Review: ‘Plays,’ Eugène Ionesco, vol. 10

translated by Donald Watson. (London, John Calder, 1976)

John McCormick

Donald Watson’s excellence as the ‘official’ translator of Ionesco’s plays has shown itself once more in his version of Ce formidable bordel, whose title is aptly rendered by Oh what a bloody circus. A problem facing the translator of Ionesco is that, whilst the essential concerns of the author are universal, the characters are well anchored in a petit-bourgeois French world which both creates their terms of reference and conditions their reflexes. Watson has retained this Frenchness, leaving such expressions as ‘messieurs dames’ untranslated, while, at the same time, using a highly colloquial English. The puns and verbal play in which Ionesco’s plays abound are wittily tackled for example, when a character declares, speaking of inflation, that ‘les valeurs n’ont plus de valeur,’ this becomes ‘there’s no security in securities.’

Part of the interest of this translation, which received its première at the Dublin Theatre Festival in October 1975, is that it is based upon the performance script and not upon the fuller text published by Gallimard. It is therefore briefer, with a number of cuts occurring in the long monologues. One or two complete scenes have disappeared and the taciturn main character (‘the character’) has become even more silent. A loss sometimes felt in the starker performance text is that of some of the richer thematic images. At the end of scene 13 the character explores the body of the sleeping Agnès and, when he uncovers her sex, he is suddenly horrified: ‘What’s that terrible sore, that gaping wound! You poor thing’ and he recovers only after drinking some brandy. The Gallimard text has some extra lines that make the horror more explicit, linking it to the obsessional world of the author: ‘Tout est troué, fissuré, crevassé. Ma gorge aussi est un abîme. Je regarde, je ferme les yeux pour mieux me voir et c’est le trou, et c’est le trou, la blessure. Qu’on s’enferme, qu’on tienne tout avec des cordes bien serrées, que l’on bouche les trous, les trous, les trous.’

The volume is completed by Ionesco’s film scenario The hard boiled egg and the text of Donald Watson’s 1974 lecture on ‘Ionesco and his early English critics.’ The first of these picks up the egg theme, which seems to have a particular fascination for Ionesco, and describes in minute detail the process of buying, cooking, and eating an egg. Much of the comic effect derives from the use of audiovisual aids, the occasional surrealist flight of fancy, and a solemn jargon to describe a very simple activity. The translation cleverly retains the textbookish language, but the very nature of the English language makes it impossible to do full justice to some of the word play. Thus: ‘On dit que l’oeuf est ovate parce qu’il a la forme d’un oeuf. Ce qui est caractéristique, c’est que l’oeuf est ovate sans avoir été ovalisé, et que son ovalité lui est toute naturelle’ becomes simply: ‘An egg is said to be oval, because it is egg-shaped. It is a characteristic of the egg to be oval. It has never been made oval. It is oval by nature.’

Watson’s lecture is not merely a witty survey of critical reaction to Ionesco. It examines the impact of Ionesco on the English theatre (‘I still believe that it was Ionesco who opened British eyes to the infinite possibilities of fresh staging techniques.’) and suggests that his work differs from the English nonsense tradition in its ‘precise metaphysical justification.’ The Tynan-Ionesco controversy is neatly summed up: ‘Tynan believes in communication by recognisable, rational methods, which can be brought to bear on ‘real’ human problems, Ionesco believes that the real human problems lie beyond the powers of logical communication and that contact can only be made by bypassing the logical meaning of words . . . He doesn’t believe in them as a viable vehicle for human or social improvement, and in any case for him the basic human problems lie beyond or outside society.’

Watson also concludes that Ionesco is not fundamentally a pessimist, but, rather, ‘a figure searching that same area of truth to which many young people today are so strongly attracted.’