How does Ionesco's Rhinoceros demonstrate Theatre of the Absurd qualities?

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Rhinoceros demonstrates qualities of the Theater of the Absurd such as being tragicomic, shocking, existential, and uncompromising in its lack of solutions or answers. It is also anti-realistic and probes truths about the human condition. It does this through the story of rhinoceroses who invade a French village, whose human inhabitants eventually willingly transform into rhinoceroses as well.

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The "Theater of the Absurd" is dramatic genre that arose in response to the post-World War II condition of the spread of Soviet-style authoritarianism throughout Europe, creating of the so-called "iron curtain." With Paris's liberation in 1944, Eugene Ionesco joined the vibrant intellectual and artistic avant-garde scene consisting of many Eastern European emigres like himself. They began focusing on a new kind of political satire concerned with the modern human condition and innovated an influential new vision of theater.

Martin Esslin's essay, "The Theatre of the Absurd," which coined the term, was published in 1960, the same year in which The Rhinoceros was first performed. Esslin focuses on the drama of Ionesco, along with Arthur Adamov and Samuel Beckett, arguing that their works are both philosophical reactions against the meaninglessness of life and dramatic reactions against realism, which attempts to imbue life with structure and clarity. Esslin identifies several features of absurdist drama. It is tragicomic, proving both laughter and tears. It is intended to shock the audience into thinking about the nature of existence. It provides no easy solutions or comforting illusions. Finally, although it is anti-realistic on the most literal level, it aims to reveal deep truths about the human condition, in all its mystery and contradiction.

The Rhinoceros demonstrates all these qualities. The comedy of the rhinoceroses suddenly overrunning a French village is balanced by the looming specter of totalitarianism. The play is complex and thought-provoking, including such scenes as the debate on the origin of the rhinoceroses, which satirizes racial prejudice, and coded attacks on the Vichy regime and the playwright's friend Emil Cioran, as well as more general commentary on the French reaction to German occupation. The play also explores the human condition realistically in an anti-realistic situation, through the psychological verisimilitude of the way the characters react to the transformations occurring around them.

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1959's Rhinocéros, well into Ionesco's late-blooming carer, contains all the hallmark elements of absurdist theater. The first essential characteristic of absurdism is its social and political motive, which is often critical, parodic, or subversive—though the political subtext might not always be transparent. This play is about the threats to individuality and free expression posed by conformism and complacency, the first step towards willingly yielding more and more of one's individuality and autonomy.

Another defining trait of absurdism is its presentation of a stylized unreality in which the rules of reason, time, and space do not apply. This element reflects the influence of other modern forms of surreal arts like painting and poetry, as well as the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Jung and the French existential philosophy so fashionable among Ionesco's creative and intellectual contemporaries.

The ostensible subject of this play, humans seduced by rhinoceroses into willingly transforming, while a twist on the ancient Romanian vampire myth, is absurd because of the sheer implausibility of it. The animals appear in the French countryside, and their inexplicable origins are unquestioned by the villagers, who are only outraged at the damage caused and are unable to recognize the obvious and question of why these animals have appeared out of nowhere. This grounds the play in a bizarre unreality where logic has no place, except for Berenger's consciousness, which proves impenetrable by the external forces compelling conformity and "going along to get along." This makes Bereneger an absurdist hero, because while he is able to accept the irrationality of his predicament, he still retains his humanity and will to fight on.

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The absurdist aspects of Rhinoceros are ubiquitous. The characters present and speak of many nihilistic tendencies, and the action is fantastic. Rhinoceros does have something of a plot, as the action progresses and events lead to a climax; the viewer expects the animals’ takeover. In many ways, however, the structure is irrelevant, as the varied near-repetition of the transformations dominates each scene. The principal element of fantasy, as humans turn into rhinoceroses, leaves the play outside the realm of realism.

Jean and Dudard are two characters who embody the absurdist spirit and seem to counter the more conventional Berenger. Although their philosophies differ in some important regards, both Jean and Dudard are severely alienated. Berenger often provides the foil against which the other characters toss their antisocial or amoral views. When Berenger tells Jean that “we [humans] have a philosophy that animals don’t share, and an irreplaceable set of values,” Jean responds, “When we’ve demolished all that, we’ll be better off!”

Dudard also counters Berenger’s worries about evil, apparently unconcerned about the “unnatural” transformations into rhinoceros:

Dudard: What could be more natural than a rhinoceros?

Berenger: Yes, but for a man to turn into a rhinoceros is abnormal beyond question . . .

Dudard: You seem very sure of yourself. Who can say where the normal stops and the abnormal begins?

Going against the flow, Berenger seems like he may be the anti-hero type of traditional protagonist, but ultimately, he may not matter. His alienation is completed, for all the rest of society has become something else, and he is the only man left who is not a rhinoceros. So, can he be normal? He realizes his human body leaves him unprotected—he alone lacks their wonderful, hard skin. His once-treasured humanity is mere frailty.

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Ionesco's Rhinoceros fits most definitions of the theatre of the absurd because:

1. It is a play about being and existence. Berenger is the "last man" in that he is struggling against a chaotic universe which ultimately becomes absurd and nonsensical.

2. It is concerned with language, communication, and understanding. There is a humourous discussion of the definition of "cat" and "catness" by a logician who is not very logistical. Many characters cannot communicate and understand eachother throughout the play and it only deteriorates as most of the characters turn into or join the rhinos.

3. It is humourous, but at the same time it's tragic and carries with it serious social undertones. Ionesco's play is a comment on facism and how some people blindly subscribe to ideas and messages because "everyone else does."

4. It has absurd elements. A herd of rhinos running amuck in a small, provincial French town?!?!?! The inhabitants are uncaring save the difference between an "Asiatic" and "African" rhino?

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