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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Ionesco's Rhinoceros—Ungulates in the House

Photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez
by Rob Weinert-Kendt

In 1938, the 29-year-old Romanian writer Eugène Ionesco had his last conversation with his father, a government lawyer with whom relations were already strained. As is often the case, their personal differences only sharpened their political disagreements. And given the cataclysmic conflict toward which Europe was headed by the late 1930s, disagreements about politics had real consequences.

“He believed in the State, no matter what it represented,” Ionesco later recalled of his father. “I did not like authority. I detested the State. In short, at the end of our meals together, we were at sword’s point with each other. At one time in the past he had called me a Bolshevik; this time he called me someone who sided with the Jews. I remember the last sentence I ever said to him: ‘It is better to be on the side of the Jews than to be a stupid idiot!’”

Two decades later, Ionesco restaged this principled parting toning down the youthful self-righteousness: Bérenger, the lead character in his 1959 play Rhinoceros, doesn’t fall out with his friends or impugn their mental capacity when they—first one by one and then in a herd—turn into horned pachyderms, a clear analogue to the deadly conformism Ionesco saw overtake mid-century Europe. Instead, Bérenger watches with helpless horror and confusion as all human society effectively abandons him; the question “Why them and not me?” cuts both ways, registering both Bérenger’s sanity and his terrible solitude.

It is this latter quality—the sense, as Thomas Merton once put it, that “to be the last man in the rhinoceros herd is, in fact, to be a monster”—that Paris-based director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota emphasizes in his restaging of Ionesco’s masterpiece. The Théâtre de la Ville production alights at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, October 4—6.

In reading through Ionesco’s complete works, in particular his only novel, 1973’s Le Solitaire, Demarcy-Mota says he was struck by the author’s “secret strength,” which had a quality less of the heroic than of “a sad clown who discovers the anguish of life, of solitude, facing an ever changing world.” Demarcy-Mota initially staged Rhinoceros in 2004 with the same company and cast, but for this remount he’s added a prologue from Le Solitaire, because like Rhinoceros it documents the “loneliness of a man facing a world he does not always understand, and that at the same time fascinates and terrorizes him.”

Demarcy-Mota is also quick to point out that while the piece’s antitotalitarian, anticonformist implications have kept it all too relevant (a stage adaptation with Iranian film stars was reportedly the hottest ticket in Tehran in 2009) the analogy between “rhinoceritis” and authoritarianism is imprecise.

“It can be heard as a denunciation of fanaticism, of the lackeys and henchmen that are the faith-ful surrounders of the dictators against whom the people rise,” Demarty-Mota concedes. “But it is interesting to underline that in the play it is a voluntary servitude with no specific tyrant; everyone becomes a rhinoceros, just like that, by cowardice, convenience, sometimes even laziness, without being specifically asked. As Ionesco said, fashion also has its tyranny.”

The notion that collective guilt might be disembodied, that no single individual can be blamed when a social toxin sweeps through a population with epidemic force, is a troubling message for an age of genocide and terror. But Ionesco’s allegory is best understood not simply as an anti-fascist polemic; its true subject is finally not politics but human nature, or rather human nature’s warping by modern life.

“In all the cities of the world, it is the same,” Ionesco wrote in 1966. “The universal and modern man is the man in a rush (i.e., a rhinoceros), a man who has no time, who is a prisoner of necessity, who cannot understand that a thing might perhaps be without usefulness; nor does he understand that, at bottom, it is the useful that may be a useless and back-breaking burden. If one does not understand the usefulness of the useless and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art. And a country where art is not understood is a country of slaves and robots.”

It’s a harsh denunciation that almost recalls his youthful kiss-off to his father. But tellingly, it’s not a speech he would have put in the mouth of the shambolic, diffident Bérenger. As Demarcy-Mota puts it, “In assuming our secret doubts, our own solitude, our fragility, Bérenger reveals something new, which we could call a rare emotion—that of vertigo and doubt of one’s own existence.”

Rob Weinert-Kendt is associate editor of American Theatre and writes about theater and the arts for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and Time Out New York.

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