First performed in 1951. “The Lesson” is a one act play with three characters. There is the Professor, who is mercurial and becomes intimidating as the play progresses. There is the Pupil, a young girl who is studying to take her doctorate exams, and there is the pragmatic Maid.
An eighteen year old girl arrives at the apartment of the Professor. She is shown in by a disgruntled Maid. When she meets the Professor he seems meek and almost subservient to her. But as the arithmetic lessons proceed he loses his temper while the vivacious girl becomes sullen. The dialogue is farcical with math problems that don’t add up. “Seven plus one is eight. But sometimes it is nine.”
The Maid enters the stage at varying intervals. She tries to calm the Professor when he becomes agitated. But, after she leaves he finds a knife to demonstrate to the girl how to say knife and then stabs her with it. The Maid enters to help him dispose of the body and we learn this is the fortieth girl he has killed. Just as the body is carried off stage the doorbell rings again and the Maid opens the door for another student.
“The Lesson” has been played on a permanent showing at the Theatre de la Huchette in Paris. In 1963 the play was adapted to the ballet and renamed “The Private Lesson”. It has been played by the Royal Danish Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet. The music for the ballet was written by Georges Delerue.
“The Lesson” opens in the office of the Professor. The office also serves as a dining room. On the left of the stage is a door that leads upstairs to the rest of the apartment. The door on the right is to the corridor of the building. There is a window that leads outside and has small plants on the outer window sill. From this window you can view the red roofs of small buildings. Also a “grayish- blue” sky. In the center of the stage is a table with three chairs. There is also a chair near each window. The walls are covered with a wallpaper of light color and there are a few book shelves.
At first the stage is empty, then we hear a doorbell and the maid coming to answer the door. She slams the door to the apartment behind her while she dries her hands with her apron. Before she can reach the door it rings again. She opens the door to a vivacious young woman. The Young Pupil is about eighteen years old. She is dressed in a student uniform of a gray smock with white collar. She also carries a “student’s satchell.”
After assuring the girl that the Professor is expecting her the maid leads her inside and seats her at the table to await the Professor. The maid yells up to the Professor and he answers in a “rather reedy” voice that he will be down shortly. The maid leaves after ensuring the girl is content to wait. While she waits the Pupil sits quietly with her satchel demurely in her lap. Soon she takes out a notebook and seems to be reviewing her notes for study.
When the Professor enters “He is a little old man with a little white beard. He wears prince-nez, a black skull cap, a long black schoolmaster’s coat, trousers and shoes of black, detachable white collar, a black tie.” He begins with a shaky voice, almost groveling to her. Their conversation begins with him telling her he has lived in the town for thirty years. Then they discuss other places to live. She asks him if he had ever been to Bordeaux or Paris. Then he uses this to quiz her, “Paris is the capitol city of… France?” But when he quizzes her about the four seasons she begins to have trouble. He has to give her a hint to remember Autumn. He calms her by saying the knowledge will come to her.
She tells him that she hopes so because she has a “thirst for knowledge” and her parents want her to have a good education. They want her to “specialize.” She already has her science diploma and her arts diploma. She plans to go for her “total doctorate.” As they are speaking the Professor lets a lewd look slip out. But before he can make a move, the Maid walks in. She walks over to the buffet fidgeting about. He becomes irritated at the interruption.
After he urges her to leave the Maid finally meanders to the door. But before she leaves she warns him to “take care,” “remain calm.” He admonishes her for being “ridiculous” and tells her not to worry. “That’s what you always say.” she says.
After the Maid leaves he turns to the girl and says that the Maid always worries about his health and she should excuse her. They start with arithmetic. He goes overboard in praise when she tells him the answer to one plus one. He continues the praise through seven and one, even when she says it is sometimes nine. But she starts to falter at subtraction. From there her answers get more and more comical. He tells her they will use matches as examples in the math problems, but he doesn’t produce the matches. Then he writes on an imaginary chalkboard while trying to get her to understand simple math equations.
The lesson begins to become heated while they argue about math problems. He continues to use the imaginary chalkboard and she even takes it trying to turn it about for better viewing. The more she questions the more angry he becomes. He wants her to learn to reason and she instead memorizes “all the products of all possible multiplications.”
The Professor is not impressed with her track to knowledge, “It is by mathematical reasoning, simultaneously inductive and deductive, that you ought to arrive at this result – as well as at any other result. Mathematics is the sworn enemy of memory, which is excellent otherwise, but disastrous, arithmetically speaking!… That’s why I’m not happy with this… this won’t do, not at all…”
The Pupil becomes desolate at his admonishes. Meanwhile the Maid enters again. She tries to get the Professors attention by tugging at his sleeve while he is worrying that the Pupil will not be able to get her doctorate because she isn’t further along in “specialized mathematics.” He tells the Maid to go back to her pots and pans in the kitchen and leave him alone, but she insists. He tells the Pupil he wants to teach her “the elements of linguistics and of comparative philology.” The Maid tries to stop him vehemently. When he tells her she has gone too far she replies that “philology leads to calamity.” The Pupil doesn’t believe it. She repeats it “smiling, a little stupidly.”
The Professor insists that the Maid leave. He is an adult and doesn’t need her admonishes. The Maid leaves while reminding him of the calamity coming. The Professor tells his Pupil to prepare for a fifteen minute lecture he has prepared that will teach her everything she needs to know about “the fundamental principles of the linguistic and comparative philology of the neo-Spanish languages.” But he insists she remain quiet while he paces back and forth. While he orates nonsense about languages she is forced to turn around in her chair in order to keep him in view.
He moves on to tell her that all languages are just sounds and she must articulate. “Lift up your neck and chin very high, and rise up on the tips of your toes” when you speak. Suddenly during his impassioned speech he notices that she doesn’t feel well. She complains of a toothache. The pain increases while he tells her to ignore it and pay attention to his lecture on consonants.
During his lecture he tells the story of a young man he knew during his military service who had trouble with pronunciation. But the examples he gives did not show any mistakes in pronunciation. Meanwhile the Pupil is inserting her toothache into every pause by the Professor. His lecture continues into various languages and their comparisons. He tells her to forget about her teeth and she keeps mentioning her toothache.
The Professor tells her to repeat a sentence about roses and grandmothers in French, then Spanish. But the language does not change. It stays English. The word rose is the same in every language, according to the Professor. He becomes more and more passionate while he tries to drill his lesson into her and she becomes more despondent with the pain of her tooth. His anger continues to mount. Finally he threatens to bash her skull if she isn’t quiet. She calls his bluff and he grabs her wrist and twists it. She begins to whimper and begs him to let her know what else he wants from her.
Finally, he shouts that she is ill mannered and he can’t continue in the vein. He leaves to find the Maid while the girl sits on the chair stupefied. The Professor calls for the Maid off stage and then reenters with the Maid following close behind. He points to the girl and tells the Maid that the girl doesn’t understand. The girl tells her she has a toothache and the Maid says that that is a symptom. The Pupil sounds spiritless when she once again says she has a toothache. The Maid heads out the door, and the Professor tries to stop her, “I called you to help me find the Spanish, Neo-Spanish, Portuguese, French, Oriental, Romanian, Sardanapali, Latin, and Spanish knives.” She looks at him severely and tells him not to ask her where the knives are. Then she exits.
The Professor finds a big knife and tries to get the Pupil to say the word in French, Italian and Spanish. He waves the knife under her nose, but she still complains about her teeth. Then she says his shrill voice is giving her an earache, too. He keeps trying to get her to say knife and tugs at her ears. The Pupil has become more exhausted and is weeping but seems to be in a trance as well. He begins to mimic a cuckoo while trying to get her to say “knife” and she begins to point to parts of her body that are now aching while interspersing “knife” into her complaints.
The voice of the Professor changes and becomes menacing when he says the knife kills. In a weak voice she agrees. Finally he stabs her and her body falls to the floor in a heap. He continues stabbing her until becomes winded. His sanity begins to return and he can’t believe what he did. He calls for his Maid to help him. The Maid takes a look at the corpse and asks him sarcastically if he is pleased with his new Pupil. He tells her that he is innocent and didn’t stab the girl, but then the Maid reminds him no one else his there, unless you count the cat.
Then she tells him this is the fortieth time he has done this. Not only will he run out of students but he will make himself sick. When he tries to stab her because she makes him angry, she twists the knife out of his hand, and he apologizes. She slaps him twice, and he falls to the floor sobbing. She reminds him she isn’t one of his pupils while she pulls him up by his shirt collar. While he is cowering, she tells him to put the knife back where it belongs, and he does. “Now didn’t I warn you, just a little while ago: arithmetic leads to philology, and philology leads to crime…” Then she asks him if he is sorry and in a boyish voice, he assures her he is. He asks her what she will do, and she says she will bury her with the other thirty-nine. She will call the undertaker and her lover, Father Auguste.
When she says she will order a wreath for the girl, he tells her not to spend too much since the girl did not pay for her lesson. He covers the girl while worrying they will be caught. Someone might notice forty coffins. But she assures him people won’t ask questions because they have become accustomed to it. They will just say the coffins are empty if asked. The Maid pulls out an armband then with a swastika. She tells him that if he is afraid to wear the armband. “That’s good politics.” The two of them carry the body of the girl out the door.
Then the doorbell rings and the Maid drops the body so she can answer the door. It is another pupil and the Maid invites her in.
The Maid – the Professor calls her Marie. He seems to be very fond of her in a motherly fashion. She is stout and about forty five or fifty years old. Her uniform consists of a peasant woman’s cap, and an apron. When she is inviting the Pupils in she is felicitous. She sits the girls down and assures them the Professor is expecting them.
She is also the one who tries to watch for the triggers that will set the Professor off on a murdering spree. She knows where in his lesson he will lose track of his temper and keeps entering trying to stem the flow of his anger so he won’t become homicidal. Her relationship with the Professor is maternal, which is obvious when she admonishes him for killing the fortieth pupil.
The Pupil – she is young and is about eighteen years old. She is wearing a gray student’s smock with a small white collar. She has a satchel under her arm for her papers. In the first of the play she is vivacious but as the play progresses she begins to complain about a toothache. She looses her vivacity and becomes morose. She is made single minded because of the pain. She constantly interrupts the Professor to complain about her tooth. Her words become thick and she is almost paralyzed by the time he kills her. Although her character is referred to as intelligent it is obvious she is under educated.
The Professor – a little old man. He has a long white beard. On his face is a pince-nez. On his head is a black skull cap. He is also wearing a long black schoolmaster’s coat. He begins the play very timid but then becomes passionate and gregarious. Then after he kills the pupil, he becomes almost childlike. As the play progresses, he goes from a reedy voice to a louder more confident one. He has a short fuse and becomes frustrated with the Pupil easily. The fuse becomes even shorter when he slips into madness. His lessons are haphazard and illogical to the point of farce. His personality is mercurial.
Eugene Ionescu Biography
Born in 1909 in Slatina, Romaia Eugene Ionescu was the son of a Romanian father who belonged to an Orthodox Christian church and a French and Romanian mother who was Protestant. They raised him to be an Othodox Christian. Although his date of birth is officially in 1909 he often lied and said he was born in 1912. Not because he wanted to seem younger but because his favorite Romanian playwrite, Caragiale died that year and he wanted his birth day to match.
After spending most of his childhood in France Eugene and his parents moved back to Romania in 1925, shortly after their divorce. He studied at the University of Bucharest and qualified to teach French.
Eugene married Rodica Buileanu in 1936 and had one daughter. In 1938 he took his young family back to France so he could complete his doctorate. When World War II started in 1939 he relocated back to Romania. He and his family were unhappy in Romania at the time and put in to relocate back to France in 1942. Eugene waited out the rest of the war in France. They resided in Marseilles but moved to Paris after it was liberated from the Germans.
Although Eugene was famous for his plays, he also wrote poetry and criticism. He did not write his first play until he was almost forty. It was called the Bald Soprano, a play about a dinner party between two English couples, the Smiths and the Martins, and their nonsensical conversation. Near the end the stage goes black and when the lights come on the play starts over from the beginning with the Smiths reciting the Martins lines and the Martins reciting the Smiths. This play holds the worlds record for being played in the same theater for the longest time.
The idea for the Bald Soprano came because Eugene chose this time to learn English. The method he chose to learn English made him pay close attention to the minutiae of language and how it could be used. He suddenly saw the comedy in the truth of sentences. Most of his plays were what he called anti plays because the showed a comedy and parody of the accepted theatrical forms.
He also wrote one novel, The Hermit, published in 1975. It is a very short work about a sales clerk who inherits money and spends the rest of his days contemplating the human condition.
Eugene Ionesco was of the French Avant-garde theater. In his book “The Theatre of the Absurd,” Martin Esslin slipped him into the same category as Samuel Beckett and Arthur Adamov. He admired Dadaists and Surrealists and leaned towards Pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions.
In March of 1994 at the age of 84 Eugene passed away. He is buried in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris. On his tomb, in French, is “Pray to the I don’t-know-who: Jesus Christ, I hope.” During his lifetime Eugene received many prestigious awards including the Austrian State Prize for European Literature.