Victims of Duty

A Red Orchid Theatre

In this hauntingly peculiar, rarely produced 1952 play, master of absurdism Eugene Ionesco once again tries to break out of the confines of traditional theater. His protagonist Choubert begins with a rather studied criticism of the rote nature of drama: lounging in the tub, he kvetches to his wife Madeleine that “all plays that have ever been written, from ancient Greece to the present day, have never really been anything but thrillers. Drama’s always been realistic and there’s always a detective about….There’s a riddle and it’s solved in the final scene.”

Though Choubert pontificates about the lack of evolution in drama, he’s soon embroiled in a detective story himself: a mysterious, unnamed gumshoe calls and asks for help tracking down a man named Mallot. Choubert’s quest to find the missing man turns into a voyage of self-discovery as the detective urges him to delve endlessly into the “mud” of his memory and dreams: if he doesn’t come to understand who this Mallot fellow is, at least he’ll better understand himself.

The idea of detective story as metaphysical journey to self-knowledge was hardly new even 40 years ago–just ask Sophocles about the guy who set out to find the man who would kill his father and marry his mother. Earlier in this century, around Ionesco’s time, J.B. Priestley, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jorge Luis Borges, and Ugo Betti toyed with similar ideas, and there’s been a spate of late-20th-century pseudo-psycho detective twaddle on the same themes (Mickey Rourke in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, Kevin Costner in No Way Out–a remake of the 1948 The Big Clock).

Thankfully in Victims of Duty Ionesco doesn’t merely bombard us with now-familiar psychoanalytic readings of human behavior (though there are plenty of those): he also explains and complains about the formulaic whodunit, whydunit, or whodunwhat structure in which Choubert finds himself trapped. Though Ionesco is best known for trying to subvert language, making it absurd or meaningless, here he turns his attention to human behavior: because our own human identity, like language, can be terribly constricting, we’re forced to spend our entire lives as amateur detectives, trying to unravel and understand it. The reason that we can only write and watch detective dramas is that that’s the scenario we live every day.

While Choubert’s wife and the increasingly authoritarian detective are able to switch identities in Choubert’s dreamscapes, Choubert re-mains irrevocably in his own character, doggedly pursuing a goal that he neither understands nor desires. The sometimes fantastical, sometimes horrifying journey through the dreams and fantasies of his unconscious mind leads him to confront a miserable childhood: he watches his wife and the detective reenact the traumatic scene he witnessed then, as his brutal father–an army man who helped massacre thousands of men, women, and children–forced his mother to commit suicide by taking poison. This dreadful scene is repeated at play’s end in a terrifyingly surreal, darkly comic nightmare when the detective force-feeds Choubert tree bark (represented by a baguette) to make him remember (“chew over”) his past, even if it means lacerating his tongue and destroying himself in the process.

Victims of Duty has been read as a criticism of totalitarianism–a recurring theme in Ionesco’s work, most notably in The Lesson. There a docile professor becomes ridiculously authoritarian, feeding his hapless pupil increasingly preposterous nonsense. The student winds up dead, and the professor proudly displays a swastika on his sleeve at the play’s conclusion. Here Ionesco’s criticism seems more oblique, less specifically directed at a certain group.

Though he may not like his detective role, Choubert finds no other choice than to continue–just as Choubert’s military father continued to lead a brutal life even after returning from battle, just as Ionesco must continue to write detective stories even though he desperately wants to create a theater that’s totally new. All are victims of the duties they’ve been conditioned from birth to perform.

Despite the metaphysical baggage this play carries and its repetitiveness, Victims of Duty is one of Ionesco’s more accessible plays, perhaps because the philosophical material is by now so familiar. It’s also the most cinematic work of his I’ve seen, shifting effortlessly from scene to scene, from dream sequence to dream sequence with a mischievous playfulness that may well have influenced the experiments with linear time and structure of the directors in the French New Wave.

A Red Orchid Theatre’s production, directed by Shira Piven, features a generally strong cast, although Guy Van Swearingen’s line readings as Choubert are often forced and flat. But the real star of the show–apart from Amy Landecker, insightfully wicked and mercurial as Madeleine–is the masterful set by Danila Korogodsky. His brilliantly simple giant black pool of water allows Piven to create wonderfully evocative Magritte-like stage pictures: casting eerie, hypnotic ripples on the walls and ceiling, the set sometimes literally immerses the viewer in the depths of Ionesco’s play.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Guidara.