The American Film Theatre's first three filmed plays were straightforward transcriptions of the original play scripts. But Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros received a different treatment. The script was tampered with. New scenes were added, old dialogue was cut. Names and settings were Americanized, and pop music was introduced. The flavor of Ionesco's work was lost. Director Tom O'Horgan transformed Ionesco's forceful drama of the Absurd into a banal comedy.
The Theater of the Absurd is based on an alliance of ideology and form which demonstrates the cultural isolation of modern man. The assumption behind the movement is that man has been cut off from the religious faith and the certitudes of the past. All of his actions are senseless. They have no context. In line with this ideology, the dramatists of the Absurd school have rejected the rational dramatic devices of traditional theater. Blatant incongruity and senselessness replace familiar logical forms. Simple stage sets become the best representation of the modern world.
Ionesco's play, originally set in a small French village, has been transported in the film version to "Anywhere, U.S.A." O'Horgan and Julian Barry, writer of the screenplay, seem to assume that's the only way we can relate to the plot. Americanization of the French names, and a pop music score by Galt MacDermot (Hair) are further attempts at relevancy. If the play really has meaning, it should be able to transcend time and locale.
But Ionesco does have something to tell us in his play. The power of his message derives from a universality which O'Horgan's Americanization can only demean. The play is about conformity. At the end of the story only Stanley (Gene Wilder) remains a human being. Everyone else in the town has been inflicted with rhinoceritis, a mysterious disease which changes them into snorting, thick-skinned rhinos. Originally the beasts are an anomaly in the town. But they become more and more appealing to the people. The human beings yearn to become rhinoceroses. The comfort of conformity becomes more attractive than the responsibilities of individualism. So one by one, the people of the town succumb to the lure of the mindless pact. Even Stanley's saccharine girl friend Daisy (Karen Black) and his best friend John (Zero Mostel) go over to the side of the rhinos. Only Stanley resists. He becomes the anomaly.
Ionesco described the play as an anti-Nazi drama. But, more broadly, it exposes the collective hysteria that lies beneath the thin veneer of reason covering modern society. The play is still more complex than a simple attack on mindless conformity. It questions what resistance to conformity really means. Because he resists rhinoceritis, Stanley appears to be a hero at the end. But there is an ambiguous quality to his heroism. When he realizes he is the only human left in the town, his resistance to the disease momentarily weakens. He begins to think it might be nice to be a rhinoceros. It seems the thing to do. Stanley begins snorting, in a desperate attempt to turn into a beast. But he can not change, so his final assertion of individuality has both a heroic and a sour-grapes kind of defiance about it.
The film does have some funny scenes. Zero Mostel's characterization of a fastidious gentleman, slowly changing into a rhinoceros before our eyes, is wonderful. His extraordinary facial expressions and contortions transform him into a wild, snorting beast. He begins charging around his bedroom smashing furniture and eating plants. Unfortunately, though this transformation scene is funny, and Mostel is at his absurd best, the scene is just too long and gimmicky. O'Horgan's determination to make the play a conventional comedy ruins the scene. It's always fun to exploit Mostel's talent. But long comic scenes which rely on conventional slapstick devices and stock audience responses have no place in Theater of the Absurd. Slapstick comedy is part of the audience's comfortable and familiar world which Theater of the Absurd sets out to shatter.
O'Horgan hangs a portrait of Nixon over Mostel's bed, and cuts away to it throughout Mostel's transformation. This isn't funny. It's just another gimmick to make the theme of political conformity seem more relevant to us. We're not such thick-skinned rhinos that we need such pointed, heavy-handed reminders.
Wilder is a properly meek and appropriately gentle Stanley. Like Mostel, he makes the most of his watered-down part. His big scene, the final assertion of his humanity, is blighted by the same gimmickry that plagues Mostel's transformation scene. Having acknowledged that he can never become a rhinoceros, Wilder climbs to the top of a tall building and looks out over the town of animals. O'Horgan's camera frames him against a blue sky, he lights a cigarette, music surges up in the background. What is meant to be a moving assertion of man's dignity ends up looking like a Marlboro ad.
O'Horgan, who has directed Absurd plays before, says that "The 'absurd' style has always rested uneasily with the naturalism of film." His production has not made a very successful accomodation of the two. The banal absurdity of his comedy version of Rhinoceros is amusing, but forceless. Relying on traditional comic routines and gimmickry, O'Horgan's film hardly approaches the stark abstraction of reality and denial of convention demanded by real Theater of the Absurd. He has made an absurd film of a good play, not a good film of an Absurd play. The American Film Theatre should have stayed out of the rhinoceros business.