“The light of memory, or rather the light that memory lends to things, is the palest light of all. I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering, whether I have lived my life or dreamed it. Just as dreams do, memory makes me profoundly aware of the unreality, the evanescence of the world, a fleeting image in the moving water.” – Eugene Ionesco
I came to Theatre de la Huchette for the first time with my mum, to see The Bald Primadonna, the longest continually running play at the same venue in the world. It was 2000, and she had just been to my school parents’ evening, where she’d been informed that my French wasn’t up to scratch, and I would be entered into the lower tier for my GCSE in the subject. ‘Over my dead body’, she said, and in a moment of quite excellent, if profoundly middle class, parenting, announced she was taking me to Paris, where I’d have to speak exclusively in French for the entirety of our stay.
I remember little of the trip: hours passed in coffee bars, munching croissants and practicing conjugations. Meandering around the city, looking at the queues outside various landmarks and deciding not to join them. Conducting a respectable conversation with a taxi driver about the city’s congestion problems. Il a plu. Et plu.
Our trip to the theatre, though, stands out in my memory. In a tiny auditorium somewhere on Paris’s Left Bank, we lost a couple of hours in the world of the absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco: a world where wives don’t recognise their husbands, clocks chime at random and just because the doorbell rings, it doesn’t mean anyone is there. I was gripped as I watched everything I thought I knew about narrative structure ripped apart in a riot of half understood French, and the plays – The Bald Primadonna and The Chairs – were unwound by the dizzying pursuit of their own maddening internal logic.
My mum had fallen in love with the Theatre of the Absurd during her French degree. Shortly before that trip, she’d given me her copy of the plays marked up with her university notes in faded, scrawling handwriting – an orange Penguin paperback bound with perished sellotape that shed pages when I opened it. For my mum, Ionesco was synonymous with Paris in the seventies: she was a 19 year old French student at Sydney's University of New South Wales, and for one winter she lived in a houseboat on the Seine, eschewing language classes in favour of days spent visiting art galleries and perusing antiques markets with her friends. She remembers hanging out on the Left Bank, visiting La Huchette and going for cous cous at one of the myriad Algerian restaurants in the area – she thought she was, she says, ‘pretty hip’.
I was immediately fascinated. Theatre of the Absurd was the definitive artistic form presented on Paris’s stages in the 1950s – a bedfellow of existentialism, if not entirely philosophically aligned. Ionesco was one of its chief proponents, along with Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett. Characterised by anti-realism, repetition and ridiculous language, the form spoke to a world that, in the wake of the industrial scale violence of the Second World War, had come to seem nonsensical. In the Theatre of the Absurd, everything happens as if in a bad dream.
I think I would have got on with Ionesco. In an archive film of an interview with him in 1961, he looks more like a bank manager than a leading proponent of a counter cultural movement: smartly dressed in a suit and tie, with a heavily lined face and a well-polished bald patch. But he’s got an appealing no-nonsense manner, disparaging Jean Paul Sartre in perfunctory terms (“he capitulates to everything”). He claimed that he was born in Romania in 1912, three years later than his actual birthday – because it was the year his hero, the Romanian playwright, Ion Luca Caragiale, died. Ionesco was a man invested in creating his own myths.
He wrote The Bald Primadonna, his breakthrough play, in 1948, at the age of 40. His career up to then had been as a teacher and writer of literature and criticism; this was the first time he turned his hand to theatre. He was inspired to write it after undertaking an English language course, and it adopts the clichéd lexicon of his text books, pushed to the point of meaningless. As it begins, a clock chimes 17 times. ‘Goodness, nine o’clock,’ says his protagonist, Mrs Smith.
I’ve come to Paris to see the play again. The city is under siege from the weather: I have arrived in the midst of the worst flooding in 30 years. Dank pools of stagnant water accumulate everywhere. From the arcs of bridges along the Seine, bypassers gaze down on the flooded places that ought to be roads and railways. Some dip beneath cordons of red and white ribbon, feeling the need to be closer to the great heft of the river as it rolls unperturbed through the city. Ducks swim among the tops of swing sets in the submerged park.
The basements may be flooded, but The Latin Quarter is as busy as ever. It’s almost impossible to imagine the hip Left Bank of the 1970s: now, the area has the grimy feel of the tourist destinations of all major cities, where you eat in cafes with slightly gritty tabletops, never entirely confident about the hygiene. Shops sell Eiffel Tower hoodies and posters for Le Chat Noir. Once the city’s centre for radical, left wing politics, the Latin Quarter is now mostly inhabited with coach parties purchasing keyrings and taking selfies outside Shakespeare and Co.
This must have been a very different place when Georges Vitaly, a 30 year old theatre director riding high on having won the prestigious ‘Competition for Young Companies’ in 1947 with his production of Jacques Audiberti’s Le Mal Court, was walking through the streets, contemplating his need for a theatre of his own. The story goes that he spotted a pair of legs behind a wheelbarrow moving up and down beneath a half-closed shutter. Ducking his head beneath it, he came face-to-face with Marcel Pinard, his former drama school classmate. Pinard, having had little success in his acting endeavours, had pursued a varied career including work as a dry cleaner, a door-to-door salesman, and as a stage hand at the Folies Bergere.
He was also the lover of Marie Therese Desportes, the owner of 23 Rue de la Huchette, a building in the heart of the Latin Quarter with a chequered history alleged to have included periods as a brothel, an alternative medicine clinic, and an Armenian restaurant. Pinard soon agreed a peppercorn rent with Desportes, and got to work transforming it into a miniature theatre. By 1948, it was ready to open to the public.
Only four years had passed since the fall of the Vichy, the so-called French ‘puppet’ state that, following France’s defeat by Germany in World War Two, collaborated with the Nazis in governing the country. During the period there had been a severe clampdown on the civil liberties of the French, and the imposition of anti-Semitic legislation. The city’s artistic community found itself subjected to obligatory censorship. And while theatres were well attended during the war - in spite of severe shortages of food, fuel and electricity, audiences were still hungry to be entertained - productions were created in an oppressive atmosphere, with a representation of German authorities at all performances, ensuring that any criticism of the occupiers was at best highly veiled.
So Theatre de la Huchette opened in an era of new found optimism and creative liberation. In the early years, the theatre produced plays by writers including Jacques Audiberti, Valentin Kataiev, P.A. Bréal and Guillaume Hanoteau; from 1952 onwards, Pinard took on sole leadership, and produced a programme dedicated to contemporary works.
Meanwhile, in 1950, The Bald Primadonna received its premiere at the nearby Théâtre des Noctambules. It garnered poor reviews, and played to small audiences. Allegedly, Ionesco was alarmed to hear laughter: he thought he had written a serious play. Only in 1957, when the work was remounted at la Huchette, in a double bill with another Ionesco play, The Lesson, did it finally find favour: it was a play that’s time had come. Now, more than 60 years later, it is still running, earning it a Guinness World Record.
At 15, the play spoke to me. Ionesco was my entry point into the intriguing landscape of theatre that lies beyond naturalism. I hadn’t seen anything like it before; at the time, it seemed audacious, a kick against authority. I had a fledgling grasp of what it means to defy the prevalent insistence on linear narrative, of how liberating it can be to release yourself from that means of interpreting the world. The Bald Primadonna awakened a passion for the surreal that has stayed with me all my life.
Theatre de la Huchette is a tiny playhouse in the heart of the Latin Quarter. The outside is unprepossessing: a whitewashed front in a terrace of grubby restaurants and tourist shops. The name of the theatre in black capitals overhead, the silhouettes of Ionesco’s iconic dramatis personae painted on the doors: the maid, the fire marshal, the professor. A wall of faded posters and curling newspaper reviews. And a tiny window, behind which a woman doles out tickets.
Arriving a little early, I meet the theatre’s new management team. Administrator Gonzague Phelip is a small man with wild grey hair and an infectious smile; Franck Desmedt, the new director, has the classic looks of a matinee idol. They take me down a narrow set of stairs through a series of arches with walls so thick I imagine them to be carved from the marrow of the city. Their office is here, an artificially lit cellar lined with posters for the company’s shows and windfalls of papers on busy shelves. Today it’s a blur of activity: Monday is press night for the new season. During our conversation, a stream of people comes and goes, talking animatedly in French about plans for hosting the bloggers and the press.
In addition to The Bald Primadonna and The Lesson, each year the theatre stages two new shows – a musical in the summer season and a piece of new writing in the winter. They are excited about their production of Kiki, a musical written by one of their front of house team, which they will be taking to France’s famous Avignon Festival in July. Staging new productions is a way of fending off the aura of obsolescence which might accumulate around this theatre. “People say ‘ah Huchette, it’s like a museum’,” Gonzague says. “But we don’t want to be that now.”
It’s not surprising some are a little cynical about these productions of Ionesco’s plays. Their long lifespan runs counter to theatrical sensibilities: for many theatre professionals, the brief life of a production is intrinsic to the value of the art form – it ensures the work remains contemporary. So what’s happening at la Huchette could look like bad practice. It isn’t only that they’ve been running the same play for 60 years, but the production itself is, notionally, unchanged; the props, costumes and set are replicas of the ones that greeted audiences in 1957.
I ask Franck and Gonzague why the decision to keep it running so long was made. “Because the director was a little bit crazy?” Gonzague speculates. “He died in 1975. He was Marcel Pinard – Pinard in French means wine. That may explain things”. They have an appealing irreverence in their attitude to the play. “We try to respect the original production, but we make some adjustments…”
“We are the boss, but we are also punk,” Franck interjects.
In fact, the very longevity of this unusual theatrical experiment gives rise to a different kind of relationship between performer and text than is typically witnessed on stage. As Franck says: “The older actors first came here when they were young, they were the first to discover Ionesco. But the younger actors who come here, they come to play a classic. So when they meet each other, they don’t understand each other… The young people want to respect the tradition. But the old people say ‘oh yeah, we’ve played it many times, it’s OK for me to change it.’”
In the tiny, salmon pink room we find the six actors who will be performing The Bald Primadonna tonight, surrounded by heavy rails full of costumes. They sit around talking and laughing, a couple gazing into light rimmed mirrors, daubing their faces thick with makeup. Part of a wider pool of 48 actors, each of them knows the parts of one or two characters from Ionesco’s plays. They will perform for runs of two or three weeks when the schedule of other acting work allows. The theatre is run on a cooperative model, and Gonzague sees this as one of the secrets of its success: “when there are problems with the production they say: ‘If we can’t play we can’t play. Don’t pay us for that.’ The theatre is more important to them.”
I ask the cast how long they’ve been doing this. No one has been here for less than five years, but the longest serving veteran has been doing it for 40. He keeps coming back, he says, because “it’s fun,” – he gestures to the actors around him – “it’s like family”. He’s an older, portly chap, with a neat ‘tache and a ruddy complexion, and when I see him on stage I understand it: he looks like he’s having the best time of any of them, and his Fire Chief is a joy, his delivery easy and instinctive. He’s been playing this role for most of his lifetime; it has become part of him. There is so little risk for these actors, and of course that’s the very worst thing about it, the thing that hangs over it and renders it potentially so deathly, but perhaps a kind of freedom can be found in it too, in knowing they can’t really go wrong.
The auditorium itself is tiny: a shallow bank of 85 red covered seats in the narrow room, beneath a low roof. Old framed posters for the show dot the walls. A small end-on stage is fringed with red velvet curtains; a set of tired looking dark green flats and some battered furniture denote a living room. This is the set for The Bald Primadonna, awaiting its cast and its audience – for what, the 15,000th time?
I take my seat. The auditorium fills quickly around me, an audience of tourists and students. I hear a couple of English voices. A group of teenagers are doing what teenagers do, shoving and shouting at one another, but the house lights go down and they fall quiet.
The drama follows an evening in the mundane lives of Mrs Smith and her husband, as they host a dinner party for the Martins, interrupted by a visit from ‘The Fire Chief’. As the action unfolds, their language falls apart at the seams, and they lose sense of their own identities and those of the characters around them. It is a play about the redundancy of language, and the failure of humans – particularly those trapped in the life of the petit bourgeois – to connect. It is both deeply unsettling, and very funny. In the end, the drama circles back to the beginning – this time with the Martins delivering the opening lines. The lives of the protagonists, and the horrifying banality of 9pm on a suburban weekday evening, are stuck on a constant loop.
The production inevitably feels stale, outdated – how could it not? It’s hard to imagine now the furore they caused at the time. So great was the public controversy around Ionesco’s work that in 1958, legendary critic Kenneth Tynan launched a scathing attack on him, announcing that ‘the peril arises when [his play] is held up for general emulation as the gateway to the theatre of the future, that bleak new world from which the humanist heresies of faith in logic and belief in man will forever be banished’.
Gonzague says the team doesn’t want this to be a museum piece. But watching it I find myself imagining how it would have been to sit here, in 1957, and see it for the first time. I imagine Eugene Ionesco standing somewhere at the back, witnessing his play, to whom he had been so faithful for seven years, finally finding the success it deserved. The theatre filled with the great and the good of Paris: Edith Piaf, Sophia Loren, Maurice Chevalier, all of whom flocked to see this eccentric little drama which was, by then, taking the city by storm.
I imagine my mum too, in the 1970s, a fashionable student in bell bottoms and a sweater vest surrounded by friends, and later, a smartly dressing business woman at the start of the millennium, her bouffant hair obscuring my view. Me at 15, somewhere in the shadows at the back, quietly absorbing new languages. We have subscribed to the contract of the audience member: together, but silent, none of us meeting one another’s eye.
The next day, I take a slow stroll through the city. Paris is quiet on a Sunday morning, and now it is mild, the city full of rain-freshened light. The floodwaters don’t seem so threatening anymore, and the locals approach the edge of it, with their children and their selfie sticks.
Another one of Ionesco’s plays is called The Chairs, set in the home of an elderly couple, which has been isolated by flooding. Here, we learn, ‘every evening, every evening without exception, through seventy-five years of married life’ the Old Man has repeated the same story to the Old Woman. No matter. His wife ‘forgets everything straight away’. Paris, ‘the city of light’, has been lost in the floods, and all that remains of it is a song.
Perhaps this is Ionesco’s greatest joke: that his absurd plays be repeated, night after night, for a lifetime – until all sense of the original intention is lost, and they become rituals, played out beyond meaning, their own metaphor for the senseless repetition of human existence. After all, there’s no way of knowing if any essence of the original productions is retained – the director and writer are long since dead.
Wandering past the Notre Dame, the bells are ringing, the birds are singing, and the sky seems luminous with it. I want to take possession of it, so I get out my mobile and start recording. I capture the bells, those melodic peals that belong so entirely to this city; a child’s laughter, a couple talking hurriedly in French I still don’t quite understand. Later, back home, I listen to it over and over again on my tinny iPhone speaker. It’s not the same, though it summons something back.