62 Years of Continuous Absurdity: Ionesco at the Latin Quarter’s Theatre de la Huchette

62 Years of Continuous Absurdity: Ionesco at the Latin Quarter’s Theatre de la Huchette
One day in the late 1990s I was wandering down what at the time was one of my favorite Paris streets – the narrow, funky, and sometimes annoyingly touristic Rue de La Huchette in the Latin Quarter, a street that parallels and runs just one block south of the quai of the Seine, and stretches between rue Saint Jacques on the east and Boulevard Saint Michel on the west (where I purchase French paperbacks at Gibert Jeune’s main location). Just past some of the gift shops and ethnic restaurants, a historic jazz club, and a man selling small Eiffel tower replicas, I spied a little theater with an old fashioned marquee. Each letter appeared to have been placed on the back lit surface by hand. I envisioned a little man on a ladder. There was also an ancient ticket window– a small square window that slid open to reveal the face of an elderly ticket taker sitting at a cashbox. The entire entrance was covered with almost life-size pictures of folks in early 20th century costume: a policeman in a tall English Bobby type of hat, a female servant with a long white apron, a woman in a long dress and a straw hat. Intrigued, I stopped to check it out, and found that this little theater– Theatre de la Huchette at 23 rue de la Huchette– featured regular daily showings of Eugene Ionescos’s first two absurdist plays – La Leçon (The Lesson) and La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) and had been doing so continually since 1957! It still does – five days a week! I bought tickets and attended later that day, sitting in one of the 85 red seats in this very intimate and old-fashioned theater. I have returned a number of times over the years since then, the last being September 2018 when I sat in the first row and felt eerily as if I were in the living room with the Smiths. The experience is unlike any other theatrical experience I can think of – interesting, exciting, annoying, frightening, and humorous, all rolled into a very short period of time and involving characters whose dialogue sounds normal but is definitely not. The plays are curious and sometimes comical and often confusing; still they draw you into them. It is a strange, very strange process. Interesting, annoying, confusing, but somehow addictive. Each play lasts only an hour. Unlike Becket’s En Attendant Godot – which you really have to commit to since it is a full length play – these plays allow you to experience the Theater of the Absurd in small and digestible bites. Though you can elect to purchase a ticket to only one, it is sensible to see both together since they are each only an hour long and are shown back to back, and the tickets are deeply discounted if you are seeing both plays together. The plays are performed as written, entirely in French — except for Wednesdays when the theater recently started adding English subtitles to Le Cantatrice Chauve. (If you purchase an English version of either of the plays you can read it quickly and then have little problem understanding what they are saying on stage in the French version.) You should know, however, that whether you are fluent in French or read the plays first in English, or bring a copy of the French version to refer to during the performance, and though you may hear the words and see the action, you are likely to not really understand what is happening on stage. That is the nature of the Theater of the Absurd. Hopefully some of the information in this article, which I have found on the theater’s website and elsewhere on the internet, will help the reader’s understanding. The connection of the characters and their motivations and their dialogue to the reality of expectations in this world is, in these plays, somewhat tenuous. That is the nature of Absurdity. La Leçon has three characters – a professor, his new student (an 18 year old girl who arrives with her notebook at the beginning of the play), and his irascible housekeeper. It starts out with the student and teacher exchanging pleasantries and the teacher asking questions about the girl’s educational background and expectations, but rapidly descends into craziness. I now understand the play to be an allegory of the devastating effects of total dictatorial power which turns comic absurdity into a nightmare. But until doing some reading to obtain that information, I had nothing but questions: Why does the diminutive professor bait his new student in harsher and harsher ways, posing unanswerable questions, while she gets a toothache that hurts more and more as the play progresses, until her mood and conversation descend from happiness and excitement to total debilitation – while he moves from soft-spoken and polite to authoritarian and angry until at the end he takes out a knife and kills her – all within one act and one hour’s time? Is this a metaphor for what has just transpired in the real world? When his angry servant lady puts the knife back into its cabinet and helps him remove the body, in order to make way for the arrival of the next “new” student, you discover that every new student has died in the same manner, and they have now buried 40 bodies. In the Bald Soprano no one is bald and no one sings. It is about a long married couple with nothing to say to each other and another couple who no longer recognize each other. When first written in 1948 it was shown in a private venue, as a comedy, but no one understood it that way. Then, the troupe elected…

Lead photo credit : Theatre de la Huchette. Photo: Michele Kurlander

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Michele is a corporate lawyer and writer who visits France often and is convinced she must have been French in an earlier life -probably hanging around with Ernest Hemingway during what she calls his "cute" stage, living on Cardinal Lemoine and writing on rue Descartes - which just happens to be be her usual stomping ground. From her first time in Paris and that first feeling of familiarity she has returned often as if it is her second home. Now the hotels are Airbnb apartments and she enjoys being a short-term local and shopping at the market, cooking her own meals. Sitting on her own Paris balcony , a wineglass or morning coffee in hand, she writes her journal, describing her walks around town as the proverbial flâneur and taking notes for the future’s stories and travel pieces.