Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ionesco's Rhinocerous: The Aggression of the Conventional

Moose Hall Theater Company, based out of Inwood Park in upper Manhattan, is in their final week of performances of Eugène Ionesco's "The Rhinoceros." The absurdist play, written in 1959 (nine years between the famous student protests of 1968), offers an allegory about social transformation, immanent violence, homogeneity, and failed or flattened aspirations. The play is long, didactic, and in a typical Ionesco style, plays upon the fallacies and fecundity of ordinary language.

Opening in a café, we find two friends meeting: the proper, well-polished, energetic, and morally superior Monsieur Jean, and the crumpled, hung over, mumbling, and lethargic M. Berenger. M. Jean lays into Berenger immediately, berating his crumpled suit, lack of tie, uncombed hair and unpolished shoes. "Drink allows me to feel myself," Berenger ultimately replies, situating his "debauches" as necessary reactions to a world in which he does not fit. Jean convinces Berenger to eschew his decrepit ways, cultivating a life of the mind, with "everything in moderation," and compels him to swear to himself to develop propriety and energy.
"Rhinoceros." Act 1. 

Around the friends are pleasantries veiling simmering hatred ("Bonjour, Madame!" a shop keeper salutes to a woman carrying a cat, and then in an aside, "She really annoys me!") or sexual desire (an older gentleman assists the woman carrying the cat in collecting spilled goods, later revealed as a means to request her company on a walk), and the scene is suddenly disrupted by the trumpeting and heavy hooves of...a rhinoceros. A second rhinoceros arrives on the scene, trampling the woman's cat, and causing her to keen and wail in grief.

Jean treats the occurance as a violation of decorum, "This is not allowable. We should go to the Council!" reparable by appeals to law, whereas Berenger sees it as a kind of chaos that may be the result of human fallacy (a zoo escape). A conflict ensures between Jean and Berenger over whether the two rhinoceroses were African or Indian, a logician is called in who clarifies the premise of the query but provides no answer, and the two friends part enemies.
"Rhinoceros." Act 1. Photo credit: Ted Minos
In this first scene convention and appearance emerge as social forces of normalization that mask, or are sustained by a kind of violence. Faulty appearance, in Jean's analysis, is symptomatic of a faulty moral character. The rest of the play, which maps the gradual transformation of all village dwellers into rhinoceros', we see the Rhinoceros, as a force for convention, emerge metonymically. One has to accept or desire to become-Rhinoceros.

The relationship between becoming-Rhinoceros and social acceptance becomes evident in the second act. Here, Berenger returns to the office, where an intense argument develops about the reality of the two Rhinoceroses who stormed the town on sunday. Daisy, an office worker and Berenger's love interest, witnessed the event, but repeatedly her testimony is discounted as non existent. Instead, attention is paid to her in demands (to type letters) and in romantic (and unwanted) attentions of the chief, Papillon, who eerily looms over her as she types, running his fingers around the nape of her neck, or putting his cheek alongside hers. Work, and argument, is disrupted when Mme. Boeuf enters to alert the office staff that her husband was out sick and then the M. Boeuf-turned-rhino destroys the office steps. Mme. Boeuf leaps from the office platform onto her husband's back in a display of fidelity.

Later that day Berenger pays a visit to Jean to apologize for their argument. Sitting in a bathrobe with head cover, Jean snorts and grumbles animalistically, slowly turning into a rhinoceros. In his transformation, he equates the rhinoceros with the virile, the powerful, and the normal.

Throughout the play Berenger cultivates the affections of Daisy, and by the third act they are the only remaining humans. Berenger becomes abusive, obsessive, and draining, asking her if his love is enough to resist the call of the rhinoceros, hitting her when she admits to being afraid, and not finding sufficient solace in his arms, and then demands that she take on the role of his Eve to repopulate the human race. in the relationship between Daisy and Berenger she is evoked as a reparative force, something (and someone) he can own, in a manner, to stem his loneliness and fear of...everything. When she notes that there is beauty and power in the rhinocerous he lashes out, demonstrating the danger of a model of romantic love where such love must be All, standing in for a variety of non romantic but nevertheless crucial relationships. Indeed, "Love is egotistical," he announces after they first come together. Romantic love does not make claims on social arrangements, instead, it is a kind of escapism. Frustrated and lonely, Daisy leaves Berenger to join the herd.
"Rhinoceros." Act 3.

The final act shows Berenger surrounded by a herd of human-Rhinos. We see him engage in a logic of convention when he sees that his pale hairy body, forehead without a horn, is abnormal and ugly, and he expresses a longing to transform. At the end, however, he resists, and the play abruptly ends.
"Rhinoceros." Act 3. 

What are we to make of this protagonist who has flat and mumbled affect, an obsessional and occasionally violent relationship to his love object, and who oscillates in his beliefs and proclamations? Berenger is not a hero, and his travails do not offer a neat story about the individual versus convention, nor about the power of love to destroy all obstacles. Instead, what we receive is much murkier. In the long, pedantic arguments throughout the play, there is only a faint frame of civility which underlies a basic aggression, which is articulated in the charging bodies of the rhinoceroses. Convention is underscored by a persistent violence. Yet, we are left with no alternative, seeing a man continue to claim independence against all reason, and in fact, with not reasons given.

The play marks the ultimate failure of reason giving, romantic love, and sociality, and their tenuousness. In a historical moment marked by intense and spectacular violence at a global level, "Rhinoceros" allows us to see the kinds of violence that structure a bourgeois ordinary.

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