, paved in the world literature the way to welcome those types of literary genius who began to observe the human life from a very different, neutral and critical way believing only what they can see, feel and sense. They wanted inexplicable religious issues, heroism in wars for upholding the human dignity and mythological fancies or the unseen no more. They began to take refuge in the domain of introvert, self-opinionated and individualistic mind-set where they would be able to explain on the basis of the true circumstances created by the predecessors and the contemporaries as well around them. From that mind-set emerged out an indifferent sense of ungodly existentialism nurtured as brain-child of the above-mentioned literary genius creating another trend inclined to contemplating the world in abstract philosophical terms and to the feelings of angst, meaninglessness, boredom, alienation, fear, etc.
In one way or another, all significant examples of modern European literature, particularly since World War I, respond to a world that seemed to be falling apart and becoming increasingly meaningless in the wake of the brutal advance of capitalism, rampant individualism and the consequent loss of community, large-scale devastations of the world wars, threat of a nuclear holocaust, and the destruction of the liberal traditions of hope and faith in man’s innate goodness, rationality and progress. In Ionesco’s literary work like The Bald Soprano a subjective and idealist response contemplates the world in abstract philosophical terms and finds it not only unchanging but also unchangeable. It usually ends up accepting meaninglessness, loneliness and disintegration as the permanent and universal condition of human existence itself reflected in the concept of Le Pompier (the firefighter) in scene X:
Écoutez, c’est vrai… tout ça c’est très subjectif… mais ça c’est ma conception du monde. Mon rêve. Mon idéal… et puis ça me rappelle que je dois partir. Puisque vous n’avez pas l’heure, moi, dans trois quarts d’heure et seize minutes exactement j’ai un incendie, á l’autre bout de la ville. Il faut que je me dépêche. Bien que ce ne soit pas grand-chose.
(Listen, it’s true… all this, this is very subjective… but this, this is my conception of the world. My dream. My ideal… and then that reminds me that I have to leave. As you have no time I have to go within three quarters of an hour and sixteen minutes exactly to the other end of the city set on fire. I need to hurry. Though not much.)
Incapable of any significant action or initiative, they (the Smiths) imply an utterly pessimistic view of a human being as a helpless victim of his fate. The entire play woven with repetitions of offers basically the same sequence: the smiths talking about silly matters , sitting in the same room, contriving ways of passing time, meaningless conversation between them and the Martins invited by them, the Martins start talking about the same things as mentioned by the Smiths in the first scene; besides, it contains a variety of verbal repetitions like M Smith, continuant sa lecture, fait claquer sa langue [Mr Smith clucks continuing his reading], comme c’est curieux! [It’s so strange!], c’est pas par là [It’s not there], c’est par ici [It’s over here]. Actually the subject-matter of this play demands no serious attention if the readers read the play or the audience watch the play on the theatre:
The play opens on Mrs Smith reciting the events of the night with Mr Smith. They discuss the death of someone they knew, Bobby Watson. The play then shifts back to reality and they realise that Bobby has been dead for four years. Suddenly they flash back to when he was alive and engaged to a woman who was also called Bobby Watson. Then they shift back to reality where they realise that he has left behind two children and they are gossiping about who his wife will remarry. Allegedly, she is going to name another relative by the same name, but being that they all have the same name and work in the same industry the Smiths have a difficult time figuring out who is who. As the Smiths are arguing, their maid Mary enters, announcing that the Martins have arrived. After entering the room, the Martins realise that they have met each other before. They are surprised to find that both of them are from the city of Manchester, that they both took the same train to London, that they both travelled third class, that they both reside at No 19 Bromfield Street, that they sleep in the same bed, and that they both have a two-year-old daughter named Alice with one red eye and one white eye. They come to the conclusion that they are husband and wife. When they fall asleep Mary informs us that Mr Martin’s daughter has a white right eye and a left red eye, while Mrs Martin’s daughter has a white left eye and a red right eye. Therefore, they cannot be husband and wife. When the Smiths return they begin to talk about their guests, then the doorbell rings and the Fire Chief enters. He is disappointed to find no fire at the Smiths’, but they promise that they will call him if one occurs. While they wait for something to happen they begin telling stories, none of which makes sense. Finally, Mary enters and tells her own story, in which she reveals that she is the lover of the fire chief. The Smiths then push her out of the room as the fire chief excuses himself. Then the Martins and the Smiths recite nonsensical truisms. Then all sense of language dissipates as the two couples argue. However, no one is able to communicate and none of their issues are resolved. As they argue the lights fade; when they rise again, the Martins are in the Smiths’ living room, repeating the same lines with which the Smiths opened the play.
It is to remember that Beckett once said that he wrote the play in two acts because one act would have been too little and three acts too many. It is true that if the situation and sequence were dramatised only once it would not have had the same effect as its re-dramatisation in the second act. For, the presentation of the entire sequence twice and the repetitive character of the verbal activities and gestures within that sequence imply an endless and unchanging process-repetition ad infinitum. Besides, without any possibility of progress or break from this closed circularity, this process also becomes mechanical and meaningless-repetition ad absurdum. But with his ingenuity Eugène Ionesco has proved his mastery of the absurd genre creating such anti-play with one act as The Bald Soprano.
In The Bald Soprano the verbal text is relatively sparse and fragmentary, consisting largely of snatches of one line or one word exchanges, separated by long ponderous pauses. Much of the play’s textual space is occupied by Ionesco’s stage directions which specify expressions, movements and gestures. The gestures and movements are often non-verbal activities which take up a good deal of the play’s duration and make it remarkably rich in theatrical vigour. The abundance of theatricality in this play results from, and cleverly compensates, for the play’s emptiness in other respects. Sent out on to an almost bare stage, without the conventionally available support from localising sets, handy objects, identity fixing costumes, or even a logically developing plot or dialogue, the Smiths and the Martins have no option but to draw upon their own ingenuity and resources — mainly bodies and voices — to keep themselves as well as the spectators entertained. In doing so, they go through a whole range of dramatic postures, gestures and vocal modulations. All this has the effect of enhancing our perception of the play’s theatricality, which is further strengthened by the improvisations and music-hall routines with which the Smiths and the Martins try to pass the time. Most of their verbal duets are sheer role-playing. Sometimes they seem to be enacting a conjugal situation: caring, arguing or simply getting bored with each other as observed in such dialogues as follows:

Scène I
M Smith: Mais alors comment se fait-il que le docteur s’en soit tiré et que Parker en soit mort? (But then how is it that the doctor got himself out of it and Parker died of it?)
Mme Smith: Parce que l’opération a réussi chez le docteur et n’a pas réussi chez Parker. (Because the operation was a success for the doctor and was not a success for Parker.}
M Smith: Alors Mackenzie n’est pas un bon docteur. L’opération aurait dû réussi chez tous les deux ou alors tous les deux auraient dû succomber. (Then Mackenzie is not a good doctor. The operation would have had to be a success for the two or the two would have had to succumb.)
Mme Smith: Pourquoi? (Why?)
M Smith: Un Médecin consciencieux doit mourir avec le malade s’ils ne peuvent pas guérir ensemble. Le commandant d’un bateau périt avec le bateau, dans les vagues. Il ne lui survit pas. (A conscious physician must die with the patient they cannot recover together. The commander of a boat perishes with the boat in the waves. He does not survive.)
Mme Smith: On ne peut comparer un malade à un bateau. (A patient cannot be compared with a boat.)
In a response to the question—whose perception of human condition does this sort of absurd play express? — English theatre critic and writer Kenneth Peacock Tynan provides a clue in this respect. Writing about the plays in Beckett-Ionesco tradition, he says they are essentially western, addressed to and written by members of a sophisticated intelligentsia in countries with a high standard of living. The question they pose could be summarised thus: once a man’s physical needs are satisfied, what is the purpose of living? Tynan here relates correctly the philosophical orientation of this kind of drama to the point of view of a section of the middle-class intelligentsia in the post-industrial western societies. However, his remarks are too generalized. They imply a general accusation of complacent philosophising against these writers. He overlooks, for example, the important fact that most of the avant-garde writers are vehemently anti-bourgeois in their conscious moral stance and that the sense of alienation and anguish that underlies their writings is often genuine and deeply felt. The unreality and irrationality in their artistic creation is deliberately a response to a world which appeared to have lost its reality and rationality.
Yet within such banalities and meaningless banters as having been observed throughout this one-acted play escaped from habitual modes of thought and expression, a glimpse of witty visualised in scene-VII as the following does draw the attention of both the audience and the readers:

Scène VII
M Smith: Moi, quand je vais chez quelqu’un, je sonne pour entrer. Je pense que tout le monde fait pareil et que chaque fois qu’on sonne c’est qu’il y a quelqu’un. (Me, when I go to somebody’s house I ring the door-bell for entering. I think everybody does the same and every time it rings because there is someone.)
Mme Smith: Cela est vrai en théorie. Mais dans la réalité les choses se passent autrement. Tu as bien vu tout à l’heure. (That is true in theory. But in reality things are happening otherwise. You did see a little while ago.)
However, like many plays in the theatre of the absurd genre, the underlying theme of The Bald Soprano is not immediately apparent. Many suggest that it expresses the futility of meaningful communication in modern society. The script is charged with non sequiturs that give the impression that the characters are not even listening to each other in their frantic efforts to make their own voices heard. For a literary mastermind like Ionesco it is possible to create some sort of ultimate absurd feeling from the very title of the play The Bald Soprano as this title reflects nothing but absurdity throughout the subject-matter. The Bald Soprano in person exists nowhere; just it is mentioned in scene X by the fire chief at the time of his turning to leave. But such mention has a very unsettling effect on the others. Mrs Smith replies that she always styles her hair the same way. After the fire chief’s exit, the play turns into such a series of complete non-sequiturs with no resemblance to normal conversation as having been observed throughout the scene XI:

Kakatoès, Kakatoès, Kakatoès, Kakatoès, Kakatoès,
Kakatoès, Kakatoès, Kakatoès, Kakatoès, Kakatoès…
Quelle cacade, quelle cacade, quelle cacade, quelle cacade,
quelle cacade, quelle cacade, quelle cacade, quelle cacade,
quelle cacade…

Quelle cascade de cacades, quelle cascade de cacades,
quelle cascade de cacades, quelle cascade de cacades,
quelle cascade de cacades, quelle cascade de cacades,
quelle cascade de cacades, quelle cascade de cacades…

Les cacaoyers des cacaoyrèes donnent pas des cacahuètes,
donnent du cacao! Les cacaoyers des cacaoyrèes donnent
pas des cacahuètes, donnent du cacao! Les cacaoyers
des cacaoyrèes donnent pas des cacahuètes, donnent du cacao!

Nonsense! — this is how most of the readers and the audience would express their boredom after observing such meaningless prattling as above. Nothing to mean! Nothing to realise! Just wait standing agape and see or learn what is happening! — this is how the absurd life is meant to be! Thus, partaking of the theatre of the absurd as this French-Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco could create, with his artistic ability to lead his readers and audience to such a state of absurdity as to make themselves feel that everything — trifling and nonsensical matters—is meant for the absurd human life, which is why he made his contemporaries and posterity accept this play. The Bald Soprano, created in his own style, is an absurd play or beyond the absurdity or whatever — supra-absurdity!

Mohammad Khabir Uddin is a researcher and instructor of English and French.