Eugene Ionesco has been described as "the father of the theater of smirks."
The statement may not capture what has made Ionesco one of the most important 20th century playwrights, but director Anna Brennen says it may help the uninitiated find a way to approach his style and sensibility.
"He has a wonderful sense of humor about the absurdity of life," said Brennen, who is directing a new production of Ionesco's The Chairs for Stageworks. "But the humor is in the words and the ideas. It's farce, but it's subtle, it's ironic."
In this country, especially, Ionesco is often thought of as an absurdist playwright. It's not an unreasonable assumption, since one of his most famous plays dealt with people turning into rhinoceroses. But it's a label against which Ionesco himself bristled.
"He objected very much to being put in the same category as Sartre or Beckett, even though they were his friends," said Anne-Marie de Moret, who is serving as a consultant to the Stageworks production.
De Moret knew Ionesco in Paris in the 1940s and 1950s and was one of the first directors to stage The Chairs in this country.
"He wrote The Chairs right smack dab after World War II," she said. "The traditions we had relied on did not work anymore."
One of Ionesco's most personal plays, The Chairs revolves around an aged couple, perhaps during their last day on earth, reminiscing about their lives. As they talk, they continually set up chairs in anticipation of guests who never arrive. But even though they have spent their lives together, their recollections are at odds. They replay their lives through faulty memories that blur the line between reality and fantasy.
"The Chairs is not a happy play,' de Moret said. "But it has a lot of humor."
So even though The Chairs is an important, serious work of art, a monumental intellectual achievement that Jean Anouilh called "the play of the century," Brennen stressed that it's not a dry and impersonal exercise. It is wry and witty, even comic, and it remains fresh after almost 60 years.
"It's almost silly in terms of the relationship," Brennen said. "But at the same time it's very real. It's the theater of ideas, but it's provocative and it's evocative. It's also a very theatrical play because it deals with the illusions behind the illusions."