The Ionesco/Tynan controversy of 1958

Jot 101 Ionesco pic

Found among the papers of the academic and writer Joseph O’Donoghue are some press clippings covering the Ionesco/Tynan controversy of 1958. In the history of British drama the debate between the supporters of Eugene Ionesco ( above), Romanian pioneer of the ‘ Theatre of the Absurd ‘on one side, and the defenders of the ‘ realist ‘ theatre proponent , Kenneth Tynan, on the other, that took place in the Arts pages of the Observerin June and July 1958, remains  one of the more significant literary debates of the twentieth century, perhaps only rivalled by the Leavis—Snow altercation a few years later.


Essentially, Ionesco, the author of such classic ‘ absurdist’ pieces  as ‘ The Bald Prima Donna ‘ and ‘ The Chairs’, argued that theatre should have nothing to do with the social and political issues that concerned the average man in the street. Such writers as Sartre, Osborne, Miller and Brecht were representatives of a ‘ left-wing conformism ‘ and offered nothing ‘ that one does not know already through books and political speeches ‘. Theatre should in contrast promote the artist’s aesthetic and philosophical perspectives, particularly as they reflected the absurdity and futility of existence. The critic should only be concerned with how successful the artist’s methods were in conveying his ideas to the audience.


Tynan’s vision of the theatre was demonstrably opposed to that of Ionesco. To him a play was only successful as art if it effectively reflected the social and political issues of the time. A play should not be an abstract philosophical debate on the absurdity of existence, but should engage with the audience’s experience of everyday life. To Tynan, politics was part of life in which   ‘ even buying a packet of cigarettes was a political act ‘. He accused Ionesco of a sort of solipsism in which distortions of reality ( as in Cubism ) become more valid and important than ‘ the external world it is their proper function to interpret’.


The Letters pages of the Observer was dominated by this debate during June and July 1958 ;  it evidently captured the attention of leading figures in the theatre as well as creative people in other spheres. One of the more cogent supporters of Tynan was Joseph Chiari, an academic writer on drama and philosophy, who argued that Ionesco‘s rejection of realism was based on an erroneous notion of what realistic theatre was. Far from being, as Ionesco maintained, ‘a mere photographic reproduction of human behaviour ‘, this ‘realism’ was ‘philosophically speaking, ‘anti-realistic ‘.



‘If the speech of so-called characters of plays consists almost entirely of iterations of clichés and banalities tele-recorded from a very small section of life, these characters will be no more than mechanical parrots with very little human worth. They may represent, as M. Ionesco suggests, a certain social ‘ milieu’ ,but they are only lifeless fragments which, by themselves, lack significance and could be given meaning only by being in some way integrated into the wider human condition  which M. Ionesco has in mind. ‘


In contrast, George Devine, Director of the Royal Court theatre, which had a growing reputation as an experimental venue for new playwrights, admits that good plays have always been about ‘people, not ideas’, but asks ‘why should the theatre  be confined to social realism just because social issues are greatly important .They are not the only issues. Why should plot and message be written in Ibsenian form?’


Lionel Gossman  took Tynan’s side by declaring that ‘ the dramatist can reach and convey essential truths about Man only if he is able to grasp and communicate the essential and characteristic experiences of living human beings.’


Leslie Helder, on the other hand, argued that ‘reality is greater than realism, social or otherwise. Man is a thinking animal, as well as a social one ‘and to present any one aspect of his existence as ‘the only proper subject of a play is to try to fit art into a ready-made suit’.


The great director Orson Welles also stepped in. Although he declared himself an admirer of Ionesco, he argued that to expect a critic to judge one of his plays on its own merits as a philosophical exercise is asking too much of someone who is not a godlike figure, but one with human weaknesses and  prejudices. He also disputed Ionesco’s claim that the expressions of artists with a political message were always ‘less original than political speeches and pamphlets ‘. To Welles, ‘an artist must confirm the values of his society, or he must challenge them. This choice should not be in the crude terms of the Cold War, whose stale rhetoric and frayed banners are well worth M. Ionesco’s dismissive contempt…’ However, he contended that to abandon the political debate for a philosophical one is to ‘acknowledge an extraordinary despair ‘.


Two very innovative contemporary playwrights also had their say. Ann Jellicoe, author of ‘The Sport of My Mad Mother’ felt that “there are ways of getting at people other than directly and explicitly by words and plot : saying in effect this is right, that is wrong. Whoever was converted by words alone? Argument only hardens us in our own attitude. But if you can get at people in a roundabout way, by suggestion or inference, you may begin to make them feel, you may make them angry, you may exasperate them. They must then either close their hearts and minds to their unease (which they cannot entirely do) or they must consider what has upset them. They may then discover something for themselves. Something new may be revealed to them.”


  1. F. Simpson, another Absurdist, who had recent won a playwriting competition organised by the Observer, posed a philosophical problem when he asked that if, as Tynan contended, ‘every play worth serious consideration is a  statement’ , how would I know how genuine the playwright’s  statement is and how true it is to its own nature. “But if it is, I might well gain less from bringing my value-judgments to bear upon the play than from bringing the play to bear upon my value-judgments.”




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