Ionesco: Le Roi Se Meurt

November 24, 2014

A review in the paper at the weekend of a revival of this play in English sent me back to it; the book I have I ‘forgot’ to return to school after I’d studied the play for French A level in 1972! It was my first introduction to the theatre of the absurd, and I suppose was one of the texts from which I began to learn and develop the skills of literary analysis and criticism which have played a major role in my life and work…

Coming back to this story of the reluctant death of a king who has always refused to come to terms with its inevitability is obviously very different, given that I’m rather closer to that possibility myself than I was way back in 1972. The metaphorical meanings were clearer, for a start: it’s the death of a king because everyone (Everyman?) is at the centre of his/her own universe, solipsistically: everything revolves around us, from our perspective, and no matter how significant we imagine we are, we must eventually let go of that importance, that permanence, and fade into insignificance. The king is aided and tormented by his two queens, one rather matter-of-fact, insistent on the necessity of what must happen, in a no-nonsense way, and the other representing attachment, to people and objects, all of which must be let go of… The interplay between acceptance and resistance is at the heart of the drama, as it surely is at the heart of the human condition, cruelly inevitable.

What attracted me to the play way back then – the absurdity which breaks through, which jars, which shocks us into new ways of seeing and responding – is just as powerful to me now. We create the meaning to our life if there is one, and there is another perspective from which it is absurd, a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. ( Ionesco later wrote a version of the Scottish play, too). I wondered then, and felt that the play was a tragedy, no easy thing to write in the godless twentieth century, and I still think so. Perhaps there isn’t a so much of a sense of tragic waste, but there is a sense of loss at the end as everything gradually vanishes and collapses around the dying king.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the title, which is a sort of play on words which cannot really be translated into English – the rather banal ‘Exit The King‘ doesn’t do it justice. The point is that the verb ‘mourir’ – to die – in French is a normal verb, whereas Ionesco makes it a reflexive verb, one of those curiosities which drive English learners of foreign languages to distraction; it’s on the same level as other things that one does for oneself, like getting dressed, sitting down, cleaning one’s teeth, so to make the verb ‘to die’ a verb like those others, gives it an extra edge: to die in himself? for himself? to himself?

And, I have always found a great profundity in the line from the play (translated here) “Everyone is the first person to die.” Think about it.

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