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The Ionesco Festival, a production of Untitled Theater Co. #61

Rhinoceros: Thick-skinned Phenomenon

1936: the same year that Eugene and Rodica were married and his mother died, another writer, Denis de Rougemont, was in Nuremberg. As his inspiration for the short story, "Rhinoceros," Ionesco credits the compelling journal entries of Denis de Rougemont, which describe the "delirium which electrified him" as he was lured into a Nazi rally attended by Hitler. His conclusion: "I am alone and they are all together."

As a stepping off point for the character of Berenger and for the action of the short story, (published in 1957 and then adapted into the three-act play), these were potent images of a phenomenon especially resonant for Ionesco, who had almost 20 years earlier endured the period of the fascist Iron Guard and broken with his father due to irreconcilable political differences.

Ionesco describes his characters not as "stereotypes" but as "archetypes," that function on a mythic plane but with enough naturalistic detail to ground them in the particular and thereby maintain their immediacy.

The play was first delivered via BBC radio in August 1959, first staged in Dusseldorf in October of the same year (at the Schauspielhaus, directed by Karl-Heinz Stroux with Karl-Maria Schley as Berenger), premiered first in Paris in 1960 and then at the Royal Court in London (directed by Orson Welles with Laurence Olivier). A then unknown London playwright recalls the stampede for tickets while he awaited the verdict on his own new play, The Caretaker. Harold Pinter's commercial success was secured just after Ionesco's, and though rarely discussed in the same context, their oeuvres have much in common.

To an even greater extent than The Lesson, Rhinoceros was seen by many critics as a departure from what had come before. After the fallout of "the London Controversy" in the pages of its competitor, The London Times expressed relief (rather than condescension) by heading its review: "Ionesco Play All Easily Comprehensible." Not a few found it unabashedly didactic and schematic in its treatment of a single sociopolitical idea. Still others identified Berenger as the existentialist everyman and claimed him as an original, relevant hero. German reaction is reported to have been all embracing, while that of the Paris critics was, characteristically, divergent.

The first French production was performed at the Odeon, under the direction of Jean-Louis Barrault, who played Berenger. Jacques Noel was again Ionesco's set designer, and he produced a realistic set of backdrops and flats for the town square of the opening act, in keeping with its operetta-like beginning. Each act contained scenery incorporating a naming device (not quite Brechtian signage): "Epicerie," "Chef de service," "Concierge," etc.

Everywhere it opened, Rhinoceros broadened Ionesco's audience, but it was the 1961 Broadway production that caused him unprecedented celebrity. With Eli Wallach as Berenger and Zero Mostel as Jean (for which Mostel received his first Tony), it was directed by Joseph Anthony and produced by Leo Kerz. Considering the great number of languages into which the play has been translated, and ongoing international interest in producing it, it is perhaps surprising to find that to date the country in which it has received the most number of productions (if not performances) is the US (access to web reporting may be a factor in this statistic).

It was not until 1964 that the play was performed in Bucharest, at the Teatrul de Comedie, under the direction of Lucian Giurchescu. This was the first production of any Ionesco work in Romania, as it had been banned.

Multiple television and at least two film adaptations have also been made of Ionesco's most well-known full-length play. In October, the Anthology Film Archives will present Rhinoceros (1964), an animated short by Jan Lenica and Rhinoceros (1974), directed by Tom O'Horgan, of Hair fame.

"Anyway, Berenger is, I hope, above all a character. And if he is time-resistant, it will be because he has proved himself as a character; he should, if he has any real worth, survive even after his "message" has become outdated. Poetically, it is not his thought but his passion and his imaginative life that will matter, for his message could quite as well be delivered now by a journalist, a philosopher or a moralist, etc....The interest we may take today in a particular attitude, in spite of its human importance, takes second place to the permanent importance of art."

--Karen Lee Ott, Festival Dramaturg

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More information on Ionesco and his plays at www.ionesco.org