The play begins as Bérenger and other patrons are having a drink at an outdoor café. A rhinoceros charges down the street. The characters remark about this strange incident, but soon the initial surprise wears off. The same reaction is repeated when another animal gallops through the street from the opposite direction.
Act 2 begins in the office where Bérenger works. His colleagues are discussing the newspaper account of the animal incident. Mrs. Boeuf rushes in and announces that a rhinoceros has chased her and realizes that it is Mr. Boeuf transformed. Bérenger then visits his friend John, who defends the rhinoceroses, eventually turns into one, and attempts to run Bérenger down.
In act 3, Dudard, one of Bérenger’s colleagues, explains the motives of the rhinoceroses, making it sound like Bérenger, who does not share his views, is abnormal. Daisy, Bérenger’s girlfriend, informs him that Botard, who had supported Bérenger’s views, has joined the animals’ ranks. Bérenger receives only excuses and protests when he rallies the others against the bestiality that has overcome the town. Daisy herself fails to hear him; she gives in to the attraction of the herd and leaves the stage to metamorphose. Bérenger misses the force that belonging to a community provides, but he stands his ground, alone and miserable, in his humanity.
A few elements of fantasy appear in the play; for example, Mr. “Boeuf” means Mr. “Ox,” and Jean plays an illusionist. However, the play is simple, even traditional, in its structure. This simplicity gives more force to the disturbing presence of beasts in an urban environment. The metamorphosis of the residents reminds one of Franz Kafka’s short story Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936). However, where Kafka’s giant bug causes repulsion, Ionesco’s “rhinoceritis” is seductive. The rhinoceroses’ trumpeting is perceived as music, and they are said to be as beautiful as gods.
The play represents the mindless following of others in order to be like the herd; the same appearance, the same aspirations, the same thoughts, overtake the community and provide to each individual a cozy sense of closeness. Ionesco was inspired to write Rhinoceros by the rise of fascism in Romania in the late 1930’s, but he purposely refused to give a name to his herd. The play applies to fascism, Stalinism, and all the other political or religious doctrines that justify arbitrary violence in the name of an ideal. The French intelligentsia, who at the time inclined to the Left, highly approved of Rhinoceros. Its author was invited into their circle, but Ionesco, then and later, refused any affiliation.
The rhinoceros, enormous and seductive because of its might, blindly charging down a street, trampling kittens, destroying staircases and piercing walls, is a powerful symbol of the danger of ideologies when they turn into fanaticism. It is still a valid symbol in the twenty-first century, whether it applies to the relatively harmless dictatorship of fashion, the excesses of well-intentioned religious groups, the tyranny of political leaders, or the horrors of terrorism.
In a square in a small provincial town, a large number of comic types pass by, chatting. Jean and Berenger converse across a table at a sidewalk café. Jean berates his unshaven friend for drinking too much. Berenger complains that his life is still unsettled. Jean, who proceeds to lecture Berenger about duty, tells him that he must get used to life as it is. Everything is interrupted by a rhinoceros, which thunders by immediately offstage. The townspeople are astounded and alarmed. Before long another rhinoceros gallops by, or perhaps it is the same one returning. The...
(The entire section is 940 words.)