Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Rhinoceros and Other Plays by Eugène Ionesco

Theatre of the absurd
Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994) was a Romanian-French playwright. Though born in Romania and fluent in both languages, he wrote his plays in the French language.
Rhinoceros, written in 1959, is his best known work. Regarded as an important work in the history of avant-garde drama, it has seen repeated stage productions since its publication up to the present day. The first English language production, staged in London in 1960, was produced by Orson Welles and featured Laurence Olivier in the starring role. That amounts to a very distinguished pedigree for a literary work that must have come across as an outrageously goofy night at the theatre.

The curtain opens on a street scene with a grocery and a cafe. Two friends, Jean and Bérenger, meet at the cafe. They make an odd couple of the neat vs. slovenly type. Bérenger drinks too much, and Jean scolds him for it. A few residents of the neighborhood also gather outdoors. Occasionally someone pokes their head out of a window to deliver a line. All seems a typically normal day until someone spots a rhinoceros charging through the streets. Though some words of shock are expressed, for the most part the cast takes the unusual event surprisingly in stride. Things escalate quickly, however, with a second rhinoceros sighting. Some witnesses attest that this is not the same rhino as previously, but rather a whole other animal. Arguments ensue over whether there was one rhino or two, whether the rhino or rhinos had one horn or two, and which characteristic applies to African or Asiatic rhinoceroses. At first, the rhinoceroses are merely mentioned as offstage happenings, but soon rhinoceros heads begin to appear around the theatre.

The most surprising thing about Rhinoceros is that it was written in 1959 because it reads like a work of the Dadaist movement of the 1920s. Though Rhinoceros is hailed by theatre historians as a groundbreaking classic, the imagery and humor don’t seem very cutting edge for the late 1950s. Ionesco’s style of playwriting is sometimes referred to as Theatre of the Absurd, a label that aptly applies to Rhinoceros, yet underneath the absurdity is a meaningful message. Rhinoceros is a clever statement on the temptations and perils of conformity, one that could apply to everything from fashion to fascism. It was Ionesco’s intention to satirize the latter evil, which gives the work some of its historical gravitas and elevates it above mere silly farce. Even so, Rhinoceros feels like a joke that has been dragged out a bit too long, particularly in its third act, somewhat like a comedy sketch that has been stretched into a feature film.

The Grove Press in New York published an English translation of the play in 1960 in a book entitled Rhinoceros and Other Plays. This volume also includes two one-act plays by Ionesco: The Leader (1953) and The Future is in Eggs, or It Takes All Sorts to Make a World (1957). These two comical dramas are even sillier than their better-known cousin. In both cases, the brevity of the one-act format only allows for the development and punchline of a single joke. In The Leader, a few adoring fans await the arrival of the unseen “Leader,” whose ludicrous off-stage activities are described by an announcer. In The Future is in Eggs, two newlyweds are surrounded by their parents and grandparents, who insistently encourage them to reproduce. Each play may have inspired a few chuckles when presented on stage, but lacking the metaphorical depth of Rhinoceros, both are likely to be forgotten soon after the closing curtain.

Stories in this collection
The Leader 
The Future is in Eggs, or It All Sorts to Make a World

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