One of Eugene Ionesco’s first full-length plays, Rhinoceros demonstrates the playwright’s anxiety about the spread of inhuman totalitarian tendencies in society. Inspired by Ionesco’s 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.
As the play opens, Berenger, a likeable but somewhat alcoholic everyman figure, meets his friend Jean for a drink. As the ever-efficient Jean criticizes Berenger for his drinking and his tardiness, a rhinoceros is suddenly spotted rumbling through the peaceful streets of this small, provincial French town. The sighting naturally causes a stir among the townspeopleall except Berenger who seems rather indifferent. After a second sighting, during which an unfortunate cat is trampled to death, a heated argument develops over the particular breed of the rhino (Asiatic or African) and whether the second sighting was actually a second rhinoceros or just a reappearance of the original. The two friends take sides in the argument and eventually quarrel with each other. Finally, Jean calls Berenger a “drunkard” and storms off. As the townspeople vow to stop the rhinos from terrorizing their streets, Berenger expresses remorse for quarreling with Jean and takes comfort in his brandy.
The following day, when Berenger arrives at his office, a discussion has already begun on the plausibility of the rhinoceros sighting. Botard believes the whole incident has been fabricated by journalists in order to sell newspapers. He scoffs at Daisy who insists she saw it herself. Berenger (who is in love with Daisy) backs her up, asserting that he too saw the rhinoceros, but Botard will put no stock in Berenger’s story either as he is obviously a drunkard. Papillon reminds everyone that they are at work, after all, and the rhinoceros debate will have to wait until after hours, but almost as soon as everyone returns to their assigned tasks, Mrs. Boeuf appears to inform them that her husband, one of their co-workers, is sick and will be back in a few days. She is out of breath, having just been chased by a rhino which is still downstairs. Without warning the rhinoceros, which does indeed exist, crushes the staircase as it tries to enter the office. Berenger and the others are now stranded on the second floor. The situation takes an even darker turn, however, when Mrs. Boeuf recognizes the rhinoceros as her husband. Everyone tries to give her practical advice for dealing with the strange metamorphosis, but in the end she is too devoted to her husband to leave him and jumps down to the ground floor where she rides off on his back. Meanwhile, reports are coming in of more and more rhino sightings. Soon firemen arrive to rescue the stranded workers.
After this narrow escape, Berenger goes to Jean’s house to make up with his friend. He apologizes for their argument the previous day, but Jeanwho is quite sickhas no recollection of either the argument or the rhinoceros sightings. Throughout the course of the conversation, Jean’s voice grows more and more hoarse, a bump on his nose grows larger and larger, and his skin begins to take on a green tint. When Berenger informs his friend of Mr. Boeuf’s transformation, Jean applauds. His movements and language become more and more savage, until finally Jean has transformed into a rhinoceros himself. Shedding his clothes, he tries to run Berenger down, but Berenger manages to escape, trapping Jean in the bathroom. On his way out, Berenger attempts to alert the other tenants of the building to the danger, but they have all, apparently, transformed as well.
Berenger returns home where he falls asleep and has a nightmare about the metamorphosis that has changed Jean and the others. Waking up, he anxiously checks himself in the mirror to make sure he has not caught the disease. Dudard, another co-worker stops by to visit. He reveals that Papillon, their boss, has also turned. Berenger is shocked and vows never to succumb to such a change. When Daisy joins them, she brings news that Botard, too, has transformed. They argue over the best way to deal with the epidemic. Daisy and Dudard both believe that the best course of action is to acclimate oneself to the rhinosto attempt to understand them. Dudard even goes so far as to express an interest in experiencing the epidemic first-handin order to understand it, of course. “I shall keep my mind clear,” he insists “but if you’re going to criticize, it’s better to do so from the inside.” In spite of Berenger’s protests, Dudard joins the growing throng of rhinos outside. Berenger is horrified, but Daisy reminds him that they have no right to interfere in other people’s lives. She argues that they must adapt to their new neighbors, while Berenger is adamant in his belief that they must regenerate the human race, like Adam and Eve. Their domestic arrangement quickly turns sour, however, and Daisy, enchanted by the magical singing of the rhinos, leaves to join the herd.
Berenger is alone. All the others have conformed. Some have done so out of admiration for the brute force and simplicity of the rhinosothers because they believe the only way to win the rhinos back to humanity is by learning to understand their way of thinkingand others, like Daisy, simply cannot bear to be different from the majority. But they have all gone. Berenger is the last of his kind. Alone, Berenger’s resolve begins to weaken. 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 can’t stand this white, hairy body. Oh I’d love to have a hard skin in that wonderful dull green coloura skin that looks decent naked without any hair on it, like theirs!”
Still, as we leave him at the brink of despair, Berenger resolves to carry onto maintain his individuality in spite of everything. He will fight the rhinos, he declares, until the end.
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. In an interview in Le Monde (January 17, 1960), Ionesco himself says, “I have been very much struck by what one might call the current of opinion, by its rapid evolution, its power of contagion, which is that of a real epidemic. People allow themselves suddenly to be invaded by a new religion, a doctrine, a fanaticism…. At such moments we witness a veritable mental mutation. I don’t know if you have noticed it, but when people no longer share your opinions, when you can no longer make yourself understood by them, one has the impression of being confronted with monstersrhinos, for example. They have that mixture of candour and ferocity. They would kill you with the best of consciences.”
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. What was it that allowed them to rationalize away their free thoughtto subvert their own free will? What traits in the individual allow him to be snowballed by general opinion? Why is it necessary to believe the same thing that everyone else believes? 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 play’s end, even the violence and atrocity of the rhinos is being praised for its simplicity and beauty.
Rhinoceros was originally produced on January 25, 1960, at the Odéon under the direction of Jean-Louis Barrault. It is considered by many to be Ionesco’s finest play, and has been identified by Martin Esslin as one of the masterpieces of the Theatre of the Absurd. A film adaptation of Rhinoceros appeared in 1973 starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.