The White Rabbit’s Clock: On the Function of the Clock in THE BALD SOPRANO

As one might expect from an absurdist play, Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano is one of those works you can’t help but be shocked into speechlessness by. With it’s awkward jokes, nonsensical dialogue, and innovative, yet eccentric, set design, it’s a play I suspect will stick with me for years to come. As an audience member, I couldn’t help but be reminded of such works as Alice in Wonderland, especially when watching the play live. In fact, I daresay it would have made more sense if I white rabbit in a waste-coat had been cued to hop along the stage at one point or another. At the very least, I wouldn’t have been any more surprised than I was by other aspects of the play if such a creative decision was made.

Of all the insane things that struck me, I think the most important, thematically, would have to be the use of the clock. Time and again, it helped to set the tone of the play. For one thing, We begin with the clock, chiming seventeen or so times, after which Mrs. Smith states “There, it’s nine o’clock,” (Lonesco, page 9 line 1). Of course, even when you consider military time, this statement by Mrs. Smith would be considered erroneous, especially in more conventional settings. In this play, however, it helps to accentuate the comedic effect of the characters’ dialog, such that what would otherwise be needlessly unintelligible becomes a thing worthy of laughter.

Throughout the play, we hear this clock again and again, chiming at random intervals that never match the hour on its face. Of course, while this absurdity continues to add to the comedy and overall awkwardness of the piece, it can also be said to act as a means of transition. More specifically, one could argue that Ionesco uses the clock’s seemingly arbitrary chiming to divide his play into more digestible sections, much like how traditional plays separate their plots into acts and scenes. Consider, for example, its usage when dealing with the meeting of Mr. and Mrs. Martin. Towards the end of their first dialog together, when they contemplate how “bizarre, curious, [and] strange” their similarities to one another are, we again hear the chiming of this rather unusual clock (page 18, line 11). At first, it’s heard, as the script puts it,  after “a rather long moment of silence,” after which it “strikes 29 times” (lines 27 – 28). Of course, its at this point that the two characters draw the conclusion that they must be each other’s spouses. In this way, one can say that the clock separated this moment into two scenes in the same act, whereby this revelation was the transition point between the two. Not long after this, however, we get another instance of the clock making itself known, after the Martins “sit together in the same armchair, their arms around each other, and fall asleep,” (page 19, lines 6 – 7). After this, the Smith family’s maid, Mary, steps in and gives some exposition. Given the contrast between these two moments, one could argue the moment which Mary and the moment with the two Martins function almost like different scenes, with the clock transitioning the two. Similar transitions occur throughout the play, such that, even if they aren’t as regular as those between traditional scenes and acts, they still serve a similar function, with the clock aiding the audience by providing them a the same feeling of plot progression.

Of course, there’s also the matter of the clock’s chiming becoming increasingly random, “nervous” even, as the play comes to the height of it’s madness (page 39, line 22). More towards the end, right after the Fire Chief exits the stage, the other characters begin spouting nonsense, becoming increasingly angry with one another by some line of reasoning only Ionesco might have understood definitively. In the UMF production of this play, the climax of this madness is marked not only by the nervous chimes of the clock, as Ionesco originally called for, but by the clock’s base actually beginning to swing like a pendulum. In this way, amongst the other functions this clock serves across the play, it would seem that it sometimes acts as a sort of barometer for the absurdity being shown on stage, itself becoming increasingly absurd as the characters reach a climax of what can only be described as utter insanity.

Overall, the play itself was truly interesting to watch. And, even if you left not knowing what to make of it, you likely didn’t leave without a certain sense of profundity, or at least something to chuckle about later. Whatever the sensation was, however, one cannot deny that, central to this play as a whole, was the clock, working to simultaneously guide and beguile the audience as they tried to discern the method behind the madness of The Bald Soprano. Without this rather ingenious plot device, it’s possible that the play would have had a harder time gaining the renown it did. Truly, it proved to be just as central to the story as any of the characters. Here’s hoping it has many more long years in the spot-light.

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