Last night I was in Berkeley for the first night of the three-night run, hosted by Cal Performances, of the Theatre de la Ville-Paris's production of Ionesco's Rhinoceros, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. Cal Performances Director Matias Tarnopolsky started the evening with a short talk from the stage in which he pointed out that this was the second time the Theatre de la Ville has appeared in Berkeley; the first time was in 1906, when the group in an earlier incarnation presented Sarah Bernhardt in her legendary performance of Phedre, an event from which Cal Performances dates its existence, as well it might.
Rhinoceros, Ionesco's landmark 1959 work of the Theater of the Absurd, is another legendary moment in twentieth-century theater, one of those post-war works whose combination of menace and philosophizing absurdity got to the heart of the mid-century political situation more piercingly than any earnest "realistic" drama ever could. It is well-known that Ionesco wrote the work in response to the rise of fascism in his native Romania, and the play is often seen as an allegory of resistance to conformist totalitarian systems, which makes it sound high-minded and uplifting. It may be the historical moment to drop that particular framing (that is, limiting) of the play; the thought-provoking and lively production I saw last night made me realize that the play is stranger and richer than its reputation.
There's no need to see the play in political terms at all; as a study of individualism and conformity, it resonates in many ways not tied to specific political systems or philosophies. Anyone who's ever worked in a corporation has witnessed many rhino-metamorphoses, and indeed anyone puzzled by the strange cult fervor motivating the crowds who waited patiently for days and nights to update their iPhones to the latest release has observed the urge to be part of the pack ("it's the wave of the future!" announce the people turning into rhinos). But there's more to the play than feeling superior to the herd, and more to it even than noting the many ways people convince themselves that the herd is the only place to be. (If it were really that simple and straightforward, the play probably wouldn't be worth reviving.) The really subtle, brilliant, challenging thing that Ionesco did is that he doesn't tip the scales: once you set aside what you've been told about what the play is supposed to mean politically, you have to notice that the humans come across as a fairly shabby lot, and the rhinos don't look all that bad.
Demarcy-Mota has the play open with a passage from Ionesco's novel The Solitary. An average-looking, undistinguished middle-aged man comes out alone and talks about walking as a child through crowded streets and seeing the people as phantoms; he finds it comforting, yet he is not quite one of them - it's the classic note of urban alienation. The stage is mostly very dark (as it will be throughout), with piercing, focused white side lights on the speaker. Our average-looking undistinguished middle-aged man turns out to be Berenger (Serge Maggiani), who is indeed undistinguished, but not quite average - in fact, he's pretty much a loser. He has a drinking problem and squanders money on booze; he is unkempt and unpunctual; he longs for his coworker Daisy (Celine Carrere) but assumes he doesn't have a chance against another, more accomplished, coworker, Dudard (Philippe Demarle); he puts up little resistance to the hectoring constant lectures of his boisterous friend Jean (Hugues Quester). He can't bring himself to defend himself, but he will quarrel with Jean over whether the first rhino that charged down the street had one horn or two.
He's not a very inspiring representative of the human spirit. He's pretty much a marginal man, but it's his very inadequacies (he can't even make it to work on time) that allow him to remain human; to be blunt, he doesn't have it in him to turn into a rhinoceros. In the three acts of the play we see him first in a social setting (at a crowded cafe, where he meets the bullying Jean for a drink), then a work setting (at the publishing house that employs him, where his coworkers flirt, fight, and laugh at each other, debating the very existence of the rhino, before one appears and smashes the stairs of the office building), and finally in a romantic setting, as he and Daisy join together as apparently the last remaining humans, before she too defects. Berenger grows to hate his pale weak body, so insignificant next to the strength and purpose and joyful unity of the rhino herd, but he persists - partly out of self-loathing - in being human. At the very end, indecisive and confused, he is isolated on a height, and the stairs down have just given way with a bang, and he pauses, one foot raised out over the abyss that has just opened in front of him, feeling that he will remain human, out of perversity if nothing else.
From the beginning the humans have been close to animals (some even have animal names: Papillon, Boeuf). They bicker and talk at cross-purposes and prove by logical means the most illogical propositions; they can't even agree on what they've just seen when the first rhino runs down the street, and are quick to use the disruption of the African or possibly Asian rhino to criticize foreigners. They are spiteful to friends as well as strangers. The death by trampling of a woman's cat brings some of them together in a moment of sympathy, but I have the feeling they'd be less sympathetic if it had been the woman who had been trampled. They're all indeed individuals, but it's not really working for them; they're mostly destructive, self-serving, and short-sighted. It's a bleak world. The stage is mostly black, and the sets are strange, dark, heavy, and mechanical-looking, with boxy rooms and large walls and pillars that come crashing down. The clothes are mostly black and white. There's the occasional splash of a bright red tie or an orange phone. The eerie offstage music sounds like a distant memory, even when you first hear it. This is a very physical production, with bicycling in circles and running and shouting and the office workers slipping downward as the floors beneath them buckle under the blows of the unseen rhino in the lobby below.
The rhinos, by contrast, appear relatively stable and unified, and were looking better and better as the evening went on. At the end we see rows of their ghostly gray-green heads in the darkness, bobbing up and down. They are called destructive, but once you observe the behavior of the humans in the office you can hardly blame their former co-worker turned rhinoceros for trying to smash the place. If you unlink the rhinos from associations with specific political systems, it opens up interesting interpretive ambiguities in the play: you could even see them as a sublime force of nature. I was definitely feeling the appeal of turning into a rhino. That may not be what anyone intended, but unintended and unforeseen readings are one of the things that make a play endure.
The play is almost two hours and given without an intermission; many people blench when they hear that, but I think that's purely a psychological reaction, since many movies are longer and also don't have intermissions. But people feel freer to get up during movies (several did last night, as well, and one idiot a few rows in front of me even pulled out his iPhone at the end to record the appearance of the rhino heads - like calling to like, perhaps - though on the whole the audience, quite large for a week night production that didn't start until 8:00, was enthusiastic and attentive). An intermission would have really cut the mood and tension of the performance. It's presented in French with English surtitles; the dialogue is sometimes so quick that you miss a few things as your eyes dart up and down, but the language is simple enough so that if you have some even rudimentary French you can make out at least part of what the actors are saying.
There is one more performance, tomorrow (Saturday 29 September) at 2:00. More information is here.