Famous last words

An Irishman’s Diary about an unusual Romanian tradition

Anyone who has ever visited the grave of Samuel Beckett in Paris may also have chanced upon that of his near neighbour in eternity, Eugène Ionesco, whose epitaph is rather unusual.

Like Beckett's, Ionesco's horizontal headstone records the standard names and dates. Unlike Beckett's, it includes a theatrical aside: "Prier le Je Ne Sais Qui. J'espère Jesus-Christ" ("Pray to the I Don't Know Who. Jesus Christ, I hope.")

Quirky epitaphs must be a Romanian thing – we’ll come back to that subject shortly. But the contrast between the two writers’ graves is apt, because despite their proximity, living and dead, there were not as close as you might think.

Yes, they had similar lifespans (Beckett, famously, was born at Easter and died at Christmas, whereas Ionesco did almost the reverse). And despite coming from opposite ends of Europe, they both settled in Paris and wrote in French. Both also took up drama late – one of Ionesco's breakthrough works, The Chairs, opening in 1952 just as, elsewhere in the same city, a venue was being sought for another strange new play, Waiting for Godot.


Seventeen years on, they may even have been competing for the same Nobel Prize for Literature, although Ionesco – probably knowing that his Nobel boat had now sailed – took the setback well, saying Beckett deserved it.

Yet for all their similarities, so far as I know, the two men were never more than nodding acquaintances. Ionesco’s Theatre of the Absurd was a club of which, like most clubs, Beckett didn’t want to be member. And even as he assured reporters of his happiness at the Irishman’s Nobel, Ionesco added that there was “no comparison between his kind of plays and mine”.

As to this last point, theatre-goers in Beckett's home city will have a chance to judge for themselves later this month when The Chairs is staged, for one night only, at the Project.

The production, by the Bulandra Theatre of Bucharest, is part of the Romanian Cultural Days festival – an event that, throughout October, will highlight various facets of that country’s identity, including an exhibition on “The Blouse that Charged the World.” Yes, you’ll have heard about the role of shirts – black, brown, and blue ones – in 20th-century history. But the Romanian blouse has claims to fame too, and more honourable ones. Painted by Matisse, it was a defining fashion of the hippy era, and remains an influence on designers. The exhibition, in the European Union House in Dublin from October 14th, will explain why.

Vampires will of course feature in the cultural programme, which dovetails with the Bram Stoker Festival later in the month. But as another event will remind us, the creator of Dracula is not the only Irishman to have been inspired, in a major work, by a Romanian theme.

In fact, as with Stoker and Dracula, Shaun Davey had never visited the geographical source of his inspiration before composing the 2009 song cycle, Voices from the Merry Cemetery. He only rectified this a year later when attending an extraordinary live performance of the work, complete with choir and orchestra, at the graveyard in question.

The place was Sapanta, a small community in Romania’s extreme north, which would probably be unheard of anywhere else, except for its cemetery, now globally renowned for the cheerful colours – and in many cases equally cheerful epitaphs – on its grave-markers.

The tradition dates from 1935, when a local wood sculptor Stan Ioan Patras began commemorating the lives of cemetery residents with naive pictures and inscriptions. He has long since gone the same way himself, but his art lives on.

One much-referenced epitaph, for example, is from an ungrieving son-in-law, who begins by suggesting it was touch-and-go whether he or his wife’s mother departed this world first. If she had hung on a few days more, he implies, he’d be the one buried and she’d be standing over him.

Then, not taking anything for granted in this land of the undead, he continues with a rhyming appeal for silence from cemetery visitors: “You, who here are passing by/Not to wake her up please try”.

Voices from the Merry Cemetery draws on 12 other epitaphs from Sapanta, both happy and sad. It will be performed at the National Concert Hall next Wednesday, October 8th, with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, a Romanian male voice choir, uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn, singer Rita Connolly, and many others. More details at ircba.ie.