Rhinoceros is a play written by Eugene Ionesco in 1959. He wrote it for The Theater of the Absurd, a style of plays that were popular in the post-World War II era. The playwrights that participated were usually European. The plays were meant to be existential.
In Rhinoceros residents of a small French village have their world shaken by the arrival of a herd of rhinoceroses. Soon it is revealed that the rhinoceroses are the town people. As the play progresses everyone saves the protagonist turns into a rhinoceros.
The protagonist is Berenger. At the beginning of the play, he comes across as a slovenly drunk who has no interest in his job. He is constantly late. The only thing that interested him is his desire for Daisy, a pretty blond who works with him. But, he doesn’t have the courage to approach her.
As the play progresses, Berenger becomes paranoid and obsessed with the rhinoceroses. He fears that he will become one, too. Especially when everyone around him turns into a rhinoceros. He tries to discover the cause of the change but doesn’t. In the end, he is the only man left and vacillates between assimilation and staying true to himself.
The underlying themes seem to be conformity and mob mentality. There are a lot of lines about the philosophy of morality and logic, although it holds true to its farce by making them nonsensical. Most people view the play as a criticism to Fascism.
Scene one opens in a town square of a “small provincial town.” Upstage is a small building. The first floor is a grocery shop, and the top floor is the apartment of the grocer and his wife. To the right and at an angle is a cafe. In the background, above the grocery is a church steeple. Above the cafe is a terrace with a small table and chairs. Jean and Berenger are sitting at the table.
Just before the curtain rises, the audience hears church bells in the distance. They stop as the curtain rises. A woman carrying a basket under one arm and a cat under the other walks across stage prompting the grocer’s wife to step outside and look at her. She turns to her unseen husband in the shop and complains about the woman not shopping at their shop. She leaves, and the stage is quiet until Jean speaks up.
Jean begins by berating Berenger for being late although he, himself had only just arrived. Jean stresses that time matters more to him because he doesn’t like to wait, whereas Berenger is slovenly. Berenger is suffering from a hangover and wants another drink. This further infuriates Jean. He thinks noon is too early to drink. Jean nags Berenger while brushing off his suit and loaning him a tie to make himself more presentable. Jean tells Berenger he needs to have more willpower.
When Jean asks where the party took place, he is affronted to learn it was a birthday party for their mutual friend, Auguste and he was not invited. In the distance, they hear a loud noise like a “beast panting in its headlong course.” Meanwhile, the waitress arrives to take their orders. The noise continues to grow louder until the Jean is shouting about not being invited to a party he would not have attended anyway.
The waitress asks what the noise is and Jean bounds to his feet shouting that it is a rhinoceros. This is followed by the waitress, the grocer’s wife acknowledging the rhinoceros. The wife calls to her husband who is also surprised.
A logician enters from stage left and announces that the rhinoceros is “going full-tilt on the opposite pavement!” The housewife with the basket and cat rushes to center stage in surprise and drops her basket breaking a bottle, but she hangs on to her cat. An elegant old gentleman enters stage left and runs into the grocers where he hides behind the grocer and his wife.
The proprietor of the cafe sticks his head out and tries to tell the waitress she is hallucinating when she tells him about the rhinoceros, then he sees it, too. Meanwhile, Berenger is ignoring everything and is drowsing in his chair.
As the sound of the rhinoceros fades into the background everyone but Berenger says, “Well, of all things!” Berenger is unaffected except to complain about the dust. The rest of the group settle down. They are still a bit shaken but starting to go about their business. Jean takes longer to get over the sighting and keeps asking Berenger what he thought. Jean becomes more and more agitated. He accuses Berenger of mocking him, of drinking too much and of not agreeing that a rhinoceros running through town is dangerous, although Berenger repeatedly tries to assuage his anger.
Suddenly a pretty young girl walks across the stage. Berenger leaps up to point her out as Daisy and jostles Jean’s drink causing him to spill it on his pants. Berenger tries to hide from Daisy so that she won’t see him in his current state.
Jean uses this to berate Berenger about his alcohol abuse again. Berenger says he drinks because he is frightened. He is tired and depressed. Jean calls it “drinker’s gloom.” While they are talking the Old Gentleman and the Logician return. They sit at another table on the terrace, behind Jean and Berenger. While Jean and Berenger discuss suicide and depression, the other couple discusses syllogism.
Jean tries to give Berenger a reason to sober up by pointing out Daisy. Meanwhile, the other couple discusses cats and logic. Jean agrees to help Berenger in courting Daisy. While all this conversation is going on another rhinoceros goes past. They all take notice of it with the same exclamations as before. Then they have a debate on what kind of rhinoceros it is.
Berenger and Jean argue prompting Jean to call him a drunk and storm off. While the Logician and the old man continue to debate the rhinoceros, the Housewife’s cat is killed by the rhinoceros. Then the housewife leads a funeral procession for her cat followed by Daisy and the Waitress. Berenger says he wants to apologize to Jean, but he is too drunk. While he calls for another drink the debate about the rhinoceros continues. Whether it is an Asiatic or an African rhinoceros, they will not allow it to kill anymore cats.
The Curtain Lowers
This scene opens in Berenger’s office. Daisy is near her desk with Dudard and Botard. The two men are arguing about the rhinoceros. Botard does not believe there was a rhinoceros. He thinks it is sensationalist journalism. Papillon, the boss, is joining in the conversation. They remark that Berenger is late for work, but Daisy changes the subject. Suddenly Berenger enters, and Daisy hands him a time sheet but helps him adjust it so as not to be late for work.
They wonder about Mr. Boeuf until his wife enters. She is flustered and shows them a telegram from her husband saying he won’t be into work because he has the flu. She asks for water and tells them a rhinoceros chased her there from her house. Botard scoffs at her. But when she tells them the rhinoceros is downstairs, Botard is finally forced to believe it after he sees it.
When the rhinoceros tries to come up the stairs, Mrs. Boeuf recognizes it as her husband. She becomes distraught, and the men try to help her by telling her she can collect insurance and get a lawyer. Papillon tells her she would be justified to divorce him. But she refuses to desert him. Mrs. Boeuf jumps off the landing and Berenger, who was trying to stop her, is left holding her skirt.
Her voice is heard in the distance calming the rhinoceros and telling it to take her home. The men remark that she landed on the saddle and is riding the rhinoceros. Since the door is impassable due to the damage was done by the rhinoceros, the group is helped out the window by a fireman. Berenger turns down an offer to go for drinks with Dudard so he can make up with Jean. The curtain lowers
This scene opens in Jean’s apartment. He is lying in his bed coughing. His back is to the audience. Berenger knocks on his door, but Jean doesn’t answer. An old man and his wife heard him. The old man’s name is also Jean. His wife calls him back in, and Jean finally opens the door for Berenger.
Jean doesn’t remember seeing the rhinoceros. But then Berenger jogs his memory, and he tells Jean that they were both right. There were rhinoceroses with one horn and with two horns. Berenger apologizes for getting so angry and being obstinate. Jean tells him the reason he is home is that he doesn’t feel well. His forehead hurts. Jean continues to cough. Berenger asks if Jean’s headache started while he was asleep. Maybe his subconscious remembered the rhinoceroses. Jean becomes angry and insists that he is the master of his thoughts. That his mind never wanders.
When Berenger points out the bump on his nose, Jean goes into the bathroom to check it out and emerges with green skin. Berenger urges him to see a doctor, but Jean says he only trusts veterinarians. Jean’s hands are becoming harder, and his breathing is more ragged. When Berenger points it out, Jean says that Berenger’s breaths are too weak. Berenger asks him not to be mad at him, that he is his friend. Jean replies that “There’s no such thing as friendship. I don’t believe in your friendship.”
The two men continue to argue, and each time Jean goes into the bathroom, he comes back out looking more and more like a rhinoceros. Berenger tells him about Mr. Boeuf becoming a rhinoceros, and Jean thinks he faked it. But then when Berenger follows Jean into the bathroom the last time, the audience hears Jean and Berenger fighting. Suddenly Berenger runs out of the bathroom slamming the door behind him and a rhinoceros horn drills through the door.
Berenger tries to warn the other tenants of the building. He speaks to the old man and old woman then runs to the stairs and calls to the porter that there is a rhinoceros in the house and to call the police. But the porter is a rhinoceros. Then he becomes frazzled and can’t figure out how to get away. He finally tries the apartment of the old people only to discover they have turned into rhinoceros, too. He flees to the street shouting, “Rhinoceros! Rhinoceros!” Meanwhile, the bathroom door that Jean has been beating on this whole time begins to yield.
The curtain rises on Berenger’s room. It looks a lot like Jeans with only a few differences. There are a couple more pieces of furniture. The staircase is to the left, as is the landing. There is a door at the end of the landing and no porter’s lodge. Upstage is the divan he is laying on with his back to the audience. There is also an open window up a stage. His head is bandaged. He falls to the floor which wakes him from his dream of being chased by rhinoceroses to accompany the noises of them in the background. Berenger runs to the mirror to check under his bandage for a horn and is relieved not to find one.
Dudard knocks and Berenger lets him in asking if Dudard notices a change in his voice. Dudard assures him that his voice is the same. They discuss the reasons for the changes and Dudard guesses it’s because Jean has an excitable personality. They did not change into rhinoceroses just to annoy Berenger. He thinks Berenger is taking the whole thing too personally.
Berenger offers Dudard a drink, and he refuses. Berenger tells him that alcohol “immunizes you.” So it’s healthy. Dudard tries to convince him to quit drinking, and Berenger says he will after the epidemic is over.
As the conversation continues, Berenger’s paranoia grows, and he tries to blame himself for the epidemic. Dudard accuses him of enjoying torturing himself. He should just accept things. But, Berenger accuses him of being a fatalist. Berenger insists on doing something. He wants to “attack the evil at the roots.”
The two men turn their talk to the office. Papillon resigned and became a rhinoceros. While Dugard thinks this is funny, Berenger is troubled. He feels that Dudard is becoming too sympathetic to the rhinoceros, ‘ but he can’t argue with him because he thinks Dudard is smarter than he is.
Berenger decides to discuss the situation with the Logician. While Berenger is watching the rhinoceroses and fretting about becoming one, Dudard opens the door for Daisy to enter. She assures Dudard that she is just checking on Berenger because they are friends. She calmly informs the men that Board has become a rhinoceros also. She tells them that “maybe a quarter of the whole town” have changed. They think Botard changed because of their boss, Mr. Papillon changed. Berenger says that he can understand that.
Daisy has brought a basket of food for Berenger. She asks Dudard to stay and share the meal with them. While she is setting up the meal, they discuss the rhinoceroses and how they are almost commonplace. Dudard thinks they should all just accept the change, but Berenger disagrees. Suddenly there is a loud crash, and they run to the window to discover the firehouse has been destroyed and all the firemen are rhinoceroses.
Daisy calmly tries to lead them back to the table, but Dudard stops and says he would rather have grass. He runs out of the apartment leaving Daisy and Berenger alone. Berenger professes his love to Daisy, and she returns his affection. She calms him and offers him a glass of brandy when he assures her he hasn’t had any today. She takes off his bandage and shows him his forehead is smooth.
The noise increases outside and the phone rings. Daisy begs him not to answer the phone. When they answer, it is a rhinoceros. Daisy tries to tell him they must accept the rhinoceroses. That they are the odd ones. Berenger is still opposed. Soon Daisy starts to think the rhinoceros sounds are like music and berates Berenger for not having the ardor and energy of the rhinoceroses. He slaps her. Then he asks her for forgiveness. At first, she offers to stay with him and help him resist the rhinos. But soon Daisy begins to listen to their call. She begins to tell him the rhinos are “like gods.”
Berenger turns his back on her and looks in the mirror to argue that men are more handsome than rhinos. When he turns back around, she is gone. At first, he is angry and then feels guilty that he drove her out and she will now become a rhinoceros. He locks the door and tries to plug his ears so that he won’t feel their pull. Then he begins to wonder if the changes can be reversed. Then he wonders what language they are using and the fact that his language would sound odd to them.
Berenger finds some photographs of his friends and tries to compare them to the rhinoceroses. The pictures are of ugly people, so he thinks the rhinos are better looking. Then he decides he is not good looking. He begins to wish he looked like the rhinoceroses and lamented his lack of a horn. He hears their noise and begins to think it is music. He tries to emulate them but realizes he doesn’t sound like them at all.
Realizing it is too late to become a rhinoceros, Berenger becomes ashamed of what he looks like. “People who try to hang onto their individuality always come to a bad end.” Then he suddenly changes his attitude. He knows he is the only human left and he plans to fight them. “I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating!” The Curtain closes.
Berenger – A bit of a slacker, Berenger coasts through life. He has a job that he has no interest in. He arrives late and always looks unkempt. He drinks too much because he has nothing else to do.
When his friend, Jean reprimands him for his slovenly attitude and his inability to fit in with everyone else, Berenger capitulates. The only thing that can get his attention is Daisy and his desire for her. Then when he finally gets his heart’s desire, he learns that he didn’t know her and her values. He was only attracted to her appearance.
Berenger tries to avoid becoming a rhinoceros, but at the same time he is jealous of the happiness everyone seems to have with conformity. In the end, he is the last remaining man and determined to remain a man.
Jean – Berenger’s friend. Jean is a conservative. He considers himself to be neat, cultured and well educated. He is also sure he is right. Jean makes it his mission to rehabilitate Berenger. He wants Berenger to be more like himself since Jean considers himself to be perfect.
In actuality, he is an arrogant bully. When he becomes a rhinoceros, he tries to hurt Berenger. He is the only rhinoceros that tries to hurt anyone. Until he becomes a rhinoceros Jean denies the changes in others. When he begins to turn into a rhinoceros, Jean praises them as perfect.
Daisy – A pretty young blond woman. She wants to have a husband and home. But she also flirts with Berenger and his co-worker, Dugard. She is emotional. When she realizes that Berenger is interested in her, she brings him soup to his home. Then when he becomes worried about turning into a rhinoceros, she nurses him and tries to calm his fears.
Even though she assures him, there is nothing to worry about she takes the accepted standards of most of the characters. The rhinoceroses are there, and it doesn’t matter. She is complacent about the changes in everyone around her. When Berenger tells her they will leave and start a new life away from the rhinoceroses. She sneaks out to join the rhinoceroses leaving Berenger alone and with a broken heart.
Berenger’s co-workers – Papillon is Berenger’s boss. He is more interested in productivity than his employees. His main concern when his employees began turning into rhinoceroses was that they would not be working.
Board is the most senior employee. He is cynical and chooses the path of refusing to believe people are turning into rhinoceroses. He wants logical explanations. He is also jealous of Dudard, and anyone else he feels is a threat to his position.
Dudard is an opportunist. He is also interested in Daisy and teases Berenger about his interest. He often tries to turn her affections to him and might have succeeded if he hadn’t decided to become a rhinoceros. Dudard considers himself to be of above intelligent.
Mr. Boef sent his wife in to tell his boss he wasn’t feeling well. Then he followed her to the office as a rhinoceros. When she realizes the rhinoceros that chased her to her to the office is her husband, she devotedly joins him by jumping on his back.
Eugene Ionescu Biography
Eugene married Rodica Buileanu in 1936 and had one daughter. In 1938 he took his young family back to France so he could complete his doctorate. When World War II started in 1939, he relocated back to Romania. He and his family were unhappy in Romania at the time and put into relocate back to France in 1942. Eugene waited out the rest of the war in France. They resided in Marseilles but moved to Paris after it was liberated from the Germans.
Although Eugene was famous for his plays, he also wrote poetry and criticism. He did not write his first play until he was almost forty. It was called the Bald Soprano, a play about a dinner party between two English couples, the Smiths and the Martins, and their nonsensical conversation. Near the end, the stage goes black and when the lights come on the play starts over from the beginning with the Smiths reciting the Martins lines and the Martins reciting the Smiths. This play holds the world’s record for being played in the same theater for the longest time.
The idea for the Bald Soprano came because Eugene chose this time to learn English. The method he chose to learn English made him pay close attention to the minutiae of language and how it could be used. He suddenly saw the comedy in the truth of sentences. Most of his plays were what he called anti-plays because the showed a comedy and parody of the accepted theatrical forms.
He also wrote one novel, The Hermit, published in 1975. It is a very short work about a sales clerk who inherits money and spends the rest of his days contemplating the human condition.
Eugene Ionesco was the French avant-garde theater. In his book “The Theatre of the Absurd,” Martin Esslin slipped him into the same category as Samuel Beckett and Arthur Adamov. He admired Dadaists and Surrealists and leaned towards Pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions.
In March of 1994 at the age of 84, Eugene passed away. He is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. On his tomb, in French, is “Pray to the I don’t-know-who: Jesus Christ, I hope.” During his lifetime Eugene received many prestigious awards including the Austrian State Prize for European Literature.