Eugène Ionesco was one of the major figures in the Theatre of the Absurd, the French dramatic movement of the 1940s and 50s that emphasized the absurdity of the modern condition as defined by existential thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre. The existentialists followed Soren Kierkegaard's dictum that "existence precedes essence"—that is, man is born into the world without a purpose, and he must commit himself to a cause for his life to have meaning.
Born in Romania in 1912, Ionesco spent his childhood in Paris until the family returned to its homeland. Ionesco developed a hatred for Romanian's conservatism and anti-Semitism and, after winning an academic scholarship, returned to France in 1938 to write a thesis. There, he met anti-establishment writers such as Raymond Queneau. He lived in Marseille during World War II. His first play, The Bald Soprano (1950), a one-act piece that borrowed its phrasing from English language-instruction books, garnered little public attention but earned Ionesco respect among the Parisian avant-garde and helped inspire the Theatre of the Absurd.
Spearheaded by Samuel Beckett and other dramatists living in Paris, the Theatre of the Absurd emphasized the absurdity of a world that could not be explained by logic. The Absurdists' other major themes focused on alienation, the specter of death, and the bourgeois mores that have displaced the significance of love and humanity onto work. In the character of Berenger, a semi-autobiographical persona who figures in several of his plays, Ionesco portrays the modern man trapped in an office, engaged in shallow relationships, and escaping with alcohol from a world he does not understand. Yet this is all presented in the Theatre of the Absurd's characteristic morbid wit, an often self-conscious, comic sensibility that makes us laugh at the most horrific ideas—death, alienation, evil—in an effort to understand them. The Chairs premiered in 1952 but was overshadowed that year by Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which infused its similar themes—repetition, boredom, loss of memory—with a greater sense of comedy and empathy.
Ionesco wrote more plays in the 50s, but it was not until Rhinoceros, first produced in 1960, that he received global attention. Absurdity and purposelessness frames the play, a study in a single man's transformation from apathy to responsibility as the world around him descends into violence and greater levels of absurdity. He called it an anti-Nazi work, and it was performed just long enough after WWII for tensions to settle down, but not so long that fascism was forgotten; its debut had a reported fifty curtain calls in Germany. This is understandable, as the play demonstrates how anyone can fall victim to collective, unconscious thought by letting their wills be manipulated by others. Walter Benjamin stated that one could not write poetry after the Holocaust, and though others have since refuted this as hyperbole, the world was indisputably damaged beyond repair and left searching for answers. Ionesco skirted the problem of trying to represent realistically the Holocaust by dressing his play in heavy but apparent symbolism. Through this indirect path, achievable only through the untamed techniques of the Theatre of the Absurd, he comes closer to answering the unanswerable questions left in the wake of fascist brutality.
Ionesco remained a prolific writer until the early 1980s, although none of his works, dramatic or critical, ever reached the same heights of tragedy and comprehension as Rhinoceros or The Chairs. His work has influenced playwrights as diverse as Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard. He died in 1994, but his plays are still performed across the world, testaments to the timelessness of Absurdism's questions and techniques.