A new academic year is upon us and across the country swathes of new university students are settling into halls and grappling with their long reading lists. As freshers flu makes the round these first weeks, the Hope Theatre in London presents Eugene Ionesco’s théâtre de l’absurde piece The Lesson and offers a chilling take on that often most fraught relationship of all between teacher and student. Annegret Märten and bona fide university lecturer Emilie Oléron Evans discuss Matthew Parker’s new production.
Annegret: The story is of an eminent teacher and at first willingly-submissive pupil who turns to the professor so she can prepare for her further education. Ignoring the warnings of his concerned maid, the professor tests his student on arithmetic and philology. From here it gets absurd quite quickly and very violent towards the end. I expect the situation in the show doesn’t ring too true to what you’re experiencing in the classroom every week.
Emilie: You are trying to set me up and make me say ‘…You’d be surprised!’, but I will not fall into the trap. Just like Ionesco doesn’t fall into easy symbolism and sensationalism when presenting the fact that the world is actually absurd in the extreme. We as spectators then need to dissociate ourselves from that, but I can’t really brush off a play like La Leçon after leaving the theatre. It starts out as a subversive, entertaining farce and descends into complete madness. And there is definitely a lingering sense of unease because you cannot actually tell where that tipping point lies precisely.
Annegret: Matthew Parker’s production walks that line really well. The two performers between which the central conflict plays out achieve the striking feat of hitting broad comedy notes while continually building up to a chilling thriller climax. Roger Alborough as the professor moves from adorable irritability to physical agitation, while joyfully chewing through the author’s nonsensical word plays as if they were the most logical arguments. Sheetal Kapoor as the uber-eager student seems to be full of exaggerated tension in the beginning. Then, as the academic disagreements between the two pile up, she shockingly disintegrates in front of our eyes. This is foreshadowed early on in the play – and this line is delivered with glee, almost – when the pupil is scolded by the professor for knowing how to add but not how to subtract: ‘Integration is not enough. Disintegration is essential too.’
Emilie: Ah, you see, we should have known all along what Banksy was going to do, really. The line you mention is an illustration of my favourite thing about the play, and more generally about Ionesco’s théâtre de l’absurde: the deliberate confusion between literal and figurative meaning, which here invites us to reflect on the nature of mathematics themselves. That’s not bad for an evening above an Islington pub! This is enhanced by Ionesco’s stage directions, since they leave open the choice of using tangible or abstracts objects. I particularly liked this production’s mix of visible and imaginary props. It is a world where numbers and words, whole languages even, are stripped bare of their usual sense, where they lose their role as signs. We are left constantly wondering: A sign of what? What even is a sign?
Annegret: The production really jumps on the ambivalence about what in this world is real and what is a sign. Rachael Ryan’s set is the strongest indicator of that. Along the walls are massive chalk boards and they are scrawled with mathematical formulas and quotes from the original French text but there are also objects, vases, plates, and more ominously, tools such as saws and hammers. But it’s just their chalky outlines, not the actual objects. Stepping into the black box was also a little bit like stepping into the logic of the play itself. Then, in the middle of the room, a raised platform with fake white tiles on the floor. At times it reminded me of a morgue. This brings me to the violence in the piece. The maid, played by Joan Potter as a stern voice of, if not reason, indignation, tries to interrupt the spiral of nonsense from very early on but she’s being ignored. At the end all she can do is collapse into sobs and tears. Will her warning be heard next time?
Emilie: Marie, the maid, shows that practical sense often associated with the servants who get their foolish masters out of tricky situations in Molière’s comedies. French theatre is full of upstairs-downstairs situations where the noble sentiments of the main protagonists are mirrored, but as a farce, in the actions of their valets and maids. Then – sorry to be a French theatre history nerd for a second – a few years before this little thing we called ‘la Révolution’, Beaumarchais gave a voice and a new sense of dignity to the most famous and the cleverest of all valets, Figaro, and to his even cleverer wife, the maid Suzanne. In Ionesco’s play, like in Jean Genet’s Les bonnes (The Maids) in 1947, the portrait of lingering class divisions takes on the dimension of a social critique of post-war France. Marie is a living contradiction of the professor’s bourgeois claims that education makes you civilised, polite. She, with the ‘empiricism of the plebs’ that he so despises, is able to read the signs.
Annegret: All of this makes me think that Ionesco’s piece is not so absurd after all. Given it was written only 6 years after the Second World War and is criticising the highly educated ‘civilisation’ that let the atrocities during the war happen and even engineered them – that seems pretty overtly political to me. But as you say, the piece cannot be pegged down that easily. Take the issue of sexualised violence for example. Alone together in a room, the professor paces around as the young woman gets increasingly desperate and starts to experience flashes of physical pain coming seemingly out of nowhere. The patriarchal nonsense he is spouting is giving her literal pain. Parker’s direction thankfully resists the temptation to stage the violence as explicitly sexual and instead relies on intelligent casting to draw out the play’s current relevance about interlocking systems of oppression. Kapoor, for example, is in her early twenties but plays the pupil as very young and she is also a young woman of colour. The power imbalance between her and Alborough as an old white male is pretty obvious.
But there is no point in deciding whether this is an allegory about the war, current populism or about intersectional issues – the play is all about how signs can take on new meanings and how powers shift along with them. There’s an in-joke about that overabundance of meaning in signs in the text. After a particularly violent act, Marie hands an armband to the fretting professor and says ‘Here you are! Put this on if you’re frightened, then you won’t have anything to be afraid of. … It’s political’. The professor is relieved and claims that he feels ‘much safer like that.’ It is as if that armband as a signifier manages to ‘catch’ all the absurd babble from before. The line got some of the biggest laughs because that moment of theatrical self-reflection was shared with the audience. But it also makes the audience complicit in the act of settling on meaning because we do feel safer thinking that we’ve supposedly cracked the code.
Emilie: That Parker chooses to include this scene is an interesting choice. In the first performance in 1951, they cut out this passage, as if this was optional. Not the political message itself, but the insignia. The association with national-socialism too was optional. The stage directions say: ‘maybe the Nazi Svastika’. In other words: other brands of fascisms or oppressive regimes are available. And if they went about without their armband, we might not even recognise them as such. Imagine! Literally, imagine. To me, in the dialogue about mathematics, the pupil’s sheer inability to imagine, to produce her own images and thoughts, is the most blatant of all warning signs in the play: the confusion between ‘memorising’, which she is very good at, and ‘thinking’, which she relies on the professor to do in her place, is lethal. Let’s not assume that because we keep alive the memory of historical events, we will have learnt how to avoid their repeating themselves… in this case, as the maid points out, forty times a day! Because they will not come goose-stepping down the streets, making Nazi or supremacist salutes, being violent and disruptive. Well, *quick glance at the United States and at Germany*, they will, but their placards will not read ‘I am a Nazi’. They will do all this, like the Professor, in the name of ‘common sense’ and ‘culture’.
Annegret: After all this you’d think that this would be a really hard piece to stomach but, in fact, Parker’s treatment of a very abstract text is also properly funny. It’s really heartening to see that there are theatre makers on the London fringe who are happy to trade in psychological realism for this playful lightness. But that doesn’t mean it’s all just an intellectual exercise.
Emilie: That’s true. In particular the ending isn’t pulling any punches. I could hear gasps of horror mixed with compassion from the lady next to me. We are confronted with the terrible consequences of the professor’s absurd behaviour, and with the chilling prospect of its repeating itself eternally. The Theatre of the Absurd doesn’t allow us to rest on what we think we know about languages, communication, human interactions. As long as we don’t doubt, we might be wrongly assuming that we are right. Attending this Lesson made me question the legitimacy of the authority conferred by an education and by academic degrees. As if I needed to add to the good old impostor syndrome…
In his 1963 ‘Notes on my Theatre’, Ionesco acknowledges the tremendous power our teachers have over us; they shape us and our worldview, it is a given. But if there is a lesson in The Lesson, rather than the obvious that it is a satire of an authoritative regime (Look, the innocents are slaughtered! Look, the executioners wash their hands! Look, people turn a blind eye or become accomplices!), it might be that we must be vigilant to our human nature. As Ionesco says, ‘A good teacher, instead of imposing his ideas, enthusiasms or personality on other people, should try to encourage and develop the personality of others. It is, I know, very difficult to decide to what extent the ideology of an ideologist is or is not the result of a desire for self-assertion and the pursuit of personal power’.
So to go back to your initial remark: whether it reminds me of what I experience in the classroom? … You’d be surprised.