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Eugene Ionesco

Playwright Eugene Ionesco, whose absurdist masterpieces overcame initial ridicule to gain worldwide popularity, died Monday at his home in Paris. He was 81.

Ionesco’s family said he had not been hospitalized, but declined to give details about the cause of death.

“Rhinoceros,””The Bald Soprano” and “The Lesson” turned theatrical conventions on their head, using farce to bolster Ionesco’s observations about alienation in everyday life and the debasements of totalitarianism.

At least one of his plays has been in production in Paris every night since 1950. One theater has offered only a double bill of “The Lesson” and “The Bald Soprano” since 1957 — Monday night’s show was the 11,944th.

“He was a revolutionary of the theater who turned 20th-century drama upside down,” said Jack Lang, France’s former culture minister.

In “Rhinoceros,” the protagonists try to cope with a world in which everyone else is mutating into beasts. In “The Bald Soprano,” two married couples sit around exchanging tedious maxims such as, “The country is quieter than the city.”

“It’s not a certain society that seems ridiculous to me,” Ionesco once wrote. “It’s mankind.”

His plays frequently were controversial. After a performance of “The Lesson,” in which the Professor spends an hour verbally assaulting his pupil, the star had to flee the theater through a back door while the outraged audience demanded refunds.

Ionesco was born in Slatina, Romania, on Nov. 26, 1912, the son of a Romanian lawyer and a French mother. Shortly afterwards, the family moved to Paris. French was his first language.

By age 13, when the family returned to Romania, he had already written a play. He said he was inspired by the puppet shows in the Luxembourg Gardens near his home.

“I could stay there, entranced for whole days … spellbound by the sight of these puppets that talked, moved and clubbed each other,” he wrote. “It was the spectacle of the world itself.”

Ionesco finished high school in Romania and studied French at the University of Bucharest. He wrote poems and dabbled in literary criticism.

He became a high school French teacher, and in 1936 married Rodica Burileano. They had one daughter, Annie-Marie, who lives in Paris.

In 1938, Ionesco obtained a grant to study in France and write a thesis on contemporary French poetry. He moved to Paris, but never wrote a single line.

During World War II, he worked for a French publishing house.

“The Bald Soprano” (1950) was inspired by his experience learning English. Much of its dialogue is taken from his grammar book, such as, “The ceiling is up , the floor is down.”

“The Lesson” (1950) is a savage parable on language as an instrument of power. An eager pupil is gradually emptied of her vitality, as her timid professor gains assurance and domination because words have the significance he decides to give them.

“The Chairs”(1951) focused on the impotence of language. Two elderly people living in a tower wait for guests to arrive to hear the message that the old man has hired an orator to deliver for posterity.

Empty chairs accumulate on stage, crowding out the couple — who finally jump to their death when the orator turns out to be deaf and dumb, gurgling and gesticulating before the invisible guests.

His international stature was confirmed with “Rhinoceros” (1959), which was seen as his commentary on the rise of Fascism in pre-war Romania.

Other works include “Jack, or the Submission,””The New Tenant,””Victims of Duty,””Amedee,””Exit the King,””The Killer,””The Man With the Suitcases” and “Pedestrian in the Air.”

Ionesco was a fervent believer in human rights and a longtime foe of political tyranny. His workconveyed man’s struggle to survive in a society that formed barriers between people.

“When people no longer share your opinions, when you can no longer make yourself understood by them, you have the impression of being confronted with monsters — rhinos, for example,” he told the newspaper Le Monde. “They have that mixture of candor and ferocity. They would kill you with the best of consciences.”

In recent years, Ionesco lived largely out of the public eye in the Montparnasse section of Paris, painting watercolors and writing infrequently. In 1988, he published an autobiographical journal, “The Intermittent Quest.”

Funeral arrangements were not immediately known.

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