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Mar 6, 2012

Ionesco: Biography

"I thought that it was strange to assume that it was abnormal for anyone to be forever asking questions about the nature of the universe, about what the human condition reaaly was, my condition, what I was doing here, if there was really something to do. It seemed to me on the contrary that it was abnormal for people not to think about it, for them to allow themselves to live, as it were, unconsciously. Perhaps it's because everyone, all the others, are convinced in some unformulated, irrational way that one day everything will be made clear. Perhaps there will be a morning of grace for humanity. Perhaps there will be a morning of grace for me.
Extract from "The Hermit", 1973)

Eugen Ionescu was born on November 26th 1909 (the 13th according to the Orthodox calendar) in Slatina (Romania), 150 km from Bucharest. Many sources indicate that he was born in 1912. The error is due to vanity on the part of the author. In the early fifties, he had "lied" himself three years younger after having read a statement by the critic Jacques Lemarchand who greeted the advent of a new generation of young authors, among them Ionesco and Beckett!

His father, a Romanian lawyer, was also called Eugen Ionescu. His mother, Thérèse Ipcar, was the daughter of a protestant French engineer who had settled in Romania because of his work. When they married, Thérèse converted to the orthodox religion. Their son Eugen was baptised and remained orthodox until his death, in spite of the long periods of metaphysical doubts he went through.

Shortly after Eugen's birth, the family moved to Paris, where his father continued his studies and eventually became a doctor of the Faculty of Law in Paris.

His sister Marilina was born on February 11th, 1911 (and a year later came a younger brother, Mircea, who died of meningitis at the age of 18 months). In 1914, the family lived on Square Vaugirard in Paris. At the age of four, he was already a great fan of puppet shows (Le Guignol).

His father went back to Bucharest in 1916, just when Romania entered the First World War. But his wife and the two young children remained in Paris and had to manage all by themselves, although with some support from Thérèse's parents. After the end of the war there was still no news of the father and they thought that he had died at the front.

The mother and her children then lived in hôtel de Nivernais in rue Blomet (at first on the 4th, and later on the 6th floor) in the 15th arrondissement. Eugene's health being fragile, his mother sent him to live with a family in the countryside, in La Chapelle Anthenaise (Mayenne), where he stayed from 1917 to 1919 with his younger sister, Marilina. In Ionesco's writings, this period is depicted as the most peaceful and harmonious period of his life.

He and his sister returned to Paris and now lived in a small, dark apartment in rue de l'Avre in Paris, with their mother and grandparents. In this appartment he wrote a "heroic" play in two acts (32 pages in an exercise book) and a comic scenario. These texts were unfortunately lost. He attended the school in rue Dupleix.

His father hadn't died in the war after all. He hadn't even been soldier, but had obtained a post as inspector of safety in the Bucharest police. In 1917 he remarried, and the same year he was appointed general inspector. He had always managed to be on the side of the current authority in power (Averesco, Codrianu, the Iron Guard, the Nazis, the Communists) because he thought that power was always right. By using and misusing his position in the police and pretending that his wife had settled abroad, he had been granted a divorce, and even the custody of the children. He therefore requested that the children be given to him.

Eugene therefore returned to Romania in May 1922 together with his sister. He learnt Romanian and attended the college Sfântul Sava (Saint Sava) in Bucharest and eventually passed the baccalaureate at the secondary school in Craiova in 1928.

The relations with the father's family were very bad, especially with the stepmother who did not like the children and who ended up driving out Eugene's sister. She moved in with her mother, who had moved to Bucharest. Her father, although rich, never agreed to pay any maintenance for her.

In 1926, Eugene left his father's house after a violent argument and also moved to his mother's place. She now worked as a bank employee in Bucharest. When Marilina dropped out of school, her mother managed to make the bank engage her as a typist. Marilina stayed all the remainder of her life in Romania. She married twice and never had any children. She maintained very little contact with Eugene after his return to France in 1938.

Eugene had a furnished room in his father's sister's house. His father gave him money from time to time and used his connections to obtain a study grant for Eugene. He insisted that his son be an engineer, but Eugene was more interested in literature and poetry.

In 1928 he had his debut as a poet in Bilete de papagal (parrot-notes), which appeared daily and was famous for its tiny format. From 1929 to 1933 he studied for a French degree at the University of Bucharest. He published his first article (on Ilarie Voronca) in the Zodiac review in 1930. He became acquainted with Rodica Burileanu, a student of philosophy and law.

In 1931 he wrote Elegii pentru fiinte mici (Elegies for tiny beings) (poetry) influenced by Francis Jammes.

Between 1928 and 1935 he wrote articles in the reviews Vremea (Time), Azi (Today), Floarea de Foc (Flower of Fire), Viata Literara (Literary Life), România Literara (Literary Romania), the weekly antifascist magazine Critica, Axa (the Axis), Fapta (the Fact), Ideea, Româneasca and Zodiac.

1933: Collaboration with Facla (the Torch) and Universul Literar (Literary Universe).

1934 Nu (No!), (articles and diary notes). This collection of critical, protest essays provoked an enormous scandal in the Romanian literary world, by its devastating, subversive attack, perpetrated in a lively and sarcastic style, against the established values of Romanian literature: Tudor Arghezi, Ion Barbu, Camil Petrescu, Mircea Eliade. This volume received a prize from the Royal Foundations Publishing House, granted by a jury chaired by the literary critic and theorist Tudor Vianu.

July 8, 1936: Marriage with Rodica Burileanu. Honeymoon in Constanza and in Greece. Three months later, his mother died of a stroke. Eugene now worked as a French teacher in Cernavoda. He also taught at the Orthodox seminar of Curtea de Arges, and subsequently at the central seminar of Bucharest. He was seconded to the Ministry of Education where he was responsible for the department dealing with international relations.

From 1937 to 1938 he was in charge of the critical section of the Facla review. He also published writings in Universul Literar, the cultural daily newspaper Rampa (the Stage), Parerile Libere (Free Opinions).

Statement about his father: "The last time I saw him, I had completed my studies (...) and was married (...) He believed in the State, no matter what it represented. I did not like authority. I detested the State. (...) In short, at the end of our meals together, we were at sword's point with each other: at one time in the past he had called me a Bloshevik; this time he called me someone who sided with the Jews (...) I remember the last sentence I ever said to him: "It is better to be on the side of the Jews than to be a stupid idiot! "

His article "Vocabulary of Criticism", was published in Vremea in 1938. The same year, he obtained a Romanian state grant to go to Paris to write a thesis (which he never finished) on: "The topic of sin and the topic of death in French poetry since Baudelaire". In Paris, he became interested in the writings of Emmanuel Mounier, Berdiaev, Jacques Maritain, Gabriel Marcel.

In 1939 he met Henri Thomas and the group behind the Esprit review. He went to Marseilles (contacts with Les Cahiers du Sud and Léon-Gabriel Gros). From Paris he sent reports to the prestigious literary and scientific monthly review Viata Româneasca (Romanian Life). He returned to La Chapelle Anthenaise to visit the lost paradise of his childhood.

When the 2nd World War was declared the same year, he went back to Romania. He worked as a French teacher at the secondary school of Sfântul Sava in Bucharest. The situation in Romania was so bad that he bitterly regretted having left France and, after many failed attempts, he finally returned to France in May 1942 with his wife, thanks to friends who helped them to get travel documents. At first they lived in Hôtel de la Poste in Marseilles. They had great financial difficulties. He translated and prefaced the novel "Urcan Batrânul" (Father Urcan) by Pavel Dan (1907-1937). Eugene Ionesco was appointed to the cultural services of the royal Legation of Romania in Vichy. He eventually became cultural attaché. His daughter Marie-France was born on August 26, 1944.

In March 1945 they moved to Paris, where they resided in rue Claude-Terrace 38 until 1960. Life was difficult and work scarce at that time. He worked as a proofreader for an administrative publisher. From 1945 to 1949, he translated the works of Urmoz (1883-1923), a Romanian poet, who was a forerunner of surrealism, the literature of the absurd and the anti-prose. During this period the Ionesco family received financial help from a relative.

His father died in October/November 1948 (12 years after his mother).

In 1948 Ionesco started writing the play that was later to be entitled the Bald Prima Donna, and which was performed for the first time on May 11, 1950 at the Théâtre des Noctambules, under the direction of Nicolas Bataille. It was far from being a success. Only a handful of intellectuals appreciated it and supported him. Ionesco associated with André Breton, Luis Buñuel, Arthur Adamov and Mircea Eliade. He sought and was granted French citizenship.

On August 4, 1950, Ionesco played the part of Stepan Trofimovitch in Dostoïevskis The Possessed, directed by Nicolas Bataille. His taste for fun, adventure and nihilism led him to become a member of the College of Pataphysics (with Boris Vian, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert, Marcel Duchamp and Michel Leiris). Over the following years, many of his works were published in Cahiers du Collège de Pataphysique.

1958 was the year of the "London Controversy" where Ionesco defended his theatre and his vision of the theatre in a virulent polemic with the English critic, Kenneth Tynan from The Observer.

In 1959 he participated in the Helsinki talks on the avant-garde theatre.

From 1960 to 1964, Ionesco lived in rue de Rivoli 14 in Paris.

1965 Voyage on the M/S France, during which Frenzy for Two was performed, directed by Nicolas Bataille.

1966 Conference-performance at the French national theatre, Théâtre de France, during which Maria Casarès, Jean-Louis Barrault and Ionesco read unedited texts.

On May 8, 1969, he received the medal of Monaco and in December the Great National Theatre Prize.

On the 22th of January 1970, Eugène Ionesco was elected a member of the French Academy, to take over the seat of Jean Paulhan. The same year he received the Great Austrian Prize of European literature.

25 February 1971. Official admission to the French Academy. Accession speech by Eugène Ionesco and answer by Jean Delay.

Ionesco made the opening speech at the Salzburg Festival in 1972.

On April 30, 1973 he received the Jerusalem Prize and in June the medal of the town of Vichy.

In 1974 he became honorary doctor of the University of Warwick (UK) and in March 1975 of the University of Tel-Aviv.

He received the Max Reinhardt-medal in August 1976 during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Salzburg Festival. In November he participated, with Tom Bishop, Emmanuel Jacquart, Françoise Koutilsky and Rosette Lamont, in a round table at the University of New York, in front of an audience of 900.

La Décade Ionesco took place from August 3-13 1978. For ten days many of the leading Ionesco specialists from the whole world (Claude Abastado, Roger Bensky, Mircea Eliade, Martin Esslin, Henri Gouhier, Jeanyves Guérin, Gelu Ionescu, Emmanuel Jacquart, Pierre Larthomas, Michel Lioure, Yves Moraud, Jean Onimus, Michel Pruner, Paul Vernois, Colette Weil) were gathered in a chateau in Normandy. The gathering was arranged by Paul Vernois and Marie-France Ionesco, and Eugène and Rodica Ionesco honoured the event with their presence for the last couple of days. Many of the participants' contributions were subsequently edited in the book Ionesco: Situation et perspectives. The author of this Internet site also participated in the seminar at the personal invitation of Eugène Ionesco. The photos on these pages were taken on this occasion.

In January/February 1982 Ionesco gave a conference at the University of Bonn where he received the German Order of Merit.

December 15, 1982: Freshwater was performed in the George-Pompidou Centre in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Virginia Woolf's birth. Adaptation and direction by Simone Benmussa, with the following actors: Jean-Paul Aron, Florence Delay, Guy Dumur, Viviane Forrester, Eugène and Rodica Ionesco, Alain Jouffroy. The play was performed again several times: On Oct. 20 and 21. 1983 at New York University (where the cast also comprised: Erika Kralik, Joyce Mansour, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, S. Wilson); on Nov. 7. 1983 at Théâtre du Rond-Point; on Nov. 26 and 27. 1983 at Riverside in London; and on July 4-5, 1984 at the Spoleto Festival.

On April 21-23, 1983, at the seventh meeting of the American-Romanian Academy of Arts and Sciences, in Davis, California, chaired by Richard Coe, Ionesco was the guest of honor. Other prominent participants were Martin Esslin and Emmanuel Jacquart.

Eugène Ionesco's health was still fragile. In February 1984 he was hospitalized and lay in a diabetic coma for two days. In spite of this crisis, later the same year, he travelled to and gave conferences in several European countries and the United States.

On April 16, 1985 Ionesco received two medals: that of Mayenne and that of la Flèche. In May, he received the Monte-Carlo International Prize of Contemporary Art. He was a member of the jury of the Venice Film Biennial. On 22 November he received the T S. Eliot-Ingersoll-prize in Chicago, in presence of Saul Bellow and Mircea Eliade.

He then went to Bern where he took an active part in a meeting in support of human rights. He spent July painting in St. Gallen, in Switzerland. He went back there to paint in February 1987.

On February 23, 1987, Théâtre de la Huchette celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its Ionesco Performance, in the presence of Eugène and Rodica Ionesco and of the actors who, all along the years, had taken turns in playing The Bald Prima Donna and The Lesson. In March, he received the medal of the city of Paris and in October two gold medals: that of Saint-Etienne and that of Saint-Chamond.

In February 1989, Eugène Ionesco was hospitalized again, which prevented him from intervening in person to defend human rights in Romania. His daughter read his indictment against the Romanian regime in his place. At the beginning of March, 710 writers, including Ionesco and Beckett, signed a declaration in support of the universal right to express one's opinions. On May 7, Eugène Ionesco and Jacques Mauclair both received a Molière prize. On December 30, Ionesco and Cioran became members of honor of the French Writer's Union.

On November 27, 1992 the Uniwersytet Śląski, Katowice, Poland, gave Eugène Ionesco the title of honorary doctor. The ceremony took place in Paris.

Ionesco was a member of the C.I.E.L. (Comité international des écrivains pour la liberté) which militates for the observance of human rights in all countries and for freedom of scientists, writers and artists.

Eugène Ionesco died on March 28, 1994 in his residence in Paris. He was buried in the Cemetery of Montparnasse. 

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