Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Bald Soprano

I was a junior in high school when I discovered absurdity. I understood absurdity immediately because it reflected my life so perfectly.  Absurdity kicked me down the road of being a creative artsy type and it continues to have a strong pull on me to this day.  Thanks, absurdity, old buddy.

My first encounter with absurdity took the form of The Bald Soprano, the play by Eugene Ionesco, presented as a particularly arresting picture book.  Today, I guess we'd call it a graphic novel.  Here's the cover:

That's Ionesco himself substituting both tragically and comically for the O's in his name.  The full cast can be seen as well, left to right: Mrs. Martin, Mr. Smith, Mary the maid, the Fire Chief, Mrs. Smith and Mr. Martin.  The whole book is rendered in black and white.  Each couple's lines are rendered in a different type face, the women in italic.  Pictures, stark high contrast black and white, show who is speaking and give a sense of the action.  Here's the back cover:

I'm pretty sure I liked this play before I even opened the book the first time.  Here's the text of the cover:
ionesco THE BALD SOPRANO followed by an unpublished scene.  Translated by Donald M. Allen.  Typographical interpretations by Massin and photographic interpretations by Henry Cohen.  Based on the Niccolas Bataille Paris production. Grove Press, Inc.  New York
I found The Bald Soprano in the library - I don't remember now whether that would have been my high school library or the public library.  A couple of years later, in college, when I had an extra ten bucks, I ordered my own copy which I still have today.  When it arrived I signed and dated it: October 3, 1970.  This play, in this particular format, became one of my artistic touchstones.  Eventually I saw a live performance - which disappointed me greatly.

The scene is a middle-class English interior.  The plot is pretty simple, I guess.  Mr. and Mrs. Smith tell some stories.  Mr. and Mrs. Martin arrive and reintroduce themselves to each other.  The Smiths and Martins tell more stories, occasionally interrupted by the Maid and the Fireman who, unsurprisingly, tell stories.  Everything devolves into a screaming frenzy.  And then it ends by beginning again at the beginning - except that the Martins and Smiths have switched places.

Nothing makes any real sense, of course.  The lines make sense in only the smallest bits.  Responses have tenuous relationship to what has preceded.  I guess that's what makes it Theater of the Absurd.  It's definitely that aspect which seemed to me to correspond exactly with what passed for conversation in my family - although for completely different reasons.  My family came to its absurd interactions through a combo of age disparity, English as second language and hardness of hearing.  None of that has anything to do with Ionesco.  The resulting effects, however, were strikingly similar in my mind.

Here's a sample from the awkward conversation as the two couples are settling down for their social evening together:
Mr. Smith: Hm. [Silence]
Mrs. Smith: Hm, hm. [Silence]
Mrs. Martin: Hm, hm, hm. [Silence]
Mr. Martin: Hm, hm, hm, hm. [Silence]
Mrs. Martin: Oh, but definitely. [Silence]
Mr. Martin: We all have colds. [Silence]
Mr. Smith: Nevertheless, it's not chilly. [Silence]
Mrs. Smith: There's no draft. [Silence]
Mr. Martin: Oh no, fortunately. [Silence]
Mr. Smith: Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.  [Silence]
Mr. Martin: Don't you feel well? [Silence]
Mrs. Smith: No, he's wet his pants [Silence]
Mrs. Martin: Oh, sir, at your age, you shouldn't. [Silence]
Mr. Smith: The heart is ageless [Silence]
Mr. Martin: That's true. [Silence]
Mrs. Smith: So they say. [Silence]
Mrs. Martin: They also say the opposite. [Silence]
Mr. Smith: The truth lies somewhere between the two. [Silence]
Mr. Martin: That's true. [Silence]
In the book each of those lines gets two facing pages.  All the space represents the long silences.  The particular line "The truth lies somewhere between the two." has given me comfort many times in many different situations over the 45 years since I first read it.

Here's a pair of pages showing the (much more lively) responses to Mrs. Martin's story about seeing a man on the street who had bent over to tie his shoe:

Notice that "fantastic" is divided up among three actors.  (Click on any picture for enlargements.)   Later in the play:
Mrs. Martin: Thanks to you, we have passed a truly Cartesian quarter of an hour.
Fire Chief: [moving towards the door, then stopping]: Speaking of that - the bald soprano? [General silence, embarrassment]
Mrs. Smith: She always wears her hair in the same style.
One more page for good measure.  Here the Fire Chief is encouraged to tell a story The Dog and the Cow - which I actually set to music sometime during my college years.  (That, along with the only other song I ever wrote, has since been lost.)

So why am I dragging this subject up now - beyond the need for basic blog padding, of course.  There's a story about that:
Leslie and I were having dinner in a local restaurant last month, one of those new-style buffets with the old-style trick of showing you the desserts while you're standing in line still hungry.  We didn't have much to talk about.  At the next table was a family - mother, father, grandmother and three tweens, two with smart phones.  They had a lot to talk about, most of which didn't seem too important.  There was an amusing lack of communication and several crises concerning the food.  Leslie and I found ourselves watching them as carefully as we could without being obvious.  They might have been somewhat embarrassed had they been able to watch themselves.  Maybe not.  On our way home, Leslie and I discussed various unresolved questions (like which parent was the child of the grandmother and the color of the mother's panties).  I was reminded of my encounter with The Bald Soprano and I explained to Leslie why this literature was important to me.  When I got home I re-read it for the first time in a very long time.  It felt good to experience The Bald Soprano again.  It brought back a lot of memories, although you can be very certain that none of them involved my mother letting anyone in a restaurant see the color of her panties.

Used copies of The Bald Soprano are available on Amazon.

1 comment :

Maria said...

Trying to find the words to compose a comment.. I visit your blog every now and then, and often find myself interested at reading what you have written. This post intrigued me a lot, so much I think I might order a copy of The Bald Soprano for myself. It seems to be a piece I would enjoy. Thank you for writing about it!

Perhaps you would be interested in Erlend Loe's "Naïve. Super.", it is a book that I enjoy very much for its thoughtfulness and frankness. The prologue is a quote from Gary Fisher: "Anybody who rides a bike is a friend of mine."

Greetings from Sweden!