Friday, October 5, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "Growing Horns" (on Eugène Ionesco's Rhinocéros)

growing horns
by Douglas Messerli
Eugène Ionesco Rhinocéros / performed by the Théâtre de la Ville-Paris, Royce Hall, University of California, Los Angeles / the performance I saw was on September 22, 2012

 Although I read Ionesco’s acclaimed play when it was first published in English in the early 1960s, I had never seen a theatrical production of the work (and only clips from the 1974 American film), so I jumped at the chance of attending the performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall by the Théâtre de la Ville-Paris in French (with English language subtitles).

     Yet, I left the theater, despite having finally seen one of the best plays by one of my favorite playwrights, slightly disappointed. That sometimes happens, even at brilliant productions: one is tired or slightly distracted for reasons other than the play one is observing. Here, part of the problem simply lay in the fact the distance between the translation board and the stage was vast enough that it was hard to follow the stage action and still read the English, and the constant vertical motion of the eyes often distracted me.

     More importantly, however, is that Ionesco’s play, often touted as his best, is a parable that, once it has asserted its major premise, has little place else to go. Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty quoted Kenneth Tynan: Ionesco is "a brilliant, anarchic sprinter unfitted by temperament for the steady, provident mountaineering of the three-act form." Also, having seen this production, I now wonder whether other plays such as his early short works (including the unforgettable The Chairs) and later works such as The Killer and Exit the King are not simply more profound works. At the heart of Rhinoceros is an important but quite simple warning of cultural conformity, and in the wake of World War II (the play was written, we must remember, just over a decade after the end of the war) Ionesco’s Rhinoceri—whether two horned or one—perfectly encapsulated the cultural betrayal of everyday citizens who suddenly embraced Fascism and Nazism.  

      But there are deeper problems with director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota’s production of the Ionesco play. His version is absolutely brilliant when it comes to the ensemble scenes. The second act scene in the local, small-town newspaper office, where characters react en masse to the increasing gossip about the beasts roaming the city and, soon after, despite Botard’s (Jauris Casanova) argument that there can be no such animal in France, discover that another employee, Boeuf (so his wife reports) has become a rhinoceros and is threatening to stampede their very offices. The marvelous mass movements of the characters as their desks, chairs, and bodies go spinning with the charges of the beast, are evidence of this company’s brilliant group acting.

     And there are numerous other moments of excellent performance, particularly in Bérenger’s speeches and the logician’s perfectly absurd discussion of the difference between African and Asian rhincoeri. Yet, in perhaps the most important scene of the play, as the sensitive Jean (Hugues Quester in this production)—completely opposed to the rhinoceri transformations—gradually is transformed into just a beast, the work loses focus as he is transformed behind a plastic door where we see only the outlines of his facial shifts. As I mentioned previously, I did not see Zero Mostel’s 1961 rendition of Jean, but in the movie and in descriptions of his New York performance I recognize significant differences which made this early interpretation  a true theatrical wonder. In a fascinating article in the Jewish Daily Forward by Mostel’s nephew, Raphael Mostel describes the events behind the Broadway production:

                      The scene Z is most remembered for in this play
                      is the one in which he transformed into a rhinoceros.
                      Ionesco had envisioned the transformation happening
                      behind a curtain, and the actor bursting through with
                      a rhino mask. But Z  could perform the most
                      astonishing physical feats — whether reducing
                      Johnny Carson to hysterics by placing a proffered
                      cigarette on his brow and somehow getting it to
                      roll all around his face until it fell into his mouth
                      like a pinball machine, or doing a Dada-like
                      imitation of a coffee percolator. And he wanted to
                      make the frightening transformation with
                      his face and body in full view of the audience.

As reviewer Jack Kroll wrote of that performance in Newsweek: “Something unbelievable happened. A fat comedian named Zero Mostel gave a performance that was even more astonishing than [Laurence] Olivier’s” (Olivier had performed the role in London).

       Just such an “astonishing” individual performance is what is missing in this otherwise capable French rendition. One might even suggest that few companies could have better portrayed the kind of mass hysteria which is at the heart of Ionesco’s play.  But, as Bérenger, himself ponders, it is not just the masses wherein these transformations are taking place, but in the individual hearts. Jean stood against the rhinoceros invasion at the very moment he begins to grow, in his very reasonableness, more and more lenient. Even while attacking the beasts he grows more and more sympathetic to their plight, to their odd differences. And in that very allowance of human empathy he is himself destroyed. That is perhaps a more frightening statement than the fact that some individuals have turned into beasts, the idea that one cannot ever permit the thought that there may be some good in these transformations actually allows the transformations to take place. And seeing that struggle up close and in person is crucial to the structure of the play.

      In the end Bérenger is left alone, like Miles Bennell in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with no one to tell his tale to except, perhaps, the audience. And it is we who must determine, accordingly, whether he is mad or sane.

     Demarcy-Mota’s production focused more on the chorus, all of whom allowed the transformation to occur, than upon that man set apart. But then, that is part of the problem with Ionesco’s engaging parable; it is more fun to watch a pack of charging rhinocerori than a non-capitulating loner shouting abuses at them.

Los Angeles, October 5, 2012

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