“Closed on Account of Transformation: Two-Faced Humanity in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros”


  By Zoe McKenna

Satire as a genre is born from general dissatisfaction and disillusionment with humanity as a whole. It is a critique of society, often in such a way as to make humans and their actions laughable or absurd. The public reaction to satire led to the formation of the Theatre of the Absurd, which portrayed satirists’ worldviews in such a way as to be in contrast with the realistic plays of the time (Esslin 293). Ionesco was an iconic satirist in his lifetime and wrote several absurdist plays, one of which is called Rhinoceros.

Rhinoceros is set in a small French town, which inexplicably becomes overrun with rhinoceroses. The main character, Berenger, is a drunkard, who is unhappy in life, and so alcohol is his solace. He is close friends with a man named Jean, who is a self-proclaimed man of culture. The play opens with the two men having a heated discussion over Berenger’s poor attitude and lack of will-power, and it is in this part of the play that the first rhinoceros is seen. Soon after, another rhinoceros is seen, and debate begins between the two men and other witnesses as to whether this rhinoceros is the same as the first, or a different one entirely. They do not reach a conclusion. One rhinoceros leads to another, and it is revealed that townspeople are transforming into the animals. At first, everybody is appalled by this. However, one by one, each succumb to the appeal of joining the ever-increasing herd of rhinoceroses in the town, until only Berenger remains human. Berenger is terrified of transforming into a rhinoceros, and stands strong in his individuality until the end of the play.

As with much of the absurdist theatre, the commentary that Ionesco makes on society is hidden underneath layers of bizarre stereotypes and numerous unanswered questions. At closer inspection, however, the object of Ionesco’s satire is quite directly embodied by one of the characters within the play. Botard, Berenger’s callous left-wing coworker, says to his boss, Mr Papillon, “[T]he fact that I despise religion, doesn’t mean I don’t esteem it highly” (Ionesco 51). He says this to appease his employer, after disrespecting religion only moments earlier. In this respect, Botard is being very ingratiating, or in other words, two-faced. It is this quality of being two-faced that motivates the play. Ionesco is commenting on the human ability to be insincere, and to go back on one’s word. All the characters, except Berenger, exhibit this quality, and they all eventually transform into a rhinoceros, at which point they have literally become two-faced.

The arrival of the rhinoceroses came as an understandable shock to the townspeople. In Act One, when the rhinoceroses were first seen, Berenger tried to logically explain their presence in the town. “Perhaps the rhinoceros escaped from the zoo,” he said (Ionesco 20), but Jean reminds him that they have had no zoos since the “the plague … ages ago” (20). Berenger then offers the explanation that the rhinoceros had escaped from a travelling circus, or had been hiding in the surrounding swamps (20-21). Jean contradicts him on both these points, as travelling circuses had been banned in their town, and they are situated in a very arid area of France, and so there were no swamps for the rhinoceros to hide in (20-21).  Jean declares that “It [the rhinoceros] shouldn’t be allowed!” (19).

In the first scene of Act Two, the debate and condemnation surrounding the rhinoceroses continues. Botard is indignant that the rhinoceros do not exist at all, and claims that they are a myth (Ionesco 54).  In an effort to describe the rhinoceros to Botard, Daisy, the typist and Berenger’s love interest, refers to them as “a very big ugly animal” (51). When it is revealed that their coworker, Mr Boeuf, has turned into a rhinoceros, the comments do not get any kinder. Dudard comments that “it’s probably not tame” (60), and Mr Papillion very swiftly fires Mr Boeuf.  They speak of Mrs Boeuf being able to divorce her husband, and claim to be the injured party, and they look to try and replace Mr Boeuf’s role in the office, as he is “no use to [them] anymore” (63).

Until this point, anti-rhinoceros opinions were made perfectly clear. It is in the second scene of Act Two that attitudes begin to shift. In this scene, Berenger visits Jean, to make amends for the fight they had the previous day, and to check up on him, as he is unwell. Jean has a headache, a fever, and a small bump on his forehead. The day before, Jean had been adamant about his dislike for the rhinoceroses, however during Berenger’s visit it is revealed that this is no longer true. After Berenger informs Jean that their co-worker has turned into a rhinoceros, Jean says that “he’s probably all the better for it” (Ionesco 78). This is very disconcerting to Berenger. Jean goes on to say how he thinks that humanity’s morals are flawed beyond repair, and perhaps they should be more like the rhinoceroses, and follow the laws of nature, instead (79). Jean finally declares that “humanism is all washed up!” (80), and very shortly afterwards transforms into a rhinoceros. In the span of one day, Jean had transitioned from an outspoken opponent of the rhinoceroses, into a willing beast himself.

The drastic switch in view continues and develops in the final act of the play. At this point, Berenger has secluded himself to his home, as the herd of rhinoceroses outside continues to grow. He is paranoid that his headache, caused by drink and stress, is the beginnings of his own transformation into a rhinoceros, something he fears greatly. He is visited by his co-worker, Dudard, and they discuss the events. Berenger refers to the transformations as a “nervous disease” (89). Dudard comments that “certain illnesses are good for you” (89). Dudard later reveals that Mr Papillon has transitioned into rhinoceroses. This shocks Berenger, as he viewed Mr Papillon as a man of good standing, who was above the nonsensical goings-on. Dudard asks Berenger to try and be more light-hearted about the situation. Berenger says that Dudard will be “siding with the rhinoceroses before long”, to which Dudard  replies, “[n]o, no, not at all” (97). However, shortly afterwards, Daisy arrives to visit Berenger, which makes Dudard unhappy. He leaves quite quickly, and then transforms into a rhinoceros.

When Daisy arrives, she brings news that Botard has also become a rhinoceros. Berenger finds this difficult to believe, as Botard has been so avidly against the entire concept. Daisy says that Botard claimed to be “mov[ing] with the times” (Ionesco 103). The scene progresses with Daisy and Berenger confessing their love for one another, and deciding to come together as a united front of humanity in a world consumed by animals. Unfortunately, this is short lived. Daisy is soon no longer concerned with the dust and noise that the rhinoceroses make, and is more fixated on “adapt[ing] [. . .] and get[ting] on with them” (118).  She grows more and more unhappy with Berenger’s harsh views of the herd, and says to him, “[t]hose are real people. They look happy. They’re content to be what they are. They don’t look insane. They look very natural. They were right to do what they did” (119).  She even goes as far as to say later that the rhinoceroses are “like gods” (121). It is not very long before the couple completely fall apart over their different opinions, and Daisy leaves to become a rhinoceros.

Jean, Botard, and Mr Papillon changed their minds on the matter of rhinoceroses within the span of a day. They acted against the opinions they had previously held, making hippocrates of them all. Even more extreme, Dudard and Daisy changed their minds within the span of a few moments, making them perhaps the most fickle characters of all.

Rhinoceros is a play of extremes. All the characters have a strong, vocalized opinions on the rhinoceros at all times. This makes it quite clear how drastically attitudes changed over the course of three acts, moving from avid opposition, to support and inclusion. The townspeople decided to overlook the absurdity of the rhinoceroses being in the town and the damage that they had caused. It could be said this was the entirety of Ionesco’s objective in writing this play, as such an open critique of the human capacity to be so mercurial and insincere is not an insignificant comment to make. However, taking into account the time period in which this play was written, it is near impossible to ignore where Ionesco’s disbelief in humanity was sparked, and the additional layer of criticism to this satire.

The play was originally published in 1959, but Ionesco had been living in France since 1938 and was present for the German occupation of France from 1940-1944. During this period of time, he saw many French people adapt to the occupation in ways he did not agree with. At first, they rejected the German regimes as barbaric and overbearing, but over time they became normalized and accepted. Many French people joined the French Communist Party and showed support for Nazism. This was also a time of considerable racial tension in France, which was another contributing factor to aspects of this play. All these ideas were portrayed metaphorically throughout Rhinoceros.

The reaction to the rhinoceros was much like that to the German occupation in 1940. The French people were overcome by “outrage” (Quinney 46), as the idea that the German forces could overpower them and their country was as absurd to them as the presence of the rhinoceroses were to the people in the play. During the occupation, the French people were surprised to not be immediately “shot down in the streets” (Quinney 47). Similarly, the townspeople in Rhinoceros were scared and appalled at the presence of the rhinoceroses, in Act One, as discussed above. The intrusion of the rhinoceroses was representative of the intrusion of the German forces.

Then, there was the aspect of the increasing number of rhinoceroses, which was indicative of this increasing number of German supporters within France. At the beginning of the play, the rhinoceroses had no support. There was, however, a large element of conformity, and to an extent mob-mentality, among the townspeople. There is extreme pressure on Berenger to conform, and in two ways. The first, is to become a cultured man, like Jean, The second, is to participate in the hysteria surrounding the first appearances of the rhinoceroses. All the characters, except for Berenger, speak in cliches through the first act, with exclamations such as,“Well, of all things!” which is frequently repeated. This is exhibitive of a lack of individual thought from the majority of the townspeople, who would rather rely on overused turns of phrase which they know to be acceptable opinions to voice rather than speak openly in opposition and run the risk of being berated, as Berenger had been. This play shows “both comically, and nightmarishly, the phenomenon of ideological contagion, and the surrender of human individuality and intelligence to herd-like conformity” (Calinescu 395), regardless of whether the widely-held opinions are aligned with the individual’s ideas, or not.

The same motion towards a homogenized mindset was seen during the Occupation. The French people worked towards collaboration with the German forces, and this particular collaboration was not forced upon the people, but was in many ways a conscious choice to adhere to a new way of life (Lemmes 158). This aspect of choice is important to note, as it differentiates between succumbing to the stronghold of an occupying force, and deciding that the occupying force offers something enticing, or more preferable, than what already stands, even if that offer directly opposes a current way of life.

Perhaps, if Berenger’s French town had been overrun with butterflies, a much more amicable alternative to the beasts that they were faced with, he would have minded it considerably less when his friends and coworkers transformed into them. This was not the case, however, and his town was instead confronted with large, unruly creatures, who left a great deal of damage in their wake. This was true as well, to the German occupying forces. The Nazi regime was infamously unforgiving towards Jewish people, and also towards people of colour. This racist undertone was addressed quite deliberately in the first act of the play, as the term “Asiatic mongol” was used derogatorily towards Berenger (Ionesco 38). This was a thinly veiled nod at the Nazi propaganda that was circulated during the occupation, which portrayed the Jewish people as having horns (Quinney 45). Ionesco was quite deliberate in choosing an aggressive animal, as the group of people he wishes them to represent were extremely animalistic in their violence.

The political angle of the play speaks to how Ionesco found his own friends and colleagues equally as two-faced, and hypocritical when faced with the German forces in wartime France. He found their lack of willpower disheartening, enough so to make him question the capacity that humans had for individual thought altogether.

Berenger remains steadfast throughout Rhinoceros. He was an individual in Act One, and remained so through to the end of the play. It is quite clear in understanding the position Ionesco was in while writing this play, that he found a voice in Berenger, and that he considered himself the steadfast individual in his own situation. To Ionesco, Berenger was the superior party in the altercation. Berenger concluded the play with a passionate and empowering monologue on fighting for what one believes is right.

The question remains, however, if this kind of action is really superior at all. It is quite clear that Berenger has no true plans on how to proceed against the rhinoceroses, other than with a vague idea of violence. And in his solitude, there is no one to guide him. He is an untamed individual who has quite “blindly denounced collectivism” (Danner 213), and at what cost? If it is absurd to join the collective mind, how is it not also absurd to be relentlessly defiant?  Berenger began the play with a sort of unconcerned apathy towards the rhinoceroses, and yet ends the play in angry opposition to them. Does this not also make him a hypocrite? The rhinoceroses, in all their destructive ugliness, are content, where Berenger is not. Perhaps he would have been wiser to conform, in the hopes of finding happiness in companionship. Or perhaps he was right, and one can only find true satisfaction by maintaining their individual beliefs.  “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles /And by opposing end them” (Shakespeare 3.1.1751-1753)”, we do not know. Whether it is nobler to be blatantly animalistic, or gallantly human, we also do not know.

Works Cited

Calinescu, Matei. “Ionesco and Rhinoceros: Personal and Political Backgrounds.” East European Politics and Societies, vol. 9, no. 3, 1995, pp. 393-432.

Danner, G. Richard. “Bérenger’s Dubious Defense of Humanity in Rhinocéros.” The French Review, vol. 53, no. 2, 1979, pp. 207–214.

Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.”  The Tulane Drama Review, vol. 4, no. 4 May 1960, pp. 3-15

Ionesco, Eugene. Rhinoceros. Translated by Derek Prouse. Penguin Books. 2000. Print.

Lemmes, Fabian. “Collaboration in Wartime France, 1940-1944.” European Review of History, vol. 15, no. 2, 2007, pp. 157-177.

Shakespeare, William, and Harold Jenkins. Hamlet. London: Methuen, 1982. Print.

Quinney, Anne. “Excess and Identity: The Franco-Romanian Ionesco Combats Rhinoceritis.” South Central Review, vol. 24, no. 3, Fall 2007, pp. 36-50.