THE BALD PRIMA DONNA

by colinptucker

In the summer of 1963 I went to Paris to meet my girlfriend. She’d been doing a vacation job in Copenhagen. We didn’t get the dates right and I found myself with two days in the city on my own. As a drama student and a lover of film I headed first for the Cinematheque where I saw an ancient version of Manon Lescaut, probably the German silent directed by Arthur Robison. Watching it I know I felt like a serious person, a proper scholar. I can remember nothing about the film itself.
I next went to see what was already France’s longest running theatre show, the Parisian answer to London’s The Mousetrap. It was playing at the tiny Theatre de la Huchette and was a double bill of Ionesco’s La Leçon and La Cantatrice Chauve. I’m not sure whether this says anything about the cultural differences between the two cities and if so, what. What I can say is that while La Leçon has joined Manon Lescaut in the blank stretches of dead memories La Cantatric Chauve has become a part – if a very small one – of my life.
It’s a piece of sublime absurdist drama inspired by the textbooks that Ionesco had used while learning English. The Martins visit the Smiths and engage in conversations of the utmost banality. Non-sequitur follows non-sequitur. A maid becomes involved as does her boyfriend, a fireman. He mentions la cantatrice chauve – The Bald Prima Donna of the title – but why remains unclear. Looking for meaning is of course pointless.
Why should I remember this play? In fact I remember only one repeated motif, a momentary action and a chanted phrase. This phrase has become embedded in my brain to come trotting out whenever appropriate and more frequently when not. There’s some small hiatus in the action at which the characters turn to face each other, spread their arms and chant in unison:
“Comme c’est curieux, comme c’est bizarre.”
I find this wonderful, a profoundly satisfactory response to, well, almost anything. I do find however that the smaller the event the better. A supermarket trolley inadequately stowed? “Comme c’est curieux, comme c’est bizarre.” The post wrongly delivered? A bruised apple? A tall girl holding hands with a shorter man? You get the idea, I’m sure.
My girlfriend duly arrived and matters cultural took a different turn, art galleries taking over, plus visits to various institutions with literary connections – La Coupole, Les Deux Magots. All very enjoyable but for me nothing has quite achieved the longevity of:
“Comme c’est curieux, comme c’est bizarre.”

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