«Rhinoceros Background Pack Contents About the production 2 Synopsis of the play 3 About the writer: Eugene Ionesco 5 Ionesco and Berenger 6 Ionesco ...»
Ionesco on Rhinoceros On rhinoceritis “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.” On Nazism “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.” On humanity “Berenger finds himself alone in a dehumanised world where each person tried to be just like all the others. It’s just because they all tried to be like each other that they became dehumanised, or rather depersonalised, which is after all the same thing.” On rhinoceroses “They fanatics have the same mixture of ingenuousness and ferocity.
They would kill you without a qualm if you did not think as they do. And in the last quarter of this century history has given us clear proof that people transformed in this way are not just like, but truly become rhinoceroses.” On conformism “One of the great critics in New York complains that, after destroying one conformism, I put nothing else in its place, leaving him and the audience in a vacuum. That is exactly what I wanted to do. A free man should pull himself out of vacuity on his own, by his own efforts and not by the efforts of other people.” On genre “I have read the American critics on the play and noticed that everyone agreed the play was funny. Well, it isn’t. Although it is a farce, it is above all a tragedy.” On satire “Strictly speaking my play is not even a satire: it is a fairly objective description of the growth of fanaticism, of the birth of a totalitarianism that grows, propagates, conquers and transforms a whole world and, naturally, being totalitarian transforms it totally.”
© Royal Court Theatre, 2007
Historical background Living in Romania at the outbreak of the Second World War, Ionesco would have witnessed the spread of Nazi ideology throughout parts of Europe. He wrote of the terror of watching his liberal intellectual friends becoming Nazi sympathizers, and of the persecution his Jewish friends suffered under the wave of anti-Semitism which spread throughout Romania.
Each of the characters in the play who contracts rhinoceritis has a reason that echoes the rationales or excuses of various groups who became Fascists. Jean is a zealous conformist who speaks and thinks only in platitudes. Botard is an ideologue, a left-wing activist who sees conspiracies everywhere and claims to know the secret behind the sudden appearance of rhinoceroses. Dudard represents the type of intellectual for whom to understand is to justify. Daisy and Papillon are ordinary citizens who go along with the rhinoceroses because everyone else is doing it or because they are afraid.
Ionesco was particularly suspicious of revolutionaries, writing that “as soon as the truth for which they live their lives is officially accepted, there are no more heroes, only bureaucrats, craven and cautious as befits their function”. The transformations that Ionesco dramatizes throughout the second part of Rhinoceros can be read as a comment on the dominant political ideologies of the day. The playwright wrote that “wars, uprisings, pogroms, collective frenzies and collective crimes, tyrannies and oppressions” are “just some aspects of the revelation of our monstrousness”. Indeed the rhinoceroses green skins are a reminder of the green shirts worn by the Iron Guard legionnaires — the Romanian ultra-nationalist Fascist party — a point which didn’t go unnoticed when the play was performed in Romania in 1964. Parisian audiences, however, would have been reminded of the green uniforms worn by the Nazi occupiers in 1940.
While Ionesco’s refusal to ally himself with a particular political critique of Nazism infuriated his critics, the writer continued to maintain that absolutist ideologies of all types should be feared and despised: Ionesco: “the Little Red Book is even worse than Mein Kampf. To me it seems there’s a certain diabolical aggressiveness, a fanaticism which just changes is banner.” Instead of exposing a specific political system, Ionesco chose instead to make a critique of a type of individual who blindly accepts authority without challenging it: “for me the petit bourgeois is just a man of slogans, who no longer thinks for himself but repeats the truths that others have impressed upon him ready-made and therefore lifeless. In short, the bourgeois is a manipulated man”.
© Royal Court Theatre, 2007 Rehearsal diary Week 1
© Royal Court Theatre, 2007 Week 2 Our second week of rehearsals begins with a visit from Sue Lefton, the show’s movement director. After some gentle warm ups, Sue begins to introduce the company to the way in which rhinoceroses move, through exercises which focus on the ‘breath’ of the animal. Very gradually, the actors start experimenting with rhinos at rest, asleep and at play. Dominic wants us to find a “language of movement” that expresses something essential about the animals without the actors “actually trying to be rhinoceroses”. When Sue asks the actors to inhabit a formal French cafe as if they were half human, half rhino, the results are both funny and terrifying.
Further movement work focuses on formal French behaviour.
Sue asks the actors to walk around the room in rigid straight lines before greeting each other with the word ‘bonjour’. The actors use the greeting as a formal exchange rather than an expression of genuine delight. We set up a cafe within the rehearsal room: the actors arrive in the cafe one by one, establishing an activity and watching each other’s movements.
We explore the way in which the cafe’s customers react to ‘outsiders’ or individuals who don’t conform to the social norms of the town.
We begin to get the play ‘on its feet’. Dominic asks the actors to identify their ‘wants’ or ‘objectives’ in each of the scenes, asking “what would your character love to happen by the end of the scene?”. By being specific about the characters’ ‘wants’, the actors get a clear sense of what is at stake in each scene. We practice each scene in the space and draw out some of the psychological detail of the writing. The language of Martin Crimp’s translation is really coming alive – the play feels supple, multi-faceted and highly relevant.
We mock up a small cafe in the rehearsal room, and the rehearsal of Act 1 gets underway. Dominic asks the actors to identify their ‘wants’ or ‘objectives’ in each of the scenes, asking “what would your character love to happen by the end of the scene?”. By being specific about the characters’ ‘wants’, the actors get a clear sense of what is at stake in each scene. The language of Martin Crimp’s translation is really coming alive – the play feels supple, multi-faceted and highly relevant.
Sue, the show’s Movement Director, asks the actors to walk around the room, when she bangs a drum, the actors form the largest circle they can while keeping their movement fluid and effortless. The actors practice walking together in the same rhythms and patterns until group movement becomes second nature. Dominic applies the principle of this group movement to the entrance of the first rhinoceros.
© Royal Court Theatre, 2007 Week 3 We begin the week by looking at the ‘transformation scene’, in which Jean, Berenger’s best friend, turns into a rhinoceros. Jasper and Benedict, the two actors playing Jean and Berenger, discuss what their characters want in the scene. We practice the scene without any physical or vocal reference to rhinocification in the hope of finding the genuine concern that Berenger has for his friend, as well as Jean’s alarm at what is happening to his body. We find a way of playing Jean as a man who “hates to be ill, hates being vulnerable or weak”. The challenge with this scene is, Dominic speculates, “not playing the final transformation too early” – neither Jean nor Berenger (nor, crucially, the audience) should know that, by the end of Act 2, Jean will have transformed into an animal.
We move on to the office scene, in which a staircase is destroyed by a rampaging rhinoceros. Ionesco himself worked as a proof reader in an administrative publishing house – the office politics, grudges, relationships and rituals in this scene are drawn with remarkable accuracy. In particular, the section of the play in which Berenger and his colleague Boeuf get down to the business of correcting proofs is a depressingly precise recreation of office life. Dominic asks the actors to complete the sentence “work is...” as their characters would: this helps the actors to identify their characters’ attitudes towards office life. Each character then begins ‘work’ informed by the sentence they have formulated (e.g. ‘work is boring’, ‘work is inspiring’, ‘work is satisfying’). The result is an office scene which feels specific, detailed and full of life.
The rhino suit has finally been delivered to the Royal Court – two members of the production team volunteer to try it out and the results are staggering. The ‘fake’ rhino could absolutely pass for the real thing. But because the suit is too big to fit through the doors of the rehearsal room, we’ll have to set up some separate rhino calls for the actors to practice walking in the suit. Meanwhile, a specialist props maker has begun work on sculpting the rhinoceros heads that the actors will wear once they’ve turned into animals. In the rehearsal room, we continue to work on the play’s key transformation scene.
Jasper, the actors who plays Jean, practices the scene removing any physical or vocal reference to rhinoceroses. The result is a scene in which Jean’s transformation into a rhino comes as a surprise, both to him and to his friend Berenger. During the rehearsal, Dominic (the play’s director) suggests that Jasper completes his transformation into a rhinoceros by smashing up the set, first crashing into a chair, then upending a bed. We’ve already destroyed a table during a particularly energetic rehearsal, but Jasper throws himself into the destruction with real vigour and the result is terrifying.
© Royal Court Theatre, 2007 Week 5 We rehearse the final scene of the play in which Berenger and Daisy attempt to pledge their love to one another while the rhinoceroses gather around their apartment. During the course of the scene, Daisy and Berenger begin to realise that they are the only human beings left on earth, as rhinoceroses invade their domestic bliss. The scene is emotionally demanding and difficult to place, given that it’s hard to find a ‘real life’ parallel to the situation in which the two characters find themselves. Dominic suggests that the actors engage imaginatively with the reality faced by the Germans as the Nazis began to take power in the 1930s. Ionesco lived through the Second World War (indeed, his father was part of a Fascist movement in his native Romania), and the play is very much a response to his experience of watching his friends become Nazi sympathisers. This particular point of concentration really helps the actors to find a realistic reaction to the events of the scene (rhinoceroses on the radio, rhinoceroses on the phone, and rhinoceroses stampeding through the apartment block).
The last moments of the play, in which Berenger decides to ‘take arms’ against the rhinos, elicit a lot of discussion because of the ambiguity of Ionesco’s writing. If Berenger is the last man alive, how much longer can he hold out? Now we’ve worked through the entire play, identifying the characters’ objectives and examining the ‘action’ of each scene, we return to Act 1 and begin to run sections of the play. The play’s first scene ‘reads’ differently now we all know Rhinoceros a little better – the quality of acting we have achieved is richer and deeper now that it’s informed by a clearer understanding of the journeys which the characters undertake.
© Royal Court Theatre, 2007 A writer’s view Elinor Cook, a writer whose work has been performed as part of the Royal Court’s Young Writers’ Festival, observed the rehearsals for Rhinoceros. Here she describes what she saw.
As someone who hopes to be a playwright one day, the opportunity to spend so much time inside the head of another has been an exciting, and occasionally disturbing, experience. It has forced me to ask some uncomfortable questions about my own writing, and, more broadly, to ask questions about the society we live in, and the way it’s currently reflected on stage.
Ionesco was writing in direct response to something horrifying he had witnessed. It’s larger-than-life and grimly funny, but it’s also a raw, heart-felt response to the random cruelty of the world. Is the world we live in now any less cruel? Bearing in mind what is happening in Darfur, in Zimbabwe, in Iraq, I would say not. So why aren’t we writing about it? Where is the burning desire to challenge audiences, change attitudes? It’s a deeply-ingrained malaise that’s infected our entire society. It’s not that we’re indifferent to the scenes of famine, violence and genocide that dance across our screen every day. It’s simply that we’ve lost the belief that we can change them. We’ve slid into a state of dangerous complacency. Like Daisy, we want to protect our domestic idyll. Like Jean, we feel that if we honour our ‘duty’, that we are somehow doing enough. Like Dudard, we wear our tolerance and liberal values on our sleeves. But, Ionesco suggests, this makes us prime candidates for the curse of rhinoceritis and it’s not a flattering depiction.
The moments of transformation, from human being to lumbering pachyderm, provoke a shudder of horror - one that initially took me by surprise. Rather naively, I was expecting something funny. It couldn’t be further from it.