CUTTING BALL THEATER NEWSLETTER
October 28, 2009 Volume 6, Issue 7
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“Rob Melrose is the best interpreter of absurdism in the Bay Area and possibly on the planet.”
Theatre Bay Area Magazine
The Bald Soprano
by Eugène Ionesco
In a new translation by Rob Melrose
Directed by Rob Melrose
October 23 – November 22, 2009
Opening Night: October 29 at 8pm
“The play has not aged. One might even suggest that we have caught up with it.”
-The New York Times
This is the play that breaks all the rules! Mr. and Mrs. Smith have invited Mr. and Mrs. Martin over for dinner as chaos cheerfully reigns over logic and conventional manners. Known all over the world as one of the quintessential absurdist masterpieces, this hilarious play is the perfect follow-up to last season’s hit production of Ionesco’s Victims of Duty, which garnered a Bay Area Critics Circle Award for Best Production.
Featuring: Derek Fischer, Donell Hill, Caitlyn Louchard, Paige Rogers, David Sinaiko, and Anjali Vashi
From Artistic Director, Rob Melrose:
Audiences have been loving The Bald Soprano, calling the cast back for multiple curtain calls. This weekend we have a special performance on Friday, October 30 launching our 10th Anniversary Celebration. This year, after every Sunday show, we will have a talkback to discuss Ionesco and questions about the play. Please join us!
I have been working on another project at the same time as The Bald Soprano with Cutting Ball regulars Michael Locher, Cliff Caruthers, Stephanie Buchner and Garth Petal.
It is Trevor Allen’s play The Creature. It is a wonderful three person adaptation Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. It features fantastic performances by James Carpenter, Gabriel Marin, and Garth Petal. It only runs until November 7th and the Chronicle just said:
“Blessed with a prodigious performance by James Carpenter, in the role forever associated with Boris Karloff, and a resolutely smart staging by Rob Melrose, Allen's "The Creature" opened Sunday at Thick House. The Black Box Theatre world premiere, following the script's airing in live podcasts two years ago, is a must-see of the Halloween season.”
-Robert Hurwitt, SF Chronicle
I hope you are able to make time to see both of these wonderful and very different shows. While I am loathe to bombard you with information, I know that many of you appreciate being able to read our program notes before you arrive at the theater. Therefore, I am including all of our resident dramaturg, Nakissa Etemand’s, wonderful essays on The Bald Soprano along with my director’s notes from both The Bald Soprano and The Creature. Enjoy...
The Bald Soprano
Notes from the Translator & Director Rob Melrose
It’s hard to imagine a better play to celebrate our 10th Anniversary than Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. It is a wonderful follow-up to last season’s Victims of Duty and is the earliest of the plays critics group together as “the theater of the absurd.” In many ways a major theme of our past ten years has been a walk through the history of the absurd. We’ve produced absurdist plays by Ionesco, Beckett, and Genet. We have followed their influence through productions of major American experimental playwrights like Mac Wellman, Richard Foreman, and Suzan-Lori Parks and have helped develop the next generation of playwrights touched by the absurdist spirit with world premieres of plays by Kevin Oakes and Eugenie Chan. In doing The Bald Soprano we also honor the EXIT Theatre’s rich history of Ionesco productions (over 33!). In our second year in residence at EXIT on Taylor, I am so happy to be continuing their 26-year tradition of presenting absurdist plays.
So what is this play that started it all, and why was it so revolutionary? Ionesco’s first play began with his trying to learn English. He noticed the absurdity of the dialogues of the husband and wife in his textbook. She would inform him that they live in London, that they have three children, that the ceiling is above them and the floor is below them, all things he already knew perfectly well. It is Ionesco’s genius that enabled him to take these strange seeds of dialogue and grow them into an entire jungle of a play...or “Anti-play” as Ionesco calls it. In this play there is no story, no conflict, none of the things we normally expect from the play. And yet at the same time, there is definitely something happening...something strange, surreal and mysterious. It’s as if language itself is a character in the play, and it is language that ultimately emerges victorious in a bold pyrotechnical display.
Translating such a play was quite a challenge. Usually when I translate a play, I have two main phases. In the first phase, I translate the play as literally as possible even if it sounds awkward and strange. Then in the second phase, I smooth the words out to sound as natural and normal as possible to a modern American audience. With The Bald Soprano, the sound of words, the rhythm, the rhyme, and even the tone are often as important as the meaning itself. So here, my goal was to preserve some of the schoolbook formality and awkwardness that exists in the French and to capture the sound and rhythm as well as the meaning.
My interest in directing the piece was to find a crisp production that allows us to experience Ionesco’s ideas and his delightful sense of humor in the clearest way possible. I had the opportunity this summer to see the original production of The Bald Soprano in Paris, still playing after over fifty years! I loved how simple the delivery was in French. Productions in English can often veer off into an ornate parody of British people. Seeing the French production (which doesn’t try for a British accent or particularly British costumes), made me realize that these overly British productions tend to miss the point. Ionesco himself said that if he had been learning Italian or Russian or Turkish then the characters would be Italian or Russian or Turkish. If anything is being parodied it is the simple language of textbooks. I wanted to find a sound for the play that reminded me of the clear simple pronunciation of the French production. This led me to think of a language textbook come-to-life in three dimensions. It also made me look back at old videos of “The Electric Company” and “Sesame Street,” to get that sound of speaking for the purpose of learning a language. Of course, capturing Ionesco’s delightful humor was also very important.
The New York Times said, "The play has not aged. One might even suggest that we have caught up with it." After 10 years of being steeped in absurdist theater, The Cutting Ball’s challenge is to create a production that indeed catches up with Ionesco’s revolutionary text...and what a welcome challenge that is!
©2009 Rob Melrose
Notes from the Dramaturg
The Bald Soprano Dramaturg Nakissa Etemad explores Absurdism and delves into the life and work of Eugène Ionesco.
Absurdity in Numbers
by Dramaturg Nakissa Etemad
Dozens of chairs clutter the room for an audience that never arrives... pleasantries among new acquaintances erupt into a cacophony of nonsensical words and phrases... the decades-old corpse in the bedroom invades the living room as it grows weed-like to gigantic proportions... an everyman-hero fights to retain his humanity while his fellow citizens mutate into wild beasts...
There is nothing quite like an absurdist play. Anything is possible. What appears as humdrum everyday life soon transforms into the ridiculous and unimaginable. Theatre of the Absurd, a close relative of the Surrealist movement launched by Alfred Jarry (Ubu Roi, 1896), explores the comic in the mundane, the preposterous in the rational, the strange in the straightforward, the dreams in those who are wide-awake.
In the aftermath of the German occupation of Paris, the City of Lights of the mid-1940s & ‘50s sought to rebuild itself and reclaim a cultural and personal identity for its people. The French Resistance-which included many writers-returned from the underground with less purpose now that the fight had ended, and artists were once again free to examine their experiences, restore their pride and prestige, and unabashedly explore the meaning of life. Eugène Ionesco and his contemporaries, including Irish expatriate Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot, 1953) and Parisian Jean Genet (Les Bonnes, 1947; Maids), found themselves responding to the existentialist philosophies of fellow writers Jean-Paul Sartre (Huis Clos, 1944; No Exit) and Albert Camus (Caligula, 1945). Camus coined the term that would soon identify this group of the Paris avant-garde who would each in their own way redefine the dramatic art form; in his essay ”The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942), Camus states that the human situation is essentially absurd, devoid of purpose.
To this post-war generation of writers, rational and meaningful choices seemed impossible, and fate seemed uncontrollable, so they carved their own vision of what it is to exist. Thus to the absurdists, in a world without purpose, it is easier to exist if one accepts the lack of meaning, the difficulty of valid communication, and that truth is found in chaos and lack of order, of logic, of certainty. As Ionesco said in his Notes et Contre-Notes, or Notes and Counter-Notes (pub.1962), ”truth lies in our dreams, in our imagination.” The very structure of absurdist plays embody this vision with non-linear plotlines, events triggered by patterns rather than by cause-and-effect, archetypal characters instead of naturalistic persons, devalued language full of repetition, cliché s, non sequiturs (illogical statements) and puns, forward movement of time replaced by a timeless, circular quality.... Ionesco, especially, seems to reject traditional drama to replace it with his own form of comedy-anarchy to convey oneiric worlds (of dreams) without clear meaning, governed by uncertainty and chance rather than logic, where farce covers up a surface of metaphysical distress (distress from a reality beyond what is perceptible to the senses).... In short, a place where chairs can multiply for no reason, men can turn into rhinoceroses without explanation, and a man can literally, physically dig through the memories in his mind....
©2009 Nakissa C. Etemad
The Creator of the Anti-play
by Dramaturg Nakissa Etemad
I personally would like to bring a tortoise on to the stage, turn it into a race horse, then into a hat, a song, a dragoon, and a fountain of water. One can dare anything in the theatre, and it is the place where one dares the least. I want no other limits than the technical limits of stage machinery. People will say that my plays are music-hall turns or circus acts. So much the better - let’s include the circus in the theatre! Let the playwright be accused of being arbitrary. Yes, the theatre is the place where one can be arbitrary. As a matter of fact, it is not arbitrary. The imagination is not arbitrary, it is revealing. ...I have decided not to recognize any laws except those of my imagination, and since the imagination obeys its own laws, this is further proof that in the last resort it is not arbitrary.
- “Eugène Ionesco ouvre le feu” (with parallel English translation),
World Theatre, Paris, vol. VIII, no. 3, Autumn 1959
The Man Behind the Curtain
Born in Romania in 1909, young Ionesco was son of a French mother, Thé rèse Ipcar, and a Romanian father, named Eugen Ionescu (Romanian spelling), who moved his wife and two-year-old son from Romania to Paris for his pursuit of a Doctorate of Law. Shortly after, Ionesco’s sister Marilina was born. Four years later, their father returned to Bucharest to fight in World War I, while the family remained in Paris. They lost contact with the father and believed him to be killed in action, when in fact, back in Romania, he had claimed his wife’s desertion of their home and divorced her in absentia, remarrying in 1917 without informing his family. In 1918, the 8-year-old Ionesco and his sister lived with their mother, whom he adored, in a modest hotel on rue Blomet in the 15th district of Paris. For fear of bombing raids (or due to a developing anemia in Ionesco, according to Martin Esslin, author of The Theatre of the Absurd), Thé rèse had the children moved for some months to the countryside of Northwestern France, which Ionesco would later claim to be among the happiest times in his childhood. In 1922, father Eugen demanded that his children be sent to him and his new wife, and the reluctant 13-year-old Ionesco left his mother for Bucharest. Thé rèse would later follow and take in his sister, who was driven out by his stepmother. Ionesco learned Romanian to enter lycé e (high school).
Ionesco did not get along with his father or his stepmother, always having harbored a deep resentment towards his father for his deception and cowardliness. He eventually moved out of his father’s home in 1926. Even from a young age, Ionesco disapproved of his father’s falseness in siding with whatever regime was in power, especially with the rising fascist regime in Romania. Around this time, Ionesco discovered the work of fellow Romanian Tristan Tzara, the father of Dadaism, a nihilistic literary and artistic movement rejecting convention and exploring life & art through irrationality, the bizarre, disintegration of language; etc. Ionesco was studying French Literature at the University of Bucharest and began his career as a budding literary critic and poet. He wrote avant-garde essays and poems for literary reviews, most notably a collection of controversial essays attacking the best of Romanian literati, entitled Nu (1934; No). Two years later, he married Rodica Burileanu, and soon after, lost his mother to a stroke. While teaching French at the lycé e in Bucharest, he received a State grant to write his doctorate on ”Sin and Death in French Poetry” in Paris, beginning in 1939. During World War II, in 1942, they moved to Marseilles as poor refugees, spending those years of the German occupation in hiding. Two years later, their only daughter Marie-France was born, on the very day of France’s liberation. Now that France was free from the occupation, Ionesco, his wife, and daughter moved permanently to Paris in 1945. His father Eugen died in 1948. That same year, Ionesco became a French citizen and wrote his first play, the first version of The Bald Soprano (La Cantatrice chauve) in Romanian under a title meaning English without a Teacher, next writing the version in French that we have today.
Once Ionesco began writing plays, it took almost a decade for him to get full recognition from critics and audiences, as this ‘new theatre’ was quite shocking and different for audiences of the day. But there was no denying Ionesco’s mastery, thanks to the enthusiasm of fellow writers and proclamations of critics such as Jacques Lemarchand, first writing for Combat then Le Figaro Litté raire, (who unlike his fellow critics praised Ionesco from the start). Lemarchand was one of Ionesco’s most loyal supporters, revealed aptly in his review of Victims of Duty (Victimes du devoir) in its premiere in early 1953. His words can be applied to all Ionesco plays: ”It seems to me that with this play Mr. Ionesco has come closer than he ever did before to bringing his dramaturgy in line with his vision.... For me, it is a theater of adventure, the inner adventure of the mind.... He is able both to wring our hearts making us shed tears and to have us collapse with laughter” (Translated by Ionesco scholar Rosette Lamont). Ionesco, a stranger in his homeland and foreigner in a recently liberated nation, finally found an acceptance for his new form of theatre. Lamont lists some of the finest features of Ionesco’s plays: ”the underlying seriousness, the poetic power of his astonishing stage images rising from the depths of his subconscious, and the liberating effect of his anarchic humor.” (Lamont, Ionesco’s Imperatives, Univ. of Michigan Press, 1993)
Victims of Duty , produced at The Cutting Ball last October, is one of many Ionesco plays that explore his relationships with his parents and reflect memories of his childhood. Lamont calls him ”the eternal wanderer, interrogating the world, and plumbing his own psyche” (Lamont, Ionesco’s Imperatives). Ionesco perhaps unknowingly describes himself in 1958: ”It is the dreamer, the thinker or the scientist who is the revolutionary; it is he who tries to change the world.”
Ionesco authored 28 plays, many of which have been produced several times over. Victims of Duty was written in 1952, a mere four years after he began playwriting. It is his first confessional dream play, (and first of many autobiographical plays), one in which he ”tried to sink comedy in tragedy... to confront comedy and tragedy in order to link them in [their natural] co-existence.” Ionesco’s first play The Bald Soprano is subtitled Anti-play, whereas Victims’ subtitle is Pseudo-drama, or false drama: ”I have called my comedies ‘anti-plays’ or ‘comic dramas’, and my dramas ‘pseudo-dramas’ or ‘tragic farces’: for it seems to me that comic and tragic are one, and that the tragedy of man is pure derision” (Ionesco, 1958). Lamont calls Victims a ”personal drama; on one level, it is a bold public confession enclosed in the form of self-psychoanalysis, while on the other, it constitutes a lucid meditation on the vagaries of contemporary European history.” She calls Ionesco ”an artist who celebrates the childlike wonder of constant renewal and fresh discoveries,” much like the activity of the characters in The Bald Soprano.
The Bald Soprano
Ionesco likes to say that his first play The Bald Soprano happened almost ”by accident.” Little did he know that this one-act comedy would ”set into motion the mechanism of a new genre, the tragic farce,” or ”metaphysical farce” (Lamont). In 1948 at the age of 38, while learning conversational English from his Assimil textbook L’Anglais sans peine, (meaning English without pain but translated as English Made Easy), Ionesco literally found the absurd in the fictional English characters of ”Mr. & Mrs. Smith” who used everyday niceties and overly simplistic truths to teach the reader the English language. All six characters from his textbook and their meaningless phrases landed on the pages of his ”Anti-play” The Bald Soprano. Although they are English characters with some very English statements, Ionesco denies that the play is a satire of the English, rather that it is: ”above all about a kind of universal petite bourgeoisie...a man of fixed ideals and slogans, a ubiquitous conformist... [a] conformism revealed by the mechanical language.” He has also stated that had he been attempting to learn Italian, Russian or Turkish at the time of writing the play, the play would have been about couples living in Italy, Russia, or Turkey (Ionesco, 1958). In our production of a new translation by Rob Melrose, we keep all original references of the English characters and their lives, but we do not use English accents in an effort to honor Ionesco’s original intention.
The original title of the play, English Made Easy (probably named after his English textbook), and later The English Hour, was changed to The Bald Soprano, or La Cantatrice chauve, due to a happy accident when the actor playing The Fire Captain stumbled with his lines by saying: ”une cantatrice chauve” (a bald soprano) rather than ”une institutrice blonde” (a blond schoolteacher). The premiere of The Bald Soprano in 1950 had only 25 performances, and a 1952 remount in another theatre with his second play The Lesson, or La Leçon, ran for six months. But it was the revival of both in 1957 that has broken world records. Under the title Le Spectacle Ionesco, The Bald Soprano playing with The Lesson, has run continuously since 1957 at the 95-seat Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris-over 16,300 performances and counting.
Whether The Cutting Ball production makes history on this continent in our 70-seat theatre, as was done with the production in Paris, only time will tell. What we hope is to honor the legacy of a great artist in bringing to life, simply told, one of our favorite plays.
©2009 Nakissa C. Etemad
Program Notes from the Dramaturg Nakissa Etemad
LESSON EIGHT: TIME OF DAY
A Playwright Is Born
A language textbook uses simple phrases, universal truths, to teach a foreign language. The goal is for the language student to focus on the words themselves rather than the content or meaning of the words. As the textbook lessons progress, characters are added who speak more complex phrases to present a bigger vocabulary and create conversation to improve the student’s language skills. Textbook characters are often just names assigned to basic truths, with a different set of spoken facts for each named person. The complex phrases can feel vaguely philosophical when taken out of context. The exchanged truths ”co-exist” in the pages of the textbook, even though some are antagonistic to one another in terms of their individual points of view. Ionesco saw them as dialogue belonging to the theatre. In 1948, a budding 38-year-old literary critic from Romania and newly naturalized as a French citizen, Eugène Ionesco decided to learn English, dutifully copying out English phrases from his Assimil French-to-English language textbook L’Anglais sans peine, (commonly translated as English Made Easy). Living in Paris right after its liberation from German occupation, Ionesco must have identified with the absurdity of the characters’ phrases and their conversations with one another. He became so involved in this writing process that he departed altogether from learning English and turned the phrases into a piece of theatre, composing it first in Romanian then in French. Thus his first play, The Bald Soprano, was born.
I set to work. Conscientiously 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. [...]To my astonishment, Mrs. Smith informed her husband that they had several children, that they lived in the vicinity of London, that their name was Smith, that Mr. Smith was a clerk, that they had a servant, Mary - English, like themselves.... I should like to point out [...] the entirely Cartesian [logical; rational] manner of the author of my English primer; for what was truly remarkable about it was its eminently methodical procedure in its quest for truth. In the fifth lesson, the Smiths’ friends the Martins arrive; the four of them begin to chat and, starting from basic axioms, they build more complex truths: ‘The country is quieter than the big city...’
-Eugène Ionesco, ‘La Tragédie du langage,’ Spectacles, Paris, no. 2, July 1958
(Trans. by Jack Undank, ‘The tragedy of language,’ Tulane Drama Review, Spring 1960)
Ionesco’s First Productions
Ionesco was now a 39-year-old writer, unknown and with an unusual foreign name, having no luck in submitting his play to the theatres of Paris. But after he read his play aloud to a group of friends, a fellow Romanian translator Marie Saint-Côme borrowed it to share with a young director she was working with, Nicolas Bataille. The 23-year-old theatre director of his own avant-garde troupe liked the piece and asked to meet its author, launching the beginning of a journey that would eventually make theatre history....
The Bald Soprano (La Cantatrice chauve, its third and final title) premiered in May of 1950 at the tiny Thé â tre des Noctambules in Paris, directed by Nicolas Bataille and performed by his company, with himself in the role of Mr. Martin. The production had no budget to speak of and consisted of a practically non-existent set design of chairs, the theatre’s curtains, and borrowed costumes from a colleague’s film of a 1908 French boulevard farce by Georges Feydeau. In an effort to fill their scant houses each night, the little troupe of unknown actors would parade in the streets every afternoon as human sandwich boards. Some shows met with booing from the audience, and some were cancelled due to a house of two to three spectators. It was a brand new piece of writing for its time: no real characters, no logical story or plot, no realistic environment or situation, ending in a literal cacophony of words. For those who did attend, audiences and critics alike, at times puzzled and at times enraged, only grasped one thing about it, that its subtitle ”Anti-play” truly suited it, and not in any good way. The play’s few admirers could not prolong the inevitable; the run ended after 25 performances.
When Ionesco’s second play The Lesson (La Leçon) was mounted at Thé â tre de Poche in 1951, directed by Marcel Cuvelier, audiences were relieved that at least the play was about its title, a lesson, albeit a crude and violent lesson, and some critics began to understand what the playwright was about. All along, Ionesco had support and interest from literary friends and colleagues, especially those associated with surrealism and existentialism such as André Breton and Albert Camus, but it took time for others to follow.
In the meantime, in April of 1952 at the Thé â tre Lancry, Ionesco’s fourth play The Chairs (Les Chaises) attracted the attention of his peers, and in the second month of the run, well-known theatre critic Jacques Lemarchand of the newspaper Le Figaro Litté raire called Ionesco ”a true poet of the stage.”
In October of that same year, the Bataille production of The Bald Soprano was remounted alongside Cuvelier’s The Lesson at Théâtre de la Huchette. This time, Jacques Lemarchand, (who had already begun his term as one of Ionesco’s biggest supporters with the first Soprano production), wrote of the double bill: ”Within its walls, the theater holds a stock of dynamite which might blow sky high every other theater in Paris” (10/18/52, translated by Ionesco scholar Rosette Lamont). This run lasted a healthy six months.
The third incarnation opened as Le Spectacle Ionesco, with the opening night on February 16th, 1957. The fate of the two plays would be forever changed. Twelve days after opening, ‘All of Paris’ began rushing to the small theatre on Rue de la Huchette: “Every night the small house receives an audience composed of connoisseurs and latecomer snobs who are coming in haste to make contact with this Eugène Ionesco whom no one should ignore any longer,” journalist Max Favalelli, February 28, Ici-Paris. According to Théâtre de la Huchette history, Edith Piaf, Sophia Loren, and Maurice Chevalier were among those early spectators. La Huchette aptly remarks on its website: ”Presidents and even Republics pass away; [The Bald Soprano] and [The Lesson] live on.” (Translated by N. Etemad)
Under this title Le Spectacle Ionesco, The Bald Soprano, with The Lesson, has run continuously since those performances in 1957 at the 95-seat Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris, many of the parts now being played by family members of the original cast-over 16,300 performances and counting, the longest-running production in history.
-Nakissa Etemad, Dramaturg
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was famously conceived when Mary was nineteen years old on a trip to Lake Geneva with literary giants Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. On a rainy night, the three friends gave themselves the task of writing ghost stories. What always amazes me is that it probably would have come as a great surprise to Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron if they had known that nineteen-year-old Mary was about to write a story that would make her more well known to future audiences than both men put together.
Hollywood has emphasized the science fiction aspects of the novel with its many monster movies and popular culture has latched onto the story as the quintessential example of creating something beyond one’s control. But for me, what makes Frankenstein enduring is Mary Shelley’s exquisite writing and extraordinary sensitivity. Every time I read it, I am surprised by its beautiful construction and its profound exploration of the human soul. I have to remind myself that at nineteen, Mary had already lost one child and also had miscarriages. Her own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of Rights of Woman, died ten days after giving birth to the little girl who would become the author of Frankenstein. With this in mind, it is easy to see that Mary Shelley is less interested in monsters and more interested in birth, creation, life, and death. This strange science fiction tale allowed Mary Shelley to tell a deeply personal story about a creator who has had a miscarriage and a child with no parent.
What excites me about Trevor Allen’s wonderful play is that I feel he really gets what is special, personal and elegant about Mary Shelley’s novel. His deep respect for the work and his faithfulness let us experience a stage version that is true to the original. At the same time, his boldness in rendering disparate parts of the novel as fugues, allows us to experience connections throughout the work in one sitting that take most people multiple readings to find. It is an incredible distillation of a truly epic work.
It has been an honor to be a part of this process and I hope you enjoy the fruits of our creation.
-Rob Melrose, director