The Bald Soprano, Eugene Ionesco’s first play, was written after attempting to learn English from a primer. The obvious truisms in this primer, meant for the novice English speaker, struck Ionesco with their astonishing simplicity and truth. He learned things that he had always known, but never seriously thought aboutthat, for instance, the floor is down and the ceiling is up. He began to copy these indisputably true statements in an attempt to learn English, but as he diligently transcribed them into his notebook, they seemed to morph, to lose their original meaning, to expand and overflow. The clichés and truisms of the conversation primer, which had once made perfect sense, began to deteriorate into half-truths and pseudo-clichés, and these further deteriorated into wild caricature and parody until finally language itself seemed to disintegrate into disjointed fragments of words. Overwhelmed by this strange and disturbing experience, Ionesco set out to translate it into a play.
As The Bald Soprano opens, Mrs. Smith recites the events of the eveningfor no one’s benefit in particular as the only other person present is Mr. Smith who lived through the events with her. They discuss the death of someone they knewBobby Watson. Reality shifts. He has been dead for two years, then three, then foursuddenly he isn’t dead at all and is engaged to be married to a woman who goes by the same name as her husband-to-beBobby Watson. They shall have to buy him a wedding present, they decide. Then he is dead again and has left behind two children who only a moment ago didn’t existthe children, like their parents, are both named Bobby Watson. The Smiths gossip that the widow Bobby Watson is planning to remarry, but they can’t seem to clarify whom she is planning to marrysome relative by the name of Bobby Watson, but as they all have the same name and work in the same industry, it is very difficult to distinguish one from the other. Frustrated, Mr. and Mrs. Smith begin to quarrel. Then, just as they are about to make up and retire to the bedroom for a little romp, Mary the maid enters announcing the arrival of guestsMr. and Mrs. Martin. As the Smiths retire to change clothes, Mary shows the Martins into the room. Alone, the Martins begin to converse. Mr. Martin announces that he is certain they have met somewhere before. Mrs. Martin has the same suspicion. They are surprised to find that they are both from the city of Manchester, that they both took the same train to London, that they both traveled second class, that they both reside at No. 19 Bromfield Street, that they sleep in the same bed, and that they both have a two-year old daughter named Alice with one red eye and one white eye. They come to the conclusion, of course, that they must be husband and wife and embrace. At this point, the Martins fall asleep and Mary enters to inform us of the fallacy of their logic. Mr. Martin’s daughter has a white right eye and a left red eye, while Mrs. Martin’s daughter has a white left eye and a red right eyethus they are not, in fact, husband and wife, and all of their deductions must collapse when confronted by this final fact. The Smiths return. As they converse with their guests, the doorbell rings repeatedly. At first Mrs. Smith dutifully checks the door only to find there is no one there. Eventually, she comes to the conclusion that when the doorbell rings, this always means that there is no one there. Of course, the very next time it rings, the Fire Chief enters. He has orders to extinguish all the fires in the city. He is disappointed to learn that there are no fires in the Smith house, but they promise to call him right away if one develops. In the meantime, they decide to entertain each other by telling stories, none of which seem to make any sense whatsoever. They are horrified when the maid interrupts, asking to tell a story of her own. They are even more horrified when they realize that she is the lover of the Fire Chief. They push her out of the room as she tries to recite a poemalthough they admit that the poem is rather good. The Fire Chief excuses himself, and the Smiths and Martins begin to recite nonsensical truisms. Language disintegrates. The two couples quarrel, but are unable to successfully communicate their hostilities as they can no longer harness language to serve their purposes. As they scream nonsense at each other, the lights are extinguished. When the lights rise again, we find the Martins in the Smiths living room, repeating the same lines that the Smiths spoke at the opening of the play.
Although Ionesco had set out to write a tragedy of language, his friends found the little play very amusing and encouraged him to submit it to a theatre for production. Monique Saint-Come, one of these friends, showed the play to Nicolas Bataille, the director of a group of avant-garde actors working in Paris. On May 11, 1950, The Bald Soprano premiered at the Théâtre des Noctambules under the direction of Bataille. Although it went unnoticed at first, the play was eventually championed by a few established writers and critics and, in the end, won critical acclaim. By the 1960s, The Bald Soprano had already been recognized as a modern classic and an important seminal work in the Theatre of the Absurd.