Ionesco’s Receives a Resounding Worldwide Reception Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Eugène Ionesco vividly confronted the audiences of Rhinoceros with the absurdities of social and political conformity in light of what he portrayed as the senselessness and irrationality of life.

Summary of Event

In order to understand the work of Eugène Ionesco, it is necessary to examine several factors that heavily influenced the theater prior to his writing Rhinocéros (1959; Rhinoceros, 1959). When Alfred Jarry wrote Ubu roi Ubu roi (Jarry) (pr. 1896), it represented the earliest example of expressionism or absurdism in the theater. August Strindberg followed in 1902 with A Dream Play. After World War I, there was a distinctive movement against realism. The movement was labeled expressionism Theater;expressionism Expressionism (theater) , because it did not imitate reality but instead sought to have audiences become emotionally involved with the dramatic action of a production. The expressionist playwrights assumed that people’s problems were a result of society. Bertolt Brecht Brecht, Bertolt , the perfecter of “epic theater,” embraced expressionism for a period of time before moving on to his work with epic drama through the Berliner Ensemble. Rhinoceros (Ionesco) Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Theater of the Absurd [kw]Ionesco’s Rhinoceros Receives a Resounding Worldwide Reception (Oct. 31, 1959)[Ionescos Rhinoceros] [kw]Rhinoceros Receives a Resounding Worldwide Reception, Ionesco’s (Oct. 31, 1959) Rhinoceros (Ionesco) Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Theater of the Absurd [g]Europe;Oct. 31, 1959: Ionesco’s Rhinoceros Receives a Resounding Worldwide Reception[06220] [g]Germany;Oct. 31, 1959: Ionesco’s Rhinoceros Receives a Resounding Worldwide Reception[06220] [g]West Germany;Oct. 31, 1959: Ionesco’s Rhinoceros Receives a Resounding Worldwide Reception[06220] [c]Theater;Oct. 31, 1959: Ionesco’s Rhinoceros Receives a Resounding Worldwide Reception[06220] Ionesco, Eugène Apollinaire, Guillaume Artaud, Antonin Camus, Albert Esslin, Martin Sartre, Jean-Paul[Sartre, Jean Paul] Jarry, Alfred

Surrealism Surrealism was a vital force in the theater during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Surrealists were convinced that reality could be grasped only at an unconscious level and through irrationality. Representative playwrights of this movement include Guillaume Apollinaire (The Breasts of Tiresias, 1917) and Jean Cocteau (Orpheus, 1926).

There were three important developments outside the theater that influenced Ionesco. First, the scientific work of Charles Darwin Evolution convinced Ionesco that the world was constantly changing and people were part of the evolutionary process in the animal kingdom. Second, the economic philosophy of Karl Marx Marxism proved to Ionesco that the rich and powerful received more power and the poor simply got nothing. The third development was Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalysis “psychic” determinism, which led Ionesco to believe that people act as a result of irrational and unconscious fears and motives.

Two existential philosophers and playwrights provided the ideological foundations for the work of Ionesco. Albert Camus wrote that people’s lives are separated from themselves, resulting in a feeling of absurdity. Camus illustrated this great divorce in his allegorical work Le Mythe de Sisyphe Myth of Sisyphus, The (Camus) (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955). Jean-Paul Sartre, not unlike Camus, found that the world was filled with chaos. Sartre’s Huis clos No Exit (Sartre) (pr. 1944, pb. 1945; In Camera, 1946; better known as No Exit, 1947) is a play in which the characters search for meaning in their lives through meaningless relationships. In his book The Theatre of the Absurd Theatre of the Absurd, The (Esslin) (1961), Martin Esslin identified the antirealism movement he called absurdism. The movement’s major writers include Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter.

Ionesco’s play La Cantatrice chauve Bald Soprano, The (Ionesco) (wr. 1948, pr. 1950, pb. 1954; The Bald Soprano, 1956) epitomizes Ionesco’s work during the 1950’s. The play is a parody of the absurdism found in the existing society. Ionesco uses clichés of language and thought to underscore the absurdity of human irrationality. Ionesco attacked people’s tendency to conform to sociopolitical pressures in the bizarre and hilarious play Rhinoceros. Throughout the play, people turn into rhinoceroses. Through the dramatic action of the play, the character Bérenger discovers how difficult it is to resist the pressure to conform to the social structures in his life. Ionesco does not try to provide a rational basis for Bérenger to resist the social pressures to conform; he only shows a character in the process of discovery and rediscovery, searching for meaning in the events occurring around him.

Later works by Ionesco are parabolic plays dealing with human evil. In these later plays, he examines the need people seem to have for power. In these works, Ionesco writes about the inevitability of death for each person.

Probably one of the most influential people affecting Ionesco was Antonin Artaud. Artaud was a Surrealist. He worked as an actor, director, poet, designer, and playwright. In 1938, he published Le Théatre et son double Theatre and Its Double, The (Artaud) (The Theatre and Its Double, 1958), which established his concept of the Theater of Cruelty.

There are a number of themes present throughout the works of Ionesco. Ionesco uses fantasy to force his audience from the security induced by reason. His plays challenge people to recognize the illusion of the world and all its strangeness. He writes about the loneliness people experience in a universe without God. His characters reveal an inability to communicate with each other, and mass communication is the instrument used to dehumanize people. In light of loneliness and dehumanization, individuals find that they are impotent and at the mercy of powerful people in society. Ionesco deals with the idea that ultimately all a person has to look forward to is death. There is no way to escape it. In essence, Ionesco hoped that through his work the audience would accept that reality is absurd, irrational, illogical, and senselessly futile. Ionesco writes about a world with highly developed social institutions filled with madness.

The Iranian Naqshineh Theatre stages Rhinoceros in 2000. The play’s absurdity remains relevant to diverse cultures and settings.

Certainly Rhinoceros, with its nonhuman characters, is a part of the avant-garde movement in the theater. The play is a wildly extravagant tragic farce. The world premiere of the play was in Düsseldorf, Germany, on October 31, 1959. Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is a complex picture of “reality,” showing multiple levels of reality. The challenge is to consider a variety of realities without the playwright giving the audience the “final” meaning.

The play is likely a comment on the Nazi movement. Characters turn into rhinoceroses; Ionesco uses this device to suggest that the Nazi Party was trying to force people to conform to its standards of what was morally correct. A rhinoceros was a metaphor for a moral pachyderm or, in other words, a Nazi. The absurdist theme of isolation is evident in that Bérenger is the only human in a town full of rhinoceroses.

The play, however, works on another dimension. It is quite possible to view the play as a relational statement about the characters Jean and Bérenger. Throughout the action there is an ongoing struggle to establish what the characters mean to each other. They try to communicate with each other, yet the language is stale and filled with clichés. Jean promises to stay with Bérenger, but she gives in to the urges she is feeling. In her conformity, she becomes a rhinoceros and abandons Bérenger. He is left isolated and lonely, waiting for the end to come.

Ionesco confronted spectators with a philosophical paradox to solve. Rhinoceros is a bizarre play with a tragicomic spirit. Ionesco did not believe that this fantastic situation had a solution. He seemed to want his audience to recognize the absurdity of life, thereby being freed from the obsessions they carried with them daily. People, thus confronted, are able to laugh and enjoy the drama. When so challenged, they will be able to be free from the bonds that hold them.


Rhinoceros was received with enthusiasm. After its world premiere in Germany, it was produced by Jean-Louis Barrault at the Odéon-Théâtre de France in Paris on January 22, 1960. It next opened in London, England, at the Royal Court Theatre in April, 1960, under the direction of Orson Welles.

The play makes a somewhat positive statement, as Bérenger does resist the temptation to conform. This is not to overlook the strong absurdist philosophy contained in the play, which is representative of Ionesco’s complete works. All of his plays acknowledge the uselessness of clichés in communication; ideologies of all types, including those found in religion, politics, and society; and the prevailing sense of materialism intended to bring people happiness.

Rhinoceros served as an example to other playwrights that audiences were concerned with similar themes in their individual lives. Ionesco posits two lines of thought: In their relationships with others, people feel loneliness and isolation; and people are bothered by a materialistic bourgeois society. The playwright develops these themes through situations showing that life’s endeavors are illogical and that language is inadequate in providing a resolution. People’s only refuge from the absurdity surrounding them in a world without the certainty that God will provide a rational escape is to be found in laughter: at themselves, at others, and at society.

Ionesco has shown in Rhinoceros that “pure” theater can exist outside and separated from a framework based on an accepted conceptual rationality. The characters reflect the existential view that people create “selves” by the choices they make in a given situation. To heighten the absurdity of the plot, Ionesco uses the avant-garde technique of having nonhuman characters in the play.

Rhinoceros resembles expressionism and epic theater. The use of Brecht’s principle of alienation is evident in the play. Ionesco wants the audience to be confronted with the impossibility of the human condition. Emotional empathy is denied to the spectator, since it is impossible to identify with and understand the motives of the characters. As viewers watch the absurd event of people turning into rhinoceroses, they are brought face to face with the irrational side of life. Rhinoceros enables the audience to remain detached and to evaluate critically the message of the play. This was something Brecht’s epic theater was not able to achieve, even though it was a primary goal of the movement.

Rhinoceros had an immediate and a long-term impact on the theater, because it countered both verbal and logical solutions to the absurdity in life. It represented a revolt. Throughout the decade of the 1960’s, Rhinoceros was in the advance guard of a movement that continued to have major influences on contemporary theater.

Ionesco showed that people must resist conformity. Each person must learn to cope in a manner uniquely his or her own. The individual must continue on in life despite the fact that death and a void wait at the end. As Ionesco did in his works, playwrights continue to grapple with existential themes such as how language prevents people from really thinking, how people displace what is really valuable in life with material things, and how, in a world of weapons of mass destruction and high technology, people often find themselves dehumanized. Ionesco has left an existential heritage for other playwrights.

Ionesco, in Rhinoceros, created a sense of crushing despair that can be brought on by life’s absurdity. He developed characters not fully aware of their own rootlessness in life and struck at the elusiveness of life’s reality. Certainly the play has meaning. That meaning, however, often must be found in the subtext of the plot. He even allowed directors to end the play with their own interpretations.

Ionesco’s Rhinoceros serves the theater as an example of the chaotic, formless inanities people must face each day of their existence. The playwright recognized a common bond among people, in that each person shares with others a common memory, regrets, fear of nothingness, and death. He is aware that people are likely to comfort themselves by accumulating material possessions and through rigid religious, sociopolitical, and philosophical ideologies. This is the world Ionesco left to other playwrights, to grapple with and to write plays about. Rhinoceros is the epitomizing example of the avant-garde of absurdist theater. Rhinoceros (Ionesco) Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Theater of the Absurd

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Artaud, Antonin. The Theater and Its Double. Translated by Mary C. Richards. New York: Grove Press, 1958. Artaud provides his initial thinking on the Theater of Cruelty, which intends to force the audience to confront itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnet, Sylvan, Morton Berman, and William Burto. Types of Drama: Plays and Essays. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972. The sections on the nature of drama, the language of drama, and tragicomedy are useful to the student of absurdism in understanding the movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barranger, Milly S. Understanding Plays. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1990. An introduction to various genres of plays. Barranger provides a brief yet excellent discussion of absurdism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. Eugene Ionesco. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. Compilation of critical essays by leading scholars examining major aspects of Ionesco’s works. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyce, Sandra N. Welcome to the Theatre. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1987. A good introductory work, providing information concerning theater conventions, play production, and discussions of major movements throughout theater history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brockett, Oscar G., and Franklin J. Hildy. History of the Theatre. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2003. This comprehensive study of the theater is highly recommended for the serious student of the theater. Brockett provides a thorough look at trends and movements affecting the evolution of the absurdist movement in theater.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, James B., and Barry Ulanov. Modern Culture and the Arts. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. A confrontation with cultural heritage that is stimulating and enlightening. A good source of information on which to build a foundational knowledge of the arts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hartnoll, Phyllis. The Concise History of Theatre. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1968. Gives a synoptic view of major movements in the theater.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Paul R. The Freudian Left: Wilhelm Reich, Geza Roheim, Herbert Marcuse. New York: Harper & Row, 1969. Provides an interesting discussion of psychoanalysis for those interested in understanding how it influenced absurdism in the theater.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roose-Evans, James. Experimental Theatre: From Stanislavsky to Today. New York: Universe Books, 1970. Roose-Evans provides a clear and concise development of major movements in the theater, beginning with Stanislavsky and running through the experimental work done in the United States up to 1970. A unified view of what led to much of contemporary practice in modern theater.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Edwin. The Theater Experience. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991. Examines numerous aspects of the theater in a discussion that highlights various developments in staging, acting, directing, and playwriting. The book contains an excellent set of five appendixes, including “Major Theatrical Forms and Movements” and “Historical Outline.”

Sartre and Camus Give Dramatic Voice to Existential Philosophy

Waiting for Godot Expresses the Existential Theme of Absurdity

Pinter’s The Caretaker Opens in London

Esslin Publishes The Theatre of the Absurd

The American Dream Establishes Albee as the Voice of Pessimism

Weiss’s Absurdist Drama Marat/Sade Is Produced

Categories: History