Rhinocerous Essay, Research Paper
“Oh, a rhinoceros!” shouts Jean, the smug and somewhat shallow friend to the main character, Berenger, in the 20th century French play, Rhinoceros. Jean’s response to the noisy intrusion of the two rhinoceroses running past the cafe is followed by a number of similar senseless responses from Jean’s co-workers and acquaintances. Eugene Ionesco, the Romanian-born French dramatist, uses the absurd notion of rhinoceroses taking over a small provincial town in France to explore life’s constant struggle between maintaining one’s individuality and succumbing to the “mass-mind” of conformity. The three-act play is essentially a metaphor for people abandoning their own beliefs to join the mass herd majority. In fact, Ionesco describes it as an “anti-Nazi” play. It also reflects a view that holds the universe to be ultimately irrational, meaningless, and absurd; a notion commonly upheld in the “Theater of the Absurd,” a mid-20th century theater movement. Tragedy and comedy collide in this illustration of the absurdity of the human condition.
The play centers on Berenger, a young man confused by life’s many conflicts. His struggles with life reflect those of Ionesco himself. Berenger is the one character who sees the reality of life and is determined not to succumb to the “disease” of conformity. However clear the problems of humanity are to him, his ultimate confusion is obvious when he says, “Sometimes I wonder if I exist myself”. These existentialist concerns reflect Ionesco’s philosophical questions of his own existence. In fact, this play causes its audience to contemplate such issues within themselves.
Except for Berenger, the characters in the play show their senselessness and single-mindedness in the first and second acts by their reactions to the rhinoceroses. The Old Gentleman hardly notices them at all. He is more interested in winning the affections of the Housewife by helping her gather her things that she drops when startled by the brutes. It becomes clear that none of them see the rhinoceroses as possible precursors of the future or understand the meaning behind their appearance in their small town.
When one of the rhinoceroses runs over the Housewife’s cat, all of the citizens say simultaneously, “What a tragedy, poor little thing!” A few of the citizens then continue saying one-by-one, “Poor little thing!”. Ionesco shows this “canned sentimentality” from the characters to foreshadow the affects of conformity in the society. He uses this technique all throughout the play. When one character reacts to something with a response, the others follow with the exact same response. This lack of thought on the part of the citizens throughout the first two acts assures their eventual transformation into rhinoceroses. The image of a “mass mind” becomes clearer as the play progresses.
The subjects depicted in this play are serious, yet the audience cannot help but giggle a little at the ideas and images portrayed, for they are truly absurd. However, one should also see the underlying theme behind Ionesco’s herd of rhinoceroses. This “tragic-comedy” brings to mind Nazi Germany and the Serbs in Bosnia. There is always an internal struggle going on about whether you’re going to be your own person – which is difficult – or whether you’re just going to go with the flow of the crowd. Most people tend to succumb to the “disease” simply because they cannot bear being different from the majority.
Ionesco’s works are similar to those of Samuel Beckett, an Irish novelist and playwright from the 20th century. Beckett’s plays, such as Waiting for Godot and Endgame, also concern the issues of human suffering, survival, and struggling with meaninglessness and irrationality in a world of the truly Absurd. However, most of Ionesco’s work is more comic, more verbal, and less despairing than the work of Beckett.
Of course, by saying that Ionesco’s plays are more comic, the seriousness of the main themes found in his work are not meant to be downplayed. In fact, the ideas about the human condition that he depicts are very effectively presented and are enhanced with the use of absurdities. The characters engage in pointless and repetitive actions that emphasize the meaninglessness of their existence and the illogical way in which they live.
The plot of this play opens the eyes of its audience by the usage of many non-traditional dramatic techniques. The most obvious is Ionesco’s use of the rhinoceros as a poetic metaphor of the “essential savagery” of human beings and also of the triviality of the universe. The rhinoceros contrasts completely with the images of beauty and nobility which characterized plays of earlier eras. The utter chaos and preposterousness of this “tragic-comedy” is enough to make it memorable to all who read it or get the chance to watch the production. To those who can look past the comedy and see the true meaning behind the absurdity, it is possibly life-changing.