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 his career. In France, Ionesco remains a highly regarded and often-produced dramatist, but his international reputation has diminished since the 1970’s. His early work—those plays up to and including Rhinoceros—is what remains widely known.
Ionesco wrote and spoke about some of what had inspired him to write this play. Born in Romania, he left for France in 1938, around the time that many of his friends began to follow the Iron Guard movement—a Romanian fascist political organization, which during World War II allied itself with the Nazis. He began to notice how his friends, whom he had known for many years, seemed to have been as if infected by the movement’s right-wing ideology, and he noticed how people with whose views he had once sympathized suddenly became monstrous to him. From his comments, one can easily connect his experience with the action of the play: the seeming invasion of the town by rhinos and the sudden change through which human beings are converted into beasts.
The play’s implications extend beyond the playwright’s own life, however. People in many different countries have been able to relate to the play. When, for example, Rhinoceros was first performed in Düsseldorf, Germany, the audiences immediately recognized the story because they lived through the period when the German people had succumbed to the Nazi Party and only a few had resisted. In a more immediate way, however, this play, written in French and intended for postwar French audiences, comments on how, after France was defeated by Germany in 1940 and then occupied by the German army until 1944, many French people were lured into sympathizing with the Nazis. Even...
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