Friday, 5 October 2001

Eugène Ionesco: Rhinoceros (1959)

Translation: Derek Prowse, 1960
Edition: Penguin, 1962
Review number: 956

Ionesco's most famous play may have a surreal idea at its centre (that people are turning into rhinoceroses), but he uses this to say something about human nature while at the same time creating a drama which is by turns funny, surprising, and fascinating.

In the first act, the main characters, Berenger and his friend Jean, are terrorised by the first rhinoceroses, running around the streets of the town causing lots of damage. It is only in the next scene, set in Berenger's office, that we discover that people are turning into the animals, as one of his colleagues destroys the building's staircase. Then everyone around Berenger starts to change - Jean, his colleagues and eventually the girl from his office that he had a crush on at a point when they believe they are the only remaining human beings. Finally, Berenger, alone, wonders why he can't change, begins to feel that his lack of a horn on his forehead makes him ugly, but ends with defiance against the idea of changing.

Though the play is designed to make the audience think it has an ideological point, like one of Sartre's existentialist plays, for example, it doesn't really, in my opinion. The rhinoceroses can be interpreted, say, as people who have accepted a new totalitarian regime, but this identification can only be made vaguely, and it seems to be more that Ionesco is writing an absurdist version of this kind of drama, so that the animals do not need to have a meaning.

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