Study Guide

Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros Introduction

It’s a lovely day. Like almost any other. It’s not a school day, you’re wearing some fly hipster glasses to match your new flannel, you’re sipping a tangerine-and-bee-pollen from your favorite pressed juice shop. Totes normal. Sure, it’d be nice if the kids next door would pipe down, but it’s not the end of the world or anything, right? Hold on. What was that? That guy across the street looks like he’s walking funny. He’s sticking his arms out and kind of groaning. Um, and wait, there’s another one. And another, and another, and another.

Zombies!

You’re the only human left on earth. Your life is now an episode of The Walking Dead. RUUUUUUUUUUUN!

That little scene is, in its most basic form, the plot of Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 absurdist play Rhinoceros. Except for one tiny, scaly, horned little difference. Instead of zombies, we’ve got rhinoceroses (yep, not rhinoceri—don’t worry, we checked). Basically, it’s the rhinoceros apocalypse.

Yep, one lucky dude gets to watch as everybody around him transforms one-by-one into a rhino. It’s a look at the conformity, totalitarianism, free will, and pure ridiculousness that we sometimes have to deal with in life. Not to mention a great opportunity to make “horny” jokes.

This funnily philosophical—or maybe it’s philosophically funny—theatrical gem, based on a short story by the Ionesco, debuted in France in 1959, got translated, and then came to English-speaking stages a year later under the direction of the legendary Orson Welles.

The play has been performed all over the world in multiple languages, has been made into a movie starring Gene Wilder (that’s right, Willy Wonka), and has been staged in wildly varying styles. Seriously: puppets, crazy masks, movement pieces, you name it.

Rhinoceros is a tricky beast (pardon the pun), but it can be a lot of fun to take on for an actor and an audience. Seriously, how often do actors get the chance to play rhinoceroses? (If you’re seriously doubting, skip to 0:56 in the trailer. For realz).

So it's worth knowing that Rhinoceros serves as one of the cornerstones of the movement known as the Theatre of the Absurd, and Ionesco is one of the most important figures in that movement. Born in Romania and raised in France, Ionesco witnessed the rise of fascist and other totalitarian governments across Europe leading up to World War II.

With that oh-so-cheery backdrop, Rhinoceros started as a short story in which Ionesco wanted to explore how entire nations could rally around these pretty nasty types of government, and what happened to those who were unwilling to do so, because they just knew in their guts that something horribly wrong was happening.

Ionesco decided to riff on this idea from his short story, and in the late 1950s he crafted what remains one of his most popular and well-respected plays. When done well, the play can make you laugh, think, and occasionally ask yourself, “What on earth is happening on stage and what on earth is happening in the world?”

Oh, and by the way, the play has been talked about as an inspiration for zombie movies on more than one occasion.

What is Rhinoceros About and Why Should I Care?

Do you ever have those days when you look around and start to think everybody looks and acts just like everybody else? They all wear the same lace-up boots, they all talk with the same slang (selfie? Twerk? WTF), they all listen to the same electronic noise music, they all believe the same things—heck, some are even beliebers. Maybe, just maybe, you start to feel like you’re one of the few individuals left on the planet.

At its core, that’s what Rhinoceros deals with. Sure, it might be tackling bigger issues, like the onset of totalitarian governments before World War II, but it’s also looking at a guy who sees everyone around him making a choice to give up their individuality in order to be just like everyone else.

And most of us can relate to that in some way. Most of us have a moment when even our best buds might seem like they’re jumping on some bandwagon just to fit in. It can be frustrating. It can even be scary. If you ask Ionesco, he might say it can be downright destructive. Of course, he might also say that the idea that one person can stand alone and fight is just plain absurd. But more on that later.

Basically, Rhinoceros connects to all of us who have ever felt the need to stand against the group when we believe deep down that the group has just gone crazy. So that’s how to respond to those beliebers.

Rhinoceros Resources

WEBSITES

Life is Absurd!
Take a look at Ionesco’s bio to determine what might have driven the writer to look at the absurd side of life.

Why So Serious!?
Delve into the all too serious events in history (war, war, war) that heavily influenced the Theatre of the Absurd.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

The Producers…with Rhinos!
The 1974 film version of Rhinoceros directed by Tom O’Horgan moves things to 1970s America and stars Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, the comedy duo that are most famous for their roles in Mel Brooks’s The Producers. You may know Mel Brooks as the father of Max Brooks, zombie enthusiast and author of World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide. Yes, we are going to keep tying this thing back to zombies in any way we can.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Let Them Speak English!
The Paris Review sat down with Ionesco not long after his 70th birthday and got the playwright to talk about his work, the past, the theatre, and more. With Paris and Ionesco mentioned, you might think this interview would be in French, but it’s not, so you’re off the hook if you haven’t mastered those tricky irregular French verbs yet.

VIDEO

Rhinoceros: Into Darkness
Listen to Star Trek: Into Darkness villain (and Sherlock hero) Benedict Cumberbatch talk about his experience performing in Rhinoceros.

Ionesco on Ionesco, or, Let Them Read Subtitles!
Sometimes, the best way to learn about a writer is from the writer himself (sometimes). This interview gives Ionesco a chance to talk about his own feelings about his life and his plays.

IMAGES

I’m on a Boat!
Here’s a snap of a young(ish) Eugène Ionesco on a boat.

The Title Role
Take a glimpse at the African rhino they talk so much about in the play.