Au Pire: Language, Violence and the Totalitarian Ideology of Origins in Ionesco's la Lecon and Cesaire's Une Tempete

By Patterson, Jeanette | French Forum, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Au Pire: Language, Violence and the Totalitarian Ideology of Origins in Ionesco's la Lecon and Cesaire's Une Tempete


Patterson, Jeanette, French Forum


Eugene Ionesco's La lecon and Aimc Cesairc's Une tempete, otherwise two very different plays, resemble one another in the violence of their language. Such violence is neither new nor limited to the fictional realm of theatre; from verbal disputes to clashes between languages, language has often been the battlefield as well as the weapon of choice in conflicts of interpersonal and international scales. Meanwhile, the performative power of language and the manipulative language of power are well documented in speech act theory and linguistic politics and explored in literature and theatre such as lonesco's and Cesaire's. The battles of words represented in La lecon and Une tempete surpass dialogical one-upmanship and verbal markers of dominance or subordination, elements that are important to these plays but which are common to theatre in general. (1) What sets these two plays apart and joins them together is, firstly, their discourse on languages and relationships among them, and secondly, their endowment of the word, through ritual, incantation, and magic, with creative and destructive powers. Idiom, speech, and the politics and philosophy of language are tightly bound to underlying problems of origins, myth, sacrifice and the political contexts under which both works were written.

Published in 1951 and 1969 respectively, La lecon and Une tempete are products of two periods of international upheaval, namely the Second World War in the former and the decolonization of much of Africa, the American civil rights movement and contemporary global racial and national tensions in the latter. Post-war Europe and the long period of decolonization (in large part catalyzed by Africa's role in the war) were both characterized by the redefinition of national boundaries as victorious, defeated, and recently occupied and colonized states strove to move forward. National and personal identities were called into doubt as those who had experienced occupation, transplantation or decolonization lost, gained or regained a homeland and oppressors, victims, and silent collaborators sought to redefine themselves in a post-traumatic world. Emerging from times of destruction and rebirth, La lecon and Une tempete break the silence imposed through slavery, colonial exploitation, totalitarianism and genocide while exhibiting an ambivalent attitude toward language.

While all writing involves the manipulation of language, the immediacy of the spoken word on stage lends it a mystical and communal aspect, making theatre a potent medium to comment on language itself. Just as silent film, non-verbal theatre such as mime and clown, and avant-garde movements from surrealism to Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty had questioned speech's role in storytelling in the first part of the century, postwar and postcolonial theatre inherited a troubled, complex relationship with the spoken word. Language remains an untrustworthy and often inadequate means of communication in Ionesco's and Cesaire's theatre. However, rather than replacing the word with physical, gestural modes of expression, these later playwrights reexamine the problems of speech by pushing it to its limits, using words as gestures. Superficial meaning fades to the background, directing attention instead to language's power, on the one hand, to manipulate and intimidate, create and destroy, and on the other hand, its failure before its purported task of meaningful communication.

Cesaire's political and Ionesco's anti-political theatre reacts to colonialist and Nazi political speeches and propaganda, theatrical displays whose manipulative language, orality and shared experience of national audiences reinforced and augmented the power they sought to represent. Aiming to unify and move the masses by the effect of its emotionally charged catchwords, totalitarian language communicates little information, often obscuring it instead. By staging the abuses of language in a similarly public media, resistant theatre such as lonesco's and Cesaire's offers an open rebuttal to oppressive ideologies whose dissemination through public media and, more generally, language, had condoned and even prompted unspeakable atrocities. …

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