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«Rhinoceros Background Pack Contents About the production 2 Synopsis of the play 3 About the writer: Eugene Ionesco 5 Ionesco and Berenger 6 Ionesco ...»

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Background Pack


About the production 2

Synopsis of the play 3

About the writer:

Eugene Ionesco 5

Ionesco and Berenger 6

Ionesco on theatre 7

About the play:

Writing the play 8

Ionesco on Rhinoceros 9

Historical background 10

Rehearsal diary 11

A writer’s view 15


Dominic Cooke 16 Benedict Cumberbatch 18 Zawe Ashton 20

Classroom activities:

Writing activities 22 Design challenge 24 Movement exercises 25 Useful links 27 © Royal Court Theatre, 2007 About the production Housewife JACQUELINE DEFFERARY Grocer Woman / Madame Boeuf ALWYNE TAYLOR Jean JASPER BRITTON Berenger BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH Waitress CLAIRE PREMPEH Grocer / Dudard PAUL CHAHIDI Old Gentleman / Papillon GRAHAM TURNER Logician MICHAEL BEGLEY Cafe Boss / Fireman DAVID HINTON Daisy ZAWE ASHTON Botard LLOYD HUTCHINSON Director DOMINIC COOKE Designer ANTHONY WARD Lighting Designer JOHANNA TOWN Sound Designer IAN DICKINSON Composer GARY YERSHON Movement Director SUE LEFTON Assistant Director LYNDSEY TURNER Casting Director AMY BALL Production Manager PAUL HANDLEY Stage Manager BA PENNEY Deputy Stage Manager TAMARA ALBACHARI Assistant Stage Manager CHARLOTTE NEWELL Costume Supervisor IONA KENRICK First performance at Royal Court Theatre on 21 September 2007 © Royal Court Theatre, 2007, Synopsis of the play Act 1 Rhinoceros begins in a small town square where Jean, a refined young man, meets his semi-alcoholic and fully apathetic friend, Berenger, for a drink. Jean reprimands Berenger for his drinking habits and his aimlessness. Soon, a rhinoceros runs through the square, shocking all the townspeople with the exception of the indifferent Berenger. Jean lectures Berenger about willpower while a Logician explains the concept of a syllogism to an old man. Berenger tells Jean that he has a crush on Daisy, a typist at his office, but worries that she favours Dudard, an up-and-coming co-worker. Jean recommends willpower and cultural self-improvement to garner Daisy's affections. Another rhino rushes by and tramples a cat. The townspeople debate whether or not it was the same rhino and what breed it was. Berenger and Jean get in a fight over the physical specifics of the rhino, and Jean storms off after calling Berenger a drunkard. The townspeople ask the Logician to clear up confusion. The townspeople vow to stop the rhinos. Berenger expresses remorse for fighting with Jean, then says he's too upset to culture himself as planned and instead drinks.

Act 2, Scene 1

In Berenger's office, Daisy and Dudard argue with Botard, a sceptic who doesn't believe in the rhinos. Berenger arrives late, but Daisy sneaks him in. The employees ask Berenger if he saw the rhino.

Botard claims the illusory appearance of the rhino is an example of "collective psychosis." They return to work, proof-reading law proposals, and wonder where co-worker Mr. Boeuf is. Mrs. Boeuf rushes in and says her husband is sick and will be back in a few days.

She tells them that she was just chased by a rhino, which is now downstairs. The rhino crushes the staircase it tries to ascend, stranding the workers. Mrs. Boeuf recognizes the rhino as her husband. Daisy telephones the fire station to rescue them. The men give Mrs. Boeuf practical advice for dealing with this setback, but she is too devoted to her rhino-husband and vows to stay with him. She jumps down to the ground floor and rides off on his back. More rhinos are reported in the town. The firemen arrive to help them out the window. Botard vows he'll solve the rhino-riddle. Berenger passes on an offer to drink with Dudard so he can visit Jean.

© Royal Court Theatre, 2007 Act 2, Scene 2 Jean coughs in bed at home. Berenger visits and apologizes for their argument the previous day. Jean's voice grows more hoarse, a bump on his nose continues to grow, and his skin gets greener by the moment. Berenger informs him of Mr. Boeuf's transformation, which Jean applauds. He moves in and out of the bathroom, each time appearing and sounding more like a rhino. He tries to run down Berenger, apologizes, and runs into the bathroom. Berenger is about to escape, but follows Jean into the bathroom to help him. Off-stage in the bathroom, Jean attacks Berenger. Berenger escapes and closes the bathroom door behind him (but is pierced by a rhino horn) as Jean, now a full-blown rhino, tries to break free. Berenger alerts the tenants in the building to the rhino's presence in the building, but everyone else has transformed as well. Berenger looks out the window, where a herd of rhinos march. The bathroom door is on the verge of breaking.

Act 3

Berenger wakes up from a nightmare in his room and inspects himself for any signs of rhinoceritis. Dudard visits and they discuss Jean's transformation. Dudard considers the metamorphoses natural, while Berenger continues to find them abnormal. A herd of rhinos passes and Berenger vows not to become one as well. Daisy visits Berenger, which makes Dudard jealous. Daisy appears not to care too deeply about the epidemic. She informs them that Botard has turned into a rhinoceros. Berenger can't believe it, but then later rationalizes it.

They start to have lunch, but are interrupted by a crumbling wall outside. The fire station has been destroyed, and the firemen have turned into rhinos. Dudard leaves; he wants to experience the epidemic first-hand. Berenger tries to stop him, but Daisy lets him go.

Dudard soon turns into a rhino outside. Daisy reminds Berenger that they have no right to interfere in other's lives. She pours some brandy for Berenger and removes his bandage — still no signs of a transformation. The phone rings, but they hear only rhino trumpeting on the line. They turn to the radio for help, but the rhinos have taken that over, as well.

Daisy believes they must adapt to their new neighbours, but Berenger proposes they regenerate the human race, like Adam and Eve. The noise of the rhinos becomes more musical to Daisy, though Berenger still finds it savage and argues with her. Daisy breaks up with him and leaves. Berenger barricades his room and plugs his ears. He inspects photographs and cannot recognize any of his former friends — but he does identify himself. He envies the bodies of the rhinos, but at the brink of desperation, he nevertheless decides that he will fight the rhinos.

© Royal Court Theatre, 2007

–  –  –

© Royal Court Theatre, 2007 Ionesco and Berenger When asked whether Berenger, the central character in Rhinoceros, was supposed to be taken as a dramatic representation of Ionesco himself, the writer answered coyly “perhaps there’s some resemblance there”. Even the most cursory glance at Ionesco’s biography reveals striking similarities between the playwright and the character who would go on to intrigue and infuriate audiences across the globe.

Between 1948 and 1955, Ionesco worked as a proofreader in the offices of a publishing company which specialised in law books. Like Ionesco, Berenger rails against ideologies, group-think and political slogans, fearing the might of the rhinoceroses and vowing to fight them until the end. But for all of his protestations, Berenger is far from heroic: instead he is almost comically naïve, a meek apologetic clerk who “defies totalitarian hysteria and refuses to become part of the monstrous phenomenon of massification”.

A character called Berenger appears in four of Ionesco’s plays: Rhinoceros, The

Killer, Exit the King and A Stroll in the Air. The character was ‘born’ in The Killer:

although he loses his life at the end of that play, he rises again in Rhinoceros. In Exit the King Berenger is a tragicomic sovereign, a petit bourgeois tyrant who refuses to die without some insight into the meaning of death. In A Stroll in the Air Berenger, now a writer, returns from outer space with the sad report that the worlds beyond offer no better hope than man’s miserable lot here. From one play to the next, Berenger remains true to himself, a recognizable Ionesco type.

But Ionesco himself was keen to show that Berenger is more than merely “a specialist in survival”. The playwright sees in Berenger a ‘modern man’, a character seeking spiritual vitality and freedom of choice, resistant to tyranny and

repelled by conformity:

Berenger is, I hope, above all a character. And if he is timeresistant, 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 Berenger may seem passive, but his very reluctance to make decisions, to be a leader, protects him from getting involved in ideological struggle that Ionesco dramatises in Rhinoceros. Indeed, his indecision and empathy eventually become the source of a kind of strength.

© Royal Court Theatre, 2007

Ionesco on theatre Ionesco wrote his first play, The Bald Prima Donna, in 1948. He gave his early works for theatre the title anti-pièce (anti-plays): this was an attempt to suggest a practical protest against all current forms of theatre, rather than a serious attempt to propose a ‘new’ theatre.

Ionesco disliked conventional French drama because of its refusal to

embrace the subconscious or evoke an imaginative truth:

Bourgeois drama is magic drama, spellbinding, drama that asks the audience to identify itself with the heroes of the play, drama of participation. Anti-bourgeois drama is a drama of non-participation. A bourgeois public falls into the trap.

The writer claimed that he hated going to the theatre as a child because it gave him "no pleasure or feeling of participation". In particular, felt embarrassed by the prevailing style of acting popular in the post-war French theatre, claiming “acting is a sort of exhibitionism I do not like”.

Ionesco’s first plays could have been written to be performed by puppets. The words he used were deliberately divested of meaning and his characters were emptied of psychology. He later admitted that these plays were written as pages of dialogue, with no visualisation of the room in which the action might take place. For this reason, critics and scholars interpreted his works as ‘absurdist’, and he was repeatedly reproached for failing to include a social, Marxist or Brechtian message in his plays. Ionesco’s response was characterisatically economic: “I believe that the writer shouldn’t deliver messages because he isn’t a postman”.

Ionesco was profoundly uncomfortable with the term ‘absurdism’: “I find that the name Theatre of the Absurd which has been glued on to us is absolutely meaningless — all theatre is absurd.” However, the writer remained fascinated by the artificiality of theatre and its potential to

present a distorted or subjective version of reality:

It was not for me to conceal the devices of the theatre, but rather make them still more evident, deliberately obvious, go all out for caricature and the grotesque, way beyond the pale irony of witty drawing room comedies.

Gradually, Ionesco came to realise that “dialogue is only a small part of

a play”. Rhinoceros marks a real development in his style as a dramatist:

for perhaps the first time, Ionesco writes characters with a plausible psychology, and uses the conventions of the traditional theatre to tell a story about protest and conformity.

© Royal Court Theatre, 2007

Writing the play Rhinoceros was first written as a short story, published in 1957 in a volume called The Colonel’s Daughter, before being adapted into a three act play. Both the play and the story that acted as its prototype operate on a highly metaphorical level. Although Ionesco refused to identify the animals in his play as either Fascist or Communist, claiming that they represent authority in all of its horrific glory, the playwright’s own diary entries provide an interesting insight into the

origins of Rhinoceros:

We must go back to the time when I was a young man in Romania. I was amazed to witness the total conversation to fascism of everyone around me. It did not happen overnight of course; it was a gradual process.

Little by little, everyone – the professional men, the intellectuals, the so-called liberals – found sufficient reason to join the party in power. You would run into an old friend, and all of a sudden, under your very eyes, he would begin to change. It was as if his gloves became paws, his shoes hoofs. You could no longer talk intelligently with him for he was not a rational human being … I often felt that I was the last human being left in the world, among creatures of some other genus. Not that I belonged to a superior kind, or race, but that a strange responsibility had befallen me, the most insignificant of creatures, that of remaining who I was, a human … In my early journal entries, written when I was still in Romania, I said that all around me men were metamorphosed into beasts, rhinoceroses. I forgot these notes, jotted down in an old notebook. After I completed the short story on which the play is based, and then this play, I happened to come across this ancient entry. I was astounded to discover that the central image had come to me in 1940.

The diary entry to which Ionesco refers, reads: “The Police are rhinoceroses. The Magistrates are rhinoceroses. You are the only man among the rhinoceroses. The rhinoceroses ask themselves how the world can have been run by mane. You ask yourself: is it true the world once was run by men”.

Some years before writing Rhinoceros, Ionesco read the diaries of writer Denis de Rougemont, who was living in Nuremberg during

1936. The diaries 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."

© Royal Court Theatre, 2007

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