Rhinoceros is a captivating, critically acclaimed commentary on what is absurd about human nature. Like the abstract artists of the early 20th century, Ionesco abstracts reality to comedic and terrifying effect. His unusual language, stylized structure, and grand symbolism define the writer's place as the premiere playwright in what is known as the Theater of the Absurd.
The play begins in a very ordinary setting with very ordinary characters. We meet Berenger and Jean, two friends whose outward appearance and inner identities contrast greatly. Berenger looks messy with an untucked shirt and unkempt hair. He drinks every day, he cannot make appointments on time, and he feels as if he is drowning in the chaos of life itself. Jean, by contrast, is immaculately well dressed with combed hair and shiny shoes. He prides himself on the order and structure that he maintains. As they sit at a cafe in the town square, Jean attempts to help Berenger get his act together. He suggests that his friend visit museums to culture himself and notes that Berenger must make an effort to improve his situation. Berenger, somewhat depressed, does not believe he can make such improvements but says he will try.
While Jean and Berenger discuss life and its challenges, several other conversations proceed around them. These conversations are banal and evoke the sense of "everyday life" in any town. The characters themselves represent the stock townspeople: the Waitress of the cafe, the Proprietor of the restaurant and his wife, as well as a housewife with a cat. Of all the other characters in this act, the two who deserve most note are the Logician and the Old Gentleman. Their conversation, at least, revolves around logic, one of the central themes of the play. They discuss how many paws a cat has and deduce that any thing with four paws is a cat, which leads the audience to start noticing the general pattern of false reasoning within this town—and in the human experience overall.
As the conversations go on, a rhinoceros unexpectedly barges through the town. They do not know what to make of the event, and before they are done discussing the event, it happens again. This time, the rhinoceros kills the housewife's cat. The characters react to the strange events by obsessing over the details and using logic to purportedly resolve (but actually muddle) the issue. Was there one rhinoceros or two? Did it have one horn or two? Which kinds of rhinoceroses have one horn, and which have two? The act closes with an unsettling feeling that something is not right with this town or the people in it.
Act Two begins in Berenger's office. We meet his co-workers, Dudard and Botard, and his boss, Mr. Papillon. Daisy, Berenger's love interest (she walked by the cafe in the previous scene), also works here. Together, the characters discuss the newspaper article that has come out regarding the rhinoceros incident of the day before. Botard cannot believe that the event happened, despite Daisy's and Berenger's personal testimony to it. Like the Logician, Botard uses false logic to understand but muddles the issue and confuses the others.
Meanwhile, one co-worker has not arrived to work. Just as his tardiness is becoming unacceptable, his wife, Mrs. Boeuf, arrives in hysterics. Her husband, Mr. Boeuf, has turned into a rhinoceros! He followed her to the office and, indeed, is waiting downstairs. The characters do not know what to make of this absurd event and harp on strange details. They suggest that she get a divorce. They wonder how she can collect insurance from such an event. Finally, Mrs. Boeuf decides she will stay with her husband after all. She jumps out the window onto his back. The scene closes with firemen rescuing the office workers.
Next, Berenger visits his friend Jean in his apartment. Feeling guilty about the conversation in the cafe, he starts to apologize but notices that Jean is acting differently. Berenger cannot recognize his voice. Jean acts aloof and apathetic, and he has a bump on his forehead. As Berenger relates the current rhinoceros situation, he notices that the lump on Jean's head is getting larger until before his very eyes. Jean turns into a rhinoceros. Terrified, Berenger runs for help.
Act Three takes place in Berenger's room when Dudard comes to visit him. Several days have passed, and by now, rhinoceroses have been cropping up all over town. Dudard reveals that Mr. Papillon, their boss, decided to "join" the rhinoceros crew. Daisy arrives, and the three characters appear to bond in a mutual desire to remain human. But as they discuss the situation further, Dudard begins to use false logic to defend the rhinoceroses. He becomes more and more entranced by their calls until finally he jumps out the window and becomes one himself.
Daisy and Berenger appear to be in love. Berenger realizes that they are the only two humans left on earth and sees their duty to repopulate the planet. But Daisy starts to doubt their position. Like Dudard before her, she becomes charmed by the rhinoceroses and eventually joins them.
Left alone on stage, Berenger grapples with his own sanity. For the first time, he contemplates becoming a rhinoceros himself, but he snaps out of it decisively. He ends the play with a strong commitment to his humanity, his individuality, and his morality: "I'm not capitulating!"