Who knew the inevitable march to death could be so funny? Rhinoceros, like other plays that often get the “Theatre of the Absurd” label, can prove difficult for actors and directors. Usually problems stem not just from the whole humans-not-looking-like-rhinoceroses thing, but from not striking the right tone.
To get a sense of what we’re talking about, take a look at this exchange towards the end of the play. Even though things are utterly falling apart, there is still humor to be found:
BERENGER: They haven’t got a language! Listen…do you call that a language?
DAISY: How do you know? You’re no polyglot! (3.1.1096-1098)
This might not be fall-on-the-floor funny, but Ionesco manages to pepper in little jokes even as the world crumbles around Berenger. He finds humor in language and arrogance and human nature throughout the play.
He’s not alone in this when it comes to the absurdists. Ionesco and Beckett and even writers that came along a little later, like Tom Stoppard of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead fame, can paint a pretty bleak picture of the world at times.
However, they can also be totally hilarious. Sadly, this gets missed in a lot of productions, and audiences are faced with nothing but the darkness.
And there’s more. Ionesco delves into all kinds of comedy. There is satire on the grandest scale. (Seriously, check out the scene in the office again. Ionesco was like 40 years ahead of his time when it came to office humor.) Plus there is physical comedy (spilling drinks on pants is comedy gold!), and there is just plain ridiculousness, like Berenger and Daisy running the course of an entire relationship in a manner of minutes.
Oh, and there are all those rhinoceroses running around. And a well-placed rhinoceros is pretty much bound to get a laugh.
In the end, though, this comedy does turn dark. It’s unavoidable. Even when a production strikes the right comic tone, the play is still talking about mass hysteria, capitulation, conformity, and cowardice. Hilarious, we know.
What’s that again? Let’s start us off with a Theatre Database quote:
“The ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ is a term coined by Hungarian-born critic Martin Esslin, who made it the title of his 1962 book on the subject. The term refers to a particular type of play which first became popular during the 1950s and 1960s and which presented on stage the philosophy articulated by French philosopher Albert Camus in his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he defines the human condition as basically meaningless.”
Ah, yes, the French and their ability to write about the meaninglessness of life. (Well sure, in fairness, not all absurdists are from France, but it seems to be a major hub for that sort of thing).
As ridiculous as it might sound, the Theatre of the Absurd has its roots in pretty serious events. Many of the playwrights who are categorized as absurdists (e.g., Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet) draw directly from their experiences of war, fascism, and mass destruction that took place in Europe before and during World War II.
Pause! A brief public service announcement regarding labels: most writers do not like being labeled as one particular thing or another. Ionesco and Beckett and others didn’t give themselves the name of absurdists, and many of the writers who fall into that category never liked to call their style of theatre, “Theatre of the Absurd.” Point taken.
But hey, history has deemed them as such, and Rhinoceros fits the criteria. Theatre of the Absurd strays from the realism of playwrights like Henrik Ibsen and throws us into a world where people can turn into rhinoceroses by choice and one man is left to stand alone against a legion of horned animals.
The Logician sums up the meaningless of life in a particularly absurdist fashion when he says to the grieving Housewife, “What do you expect, Madame? All cats are mortal! One must accept that.” (1.1.853-854) Cold comfort for a cat-lover.
Turning to logic, as logicians are wont to do, he completely removes emotion from the game. Everything living will someday die, so why bother getting upset over death when it occurs? Sounds like a dog guy to us.
Anyway, his way of looking at things can seem like a bleak view, but it’s a useful one in the Theatre of the Absurd. Plus, one could even apply it to the end of the play. As Berenger yells that he will fight all of the rhinoceroses, we get the sense that it is not a fight he will come even close to winning, so what's the point?
Remember, though, Ionesco doesn’t necessarily say Berenger’s stand is utterly meaningless. Making a stand might be all we can do even if we are destined to fail. As we see in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which is literally about waiting for someone who never shows up, sometimes life simply is doing something even when you know there is no hope of success or change.
Let’s face it. Sometimes the best way to handle a title is to get right to the point. Write a movie about a mannequin that comes to life, call it Mannequin (yep, that’s real). A book about an orphan named Oliver Twist, better call it Oliver Twist (or the zillion other books named after their main characters). And let’s get contemporary—how about movie about a group of superheroes who call themselves the Avengers. Why not call the whole thing The Avengers?
So Ionesco wrote a play called Rhinoceros. What could that be about? You better believe the guy delivers on that title. By the end, all but one of our characters has transformed into a rhinoceros.
Of course, keep in mind that the play isn’t named after just any animal. Even in all its absurdity, the choice of this particular horny ungulate matters. A rhino can wreak havoc if it wants to. It’s powerful, it’s strong, and it’s got a giant freakin’ horn on its head. That’s one scary, if somewhat unexpected, specimen of megafauna.
Many people see this play as being a comment on the rise of Fascism and Nazism leading up to WWII (more on that in the "Symbolism"section), and the rhino seems to serve Ionesco’s allegorical purposes. When they come together, the rhinoceroses in the play stampede through the town and draw almost everyone along in their wake. If that ain’t totalitarianism, we don’t know what is.
This is it. It’s the end of the play, and in the play, perhaps the end of the world. This is the moment in Independence Day when Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum mess with the alien spacecraft just in the nick of time to save humanity. This is William Wallace yelling “Freedom!” in Braveheart and inspiring others to fight even as he gets swallowed into the battle.
Can Rhinoceros possibly be as massively epic? Let’s take a look:
BERENGER: I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating! (3.1.1293-1294)
Hey, come to think of it, that’s got a bit of a Braveheart feel to it. After all, “not capitulate” is sort of another way to say you’re dead set on maintaining your freedom. Basically, Berenger gives his rousing speech as the last man left to stand against the rhinoceroses. It’s bold and it’s angry, and it’s pretty dramatic.
But is it also pointless? Well shucks, that’s a tough question.
Ionesco ends his play with his protagonist howling against the rhinoceroses. No one in the play hears him. Or maybe they do, but rhinos don’t understand English so much. So it’s real: no one other than him is left.
It’s pretty clear that Berenger cannot stem the rhinoceros tide and turn things back to the way they were on his own. His mission will most likely fail, and it will most likely fail pretty quickly. But we don’t ever see that. It’s not how Ionesco ends his play. He ends his play with a man proclaiming that he will stand up and fight against impossible odds. Who cares if he doesn’t win? It’s the intent that counts. A for Effort, Mr. B!
So here’s another question: who is Berenger really talking to? Isn’t he, like, proclaiming his refusal to give up to a horde of rhinos? Well, yup. In the play, Berenger is calling out to the beasts he’s about to fight, but here’s a doozy—maybe it’s just possible that Ionesco is calling out to the audience.
For Berenger, there isn’t much hope, and let’s be honest, this play isn’t necessarily the most hopeful thing ever written. But Ionesco still chooses to make Berenger’s war cry the end of the show. Is it just one more demonstration of the utter futility of life? Or is it a sign that the writer believes that man must stand up in the face of hysteria and tyranny?
Here’s what one reviewer had to say about it: “As the piece slyly explores the mass hysteria that can allow a totalitarian regime to come to power, it also examines the reasons individuals find themselves resisting change, not for any logical or intellectual reason but simply because their intuition tells them that what they see happening is wrong.”
As this reviewer points out, Berenger cannot necessarily reason why he refuses to go along with the others, but, sure as a rhino’s got two toes, he refuses. He knows, somehow, that it's wrong. Wrong as the horn on their faces.
So his speech might fall on deaf on rhino ears, but his message doesn’t fall deaf on the ears of the audience. At least, not when it’s done well.
Sometimes, playwrights make it easy for you to figure out where you are. Other times not so much (we’re looking at you, Samuel Beckett). Ionesco spells out the setting of this play from the get-go:
The scene is a square in a small provincial town. (1.1.1)
Thanks, buddy. But wait: Why the small town? Why not throw us in the middle of Paris or London or New York?
We’re glad you asked. Setting the play in a small town gives Ionesco the chance to paint a picture of the entire town without having to cover a lot of ground. We get a sense from the opening scene what this place is all about, and we see that people are generally polite and relaxed and not too caught up in the hustle and bustle of things.
If these people, who live a relatively quiet, decent life can get caught up in the wave of rhinocerosteria (quick, add that word to the dictionary), then anyone can. It’s like setting a horror movie in a small town.
Everyone expects crazy stuff to happen in huge cities, but we don’t necessarily think a small, country town will serve as the setting for end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it type events. Spooky!
One of the most interesting things about this play is that it works on multiple levels. Not like Inception dream-within a dream-within dream type stuff, but, you know, on a symbolic and allegorical level.
So back to the allegories. During WWII, the Nazis occupied France, a number of French folk followed along, and the government capitulated. (There’s a reason that word plays such a major part in Berenger’s final monologue.)
We can look at the setting of the play as France on the brink of occupation. Now, not all of the French were on board with what was happening to their country. In fact, the French Resistance fought throughout the war to help bring down the Nazis. They did not have an easy time of it, but fight for their country they did.
In a way, Berenger fills that role—the role of those who saw how their country was being taken over and refused to accept it. In that way, the play can be seen as a reaction against fascism. If fascism is one government marching in and saying it owns another one, and the people of the other one saying, “heck to the no,” then we can see the rhinos as the fascists (come on, those horns are sharp) and Berenger as the last man standing.
Again, there’s more to it than the allegory, but the context of France’s fall to the Nazis was a pretty big deal, and the trauma lasted way later than the end of the war. Hey, if you’d had to live through that, you’d be seeing rhinoceroses too.
On the surface, this thing might look pretty easy. After all, it’s about a bunch of people turning into rhinos, and the language isn’t in iambic pentameter. But this bad boy, like a lot of the plays by the absurdists, can be a tough nut to crack.
Rhinoceros doesn’t necessarily read (or play) like more straightforward works of drama like Death of a Salesman or Hamlet (well, maybe that one ain’t so easy). But still, if you’re not used to the style, it can be difficult at times. Once you sink in, though, it can be really funny and raise some big-time questions.
Here’s another gem from Ionesco’s own lips: “I personally would like to bring a tortoise onto the stage, turn it into a racehorse, then into a hat, a song, a dragoon and a fountain of water. One can dare anything in the theatre and it is the place where one dares the least.”
Okay, you know when you see a movie you can get hit with every type of special effect there is. You can watch a hobbit talk to Gollum and totally believe that Gollum is real and not some British guy wearing a spandex suit with little sensors on it. Pretty intense, we say.
That’s not really what Ionesco is talking about here, though. Ionesco is championing what many people might refer to as “theatricalism.”
Basically, there are actors, directors, and playwrights out there who believe that what you can do on stage is unlike anything you can do in other mediums. You can even put a rhinoceros onstage without explaining how to make it happen, because there are countless different ways to approach the problem in a theatrical setting.
There could be masks, or puppets, or actors in makeup, or actors just moving in a certain way. Spandex and sensors, you say? Pah! Theatrical style allows you to go beyond what is “real,” and that includes CGI real. The rhinos don’t have to look like actual rhinos. They don’t have to be like the raptors in Jurassic Park. They don’t even have to look like Gollum.
Theatrical style, as Ionesco hints, allows you to take risks, be daring, and go bigger than real life. The same can be said for the characters. People like Botard aren’t necessarily meant to sound like your everyday coworker. Remember, Ionesco says he works in archetypes. There’s something grand and mythic about that.
He’s not necessarily interested in making his characters talk the way people actually talk. He’s not afraid to stick a logician on stage rambling on about syllogisms for a page or two. He’s not afraid to write a pack of rhinoceroses into a play, because he knows that a theatrical approach allows you to draw on the audience’s imagination.
The idea is, if you do it right, you can turn a racehorse into a hat on stage, and, no, it doesn’t have to look absolutely “real.”
The rhinoceros as a symbol in a play called Rhinoceros? Um, duh.
In the play, there is no greater symbol than the titular beasts that take over the town (and, it seems, the world). If you want to go all allegorical on this thing, you could say something like the rhinos are the Nazis or the Iron Guard (a right-wing extremist group in Romania, where Ionesco’s from).
In fact, in an article about the background of the play, Ionesco cites an account about the Nazis parading through Germany as one of his inspirations: “As they [Hitler and his entourage] drew nearer…the crowd caught up in a kind of hysteria […] the hysteria spread, and advanced, with Hitler, like a tide.” Freaky, huh? Basically, rhino = authoritarian bad guy.
Back to the play: better be careful with your comparisons, because this isn’t a “one-to-one” allegory. That is to say, characters in the play don’t necessarily represent specific people in history. In fact, it gets even more interesting than that.
So sure, the rhinoceroses can symbolize any tyrannical group that comes to power. Also, since you’re super clever and have fully tapped into what Ionesco is all about with this play, you realize that all the rhinos don’t just come marching in from a foreign land. They once were the people of this small town, and like the frenzy around Hitler, those people joined up and advanced with the group.
The rhinoceroses aren’t just symbols of a Fascist government, they’re symbols of mankind’s willingness to join up with groups bent on some form of destruction. In the end, it’s not an invading army that Berenger is howling against. It’s the people who used to be his neighbors, his coworkers, his friends, and the woman he loved.
He’s a drunk, he’s a lover, he’s an individual, he’s a mother…no wait, that’s Alanis Morissette. As for Berenger, he’s the protagonist, so why can’t he be a symbol, too?
Here’s something to chew on: “Ionesco describes his characters not as ‘stereotypes’ but as ‘archetypes,’ that function on a mythic plane but with enough naturalistic detail to ground them in the particular and thereby maintain their immediacy.” (Read this essay if you want more where that came from.)
Berenger falls neatly into the archetype (which is a kind of symbol) of the “Everyman,” meaning a man who is pretty much like every other man. But by the end he comes to symbolize the individual in a world of followers. Double whammy for Berenger!
Anyway, he might not be the strongest or the wealthiest or the smartest or even that great of a guy at the end of the day, but at least he’s willing to hold onto the things that make him him. While everybody else is turning into rhinoceroses and busting up the building, Berenger still speaks out on behalf of humankind:
BERENGER: I’m staying as I am. I’m a human being. A human being. (3.1.1227-1228)
He’ll say it again: a human being! Sure, it’s a little crazy for one guy to try to stand up to a legion of rhinos, and we all know his chances of winning this fight are slim to none, but sometimes it’s the willingness to stand up against the masses that's important.
So here, Berenger symbolizes humanity. It’s a pretty daunting role to take on, especially for a drunk.
But wait! Before you get totally wrapped up in the symbolism of Berenger and what he represents, don’t forget that he’s still a fully-formed character, and that is what makes him endure, and what makes it a good play. At the end of the day, Berenger’s staying power has to do with his character—his flaws, his imagination, his passion, his decision (source). If he’s just a symbol, his power can fade, but if he’s a great character, he can stick around forever.
So far, he’s been important for over 50 years. Not a bad start.
Cats are super cute. There, we said it. All of you “dog people” out there can deny it all you want. You can say cats are stuck-up snobs or whatever, but you’re fooling yourself if you don’t think cats are really cute (as well as possibly being criminal masterminds). And guess what? We have YouTube’s 10 Cutest Cat Moments to prove it.
So why all the talk about cats? Are we just really big fans of 1980s Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals or something? Well, yes, but that’s not the point here. The reason we’re talking about cats is because the cat in Act 1 of Rhinoceros plays a pretty important symbolic role in the play. The cat symbolizes the coming destruction. Yes, that sounds a bit dramatic when talking about a cat, but it’s not overstating it.
When the first rhinoceros appears on the scene, it doesn’t really do much damage. It shakes some people up and knocks over some stuff, but everybody and everything comes out of the ordeal relatively unscathed. It’s easy to overlook the fact that this beast can destroy and kill pretty much anything that comes into its path if it wants to.
The second appearance of a rhino just minutes later is a different story. This time the Housewife’s cat gets trampled. No more mouse-chasing for this kitteh.
In case this particular feline has slipped your mind, recall that the Housewife and her cat enter at the very top of the show. As soon as the curtain rises in Ionesco’s writing of it, the Housewife and her cat are the first things we as an audience observe in this play. Once the cat is dead, we can no longer ignore the potential danger that the rhinoceroses pose.
Well, we can, and almost everyone does, but we shouldn’t.
Don’t hold onto your seats waiting for a King Arthur or a Beowulf sort of a story—but do get set for a small-scale, comic revision of that whole idea of the “overcoming the monster” plotline we know so well from the fairytales. Anticipating yet?
So. After Berenger gets us on the edge of our seats by refusing to conform to society and stop drinking on weeknights, the rhinoceros storms in. At that point we pretty much know what our hero is dealing with. The hero himself, though, isn’t all that worried about it. He kind of gets bored even talking about the rhinoceros after a minute or so:
BERENGER: Well, it was a rhinoceros—all right, so it was a rhinoceros! It’s miles away now…miles away… (1.1.357-358)
That said, the monster has revealed itself, and our hero will figure that out pretty soon. Berenger may have his mind on the spirits, but things are about to get pretty spirited in this little zoo of a town. Should we call Alcoholics Anonymous or Rhinoceros Anonymous?
In a classic “overcoming the monster” story this would be the part where our hero crafts silver bullets or tracks down some ancient talisman that can defeat the mythic beast in question. In Rhinoceros, this phase involves heading over to Jean’s apartment. Berenger has laid off the drink to try to get himself prepped for this whole rhinoceros thing, but that’s really about it. Still, he seems pretty chill with the fact that his coworkers are turning into rhinos at this point.
When Jean starts transforming into a rhinoceros we finally come face to face with what Berenger is dealing with. Heck, even Berenger starts to sober up. For one thing, Jean stampeding around the apartment, not to mention his newfound strength, are just a tad too much for Berenger to cope with:
JEAN: I’ll trample you, I’ll trample you down! (2.2.424)
Berenger can’t tell Jean to lay off the rhino the way Jean told him to lay off the wine. He’s got to just dodge and hope not to get hit. (Boxers will tell you, it’s all about footwork in cases like this.) More important, though, Berenger comes to understand that anyone—even his best friend—could turn into the monster:
BERENGER: I would never have thought it of him—never! (2.2.436)
Fingers crossed he can jump out of a rhino’s path as quick as Manny Pacquiao can box a ghost.
Bilbo and the Dwarves battle Smaug. Beowulf fights Grendel’s Mother. Van Helsing chases down Dracula. Luke Skywalker goes toe-to-toe with Vader and the Emperor at the same time, blue lightning and all. These are classic “final ordeals.”
Berenger’s is a little less classic and a little less epic. He hides out in his apartment with Dudard and Daisy, trying to figure out a way to overcome the rhino epidemic. Once Dudard takes off to join the other side, Berenger’s solution for battle is to repopulate the world with humans along with his lady friend Daisy.
BERENGER: Daisy, there is something we can do. We’ll have children, and our children will have children—it’ll take time, but together we can regenerate the human race. (3.1.1110-1112)
Basically, he’s going for more of an Adam-and-Eve or post-flood Biblical vibe than a get-up-and-slay-the-beast kind of vibe.
This stage is that crazy battle scene at the end of the movie or book. It’s the hero almost getting killed but somehow triumphing in the end and avoiding death. Ask your daddy for help now, Luke!
Like most of the Absurdists, Ionesco knows full well that death is inevitable, so the idea of escaping death isn’t really his idea of a happy ending. It’s more about the absurdity of living while knowing that death will always come in the end. (In case you’re about to curl up in fetal position, we promise Theatre of the Absurd can be way funnier than that makes it sound.)
With that in mind, though, we must view the end of the play as a twist on the classic “thrilling escape” plotline. Berenger’s escape is to simply stay in his apartment. Everyone else has run off together and turned into rhinoceroses. Berenger refuses to join the group and swears to keep fighting those angry ungulates.
So in his own, absurdist sort of a way, Berenger escapes “death” in that he remains human. However, Ionesco does not give us much hope that Berenger has much of a chance to overcome the horde of monsters that now looms just outside his apartment.
But wait! That doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting. Berenger “lives” on at the end of the play. If you think the loss of humanity is a kind of death, Berenger is the only one still truly living as the curtain falls. Feeling absurd now? Yup, the absurdity’s a monster that’ll never be defeated.
Ionesco tells us, “The scene is a square in a small provincial town.” Then he takes his sweet time stage-directing that small provincial time on the relatively calm and lazy Sunday upon which we find it. Basically, it’s like a French, absurd, somewhat existential Sesame Street.
And so we meet the people in the neighborhood: a lady with a basket of food under one arm and a cat under the other, the grocer, the grocer’s wife, the Logician (like in every town), and of course, the Old Man. A lovely little town where not a whole lot ever happens, is what he seems to be saying.
When our would-be hero Berenger shows up, we still don’t get any sense of what’s about to go down. Berenger and Jean spend the opening of the show chatting about Berenger’s hangover and his sub-par haircut. Basically, it looks like the show’s shaping up to be a self-improvement advertisement or two dudes talking about booze and appropriate hairstyles for two hours. That could be funny and interesting.
Except not as funny and interesting as when all that is thrown topsy-turvy with the entrance of rhino number one.
This seemingly ordinary town is about to get a whole lot more interesting.
By the time the second rhino shows up and kills the lady’s cat, we know it could even get a little dangerous…at least for the local kittehs. Regardless, we now know what we need to know. Rhinoceroses are on the loose in this small French town. Hopefully our protagonist’s messy hair is the secret weapon he needs.
The conflict and complication of this play arises when we (and the characters) come to understand that the rhinoceroses running around are not your average, everyday one and two-horned rhinos. They were once folks just like you and me:
MRS. BOEUF: It’s my husband. Oh Boeuf, my poor Boeuf, what’s happened to you?
DAISY: Are you positive?
MRS. BOEUF: I recognize him! I recognize him! (2.1.451)
It’s bad enough when a co-worker changes into a rhino, but things really start to build when Berenger is confronted with the transformation of his closest friend, Jean. If even Jean, hair adviser extraordinaire, couldn’t hang onto humanity, what’s the world coming to?
Either way, when Jean goes, we know things are only going to get worse for Berenger. If his best friend could turn horny beast, that means it could happen to anyone.
Berenger may have lost his best friend and style consultant, but at least he still has the woman he loves. In fact, we think he might also have Dudard (not his main dude, but a decent one) at his side. Together, maybe the three of them can fight this thing.
Then again, maybe not. Dudard doesn’t last long before joining the grey-skinned hordes. Still, as long as Berenger and Daisy stay together and love each other, there is hope:
BERENGER: Don’t be frightened, my dear. We’re together—you’re happy with me, aren’t you? It’s enough that I’m with you, isn’t it? I’ll chase your fears away. (3.1.1065-1067)
If you’ve grown up on RomComs or you’re just the sentimental type, you might believe that this is, as Berenger says, “enough.”
If you’re a little more cynical than all that, or know anything about the Theatre of the Absurd (or provincial towns in France for that matter), you probably know how things are going to play out.
Love, it seems, is not all you need (sorry, John Lennon). Like those before her, Daisy grows intrigued by the rhinoceroses and starts to empathize with them. Before long, her decision is made:
DAISY: They’re like gods. (3.1.1195)
And within less than a minute, she’s descending the stairs and joining the rhinoceroses, leaving Berenger alone.
Once things start to fall, things fall fast. As soon as Daisy leaves, Ionesco drops a single monologue on us to bring things to their conclusion.
If you want to break the monologue down from a structuralist standpoint (admit it, you totally want to do that), the falling action occurs toward the top of Berenger’s final speech (which is a three-page doozy, by the way). At this point, he comes to the realization that Daisy won’t come back and that he is truly alone:
BERENGER: Well, it was obvious we weren’t getting along together. The home was broken up. It just wasn’t working out. But she shouldn’t have left like that with no explanation … She didn’t even leave a message. That’s no way to behave. Now, I’m all on my own. (3.1.1219-1224)
At this point, Berenger still has a decision to make. That decision drives us to the end of the monologue and, with that, the resolution…
So, that decision Berenger has to make. He knows he’s alone. So does he give in and join all of the other rhinoceroses out there? Or does he cling to his final, messy-haired shreds of humanity? Here’s what he’s got to say:
BERENGER: I’ll put up a fight against the lot of them, the whole lot of them! I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating! (3.1.1292-1294)
Inspired yet? You should be. The choice is made. He will stand up and fight. Even if it seems absurd to do so, Berenger—who has always been a little bit different than those around him—will never give into the hordes of rhinoceroses out there. He is resolute in his resolution. The end.
Ionesco, for all his straying from traditional realism, adheres to a pretty standard structure in Rhinoceros. The play takes place in three acts, and it moves forward like you’d expect a three-act play to. So structurally, there’s nothing crazy going on; it’s when you get to the plot and dialogue where things get a little weird.
Basically, this play is like a pizza made from regular dough and cheese, but instead of pepperoni, it’s topped with like Gummi Bears and a hammer.
When you become the next great playwright or theatre director (which you will, right?), you’re going to spend a lot of time thinking about the opening of a show. And if that’s not your goal, the same sort of thing applies to TV, too.
Basically, you’ve got a couple of options. You can grab the audience right off the bat with a big song and dance, a crazy explosion or some bizarre murder (think CSI). Or you can take some time to set things up and give the audience a little breathing room.
Ionesco goes with choice number two. He spends a lot of Act 1 allowing us to get to know these people we’re dealing with, letting us get a sense that Berenger might be our hero, but that he’s no Superman:
BERENGER: I have got a bit of a hangover, it’s true!
JEAN: It’s the same every Sunday morning—not to mention the other days of the week. (1.1.69-71)
Yup, that’s our guy. A bit of a drunk who can’t seem to quite get things together. He’s always late, he’s always tired, and he’s always thirsty—especially for a nice French wine.
This fellow’s shortcomings might not make him the traditional superhero type, but they do make him a pretty solid “everyman.” He’s a guy a lot of us can relate to. He’s flawed and he knows it, like most of us. He wants to make some changes, but at the same time, he seems pretty content with life.
If you’re really going to delve into things Sherlock Holmes style, though, you need to keep an eye out for a key trait in Berenger that Ionesco hints at in Act 1. Sure, he drinks and he’s never on time and all of that, but there’s something more important that comes out, and if you’re not really paying attention, it could fly right by you:
JEAN: Wear a hat, a tie like this, a well-cut suit, shoes well polished [As he mentions the various items of clothing he points self-contentedly to his own hat, tie, and shoes.].
Jean’s little speech to Berenger isn’t some sort of Fashion Police moment where he’s calling Berenger out for looking dumpy on the red carpet. This is about Jean trying to get Berenger to look and act like him. And more or less, like everyone else. We can assume from what they say that Jean is a relatively respected man about town, and we can further assume that Jean appears like most other men in his position. Berenger is the odd man out, and Jean wants him to get on board and start behaving like everybody else.
The best plays (and novels, and short stories, and made-for-TV movies) have these tasty little moments. Like the appetizer before a fancy meal. You might spend your time thinking about the meal to come, but if you slow down and enjoy the food in front of you, you’ll like everything that much better.
In other words, what Jean says to Berenger sets up the entire struggle that is about to unfold. Berenger is different, and there are people who think it’s time he stopped being different and just started acting like he “should.” In other words, grab a baguette and a beret like everyone else in small-town France.
Once Ionesco gives us an idea of the setting and some of the characters, he gets the ball rolling—the ten-ton ball of angry African beast, that is. The first rhino shows up. Yikes! And just a few minutes later, rhinoceros number two crashes into town. Once that happens, we’re on this crazy train, and we’re not stopping until Berenger is the only man left on two feet.
Ionesco’s Act 2, albeit broken into two scenes, fits right in with the traditional idea of what an Act 2 should be. This is when the stakes start to rise and we get better clued in to what our hero is up against.
In other words, if this were a traditional play or a zombie movie, this is when the group of survivors would start to dwindle and the eerie music basically would never stop. And in terms of the Theatre of the Absurd, that means you can expect more philosophical debates and a clearer picture of how ridiculous this struggle we call life actually is.
Act 2 of Rhinoceros lets us in on the secret of what’s actually been going on. No, it wasn’t a Madagascar zoo break, and these rhinos didn’t swim, barge, and horn their way into France out of the wild.
That’s right—these fellas used to be people.
Once Berenger and the others discover this in the office, things start to build pretty quickly. We already know that Berenger’s coworker Mr. Boeuf has transformed, and Ionesco makes it pretty clear that he isn’t going to be the only one:
DAISY: Yes, other rhinoceroses. They’ve been reported all over the town. This morning there were seven, now there are seventeen. (2.1.549-551)
Being as smart as you are, you know it’s time to get out of town. Find an isolated cabin somewhere. Maybe a group of survivors that includes an old guy who seems oddly wise on all subjects and a kid who is clearly the future of the human race.
Berenger and the others aren’t as smart as you, though. They’re going to stick around and see how things shake out. In fact, Mr. Papillon (the boss) expects them to be back in the office later that day. What happened to having a good ole-fashioned rhino day?
Moving on along, Act 2, Scene 2 pushes the story forward in a relatively traditional manner. We know there are rhinoceroses. We know they were once people. And we know Berenger was an acquaintance of a coworker-turned-rhino. But that’s not all. Things are about to get personal.
As you might guess, the whole rhino thing puts one’s life into perspective, so Berenger decides to head over to his buddy Jean’s apartment to apologize for being a bit beef-headed in their café fight earlier on. Unfortunately, things are about to turn into a whole different type of beast. Have you guessed which one?
Upon his arrival, Berenger finds dear Jean sick in bed. Poor thing. Well, at least, he seems sick. But then he starts going on about never having felt better and feeling strong and ready to take on the world. Pretty much all the things you’d expect a guy who is changing into a rhinoceros to say.
The two friends converse, but pretty soon conversation is no longer an option. Rhinos aren’t known for their eloquence in English after all (or French, or, um, human languages). So Jean, whose voice has seemed foreign to Berenger from the moment he walked in, starts making sounds that sound more like “Brrr” than words. Did someone turn on the air conditioning? Um, guess again…
But before we go on a-brr-ing, a sidebar here. This whole “Brrr” thing? It can be a great moment for an actor. It could be comical, a little creepy, terrifying, or totally ridiculous. That’s the joy of acting—you get to make choices. And regardless of what decision you make regarding the transformation when you play a fella like Jean, keep in mind that this scene highlights something that holds major weight with Ionesco and the other Absurdists: the breakdown of language and communication.
So. No longer able or willing to talk to Berenger (he won’t even call him Brr-enger), Jean rampages out of the place and joins the other rhinos. Berenger never believed his friend would be part of all that. The rhinopocalpyse has now hit home for Berenger. He knows it’s something that he will have to confront:
BERENGER: An army of rhinoceroses, surging up the avenue…![…]Where can I get out? Where can I get out? If only they’d keep to the middle of the road! They’re all over the pavement as well. Where can I get out? Where can I get out? (2.2.469-473)
Getting spooky, huh?
Back in the glorious 1980s, there was a little band called Europe, and they wrote a song called “The Final Countdown.” Then in the even glorious-er early 2000s, it was adopted as the most magical of intro songs for a master of tricks—er, illusions.
Anyway, whether an anthem for basketball games entering the fourth quarter or various end-of-the-world scenarios, it seems only right that it should kick off our discussion of Act 3 of Rhinoceros.
The walls are closing in on Berenger and the other survivors (at this point Daisy and Dudard are still clinging to humanity). The rhinos are literally crashing into the walls of Berenger’s apartment building, and their numbers seem to be growing at an unstoppable rate.
Soon, Dudard sees the appeal of calling it a day and becoming a rhinoceros. He heads for the street and joins the herd.
Berenger and Daisy stand strong (for all of about four minutes). Their love for each other is no match for the rhinoceroses or for all that other stuff that comes with having to live with someone. Daisy can’t look away from the rhinos:
DAISY: Those are the real people. They look happy. They’re content to be what they are. They don’t look insane. They look very natural. They were right to do what they did. (3.1.1133-1135)
Within a minute, she’s calling the rhinoceroses “gods,” and before you can say saw-it-from-a-stampede-away, she’s off with the leather skins. We’ve reached the climax of the play. Berenger’s dreams of repopulating the Earth with the woman he loves are gone. He’s truly on his own now.
There’s only one thing left for Berenger to do: drop a three-page monologue on the audience. Seriously, if you’re the last person on earth, it’s your right to drop into a full-on monologue. Finally no one can cut you off and tell you stop talking. Make sure to include some bold proclamations for extra dramatic effect:
BERENGER: I’ll put up a fight against the lot of them, the whole lot of them! I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating! (3.1.1294)
Pretty heavy stuff, huh? From likable drunk to the last man left in the world. Quite the journey from a guy who struggled with the idea of having to wear a tie to one who has to take on all of rhinocericized humanity.