It's ironic that a major force behind modern French theater is known by a name given it by an Englishman. The BBC's theater critic Martin Esslin coined the phrase "Theatre of the Absurd" in 1961 to describe the work of such playwrights as Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter, and to convey the feeling of plays that flew in the face of naturalistic or realistic theater. Strongly influenced by Dada, Surrealism, and Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, these playwrights (most of whom were born within a few years of each other) were part of what the French prefer to call the "Theater Nouveau" movement. But then, most of them weren't French to begin with -- Beckett was an Irishman, Ionesco was Romanian-born, Pinter an Englishman. Arthur Adamov was born in Russia, Fernando Arrabal in Spanish Morocco. This most Parisian of currents came together from very geographically diverse sources.
Like other writers of his time (some of whose work we've seen around here lately -- notably Jean Giraudoux and Fernando Arrabal, whose Condemned Man's Bicycle will be part of Exit Theatre's Festival of the Absurd at the end of February), Eugène Ionesco was deeply influenced by war. Also like Arrabal, Ionesco took readily to Kafka's work. The result -- Ionesco's best-known work -- is the farcical Rhinoceros, which just opened in a charming, lucid-dream form on the Berkeley Rep's thrust stage.
Rhinoceros, Ionesco's first real success (his earlier play The Chairs, for example, played to empty houses), has an interesting history. According to some sources, the original story was based on a friend's observation of a Nazi rally, and in his memoir Present Past Past Present, Ionesco describes how his friends are one by one becoming fascists. Around 1940, he wrote, "I spoke to him. He was still a man. Suddenly, beneath my very eyes, I saw his skin get hard and thick in a terrifying way. His gloves, his shoes, became hoofs; his hands became paws, a horn began to grow out of his forehead, he became ferocious, he attacked furiously."
Ionesco would forget that he had made this observation until twenty years later, after he had written Rhinoceros -- which is odd, considering how often the image comes up in his journals, where he also wrote, "The police are rhinoceroses. The judges are rhinoceroses. You are the only man among the rhinoceroses. The rhinoceroses wonder how the world could have been led by men. You yourself wonder: is it true that the world was led by men?"
In Present Past Past Present, Ionesco likens himself to a rock in the middle of a stream. He despaired long and loud of ever making himself understood. As World War II built around him, he was hamstrung by the horror of what was going on; finding it difficult to write, he still managed to produce essays that reveal a deeply thoughtful, compassionate, and humane character. He decried nationalism as a depersonalizing force and voiced his conviction that there is no society, only people. He spoke out against what he saw as Sartre's irresponsibility and the moral deadness of any established ideology. He did not understand the necessity of death, and railed against it unendingly, believing it a terrible miscarriage of justice. Even at the relatively young age of 32, while making journal entries he would later incorporate into Present Past Past Present, he complained of his physical decay and of having crossed the midpoint into old age: "Mountain walls separate us from ourselves once we have a few white hairs; they are the sign that the freezing point has been reached."
It seems then that Rhinoceros, written when Ionesco was 46, is as much a manifestation of this personal terror as a commentary on the dangerous seduction of group-think. Ionesco believed that one could cheat death by refusing to accept it (the scenario behind Exit the King, which came out a few years after Rhinoceros). In Rhinoceros, the transformation from man to rhino is a sort of death, one that Ionesco's character Berenger is determined to resist. Berenger is both an alcoholic Everyman and a proxy for Ionesco himself. He shows up in some form in no fewer than four of Ionesco's plays. At the Rep, he is played to bemused, rumpled perfection by Geoff Hoyle, whose flyaway hair and ill-fitting clothes suggest a man who can barely keep himself together. He's hardly a likely hero, especially compared to his composed friend Jean or the dapper lawyer Dudard. But Hoyle brings to Berenger a quality of mercy and openness, a vulnerability that makes us root for him in his efforts to withstand the plague of rhinoceritis threatening his little French town.
Jarion Monroe is fantastic as Jean. Where Berenger is careless, alcoholic, and diffuse, Jean is well-groomed, orderly, and uptight. His extended transformation into a rhinoceros is especially painful and splendid -- here is the man who insists on decorum, civilization, and self-control growling and pawing at the floor and ripping off his clothes as he explains that the law of nature is preferable to that of man. Even when he is tightly wrapped in a blanket so we can't see the budding horn on his forehead, we know from Jean's voice that some tremendous force is overcoming him. The physical tension between the actors -- who have worked together before in the Rep's Volpone -- is palpable as somehow Monroe gets much larger than Hoyle.
The relationship between Berenger and his love interest Daisy, by contrast, seems highly stylized. It's clear that he's crazy about her, but her admission of love for him doesn't make sense. It's absurdist theater; it's not supposed to be realistic, but there's a lot of emotional truth in this play. Even if the set looks and moves like an oversized ski doing the Frug and people are turning into large, hostile quadrupeds, it's a little strange to watch Daisy go so readily from claiming to be "just a friend" to professing her undying love. Perhaps it's Ionesco's way of making her final decision more dramatic.
Susan Brecht is all sweetness and light as Daisy, a woman so lovely that everything stops the first time she takes the stage. As a glowing idol for poor, faded Berenger, Daisy is the representation of everything that is beautiful about being human. Her transformation marks the point in the last act where he finally seems to give up hope. Which is when director Barbara Damashek makes a daring choice in staging Berenger's last stand. Ionesco wrote Berenger's final speech as an ode to the rhinoceroses, going on about their lovely cool gray-green skin, the beauty of their singing, how pleasant it would be to join them and shake off his ugly human form. Berenger (barely) snaps free of the spell, yelling that he will never join the rhinoceroses. Damashek has Hoyle manifest that transition, a rifle in one hand and a bottle in the other as we hear an ominous thumping against the door.
Ionesco once said that he wrote for the stage because he hated theater, a position reflected in his structures and unconventional dialogue. Some of the conversations in Rhinoceros are just hilarious, such as when the Old Gentleman (Gerald Hiken) and the Logician (Warren Keith) speculate on the intrinsic nature of cats. Ionesco also called for elaborate and bizarre stage effects in his plays -- falling body parts and disintegrating sets, for example. Damashek and her design team don't disappoint; the steeply raked set moves about in an alarming way, springing holes, trapdoors. and windows for people to fall into or out of, and the sound effects and projected images suggesting stampeding rhinoceroses are quite effective.
Damashek adds several sly embellishments -- a dog dressed up as a cat, townspeople bursting spontaneously into song -- that add to the overall sense of unreality. Yet the play is still relevant and accessible and a fine introduction to the Theatre of the Absurd, by whatever name.
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