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This paper deals with the language used by one of the most famous modern writers EUGENE IONESCO (1909-1994), in his plays The Chairs and The Bald Soprano. Ionesco is the writer whose sense of literature incorporated with the experiences he gained from his life and the observations that he made in society and people around him. The usage of language in his works we can say, to some extent, is quite similar to other modern writers who motivated their thoughts and writing skills to write in an absurd manner and portray the extreme level of absurdity of human and worlds in their works. But as every writer is having their own way of flourishing the works, like through plot, character, dialogues, scenes and so on. Ionesco too had his way of presenting the levels of absurdity in the society and his technique was ‘ Language ’. He is often called as Man of Anti-Theatre, because of his presentation of language as an impossible means of communication. The paper will present these points briefly and will focus on the two above mentioned texts in detail.
“ Hence the need to break down the language of society, which "is nothing but clich é s, empty formulas and slogans". That is why the ideologies with their fossilized language must be continually re-examined and "their congealed language ... relentlessly split apart in order to find the living sap beneath". ” (Esslin)
Eugene Ionesco (Theatre of Absurd), Martin Esslin
Eugene Ionesco is one of the most prominent writers and critics, whom Martin Esslin has mentioned in his Theatre of Absurd and put him equal to Samuel Beckett, in the sense that they both are the masters of language and presented absurdity in their works adroitly. Ionesco belonged to a small French town where he polished his intellectual level, spending time in understanding that the world is dirt, and it is environed by corrupt and meaningless people and their actions. He understood the reason of vain purposes in which people are involved, and in his works tries or rather say successfully furnished these thwarted attempts of men, in which they are trying to adjust themselves in the society. These futile attempts and its consequences are knitted by Ionesco in his plays with the help of the use of language. As we all know that he has got mastery in presenting language from different shades of life whether it is from the people around or the things around, they all express the intellectual quality and philosophical level of language portrayed by Ionesco.
“ We achieved it above all by the dislocation of language. Do you remember the monologue in Waiting for Godot and the dialogue in The Bald Soprano ? Beckett destroys language with silence. I do it with too much language, with characters talking at random, and by inventing words. ” (E. Ionesco)
(BY: Eugene Ionesco)
The lines mentioned above are taken from an answer which Ionesco gave to an interviewer for The Paris Review. For him the importance of words is simple duck’s egg. The words are now working just as sounds and on the contrary the images have taken its place in order to make language more appealing and abrupt. Ionesco never had any plan of writing plays in this manner but it was the society and its surroundings which made him believe that everything is meaningless and futile, absurdity resides everywhere and language has no power of explaining and clearing out things. The major plays of Ionesco deals with these absurdities working on the grounds of language, and just because his works are from absurd approaches does not mean that they are worthless but they are truly appreciated by the audience and critics. Moreover, his works reflects the image of society and men in today’s world, in which everyone is at disoriented phase. They are doing things because they just have to do it, without any aim and motivation, need and profits. Ionesco compared his play Bald Soprano with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot on the scale of language, as on one hand where Beckett uses the technique of presenting useless words and speeches in order to show the “distortion of language” and its value, on the other hand Ionesco produced his work in which characters talk in an awkward manner with broken sentences and meaningless speeches and also invented the use of “presence in absence” technique.
Ionesco’s aim was to re-evaluate language since it serves as man’s key to communication and expression. His language is rooted in banalities and clichés of everyday speech. He uses language to show the failure of communication. According to Richard Coe, Ionesco used language “to provoke the spectator”, to face him by the sheer violence of sound in a prelinguistic state to react and hence discover his real existence”.
In “The Chairs” language takes a new form by the use of forceful syllables and illogical statements. The nonsensical language used by Ionesco in the play reveals that mental development through language is impossible, and determination in man’s mental capabilities is inevitable. The mental determination of the couple is shocking as language is reduced to an infantile state. Physically, they appear old, but their thoughts are immature. For example, when the Old Man cries for his mother:
“ Old Man [weeping suddenly]: I ’ ve spoiled it? I ’ ve spilled it? Ah! Where are you, Mamma, Mamma, where are you Mamma?... hi, hi, hi, I ’ m an orphan. ” (E. a. Ionesco)
It may be possible that the couple was once intellectually mature, but resulting boredom robbed them of this maturity. They only talk about the past and play games to pass their time.
Ionesco also shows that illogical, unintelligent language greatly affects man’s personality. In other words, he shows that man’s personality can be altered by fluctuation in language. In the words of Richard Coe, “personality merge, fuse, exchange, sort themselves out clearly for an instant, only to fuse and merge again”. The Old Woman in “The Chairs” is not one distinct personality, but a fusion of many. For example, she takes up the role of a mother, then a mature hostess and then she becomes a flippant woman flirting with one of the guests. Thus, language destroys the uniqueness of personality.
The Orator is also easily manipulated and controlled by language, instead of using it as a means of communication. When he opens his mouth it looks as if he is gasping for breath:
“Orator: He, mme, mm, mm. Ju, gou, hou, hou.
Heu, heu, gu, guo, gueue. ” (E. a. Ionesco)
The Old couple also suffers from the same problem. They desperately try to put syllables together to express themselves:
“ Old Man and Old Woman [laughing together]: At last we laughed.
Ah! ... laughed … arrived … arrived … Ah! ...
Ah! ... rived … arrived … arrived … the idiotic bare belly
… arrived with face … arrived with the rice …
At last … bare-bellied … arrived … the trunk …
We lau … Ah! ... aughed … Ah! ... arrived
… Ah! ... arrived … aughed … aughed. ” (E. a. Ionesco)
Another device which Ionesco has used extensively in The Chairs is the sequence of “echoes”. We found that the Old Woman sift out only fragments from the Old Man sayings. The presence of chairs on the stage also results in the lack of stability in language. The mechanical movement of the chairs drives men out of his senses and results in the distortion of speeches. Chairs signify nothingness of man’s existence.
A man after the 2nd World War is so much weary and burdened by his responsibilities that he sometimes behaves in an unpleasant manner. He becomes so frustrated from his monotonous and humdrum life that he forgets that he once used to be an exuberant person. In this play life seems meaningless, monotonous and the reflection of despondency can also be formulated here. The long standing isolation from the outside world leads to broken connections from the Old Man’s and Old Woman’s life as we see at several places they both are trying to recollect the past memories, but these memories are forgotten to some extent. There is nothing much left with them to do, so for the last seventy years they had been involved in playing “assuming” games. The language here becomes important aspect as it shows the tiredness of repetitions in the life of old couple.
“ Old Man: Tell me the story, you know the story: “ Then at last we arrived …”
Old Man: Again?... I ’ m sick of it … “ Then at last we arrived ” ?
That again … you always ask for the same thing!... “ Then at last we arrived …” But it ’ s monotonous … For all of the seventy-five
Years that we have been married, every single evening, absolutely every
Blessed evening you have made me tell the same story, you ’ ve made me imitate the same people, the same months … always the same... let ’ s talk about something else …” (E. a. Ionesco)
In other places where we notice the broken images from the past and where the old couple is struggling to remember their past life in Paris. The language here shows the separation of words and memories with the present actions. In order to get some leisure time they both started making conversation of their pasts but the long term voidness from happiness and society and even from their love ones made them difficult to catch those glimpses. Their speeches and dialogues are to some extent intangible.
“ Old Woman: No, my darling, I ’ ve forgotten.
Old Man: How did we reach it? Where is the road? This place was called Paris I think …
Old Woman: Paris never existed, my little one.
Old Man: That city must have existed because it collapsed … it was the city of light, but it has been extinguished, extinguished for four hundred years … nothing remains of it today, except a song. ” (E. a. Ionesco)
Ionesco’s “The Chairs”, “The Lesson” and “The Bald Soprano”, run on the same track from the perspective of language and its depiction. They all show the absurdity of situations and time from different angles. But “The Chairs” is extensively dramatizing the emptiness and voidness of words with the use of clichés and slogans. There is the game of chairs (metaphorically) in which there is dissemination of chairs having gradually taken place, till the end of the play, all over the stage. Although the chairs are empty and the absence of the guests can easily be noticed by naked eyes, the language here works as a technical device which presents the “presence in that absence”.
The conversations between the Old Man and the Old Woman are degraded by the conversations between “these two and the invisible guests” as these conversations took place in different situations unnecessarily.
“ Old Man: That ’ s not true, I ’ m an orphan, hi, hi.
Old Woman: My pet, my orphan, dworfan, worfan, morphan, orphan.
Old Man: No … I don ’ t wan ’ t; I don ’ t wa-a-a-ant. ” (E. a. Ionesco)
The conversation which they had separately from the guests came out to be something in sense, as they make themselves open in-front of these imaginary guests and talked in the manner as if the guests are actually there and making them feeling comfortable or listening to their sad stories.
“ Old Man [to Belle]: I am very touched … You ’ re still the same, in spite of everything … I ’ ve loved you, a hundred years ago … But there ’ s been such a change … No, you haven ’ t changed a bit … I loved you, I love you …”
“ Old Woman [to the photo-engraver]: Oh no, Oh! no, Oh! la la, you give me the shivers. You too, are you ticklish? To tickle or to be tickled? I ’ m a little embarrassed … [She laughs]. Do you like my petticoat? Or do you like this skirt better? ” (E. a. Ionesco)
Ionesco is a man who is known as the advocate of Anti-Theatre, explicitly anti-realist and by implication anti-reality as well. He uses language not as a means of communication but as a disability of showing and unfolding emotions. The linguistically paralyzed works of Ionesco plots extremely difficult analytical judgments that audience has to make and to gather bits and pieces of dialogues and scenes. All of his works are written in the same manner in which he discarded the actual notion of language that has to be used in any work. The purpose behind this is obviously visible that he urged himself to portray the present scenario of human world in which man is very helpless that too when he is not able to share that helplessness with anyone.
Ionesco always rejected the imputations of being anti-realist and presenting the impossibility of communication in language. He stated that humans themselves create barriers between them and society, and he is just a narrator who is simply portraying the human conditions through his way of using language. There are also some psychological connotations related to the language which I will discuss later.
The play of course, as I mentioned above, is revolving around the presentation of “presence in absence”. The chairs are continuously consuming the stage and creating a kind of mess. Although the empty chairs are also the part of the play or rather say an important part of the play, audience has to formulate the ongoing conversation on stage which is only one sided. Advancing of the unreal guests and the chairs as well, focusing on the idea of emptiness and presence in absence on stage. Ionesco used undoubtedly the best method of presenting absurd language in this play. The presence of Colonel, Mrs. Belle, the photo-engraver, the Emperor and other Mr., Mrs. and Misses is assumed by us in the form of empty chairs and the dialogues of the Old Man and Old Woman as soon as they started conversations with them. The conversation between them shows a kind of attachment of the Old couple towards the society and its different types of members, as we come across with guests from different working area. The reason behind this is the long term detachment or separation from the outer world, in which they had their good memories, at some good time, at some good places and with some good people especially with their son. The lack of words is also representing the lack of communication which came out in the form of echoing language used by the Old Woman:
“ Old Man: Let me pass, please let me pass. [Desperate:] Ah! Will
I ever be able to reach him?
Old Woman [echo]: Reach him … reach him …”
“ Old Man: All my enemies have been rewarded and my friends have betrayed me …
Old Woman [echo]: Friends … betrayed … betrayed …” (E. a. Ionesco)
There is always a huge disagreement between language and thought which reflects the mental state in many ways. The Old Woman here is clearly not able to focus on her words and thoughts which lead her to echo the words spoken out by the Old Man, this could also be possible in the way that she wanted to put emphasis on the dialogues of Old Man.
The usage and formulation of Ionesco’s language, as far as the present scenario is concerned, is not inappropriate and questionable. However, Ionesco himself had to go through from several criticisms by the people who thought that he used his own fabricated language as a tool to break the connection between communication and language. He simply is the person who wanted to focus on those elements of society through his language where a normal person is suffocating from handicapped beliefs and motives. You can simply take it as the absurdity of the situation which he presented through typically formulated language. These absurdities through language can also be seen in other great modern writers like Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and so on. All these writers had present the top class absurdities in their works which almost at every place were also criticized by different people. These writers, as Ionesco did, focused on different aspects of the society and human flaws, emerged in the form of absurd characters, situations, plot, dialogues and language.
There are so many points on which the plays of these writers and Ionesco’s works, as for example,
- Language is often fragmented non-sequiturs.
- Audience often alienated, teased, puzzled and disturbed.
- Plot may be illogical.
- Relationships are nebulous and audience wonders about characters ’ relationships.
- Plot is both comic and tragic
- Pauses are used to heighten tensions.
- Intends to disturb and surprise by creating a new unpredictable form.
- Intends to shatter preconceived notions of theatre conventions.
Eugene Ionesco’s handling of language can also be extruded from his other plays and among them one is The Bald Soprano, his very first and one of the best works by this French- Romanian writer. This play is different and uncanny in many ways and Ionesco was criticized for his cynical views on language by Kenneth Tynan a critic for the London Observer. In this we have come across so many meaningless snickers, nonsensical stories and poems, unconnected and mismatched dialogues. The whole play is full of non-sequiturs speeches and statements.
Language extensively working on the futile attempts of making meaningful communication in modern society, that out of the way creates nonsense and ridicules sensible thoughts, if prevailing somewhere in this modern world.
The opening of the play, the stage direction, is itself quite irritating in the sense of reputation of the word English.
“A middle-class English interior, with English arm-chairs.
An English evening. Mr. Smith, an Englishman, seated in his English armchair and wearing English slippers, is smoking his English pipe and reading and English newspaper, near an English fire …
… .The English clock strikes 17 English strokes ” (E. a. Ionesco)
This is not only the opening scene having repetitions of words but in the whole play at several places we can find them. Language through words is substituted by the language of irregular actions at some places. Deformity of the language is maintained throughout the play in different forms. The broken and disturbed conversations made the play at first place quite difficult to understand and comprehend the connectivity between dialogues and situations. The conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Smith at the very beginning of the play showed almost one sided conversation, as Mr. Smith’s words changed by Ionesco in the form of actions,
“ Mrs. Smith: That ’ s because we live in the suburbs of London and because our name is Smith.
Mr. Smith [continues to read, clicks his tongue]
Mrs. Smith: However, I prefer not to tell them that their oil is bad.
Mr. Smith [continues to read, clicks his tongue] ” .. (E. a. Ionesco)
This type of language is used by Mr. Smith for quite a long time as Mrs. Smith continues to tell her stories.
The story of this play was composed by Eugene Ionesco at the time when he was learning English from English language primers. The language in primer is like that no sensible person would like to exercise, like:
“ The ceiling is up, and the floor is down ”
And at last this becomes the reason for Ionesco to decide that language is unnecessary for communication. There is a concept of “Tragedy of Language” coined by Ionesco in order to demonstrate the meaningless verbosity of words and sentences or speeches in one’s surroundings. The repetitions of dialogues and at the same time making contradictory statements are the key features of this concept.
Modernity and its reflection are drawn by the clumsy and mechanistic characters in this play. Tragedy of language interpreted from one dialogue to another. The characters themselves look supernatural elements as they don’t give any clear idea about anything and continuously make contradictory remarks. When Mr. and Mrs. Smith talks about an old family friend Bobby Watson and his family, they create such a mess on the discussion and depiction of Bobby Watson’s character. Ionesco’s aim of marking gaps in communication and language becomes quite successful here as Bobby Watson’s whole family’s name is Bobby Watson, which literally bring your brain out of skull once you start connecting the relations of him. Besides that, the variety of judgments made in order to bring out Bobby Watson’s identity also startled the audience and readers at the very beginning of his introduction. Mr. Smith made several contradictory remarks on the death of Bobby Watson,
“ Mr. Smith: Tsk, it says that Bobby Watson died.
Mrs. Smith: My God, the poor man! When he died?
Mr. Smith: Why do you pretend to be astonished? You know very well that he ’ s been dead these past two years. Surely you remember that we attended his funeral a year and a half ago.
Mr. Smith: It wasn ’ t in the paper. It ’ s been three years since his death was announced ..
Mrs. Smith: …
Mr. Smith: … Poor Bobby, he ’ d been dead for four years and he was still warm .. ” (E. a. Ionesco)
It seems very awkward when you go through these types of descriptions of someone, but as Ionesco uses language out of the way, he uses each and every possible manner in order to make language impossible for communication.
There remains a very minute difference if we try to make a comparison between Ionesco’s works to the other absurd writers who also speak of the communication gap through language. The nearest among them is Samuel Beckett who uses the same kind of technique in his play Waiting for Godot. We don’t have to go deep in Beckett’s works, but the idea should be picked up from here that it is not only Ionesco who revolted against language as a means of communication. The attitude of both the writers for formulating and presenting the nature of language is to a large extent the same.
The language in Ionesco’s plays works on the theory of deconstruction and existential philosophy. That is to say it is concerned with the relationship between text and meaning. The idea as proposed by Jacques Derrida about the significance of language through words and its meaning, incorporated by Ionesco in the form of Aporia that is featuring most of his texts. The ambiguities and clichés are considerably in use, as the language is something which can create both positive as well as negative impact on readers. But it all depends on the readers that how they will make assumptions and decisions regarding any texts of this kind. The durability of the text is just not only depending on the writer who constructs Aporias in order to allude the deformity of language, but the role of the audience or readers to choose between these aporias for their understanding. This can easily be understood from The Bald Soprano where Ionesco creates a number of statements from which he shows the usage of Aporia.
“ Mr. Smith: Fortunately, they had no children.
Mrs. Smith: That was all they needed! Children! Poor woman, how could she have managed! Mr. Smith: She ’ s still young. She might very well remarry. She looks so well in mourning. Mrs. Smith: But who would take care of the children? You know very well that they have a
boy and a girl. What are their names? ” (E. a. Ionesco)
The play consists of hundreds of contradictory statements, amalgam of repetitions and dubious remarks on each and every situation. The consequences of the 2nd world war had completely broken the connections of men with religion, culture and language. They lost all hope of begetting knowledge and faith, which finally lead to the drastic change in the motives of men in the society. The writers of Existentialist philosophy like Sartre and Camus made distinction between rationality and irrationality among human lives, which creates a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. (Wyatt)
Apparently, the characters in Ionesco’s works are common men who create comedies and depict human conditions in absurdities, mostly with the motive of creating or rather say distorting the language and thoughts. The Bald Soprano and The Chairs both are sinuous in their plots and formation of language, because of which Ionesco faced a lot of criticism. The integrity that he showed in order to be present his thoughts through his works, costs him as one of the most Anti-theatre men. The play The Bald Soprano is also an Anti-Play whose title also came into the writer’s mind conjecturally, as he first wanted to use the title “ English Made Easy ”, but then he altered it with “ A Blond School Teacher ”, and he finally ended up with “ The Bald Soprano ”, as at the time of rehearsal the character who played the role of Fire-Chief, flubbed the line from "une institutrice blonde"[a blond school teacher] to "une cantatrice chauve"[the bald soprano].
“ Fire Chief [moving towards the door, then stopping]: Speaking of that - the bald soprano?
[General silence, embarrassment]
Mrs. Smith: She always wears her hair in the same style.
Fire Chief: Ah! Then goodbye, ladies and gentlemen. ” (E. a. Ionesco)
The play even didn’t make the reason of giving this type of title, clearly anywhere. There is nothing in the play which has to do with hair or baldness. This is only to create nonsensical elements through language and nothing else.
The ending of the play is quite serious, because after the Fire Chief left the house, the language of other people turned suddenly into some kind of unconnected sentences, hard to understand. It looks as they are speaking because they have to speak, regardless of the people around and the topic on which they have to speak. They all speak in order to create the word chain and of course fulfill the desired motive of Ionesco.
“ Mrs. Martin: I can buy a pocketknife for my brother, but you can ’ t buy Ireland for your grandfather
Mr. Smith: One walks on his feet, but one heats with electricity or coal.
Mr. Martin: He who sells an ox today, will have an egg tomorrow.
Mrs. Smith: In real life, one must look out of the window. ” (E. a. Ionesco)
The ending of the play I think is the proper example for which it is considered to be an absurd play. The misconception, disfigurement, brummagem and tragedy of language made the play more hilarious than expected.
And then there comes a point at the end of the play where we come across the very unique and disturbed phase of dialogues, expressions and voices on the stage. Then there are the characters that look stupefied and irritated because of something unclear and unexplained. They all started exploiting their throats with full intensity and screamed out their speeches and reacted madly.
“ Mr. Smith: Cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, ..
Mrs. Smith ” Such caca, such caca, such caca, such caca, ..
Mr. Martin: Such cascades of cacas, such cascades of cacas, such cascades .
Mrs. Martin: Cactus, coccyx! Crocus! Cockaded! Cockroach ” (E. a. Ionesco)
This sequence of non-sequiturs sentences, clichés and aporias had nothing to do with the sequence and plot of the play. It looks as if these dialogues were intentionally inserted in the play in order to show the extreme absurdness in language and human memory. The other instances of these types of dialogues occurred when the play is about to end and we come across with the absolute repetition of the play, when Mr. and Mrs. Martin again comes on the stage and the play starts in the same manner as it was in the beginning with same dialogues and actions. The difference was the change in characters with Mr. and Mrs. Martin in the place of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Mr. and Mrs. Smith entered as guests.
The same thing we can see in The Chairs, where the ending of the play made language impossible for communication, as said by Ionesco. The time has come at this stage for which the Old Man waited so long and for which all the guests, obviously invisible are called upon. The Orator has to give the long-awaited message. The guests and the Old couple were unbelievably happy and excited, and for that reason they commit suicide, with the thought that now the Orator is finally here and will surely circulate the message of e xistence. But suddenly something happened and everyone came to know that the Orator himself is deaf-mute. He tries several times to deliver the message but the only thing one could here was sounds, meaningless sounds. Then he tries to circulate the message through written form and started writing on the blackboard but that all was also nonsensical and impossible to understand.
“ Orator [on the blackboard]: ANGELFOOD NNAA NNM NWNWNW V
Orator: Mmm, Mmm, Gueue, Gou; Gu. Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, ” (E. a. Ionesco)
He made all possible efforts in order to provide the message but all in vain. He then finally left the stage and Ionesco tells us about the stage directions.
“ We hear for the first time the human noises of the invisible crowd; these are bursts of laughter, murmurs, shh's, ironical coughs; weak at the beginning, these noises grow louder, then again, progressively they become weaker (E. a. Ionesco) ”
This literally creates big question and confusion for the audience and readers, as for the whole play it seemed that there were no invisible guests and we started assuming the existence of these guests and the language was the only medium through which we could easily reach to this possibility. But this statement made by Ionesco perplexed everyone because from this description it looks that there were guests all the time as they are now laughing and making noises which is audible. The ultimate result from all this came out is that language is nothing but an obstacle in one’s social life. The inability to produce language through which one can make communication is lost and people are in very dramatic conditions. They are trying their best to explore the possibilities of making oneself social through language but these attempts become futile. This is the only idea of Ionesco behind all his works, in which he draws a huge line between language and communication.
Kenneth Tynan criticizes the ways in which Ionesco uses the language in order to show the lack of communication through his works, as he said in one of his remarks that:
“Here at last was a self-proclaimed advocate of anti-theatre: explicitly anti-realist and by implication anti-reality as well. Here was a writer ready to declare that words were meaningless and that all communication between human beings was impossible ” (Esslin)
Tynan even called Ionesco as a Messiah of the enemies of realism in the theatre, and his attack provoked the long interesting debates on the subject of language. But Ionesco handsomely replied and said that he has no personal interest in making the language impossible for communication, it is because human beings and the society create discrimination and are unable to produce language as per their thoughts. They are motiveless in regard with communication which shows the meaningless features of their lives. He simply portrays their dramatic mental and social activities in his works.
Ionesco’s and Kenneth Tynan’s argumentative controversies made Ionesco more popular and familiar as a playwright of nonsensical and hilarious plays. But at the same time the down to earth writer devoted his works to the realities of human situations. He successfully beats the target from his peerless intellectual talent and knowledge of modern paralyzing behavior of humans in order to make communication through the intellectual use of language. These qualities of his can easily be deeply observed on an extensive level from his plays, The Chairs and The Bald Soprano.
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