Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Ionesco’s theater of the absurd, and the chaos of language

With the first American English translation by playwright Tina Howe, NAU Theatre has taken on the challenge of two of Eugène Ionesco's classics: “The Bald Soprano” and “The Lesson" to bring audiences a different breed of humor.

Taking on political issues of conformity or social situations, Ionesco’s work takes familiar characters and situations and stretches them to the extreme. In the case of “The Bald Soprano” and “The Lesson,” language is the issue.

The stuffy Smith household on the outskirts of London is quiet except for the steady sound of time passing on the ticks of a clock. Awaiting the arrival of their guests, Mr. and Mrs. Smith sit together in awkward silence until finally Mrs. Smith, desperate for her husband’s attention, rambles on about their dinner. The Martins, who are married but for some reason do not seem to remember each other, arrive followed by the Fire Captain and the strange evening begins to unfold. Language suddenly fails them, and what should have been a social evening turns into a hopeless attempt at communicating. Finally, left with only nonsense phrases, vowels and consonants, the characters in “The Bald Soprano” erupt into vocal chaos almost to the point of violence.

“The Lesson” follows a similar path. A young, eager student arrives at her professor’s home in hopes of furthering her education and obtaining another degree to add to the two she has already earned. The hunched professor becomes increasingly anxious when he realizes that although his new pupil is highly educated, she cannot seem to grasp the concept of subtraction and can only add. Similar to the way the characters soldier on in “The Bald Soprano,” the professor and the student continue on with their lesson, talking in circles until a terrifying act of violence is committed.

"So much in our world is in turmoil due to the ‘tragedy of language.’ We try to communicate but so often we cannot and language is reduced to meaningless verbiage. Often in this world, we result to violence if we cannot find the answers through discourse," said the plays director Kathleen McGeever. "Ionesco has a way to take us on the universal journey of the meaning of language while we laugh,” continues McGeever. “Ionesco’s serious and important treatise on the tragedy of language became a comedy when performed and this remains true today. So, audiences can laugh and think at the same time.”

Tina Howe’s translations of “The Bald Soprano” and “The Lesson” breathed new life into the English versions. “I translated the plays because they are screamingly funny in French,” says Howe. “But the current English translations are literal translations. So there is no wit. There is no rhyming. There is no humor. There is none of the fun you get in the French.”

Walking a fine line between staying true to Ionesco while still making the plays “sing” in English was a challenge, but Howe’s success is what caught McGeever’s attention. “Her translation is able to blend language’s mayhem and madness with the formality of the English drawing room in ‘The Bald Soprano,’ and provide a light yet maniacal touch to the language in ‘The Lesson.’ But, what is truly delightful in her translation is the spirit—a vibrant and dizzying cacophony of sound. The repetition of the sounds, the music, of the language is exquisite in the original language and I believe that Tina Howe has captured the music.”

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