Rhinoceros is a 1959 play by Eugène Ionesco, associated by Martin Esslin with the theatre of the absurd in his book on that topic. There is, however, much more to this play than just an exploration of absurdism. Other important themes in Rhinoceros include antifascism, conformity vs. individuality, mob mentality, culture and civilization vs. barbarism, logic (treated satirically), and morality.
As a young man in Romania, Ionesco found himself surrounded by people who were being seduced by fascist ideas. Though raised as an Orthodox Christian, Ionesco was part Jewish ethnically (on his mother’s side), and he was troubled by the growing antisemitism he saw everywhere leading up to WWII. Everyone in the play transforming into rhinoceroses except the protagonist, Bérenger (representing Ionesco), personifies this seductive fascist danger.
The original Broadway production in 1961 won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play, for Zero Mostel (as Jean). Joseph Anthony was nominated for Best Production of a Play, and Rhinoceros won a Special Award from the Outer Critics Circle Awards.
The play was adapted into a film in 1973, directed by Tom O’Horgan and starring Mostel as John (Jean in the play), Gene Wilder as Stanley (Bérenger), and Karen Black as Daisy. The film was poorly received, faulted by film critic Jay Cocks in Time magazine for having an “upbeat, frantic vulgarization” of Ionesco’s text; he also complained of O’Horgan having “removed not only the politics but the resonance as well.”
Bérenger is an everyman, yet also a bit of a social misfit, among those of whom Lacan described in his dictum, “les non-dupes errent.” Bérenger, not duped into believing in illusory social convention, nonetheless errs throughout his life: he’s late for work and get-togethers with his friend, Jean; he’s slovenly, and he drinks.
Jean, on the other hand, is quite the opposite: he’s punctual–only late for his get-together with Bérenger because he knows his friend will be late, so he adjusts his time of arrival to be just before he correctly predicts Bérenger’s tardy arrival–well-dressed to the point of foppishness, and temperate with drinking. Jean is well-schooled in Lacan’s notion of le Non! du père.
Their characters thus can be seen as dialectical opposites of each other. Their doubles can be seen in the Logician and the Old Gentleman, whose dialogue often parallels that of Jean and Bérenger, respectively (PDF, page 10–see link above). Similarly, the Housewife (with her cat) can be seen to parallel pretty, desirable Daisy (with her…I beg your pardon). Just as Bérenger has a romantic interest in Daisy, so does the Old Gentleman try to be gallant with the Housewife at every opportunity.
And just as Jean’s attempts to teach Bérenger the ‘rules’ of how to behave socially–le nom du père–attempts that fail miserably to edify his uncouth friend, so do the Logician’s attempts at giving examples of syllogisms come off as laughable (PDF, page 9). Here we see Rhinoceros demonstrating the absurdity of the human condition.
What must be emphasized here is that in all of this seemingly conventional social intercourse, we have what would appear to be the sanest moment of the play. Only one rhino has appeared as of this point in the story, and so ‘rhinoceritis’ hasn’t yet taken over society. Yet the irrational conformity that the rhino takeover to come symbolizes is already apparent in these absurd discussions.
The doubling of characters suggests this conformity, as does the frequent repetition of cliché lines by different characters (“Oh, a rhinoceros!”, “Well, of all things!”, etc.–PDF pages 4-5). The integration into society, a sharing of cultural mores, customs, laws, and language, is the essence of what Lacan called the Symbolic Order, a sharing of signifiers, of what can be symbolized in language.
The Symbolic is, mentally, the healthiest order to dwell in, for it is here that one leaves the narcissistic, mirroring dyad of the Oedipal mother/son relationship of the Imaginary, leaving the one-on-one other for the Other of many people. Also, in the Symbolic one can give verbal expression to experiences, and one can differentiate aspects of the world; but because one cannot do such things in the undifferentiated chasm of the Real, this third order is so traumatizing.
So, the socially conventional world of the Symbolic is healthy, as things are, relatively speaking, at the beginning of the play. The sighting of the one rampaging rhinoceros is seen as a mere freak occurrence. The absurd discourses of the Logician and the Old Gentleman, and the repetition of dialogue already heard, are a foreshadowing of the far more absurd expression (unintelligible, trumpet-like grunts) and conformist uniformity of the rhino epidemic to come.
One of the defining features of fascism is the use of violence to achieve its ideological ends, as I’ve described elsewhere. Since the rhinos represent the growing fascist menace that Ionesco saw all around him in Romania, the killing of the Housewife’s cat by the second rhino represents, on one level, that fascist violence.
An absurd debate ensues about whether this was the same rhino as before, or if they were two rhinos, did one of them have only one horn, and the other, two horns, and was one an Asiatic rhino, and the other an African one (actually, a satire on racism)…as if such quibbling over minutiae were even relevant. Such debating is an example of the inanities of social discourse, indicating that even the Symbolic Order isn’t all that healthy.
So the not-so-healthy realm of social convention is where the rhinos have sprung from, just as the scourge of fascism grew from the more mundane class contradictions of capitalism. The rhino, with its phallic horn (or horns), kills the Housewife’s cat (symbolically, her pussy), suggesting the toxic masculinity of fascism, a connection I made elsewhere. The phallic rhino’s killing of her cat can thus be seen as a symbolic rape.
Bérenger and Jean argue about which rhino, the Asiatic or African, has one horn or two. Their arguing escalates into them angering each other and using racial slurs (i.e., Jean saying of Asians, “They’re yellow!” –PDF, page 15). Jean thus leaves his friend in a huff, not wishing to be his friend anymore. In this exchange, we see symbolically the beginning of the breaking down of social relations, a descent from the not-so-healthy to the even-less-healthy of Act Two.
With this breakdown of social relations, we see the shrinking of that Other of many people to the dyad of other, a move from the primacy of the Symbolic to that of the Imaginary. As of Act Two, Scene One, Bérenger still cares about Daisy (though I suspect it’s mostly lust), and he wants to apologize to Jean for having angered him earlier (though instead of getting a proper reconciliation between the two friends in Scene Two, Bérenger watches in horror as Jean transforms into a rhinoceros before his very eyes). Mrs. Boeuf still loves her husband, in spite of his having transformed into a rhino, though her jumping on his back and riding off with him highly presumes that she is soon to become a rhino, too.
These are the only instances of love as manifested among the characters in the play, and even these instances are dubious, as I explained above. Instead, the pervading feeling is one of alienation, a fertile breeding ground for the hatred of fascism. Much of this alienation is worker alienation, as is felt in the office scene of Act Two, Scene One. Bérenger is late for work and drinks because his job is boring and meaningless; only the sight of Daisy cheers him up. One can hardly find such a job as anything other than boring, with its drudgery and repetition.
Just as Bérenger has his way of dealing with the dullness of bourgeois life, so does Botard, a left-leaning, unionized coworker in the office. Botard refuses to believe in the existence of the rhinos until their attack on the office staircase makes disbelief no longer possible. He argues with Daisy, who has seen the rhinos, and with coworker Dudard, who cites the newspaper as evidence, something Botard dismisses with a “Pfff!” (PDF, page 19). His distrust of the media, though wrongheaded here, would be far more justified today.
What’s interesting is how leftist Botard–as much a buffoon as all of the other characters in Ionesco’s play–upon realizing the reality of the rhinos, comes to think of their presence as a plot, an act of treason (PDF, page 27). Though liberal Ionesco had as much contempt for “Stalinism” as he had horror of Nazism, and accordingly he put comically Marxian slogans into Botard’s mouth (“Just like religion–the opiate of the people!”–PDF, page 22) to express this contempt, nonetheless, fascism was…and still is…a tactic used by the capitalist class against the gains of the working class.
There were traitors in the Soviet Union in the 1930s allying with the Nazis to undermine and overthrow the first workers’ state, which necessitated Stalin’s purge. What most people don’t want to admit is that it was Stalin who wasn’t “capitulating,” and the sacrifice of 27 million Soviet Russians is what saved Europe from the fascist rhinos, not some liberal centrism. The appeasers of Hitler in Munich, encouraging him to go East to invade the USSR, were all turning rhino, and they would only oppose him when he was threatening their own imperialist interests.
The rhino’s smashing of the office staircase symbolizes more fascist violence; one might think of Krystallnacht. The office workers’ boss, Mr. Papillon, insists that they resume work as soon as possible after being taken out of the building with the help of the firemen and their ladders (PDF, page 27). To the bourgeois mind, work and the making of profits must never stop. Not even fascism, growing out of capitalism, can stop it.
In Scene Two, Bérenger goes to Jean’s apartment to apologize for having upset him. It is during this scene that Jean transforms into a rhinoceros before Bérenger. What is interesting about this scene is how Jean presented himself to be so much more the cultured, thinking man than Bérenger, yet now we see Jean retreating into barbaric animalism, and Bérenger defending human civilization.
Jean, the one who knows far better than Bérenger how to fit in with society, is now showing how his fitting in is little more than mere conformity, by going along with the current trend of joining the rhinos. Since rhinos represent fascists, Jean is demonstrating how any normal member of society can be susceptible to extremist, even despicable, attitudes merely because this is what most other people are doing.
The society of the Symbolic Other is degraded into the collective narcissism of the Imaginary other: instead of seeing Other people as entities unto themselves, one sees a collective other as an extension of one’s own ego, and oneself as an extension of that collective other. The narcissistic mirror reflects both ways.
Jean’s turning green, and his ranting about “natural laws,” reflect the ideology of the Romanian fascist Iron Guard, who upheld “natural laws” as a bulwark against what they saw as the “Jewish inventions” of the modern West’s humanist values. Similarly, the Iron Guard wore a green uniform, hence Jean’s skin turning green.
Since he and Jean are switching roles, Bérenger, as the new defender of culture, civilization, and humanistic values, is trying to discipline himself to drink less, while Jean is making more and more of those trumpet-like rhino grunts. What’s more, Bérenger tries to convince Jean to see a doctor, yet Jean muses, “Doctors invent illnesses that don’t exist.” (PDF, page 31)
The breakdown of relationships continues when Jean says, “There’s no such thing as friendship. I don’t believe in friendship,” which Bérenger finds “very hurtful” (PDF, page 31). Indeed, Jean speaks of being “misanthropic,” and liking it (PDF, page 32).
What we see here is the seductive threat of fascism, something not only small-c conservatives and right-wing libertarians can succumb to, but even liberals can. Consider the backing that such liberals as those in the Canadian government, the Democratic Party, and Hollywood liberals have given to a Ukrainian government littered with fascists, just because they don’t like Putin.
Surely this sort of thing is what Stalin meant when he said, “Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Modern liberal democracy, more accurately called the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, puts on an affable, smiling face when all runs smoothly for the ruling class; but when the capitalists feel in any way threatened, that smile quickly turns into a fascist scowl. Put another way, people transform into rhinoceroses.
This is how we should think of Jean, who normally holds it all together so well, but who now turns into a rhino. At first, he’s against the transformations into rhinoceroses, as everyone else is at the beginning of the play. Then he grows more lenient to the idea, more ‘open-minded’ in his attitude. Finally, he transforms into one.
A similar mentality can be seen towards fascism ever since the end of WWII. First, we were horrified by Nazi victimization of the Jews (even though a considerable number of ex-Nazis were given prominent government jobs in the US and West Germany). Then, demonization of the Soviet Union during the Cold War allowed us to regard such people as right-wing nationalist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn as ‘champions of freedom.’ Then, Ukrainian neo-Nazi propaganda like the Holodomor hoax was uncritically accepted as ‘truth’; and now, NATO is backing up those very neo-Nazis in a dangerous escalation with Russia that could lead not only to WWIII, but also nuclear war. Rhinos, rhinos everywhere.
Lenience and open-mindedness can lead to one’s brain falling out.
In Act Three, Dudard visits a very distraught Bérenger in his apartment. He’s had a nightmare, and he is terrified of turning into a rhino. According to the stage directions, his apartment bears a striking resemblance to Jean’s (PDF, page 35), suggesting more doubling of characters, another variation on the play’s theme of conformity.
Yet again we have this character doubling in the form of Bérenger debating about the validity of the rhino transformations, but with Dudard this time, him now taking on Jean’s lenient and open-minded attitude. More doubling still is in Dudard’s fancying of Daisy, as Bérenger does. We sense the rivalry between the two men over her when she arrives with a basket of food, though Dudard pretends that he doesn’t wish to intrude on her get-together with Bérenger. And like Jean, Dudard will eventually become a rhino, too.
We learn over the course of the three characters’ discussions that Botard, Papillon, and the Logician have all become rhinos (PDF, page 44). It’s easy to see how their boss would transform: after all, fascism grows out of the ranks of the bourgeoisie. Left-leaning Botard’s change is a bit more puzzling, though far from inexplicable or impossible; opportunism can spread like a pestilence throughout the left (consider Trotsky‘s flirtation with Nazis in a hope to oust Stalin from power). The verbal absurdities of the Logician seem to anticipate the obscurantist, reactionary post-modernist French intellectuals, used by the CIA to lead leftists astray.
When only Bérenger and Daisy are left, and he is growing desperate, she starts showing signs that eerily remind us of the path that Jean and Dudard have just taken. She says that everyone has the right to change his mind about whether or not to turn into rhinos, even Botard (PDF, page 44). Rhinos’ grunts are heard on the telephone and on the radio (PDF, pages 49 and 50).
Bérenger wants her to help him repopulate the Earth (PDF, page 51), rather like Noah’s sons and their wives after the Flood wiped out all of humanity, but she is cool to the idea. She eventually comes to find the rhinos to be passionate; she imagines they have a language, something Bérenger scoffs at. Could the rhinos have entered the Symbolic, while he and she have left it? Indeed, she imagines it could be the remaining humans who now need saving. She imagines the rhinos to be singing. When he slaps her for sympathizing with them, it would seem that he is the barbaric one, and not the rhinos.
In her disillusionment with Bérenger and growing sympathy with the rhinoceroses, Daisy leaves him to join them, leaving him the sole remaining human. Being all alone with neither the Other of society (as radical alterity) nor the dyadic other of one person to mirror and be mirrored against (i.e., Daisy could be seen as a transference of Bérenger’s Oedipal feelings towards his mother), he has left the Symbolic and is in danger of being trapped in the traumatic, undifferentiated world of the Real (traumatic, because being surrounded by horned representations of fascism can only be thus; undifferentiated, because there’s no differentiation between all those who used to be human).
Significantly, Bérenger looks at himself in a mirror, the only place he’ll ever see a human face again. He acknowledges that he’s “not a particularly handsome specimen” (PDF, page 52). In near despair, he calls out to Daisy, begging her to come back to him. Like the crushed cat, he’s a “poor little thing,” being “left all alone in this world of monsters” (PDF, pages 52-53).
He can feel himself coming apart, in danger of psychological fragmentation, against which his only defence is the narcissistic illusion of the egoistic Imaginary. Hence, he continues to look at himself in the mirror as he talks to himself. He sees himself in the reflection, but he talks to the reflection as if it were another person. He’s lost everyone else who could act as a metaphorical mirror to himself, including Daisy, his love, his ‘other self,’ as it were, so all he has left for this mirroring purpose is himself. He’s like an infant seeing itself in a mirror for the first time, paradoxically recognizing itself and establishing its sense of self, yet also, in seeing itself ‘over there,’ sees itself as other, and is therefore alienated from itself…fragmented.
His defiance of the rhinos should be understood in this context. As representations of fascism, they are a real evil to be opposed to, but one must also consider Bérenger’s fragile mental state as one alone against the world. He would try to communicate with them, but he can’t speak their language (PDF, page 53)…he has left the Symbolic and its linguistic connection with society, culture, customs, laws, etc. He’s so confused, he’s not even sure if he’s speaking French (or English, as far as the play’s translation is concerned). Does his language even exist anymore, if he’s its only speaker, and no one else can understand him? Are the trumpeting sounds of the rhinos, the only shared form of communication left in the world, the only true language? And by extension, has fascism become no longer just an extremist ideology, but the truth?
His defiance, his “not capitulating,” is for obvious reasons noble on one level, but it’s also proud, narcissistic, on the other. He has gone full circle, from the slovenly drunkard who didn’t fit into society to the sole human who still doesn’t fit in. He wouldn’t capitulate to the lifestyle of a sober, well-groomed, and punctual contributor to society then, and he won’t conform now.
Like a narcissist, he goes from hating himself for being an ugly human (since being a rhinoceros has become the new aesthetic ideal) to being a proud defender of his difference from the rhinos. His honest humanity is, paradoxically, his False Self. He regrets being unable to change into a rhinoceros; then he puts on a false front of pride for not being one of them.
As Esslin comments: “His final defiant profession of faith in humanity is merely the expression of the fox’s contempt for the grapes he could not have. Far from being a heroic last stand, Bérenger’s defiance is farcical and tragicomic, and the final meaning of the play is by no means as simple as some critics made it appear. What the play conveys is the absurdity of defiance as much as the absurdity of conformism, the tragedy of the individualist who cannot join the happy throng of less sensitive people, the artist’s feelings as an outcast…” (Esslin, page 183)
Esslin continues: “If Rhinoceros is a tract against conformism and insensitivity (which is certainly is), it also mocks the individualist who merely makes a virtue of necessity in insisting on his superiority as a sensitive, artistic being. That is where the play transcends the oversimplification of propaganda and becomes a valid statement of the fatal entanglement, the basic inescapability and absurdity of the human condition. Only a performance that brings out this ambivalence in Bérenger’s final stand can do justice to the play’s full flavour.” (ibid, p. 183)
So, the absurdity of the human condition is universal in Rhinoceros. Every character without exception is flawed in one way or another. The human rhinos are absurd in their extreme conformism, and Bérenger is absurd in the narcissistic extreme of his individualism.
The paradox of the Symbolic is in how, though it represents the healthiest of mental states, it is also rife with social hypocrisy, hence “les non-dupes errent,” as exemplified in Bérenger and his gaffes. This paradoxical sane phoniness of society is extended into the illusion of freedom in modern-day liberal democracy, or the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, as, as I said above, it should be called; this ‘freedom,’ it should be noted, extends only as far as the border of the nation-state. Thus, it should be no surprise that ‘democracy’ degenerates into fascism, or some other form of authoritarian rule, whenever society feels itself to be endangered.
Slavoj Zižek elaborates: ‘This leftover to which formal democracy clings, that which renders possible the subtraction of all positive contents, is of course the ethnic moment conceived as “nation”: democracy is always tied to the “pathological” fact of a nation-state. Every attempt to inaugurate a “planetary” democracy based upon the community of all people as “citizens of the world” soon attests its own impotence, fails to arouse political enthusiasm.’ […] ‘What is at stake in ethnic tensions is always the possession of the national Thing: the “other” wants to steal our enjoyment (by ruining our “way of life”) and/or it has access to some secret, perverse enjoyment. In short, what gets on our nerves, what really bothers us about the “other,” is the peculiar way he organizes his enjoyment (the smell of his food, his “noisy” songs and dances, his strange manners, his attitude to work–in the racist perspective, the “other” is either a workaholic stealing our jobs or an idler living on our labor).’ (Zižek, page 165)
Now, how can Rhinoceros be relevant to today’s world?
Well, apart from the recent resurgence of fascist tendencies around the world (Golden Dawn and their ilk in Greece, Svoboda and the Azov Battalion in the Ukraine…and its backing by the US/NATO, Marine Le Pen‘s near-win in the French elections, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and “MAGA,” among many others), we can also see rhino conformity as a symbol for all the mask-wearers of today, as well as the authoritarian measures of governments all over the world to mandate universal vaccination.
The absurdity of the extremes of both conformity and of individualism as seen in Rhinoceros, to be fair, can be seen in the whole ‘rona debate, too. I oppose the vax mandates and the capitalist media manipulation and scare-mongering, to be sure; but I do so not from the excessive ‘individualism’ of the right-wing libertarians, who simple-mindedly call all these anti-covid authoritarian measures a form of “communism.” Similarly, one can receive the vaccines–either through personal choice or coercion…”no jab, no job”–and still be opposed to the mandates.
The absurdity of Bérenger’s “not capitulating” can be seen in anyone stubbornly refusing to wear masks and having to pay fine after fine, or refusing the jab and remaining unemployed, then evicted. In some countries, such as Canada with its defiant truckers, a real effort is being made to undo the mandates; but in such places as the small East Asian island I live on, the locals are so uncritically compliant with the government that it doesn’t even occur to them that resistance exists as a possibility. Here, I am a Bérenger among mask-wearing rhinos; my resistance is futile because it’s meaningless.
The lesson to be learned from Rhinoceros is to find a comfortable middle ground between conformism and individualism; les non-dupes errent, but they must still hang onto some sense of society to maintain their sanity. Remember how the individualism of ‘anti-state’ right-wing libertarianism often leads, ironically, to fascism. What many today call the “communism” of the emerging NWO is really the capitalism of Bill Gates and his flying monkeys in the media he pays to control the narrative about the pandemic.
By all means, don’t capitulate; but don’t stare at the mirror for too long, either.
Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, London, Penguin Books, 1961
Slavoj Zižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 1992