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Rhinoceros | Context

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The Theater of the Absurd

When Eugène Ionesco wrote the play The Bald Soprano (1950), he unknowingly helped to begin a new movement in theater. Inspired by his play, other playwrights also began to employ its style, which came to be known as absurdist. For example, in 1952 Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot—a play with no plot and a circular structure. In contrast, traditional plays have a structure that builds to a climax and ends with some type of resolution. In 1958 the British playwright Harold Pinter used elements of the absurd in his first full-length play, The Birthday Party.

The combined work of Ionesco, Beckett, Pinter and others came to be called the Theater of the Absurd, with the writers focused on using their absurdist, often seemingly nonsensical style to provide a unique view of the world. Although the Theater of the Absurd began to decline in the mid-1960s, elements of absurdist plays have been incorporated in mainstream theater. These elements include:

  • fragmented language
  • word play
  • frequent use of pauses
  • illogical plot without a resolution
  • contradiction
  • blend of comedy and tragedy
  • symbolism
  • minimalism
  • relationship with audience challenged

Albert Camus

All of the absurdist writers were strongly influenced by the writer and philosopher Albert Camus, especially by his essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). In this work Camus expresses his view of human existence as being meaningless and without a purpose. This is essentially the philosophy of existentialism, although Camus denied being an existentialist. He did, however, embrace absurdism, particularly the idea that meaning and logic do not exist. Because of this view, Camus saw human life as being absurd, but he also believed that each individual needed to forge his or her own meaning. Ionesco and other absurdist writers adopted some of this viewpoint. As a result, their plays reject logical structures and often have little dramatic development. Even so, absurdist plays tend to have characters who are very busy, but their activity really changes nothing. The characters often speak in a repetitious manner while using clichés and non sequiturs, as seen in The Bald Soprano. Because of this, the dialogue ends up sounding nonsensical—an attempt by the playwrights to stress the difficulty of meaningful communication.

Fascism

During the 1930s when Eugène Ionesco was studying at the University of Bucharest, a political movement called fascism was gaining strength in parts of Europe, including Germany, Italy, and Romania. Fascism promoted an authoritarian government, often led by a dictator who controlled all aspects of a nation, including political, cultural, economic, and religious elements. In addition, fascism stressed an extreme form of nationalism, which involved unquestioning loyalty to the state. In Italy during the 1920s a fascist party led by Benito Mussolini seized control of the government. In the early 1930s the Fascist Nazi Party led by Adolf Hitler was voted into power in Germany. By the late 1930s a fascist group called the Iron Guard was gaining power in Romania.

The oppressive rule of fascist governments left a strong mark on the young Ionesco. Fascist nations required citizens to maintain total devotion to a government led by a dictator. Any questioning of the government's authority was condemned. Secret police used imprisonment, execution, and torture to crush any opposition. Also, fascist government strictly controlled a nation's information through censorship of the media, including newspapers and radio. In an effort to avoid fascist oppression, Ionesco moved his family from Bucharest to Paris and then to Marseilles.

The effect of Ionesco's experience with fascism can be seen throughout Rhinoceros. In this work people begin to transform into rhinoceroses—brute beasts with thick skins. Despite the horror of this transformation, more and more people allow themselves to change into these animals. It is important to note that these transformations are based on choice. Unlike an epidemic, where a person contracts a disease, a person's metamorphosis into a rhinoceros in the play only happens if he or she is willing to let it happen. Because of an unquestioning attitude, a lack of personal responsibility, and a need to fit in, people allow themselves to be changed into mindless beasts. Ionesco in his life witnessed a similar process in nations ruled by fascism. Despite the harshness and injustices of fascism, people submitted themselves to this ideology and thereby rejected the more humane sides of their personalities, which may have included self-doubt, the questioning of authority, and a sense of compassion.

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