As a high school kid, I thought Eugène Ionesco was pretty much one of the best writers I had encountered up to that point. He was an entrenched misanthrope with a brutal wit who wasn’t afraid to take on politics, philosophy, and the unfortunate realities of human interaction. And, most importantly to me at that time, one of his sharpest tools was his sense of the absurd. As a teenager who had moved a number of times and changed schools every couple of years, who spent most of her time in her own head or with her nose in books, and who was grappling with depression and a latent queerness, absurdity made perfect sense to me. The world outside of my head was excruciatingly absurd and twisted to me then, and most of the time I hated it and assumed it hated me right back. Ionesco was perfect.
Of course, comparing the mindset of a malcontented suburban American teenager to that of an early-20th-century Romanian writer who shuttled numerous times between Romania and France, and who came to the fore as a playwright in his late 30s during the aftermath of World War II, is itself a bit absurd. But where and when a work of art resonates is thankfully free of the need for direct connection or similar viewpoint — that’s kind of the point, right? Art offers us the chance to look at the world through someone else’s eyes for a few minutes; it offers us the chance to relate to an unfamiliar perspective.
I bring all this up because, based on anecdotal evidence and a quick troll of the internet, it still seems to be true, as it was during my teenage years, that the vast majority of contemporary productions of Ionesco’s work take place in high schools and colleges. Which can likely be said of many plays, but makes particular sense with Ionesco’s work. They are not easy plays to put on, and digging into existentialism and early-20th-century absurdist art as an adult can be quite tricky, as you can easily end up sounding a little too much like that guy in the back row in philosophy class, but even more ridiculous because you’re a grown-up. But one of the main points of youth is to really allow yourself to fully steep in the ideas that excite, interest, and enrage you; Ionesco offers a fantastic, imaginative, and lively way to explore a lot of those ideas.
So I was excited and interested to see the production of Rhinoceros that’s now on at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mot. Demarcy-Mota is the artistic director of Théâtre de la Ville, one of France’s major theaters, located in Paris and opened at roughly the same time as BAM in the 1860s. Rhinoceros is a play that’s rarely produced professionally, even among the works of Ionesco, and it presents a major directorial challenge for those who decide to take it on: the director must decide if and how to show a man turning into a rhinoceros on stage during a long scene in the middle of the play. That problem alone can bring out a number of curious theater-goers. But the more interesting questions for this particular production have to do with how a play that is ostensibly about the conforming power of fascism resonates in 21st-century America.
Demarcy-Mota’s production is aesthetically spare, though the set is comprised of a fairly complex group of gridded set pieces that fit together and come apart at various moments in the show. Layers of curtain and scrim and translucent glass give the ominous sense that you are not fully seeing everything that is happening, that details are hidden, and that there is perhaps yet another layer further back where some darker truth lies. And Demarcy-Mota’s choice to have the large cast hovering and quietly milling about outside the starkly rendered café throughout the entire first scene increases the tension that sustains and builds throughout the show. It’s rare in theater for a director to be able to maintain a suspenseful tension throughout a production; it risks tiring audiences and diminishing the rises and falls that are necessary in dramatic action. But there’s no question that I found myself slightly on edge throughout this show.
The play follows the two main characters — the willful intellectual Jean and the simple drunk Bérenger. In the opening scene, as they begin to argue over Bérenger’s drunken tardiness, a rhinoceros charges through the square where the café is set, eventually stomping a woman’s cat to death. The action then unfolds as the townspeople band together around the rhinoceros problem, which slowly spreads, because it turns out that people are actually transforming into the large horned animals. Bérenger and Jean’s relationship splinters as they begin to argue again later in the play, this time about the moral and intellectual implications of the rhinoceros problem. From there a series of climactic scenes take place in which one of the two friends falls victim to the rhinoceritis and the other ends up with the woman he loves, the only two humans left in town. It’s an allegory of sorts for the ways in which ideas and philosophies can become instruments of control instead of methods of inquiry, and for the ways that corrupt political dogmas can literally turn those who embrace them into destructive weapons wielded by those in power.
In 21st-century America, it’s no question that the parallel many would want to draw is to the fear and hate-mongering rhetoric spewed daily by political conservatives. But in the context of a French production written in the 1950s about the theories and false intellectualism that undergirded many of the fascist and communist regimes of that time, we have to recognize that both conservatives and liberals have fallen prey to their own destructive rhetoric at various times and places in history. Not to mention that in contemporary America, it’s difficult to draw direct parallels to the play because so much of what’s happening today is a deliberate attempt by people across the political spectrum to downplay or outright deny the importance or even existence of theory, intellect, or ideas in politics. So while it’s tempting to connect the play directly with contemporary American conservatives, it doesn’t quite line up.
The most striking corollary to our time is the notion that the people who thoughtlessly fall in line with corrupt leaders are not the pliant sheep they are so often made out to be; they are, in fact, lumbering and dangerous beasts that don’t even realize how frightening and destructive they have become. It is that image from this production that will stay in my mind for some time.
It’s not an easy production: the heightened tension and amplified anger, plus the need for many viewers to look constantly at the projected translations in order to keep up with the rapid-fire French dialogue, make it a bit exhausting to watch. But one of the most intensely successful moments is when we see the quietly roiling image of the rhinos standing in the shadows, their eyes glinting in the little bit of light on their faces, as the last two people left in the play try to decide which way to take their future amidst so many inhuman beasts.
Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros continues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through October 6. Tickets and showtimes are available online.