Judy Halper
Left is not a dirty word

The Rhinoceros in the Room


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In Hebrew the word “L’hitkarnef (to become a rhinoceros, or to thoughtlessly conform)” is taken from the 1959 play Rhinoceros. In this theater of the absurd piece, Eugene Ionesco pointed a finger – or a horn – at those who conformed to the political movement of the day, Nazis, fascists and Stalinists alike. His use of the theater of the absurd language in the play was no mistake. He was taking the absurd, and horrifying, reality of life in his native Romania, translating it into a visual gag that exposed the very serious personal conflict felt by those who could not bring themselves to conform.

DUDARD: What could be more natural than a rhinoceros?

BERENGER: Yes, but for a man to turn into a rhinoceros is abnormal beyond question.

DUDARD: Well, of course, that’s a matter of opinion.

Rhinoceros is the most famous of Ionesco’s plays, and it is often revived. I first discovered Ionesco as an outsider teen, but only now is has it become clear to me the extent to which the amusing fable of people turning into animals is the perfect expression of a much deeper reality in which abnormality is simply a matter of opinion.

I imagine today’s tiktok version. The first rhinoceros will be played by Itamar, Son of Gentleman, and we’ll first see him charging up a hill to up-tempo music, nearsightedly, on a rampage that will take place off-stage. Trampling a cat, the way Ionesco wrote it, won’t make good theater these days – he’ll get booed off the set. It will have to be a Moslem worshipper he’ll trample with his big hooves.

BERENGER [played by the ghost of Assi Dayan]: It’s dangerous. I hadn’t realized. But don’t worry about it, it won’t get us here.

The second rhinoceros. They recognize him, it’s that idiot from the office. He’s waving his horn in the air and trumpeting loudly. Played by Mr. Salem, he is an African rhino, as opposed to the earlier Asian rhino. Or is it the other way around? A lively discussion ensues as to the difference between the two.

Credit: Otterbein University Theater and Dance, 1967

As his friends begin to turn into rhinoceroses, Berenger tries to reason with them.

BERENGER: Just think a minute. You must admit that we have a philosophy that animals don’t share, and an irreplaceable set of values, which it’s taken centuries of human civilization to build up…

JEAN [played by My People Live Chickli]: [in the bathroom, where his skin is turning leathery] When we’ve demolished all that, we’ll be better off.

The Logician, a small but central role will be played by Son of the Right Netanyahu, and the Old Gentleman will be replaced by a Young Man, played by Little Light Netanyahu.

LOGICIAN: Here is an example of a syllogism: The cat has four paws. Isadore and Fricot have four paws. Therefore Isadore and Fricot are cats.

YOUNG MAN: My dog has got four paws.

LOGICIAN: Then it’s a cat.

YOUNG MAN [after much reflection]: So then, logically speaking, my dog must be a cat?

LOGICIAN: Logically yes. but the contrary is also true.

As the play draws to a close, Berenger’s love, Daisy, played by Benny Gantz, is wondering whether turning rhinoceros might not have its charms. All of a sudden, their roars sound to her ears like singing.

BERENGER: Energy? You want some energy do you? I can let you have some energy! [He slaps her face]

DAISY: Oh! I would never have believed it possible…

BERENGER:…I don’t know what came over me, losing control like that!

DAISY: It’s because you’ve run out of arguments, that’s why.

BERENGER: Oh dear! In the space of a few minutes, we’ve run through twenty-five years of married life.

Kafka knew it; Ionesco knew it. To embrace the absurd without letting go of what you formerly knew to be right – or even normal – can be a hard act. You might run out of arguments, be reduced to stuttering “But! But!” You might have to choose your words when a friend says to you: “Still, they are right about one thing…” or “at least they’ll take care of crime.” Holding on to your humanity takes effort, it’s exhausting, you want a drink.

You don’t want to worry; maybe it’s your imagination, but it seems the animals are running the zoo.

About the Author
Judy Halper is a member of a kibbutz in the center of the country. She has worked as a dairywoman, plumber and veggie cook, and as a science writer. Today she volunteers in Na'am Arab Women in the Center and works part time for Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom.