In 1953, the world première of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot opened in Paris and Western theater changed forever. It was the height of the popularity in the West of theatrical Realism, the 19th-century style of writing and staging that essentially took over the stages of Europe and America, and by the time Godot reached New York in 1956, critics, academics, and audiences were thoroughly confused for the most part about what to make of this new Absurdism (a term, of course, that didn’t really come into use until Martin Esslin used it as the title of his 1961 book The Theatre of the Absurd.) Absurdist theater seemed to come largely out of France at first, as Beckett (who was Irish but lived in Paris and wrote in French) breached the dam for Eugène Ionesco, Boris Vian, Jean Genet, Jean Tardieu, and Arthur Adamov. (Godot was not the earliest absurd play; others of these writers had had works staged earlier, but Beckett’s masterwork, especially with its staging in London and New York, brought the genre to mainstream attention.) By the mid-1960s, Absurdist theater was, while still avant-garde, widely accepted as a legitimate expression of the state of civilization the in the post-World War II, nuclear, Cold War world. I first saw Godot in 1965, my freshman year in college, and it mesmerized me, causing me to see theater as a whole new realm of possibilities. My university theater went on to introduce me to Ionesco (Exit the King) and Vian (The Empire Builders), Edward Albee (The Sandbox, which I directed in my first-ever effort; I’d seen a reading of The American Dream when I was in high school, but I didn’t understand what I was witnessing), and Harold Pinter (The Homecoming). In the years immediately following graduation, before I moved to New York City, I saw Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (which became one of my all-time favorite plays) and a French staging of Tardieu’s La Sonate et les trois Messieurs (The Sonata and the Three Gentlemen). Needless to say, I’ve seen many more productions of Absurdist and Absurdist-influenced plays since then (see my recent reports earlier this year on Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, 28 February, and Pinter’s The Caretaker, 14 May), but back in 1965, at that first exposure to Waiting for Godot, the Theater of the Absurd took up residence in a corner of my imagination which it has never relinquished.
So when I got the season brochure for this fall’s Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and saw that it would include a revival of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, I knew I had to try to catch it. My usual theater partner, Diana, expressed no interest in this season’s offerings at BAM, and there weren’t enough other events in the Next Wave schedule for me to put together a subscription, so I had to wait until single tickets went on sale and hope that the production wouldn’t be sold out. (The performances were being given in the vast, 2,100-seat Howard Gilman Opera House, so I had some hope that the short appearance would yield at least one single seat, and I was just barely correct.) So on the evening of Saturday, 6 October, I headed over to BAM’s Peter Jay Sharp Building in Fort Greene for the 7:30 closing performance of Rhinoceros presented in French (with English supertitles) by Théâtre de la Ville of Paris.
Ionesco’s best-known play was first presented on BBC radio on 20 August 1959 and first staged at the Schauspielhaus in Dusseldorf on 6 November of the same year, directed by Karl-Heinz Stroux. Rhinoceros didn’t première in Paris until it opened, to excellent reviews, at the Odéon on 25 January 1960 under the direction of Jean-Louis Barrault, who also played Bérenger; on 28 April that year, its English-language stage début was directed by Orson Welles, with Laurence Olivier as Bérenger, at London’s Royal Court Theatre. It was probably the 9 January-5 August 1961 Broadway production at the Longacre Theatre (with a return from 18-30 September), however, that gave Ionesco unexpected celebrity. With Eli Wallach as Berrenger [sic] and Zero Mostel as John (for which he received his first Tony), it was directed by Joseph Anthony. Multiple television versions (De rhinoceros directed in Dutch by Henk Rigters and the German Die Nashörner by director Gustav Rudolf Sellner, both in 1961; El rinoceronte for Spanish TV in 1966) and at least three film adaptations have also been made of Ionesco's best-known three-act play: a German animated short, Die Nashörner, by Jan Lenica in 1964; Næsehornet, directed in Danish by Søren Melson in 1972; and in 1974, an adaptation directed by Tom O'Horgan (best known for staging Hair) with Mostel again as John and Gene Wilder as Stanley (AKA, Bérenger). There was an Off-Broadway revival in 1996 by the Valiant Theatre Company at Theatre Four on W. 55th Street, starring Zach Grenier, an actor I recently praised for his performance in John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church (see my blog report of 16 June), as John. Of the many regional revivals of Rhinoceros, I caught one at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in October 1986, directed by my friend Kazimierz Braun.
Théâtre de la Ville’s Rhinoceros was first staged by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, the company’s artistic director, in 2004. Revived in 2012 principally for a U.S. tour, this production had its American première in Los Angeles at Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, 21 and 22 September, with subsequent performances at UC-Berkeley on 27, 28, and 29 September and, following Théâtre de la Ville’s BAM début, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the University Musical Society on 11, 12, and 13 October. Part of the 30th Next Wave Festival, Théâtre de la Ville’s Rhinoceros played at the Gilman from 4 to 6 October.
Théâtre de la Ville, an entirely new company to me, was started in 1968 under the auspices of the City of Paris. Dedicated to “art in the diversity of its theatrical, choreographic, and musical forms” in the words of founder Jean Mercure, Théâtre de la Ville has since become one of the major cultural outlets in Paris, due largely to the company’s multidisciplinary and multi-national productions in dance and music. Théâtre de la Ville is funded by the City of Paris and, with its two theaters, a 1,000-seat hall in the heart of Paris and the more intimate 400-seat house in Montmartre, presents about 100 different programs each season. Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, who became the company’s youngest director at 38 in 2008, has continued to broaden the audience by introducing productions in foreign languages, educational events, and programs for young people. In 2011, the theater’s attendance was over 280,000.
Born Eugen Ionescu in 1909 in Slatina, Romania, Eugène Ionesco has become one of the most significant figures in modern theater alongside Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter. (The playwright shaved three years off his age and claimed 1912 as his birth year, an inaccuracy reflected in many reference sources.) Though he insisted he preferred the phrase “theater of derision,” coined by writer Emmanuel Jacquart, the playwright is sometimes dubbed the Shakespeare of the Absurd. Ionesco’s father was Romanian, but his mother was French and his parents moved to Paris a year after his birth (his first language was French), but he returned to live in Romania when he was 13. A precocious boy, he’d already written his first play that same year, a patriotic drama called Pro Patria. (He’d previously written a film script at the request of his classmates who wanted to make a movie.) In 1938, the writer left his home country again, this time principally because he was appalled by the fascism to which many of his countrymen were flocking. “I hated Bucharest,” said Ionesco in a 1984 Paris Review interview, “its society, and its mores—its anti-Semitism for example. . . . It was the time of the rise of Nazism and everyone was becoming pro-Nazi—writers, teachers, biologists, historians . . . . It was a plague!”
Rhinoceros was largely inspired by the political atmosphere in the writer’s native country which had effectively become a dictatorial monarchy, later joining the Axis in 1940 under the control of the fascist Iron Guard. The play’s leading character, Bérenger, whom Ionesco declared “represents the modern man,” has many parallels to the real life of Ionesco, who from 1948 to 1955 worked, much like his Everyman, as a proofreader at a legal publisher. Bérenger, observed the author, “is a victim of totalitarianism—of both kinds of totalitarianism, of the Right and of the Left”; and, as the dramatist acknowledged in the Paris Review, “I have never been to the Right, nor have I been a Communist, because I have experienced, personally, both forms of totalitarianism.” Having begun with an attraction to theater, Ionesco became discouraged with the state of both dramatic writing and performance in Europe, so he concentrated on prose and poetry. He returned to playwriting after World War II, composing The Bald Soprano in 1948, and became one of the most prolific writers for the modern stage. His famous works, beginning with the one-act plays The Bald Soprano (La Cantatrice chauve, premièred 1950), The Lesson (La Leçon, premièred 1951), and The Chairs (Les Chaises, premièred 1952), are too numerous to list. Rhinoceros, Ionesco’s third full-length work, was first published as a short story (in Les Lettres nouvelles) in September 1957, before being adapted into a three-act play (published—incorrectly under the title Le Rhinocéros when the publisher erroneously added the definite article—in 1959). In 1970, Eugène Ionesco was made a member of the Académie Française; Ionesco died in 1994 and is buried in Paris’s Montparnasse Cemetery.
Over the course of three acts, the inhabitants of a small, provincial French town turn into rhinoceroses as one by one the citizens are caught in the transformation. Ultimately, only one hold-out refuses to succumb to this mass metamorphosis. Defying the mass hysteria is the central character, Bérenger, a flustered everyman figure who is often criticized throughout the play for his drinking and tardiness. “I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end,” declares Ionesco’s protagonist at the end of the play. Rhinoceros is often considered a response to and criticism of the sudden upsurge of fascism, Nazism, and communism in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. “I know what’s involved,” the playwright insisted, explaining the phenomenon as he has seen it unfold. “All my anti-Fascist friends have become absolute, fantastic Fascists because in the beginning they gave in on one little detail. I am well acquainted with this phenomenon . . . .” Ionesco, however, also explores conformity, mass movements, crowd mentality, and the tyranny of the mob: “Rhinoceros is . . . mainly an attack on collective hysteria and the epidemic that lurk beneath the surface of reason and ideas but are nonetheless serious collective diseases passed off as ideologies. . . .” The playwright had explained in more expansive terms in 1960:
As usual, I went back to my personal obsessions. I remembered that in the course of my life I have been very much struck by what one might call the current of opinion, by its rapid evolution, its power of contagion, which is that of a real epidemic. People allow themselves suddenly to be invaded by a new religion, a doctrine, a fanaticism. . . . At such moments we witness a veritable mental mutation. I don’t know if you have noticed it, but when people no longer share your opinions, when you can no longer make yourself understood by them, one has the impression of being confronted with monsters—rhinos, for example. They have that mixture of candour and ferocity. They would kill you with the best of consciences. And history has shown us during the last quarter of a century that people thus transformed not only resemble rhinos, but really become rhinoceroses.
As Kaz Braun, the director of the 1986 Minneapolis production and himself a refugee from communist Poland in 1985, noted in the Guthrie program: “Beware of all collective hysteria. Do not trust too much in fashion—widespread common beliefs and common convictions. Try to find your own belief, attitude, life which you like to follow. Defend your individuality. Be free.”
Staged without intermission over an hour and 45 minutes, the Théâtre de la Ville revival was spread out along the full width of the 46-foot stage to create an outdoor café, the publishing firm where Bérenger works, and the apartment building where Jean lives. Yves Collet’s set was a sort of minimalist design—the town-square café in the opening act was just a bunch of molded-plastic chairs, for instance, and the office was a sort of two-level box with movable platforms for the second floor. As the rhinos destroyed the office building, the upper levels started to slant, the two ends lifting up at the outer edges sliding everything and everybody towards the center platform. Jean’s apartment building in the last act was a smaller version of the office block, without the moving platforms. The cast of 13 balanced precariously on the sloping platforms like passengers on a listing ship, clinging to the set and one another to keep from slipping off. The sets were generally lit (also by Collet) dimly with spots of brighter illumination and at moments of turmoil as the rhinos rampage, the lights flickered and shifted like symbolic lightning. There wasn’t any color anywhere on stage, including Corinne Baudelot’s costumes, which were essentially shades of gray—charcoal business suits for the men, for example, and the equivalent office wear for the women. The rhinoceroses are often described by the characters as green-skinned, but this vision of Ionesco’s world is gray. Jefferson Lembeye’s music, which combined electronic sounds and instruments according to the publicity material, approximated the soundtrack of a slasher film, raising the intensity level of the performances.
In ’86, Kaz Braun actually built full-sized, realistic-looking prop rhinos because, as I recall, he wanted the threat and fear to be real, not imaginary or psychological. In Théâtre de la Ville’s staging, aside from Jean's transformation in front of us (nicely performed by Hugues Quester, but much less detailed than I think Mostel's Tony-winning turn was on Broadway in ’61, judging from the photos) and shadows from behind a scrim, all the rhinos were invisible. If the play's about the destructiveness of joining mass movements and going along with the mob, we have to consider that Braun had only escaped from communist Poland a year before. Ionesco was supposed to have been inspired to write the play by the rise of the fascist Iron Guard in Romania before he left in 1938 and the complicity of Romanians in following its authoritarian leadership when the country joined the Axis. So Braun escaped a communist dictatorship and Ionesco a fascist one—I don't think either artist was dealing in theoretical situations. But in today’s France, indeed all of Western Europe, those threats are no longer imminent: Franco’s gone, Portugal’s Antonio Salazar is gone, European communism is all but gone (though there are local tyrants in the east). Perhaps director Demarcy-Mota has in mind the threat of radical Islamism—or the West’s response to it (France has some of Europe’s most repressive defensive laws such as the banning of the hijab, a Muslim woman’s head scarf), but even that actual danger isn’t as palpable as fascism was for Ionesco or communism was for Braun, so a fear that might be hypothetical or general is a plausible target for a modern mounting of Rhinoceros. Theatrically, however, the imaginary rhinos put the entire burden on the cast to create the image of the charging beasts (aided, one hopes, by the active imaginations of the audience). That wasn’t a burden for this company, as you’ll hear.
Aside from stylistic variations, well within the purview of the director, Demarcy-Mota also made a textual insertion. He added a prologue, delivered by Hugues Quester, the actor who plays Jean. A passage from Ionesco’s one novel, The Solitary (Le Solitaire, 1973), Demarcy-Mota feels it ”can be read as an intuition of the rhinoceros world to come,” according to the company. While cutting scripts occasionally makes sense in production, I generally feel that when a director takes it upon himself to add to one, it’s usually at least extraneous. If Ionesco’d wanted a prologue, he’d have written one. Demarcy-Mota’s said reading the novel helped him understand the importance of Ionesco’s “conception of solitude.” Maybe I’m obtuse, but I don’t see that the idea, especially as expressed in Rhinoceros, is that complex. If the director needs the additional help, fine—but slapping it onto the beginning of the play is unnecessary: the play’s pretty straightforward with its internal symbolism. (A general note to all directors: we theatergoers don’t need to see all your homework.) Besides, and perhaps more importantly, prologues delivered by an actor in front of the empty set is about as anti-theatrical as anything I can imagine—and Rhinoceros is nothing if not theatrical. So, Demarcy-Mota has this spirited, frisky dog who’s ready to run and frolic and he holds him back so he can explain to us what the frolicking to come is going to be about. Yeah, that makes sense.
Don’t let me get too far ahead of myself. This is an excellent company, young and energetic and more than up to the task Ionesco’s set. (All the more reason to let them get right to it.) The performances were outstanding, and though my French is out of practice, I had no trouble getting Ionesco’s point. (I did learn that my rusty French isn’t up to Ionesco's absurdist dialogue. I watched the supertitles—a synopsis is also provided in the program—and they went by so fast, they were practically a blur. You needed to be a speed-reader to keep up and watch the actors below.) Aside from the prologue, Demarcy-Mota’s one bad choice in my opinion was that the energy level of the performance was very high. That isn't necessarily a good thing because, first, it's exhausting (for the spectators, I mean, not just the actors) and, more significantly, it leaves nowhere for the performance to go since it’s so intense from the start. By the time Bérenger watches Daisy leave to join the rhinos, the last human among his fellow townsfolk, he’s off the meter. Furthermore, part of the point Ionesco’s making—or part of the way he makes his point about conformity and conceptions of normalcy—is that many of the townspeople, particularly those in Bérenger’s office, accept the potential threat of rhinoceritis with complacency until it literally assaults them in their office building. When some of Bérenger’s colleagues join the transformed rhinos, they do so relatively calmly. (I don’t imagine that Ionesco’s friends back in Bucharest ran off in a tizzy when they became fascists. His alarm was that they followed the Iron Guard as if it was the local book club.) When Demarcy-Mota has the actors all running at high revs, this shocking acquiescence is diminished.
On the other hand, the director’s focus on the human, rather than the political, point in Ionesco’s play assured that the 2012 revival wasn’t mired in 50-year-old history. Rhinoceros isn’t a political statement, a warning against totalitarian forces like fascism or communism, irrespective of its inspiration; it’s a cautionary declaration against any kind of monolithic ideology, whether political, religious, or social. Demarcy-Mota’s stripped-down approach, removed as it was from either Ionesco’s origins or Kaz Braun’s personal history, kept the play alive for us today. It also meant that the actors could concentrate totally on their roles and not have to portray political stereotypes.
Rhinoceros is a peculiar kind of ensemble play. The roles of Bérenger (Serge Maggiani), Jean (Quester), and Daisy (Céline Carrière) stand out because Ionesco’s script throws a spotlight on them, but in performance, all the townspeople have to work together with equal effort and effectiveness, both to establish the performance style and to make the dramatic point. The Théâtre de la Ville production enhanced the need for that style because Demarcy-Mota depersonalized the characters so much. As the director wrote in a program note: “Individualism is not considered positively.” (This is apparently where his absorption of The Solitary came into play, either as inspiration or reinforcement.) The company came through magnificently, demonstrably controlled and disciplined even as the characters descend into chaos. You might have an argument with the interpretation—I don’t—but not with the execution. The cast worked like a single entity or, if you’ll pardon the constructivistic allusion, like parts of a flesh-and-blood engine. The progress (and especially the end) of the opening scene, the appearance of the first rhino in the town square, was illustrative. Remember that the rhinos were invisible—no one played them on stage—and that the café was just a collection of white plastic chairs set before a non-descript abstract background. When the rhino careered through the café, the chairs went flying as the actors knocked them about—but it wasn’t the people wrecking the restaurant, it was the beast, and it was never a question because the actors’ focus wasn’t on the flying chairs, but the animal in their midst. This split attention established clearly that the devastation was being caused by a rampaging rhino and that the people were all concerned with dodging it and saving their own lives. It was masterly misdirection, the kind magicians and three-card Monte dealers use but on a mass scale. While all this physical work was going on, the actors were also speaking their lines in a kind of unnatural rationality—there was a logician present who was being entirely pedantic about what kind of rhino it was, Asian or African, and whether there’d been one or two of them. This company can walk and chew gum even while they’re spinning a yo-yo.
As Bérenger, Maggiani, was thoroughly enveloped in the ensemble, but it wouldn’t be right to ignore him individually as well. Now, Bérenger isn’t a hero—he’s not even really an anti-hero. He’s more like the odd man out, responding individualistically not because he’s Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood, but because his programming’s incomplete. He looks like everyone else, except he’s a little unkempt, and he drinks, and he behaves badly. Maggiani played him as a sort of blank slate who didn’t know any better than to buck the crowd. He wasn’t strong: he loved Daisy but couldn’t say anything to her; he was tormented by office colleagues, but couldn’t fight back. When he and Daisy were the only humans left in town, he proposed they repopulate the species like Adam and Eve, but Daisy didn’t react positively and left to join the rhinos. When he finally defied the attraction of rhinoceritis, I was left with the suspicion that it might not be an entirely triumphant act and Maggiani didn’t do it out of nobility or fortitude. It was the act of a man who didn’t know what else to do. Maggiani’s Bérenger was so much a misfit that he didn’t even fit in with mass hysteria!
It seems that most of the press decided not to cover this brief visit. (There were a few reviews on the Internet of performances at previous stops on the U.S. tour.) The only local reviews I found were in the New York Times, Back Stage, and the website TheaterMania. (The other New York dailies would have been out by the time I published this report, but it’s possible—though unlikely at this point—that the weeklies hadn’t come out by then.) In the Times, Charles Isherwood called the Théâtre de la Ville’s Rhinoceros a “grandly scaled production” sporting a “superb cast” which “marshals a host of stylish theatrical effects.” Andy Propst of Back Stage described Demarcy-Mota’s “tautly choreographed production” as a “viscerally charged new staging . . . that’s both emotionally compelling and intellectually gripping. . . .” When all the elements are combined, Propst concluded, “the effect is spine-tingling.” On TheaterMania, David Finkle, characterizing the staging as “abundantly theatrical” which “never loses sight of the need for humor,” dubbed the company “exceptional artists . . . who make the work consistently vital.”
Though the troupe’s been around for almost 45 years, this was Théâtre de la Ville’s first trip to the U.S. and New York City. Over the years, we’ve gotten to see a fair number of German, Russian, Japanese, Swedish, and Spanish companies bringing their best and most interesting work here. Aside from a couple of visits of the Comédie Française, we don’t get to see a lot of French theater. (I’m not counting those translated megamusicals like Les Misérables and Miss Saigon that were staples of Broadway for a few years.) I hope Théâtre de la Ville felt its visit here was gratifying and will be coming back often. The company’s work in Rhinoceros was estimable, and I’d really like to see how they handle some other scripts from the French canon. I don’t doubt it’d be a worthy addition to New York cultural scene.