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Q. Discuss the significance of the title of the play Rhinoceros.

The play Rhinoceros, written by absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco in 1958, reflects a view that
holds the universe to be ultimately meaningless, irrational, and absurd. In his essay, "Notes and
Counter-Notes," Ionesco writes, "I see myself torn apart by blind forces rising from my innermost self
and clashing in some desperate unresolved conflict . . . it is clear that I can never know who I am, or
why I am." Ionesco writes his plays to present his inner conflicts with what he sees as an
incomprehensible universe and also to express his difficulties in coming to terms with his own
existence. In his play Rhinoceros, Ionesco reveals his fears about the savagery latent in the human
heart and also, through the character of Berenger, projects himself and his own struggles into his
drama. Inspired by Ionescos personal experiences with fascism during World War II, this absurdist
drama depicts the struggle of one man to maintain his identity and integrity alone in a world where all
others have succumbed to the beauty of brute force and violence. Rhinoceros was originally
produced on January 25, 1960, at the Odon under the direction of Jean-Louis Barrault. It is
considered by many to be Ionescos finest play, and has been identified by Martin Esslin as one of the
masterpieces of the Theatre of the Absurd.

Rhinoceros is usually interpreted as a response to the sudden upsurge of fascism during the events
preceding World War II, and explores the themes of conformity, culture, and morality. Ionesco's
primary purpose in writing Rhinoceros was not simply to criticize the horrors of the Nazis, but to
explore the mentality of those who so easily succumbed to fascism. In the play, characters repeat
ideas and theories they have heard others repeat. At first, everyone is horrified by the violent beasts,
but once other people, especially authority figures, collapse in the play, those remaining find it easier
and easier to justify the metamorphosis. By the plays end, even the violence and atrocity of the rhinos
is being praised for its simplicity and beauty.

Ionesco has chosen Rhinoceros as the title of his play very aptly. The rhinos, with their greenish-gray
skin and powerful hides in their collective movement on the stage and destructive urge represent the
Panzer divisions of the Nazis, impenetrable, green, short-tempered and ruthless. The ferocity of these
rhinos is also a reference to Hitlers ideas of the man of the future where there is no compassion and
the weak have to be eliminated. The rhinoceros is a thick-skinned creature with a one-track mind
bulldozing its way and destroying any opposition towards a goal it has set for itself. When some
characters in the play like Jean get transformed into a rhinoceros, he displays the same destructive and
aggressive qualities as the thick-skinned creature. This aspect is best revealed in Act 2, Scene 2, in the
transformation scene when Berenger goes to visit his ailing friend and discovers to his dismay that
Jean is gradually changing into a rhinoceros. The metamorphosis is gradual, the voice becomes
hoarse, the hearing declines, memory fades, the skin become shard and green and a bump is forming
on his forehead. When Jean is transformed into a rhinoceros he becomes both absurd and violent. The
absurdity is shown when he drops his pyjama trousers and says it is Hotfar too hot!clothes itch,
they itch! What is more disturbing is the violent streak that he develops. Ionesco writes in his stage
directions that He (Jean) lunges towards Berenger head down. Later when Jean gets trapped and
locked in the bathroom he bellows, Ill trample you, Ill trample you down. The ferocity and lack of
tolerance of a rhinoceros gets reflected in Jeans behaviour in the locked bathroom. There are sounds
of a shattered mirror, objects falling and as Berenger closes the door his coat is pierced by a
rhinoceros horn.

Nita N. Kumar in her essay argues that, In the play we see that the worlds of Berenger and the
rhinos are not absolute binaries, apolitical versus the political or individual versus the collective. The
opposites are perceived to be implicated in each other. Ionescos comment on his play and his image
of the Rhinoceros is illuminating:
They would kill you without a qualm if you did not think as they do. And in the

last quarter of a century history has given us clear proof that people transformed

in this way are not just like, but truly become rhinoceroses. (153, Notes 213)

Through the illogic of Botard and the Logician, Ionesco presents his view that human reasoning,
despite its pretensions to the contrary, is essentially meaningless. Ionesco's inner world is irrational
and absurd, and he sees no overriding set of logical rules that tie the universe into a comprehensible
whole. According to Ionesco, human reasoning is incapable of bringing order into the world because
it itself amounts to nothing but nonsense. Another vehicle that Ionesco uses to convey his ideas is the
character of Berenger. Berenger's struggles with life reflect those of Ionesco himself. He, much more
than any of the other characters, sees the reality of life, and he drinks to escape his vision of it.

Within the text, Ionesco has clearly worked beyond the breakdown of a traditional play structure to
create his new anti-theatrean anti-theatre filled with artistic imagery and thoughtful themes that
further his anti-theatre genre and submit Rhinoceros as a timeless piece of theatre. He also uses many
non-traditional dramatic techniques to present the absurdity of life visually on stage. The most
important one is his use of the rhinoceros as a poetic metaphor of the essential savagery of human
beings and also of the meaninglessness of the universe. Till the time of the writing of this play, such a
wild and savage image as the rhinoceros had normally not been used in drama. The rhinoceros
contrasts starkly with the images of beauty and nobility which characterized plays of earlier eras.
Several different physical objects fall or are destroyed in the play, adding to the violent visual effect
of the rhinoceros. For example, the housewife's cat is run over, and Berenger crashes through a wall
as he flees Jean's apartment.

The themes of Rhinoceros are presented through dramatic and rhetorical techniques, the absurdity of
the supporting characters, and the life struggles of the main character, Berenger. Inexorably,
Berenger's beliefs and hopes for reforming himself are shattered, and there is finally nothing left for
him to do but shout his defiance against a hostile world. He is unable to find ultimate meaning in life
because, according to Ionesco, there is no meaning in life to be found. Now that being a rhinoceros is
the norm, to be human, he realizes, is a monstrosity. He envies the bodies of the rhinos, saying: My
skin is so slack. I cant stand this white, hairy body. Oh Id love to have a hard skin in that wonderful
dull green coloura skin that looks decent naked without any hair on it, like theirs! It is
Rhinoceros theme of the dangers of collectivized ideologies shown through its protagonist Berenger
that makes the play so effective.

As B. Mangalam rightly argues, Rhinoceros is a political farce that reflects the playwrights own
intolerance and fear of political opposition. Ionesco indeed is afraid of rhinoceroses.

Ionesco, Eugene. Notes and Counter-notes. 1962.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. 1961.

Ionesco, Eugene. Rhinoceros. 1960.

Kumar, N.Nita. The Last Man Left: Questioning Absurdity in Rhinoceros.2002.

Mangalam B. Whos Afraid of Rhinoceros? 2002.

Cornwell, John. Hitlers Pope. 1999.

Submitted by:
Garima Baweja
B. A. (Hons) English, 3rd Year
Roll No. 1298