Rhinoceros | Study Guide

Eugène Ionesco

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Rhinoceros | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Rhinoceros, written by Eugène Ionesco and published in 1959, is a defining work in the genre known as Theatre of the Absurd. The play's premise can certainly be described as absurd—a small French town is overwhelmed by an epidemic of citizens transforming, suddenly and inexplicably, into rhinoceroses. Ionesco's protagonist, Berenger, observes the metamorphoses of those around him and is unable to understand what prompts the transformations. Berenger is frantically worried about why no one else seems to pay proper attention to the situation.

Although highly absurd in its plot and, at times, very humorous, Rhinoceros was Ionesco's response to the rise of extremist ideologies that he witnessed throughout his life. Born in Romania, Ionesco lived in both his homeland and France during the years leading up to World War II. As an intellectual, he was chagrined to see so many former friends of his, whom he considered sane and rational people, take up the banners of either extreme fascist or extreme socialist thought. As he became aware of the violence that these ideologies inevitably led to, he conceived of the transformation of a man into a rhinoceros as an analogy to express his disbelief at how powerfully these forms of thought had taken control of those he knew and loved.

1. Ionesco wrote Rhinoceros to satirize the lack of French resistance to the Nazi occupation.

Living in France when he wrote Rhinoceros, Ionesco crafted the play to showcase the ways in which Nazi rule in France eroded the national and moral identity of French citizens. He intended the transformation of people into beasts to symbolize how previously anti-Nazi citizens gradually allowed fear and propaganda to coerce them into siding with the Nazi-backed Vichy regime. Scholars have noted that the effects of this collaboration were similar to those of Stockholm syndrome, where a prisoner begins to feel sympathy for the cause of his or her captor, even if that cause defies the prisoner's own interests.

2. Rhinoceros's argument about whether the rhinos are African or Asian is a satire of racism.

Ionesco's protagonist, Berenger, overhears an argument about whether the rhinoceroses appearing in town are Asiatic or African species, based on the number of horns that they have. Ionesco included this conversation to explore the racism inherent in fascist ideologies. Berenger responds by expressing concern about the very existence of the rhinos, stating, "The important thing, as I see it, is the fact that they're there at all."

3. The play Rhinoceros gave rise to the term rhinocerization.

The term rhinocerization is often applied to the transformation of Germany into a state with an increasingly hostile attitude toward Jews and other minority groups during Adolf Hitler's rise to power. However, the word can also denote any cultural shift that predisposes the people against specific races, religious groups, or foreigners in general.

4. The phrase "Well, of all things!" is repeated 26 times in Rhinoceros.

Ionesco crafted the dialogue in Rhinoceros so that most characters except Berenger speak in meaningless clichés. The most common response from characters when they witness a rhinoceros in town is to exclaim, "Well, of all things!" This frequently used response shows the characters to be both underwhelmed and completely unaware of what the transformations might actually indicate.

5. Rhinoceros explores Romania's relationship with French culture.

Ionesco was born in Slatina, Romania, but he spent much of his life in France. He was very familiar with the ways in which Romania idolized and adopted elements of French culture, and he noticed how this fusion changed abruptly when fascist groups seized power in Romania during World War II. Appalled by nationalist ideology, Ionesco continued to demonstrate respect for the intellectual traditions of France. He once joked, "If I had been French, I would perhaps have been a genius."

6. The fascist Romanian Iron Guard inspired Ionesco's rhinoceros transformations.

The Iron Guard was a military branch of the Legion of the Archangel Michael, a radical fascist group founded in 1927 by Romanian politician Corneliu Zelea Codreanu. Dedicated to nationalist policies and outspokenly anti-Semitic, the Iron Guard came in and out of power throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s. Ionesco was notably distressed by the effect this ideology was having in his homeland, and he used the metaphor of the rhinoceros transformations to describe how seemingly rational individuals (including his own father) suddenly and inexplicably altered their beliefs to match those of the movement.

7. Some scholars claim the Iron Guard was a "death cult," not a political movement.

Romanian historian Vlad Georgescu wrote that the Iron Guard "brought a death cult to Romanian politics." The group originally tried to overthrow the dictator Ion Antonescu. Upon failing, they conducted raids on Jewish communities throughout the country, butchering thousands of people. History remembers the Iron Guard as a radicalized, violent cult instead of a political movement with ideological legitimacy.

8. Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier did not get along while staging Rhinoceros in 1960.

When famous director Orson Welles directed the performance of Rhinoceros starring the acclaimed British actor Laurence Olivier, tensions repeatedly boiled over during rehearsals. Welles explained, "Instead of making it hard for me to direct him, he made it almost impossible for me to direct the cast." Olivier even proceeded to tell Welles that, as director, his presence was not needed at rehearsals. Welles later reflected on the production, describing it as "a black moment."

9. Ionesco lied about his own date of birth.

Many sources still incorrectly state Ionesco's year of birth as 1912, but he was actually born in 1909. Ionesco "lied himself younger" during the 1950s so that he would be considered part of a new generation of playwrights, as described by theater critic Jacques Lemarchand.

10. The inscription on Ionesco's grave is as absurdist as his writing.

Ionesco's gravestone in Paris reads, "Pray to I-don't-know-whom. Jesus Christ I hope." Fans of Ionesco's work who come to pay their respects are often delighted to see that even his resting place pays homage to the absurd.

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