A product of the avant-garde theatre, Rhinoceros is the play that made Ionesco’s fame. It is perhaps the only ‘political’ play he wrote though there is nothing overtly political in the play’s narrative. It is only when you read it midway, in the midst of the Rhinoceros epidemic that you get to realize that a very powerful political statement is being made. And even though I find Ionesco’s politics and views slightly scatterbrained, this play is a case of the art growing beyond the artist and should not be associated with the views of the writer after a point – it should be taken as a statement and an art form of its own…
Ionesco is known to use surreal setups to depict his themes. In this play the setup is centred around the ‘Rhinoceros’. The characters in the play keep getting transformed into rhinoceroses’. As to why this particular animal was chosen, there are many interpretations, one of which is most appealing, as we will see…
The play starts with Berenger and Jean discussing in the coffee stop, with Jean expounding on his philosophy of life which is bordering on puritanism. Jean feels that Berenger should develop a will-power to develop his character and constantly gives him his own example – of how Jean himself can exercise will-power, how he keeps his word, how successful he is going to be and so on. The whole tone is one of extreme patronization. Berenger is shown to be a person who is eager to please and who is shown to be a drunkard who ‘cannot help himself’, one who is unsure of himself in all matters and one who always defers himself to Jean, who is his friend.
The scene also introduces the character Logician – shown to be a person who uses logic in every sentence (almost all of which is rubbish) and Daisy – the love interest of Berenger but who is too timid to approach her and who he feels is attracted to Dudard who has a ‘future’.
The discussion is interrupted with the appearance of a rampaging rhinoceros who interrupts the discussions twice, throwing everyone in a tizzy and triggering a discussion on whether the species was an Asian or African variety. Berenger falls out with Jean on this discussion and Jean parts with anger, calling Berenger names, inspite of which Berenger feels contrition later on.
The next scene is in office where Berenger works. Here we are shown the character of Dudard and Botard. Botard is shown to be highly sceptical of the rhinoceros business and refuses to believe in the phenomenon and is openly hostile to people who believe in it, claiming a huge conspiracy. This is interrupted by the appearance of a rampaging rhinoceros (who demolishes the staircase), who we are informed is actually Beouf, another employee who has now been transformed into the animal. This development makes the discussion go beyond mere speculation and into wondering why Beouf transformed himself – whether out of his own will or due to other reasons.
This is the point in the play where we start to get a clearer picture of what getting transformed into a rhinoceros would mean. It would probably mean a person getting converted into an ideology or religion which seem completely alien or disgusting to people initially, people who have not been converted…yet.
Nevertheless, the choice of animal could stem from the fact that they are rampaging animals who would demolish anything in their path and who seem to have a single minded focus without a shred of doubt – ingredient for development of any totalitarian ideology.
After this point, the play takes on a surreal tone, especially after we find that Jean has himself turned into a rhinoceros with him now using his own fastidious puritanism to rationalize the change even though he initially claims he is not changing into the animal. He almost tramples Berenger who is very upset over the development and wants to call a doctor to help Jean over the ailment. This particular part ends with Berenger finding himself trapped in the building with everyone in it transforming at an alarming speed. He looks out of the window and he sees a procession of rhinos…
The last scene takes place in the room where Berenger lives where he shown to be nursing a head wound, which constantly bothers him since he does not want to develop a bump (which would start the transformation). Dudard comes in and they have a discussion on the whole situation. It increasingly becomes clear that while Berenger is defiant on never aligning himself with the rhinos and their ways, Dudard on the other hand, while not committing himself, insists on taking a pragmatic and open minded view on he whole subject. In between, we are told that many other people have turned into rhinos which dismays Berenger. The point of the discussion between the two is that while Dudard is articulate and able to make his position clear, Berenger is speaking from emotion and intuition and keeps blundering into discussions. But while Dudard is shown to be talking a middle path which talks of ‘trying to live with them’ and finding a ‘peaceful solution’ and raising the point that morality is relative, Berenger is talking of rebellion and of non-acceptance and remaining themselves.
Berenger claims that he would need someone like the Logician who can put the discussion on the right track and in the right perspective. But he sees suddenly that the Logician himself has transformed into a rhino which thrown him into further despair. Berenger then claims that Botard, who was vociferously sceptical, is the man of the hour especially since he was a retired school teacher and hence learned.
In this scene comes in Daisy. She comes with the news that Botard has also turned into a rhino, thus devastating Berenger who feels himself more and more alone. He keeps muttering to himself of defiance but also claiming he does not know how to resist it all. Though Daisy is shown to be siding with Berenger overtly, she talks about trying to think about co-existing while remaining different. Later on we see that her position is not ideological or stemming from any conviction but is purely emotional. The discussion ruptures when Dudard suddenly claims that he cannot abandon his friends and things ‘should be changed from within’. He leaves and almost immediately becomes a part of the thronging rhino population outside.
Now we are only left with Daisy and Botard who express their love for each other and claim that they would defy becoming a part of the rhinos whose population keeps multiplying outside. However as the discussions progress, we see Daisy despairing as to what would happen to them and maybe the rhinos are not so bad after all. That they seem to be happy and content and that they seem to be so strong unlike themselves who she begins to see as weak (especially Botard). She begins to claim that the trumpeting of the rhinos is melodious which is hotly opposed by Berenger. The break comes when Berenger in a fit of rage and frustration slaps Daisy and she goes out on the street muttering that ‘he is not nice at all’…
Berenger finds himself all alone and swings wildly between the defiance and capitulation. The solitude is clearly getting to him. He almost succumbs but then reasserts himself with a show of unlikely willpower when he defiantly shouts at the end “I’ll take on the whole of them! I’ll put up a fight against the lot of them, the whole lot if them! I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating!”
The play attains a very surreal and almost terrifying atmosphere by the end. The play shows with a very simple allegory how people give into herd instinct and immerse their individuality in the mob especially one that shows strength in their attitude. The most significant part of the play I felt was the fact that it is Berenger, the unsophisticated, the person whom everyone considers to be of no account, the person who is full of doubts, who resists till the end when ‘better’ people had long given up. Maybe the last part is important – that he is full of doubts. Maybe that was the significant message of the play. People like Jean and Dudard and the Logician who are erudite and ‘men of the world’ can rationalize everything and embrace changes out of ‘pragmatism’ (while the real reason can be fear, opportunism etc) while men like Berenger can see the farce for what it is because he does not have excessive education or ‘culture’ to cloud out the basic things that he feels is a part of him – his individuality mainly.
You admire Berenger at the end. You admire him because even when he is weak (and he knows he is weak), he still stands upto the mob in his own quiet way. He makes his stand when it would have been so easy to capitulate and he would have had many ‘excuses’ to choose from. He is left all alone and finds himself isolated in his views and yet is defiant at the end. It is Ionesco’s way of saying perhaps that the ‘best’ people in the world are not the ones who resist. Its the unlikely people who understand and defy.
Its an important play that cuts across time since the theme is universal and recurring – our constant struggle to maintain our individuality. While the play can be read as an allegory of transformation of Germany into Nazi Germany, it would be too restricting to keep the context confined in that time period. What about the cultural imperialism of our time or of our acquiescence of the world view of powerful nations?
The play would retain its relevance and freshness for all time and would constantly nag us with the question; who would we choose -Berenger with all his faults or Jean/Dudard/Etc with their surety?