We have been studying Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna and ‘theatre of the absurd’. ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’ is a term used to describe the work of a number of plays, mostly written around the 1950s and 1960s that portrayed human society as meaningless and absurd (illogical or out of harmony). It originated from the avant-garde experiments in art of the 1920s and 1930s and was undoubtedly influenced by the traumatic experiences of the Second World War.
In 1948, Frenchman, Eugene Ionesco began writing The Bald Prima Donna, a pseudo-play – anti-theatre – that rebelled against conventional theatre.
It reflected the meaningless of life and the tragedy of language through characterisation, use of language and stage directions. It was illogical, with no conflict or plot – a key feature of theatre of the absurd. The characters were dull and generally bored, with little personality and there was a lack of development, which portrayed them as useless or irrelevant, even the time of day was mixed up, furthering the notion that people, place and time are meaningless.
The dialogue seemed to be random, with no fluency and the sentences had no relation to each other until the conversations became total gobbledygook and silly noises.
It portrayed the idea that not only is life meaningless, but also our language as a means of communication; that it’s become conventionalised, meaningless exchanges. Ionesco combined his ideas of the tragedy of language and life being meaningless without a God or purpose as the basis for the play, which produced some very peculiar scenes creating humour for an audience.
From studying this play, in partners we improvised scenes where strangers had began conversations assuming they new the other person, when in fact they didn’t.
We also improvised dialogue where each person was a TV channel and when flicking through each pupil, it would pigeonhole on that programme every time it was his or her cue. This gave us an idea of how characters could have a conversation with someone, but neither listening to each other and effectively only talking to him or herself. The flicking through pupils was also similar to the start of The Bald Prima Donna where Mr. Smith is clicking his tongue at regular intervals. Following these improvisations we developed our own short piece that reflected our idea of ‘theatre of the absurd’ in our generation.
My group decided to do a montage of different scenes that portrayed either meaningless of life or the tragedy of our language. We chose to do a montage because we thought it reflected the idea that this is something that can be seen in various situations and characters, with a mixture or naturalistic and stylised work Our first scene began with a boy and a girl having a conversation after meeting on the street. The girl is attracted to the boy however the feeling isn’t mutual, and the boy hides his dislike for her and acts as though everything is fine.
We showed this with the use of thought tracking and role-play; each character had another actor behind them showing what the character was truly feeling through speech and body language. We also used levels and space to show that the lying ‘front’ was more dominant; the actors who portrayed the true feelings were shorter than the physical characters. The physical characters were between the two characters that symbolised the true feelings, those actors where a physical barrier between the characters finding out how each other truly felt.
I played the part of Jo’s character’s thoughts, so I emphasised the difference between her feelings and what Jo said. For example, when she said she was fine, I clutched my stomach and said I felt sick but when she was acting cool and calm, I was jumping up and down with excitement. We were trying to reflect how language has become meaningless and useless as a method of communication because lies prevent and delude people from the truth. I think this scene worked well because it was clear what was happening in the scene, the diction was good.
I think it could have improved if the projection was a bit stronger because I think that affected the cues, which could have been picked up quicker to make it more fluent. The transition between the first and second scene worked well because it was fluent and we used crosscutting, where you cut back and forth to different scenes. This technique was useful to portray the meaninglessness as an ongoing pattern despite being a completely different scene and situation.
In the second scene, Rachel and Will were a married couple having a conversation though they weren’t listening to each other and effectively talking to themselves. It was a meaningless conversation, and the role-play showed their hollow marriage. This part of the montage specifically focused on the poor communication and pointlessness of their marriage. I think the actors’ role-play was effective because you could clearly see the boredom in their expressions, and their projection and diction had improved in this scene.
I think we should have lengthened this scene so the conversation, in the same way Ionesco’s conversations would go on for a long time, would emphasise their bland and pointless married life. Our last scene was the longest and centred round a family; we used stylised theatre to portray the meaningless of life and lack of communication within the family. The transition into the scene was smooth and quick and we addressed each other so the audience was aware of whom we were in the family. We then sat in a circle each saying a piece of fruit as we moved closer into a circle.
This was showing that although we had meaningless life as a family we were close, but as we started talking one by one the conversation was random and nobody was listening to each other and moving gradually further apart. This carried on until we were all talking about random things all at the same time. We used the space to symbolise how far apart they’d become as a family, and their dialogue to portray how meaningless their life was. I think the role-playing was at its strongest in this scene because the characters were all very different and in contrasting moods which complemented each character.
I played the part of a moody teenager complaining about things, with slouched body and sour facial expressions whereas Jo played a happy, hyperactive little sister with lots of energy and enthusiasm. However I think we could have improved it by having a naturalistic scene with the family, so the role of each character in the family could be shown better through role-play and we could have incorporated more absurd conversation to emphasise the meaningless of life. Overall I think the performance could have improved much more if it was lengthened and we could have included some more different scenes for the montage.
I think the transitions were very good because they were smooth into each scene but the end of the performance was a bit sloppy. I think the first scene with the thought tracking worked well and portrayed the idea, lies tainting communication well, but it was very short and had it been longer could have had better role-play and characters could be more developed. The performance as a whole portrayed Ionesco’s ideas of language and life well and we incorporated some of the techniques from The Bald Prima Donna particularly with the dialogue and structure of the conversations.
Both the performances, The Bald Prima Donna and ours, aim to show the audience how meaningless life can be, and how language is no longer used to communicate our true thoughts and feelings, making it pointless. Because of the nature of The Bald Prima Donna the scenes are meant to emphasise absurdity and dullness, but because they are so over the top they are comical and entertain the audience, so I think the play works well as a comedy because otherwise it would be difficult to keep an audience interested in a play with no plot and about boring lives.
I think we should have taken advantage of this because it could have made our performance more entertaining, and would be particularly more vital if the performance was longer. I like the play because the comedy makes the play more interesting to a wider range of audience because there are those who can analyse what Ionesco is trying to illustrate about life and those who want to simply be entertained.