Critical Context

Ionesco’s two major plays are Rhinoceros and The Killer. In his earlier plays, beginning with La Cantatrice chauve (pr. 1950, pb. 1954; The Bald Soprano, 1956), pure absurdity reigns, while in his later plays, such as La Soif et la faim (pr. 1964, pb. 1966; Hunger and Thirst, 1968), Ionesco’s obsession with death becomes almost too insistent and bald. In Rhinoceros and The Killer an effective balance between absurdity and death, or between art and obsession, is achieved.

Berenger, who is both ordinary and heroic, is an embodiment of Everyman, but, unlike Everyman, he is doomed from the outset. It may be a fault of this play that, despite its comedy, it is too relentlessly pessimistic. The hopelessness of Berenger’s quest to confront death is apparent from the beginning, and Ionesco’s brilliance of invention does not successfully palliate his profoundly negative vision. A more obvious defect is that some of the scenes are too long; Ionesco’s belief that if he is faithful to his own fears he inevitably reflects universal experience has led him to transcribe his fears too literally and lengthily.

In Ionesco’s best plays, however, there is a single dominant image around which the entire drama is organized, and nowhere more effectively than in The Killer. In Amédée: Ou, Comment s’en débarrasser (pr., pb. 1954; Amédée: Or, How to Get Rid of It, 1955), Ionesco’s first full-length play, there are the ever-growing feet and legs which finally occupy the entire apartment of Amédée and Madeleine; in Rhinoceros the pachyderms finally take over, leaving only Berenger (in several of Ionesco’s plays the chief character is named Berenger) as the last human being alive; in Le Nouveau Locataire (pr. 1955, pb. 1958; The New Tenant, 1956), the stage becomes jammed with furniture. The weight of the external world upon the individual is relentless; Ionesco’s protagonists cannot escape. The Killer may well be Ionesco’s most powerful and poetic image; chuckling, obscene, intransigent, he is the embodiment of death. The inhumanity of the state, as personified by the Architect, and the anti-individualism of political movements, as personified by Mother Peep, both fade into insignificance beside the triumphant and terrible figure of the Killer.