Rhinoceros is a play by Eugene Ionesco written in 1959. The play has elements of absurd and avant-garde theatre, but more significantly, the play provides a political commentary on the rise of mass hysteria, fascism, and totalitarianism. Written in the aftermath of the Second World War and with the backdrop of the rise of the Iron Guard in Romania, Ionesco uses the play and the symbol of rhinoceros to showcase the fall of individuals to totalitarian regimes.
Ionesco wrote in 1940, “The police are rhinoceros. The judges are rhinoceros. You are the only man among the rhinoceros.”. In view of this, it becomes clear that in the play that Ionesco wrote almost two decades later, the rhinoceros are a symbol of people who have forgone their individuality in the wake of mass hysteria and a mass mutation into a society where there is no space for the individual. The rhinoceros, then, represents the transformation that the people in a society go through, a transformation so extreme that they seem to mutate into something that is not human at all. The title of the play, therefore, is significant because it captures the idea that Ionesco wants to represent through his play.
The play depicts ‘Rhiniceritis’, that is, the transformation into a rhinoceros, as a disease. Even when everyone but Berenger becomes a rhinoceros, there is no doubt for the audience that rhinoceritis is a dangerous disease. The spread of rhinoceritis in the play becomes an allegory for the spread of totalitarianism in society. As the play moves from a public to a private space, we see the spread of rhinoceritis also from an object of curious observation to an individual decision to turn into a rhinoceros. This movement of the disease from the public to the private space comments on how totalitarian ideologies gain traction as they start entering private spaces until most, if not all, fall prey to it.
There is no logic behind the arrival and the spread of rhinoceritis. The lack of logic is first shown through the faulty syllogisms of the Logician according to which a “dog must be a cat”. Furthermore, the lack of logic is emphasised when instead of offering a solution to the conundrum about the nature of the rhinoceros, the logician merely restates the doubts and theories of the people so that “the problem is correctly posed.”. As a result, it is hardly a surprise when we later find out that the Logician, too, has turned into a rhinoceros. Later in the play, Berenger comments, “If only it had happened somewhere else, in some other country, and we’d just read about it in the papers, one could discuss it quietly, examine the question from all points of view and come to an objective conclusion. We could organise debates with professors and writers and lawyers, and blue-stockings and artists and people. And the ordinary man in the street, as well – it would be very interesting and instructive. But when you’re involved yourself up against the brutal facts you can’t help feeling directly concerned – the shock is too violent for you to stay cool and detached.”. This reflects how a society that is in the grip of a major ideological shift often fails to be objective or logical about it, too swept up in the undercurrent. This explains why the noise made by the rhinoceros seems melodic to people right before they transform, for it symbolises the breakdown of communication and their growing distance from humanity,
As the play progresses, more and more people start turning into rhinoceros. From the rhinoceros that we see in the first act, to realising that the rhinoceros in Act Two, scene One, used to be someone that the characters knew, the transformations increasingly start affecting the characters. Jean’s transformation is arguably the most vital transformation. Not only because this is the first on-stage transformation, but also because in Act One Jean had been lecturing Berenger about the etiquettes of being a civilised man. However, given that Jean seemed to determine what is acceptable and appropriate based on what the masses deemed to be so, it is not so surprising that Jean transforms when the masses, too, start transforming. Nevertheless, Jean’s transformation has a deep effect on the audience. He goes from becoming a human to a rhinoceros, losing everything that made his ‘Jean’. Ionesco wrote in the 1940s about people transforming in favour of the fascist regime, “I have been present at mutations. I have seen people transformed almost beneath my eyes. It is as if I had come across the very process of metamorphosis, as if I had been present at it. I felt them becoming more and more strangers, I felt them withdrawing, little by little. I felt how another soul, another mind germinated in them. They lost their personality and it was replaced by another. They became other.”. These sentiments are reflected first in Jean’s transformation, and later in Dudard and Daisy’s transformations as well.
In the end, Berenger is the only human left. His final words, “I’m not capitulating!” leave a lasting impact on the audience as everyone around him succumbs to rhinoceritis. The title of the play becomes significant. It becomes an image of the lack of humanity that the spread of fascist, mass-hysteric, and totalitarian regimes bring with them. It signifies a warning about how such regimes completely transform a person and show how important it is to hold on to individuality and to, like Berenger, not capitulate.