Rhinocéros by Eugène Ionesco
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A libertarian manifesto, of sorts; not in the strictly political sense, or in the philosophical sense of free will versus determinism, but in the broader sense of one who values personal liberty and freedom above all else in or out of the political arena. I just saw a fantastic rendering of this play put on by the theater troupe at the high school where my wife teaches. I wasn't certain that they could pull off a play that demands such a high level of skill from its actors and director, but they did it, and they did it well. The lead actor, playing the part of Berenger, brilliantly portrayed the transformation of Berenger from a waffling, unsure drunk to the morally certain, but crushingly alone last-man-standing, after the inhabitants of his town slowly choose to turn into rhinoceroses.
Afterwards, having been near the edges of the audience and having had one of the "rhinoceroses" brush up against me (they wander around among the audience for much of the play), I remarked to my wife that I felt like the absurdist (and strongly existentialist) play was a sort of audience-participation episode of the Twilight Zone. And since TZ is my favorite television show of all time, that was the highest compliment I could give it. Reading the play may not lend the same intensity, as this was written "for the stage, not for the page" (as my daughter so frequently characterized Shakespeare when she was a child). But the blueprint is there, and a well-directed group of actors can really plunge the audience into the middle of the angst.
The central theme running throughout is that of individualism versus conformity. Though the play is frequently cited as being "anti-Nazi," Ionesco says:
"Rhinoceros is certainly an anti-Nazi play, yet it is also and mainly an attack on collective hysteria and the epidemics that lurk beneath the surface of reason and ideas but are none the less serious collective diseases passed off as ideologies."
The play runs far deeper than a simple invective against one group. Rather, it questions *all* groups and the human need to belong vis-a-vis the need for human individuation. Ionesco is careful to make Berenger a complex character, who struggles with the decision of whether or not to become a rhinoceros, thus avoiding a pedantic forcing of the audience to hate the rhinoceroses. This is not a propaganda piece that ignores the psychological subtleties behind such a difficult choice. The situations portrayed pull forth feelings of tolerance, possibly even sympathy, for those who succumb to the allure of the crowd. One must ask, "what would I do in this situation, given all that is presented to me?" The question of who the rhinoceroses are is completely irrelevant:
People always wish me to spell out whether I mean the rhinos to be fascists or communists. Rhinoceritis is not an illness of the Right or the Left: it cannot be contained within geo-political borders. Nor is it characteristic of a social class. It is the malady of conformity which knows no bounds, no boundaries.
There are no easy answers: Tolerate the crowd, accept them, become one of them and accept their sociality, or resist them, become intolerant, and remain staunchly individual, and alone?
Before you answer, think about it. Read or see this play, then think about it. This isn't a decision you'll want to make in haste.
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