"When Rhinoceros was produced in Germany, it had fifty curtain calls. The next day the papers wrote, "Ionesco shows us how we became Nazis." But in Moscow, they wanted me to rewrite it and make sure that it dealt with Nazism and not with their kind of totalitarianism. In Buenos Aires, the military government thought it was an attack on Peronism. And in England they accused me of being a petit bourgeois."
We do seem unable to swallow its message whole. Modern commentary fastens on the idea that it is an indictment of "conformity." In San Francisco the conformists, instead of being rhinos, drive SUV's, and Berenger, the lead male character who is the last holdout against the change, is redone as an African-American lesbian. But of course. Nazis, straight society driving SUV's, same thing.
But the art theater world seems unable to just drop the thing, though they have to water it down. Though Ionesco is perhaps the purest exponent of Theater of the Absurd, it is the non-absurdist elements which continue to grip us.
"The Chairs" and "The Lesson" are better written. They are sustained examples of Ionesco's belief that life is meaningless, and his technique of illustrating meaninglessness through word-manipulation. Throughout his work, he uses nonsense syllables, grammar-book sentences, repetition, and punning to show the pointlessness of communication, and thus of existence.
But in "Rhinoceros," the mask falls. The word games are all there (Ionesco is great fun to listen to) -- the Logician patiently expounds with syllogisms, and his conversation with the Old Gentleman intertwines with the dialogue of the other characters onstage, draining meaning from them by imitation. But Ionesco clearly does care what is happening to the village. Rhinoceri are appearing, with brute destruction. Worse, they are not coming from outside the village -- the citizens are turning into rhinos, one by one. In the movie, BTW, Zero Mostel's transformation from human to rhinoceros is magnificent acting.
Ionesco's father was sympathetic to the Iron Guard, a nazi-inspired group in Romania which briefly gained power during WWII. Because of the increasing fascism in Romania in the 30's, Eugene returned to Paris, where he had grown up. Yet in Paris he found the same phenomenon, decent shopkeepers, educated professors, social-climbing housewives, and men of affairs were becoming nazis. Several close friends became enthusiastic fascists, and he moved to Marseilles until the end of the war.
The quintessential absurdist playwright does not find this absurd. Though he retreated after into his agonies of spirit as to whether life has meaning, whether God exists, whether he himself had existence, the reality of his experience breaks through his intellectual maunderings. Ionesco cannot sustain the premise that this change was meaningless. The somewhat autobiographical character of Berenger is someone we root for, and we are clearly meant to. He is not at all like the cutout figures Ionesco populates his other plays with. The playwright may not be able to identify for us exactly what meaning, humanity, and culture are, but he is quite clear that these changes are somehow evil and barbaric.
Some things really are evil, though we wish not to admit it. Some things really are true, though we deny it.
In similar vein, Picasso drew his children realistically and beautifully. He may have insisted on disjointed, cartoonish figures to represent the rest of us -- including himself -- but the truth of real meaning and real beauty forced out the theories.