Why is the play Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco considered absurdist?

Eugene Ionesco's play Rhinoceros, written in 1959 and first produced in 1960, represents elements of absurdist drama such as nonsensical, cliché-ridden, and repetitive dialogue, lack of character motivation and development, and impossible and unlikely occurrences, which serve to raise fundamental questions about the irrational and contradictory nature of human existence.

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Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco begins with the scene of a rhinoceros charging through square of a small provincial town while two characters, Jean and Berenger, sartorial opposites, sit at a table in a cafe and chat about meaningless things. The appearance of the rhinoceros charging through the square—an event which is heard but not seen, aside from the cloud of dust the passing animal raises—causes quite a stir in the town, and people rush into the scene from all directions to comment on the remarkable occurrence.

As if the scene of the rhinoceros charging through the square of a provincial town wasn't absurd enough in its own right, later in the first act the scene is repeated, with the rhinoceros charging down the street again, this time from the opposite direction. Once again people rush into the scene to comment on the recurrence of the rhinoceros charging through the town square.

In his essay "The Theatre of the Absurd," first published in 1960, Martin Esslin (1918–2002) was the first to use the term "absurd" to describe the plays of Samuel Becket (Waiting for Godot), Ionesco (The Bald Soprano, Rhinoceros), and Arthur Adamov (La Parodie, Ping-Pong):

The common denominator that characterizes their work might well be described as the element of the absurd.

The scene in Ionesco's Rhinoceros of a rhinoceros charging through the town square, and the same scene repeated, demonstrates essential elements of absurdist drama.

The play is "pure theatre," which, according to Esslin, is a kind of theatrical presentation that can arouse an audience's interest in the play and in the characters in the play even if the play is "devoid of logical motivation and unrelated to recognizable human characters, emotions, and objectives."

The dialogue between Jean and Berenger in Rhinoceros is nonsensical, cliché-ridden, and repetitive, the character motivation and development in the play seem nonexistent or wildly inconsistent, and the rhinoceros charging through the town square is utterly absurd on its face, but the play is nevertheless interesting and engaging to an audience, and ultimately meaningful because of its nonsensical and absurd elements.

The audience is drawn into the play in search of a deeper meaning for the play, which, according to Esslin, is to show the "irrationality of the human condition and the illusion of what we thought was is apparent logical structure."

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Rhinoceros is considered to be an absurdist play because, though it functions as an allegory for the rise of European totalitarianism, the world of the play maintains a reality that is repetitive, surreal, and ultimately meaningless as a means to display the absurdity of the human condition. If rhinoceroses were to suddenly appear in the the world in which we live in the middle of a city, the only question on anyone's mind would be how and why they got there.

However, instead, the characters endlessly debate the merits of being a rhinoceros, insisting that rhinoceroses have a right to exist in the city the same as any of them. Slowly the people are all turned into rhinoceroses except for the alcoholic, melancholy protagonist Berenger. He breaks down, everyone in the story having become a rhino except for him.

This is an absurd portrait of political change that functions as an ironic lesson. The play is read as outrageous because it should seem obvious that the human beings in the play are approaching the threat of rhinos incorrectly. However, humans in reality have functioned the exact same way during the rise of fascism time and time again over the course of history.

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Ionesco's The Rhinoceros is an absurdist play because things happen which are outside of ordinary reality. Bérenger plays the one "normal" character in the play, the observer of the absurd occurrences. First a rhinoceros runs down the street, startling everyone, then Mrs. Boeuf appears at Bérenger's workplace, saying she's been chased by a rhino who's actually her husband transformed into one. These are easy to see as absurd events, completely beyond the normal or rational realm.

Things get stranger still as the entire town becomes transformed; everyone is turning into a rhinoceros except Bérenger. He feels increasing lonely and isolated—his best friend and his fiancé, Daisy, finally leave him too. Bérenger's previous plans to write a letter of protest to the newspapers or to try and get an audience with the mayor of the town are soon forgotten and dropped by the wayside.

Rhinoceros was written in response to European fascism and the fact that the masses could accept changing everything that used to comprise their lives if given a powerful enough incentive. Transformed into rhinos, the townspeople of the play feel more powerful; nothing stands in their way, which is exactly what Germans felt when they endorsed Nazism. The play is an absurdist rather than realistic examination of this kind of group-think or mob behavior.

Bérenger remains incapable of transforming and, because of it, develops self-loathing for his normalcy, but he finally accepts that he will remain a man, stand against them, and be true to what he actually is—human.

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The play Rhinoceros is considered absurdist fiction because by the end of the play all logic and rationality has broken down.  It starts rationally enough with a conversation between two friends, but begins its turn towards the absurd when unexplained rhinos show up and start to wreak havoc.  Next it progresses even further with the characters themselves turning into rhinos.  By the last act all but three characters have turned into a rhinos.  This progression of increasing absurdity through depictions of that which could never occur (humans turning into rhinos) is what makes the play a member of the Theatre of the Absurd.  It is largely taken as commentary against the prevailing political unrest and resistance to Communism of the 1950s and early 1960s

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