Although Eugène Ionesco’s style seemed quite startling to theatergoers when they first experienced his curious one-act plays in the early 1950’s, by the time Rhinoceros opened in 1959 he had been recognized as one of France’s preeminent dramatists. Early plays such as La Cantatrice chauve (1950; The Bald Soprano, 1956), La Leçon (1951; The Lesson, 1955), and Les Chaises (1952; The Chairs, 1958) had surprised critics and public alike. As the public became more familiar with Ionesco’s dramas, they found that his unconventional use of theater conventions was at least consistent.
Gradually, in France and elsewhere, he and a number of other playwrights (including Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov) were identified as writing what eventually was called the Theater of the Absurd. Absurdist plays are characterized by a number of features. Their plots seem slight and their action appears to be almost arbitrary. Characters are usually one-dimensional, sketched out rather than fully drawn, and are often called by only a first or a last name or by their profession. Dialogue is frequently nonsensical, maintaining the form of actual language but lacking the communicative capacity usually associated with speech or writing. Absurdist playwrights emphasize the ways in which life becomes irrational and depict how easily ordinary existence can appear to be unintelligible. Isolated in a world that seems overwhelmingly chaotic and ridiculous, the protagonist in an absurdist play typically fights a losing battle in a minefield of strange, and occasionally hilarious, paradoxes.
A major difference between Rhinoceros and Ionesco’s previous works is that this play is written for a large stage. It utilizes a good-sized cast and requires some stunning visual effects. The plays that came before were intended for smaller, more intimate theaters and tend to rely more upon the actors’ performances. Rhinoceros received its French premiere at one of France’s most prestigious playhouses, the Odéon in Paris, under the guidance of Jean-Louis Barrault, the great postwar actor-director. Moreover, the play went on to highly successful runs in London and in New York. Rhinoceros, not surprisingly therefore, is Ionesco’s best-known play, and its production was the high point in...
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