AnjaliProfessor Indira Prasad
Modern European Drama
28 February 2018
Q. In the play, Rhinoceros, Ionesco laments the lack of independence, of free thought and individuality that inevitably result in totalitarianism of one kind or another. Do you agree? Give a reasoned answer.
Eugene Ionesco, one of the most prolific playwrights of the twentieth century, wrote around the themes that dramatized the absurdity of bourgeois life, the meaninglessness of social conventions and the futile and mechanical nature of modern civilization. In Le Rhinoceros (1959), he ‘brings in contemporary political events of magnitude’ (Basu,8) and explores the themes of conformity, culture, mass movement and morality. It also demonstrates the anxiety about the spread of inhuman totalitarian tendencies in society. Anne Quinney analyses the play as ‘satire of totalitarianism, the police state, and demagogy as well as a moral call to question the rise of these phenomena in the twentieth century’.
A lot of critics also hint at the auto-biographical aspect of the play wherein he shares his disgust of witnessing friends and family members succumb to the ideologies of fascist political movement in 1930s.
Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros, written in 1959 at the height of the Cold War, exposes the ensnaring allure of totalitarianism and the fascist ideology, as exemplified by Nazism in the 20th century. From the very initial scenes of the play there is an inherent idea of mass ideology and herd mentality that later drives the transformation of the inhabitants into a rhinoceros. The use of language and the way the characters deliver their dialogues plays with the idea of mass hysteria. On the advent of the entry of a rhinoceros in the town, there is an element of surprise which is further enhanced by the characters in the Cafe repeat the same thing, “Oh, a rhinoceros!” Even later the characters tend to utter the same thing in a unison or one after the other that further enhances the herd mentality and their lack of the ability to make original judgments. There are no comments on the dangers of such a ferocious animal being allowed to run across the streets. Their reactions almost seem as if they are mechanical. The characters repeat ideas and theories they have heard others repeat, without giving it their own thought and that tends to justify and normalize the presence of a violent beast in the town that later makes it easier to justify the metamorphosis. As Edwin Williams points out, “From the opening moment we are immersed in the confusion of fantasy and reality. Ionesco is concerned with the dilemma of totalitarianism of the illusion in the lives of people. He begins with fantasy and moves towards the distillation of reality from illusion”. Further, two separate, simultaneous dialogues—between HYPERLINK ;http://www.sparknotes.com/drama/rhinoceros/character/jean/; Jean and Berenger and between the Logician and the Old Gentleman—discuss similar ideas, sometimes even using the same exact language, hinting at the collective level of consciousness that the play tries to explore.
After the second rhinoceros runs over the housewife’s cat, all the characters gather around it and they starts talking about the violent beast and the consequence that it had had, but the main focus of this conversation turns into whether the rhinoceros was of Asiatic origin or that of African origin. ‘These superficial, thoughtless characters are shown to be incapable of understanding the significance of the rhinoceros. It is this lack of thought and individual processing that leads to their eventual transformation into rhinoceroses’ (Kapadia, 13 ). Leonard C. Pronko comments on the play saying, “The empty characters of this drama can easily play follow-the-leader and turn into indistinguishable rhinos, for they have been indistinguishable from the start, unable to think or express themselves as individuals.” The mechanical and repetitive reactions of the Housewife, Grocer, Old Gentleman and Logician are used to ridicule their thoughtless concerns.
Anne Quinney comments on the use of language and the absurdity of the characters and says, “The play’s dialogue resembles one with the deaf or the mad. While characters are always speaking to each other, there is nothing resembling communication among them.” Furthermore, a number of critics see the episode of the killing of the cat as a reference to the killing of the pets of the Jews in Nazi Germany in mid-thirties, which served as a warning to the Jews to leave the country, thus directly commenting on the totalitarian regime of the Nazis.
The transformation of the characters and ordinary people into rhinos reflects the ‘forcing into line attitude’. It also gives a sense of the ways of functioning of the authorities i.e through ideology and repressive ways of oppression. The authoritative state rules through manipulation of means of mass communication, in Act 3, when Berenger says, “Let’s turn on the radio for the news” and in they hear trumpeting of rhinos which changes the mindsets as is evident in Daisy’s reaction who thinks that they have turned melodious. Daisy then becomes the prime example of how a society succumbs to the phenomena of fascism and individuals loose their own sense of thought and how they start admiring the attributes of fascism.
Another important character who transforms into a rhinoceros is Jean who in the first act pretends as a rational and a sensible person. Anne Quinney talks about Jean as a ‘low level functionary whose job robs him of any individualism that he might assert, he is the perfect target for ideologies that stifle individual thinking’. He is represented as a character who has self control and has strains of passive dictatorship, evident in the way he mocks his friend, Berenger at the cafe. He blabbers on the importance of punctuality and dressing well. His fetishes and over-sympathetic attitude towards order makes him a representative of the ‘tyranny of routine’. Jean is also the one whose transformation is explained in great detail. His skin colour gradually changes to greenish-gray and he turns into a short tempered and ruthless beast, for example he threatens Berenger of trampling him down; this ferocity is also a reference to Hitler’s idea of the man of the future where there is no compassion and the weak have to be eliminated. The rhinoceros, therefore, aptly represents the thick skinned mindless beings with ‘one track mind of bulldozing and destroying everything that comes its way’ (Kapadia, 12 ).
The play is a critique of collective hysteria as precipitated by either Fascism or Marxism. This is reflected in the transformation of Botard, a dogmatic trade union leader, who decides to “move with the times” and so conforms to a collective ideology. ‘He is the classic case of an individual because of rigid adherence to an ideology, submitting to herd instinct’ (Kapadia, 17 ). He is the one who labels the appearance of rhinoceroses as ‘collective psychosis’ reflecting the play’s larger theme but he instead of believing his colleagues claims the news to be a conspiracy of the journalists. Although his own morality shifts the either side, as the majority always becomes the good side, thus hinting at the overpowering of the totalitarian manifests. Thus for Ionesco, a rhinoceros becomes a metaphor for any form of collectivity.
The takeover of the people’s lives and their minds are also shown to have happened with their consent. In the play this is shown through the transformation of Dudard. In Act 3, he says, “I feel it’s my duty to stick by my employers and my friends through thick and thin.” Later he says, “I prefer the great universal family to the little domestic one”. Therefore Ionesco presents the ways in which the system works and mechanism of following the herd that attacks individual thinking and makes one think that this is the only way the world can exist. Anne Quinney comments on Dudard and Jean saying, “Like functionaries of the state in many European countries who fell under the spell of fascist ideologies, alienated from their work and hungry for change, Jean and Dudard in the end embrace what appears to be a salutary opportunity to join the masses in a collective wave of fascist sympathy.”
Finally the protagonist, Berenger who remains fairly aloof in the first act, gradually regains his position as the metamorphosis starts in full swing. As Leonard C. Pronko says, “He is a character who develops through the play. At first he too is indifferent about the presence of rhinos like other characters, but soon he wakes to the dangers involved and takes a surprisingly firm stand for the man who is denounced by friends and fellow workers as a spineless drunkard, not to be taken seriously.” Berenger, the conscious human being, becomes the last man standing and in a way offers an alternative to the proliferation of the totalitarian regime. Though, this sort of an individual resistance is not seen as a solution, as he remains isolated in the end. ‘This is also because of the fact that Ionesco has lost faith in politics of both Revolutionary Left and the Organized Right’ (Kapadia, 9 ). Berenger also represents Ionesco’s own anguish and horror of ideological conformism, inspired by the rise of the fascist regime of 1930s. Anne Quinney comments, “The resistance to Nazism in the end is only instinctive but this is the only positive aspect of the play.”
The character of Berenger is the only one where we see a sense of doubt and uncertainty that makes him more human and a conscious individual, though ‘he does not offer an alternative plan of action or resistance. It holds Ionesco’s view that the individual is more important than the collective’ (Kapadia, 20 ).
The play offers a substantial critique of totalitarianism. Ionesco’s method as Leonard Pronko points out is indirect, yet strong. He uses the imagery of brutish, collective-driven beasts that evokes a sense of disgust. This is used by Ionesco as a visual tool to represent the emptiness and mechanical nature of the fascist regimes. The mass accumulation and production of Rhinos creates a sense of hysteria that then facilitates the mass movement and induce lack of independence and conformity. Rhinoceritis is shown as a menace that spreads through the emergence of crowd mentality. Though the play offers an instinctive resistance in form of Berenger but it isn’t strong enough to overturn its power. Similarly, G. Richard Danner says, “Rhinoceros on its own terms, the play’s ultimate lesson might indeed be that individualism in defense of non-humanity is no virtue, and that bestial conformism as an alternative.” Hence, Ionesco laments lack of independence and individual consciousness, resulting in totalitarianism.
Basu K. Dilip ed. Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco. New Delhi: Worldview Publications 2002.
Danner G. Richard “Bérenger’s Dubious Defense of Humanity in Rhinocéros” published in American Association of Teachers of French. PP. 207-214.
Kapadia, Novy, “Nazi Influences in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros”. PP. 1-22.
Kumar N. Nita, “The Last Man left: Questioning Absurdity Rhinoceros” published in Basu K. Dilip ed. Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco New Delhi: Worldview Publications 2002. Pgs. 233–244.
Pronko, C. Leonard, Extracts from “Avant-Garde: The Experimental Theater in France
Quinney, Anne, “Excess and Identity: The Franco-Romanian lonesco Combats Rhinoceritis”. PP. 36-52.
Williams. T. Edwin, “Cervantes and Ionesco and Dramatic Fantasy”. PP. 675-678.
HYPERLINK "http://www.theatrehistory.com/misc/rhinoceros.html" http://www.theatrehistory.com/misc/rhinoceros.html
HYPERLINK "https://www.britannica.com/biography/Eugene-Ionesco" https://www.britannica.com/biography/Eugene-Ionesco