In considering the entire body of Eugène Ionesco's writing, his full-length play Rhinoceros (1959) is recognized as the most fully articulated expression of his disgust with the tide of institutional and personal conformism that he saw as a rising force in the twentieth century. Adapted from a short story of the same name, the play was first staged in Dusseldorf in October, 1959, and it is also the play that brought Ionesco's work to a global audience, premiering in Paris in 1960 and at the Royal Court in London later the same year. (The first English production of Rhinoceros was directed by Orson Welles and starred Laurence Olivier.) But it was the 1961 Broadway production that starred Eli Wallach as Berenger and Zero Mostel as Jean that launched Ionesco to previously unimagined celebrity. With its warning of how anyone might possibly fall victim to the pressures of conformity, the play has sparked varied and passionate reactions. Some audiences have embraced the implications of the powerful social message while others have balked at what they see as the overt didacticism of the play.
A recent edition of Rhinoceros was published by Penguin in 2000.
Eugène Ionesco was born Eugen Ionescu on November 26, 1909, in Slatina, Romania, to a Romanian father and a mother of French and Page 195 | Top of Article Greek-Romanian heritage. Baptized as a Romanian Orthodox, Ionesco spent most of his childhood in France, living in Paris while his father continued his studies. Ionesco returned to Romania with his father in 1925 following his parents' divorce. He went on to study French Literature at the University of Bucharest (1928-1933).
Ionesco married Rodica Burileanu in July 1936, and the two had a daughter, Marie-France, in August 1944. Returning to France in 1938 in order to complete his doctoral thesis, Ionesco and his family remained in Marseille during World War II. They returned to Paris in the mid-1940s, where Ionesco worked in publishing. His work during this period also included translating the works of Urmoz (1883-1923), a Romanian poet who is often considered an influential figure in surrealism and the literature of the absurd.
Ionesco came to the theater relatively late in life, not writing his first play until 1948 (La Cantatrice chauve; translated as The Bald Soprano), which was first performed in 1950. Recognized as one of the foremost practitioners of the Theater of the Absurd, he quickly produced an impressive series of one-act nonsense plays, including The Lesson (1951), The Chairs (1952), and Jack, or: The Submission (1955). He turned to full-length plays in 1954 with Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It, The Killer (1958), and Rhinoceros (1959). It was during this period, too, that Ionesco was forced into a very public debate over this vision of theater with the famous English critic Kenneth Tynan.
Ionesco's career spanned four decades and included novels, stories, operatic adaptations, as well as essays and theoretical writings. Ionesco received numerous awards and recognitions, including the Tours Festival Prize for film (1959), the Prix Italia (1963), the Society of Authors Theater Prize (1966), the Monaco Grand Prix (1969), the Grand Prix National for Theater (1969), the Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1970), and the Jerusalem Prize (1973). Ionesco was admitted into L'Académie Française in 1970. He was also awarded a number of honorary doctorates during his lifetime, from the University of Leuven, the University of Warwick, the University of Tel Aviv and from New York University. On March 28, 1994, Ionesco died in his residence in Paris, at the age of 84. He is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.
The setting for the play is a provincial town square after church on a Sunday afternoon. Arguments over often trivial details of bourgeois (middle-class) life erupt around the stage. At the center of the loudest of the arguments are Jean, a highly strung self-proclaimed intellectual, and his friend Berenger, an apathetic man who dulls himself with alcohol and seems wholly disengaged from life. Messy in his appearance, Berenger justifies his drinking as a necessary escape from the boredom of the world as he knows it. He is especially bored with his work, which he sees as meaningless. "There are so few distractions in this town," Berenger laments openly to Jean, "I get so bored. I'm not made for the work I'm doing…. every day at the office, eight hours a day."
Jean responds to Berenger's feeble rationalizations with forceful assertions about the strength of his will power, which he stresses is the mark of his superiority: "I'm just as good as you are," he observes. "I think with all due modesty I may say I'm better. The superior man." Jean's reasoning his simple: "The superior man is the man who fulfils his duty."
Their conversation is interrupted by the sound of distant trumpets, which signals the arrival (off stage) of a raging rhinoceros. Its appearance leaves all the characters, with the exception of Berenger, in total amazement. Berenger stands, as though in a stupor, watching the chaos unfold off stage.
As the sounds of the rhinoceros fade into the distance, Berenger orders another round of drinks for Jean and himself. Whereas Jean wants to talk about the dramatic appearance of the rhinoceros in town, Berenger cares little for the discussion and even less about the absurdity of the moment. Overheard from a nearby table is The Logician attempting to explain to an Old Gentleman what a syllogism is (a logical statement constructed from a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion). The implications of this conversation are clear: there must be a logical explanation for the appearance of the rhinoceros.
Pressed by Jean to have an opinion on the rhinoceros, Berenger at first attempts to quell the conversation with his suggestion that the animal probably escaped from the zoo. When this fails, he comes up with a number of lame explanations, each of which is challenged and eventually mocked by Jean. Increasingly disinterested in the topic, Berenger accepts Jean's opinions about the rhinoceros, and even agrees, half-heartedly, to curb his drinking. Life, Berenger admits, is too dull and too heavy for him to manage without alcohol.
Having acquiesced to the will of Jean, Berenger is further berated by his friend, at first for giving in so easily to the pressure of Jean's argument and then for his unwillingness to devote his time to cultural and intellectual endeavors. It is through such self-improvement, Jean argues, that Berenger might catch the eye of Daisy, an attractive typist that Berenger is drawn to.
Another rhinoceros rushes by off stage, leaving in its wake a path of destruction (including a dead cat) and a turmoil of words and arguments. A debate erupts about whether it was the same rhinoceros as the first, and whether it was an Asiatic or an African species. In an important challenge, Berenger suggests that concerning themselves with such distinctions is nonsense. Jean and Berenger argue, and Jean storms away, dismissing Berenger as an alcoholic.
Daisy joins the conversation, which makes the previously disinterested Berenger obviously nervous. She convinces him to make amends with Jean, but he slides once again towards drink rather than moving towards reconciliation. Meanwhile, The Logician follows his earlier long-winded, and obviously illogical, syllogism focusing on cats and paws with even more confusing discussion of rhinoceros horns. The Housewife leads a funeral procession for the dead cat, and the various townspeople vow, with empty emotion, to fight the aggression of the rhinoceroses. The opening act closes with Berenger turning away from the community in order to return to his brandy.
Shifting locations to Berenger's office, act 2 opens with the office workers Dudard and Papillon in an argument with Botard, an older man who is intensely skeptical about the news of the rhinoceroses. He believes, in fact, that they are a figment of the journalist's sensationalizing attempts to bolster newspaper sales. A believer in the hard logic of science, Botard discredits all reports as "a lot of made-up nonsense."
Berenger arrives late for work, but Daisy helps him get around the rules of the time sheet. Once in the office, he is asked about his opinion of the rhinoceroses. When he claims to have witnessed the arrival of the rhinos, Berenger is immediately insulted and bullied by Botard, who claims that all the sightings are "a hoax" and "propaganda." on the part of some "furtive underground organization." With Botard's argument complete, the workers return to their work of proofreading law proposals.
The attention of the office turns suddenly to Mr. Boeuf, who has not turned up for work that day. His wife suddenly appears with a telegram from her husband saying that he will be back in town in a few more days. More dramatically, she reports having been chased to the building by a rhinoceros, which is trying to climb the stairs to the office. As Botard is forced to acknowledge, albeit grudgingly, that the rhinoceroses do exist, Mrs. Boeuf has a sudden and surprising revelation: the office rhino is her husband. The responses to his rhino presence ranges from Daisy calling for Page 197 | Top of Article rescue to recommendations that Mrs. Boeuf collect insurance and file for divorce. Mrs. Boeuf, however, remains deeply devoted to her husband despite his new shape. Leaving the stage, she climbs aboard his back and the couple ride off together.
With this change of events, Papillon, the office manager, begins to calculate Mr. Boeuf's transformation as an office expense that he must find a way to account for. As more rhinoceroses are reported in the town, Botard attempts to explain how he actually never doubted their existence in the first place, though he continues to forward a conspiracy theory as to their origins. As the firemen arrive to save them from the building that has been ravaged by the transformed Mr. Boeuf, Botard vows that he will solve the mystery of the rhinoceroses. Berenger and Dudard, rivals for the affection of Daisy, make dramatic and over-polite gestures to each other as they leave the building.
The action shifts to Jean's apartment. Jean is in bed, coughing, when a knock at his door brings him to greet Berenger, who has come to visit. When the door opens, both men voice similar questions, which show the uniformity of thought as increasingly powerful in this world. Berenger apologizes for the previous day, much of which Jean has already forgotten.
Berenger notices that Jean's voice is getting hoarse and weak, but Jean insists it is Berenger's voice that has changed. The two discuss the pain in Jean's forehead and the bump on his nose. Berenger comes to realize that Jean is changing into a rhinoceros before his eyes, and suggests that the two men head to a doctor immediately. Jean grows increasingly quarrelsome, claiming that all doctors are frauds, that people disgust him, and that he will literally run over anyone who gets in his way.
Pacing his apartment like a caged animal, Jean listens as Berenger tells him the story of Mr. and Mrs. Boeuf, then goes into a long discussion of both Mr. Boeuf and the rhinoceroses. Mr. Boeuf, he claims, had a secret side to his character that came out in the transformation. Rhinos have a right to live, he argues, and society would benefit from a return to the laws of nature. As he paces in and out of the bathroom, Jean is gradually transformed completely; he then remains off stage, threatening Berenger, who is forced to flee the apartment.
As Berenger runs through the apartment building warning the residents of the presence of a rhinoceros, he realizes suddenly that the streets and the apartment building are full of marching rhinoceroses. The act ends with Berenger running out into the street shouting "Rhinoceros! Rhinoceros!"
The final act opens with Berenger in the midst of a nightmare of his own transformation. As he awakens, two important things happen: he realizes that he is still human, and he begins to think seriously about the negative effects of his drinking.
Dudard arrives at Berenger's apartment, and the two enter into a long discussion of the epidemic that seems to be sweeping the town. Berenger, increasingly paranoid that he is transforming, demands Dudard to provide an explanation, which the latter must admit he cannot. Dudard does suggest, though, that Jean was transformed because of some personality trait or flaw. Berenger, wanting more and more to remain himself, finds great solace in this theory, and states that he will do whatever he can to remain immune to the change. (He rationalizes his drinking, for instance, by thinking that it keeps him safe.) Dudard, in contrast, begins to theorize that the change might, in fact, be beneficial.
As the conversation continues, the two men argue about the control each has over his future, and how much responsibility each must take for the epidemic itself. Dudard settles on a kind of fatalistic acceptance of whatever reason there might be for the sudden appearance of the rhinos. He also reassures Berenger that he will never be transformed, only because he is not naturally inclined to towards such a bestial condition.
Dudard also reveals to Berenger that their office manager, Papillon, has resigned and turned into a rhinoceros. Whereas Dudard finds this story humorous, Berenger is visibly upset and wonders why Papillon would give himself over to the herd when he was a man of some intelligence and social prominence. Berenger comes to the conclusion that this transformation, unlike most of the others, must have been involuntary. Dudard continues to find the transformations natural, while Berenger increasingly thinks of them as abnormal and troubling. Thinking that his questions will be best answered by the supreme intellect of The Logician, Berenger is Page 198 | Top of Article especially troubled when he sees The Logician's hat on a rhinoceros passing with a chaotic herd. Despite the fact that even The Logician is not immune to the pressures of herd-like conformity, Berenger vows again to never allow himself to slip into a transformation.
Spending some minutes watching the swarming herds pass in the streets below his window, Berenger is brought back into the moment when Dudard opens the apartment door for Daisy. Dudard is, at first, taken back by her arrival, assuming that it is for a romantic interlude, but he calms when she says that she is just friends with Berenger. She has come at this time, she says, to inform them that Botard has already been transformed into a rhino. The three characters begin another discussion, focusing this time on the social problems that will be caused by the epidemic. Daisy and Botard suggest that getting used to the new state of affairs is the best solution, but Berenger commits himself to resisting acquiescence at all costs. Gradually he is coming to acknowledge to himself that his "duty is to oppose them, with a firm, clear mind."
They start to have lunch, but are interrupted suddenly by the crash of a wall. As the dust settles, they notice that the local fire hall has been destroyed, and that the firemen (now rhinoceroses) are marching as an organized regiment through the town. As Berenger doubts more and more in his ability to withstand the epidemic, Dudard excuses himself politely from the table, declaring that he is heading into the street to join "the great universal family" that he is convinced is taking shape in the streets. Berenger watches as he, too, makes the transformation from rational human to rhinoceros.
Stage directions note that at this point, projections of stylized rhinoceros heads appear on the wall of Berenger's apartment, becoming more and more beautiful with each new wave of images. Similarly, the sounds of the stampede slowly move from chaotic discord to an almost musical accompaniment to the play. Against this backdrop, Berenger declares his love for Daisy. She responds by saying that she loves him, too, and pours him some brandy in celebration. He, in turn, promises to defend her, but she insists that no one intends to do them any harm.
As Berenger begins to feel more and more responsible for the transformations of Jean, Papillon, and Dudard, Daisy advises him to release himself from the guilt and to take advantage of this opportunity to enjoy a happy life. He initially agrees with her, rationalizing that it was probably guilt that caused a lot of people to transform in the first place. As rhinos stampede around them, and their trumpeting is heard over the telephone and the radio, Berenger and Daisy realize that they are the last two people in a town now occupied by rhinoceroses. Daisy weakens, arguing that they should give themselves over to the transformation, while Berenger becomes even more resolved to resist. At first, he suggests that Daisy join with him to become a new Adam and Eve, but when she announces that she intends to allow herself to be swept into the new order, he denounces her as stupid.
Left alone, Berenger begins to question his own existence, his role in driving Daisy to the rhinos, and if it might be possible to convert the rhinos back into humans given time and the power of his own will. Drawn momentarily to the seductive power of the rhinoceroses, and increasingly repulsed by the ugliness of the human world, Berenger finds himself at the brink of desperation. In the powerful final moments of the play, he decides to make his stand as the last bastion of humanity. "I'll take on the whole of them!" he cries. "I'll put up a fight against the lot of them, the whole lot of them! I'm the last man left, and I'm staying that way until the end. I'm not capitulating!"
Berenger appears in a number of Ionesco's plays, and is the protagonist of Rhinoceros. He is a semi-autobiographical figure who represents the condition of the modern man whose life is defined by the meaningless toil of work, by the shallowness of his personal relationships, and by the alcohol that he uses to escape from a world that he can never understand.
His transformation is the central movement in the play. While the other characters literally turn into rhinoceroses, Berenger undergoes a change that is more moral than physical, and that leaves him a completely changed man from the beginning of the play. Entering the stage as an alienated man who obviously drinks too much, he is a man who finds little if any meaning in his work or his personal life, except for his fascination with the beauty of a co-worker Page 199 | Top of Article named Daisy. Exacerbating this sense of meaninglessness is the fact that Berenger is also too lazy to add culture to his life and is lost in his own musings about the nature of life.
At the same time, Berenger does have flashes of a deeper humanity during the course of the play. His love for Daisy, for instance, does reveal a willingness, and even desire for an emotional contact with another human being. And although Berenger opens the play as a man indifferent to his own passivity, he gradually comes to recognize the absurdity of his own life, which in turn prompts him to make a decision. Does he change his character or does he allow the rhinoceroses to redefine his life for him?
In the powerful closing lines of the play, Berenger makes his decision very clear, announcing to the world and to himself that he will rouse himself from the absurdity of his world and will resist with all his strength the encroaching pressures of the rhinoceroses. Most importantly, Berenger shows himself willing to take responsibility for himself but to expand his sense of responsibility to include those around him as well. "I'm the last man left," Berenger declares with a newfound passion, "and I'm staying that way until the end. I'm not capitulating!"
Mr. Boeuf is a co-worker of Berenger's who appears off stage as a rhinoceros.
Mrs. Boeuf is the wife of Mr. Boeuf, and is a woman who remains devoted to her husband despite the fact that he has been transformed into a rhinoceros.
Botard is a senior member of the company that Berenger works for. Cynical and jealous of Dudard's increasing status within the firm, he remains skeptical of the presence of the rhinoceroses, looking instead for a rational explanation for their attitudes and behavior.
The Café Proprietor
The Café Proprietor is one of the numerous characters that appear in the first act of the play, and is characterized for the most part by a narrowness of intellect. More significant is his inability and unwillingness to confront the encroaching threat of the rhinoceroses.
Daisy is Berenger's love interest, and an important motivation for him to move beyond indifference into an engaged, emotional world. Although she does have more emotion than other members of the community, she is accepting of the presence of the rhinoceroses, and, in fact, continually urges Berenger to get used to the presence of the rhinoceroses and not to feel guilty for his decision not to resist them. Never really willing to commit to an idea or moral framework, Daisy is seduced by the power and the beauty of the rhinoceroses, and sees in them a promise for a pleasure that she believes to be greater than that associated with human love.
Dudard works with Berenger in his office and is the most direct rival for the attention (and affections) of Daisy. Like Botard, he believes almost arrogantly in the power of his own intellect to make sense of the absurdities of the world.
The Grocer is one of the numerous characters that appears in the first act of the play, and is characterized for the most part by a narrowness of intellect. More significant is his inability and unwillingness to confront the encroaching threat of the rhinoceroses.
The Grocer's Wife
The Grocer's Wife is another of the many characters that appears in the beginning of the play; she is likewise characterized by a narrowness of intellect. Also like her husband, she is unwilling, or possibly unable, to confront the encroaching threat of the rhinoceroses.
The Housewife is still another character that appears early in the play. She is similar to the Grocer and his Wife in that the Housewife has a somewhat limited intellect. She is also not able nor willing to confront the reality of the rhinoceroses.
Jean is a representative of a kind of philosophic "super-man" who sees himself as above the morality and ethical beliefs of his own community. Arrogant in his belief in his own intellect and open in his contempt for those he considers the common man (such as Berenger), he is as at the Page 200 | Top of Article same time a character riddled with hypocrisy. He believes in education and culture, for instance, but reduces both to a thin veneer of public image rather than seeing them as the means to explore the depths of his own being.
Jean is also the most complex and powerful character in the play to be transformed into a rhinoceros. In some ways, his transformation signals the power of facism, the seduction of conformity, and the very real presence of the absurd in the everyday world. His transformation also underscores the almost bestial nature of humanity. Audiences soon come to understand, in other words, that Jean as a rhinoceros is not really that different in terms of his morality and ethics than Jean the man was.
The Little Old Man
The Little Old Man appears early in the play and is another character who is unwilling to take action against the rhinoceroses due to a lack of understanding.
The Little Old Man's Wife
The Little Old Man's Wife also acts as a supporting character. With her husband, she takes no action against the rhinoceroses, but instead joins the herd.
Appearing only in the first act, The Logician is, as his impersonal name suggests, a representative of the rationalism that defines a number of the characters, including Jean, Botard, and Dudard. Moreover, his presence in the play underscores one of the underlying themes of the play: that logic, reason, and the human intellect cannot explain all things in the world. During the course of the play, The Logician is ridiculed, quite appropriately, for his circular logic and his inability to see questions as clearly or as accurately as a man of such powerful intellect should. Through his manipulation of The Logician, Ionesco iterates his belief that the world is an illogical place, at times even an absurd one, and the first step to understanding the world in a meaningful way is to admit the absurdity of the human condition.
The Old Gentleman
The Old Gentleman is yet another character who goes along with the herd.
Papillon is the head of Berenger's office, and a representative of people who place corporate or business agendas above the well being of people and humanist ideals.
Although the Rhinoceroses are not human characters and they never appear fully formed on stage, they are a collective presence that dominates the play. Most simply, the rhinoceroses represent the human capacity for violence that can erupt, on occasion, into savagery. More subtly, they represent the safety that is found when individuals gather into groups and the dangerous slippage towards a herd mentality that resembles, in more than one way, the totalitarian politics of the Nazi regime.
Despite the fact that the rhinoceroses form a kind of faceless mass, they do take on individual characteristics. When Mr. Boeuf turns into a rhinoceros, for instance, he approaches his wife with some tenderness, which allows her to recognize her husband despite his transformation. In the end, the type of human a person was before his or her transformation influences the type of rhinoceros that is created through the change. In some instances, Ionesco has the rhinos become more beautiful than the humans themselves, underscoring emphatically the ugliness of the human condition. Ionesco uses the characters of the rhinoceroses to underscore how even the obvious savagery of a powerful group can prove seductive within a culture based on passivity and the will to conform.
The Waitress is another character that appears early in the play and is transformed into a rhinoceros with little resistance.
The Pitfalls of Fascism
During his lifetime, Ionesco was an open critic of inhumanities associated with Nazism and fascism, both in their pre-War configuration and during World War II. But to read Rhinoceros as an attack on fascist politics is simple enough. But more deeply, Ionesco is determined to explore Page 201 | Top of Article the psychology and mentality of those who succumb with little resistance to Nazism, allowing their individual ideals and free will to be subsumed into a violent group consciousness. In Rhinoceros, characters repeat words and ideas that other characters have said earlier in the play, or look for guidance to authority figures that are being assimilated into the power structure of the rhinoceroses.
Constructing the rhinoceroses as a universal family, Ionesco underscores how malleable or impressionable individuals could be seduced by the ranks of a powerful group consciousness such as Nazism. Ionesco's position is made clear through the course of the play: to acquiesce passively to the pressures of the rhinoceroses, either through turning a blind eye to their rise to power or by joining their ranks, is often as harmful as the direct violence that such groups initiate.
Existentialism and Free Will
Rhinoceros hinges on Berenger's gradual realization of the power of his own will to transform him from an alcohol riddled, apathetic man into a self-proclaimed savior of humanity. His struggle to attain this level of self-knowledge is a classic existential one: how to take the meaningless of a life lived in a world of absurdity and make it meaningful through a conscious act of the individual will.
Emphasizing the freedom of each of the characters to actively choose their own path of action (as in the case of Dudard), this play argues against the primary definitions of humans as rational, logical beings (these opinions are expressed through Botard and The Logician). This is not a play, in other words, about the logical construction of meaning, but about the personal discoveries of meaning amidst the swirl and chaos of possible options. Not surprisingly, an individual's movement along such a path is very often fraught with anxiety and, at times, fear. To become aware of the possibilities associated with such a deep personal freedom, as Dudard reveals to Berenger, is also to be aware of the possibilities of choosing to give that freedom over to an outside power (to follow the herd) or, in the most extreme cases, to choose death over life. To live in a rational world, this play asserts, is to live without such profound choices, but to move beyond the rational as such characters as Dudard and Daisy do, is to open oneself into the world that extends beyond the pressures of the ordinary and the everyday.
While other characters, most notably those of a rationalist leaning, fail the ultimate test of will power (giving themselves over to the rhinoceroses), Berenger gains a sense of power as the play unfolds from act 1 (when Berenger is lost in daydreams and alcohol) through to act 3 when
he emerges as a man who can feel a sense of love and responsibility for all of those around him, including people who have shunned him previously. In the terms of existential philosophy, Berenger becomes the figure of the superman, gathering together the powers of his will to reinforce his love for those around him and to take responsibility for his own role in sustaining humanity.
The Limits of Logic and Rationalism
As is a common theme among dramatists working within the traditions of the Theater of the Absurd, Ionesco makes a sustained effort in Rhinoceros to expose the limitations of logic and reason in a world increasingly defined by the illogical and the absurd. He is quick to point out, for instance, that such self-proclaimed rationalists as The Logician and Jean struggle openly in the world of the play, either talking themselves into circular arguments or rationalizing their acquiescence to the pressures of the rhinoceroses.
To Ionesco, a world in which the savagery of fascism can find fertile soil is a world of absurdity and nonsense. Put another way, it is a world in which logic and rationalism clearly have no power. In the opening act of the play, in particular, Ionesco devotes significant detail to disparaging both the intellect and the rationalizing language of The Logician, the most obvious representative of the rationalist world. In the end, The Logician's view of the world is proven to be illogical and inapplicable to the real world of the play.
To the character of Berenger, especially as the play opens, logic leads only to a deepening doubt about the nature of reality and the condition of the world. Rationality itself, in other words, is never enough to give meaningfulness to the world. What is needed in order to make a Page 203 | Top of Article life meaningful, both Berenger and Ionesco argue, is the initiative to make a commitment to life and to take responsibility for something significant outside of an individual sense of pleasure or happiness. However illogical it might seem, a meaningful life, Berenger argues, is a life of emotion, dreams, and full (and often frustrating) engagement with the world in all its complexities.
As Ionesco observes in an interview with The Tulane Drama Review, one of the keys to the play is to recognize the failure of both logic and language to make sense of the world. "Berenger destroys his own clichés as he speaks. And so, he sees beyond them. His questions no longer have easy answers. Perhaps he arrives in this way at fundamental questions which lie beyond false answers."
Given that the transformation of humans into rhinoceroses is central to the play, Ionesco must manage both the transformation itself and the philosophic implications of this shift with great care. He does so masterfully by having the rhinoceroses appear off stage, which allows the sounds of the rhinoceroses rather than their appearances to be used to mark threat and destruction. Increasing the volume of the offstage chaos increases the sense of threat as well as capturing the audience's emotional attention. To reveal the animals would, in this sense, lessen their impact, and diminish the sense of destruction that they bring to the town.
Leaving the rhinoceroses off stage also leaves the possibility of their existence in question, which is important in a play that focuses on the psychology of conformity as much as it does on the physical pressures towards conformity. By never allowing the audience to actually see the rhinoceroses in the fullness of their physicality, Ionesco allows for a number of very powerful questions to circulate through the play. Are the townspeople being forced to transform or are they seduced by the idea of becoming one with the herd? What is the relationship between physical strength and political strength in the modern world? And if the rhinoceroses exist only in the collective imagination of the townspeople, is it really possible for one man to resist, and to turn the tide of conformity and violence?
Two strategies that Ionesco uses with great impact are overlapping or simultaneous dialogue. At various moments in the play, especially in act 1, characters often say the same words at either exactly or nearly the same time, which underscores the collective thinking that is taking place in the play. The more people that begin to agree with the conforming pressures of the rhinoceroses, the more they take on the same words and same sayings. As the conformity of the play intensifies, the diversity of language diminishes.
At other times in the play, Ionesco has parallel conversations developing (Jean-Berenger, The Logician-The Old Gentleman) that focus on the same ideas and use similar (and often identical) language. Again, Ionesco's goal is to show how quickly a kind of communal thought can take hold of a culture, reducing debate and constructive oppositions to a point of sameness and stagnancy. With the exception of Berenger, the world of the play becomes a world of almost oppressive similarities and shared ideas.
Theater of the Absurd
Theater of the Absurd refers to a theatrical movement that began in the 1940s and 1950s. Plays written in the Theater of the Absurd tradition generally revolve around concepts such as the isolation of the individual in society, and the sad nature of the human condition. Such plays, like Rhinoceros, generally exaggerate or distort certain aspects of society in order to communicate this. This tendency towards exaggeration or distortion led to a dramatic structure that no longer followed the dictates of presenting a sensible plot or believable character development, which in turn led to a change in the way plays were staged altogether.
Other playwrights who are categorized as writing in the tradition of the Theater of the Absurd are Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett
The Rise of Fascism
Written in part as a response to the politics and ideas that arose in the years leading towards and during World War II, Rhinoceros is often seen as a powerful commentary on the rise of fascism Page 204 | Top of Article and fascist politics during this period (most obviously in the form of German Nazism.) Generally defined as an authoritarian political ideal that makes individual desires and needs subordinate to the needs of the state and some form of national unity, fascism is usually considered the antithesis of liberal freedoms.
Originally, the term fascism was used by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) to define the political movement that controlled Italy from 1922 through 1945. The term became quickly diversified, though, and was attached to a number of political movements that erupted across Europe from 1920 onward, most notably Nazism in Germany. Across its history, as Ionesco points out, fascism has attracted political support from a diverse cross section of the population, from corporate big business through to the working class and impoverished peasants.
As Allan Lewis notes in his book Eugene Ionesco, the playwright was surprised by the immediate and international success of Rhinoceros, though he always wondered whether audiences were aware of the political implications of the play's multilayered subtexts. Regardless, Lewis continues, critics have consistently seen that play as "a magnificent theatrical demonstration of the ways in which the mind of man can be captured and enslaved by specific and transient doctrines." Writing in 1960, in the Tulane Drama Review, Wallace Fowlie holds an opinion that is representative of most reviewers. He sees the play as a work that "will doubtless reach a far wider public than his previous plays." Put simply, as Fowlie suggests: "For the first time in his career, Ionesco has conquered a large public easily and quickly."
The reason for the initial and continued success of the play is, Matei Calinescu argues in East European Politics and Societies, due to "its dramatic qualities, its comic language, its rhythm, its original combination of wild farce and anxiety-ridden nightmare." Despite its dark themes and powerful images of violence and degradation, the play continues to find a place in contemporary theater, speaking to the longevity of Ionesco's vision of the dangers confronting the world in the wake of powerful ideologies.
Dyer holds a Ph.D. in English literature and has published extensively on fiction, poetry, film, and television. He is also a freelance university teacher, writer, and educational consultant. In this essay, he discusses Berenger's famous defense of humanity in the closing lines of the play as an extension of the illogic and meaninglessness of the world portrayed in the play, rather than a heroic escape from its deadening pressures.
That Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros is a multifaceted look at the human condition is obvious to even the most casual reader. Good is pitted against evil, Berenger is positioned as an outsider in the world, and individuals succumb with various degrees of resistance or compliance to a force that is at once conformist and totalitarian. As the play itself develops, it is also increasingly obvious that the audience is supposed to side with the character of Berenger, the man who stands alone against the epidemic of rhinoceroses that sweep through the town in which he lives. Berenger is treated as a sympathetic or even heroic figure who overcomes his obvious limitations to announce himself in the final lines of the play as the unyielding defender of humanity.
But a close reading of the play reveals some interesting questions about what it is exactly that Berenger sets out to defend. Is he standing in support of a humanity that resists fascism as a political practice? Or is his nemesis the stultifying effects of commerce? And the more one considers these questions, the longer the list of possible challenges grows: Berenger as a defender against violence and absurdity, or Berenger as a defender of language and emotion. Or perhaps, as this essay will suggest, Berenger is a man whose defensive posturing at the end of the play is itself a position in need of clarification. Perhaps the most important question that remains at the end of the play is one that remains open: if a man does not know what it is he wants to defend how is it possible to defend anything at all? Perhaps, in the Page 206 | Top of Article end, Berenger's passionate promise to himself and to the world is more an act of passionate absurdity than it is moral growth.
As the play opens, there is little to suggest that Berenger has a life or a sense of humanity that is worth defending. The opening act becomes a veritable catalogue of the apathy and the disconnectedness from humanity that has overwhelmed his life. He confesses to his friend Jean, for instance, that he is bored with his work and cut off from a sense of community or belonging. He drinks, he explains, in order to inoculate himself against the pain of the boredom he feels, to dull the pain that Berenger associates with the monotony of the world in which he lives. Alcohol allows him to forget the futility of his work, to deal with the humility that he senses is inevitable in his pursuit of Daisy, and to essentially isolate himself from the greater community around him. "I feel out of place in life, among people," he acknowledges openly to Jean, "and so I take to drink. That calms me down and relaxes me so I can forget."
In this sense, alcohol becomes Berenger's means of shedding the weight of his humanity, enabling him to create an illusion of self-identity that will hold at bay the sense of humanity that will force him to feel connected to the world. As the play opens, Berenger cannot manage a meager whimper of protest when the first rhinoceroses appear, opting instead to sit with his drink disinterestedly, feeling too exhausted "to drag the weight of [his] own body about" while others react with fear, confusion, and even anger.
This is not to suggest that other characters in the play are any more successful than Berenger at establishing a definition of humanity worth defending. Jean claims to have a strong moral fiber and a will power that allows him to connect with the world in a meaningful way, but Jean is hampered by his own thinking, which is often circular and self-contradictory. He pushes Berenger to acquire culture as a means of fighting the alcohol-induced heaviness, but later Jean turns down an invitation to attend the theater because it might bring him in contact with too many people. Similarly, The Logician, a master of false syllogisms, moves forward through the opening act of the play in a muddle of arrogance and rhetorical wrong-headedness matched only by his sense of superiority.
Perhaps the most telling example of this failure to negotiate a sustaining (and therefore defensible) definition of humanity is captured in the character of Botard. Rejecting outright the presence of rhinoceroses in town (despite obvious proof to the contrary), he denounces his fellow townspeople as buffoons, hypocrites, or liars. More significantly, his paranoia leaves him seeing conspiracy everywhere and trusting no one. His whole purpose in life, as he announces repeatedly, is to learn "the names of the traitors" and to Page 207 | Top of Article uncover "the purpose and the meaning of [the] whole plot."
One might argue, too, that a sign of Berenger's disconnection from a defensible understanding of humanity is the fact that he is deeply impressed by what he sees as the distinguished intellects of both Botard and The Logician. Appropriately, Berenger falls into the flawed logic of believing what these men represent when, near the end of the play, he sees a rhinoceros with a straw hat on his horn identical to that previously worn by The Logician. Berenger makes a logical leap reminiscent of The Logician himself, a man fixated with syllogisms. The thinking unfolds as follows: The Logician wears a straw hat. Later a rhinoceros is seen wearing an identical hat, which leads Berenger to conclude that the rhinoceros is The Logician transformed. Following the lead of Botard and The Logician, Berenger overlooks obvious alternative explanations that might also explain the pairing of rhino and straw hat (there are two straw hats in town, for instance) in order to explain the world according to his already established world view.
Despite his propensity for self-delusion and faulty logic, Berenger is positioned as both an intellectual resistance fighter and the defender of humanity in the famous long speech that concludes the play. But before he reaches this final moment of the play, Berenger wanders through a series of other possible options for dealing with the rhinoceros epidemic. Is it possible for him to talk with the rhinos, and if so what language will he have to use? Can language itself even serve any purpose in this new world? Are the rhinoceroses truly beautiful and are humans as ugly as he has come to believe them to be? As he moves towards his moment of enlightenment, Berenger piles question upon question: questions about his identity, about his physical attributes, and about the nature of being a rhinoceros.
It is only after a series of profoundly disconnected ramblings that Berenger moves towards his final words, a famous statement that appears suddenly and with a series of exclamation marks attached. And it is in the context of these openly ambivalent thoughts that readers are invited to reconsider his sudden determination to never give in to the pressures of conformity. Given this new context, these final words are less heroic and magical and, once again, logically flawed. How is one man planning to resist a hoard of rhinoceroses that has already exhibited a willingness to use violence (they kill a cat in the opening act, for instance) and is, despite Berenger's exclamatory challenges, an intensely seductive presence in the changing world? And what will the future hold for a man who imagines himself as the new Adam? In the moments leading to his declaration, audiences must remember, Berenger is still debating the relative beauty of humans when compared to the green-skinned invaders.
Seen in this new context, Berenger's famous defense of humanity resonates as a tragic commentary on the emptiness of language in the imperfect world of Ionesco's play. The promise of the last man to stand and fight ultimately rings hollow in a play that slides inexorably towards the mindlessness of the herd.
Source: Klay Dyer, Critical Essay on Rhinoceros, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, Lane argues that Rhinoceros is a powerful play, and she suggests that it articulates an aversion to politics, both as a practice and as an idea.
AN ALLEGORY OF NAZISM?
… It is well known and widely noted that Rhinoceros was inspired by Ionesco's own bewilderment and horror at seeing nearly all his colleagues and compatriots in Bucharest succumb to fascism between 1934 and 1938. "Imagine that one fine morning you discover that rhinoceroses have taken power," he wrote in his private journal around 1940 (PP 67). In the play, the rhinoceros is a symbol for the fascist Iron Guards whose rise to power in Romania paralleled the rise of Nazism in Germany. Jean's transformation into a rhinoceros dramatizes Ionesco's own experience of seeing a colleague turn into a fascist: "I spoke to him. He was still a man. Suddenly, beneath my very eyes, I saw his skin get hard and thicken in a terrifying way. His gloves, his shoes, became hoofs; his hands became paws, a horn began to grow out of his forehead, he became ferocious, he attacked furiously. He was no longer intelligent, he could no longer talk. He had become a rhinoceros" (PP 80).
Certainly the analogies between the Nazis and the rhinoceroses of the play are obvious. As Jean makes clear in justifying his decision to join the rhinoceroses, the rhinoceros mentality glorifies nature and dismisses outdated moral standards: "Nature has its own laws. Morality's against Nature." When Bérenger asks him if he is Page 208 | Top of Article suggesting that we replace our moral laws by the law of the jungle, Jean answers, "It would suit me, suit me fine … We've got to build our life on new foundations. We must get back to primeval integrity." Like the Nazis, these are brutal beasts who glory in their strength and trample the weak—the cat, for instance—under foot. They are bullies who rampage through the streets and destroy civilization.
Each of the characters who contracts rhinoceritis has a reason that echoes the rationales or excuses of various groups who became fascists. Jean is a zealous conformist who speaks and thinks only in platitudes. He is an overbearing bully, and therefore it is not surprising that he is among the first to convert. He is, moreover, a racist; when Bérenger maintains during their argument in the first act that "Asiatics are people the same as everyone else," Jean becomes livid and screams, "They're yellow!" Botard is also an ideologue, a left-wing activist who sees conspiracies everywhere and claims to know the secret behind the sudden appearance of the rhinoceroses. As Dudard points out, Botard's passionate and overly simplified attitudes are "entirely dictated by hatred of his superiors." Despite his early opposition to the rhinoceroses, he converts in order to "move with the times." Dudard, on the other hand, represents the type of intellectual for whom "to understand is to justify": "My dear Bérenger, one must always make an effort to understand. And in order to understand a phenomenon and its effects you need to work back to the initial causes, by honest intellectual effort." Dudard's transformation parallels the conversion of Ionesco's antifascist friends to fascism "because in the beginning they gave in on one little detail." "This is the way they all begin. They admit certain things, with complete objectivity. You must discuss things with them reasonably and objectively. In reality they give in a little, to the right, to the left, without realizing it" (PP 79-80). Dudard is a tolerant relativist who maintains in his discussion with Bérenger that as mere humans we are not competent to judge what is normal or abnormal: "Who can say where the normal stops and the abnormal begins? Can you personally define these conceptions of normality and abnormality? Nobody has solved this problem yet, either medically or philosophically." Other characters (Daisy and M. Papillon, for example) are ordinary, otherwise decent citizens who go along with the rhinoceroses because everyone else is doing it or because they are afraid …
REASON VERSUS "LOGIC"
When the play premiered, critics attacked Ionesco for failing to provide a rational defense against rhinoceritis, for mocking the human capacity to reason. Yet the true object of the play's satire is not reason so much as the perversion of reason wherein a system (logic) supplants reality. Bérenger is like the raisonneur in Molière's comedies—the one character who speaks with the voice of common sense; he is the only one to point out the basic truth that it is normal to be human and absolutely abnormal to become a rhinoceros. His aversion to the rhinoceroses is founded in his essential humanity and not in some dogma. The dogmatists—Jean, Botard, the Logician—succumb to a system because they cannot exist outside a system. It is dogma that reverses the terms, making the irrational "logical" and perverting reason into irrational rationalizing.
The character of the Logician is the prime example of this kind of antilogic. During the first act, he gives the Old Gentleman a lesson in logic, warning ironically that logic is a very beautiful thing "as long as it's not abused." He then undertakes to teach the old man what a syllogism is, but he makes an elementary error, reversing the last two terms: "The cat has four paws. Isidore and Fricot both have four paws. Therefore Isidore and Fricot are cats"; "All cats die. Socrates is dead. Therefore Socrates is a cat." The Logician's antilogic, founded on a rigid system of false syllogisms, leads him to deny the obvious and lose contact with reality:
Old Gentleman: So then logically speaking,
my dog must be a cat?
Page 209 | Top of Article Logician: Logically, yes …
Old Gentleman: So Socrates was a cat, was
Logician: Logic has just revealed the fact to
Certainly the Logician is an object of satire, like the learned Doctors in Improvisation; like them, he is a fool and a pseudointellectual. The fact that he is honored as an intellectual authority satirizes a society so easily duped; this does not mean, however, that the play condemns the human intellect and its capacity to reason. On the contrary, it is the perversion of human reasoning that leads to disaster. When the Logician says that "there are no limits to logic," he is issuing an implicit warning about the danger of allowing any mechanical system to take precedence over obvious truths. As Ionesco told Claude Bonnefoy, "Obviously, logic is external to life. Logic, dialectics, systematologies contain all possible mechanisms, all possible forms of madness. Everyone knows that systematologies lose touch with reality" (ENT 121).
DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES
In the same interview cited above, Ionesco opposes the natural logic of dreams to the madness of so-called logical systems: "Dreams are natural, they're not mad." Like so many of Ionesco's protagonists, Bérenger is a dreamer; as he tells Jean, "I do dream. Life is a dream." At the beginning of the play he is nearly somnolent, hung over, apathetic. His contact with waking life is tenuous and painful at best—"Solitude seems to oppress me. And so does the company of other people"; "I sometimes wonder if I exist myself." He feels "out of place in life, among people" and uses alcohol to "forget." So wrapped up is he in his own anxieties and musings that he hardly notices the first passage of the rhinoceros. While all the other characters exclaim and react with surprise and indignation, he merely yawns. As the play becomes more and more like a bad dream, however, Bérenger "wakes up," so that the initial situation is reversed by the end of the play. Asleep in a "normal" world, Bérenger wakes up as the world becomes a nightmare. By the end he is as much out of place as he was in the beginning, but the normal-abnormal polarity has been reversed.
The nightmarish proliferation of rhinoceroses, progressing geometrically at an increasingly frenzied pace, echoes the proliferation of matter (chairs, eggs, furniture, mushrooms, coffee cups, the growing corpse) in other Ionesco plays that have the quality of a bad dream. Metamorphosis of a human being into an animal is reminiscent of Kafka, an even more disturbing invasion of the human domain than the proliferation of objects because animals are living beings, like humans. As the animal becomes the norm and the human the aberration, the scale of values is reversed. The rhinoceros norm becomes attractive, even to Bérenger, who in a penultimate reversal of attitude tries but fails to become a rhinoceros himself.
SPACE AND DECOR
Like The Killer, Rhinoceros opens in a brightly lit exterior setting. Whereas the bright light in the earlier play was the objective correlative of the protagonist's euphoric emotional state, however, the light in the later play has no effect on Bérenger's psyche, mired as he is in his own darkness. Moreover, the sets of the first two scenes in Rhinoceros are realistic, crowded with scenery, characters and props—quite a departure from what audiences might have expected from Ionesco. For the first time in Ionesco's theater, the main character is shown working in a public office with others, solidly placed within the larger context of society; both the light and the decor of the first two scenes reflect human activity and the normal bustle of daily life. As rhinoceritis spreads in the last two scenes, however, the lighting becomes gloomier, reflecting Bérenger's increasing distress and isolation, and the set returns to the claustrated interior room found in so many earlier plays.
The set also becomes progressively more stylized and less realistic as the human domain (the "normal") is displaced by rhinoceroses (the "abnormal"). Beginning with Jean's physical transformation near the end of act 2, rhinoceros horns and then rhinoceros heads appear on stage. By the end of the last act, rhinoceros silhouettes surround the stage, and the entire upstage wall is covered with stylized rhinoceros heads that, "in spite of their monstrous appearance, seem to become more and more beautiful." After Daisy leaves, Bérenger takes some pictures of human beings out of a cupboard and hangs them on a wall in an effort to find a reflection of his own human image, but "the ugliness of these pictures is in contrast to the rhinoceros heads which have become very beautiful."
Sound effects also have a major role in representing the displacement of the human realm by the rhinoceroses. In the first two scenes, the Page 210 | Top of Article rhinoceroses are represented primarily by the deafening roar of their hooves as they run by, the sound of which momentarily drowns out human conversation. The roaring and trumpeting of the beasts punctuate the third act, signifying the rapid spread of the epidemic. Only annoying and intermittent in the beginning, they become increasingly intrusive; toward the end, their sounds invade the room through both the telephone and the radio. As the stylized heads became more beautiful, so the noises become more musical and melodious as the rhinoceroses become the norm: "Powerful noises of moving rhinoceroses are heard, but somehow it is a musical sound"; "all these disquieting sounds are nevertheless somehow rhythmical, making a kind of music." It is this music, in fact, that finally seduces Daisy to join the rhinoceroses:
Daisy: Listen, they're singing!
Bérenger: They're not singing, they're
Daisy: They're singing …
Bérenger: You can't have a very musical ear,
Daisy: You don't know the first thing about
music, poor dear—and look, they're
playing as well, and dancing … They're
beautiful … They're like gods.
The organization of space, both onstage and offstage, reflects the tension and conflict between human and animal realms. The appearance of the rhinoceroses divides space vertically, with the rhinoceroses occupying the lower level (the street) and the humans occupying second-story rooms. It is only in the first act that human beings appear at street level. The death of the housewife's pet cat is a signal that the street belongs to the rhinoceroses. Staircases—the link between upper and lower levels—figure prominently in the last three scenes. In the second scene, M. Boeuf destroys the stairs leading up to the office, trapping Bérenger and his colleagues. In the last two scenes, the staircases outside Jean's and Bérenger's apartments are visible to the audience. When a character (Bérenger, Dudard, Daisy) mounts them, it symbolizes that character's humanity. Inversely, descending the staircase signifies becoming a rhinoceros; all the characters who become rhinoceroses run down the stairs to join the others on the ground. While the location of the human domain on the upper level signifies human superiority, it also leads to isolation as the rhinoceroses take over the entire ground level and cut off all avenues of escape.
A similar tension between interior and exterior space underlies the play. As the rhinoceroses take over the exterior space, the humans are driven inside by the dust they raise, the noise they make, and the danger of being trampled. While the rhinoceroses are confined to the offstage exterior space in the first two scenes, they invade the onstage space in the last two. Interiors function as both prison and shelter. The humans are trapped in the office in the second act, and Bérenger feels trapped inside Jean's room when Jean becomes a rhinoceros and rhinoceroses block the exits. At the end of act 2 Bérenger is desperate to escape from Jean's room, while in act 3 he is barricaded inside his room, trying to keep the rhinoceroses outside. The barriers that separate inside from outside are easily penetrated, however; the rhinoceroses call Bérenger on the phone, their sounds enter the room over the radio as well as through the walls and windows, the dust they raise fills the room, and their stylized heads eventually cover the entire back wall. The shelter afforded by Bérenger's room is precarious at best, for the rhinoceroses are quite capable of knocking down any wall—Bérenger, Dudard, and Daisy report seeing them demolish the walls of the fire station.
An innovation in organization of space is the extension of the offstage space into the auditorium. In both Jean's and Bérenger's rooms an empty window frame faces the audience in the foreground. Part of the invisible wall that separates the stage from the auditorium, the frame serves both to emphasize Bérenger's isolation from the human world and to involve the audience implicitly in the growing mass hysteria. Jean tries at one point to escape through this window in the second act, but his way is blocked by "a large number of rhinoceros heads" "crossing the orchestra pit at great speed." On several occasions in the third act, Bérenger, Dudard, and Daisy look out through the empty frame into the auditorium, gesturing toward the audience as they describe the rhinoceroses whose heads can be seen passing underneath the window; Bérenger exclaims, for example that, "a lot of them started like that!" while pointing to the audience.
A TRAGIC FARCE
Although Rhinoceros has no subtitle, the term tragic farce would be equally appropriate for this play as for The Chairs. Ionesco disliked Page 211 | Top of Article the American production because it turned the play into a silly comedy. "I have read the American critics on the play and noticed that everyone agreed the play was funny. Well, it isn't. Although it is a farce, it is above all a tragedy" (NCN 208).
The grimness of the play's basic theme is thrown into relief by use of farcical elements, in keeping with Ionesco's conviction that the comic should be submerged in the tragic and vice versa. The first act in particular is broadly farcical. The contrast between the physical appearance of the two principal characters (Jean is large, pompous, and immaculately groomed, and he is wearing yellow shoes; Bérenger is slim, groggy, disheveled, and rumpled) is an immediate source of humor; they are in this regard reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy. Slapstick and physical humor are prominent: Bérenger spills his drink on Jean, Jean knocks the Old Gentleman into the Logician's arms while flapping his arms like a bird, and the waitress drops a full tray of glasses when she is startled by the passage of the second rhinoceros. While the succeeding scenes become somewhat less farcical as the rhinoceroses become more threatening, physical humor persists throughout the play, from the large Mme Boeuf's leap onto the back of her rhinoceros husband to Jean's transformation into a rhinoceros, as comic as it is terrifying, to Bérenger's constant checking under a bandage he wears on his forehead for any trace of a horn. This broad slap-stick humor is probably the primary explanation for the wide-spread appeal and popularity of the play among mass audiences throughout the world.
Although the outrageous nonsense of the earlier plays is absent, verbal humor is another important source of comedy in Rhinoceros. The Logician's idiotic false syllogisms and his lengthy explanation to the Old Gentleman about what happens when you take legs away from cats are very funny, as is the silly argument about which variety of rhinoceros has one horn and which has two. Equally amusing is the contrapuntal dialogue of the first act, in which two simultaneous conversations—one between Jean and Bérenger and the other between the Logician and the Old Gentleman—overlap so that each pair occasionally repeats the words of the other. The rapid-fire repetition of certain exclamations and the accelerated pace of the dialogue add considerably to the comic effect. The twisted logic of Jean's and Dudard's rationalizing explanations of the rhinoceroses is as funny as it is distressing. Even in the last act, comic touches remain. Daisy and Bérenger fall in love, quarrel, and part in a very short space of time; as Bérenger says, "Oh dear! In the space of a few minutes we've gone through twenty-five years of married life."
Other touches of Ionesco's wit appear as well. When Dudard looks in the paper to find out what really happened the day before, for example, he consults the "dead cats column." As is so often the case, Ionesco does not resist a small reference to himself. When Jean urges Bérenger to improve his mind, he recommends seeing an interesting play—one by Ionesco: "There's one playing now. Take advantage of it."
It is the play's humor that saves it from pathos and sentimentality. Bérenger is a derisory antihero; a well-meaning but inept weakling with a drinking problem, he cannot explain his own resistance to the rhinoceroses. He even tries at the last minute to join them, unsuccessfully. As Ionesco said about the type of character he prefers, "He must be as comic as he is moving, as distressing as he is ridiculous … One has to be able to regard [him] with a lucidity that is not malevolent but ironical" (NCN 123). The one unbreakable rule for writing comedy, he said, was that "one must not allow oneself to get bogged down in sentimentality. One needs to be somehow cruel and sardonic with oneself" (NCN 123). It is exactly this irony, this sardonic twist, that makes the play a tragedy of derision rather than of grandeur. Read in this light, Bérenger's final words—"I'm the last man left, and I'm staying that way until the end. I'm not capitulating!"—are not heroic so much as they are desperate.
Source: Nancy Lane, "Rhinoceros," in Understanding Eugène Ionesco, University of South Carolina Press, 1994, pp. 110-23.
In the following excerpt, the critic gives a critical analysis of Ionesco's work.
Romanian-born French playwright Eugene Ionesco was one of the prominent voices of what is known as the Theatre of the Absurd, a movement of the 1950s and 1960s that blended surrealism with existential thought and vaudevillian clowning. Although he persistently discredited Page 212 | Top of Article the label—preferring instead "theatre of derision"—Ionesco, along with fellow absurdists Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, and Edward Albee, wrote plays that were highly experimental for their time in which traditional plots, structures, and language were replaced with more fragmented, contradictory, and oftentimes nonsensical dialogue, images, and situations. His repeated use of black humor to capture the absurd essence of the human condition and its alienation, its inability to communicate, and its struggle to overcome modern society's destructive forces mark a distinctive trait in Ionesco's early plays, which are often considered his best.
Although labeled an absurdist, Ionesco considered himself a proponent of pataphysics—the science of imaginary solutions popularized by French playwright Alfred Jarry in his Ubu Roi. In the pataphysical universe, "every event determines a law, a particular law," which, as Richard N. Coe asserted in Ionesco: A Study of His Plays, "is the same as saying there is no law, neither scientific, nor moral, nor aesthetic." Therefore, all things become equal, the sensical and the nonsensical alike. Man finds the nonsensical more preferable of the two because it allows him more freedom to think. This, then, is why Ionesco's plays appear to be nonsensical and absurd: in a world where there are no absolutes save truth, humans must invent such things as love, God, and goodness. The result for a playwright like Ionesco is to create the bizarre, the illogical, the nonrealistic because that is what humans find easiest to accept when they cannot agree to accept anything at all.
Though comic and seemingly without surface meaning, Ionesco's early plays often carry a biting social and political commentary, notwithstanding his repeated claims to be apolitical. Nowhere is this better exhibited than in his first two plays, The Bald Soprano and The Lesson, where his central theme is the absurdity of language and both its inability to provide us with competent tools for communication and its manipulative qualities which can turn it from a tool to a weapon. In The Bald Soprano, which Ionesco reportedly wrote because he wanted to learn English, viewers meet two couples: Mr. and Mrs. Smith, who speak in clichés and platitudes, and Mr. and Mrs. Martin, who appear at first as strangers at the Smiths' home but realize later that they share the same child and the same home. The dialogue among these four characters gradually disintegrates into nonsensical gibberish and finally into meaningless sounds, and the only change comes when in the end the two couples swap identities, and the play begins again where it started. Ionesco saw the play as an attack against the bourgeois and conformity.
In The Lesson a professor tutors his young female student in subjects ranging from basic math to complex philology. As the lesson progresses and the student, complaining of a toothache, fails to comprehend the professor's lengthy—and ultimately meaningless—diatribe on the functioning of language, he becomes increasingly agitated. The play reaches its climax when the professor, repeating the word "knife," stabs the girl to death. We soon discover she was the fortieth student he killed that day. Like The Bald Soprano, The Lesson ends where it begins, and the forty-first student is brought into the professor's chamber, presumably to face the same fate.
The cyclical endings of these early plays reflect a sense of hopelessness and a pessimistic view of the fate of humankind: history will always repeat itself no matter how horrible the event, no matter how widespread public disapproval is. Part of that hopelessness comes from the impotency of language, the most significant attribute/invention of human beings. How can we share thoughts, ideas, love, etc. if we ultimately cannot communicate with one another? Moreover, since language is so imprecise, it can also be misinterpreted and misused, especially upon those who take words at their face value alone. In The Lesson, for instance, when the maid discovers the professor has killed his fortieth student for the day, she tells him to wear Page 213 | Top of Article a Nazi swastika armband so that no one will question what he has done. It is through this one action that the play takes on strong political overtones, marking the first of many criticisms Ionesco would level against the Nazis and the totalitarian regimes of his native Romania.
Ionesco's next two plays, Jack; or, The Submission and The Chairs, are complementary in that the first play leads up to the beginning of a marriage and the second describes, in part, the ending of one. Again, both plays exploit the impotency of language to effectively communicate and the alienation of modern society. The title character of Jack is being coerced by his family—all members of which bear names that are variations of Jack—in finding a wife. They want offspring so that their race will be preserved. In the end, after a courtship that ends with a frenzied discussion where every noun is renamed "cat," Jack chooses Roberte II, a woman with three noses and nine fingers on one hand. Conversely, the Old Man and the Old Woman in The Chairs reflect the disintegration of a marriage. Throughout the play they bring in chairs for their several guests who will be attending a speech given by an Orator—a speech the Old Man has prepared as his final commentary on humanity. Gradually, they greet the invisible guests as they arrive, and the chairs—like many objects in Ionesco's plays—proliferate and begin to crowd the now-claustrophobic stage. At the end of The Chairs, the Orator, whom the Old Man has entrusted to deliver his message to the people, is able only to utter "the guttural sounds of a mute"; oral language has failed. When the Orator next attempts to communicate by writing an obscure word on the blackboard, its letters finally formulate the word "Adieu"—French for "good bye." Rosette C. Lamont, writing in Ionesco's Imperatives: The Politics of Culture, noted that The Chairs "is a twentieth-century morality play which does not preach. The message of the play is an anti-message: speech, art, communication of any sort, are the illusions man needs while there is breath."
Ionesco gives many of his characters nondescript names, doing so to show how nonconformists are always at odds with a society that will repeatedly take the easiest path and conform. Ionesco does not focus on individual differences but rather on the basic identity of most people. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in a series of four plays Ionesco began writing in the late 1950s. Here he pursued his literary attack on the Nazis and the totalitarian regimes George Orwell criticized so well in Animal Farm and 1984. These plays center on a man named Berenger, a modern-day Everyman, though Berenger is not the same character in each of the four plays. The first of these plays is The Killer, a Kafka-esque play where Berenger seeks out the Killer who is terrorizing the Radiant City because everyone, including the police and the city's totalitarian Architect/Doctor/Chief of Police proves incompetent. When Berenger confronts the Killer, he attempts to reason with him, but fails to offer any cogent argument as to why the Killer should not indiscriminately kill people. "The more he talks," Lamont contended, "the more reasons he finds for killing, or rather being killed. Though he is armed, Berenger knows that he, a humanist, will not be able to bring himself to shoot even an enemy who means to destroy him." He learns all too late that the Killer kills without reason. To rationalize with the irrational, Ionesco suggests here, is to fight a losing battle.
The second and certainly most famous of the Berenger plays is Rhinoceros, first produced in 1959. As the play opens, Berenger is conversing with his friend Jean when a rhinoceros charges by. Though dismissed at first as an oddity of nature, everyone gradually accepts the animals' presence and, by the play's end, even decides to become one themselves, leaving Berenger to contemplate whether he too should join the herd or not. In the final act, Berenger must fight not only rhinoceritis but his desire to join the herd with his fellows. When he decides in the end to fight them, he becomes a singular hero who challenges the mob mentality and mindless conformity. When we realize that the inspiration for this play came from Ionesco's reaction, as noted in his diary of 1940, to an antifascist friend's gradual acceptance of and ultimate conversion to Nazi fascism, the play takes on a much deeper, political meaning.
Although the next Berenger play, A Stroll in the Air, continues the attack against totalitarian regimes, Ionesco moves on to greater philosophical heights with the final Berenger play, Exit the King. This play addresses humankind's need to understand its own existence, its own mortality. Like King Lear or Hamlet in Shakespeare's great tragedies, Berenger asks, "Why was I born if it wasn't for ever?" Such metaphysics echo the Page 214 | Top of Article existential musings of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus: the questioning of the meaning—or meaninglessness—of life. Having lived for over 500 years, and in that time invented steel, balloons, airplanes, the telephone, built Rome, New York, Paris, and Moscow, and wrote The Iliad, The Odyssey, and all of Shakespeare's tragedies, King Berenger is Everyman: his death is the death of all humanity; in his acceptance of his mortality are the seeds of our own metaphysical grapplings with life's inherent meaninglessness.
Ionesco wrote other successful plays in the 1950s and 1960s, including the 1952 radio play Motor Show, Maid to Marry, The Leader, and Victim of Duty, the last another play about ruthless authoritarianism. Considered one of his best plays of this period is his first full-length play, Amedée. Drawn from a line in T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land, the play is about a couple's inability to confront their marital problems and to work through their pasts. In fact, Amedée and Madeleine have such difficulty in burying their troubled pasts—Madeleine's infidelity and Amedée's guilt for not having saved a drowning woman—that they remain at the forefront of the couple's present. Ionesco manifests this latent guilt in them by having the couple share their home with the corpse of Madeleine's lover, whom Amedée killed years before but never buried. Now, the couple work effortlessly to keep people and the police from entering their home, no easy task since the corpse is growing larger and larger each day until its physical presence literally fills the entire house. The corpse as metaphor for the growing distance between Amedée and Madeleine is an appropriate one for Ionesco, who relates the corpse to original sin and its growth to the passage of time. The dead body is a constant reminder of the couple's mutual sins, and its unabated growth reflects the mounting guilt they both must contend with for not having loved each other and for having tried to bury, instead of confront, their pasts.
Whether discouraged by the lack of cause celebre his later plays received, or feeling he had said in dramatic voice all he needed to say, Ionesco turned later in life to collecting and publishing nonfiction essays, lectures, addresses, criticism, and memoirs. Fragments of a Journal and Present Past, Past Present, his 1967 and 1968 autobiographies, confirmed his commitment to battle social and political oppression. Antidotes, a collection of essays that focus on the corruption of the so-called civilized world, appeared in 1977. The playwright's daughter, Marie-France Ionesco, translated her father's 1934 work No, a series of essays on Romanian culture, the demolition of Romanian literary idols, and the role of literature in life. A year later Hugoliad appeared, his youthful and scurrilous attack on French literary giant Victor Hugo, which Ionesco had also written during the 1930s. The Intermittent Quest is an eloquent and passionate tribute to the two women in Ionesco's life: his wife, Rodica, and his daughter, Marie-France. He devoted most of his remaining years to painting and exhibiting his artwork and lithographs, and died in 1994.
Although Ionesco's plays were once considered avant garde, they have since been reviewed in a less-revolutionary light. However, many of his plays, especially Rhinoceros, are still performed and still hold relevance for postmodern audiences. As A. J. Esta noted in a theatre review of a 2002 performance of Rhinoceros, Ionesco's "vision of the futility of maintaining one's individuality in the face of conformity is as pertinent as today's headlines."
Source: Gale, "Eugene Ionesco," in Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2007.
Rosette C. Lamont
In the following excerpt, Lamont provides a critical explication of Rhinoceros, focusing predominantly on Berenger.
… Ionesco's apprehension is not that of a Western European. In many ways it is closer to Buddhism. A Western education does not favor this state of passive resistance, of stubborn endurance: One is taught to improve oneself by doing. A very important and overlooked aspect of Rhinoceros is the opposition between two fundamental attitudes, the Eastern and the Western. They are embodied in two characters, Jean and Bérenger.
Jean is a so-called responsible citizen. He feels superior to his friend Bérenger because he has a well-organized existence. He is punctual and hard working. In fact, he takes pride in the minute-by-minute program he has put together to guide him through the days, and he urges his lackadaisical friend to follow it:
Get yourself up to the mark.
Dress yourself properly, shave every day,
put on a clean shirt.
Page 215 | Top of Article Keep abreast of the cultural and literary
Don't let yourself drift.
Work eight hours a day … but not on Sundays,
or evenings, or for three weeks in
Spend your free time constructively … by
visiting museums, reading literary periodicals,
going to lectures.
The end result of this self-improvement will be: "In four weeks you'll be a cultured man."
Bérenger is not in the least tempted by Jean's plan to refashion him into the ideal social being. It is clear from the start that the self-righteous Jean, so proud of his appearance—hat, tie, well-cut suit, polished shoes—is rhinoceros material, whereas the timid loner, Bérenger, a dreamer, is a flawed but endearing human being. He confesses to one fault: he enjoys the occasional lift he gets from a drink. As presented by Ionesco, it is a comic defect, one that testifies to the character's modest humanity. Although Jean is going off to a cocktail party, he maintains that, unlike his friend, he is not a drunkard because "there's moderation in all things," and he is "a moderate person." This statement wall soon be contradicted by his behavior after the first rhinoceros crosses the small public square.
Early in act 1 there is a very amusing scene of slapstick comedy when Jean orders Bérenger to set his glass back on the table without drinking, while he, himself, takes a gulp from his own pastis. Bérenger, made nervous by the scolding tone and the arrival of Daisy, the pretty office secretary on whom he has a crush, spills the contents of his full glass upon Jean's trousers. Jean grows enraged. This bit of stage business is in perfect keeping with the farcical mode of the play, but it also serves to emphasize the Chekhovian helplessness, clumsiness, and timidity of the protagonist.
As Bérenger attempts to explain to his domineering friend that he does not drink because he likes the taste of alcoholic beverages, but in order to lighten the burden of everyday existence, Jean grows impatient and scornful.
… It is of course a waste of time to take into his confidence a third-rate conformist who poses as a well-meaning friend. However, what Bérenger describes goes to the very core of the dual feelings the dramatist considers central to his work: heaviness and lightness, air and matter. The important aspect of Bérenger's minor fault—as it is presented by Ionesco, one not foreign to this kind of indulgence—is that this tippling may be a way of momentarily escaping from the existential condition, yet at no time would Ionesco's antiheroic hero exchange his vulnerable human skin for the heavy hide of a beast. Unlike his dreamer of a friend, Jean is embedded in the here and now, and takes pride in being "normal." This assumption is the Achilles' heel of the future rhino who, unlike the sensitive, intelligent Bérenger, does not realize that life "is an abnormal business."
The "abnormal business" that the town will be faced with is the appearance of one rhinoceros, then another (or could it be one and the same, escaped from a nearby zoo?). Excited, slightly frightened, people begin to debate whether the creatures had the same number of horns. Jean, who views himself as a cultured man endowed with a disciplined mind—all Germanic traits—states unhesitatingly: "No, it was not the same rhinoceros. The one that went by first had two horns on its nose, it was an Asiatic rhinoceros; this one had only one, it was an African rhinoceros." Bérenger calls Jean "a pedant who's not certain of his facts because … it's the Asiatic rhinoceros with only one horn on its nose, and it's the African with two …" Scientific definitions turn to pure venom as the two friends come close to blows.
Jean: I'm not betting with you. If anybody's
got two it's you! You Asiatic Mongol!
Bérenger: I've got no horns. And I never will
have … I'm not Asiatic either. And in
any case, Asiatics are people, the same
as everyone else …
Jean: They're yellow! Bright yellow!
Bérenger: Whatever they are, you're bright
If every French person knows that a reference to "horns" means that a man is being labelled a Page 216 | Top of Article cuckold (le cocu is traditionally a farcical type), calling a man an "Asiatic Mongol" is both redundant and redolent of racism. Yet, during the German occupation of France, a Romanian refugee might well have been the butt of such an insult. Seen in this light, the farcical attack acquires a deeply sinister coloring, reminding those who lived through that period of the clichéd image of Jews as horned men, subhumans in the image of the Devil. The mild Bérenger bristles at these words. When he shouts that he will never have horns, he may also point out a basic difference between himself and the potential rhinoceros. The latter is a racist through and through, one who judges people by their color. However, in so doing, he has turned "bright red" with rage. Finally, he storms off, shouting that he will not see his friend again: "I'm not wasting my time with a fool like you."
If Jean's propensity to conform, together with his choleric nature, make him the perfect would-be rhinoceros, intellectualism is no guarantee against catching the fatal disease. On the contrary, the intellectual and the middlebrow, convinced as they are of being superior people, are best equipped to rationalize their metamorphoses: neither Botard, the former school teacher, nor Dudard, the deputy-head of the firm in which Bérenger is employed, will escape turning into beasts.
Act 2 begins in the office of a publishing company specializing in law books (much like Durieu where Ionesco was employed between 1948 and 1955). The employees are discussing the latest headlines about the town being overrun by herds of rhinos. Botard is vehement in his rejection of the facts. He will not even yield to the testimony of an eyewitness, Daisy. This rigid man, as proud as Jean of his methodical mind, lives by clichés, albeit liberal ones. He fulminates against the church; his temple is the union. When his colleague Mr. Boeuf (the word means "ox" in French) returns to the office's foyer in the shape of a rhinoceros, Botard's principal concern is that he not be denied the support of the organization. However, faced with this creature, who is even recognized by his wife, Botard can no longer deny the obvious. He proclaims that a conspiracy must be afoot, suspecting Dudard, his superior, of being a traitor. He must expose the deputy-head in order to "get to the bottom of this fake mystery." Ionesco shows in this scene the pattern of "patriotic" denunciations basic to the mechanism of dictatorships; that is, spying on one's friends, business associates, and even members of one's own family.
This is a masterful caricature of the rancor of semieducated masses, lashing out at phantoms of their making, but refusing to recognize present danger. They are dangerous because they are supremely convinced that reason is on their side. Since they have spent a lifetime grazing on platitudes, it is easy to force feed them. Nor are bovine creatures necessarily peaceful; they trample the unwary. Thus, it is the most natural of transitions for a Mr. Boeuf to turn into a rhinoceros. As to Botard, he is a Boeuf to the nth degree.
As act 2 unfolds, the audience witnesses the process of the metamorphosis so eloquently described by Ionesco in his journal. It takes place before our very eyes on the occasion of Bérenger calling on his sick friend Jean.
Bérenger has come to apologize, although the quarrel showed that Jean was in the wrong. It is a mark of the protagonist's generosity that he is willing to forgive and always doubts himself. As he enters Jean's small studio apartment, he finds his erstwhile friend in bed. The man's pulse is regular, but he is suffering from a ravenous appetite. His complexion is turning green (not a sickly pallor, but the greenish-gray of a rhinoceros hide), and a strange bump is rising in the center of his forehead, right above the nose. With every trip the man makes to the bathroom, the bump grows larger, looking at last like a horn. As Bérenger informs the ailing man of Boeuf's transformation, Jean begins to utter hoarse, nasal cries, huffing and puffing from the heat. In an unrecognizable growl, he exclaims: "Well, whether he changes into a rhinoceros on purpose or against his will, he's probably all the better for it."
Ionesco insists that masks are essential to the production. In Barrault's staging, Jean became gradually more and more like a rhinoceros with the addition of certain elements to his face. He seemed to wear a shamanic mask that allowed him to coincide with a savage deity. No doubt Ionesco must have discussed this scene with his lifetime friend Mircea Eliade, the author of Shamanism, Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. In this study Eliade discusses "the shamanic imitation of the actions and voices of animals," or rather the shaman's "taking possession of his helping spirits." Eliade concludes: "Each time a shaman succeeds in sharing in the animal mode Page 217 | Top of Article of being, he in a manner re-establishes the situation that existed in illo tempore, in mythical times, when the divorce between man and the animal world had not yet occurred." Thus, Jean's metamorphosis may be grotesque, even laughable, but it also has a mythical dimension.
… The second metamorphosis we witness is both more subtle and more frightening since it takes place on a moral plane. The gradual shift of Dudard's attitude in act 3, when he comes to visit Bérenger, suggests the pernicious infiltration of the virus, its hold upon a fine intelligence.
Dudard begins by voicing his doubts as to what constitutes good and evil. The trained jurist, the impeccable employee is hardly the man to question the fundamental codes of civilized society, yet he wonders: "Evil! That's just a question of personal preference." He is obviously afflicted with the intellectual's malaise: bad faith. In drawing this portrait, Ionesco had in mind a man he admired in many ways, with the exception of his politics, Jean-Paul Sartre. "Dudard is Sartre," he said in New York in the course of a private conversation. For Ionesco, Sartre's failure to denounce the existence of the gulags smacked of rhinoceritis of the Left. As recently as on April 19, 1990, in an article written for Le Figaro entitled "When ‘they’ suddenly discover Havel," the dramatist accuses Sartre of having corrupted the French intelligentsia. He goes on with profound bitterness, and a sense of having at last been justified: "These Leftists were well aware of the immense misdeeds of the Stalinists. They had been warned by men such as Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron, Jean-François Revel, and myself. We were right, but they vilified us, calling us despicable fascists, cowards, scoundrels." Surrounded by former Communists, Maoists, Castro supporters, assembled at the Ministry of Culture to greet Czechoslovakia's new president, Ionesco reports that he was nevertheless able to raise two fingers in sign of victory.
In Rhinoceros Ionesco demystifies the cult of rationalism, Descartes's legacy to Western culture. He shows that this philosophy can serve as blinders at a time of murderous violence. In the scene between Dudard and Bérenger, the latter may appear as hypochondriacal, even cowardly, but his anguish is a positive reaction to the germ of rhinoceritis. This angst is a symptom, like fever, suggestive of the fact that the sick body's struggle must begin before recuperation can occur. On the contrary, Dudard's superior attitude covers a wavering, ailing conscience.
True heroism for Ionesco is a quality of the heart rather than of the mind. It is the reaction of a modest man who wishes to remain true to himself. While the intellectual wavers, weighing abstract good against abstract evil, and letting real evil overtake him, the intuitive man rejects intuitively what he senses as destructive. Some intellectuals, such as Vaclav Havel, have been able to combine the qualities of the spirit with those of the mind. Despite polar conditions of life, neither Havel nor Ionesco have ever deviated from their path.
The final pages of Rhinoceros allow the reader and the audience to follow the tracing of this path. The penultimate scene is that between Bérenger and Daisy. The pretty secretary enters her colleague's room, a basket on her arm. She has brought him lunch. However, this innocent has witnessed a general panic in the office and the streets. M. Papillon (Mr. Butterfly), the head of the department, has joined the herd. Names from one of Ionesco's time capsules are added to that of the flitting creature: Cardinal de Retz, Mazarin, Saint-Simon. "All our great names!" exclaims Bérenger, who seems to have forgotten that they are those of political plotters, dishonest ministers, and literary gossips.
Bérenger and Daisy will also be caught in a time capsule. We are invited to travel through a telescoped future. The couple's conversation goes from a declaration of love to planning a family. However, the presence of rhino heads all around them is oppressive. Ionesco and his bride, Rodica Burileanu, must have felt much the same way in July, 1936, when they were married. Unlike Rodica, however, Daisy is not a true companion in days of misfortune. She wonders whether the rhinoceros world might not be in the right. As her fiancé speaks of their love, she exclaims: "I feel a bit ashamed of what you call love—this morbid feeling, this male weakness. And female too. It just doesn't compare with the ardour and tremendous energy emanating from all these creatures around us." Incensed, Bérenger slaps her face. They have come to the parting of ways. As Daisy says: "In a space of a few minutes we've gone through twenty-five years of married life." The life of the couple has been poisoned by the surrounding climate of opinion. As Daisy makes her escape to join the beastly mob, Bérenger remains alone, defiant yet terrified. He is the last human left on the face of this planet.
What makes Ionesco's protagonist fully human is the fact that he is racked by self-doubt. There is a moment in his soliloquy when he experiences a profound revulsion in regard to his weak body, pallid skin, hairy limbs, smooth brow. He cries out: "Oh, I'd love to have a hard skin in that wonderful dull green colour." The latter is a reminder of the Nazi uniforms.
No one who has seen the Nazi armored vehicles forging forward overrunning the nations they were determined to subjugate, will ever forget it. They seemed undefeatable, a Master Race, Wagnerian demigods. Their propaganda machine rolled in with their tanks, telling the conquered nations that they were weak, corrupt, sinful, and had brought this misfortune upon themselves. Many, like Bérenger, felt a kind of servile admiration for the discipline of people intent only on maintaining their well-oiled war machine. In the death camps, they took superhuman strides, in their greenish uniforms, shiny black boots, always accompanied by sleek attack dogs. The lice-covered, shivering prisoners were faced at every moment with the image of their inferior condition. Yet, those who came to doubt their right to exist were done for; they would not survive the camps.
Nor was there a way of communicating with these automatons. They shouted orders in a language many did not know, and if these orders were not instantly obeyed their whips spoke eloquently. Listening to their "Heils!" and military music, Bérenger wonders whether their raucous song may not have charm. He even tries to bellow as they do, but realizes he is incapable of learning their tongue. But what is the protagonist's language? What is he saying since he is the last creature to utter these sounds? He even wonders whether he understands what he is saying.
It is in this reflection that we may find a key to Ionesco's problematics of style and expression. Following this experience, it was no longer possible for Ionesco to entertain easy relations with the common tongue. As Elie Wiesel said at one of his public lectures: "Words in camp did not mean what they mean outside: ‘hunger,’ ‘thirst,’ ‘bread.’" When Ionesco denies being an avant-garde writer, it is his way of saying that he does not experiment for the sake of experimentation. However, he is unable to take language for granted. The returning deportee, or exile, sees the once familiar world with the eyes of a stranger. Only then, when we come back among the living having visited the kingdom of the dying and the dead, do we have a chance to exist again.
The last man is much like the first. Alone among rhinoceroses, Bérenger is as grotesque as Adam among the animals of the newly fashioned planet. "I'm a monster, just a monster!" he shouts. Yet, there is no going back. The protagonist states defiantly:
I'll take on the whole of them! I'll put up a fight against the lot of them, the whole lot of them! I'm the last man left, and I'm staying that way until the end. I'm not capitulating!
These last words have a Churchillian ring.
Bérenger, the shy dreamer given to fits of exaltation and spasms of anger, a fearful and yet audacious man, ineffectual at work, ill-adapted to society, often dependent on the small comfort of drink, flabby, paunchy, pallid, essentially kind and well-meaning, turns out to be our only champion. Unlikely as it seems—Ionesco wishes us to be aware of the paradox—when this man opposes evil, his act of defiance constitutes the triumph of each and every one of us. We are able to identify with this "man for our time," who has kept his decency among the mob of monsters. He is the emblem of our troubled epoch, an antihero who is a true hero, because he must.
Source: Rosette C. Lamont, "Bérenger: Birth of an Antihero," in Ionesco's Imperatives: The Politics of Culture, University of Michigan Press, 1993, 7 pp.
Calinescu, Matei, "Ionesco and Rhinoceros: Personal and Political Backgrounds," in East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 9, No. 3, Fall 1995, pp. 393-432.
Fowlie, Wallace, "New Plays of Ionesco and Genet," in the Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, September 1960, pp. 43-48.
Ionesco, Eugène, Rhinoceros, in Rhinoceros and Other Plays, Grove Press, 1960, pp. 1-107.
Ionesco, Eugène, and Emmanuel Jacquart, "Interview: Eugène Ionesco," in Diacritics, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer 1973, pp. 45-48.
Ionesco, Eugène, Richard Schechner, and Leonard C. Pronko, "An Interview with Ionesco," in the Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 7, No. 3, Spring 1963, pp. 161-68.
Lewis, Allan, Ionesco, Twain Publishers, 1972, pp. 72-73.
Malkin, Jeanette R., Verbal Violence in Contemporary Drama, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Murray, Jack, "Ionesco and the Mechanics of Memory," in Yale French Studies, No. 29, 1962, pp. 82-87.
Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Vintage, 2004.
Esslin coined the phrase "Theatre of the Absurd," in 1961 before first publishing his corresponding treatise in 1962. This book is essential reading for any student interested in the Absurdist movement.
Kluback, William, and Michael Finkenthal, The Clown in the Agora: Conversations About Eugène Ionesco, Peter Lang Publishing, 1998.
An engaging book of imagined conversations, encounters, and interviews based on the poetical and philosophical ideas of Ionesco.
Lamont, Rosette C., Ionesco's Imperatives: The Politics of Culture, University of Michigan, 1993.
In this detailed and provocative study, Rosette Lamont rereads the body of Ionesco's work as influenced deeply by the politics and cultural tensions shaping Europe during his lifetime. She identifies Ionesco's challenge of fascism as a foundation upon which he builds a deeply philosophic critique of language.
Lane, Nancy, Understanding Eugène Ionesco, University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
Nancy Lane charts three major phases through which Ionesco's career evolved—from the early absurdist short plays through the humanism of the Berenger plays. Across these phases, Lane argues, Ionesco developed an ongoing exploration of the limitations of language, the metaphysics of mortality, and the struggles for individual freedom.
Payne, Stanley G., Fascism: Comparison and Definition, University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.
More scholarly than Payne's other books on this topic, this volume remains one of the key texts for situating the ideas and the ideologies of fascism in the modern world.