Talkin’ Oldies: Rhinoceros (1974)
The Theatre-Of-The-Absurd was a style of experimental play-scripting first practised in the ’50s and ’60s by playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Jean Genet and Eugene Ionesco. In its infancy it was a rather unpopular style of writing, with intentionally illogical and plotless storylines which proved bewildering to most audiences.
As a rule, absurdist plays contain no dramatic conflict. They present logically-impossible situations but make them seem perfectly normal, showing increasingly outlandish events through the eyes of a main character which is out of key with everyone and everything around him.
Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is one of the most famous of all absurdist plays. The original version, set in 19th Century provincial France, features a character named Berenger who discovers that an alarming number of people in his town are transforming into rhinoceroses, among them his best friend Jean. Laurence Olivier famously portrayed Berenger in a 1960 stage adaptation directed by Orson Welles.
The film version is relocated to 1970s urban America and the main characters are renamed, with Berenger changing to ‘Stanley’ while Jean becomes ‘John’. As directed by Broadway legend Tom O’Horgan, the film is a deliberately subversive, surreal experience, notable for its energetic comic performances. It disposes of the historical elements and the anti-Fascist subtext of the original, instead concentrating on the theme of non-conformity in a world where more and more people blindly do as they are told.
Depressed, bored accountant Stanley (Gene Wilder) spends his weekdays crunching numbers and his weekends drinking himself into a haze. His friend John (Zero Mostel) disapproves, but nevertheless meets with Stanley every Sunday lunchtime to lecture him about the error of his ways. One Sunday however, their lunch is interrupted when a stampeding rhinoceros charges down the street outside the restaurant.
Soon, more rhinoceroses are sighted in town and Stanley begins to realise they are not escaped zoo animals as he first suspected. The truth is far more troubling, for it seems the huge pachyderms are actually people who have undergone a physical metamorphosis, apparently too weak to resist the change. Stanley is determined not to conform, but his tenacity is tested to the limit when the people he counts on to remain human end up switching to rhinoceros form.
First to metamorphose are his work colleagues (Joe Silver, Robert Weil, Percy Rodriguez), then his secret crush Daisy (Karen Black), and eventually his best friend John. Stanley is determined not to follow suit, but with the human numbers dwindling and the rhinoceros population soaring, how long can he resist?
One of the main shortcomings with this version of Rhinoceros is that it fails to use the possibilities of cinema to break loose from the constraints of its stage-bound origins. For instance, during the scene where John transforms into a rhinoceros, Stanley repeatedly refers to a bump that is appearing on his forehead and the way his skin is becoming grey. Here is an opportunity to exploit the visual advantage that film has over a theatre stage, but it remains an unused opportunity. In fact, the film refuses to adopt a cinematic style for its duration, instead going for a feel of “filmed theatre”.
However, in many ways Rhinoceros is rather well made and credit needs to be given where it is due. For starters, the performances are terrific. Wilder and Mostel interact brilliantly, relishing the play’s enigmatic and often self-contradictory dialogue; Mostel’s transformation sequence – done without make-up or visual effects – is memorable for the sheer outrageous energy that the actor throws at it.
By removing the historical and political subtext of the original play, it actually ends up more pertinent than ever. The theme of non-conformity will really strike a chord with many viewers; after all, isn’t there a small part in us all which longs to fight back against the system? Transforming into a rhinoceros could be viewed as a metaphor for any type of conformity – doing drugs because everyone you know does them; being promiscuous because it’s the norm; voting for a particular political party because everyone else in your town favours that party; etc…
Rhinoceros may not be without flaws, but it is definitely a worthwhile and thought-provoking piece of cinema. For decades it has languished in the shadow of Wilder and Mostel’s far bigger commercial hit The Producers… but in a world where rules and systems increasingly govern our every move, there has never been a more opportune time to rediscover this forgotten peach.
FMV Rating ***