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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
by Eugene lonesco directed by Matthew Gentzkow
at the Loeb X
April 14, 15, 16
In 1938 A French writer named Denis de Rougemont attended a Nazi rally in Nuremburg and recorded a stunning experience. The long-awaited arrival of Adolf Hitler threw the crowd into a frenzy. Screams of delight mounted to a ferver pitch as the man drew nearer, until the surging mass of the people gave way to utter hysteria. Rougemont felt something uncontrollable stir within him--the thrill of mass hysteria--and so powerful was the feeling that he almost succumbed. But something withing him rebelled. Ionesco relates Rougemont's story with curiosity in his notes from November 1960; "just then it was not his mind that resisted, not arguments formulated in his brain, but his whole being, his whole personality that bridled." Fascinated by the singularity of Rougemont's experience, Ionesco determined to write about this phenomenon as "rhinoceritis" in a fresh interpretation of Nazi Germany. The result, "Rhinoceros," opened around the world to an eager public that wanted to know how Nazism could spread so virulently through a country; with as strong a humanist and philosophical traditions as Germany.
Today the question has been muted with time; few other than historians debate the peculiar forces that usurped the rationality and strength of will of so many Germans to the extent that they tolerated Hitler and his agenda. Endless theorizing on the root causes of the Nazi psychological and emotional plague unearths a sad legacy of suffering that did not end with World War Two, but has continued to haunt the European psyche for decades. The broader public has left these questions behind, though, and in many ways the rediscovery of Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" now serves only as retrospective on the recently deceased playwright, rather than a powerful psychological exploration which resonates with modern as well as war-scarred audiences.
Ionesco's conception of "rhinoceritis" remains suffused with moral and practical implications although it strives only to investigate the personal motivations and character failures that made Nazism possible. That a whole town of provincial but well-intentioned and essentially good people could succumb to propagandistic slogans and mental manipulation seized on Ionesco's imagination because of the unusual instances of people who resisted. What they had that saved them spiritually remains impossible to define, but through the hypothetical exercise of Rhinoceros, Ionesco explores some of the features of those who fell under the spell and those who did not. Berenger (Dan Goor) is a simple, middle-class alcoholic who fights to keep his friends from turning into rhinos when an invasion of the horned mammals threatens to transform everyone in town. The disease, as Berenger sees it, can be conquered by sheer willpower, so he encourages his best friend, Jean (Chris Terrio) not to give in, not to want "rhinoceritis." But as more of his friends begin chanting empty slogans and droning justification for a new way of life, Berenger slowly realizes that apathy and indecision are likely the disease to take over.
Generally inquisitive undercurrents, thoroughly explored and flushed out by director Matthew Gentzkow and company, nevertheless remain too speculative to sustain interest for generations who have only briefly confronted the question in a classroom. There is no overriding human interest to support Ionesco's theme except on a purely historical level, and although history has universal appeal, Ionesco's themes are tortured by the spirit of what the Germans call "Trummerliteratur," or "The Literature of Ruins." The subject is specific and dated, the tone relentlessly grim and the dialogue turgid and frenetic, desperately trying to solve a psychological puzzle that perhaps has no answer.
Ultimately Ionesco must resign, defeated by the complexity of the monster he tries to describe. Innumerable counterpoints between what is rationality and what is naivete, subversion and loyalty, principle and experimentation, illusion and distortion are too much to sort out. Ionesco deliberately muddles his discussions with multiple speakers all declaiming at once, and the simple absurdity of people metamorphosing into thick-skinned pachyderms all testify to his won uncertainty. The effect is a mood of irrationality and mayhem as close to the experience of a real Nazi town as can be imagined. Today his vision nags like a trauma sustained too long ago to recall clearly, haunting audiences like a repressed memory of extreme violence.
Ultimately the play is further complicated by Ionesco's inability to be succinct. His own direction suggests human rhinos roaming about the stage while Berenger goes on for pages and pages struggling with the invasive political disease that threatens his humanity. Ionesco's script is extremely challenging, yet well-executed by both cast and crew (despite a few slow set changes). For two and a half hours Goor, Ben Davis and Alexis Susman admirably sustain all the energy and intensity their frantic plight requires as they try to stave off the advancing rhinos. But Berenger's ambiguous triumph in the final is delayed by excessive monologue that returns again and again to circular questions already addressed throughout the play.
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