A Play for Our Time: Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”

Cover art for Ionesco’s book “Rhinoceros”

When theatergoers in Dusseldorf, Germany sat down one October evening in 1959 to watch the world premiere of Eugene Ionesco’s latest work, they witnessed a strange, new kind of play: rhinoceroses charging through a provincial European town, townspeople themselves turning into rhinoceroses, a whole society transforming rapidly from human to beast, and, at the end, only one man standing to assert his humanity.

The Dusseldorf audience gave Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” a 10-minute standing ovation, and in the years that followed, the play made its way to Paris, London, New York, and other cities around the world. Sixty-five years later, “Rhinoceros” remains a play for our time – perhaps more so than ever – serving as both a warning and a goad to a nation in political crisis.

For “Rhinoceros” is, in large measure, about the rapid rise of fascism in Ionesco’s native Romania during the 1930s – and the seductive pull it exerted on its people. Since then it’s been widely taken as a parable about the lure of authoritarianism anywhere.

In Romania, the Depression placed intense economic and political pressures on civil society, and many Romanians found themselves drawn to the Legion of the Archangel Michael, a fascist movement that blended mystical devotion to the Romanian fatherland with antisemitism and a belief in the redemptive power of violence. The Legion, also known as the Iron Guard, engaged in political assassinations and pogroms, and grew to become, proportionately, the third largest fascist movement in Europe at the time.

Though its leader, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, was murdered in 1938, the Iron Guard continued to play a significant role in the nation’s affairs for several more years, and Romania ultimately entered into an alliance with Nazi Germany, Italy, and other Axis powers in 1940.

By reading or viewing “Rhinoceros” today, one can see that the play is not so much about the horrors of fascism as it is about the vulnerability of people to its seductions. Some of the play’s characters, distracted by petty concerns, succumb out of sheer incomprehension of what is happening around them. Others are drawn to the energy and even beauty of the newly transmogrified beasts. Others surrender gratefully, welcoming a sense of belonging to what they see as “the great universal family.”

As a young writer in the 1930’s, Ionesco witnessed personally how the Iron Guard attracted people from all walks of life, including intellectuals. As he later recounted, a friend or acquaintance would say to him, “I don’t agree with them [the Iron Guard] to be sure, but on certain points, nevertheless, I must admit, for example, the Jews . . . .”.

To Ionesco, such a statement foreshadowed transformation, and, as he later explained, the person would soon “become a Nazi. He was caught in the mechanism, he accepted everything, he became a rhinoceros.”

Today authoritarianism exerts a powerful temptation in the U.S. More than a few journalists have reported on interviews with Trump followers who extol the man’s “authenticity” and “singular strength,” qualities that uniquely empower him to redress the nation’s ills, including (for many) the deep sense of losing ground, whether that be one’s economic or social standing.

The authoritarian temptation has, moreover, been abetted by Republican leaders. When 139 Republican Congress members voted on January 6, 2021 to dispute the Electoral College count for the 2020 presidential election, they drew on the falsehood of a stolen election to throw out the one key value anchoring the Party to American democratic tradition. That value is the willingness to accept a lost election.

It may appear, therefore, that authoritarian rule in America is more imminent than ever: that warning signals emanating from Ionesco’s play are flashing more unmistakably in the U.S. than they ever have been.

Yet one can’t completely overlook the strengths still inhering in a mature, evolving democracy, a democracy that benefited over many years from movements seeking to advance human rights along with racial, economic, and gender equality. A commitment to democracy by countless individuals helped hold the line in the 2020 election. A commitment to democracy brought justice to two Georgia poll workers falsely accused by then-President Trump and Rudy Giuliani of election fraud, and subjected to death threats and other harassment as a result. Taking on the Trump campaign, those workers, Wandrea “Shaye” Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, were ultimately vindicated in a defamation suit that awarded them $148 million in damages against Giuliani.

Eugene Ionesco once said, “we will never understand totalitarianism if we do not understand that people rarely have the strength to be uncommon.” Perhaps, by the same token, we will never understand genuine democracy unless we comprehend the unforeseen possibilities of becoming uncommon – and the way that some artists can help goad us toward that end.

Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.