Rhinoceros catapulted Ionesco's career to an international level. Though he had written several plays by Rhinoceros in 1959, the English translation of the play caught both public and critical attention around the world. In 1973, a film adaptation, starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, won critical acclaim as well.
First produced at the Odeon and directed by Jean-Louis Barrault, Rhinoceros imagines fascism as a disease that turns humans into unintelligent, violent creatures--rhinoceroses. More than any of his other plays, in Rhinoceros Ionesco uses a specific symbol in a central, clear, and compelling way. Beyond this symbol of the effects of fascism, critics have understood the play as part of the post-World War II body of literature that questions the motivations not only of war but of life itself. If fascism makes rhinos, how much better are the alternatives after all?
In other ways, Rhinoceros typifies Ionesco's work and, more generally, the Theatre of the Absurd. Its imaginative scope is both broad and wild: people grow horns, sprout fur, and become rhinoceroses. Its plot is not traditional but theoretical, featuring philosophical conversations and questions throughout. It further combines whimsical humor with unsettling tragedy to question human nature at the most fundamental level.
Like most works of The Theatre of the Absurd, Rhinoceros explores issues of chaos while it manages to arrive at a clear message about that chaos. It is critical to note that despite the wild themes and happenings in the play, a structure does exist and a plot does move forward. The Theatre of the Absurd was not simply anarchic; it relied on at least some devices in order to reach audiences and make points. In challenging the point of life and the rational nature of humans, Ionesco challenges us to understand ourselves and our actions.
At first, critics were bewildered by such absurdist plays because they departed so dramatically from traditional realism. Plot, characters, language, tone, and structure were all re-imagined by such playwrights as Ionesco, Beckett, and Pirandello. Only as the movement grew could scholars point to the movement's roots in Shakespeare, Commedia dell'Arte, and the seemingly nonsense poems of Lewis Carroll. Fundamentally, the absurdist playwrights viewed the stage as a play to explore, imagine, and experiment.
The play's protagonist is a good-natured Everyman named Berenger, who many believe is a self-image of the writer. Berenger reappears in Ionesco's other work, including The Killer (1958), Exit the King (1962), A Stroll in the Air (1963), and Hunger and Thirst (1964). Although his presence is notable, the audience does not learn Berenger's personal history or other key details that, in more realistic plays, would be significant. Similarly, all of the characters in Rhinoceros maintain a quality of anonymity, of representing anyone--they act as symbols in an allegory rather than realistic, fully depicted characters. What really distinguishes one rhino from another after all, especially once fascism has done its work?
The alternative is Berenger's individualism. He is really not so different from the rest, but in resisting the call to conformity, he chooses to be alone and to give rationality another try. But is he being true to himself or not? Is the human condition more one of rationality or one of irrationality? The play is perhaps especially worth reading when a student is nearing graduation, watching his or her colleagues take jobs, in some sense capitulating to the world. To what degree should the student do as Berenger does and resist the pull to conformity, and to what degree should the student capitulate to the ways of the world?
Rhinoceros and, generally, The Theatre of the Absurd are commonly associated with existentialism, an influential philosophy in Paris at the time. However, despite the close relationship between Ionesco and the existentialist champion Jean-Paul Sartre, Ionesco insisted on the separation of the two movements. Indeed, he sharply criticized Sartre for not boldly standing up against communism. Indeed, critics tend to believe that Rhinoceros is as much about communism as about Nazism. Scholars understand the primary difference between the Theatre of the Absurd and existentialism to be that while existentialism recommends a certain type of response to the apparent failure of the human condition, the Theatre of the Absurd makes points without providing any integrated human solution. If the nature of man is partly or mostly irrational, the Theatre of the Absurd does well in expressing the absurdity in human life.