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Eugene Ionesco’s Play Rhinoceros As An Allegory For The Uprising Of Fascism And Nazism

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Growing up in 1920’s and 30’s Romania, Eugene Ionesco experienced the uprising of the powerful Iron Guard movement before and during World War II. This in turn aided him with creating one of the most well-known pieces in the Theatre of the Absurd as the entire play of Rhinoceros serves as an allegory for the uprising and fascism and Nazism.

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The extract on page 78 – 81 takes place at Jean’s apartment as he begins transforming into a rhinoceros. Jean goes into the bedroom and comes back out greener than ever and frightens Berenger. His voice is hoarser as his breathing gets heavy as he becomes more cynic and reclusive towards humanity. Jean exclaims that humanity is all washed up and rubbish. Berenger is trying to help Jean after it seems he is becoming ill. Berenger wants to call a doctor for Jean but he forbids it as he “can’t stand obstinate people”. Jean seems to be justifying turning into a rhinoceros and as Berenger watches Jean become one himself. He says that “rhinoceros are living creatures the same as us; they’ve got as much right to life as we have!”

Throughout the extract Berenger is trying to understand what’s happening to Jean and trying to get him some help. Berenger is only concerned about his friend but Jean speaks to Berenger with a harsh and condescending tone as he continuously interrupts and snaps back at him. Berenger tells Jean that “as long as they don’t destroy ours [life] in the process. You must admit the difference in mentality.” At this point Jean is pacing up and down the room and in and out of the bathroom taking things the wrong way as Berenger speaks to him. Jean expresses that he’s sick of moral standards and must go above them. He agrees that they should replace their moral laws by the laws in the jungle and that they’ve “got to build our life on new foundations. We must get back our primeval integrity”, he’s beginning to sound more and more like an animal, a rhinoceros. Berenger doesn’t agree with him and is trying to get him to snap out of it. He says, “Just think a moment. You must admit that we have a philosophy that animals don’t share, and an irreplaceable set of values, which it’s taken centuries of human civilization to build up…” however Jean thinks they’ll be better off once they’ve demolished all of that. When Jean expresses that “humanism is all washed up” and with the rhinoceroses taking over, it means the death of identity and individuality. One of the most important features in this extract is when Jean’s voice changes. A human’s voice signifies individuality and uniqueness, something that other species on this planet don’t have.

Most of Eugene Ionesco’s literary works are a part of Theatre of the Absurd. This type of theatre reflects a time when the precariousness of human existence was palpable and of an era of spiritual emptiness. It was a time where the world had become frightening and an illogical place where life had lost all meaning and human existence seemed pointless (Chamberlain).

Eugene Ionesco was a Romanian-born French dramatist and was born in Slatina, Romania in 1909. As an ultra-nationalist Romanian Orthodox, his father was willing to support whichever party was in power. Ionesco’s mother, a French Protestant of Jewish decent, converted to Calvinism growing up. His childhood was spent in France but he moved back to Romania as a teenager as well as to study at the University of Bucharest. This was between 1925 and 1933 as Romania became more anti-Semitic. Ionesco remained in danger despite only being part Jewish when the forceful fascist movement called the Iron Guard grew in power (Britannica). As Ionesco grew up, he watched his friends and colleagues become fascinated by the Iron Guard with its anti-Western and anti-Semitic rhetoric. In 1970 he recalled this period of time in an interview and said that university professors, students were becoming Nazi – were become part of the fascist movement. He said that him and 15 of his peers would get together and discuss opposing viewpoints but from time to time, one of them would say something like “I don’t agree at all with them to be sure, but on certain points, nevertheless, I must admit, for example the Jews…”, a symptom of Rhinoceritis. He said that three weeks later, that person would get caught in the mechanism, accept everything and become a rhinoceros.

With Ionesco’s personal experience with the fascist movement as a young man, it aided him with creating a very meaningful and deep allegory in Rhinoceros. The entire play and its absurdity serve as an allegory for the uprising and fascism and Nazism before and during the Second World War. 

09 March 2021

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