It is clear that ‘Rhinoceros’ by Eugene Ionesco explores Fascism and how it influences values of society and the behaviour of individuals. He was born in Romania in 1912 and so this play can be interpreted as an allegory of the rise of Fascism in Europe, particularly of the Brown Shirts in Romania. The image of the rhinoceros describes the destructive brutality in which Fascism swept across Europe crushing old values and human rights. However, ‘Rhinocï¿½ros’ is now relevant to other political totalitarian movements which have occurred since. The play criticises the unjust methods of ideological indoctrination through a range of characters and also examines the negative effects of betrayal, lack of humanity and hysteria.
In examining how Ionesco explores the rise of Fascism, it is interesting to look at how each character reacts as the rhinoceroses impose themselves on civilised society in ‘Rhinocï¿½ros’. In the first act and first ‘tableau’ of act two we are presented with a range of characters who show initial shock at the sight of two rhinoceroses in a small French town but by the end each character becomes accustomed to this new phenomenon. Bï¿½renger is the exception who resists the epidemic whilst the human values of the others are broken down as the play progresses. Jean is ambitious and unscrupulous: ‘J’ai un but. Je fonce vers lui’1 et ‘qu’ils (les homes) ne se mettent pas en travers ma route, je les ecrasais’2. His self-surety and sense of superiority exposes his ignorance and prejudiced attitude.
He shows the same resolution of behaviour as existed amongst the Nazis who believed that their programme of ethnic cleansing should not be interfered with. In the first Act, Ionesco sets Jean up as a product of civilised society. Military imagery is used as Jean tells Bï¿½renger how he should behave and strive to conform to society’s ideal of an individual: ‘Armez-vous, mon cher, armez-vous’; ‘les armes de la patience, de la culture, les armes de l’intelligence’3. Jean says ‘j’ai de la force parce que j’ai de la force morale’4.
In hindsight, we know that Jean is hypocritical and gives no importance to morality. Jean is cruel in the way in which he criticises his friend Bï¿½renger who does not feel at ease in his social surroundings. Jean only scolds him: ‘C’est lamentable, lamentable! J’ai honte d’etre votre ami’5. Bï¿½renger, as an outsider struggles to live up to the expectations of society but he is humble and accepting of Jean’s instructions. This shows how one set of ideals can be forced on another because of the adherent’s assertiveness and ability to manipulate others and not because these ideals are necessarily correct or superior. This is a fundamental injustice in ideological indoctrination.
Their conversation is paralleled with that between the old man and the logician. Ionesco uses juxtaposition to reinforce the process of persuasion. Both the logician and Jean tell the old man and Bï¿½renger respectively, ‘Faites un effort de pensï¿½e, voyons. Appliquez-vous’6. Eventually, the old man is persuaded that the logician’s method of thinking is the only way to find a solution to the problem and Bï¿½renger promises to better himself with education and culture as Jean suggests. Ionesco believed that logic was only on the surface of the conscience whereas dreams where much deeper7 and here, the comparison between logic and social betterment suggests that both are superficial and in denial of the meaningless of existence. The character of the logician warns against the dangers inherent in pure logic which is detached from emotion and reality and Jean’s character is a warning against the importance of superficial asthetics and social pressure.
Dudard is an intelligent and sensible character with whom the audience can relate to initially. He is perhaps the most dangerous character because we see how someone as understanding and unprejudiced also becomes a rhinoceros and metaphorically adheres to Fascism. Through this character, Ionesco shows the danger of excessive tolerance because in the end he tolerates the intolerable, that is the destruction of civilised society. Dudard says, ‘j’ai ï¿½tï¿½ supris, comme vous. Ou plutot je l’ï¿½tais. Je commence dï¿½ja a m’habituer’8. The contrast with Bï¿½renger’s emotional involvement highlights Dudard’s detachment and indifference.
This character shows liberalism in the extreme as he loses the ability to discern the difference between right and wrong. Dudard’s passiveness is almost a solution as he retains his humanity until nearly the end however his loyalty to his family and friends draw him to join them, ‘Mon devoir m’impose de suivre mes chefs et mes charades, pour le meilleur et pour le pire’9. Ionesco had the intention of showing Botard as a follower at the bottom of the power hierarchy but he could also be compared to a Marxist because of his role as a trade unionist and his insitence on rules and authority. He is anti-clerical and not academic. His opposition to Bureaucracy and his bitterness about the hierarchy of it can be seen as the origins of a Communist movement and his paranoia echoes Stalinism. He says,’Ma faute? C’est toujours sur les petits que ca retombe. S’il ne tenait qu’a moi….’10. This is an example of how ‘Rhinoceros’ is relevant to other waves of ideology.
Fascism dehumanises characters literally and also in regards of their morals, friendships and sensibilities. Ionesco shows how fanaticism dehumanises people and thwarts social behaviour so that in the end individuals show little concern for one another as within the animal kingdom. When Bï¿½renger tries to prevent Jean’s transformation into a rhinoceros, he says, ‘nous avons une philosophie que ces animaux n’ont pas, un systï¿½me de valeurs irremplaï¿½able. Des siecles de civilastion humaine l’ont bati!…’11. Humans have developed a morality and social conscience which allowed civilisation to prosper through solidarity whereas animals are still primitive. The skin also shows strength and durability. Jean says that his skin as a rhinoceros is ‘plus solide. Je rï¿½siste aux intempï¿½ries’12.
Here, Ionesco shows the danger of the preference of strength and power to sentimentalism of the human race. When Jean turns into a rhinoceros he says that, ‘L’amitiï¿½ n’existe pas’13. Here Jean is shown to be selfish and careless in his adherence to the new ruthless ideology, Fascism. Claude Abastado commented that his translate the collision of the indiviual, sadism and violence but I think that in this play we see negligence rather than violence between the characters14. Berenger maintains the capacity to be shocked and to feel guilty which are both intrinsic to the human condition. I have already mentioned the lack of emotion and spontaneous reaction shown by Dudard.
Guilt is an important issue as well because Berenger is the only one to feel guilty through to the end and we can see how people in power take advantage of others’ sense of responsibility. Jean says, ‘…je me sens lï¿½ger, lï¿½ger, lï¿½ger!’15, whereas Bï¿½renger feels heavy and burdened with his conscience. Responsibility is a human quality which bonds society in a civilised, caring community and here Jean’s attitude echoes fascist selfishness. The lack of responsibility is also evident in the characters’ obsession with calling the authorities so that they can put the blame onto someone else; ‘Nous devrions protester aupres des autorites municipales’16, says Jean. Fascism bred ill ease amongst individuals as people took less responsibility for their own actions. People get left behind if they do not conform to the set ideology.
Ionesco’s dramatic intentions for the play highlight some of his comments on Fascism and ideological indoctrination. The proliferation and acceleration of the play demonstrate the rapid spread of propaganda resulting in mass hysteria. The chaos shows irrationality and the increasing importance of the subconscious dream world over logic.
The speed denies the audience a chance to examine the sequence cause and effect and increases their anxiety and sense of claustrophobia. As the sounds and speed and lights intensify, the audience will experience a panic similar to that which swept across Europe as people had to choose whether to oppose or adhere. In the final Act the backdrop of the rhinoceroses becomes more dense and also the animals become more beautiful and attractive. This shows how rhinoceroses are being normalised because humans are in the minority. Humanity becomes repressed by the evil which is inherent in Fascism, and it also comments on the illogical persuasive force of ideological indoctrination, which develops into mass hysteria.
The metamorphoses into rhinoceroses in ‘Rhinocï¿½ros’ represent people sacrificing human values to conform to a new ideal, to a new ideology. This implies the immoral and evil qualities of Fascism. At the same time, ideological indoctrination is criticised as denial of equality and freedom. Ionesco said that ‘A ce moment, je parlais de la mentalitï¿½ fasciste et des Gardes de fer et de leur collectivisme. Aujourd’hui, cela s’appliquerait aux marxistes et aux sociï¿½tï¿½s marxistes’17.
Although at the time Ionesco had the Fascist movement in mind, the play is now relevant to other totalitarian movements, for example Marxism and Stalinism. In these political and social surges particular values are considered superior and those who conform to their ideology thrive to eliminate individualism to enforce their own beliefs. The play is particularly effective because of it’s bleak ending so that Ionesco does not impose his own opinions, which would contradict his attack on ideological indoctrination, but leaves the audience free to make up their own minds on which side to take.
* Lecture notes taken in lecture by Jean Duffy.
* Rhinoceros, Eugene Ionesco, Folio, 1959
* Eugene Ionesco, Claude Abastado, Bordas 803, 1971
* Ionesco et son theatre, Ahmad Kamyabi Mask (the edition was removed from the library before I was able to note down the edition details).
* Le Theatre Absurde d’Eugene Ionesco, ed.Arts Moscou, 1967 (translation by Mme.Lasski).
1 Rhinocï¿½ros, pg.152
2 Rhinocï¿½ros, pg.152
3 Rhinocï¿½ros, pg.49 &50
4 Rhinocï¿½ros, pg.44
5 Rhinocï¿½ros, pg.19
6 Rhinocï¿½ros, pg.50
7 Bonnefoy, Entretiens avec Eugene Ionesco, p.120
8 Rhinocï¿½ros, pg.184
9 Rhinocï¿½ros, pg.216
10 Rhinocï¿½ros, pg.117
11 Rhinocï¿½ros, pg. 160
12 Rhinoceros, pg.153
13 Rhinocï¿½ros, pg.151
14 Claude Abastado, Eugene Ionesco, Bordas 803, Paris 1971
15 Rhinocï¿½ros, pg.43
16 Rhinocï¿½ros, pg.34
17 Passï¿½ present, present passï¿½, p.114