Ionesco’s ‘Improvisation’ and the playwright’s plight

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Eugen Ionesco’s one-act meta-theatrical play ‘Improvisation’ (original title: L’Impromptu de l’Alma), whose magisterial mise en scène at the National Theatre in Bucharest (Improvizație la Alma) I saw this weekend, has as much to say to us today as it did in 1956 when it opened at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. A satire about the world of theatre critics, a proclamation of artistic autonomy, the greatest compliment ever made by a playwright to her audience, or a contestation of our deeply-held convictions about reality, Improvisation is all of these, and so much more. Andreea Ciocîrlan’s vision of the play is a cross between Kafka’s Trial and the Matrix. Sleeping at his desk amid rows of chairs (a nod to his play The Chairs) and dressed in rhinoceros-patterned pyjamas (another nod to Rhinoceros), the playwright Ionesco is visited by three agent-Smith-like figures all named Bartholomeus who quickly reveal themselves as Ionesco’s fastidious critics. Despite having the same pedantically-Latin name, the three Bartholomeus hold different views about what Ionesco’s dramatic art should be, making insistant claims on his work, knocking repeatedly and obsessively at his door. The almost psychedelic rotation of these figures in the room create a kind of trance which only the maid Marie, with her broom, shrill voice and contrasting insouciance can break. It quickly emerges that Marie is hostile to the three-fold Bartholomeus, a figura of the audience who comes to the author’s rescue. The Ionesco-character seizes the opportunity to assert his autonomy and to mock the conservatism of his detractors, underlining their fanaticism and inability to understand art. Things are not as simple as they seem, for in so doing, the Ionesco-character is forced to proclaim, with matching pedagogic authority, his own vision of theatre as an existential exploration of self, a dynamic which comes into collision with his own desire to liberate himself from the shackles of dogmatic criticism.

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