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November 05, 2007

Christie Davies laughs at the sheer silliness of the French in Ionesco's Rhinoceros at the Royal Court

Posted by Christie Davies

Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros
new translation by Martin Crimp
directed by Dominic Cooke
Royal Court Theatre, London
in repertoire 21st September - 15th December 2007

Rhinoceros at the Royal Court is enjoyable but you would do best to leave after the interval before the third act begins. The first two acts are pure farce, the third is farcical tragedy. In order not to spoil the play for those who do choose to stay on to the truly bitter end, I will not tell you what happens. It has a frantic piece of solo torment that reminds me of the ending of Istvan Szabo's film Colonel Redl. Let me say merely that the first two acts are delightful. Whether the translation and the production are faithful to the French original or to the author's intentions I do not know and quite frankly I do not care; I am content to laugh regardless of whether I am laughing in the "right" places.

As the play opens, two Frenchmen apparently talking like Englishmen meet close to a café in a small French provincial town opposite an Epicerie. They have a pointless argument in a rather precise English. Others enter the square and have their own foolish discussions about quite different matters. For them the arguments do not intersect since each pair is locked in its own conversation but they mirror one another and they intersect for you, to provide incongruities.

Logician (to old Gent): "So here's a typical syllogism. A cat has four paws. Isidore and Fricot each have four paws. Therefore Isidore and Fricot are cats".

Old Gent: "My dog's got four paws too".

Logician (to old Gent): "Then it's a cat".

Bėrenger (to Jean): "I've hardly got the strength to go on living - perhaps don't even want to".

Old Gent (to Logician after long reflection): "So - logically speaking - my dog is in fact a cat"

Logician (to old Gent): "Logically speaking, yes. But the opposite also holds".

Bérenger (to Jean): "Being alone depresses me. So does socialising. What's depressing you? Being alone? Or not being alone? You call yourself a thinker but you won't obey logic".

They are all speaking English but thinking and talking in a very French way. The producer has wisely not given them French accents but they comport themselves as the French do or as we imagine they do, which amounts to the same thing. We imagine, therefore they are. The old Gent is dressed in that neatly formal French manner and when greeting women raises his hat, not just as a courtesy but as a standard French preliminary to trying to pick them up. All of them are horribly French and this adds an extra layer of comic incongruity. Not only are the conversations individually absurd but the overlap between them is absurd and the speaking of an English that is everyday English yet infused with the stilted formal spirit of French adds to the absurdity.

No doubt the logician's errors are funny in the original French when the play is performed for a French audience but for us the very idea of someone being called "Logician" talking nonsense and being taken seriously is also absurd and comic because it is so French. As a people the French are neither able nor willing to say "Bullshit!" to someone who talks elegant eloquent nonsense.

In France social prestige consists of being able to use the right words in the right positions at the right time regardless of sense or meaning. To contradict someone who achieves this would not only be impolite but an undermining of the other person's standing, an erosion of his social capital. So everyone is trapped in a never-ending set of meaningless verbal exchanges.

Curiously Ionesco first saw this point when he was trying to learn English using a book published by Assimil, assimilation, called Anglais sans Peine (Painfree English, England without Le Pen) that does not involve any thought. In this way English becomes assimilated to French, loses its original flexibility and takes on the mechanical quality of French, la mėchanisation de la vie, according to Henri Bergson the basis of all humour. It was this experience that enabled Ionesco to understand and reproduce banality. It is a measure of the skill of the translator and producer that they can retain the full spirit of this banality on stage.

In the middle of these trivialities a rhinoceros charges across the stage and upsets everyone. I can quite see why, since I have myself been charged by a rhinoceros. I was in the back of a stationary small pick-up truck driven by an engineer from the Seychelles with red hair. The rhinoceros took a dislike to him and charged. His hair was like a red rag to a bull; bulls are of course colour blind though cows are not. When you wave a red rag at a bull it thinks you are calling it a cow, feels insulted and charges. How things are with rhinoceroses I do not know.

Seeing the rhinoceros coming, the driver tried to start the engine to get out of the way quickly but it stalled. His hair did not go white but his red face did. When the engine did start we left at a higher acceleration but at a lower speed than the charging rhino. It came to within a yard of where I sat and then we outran it. The rumbling and the dust on stage were as I remembered them but the stage rhinoceros trumpeted as it ran whereas mine was running so hard it was breathless.

Soon another rhinoceros charges through the square trampling a cat to death. In a typically French way they now all argue fiercely about whether it was an Asian or an African rhinoceros. Things fall apart. Jean bellows that Asians are:

"Yellow. Yellow. Completely yellow!"
It slowly becomes clear that these are not escaped rhinoceroses but transformed ones, citizens of the town who by chance or by choice have become horned pachydermata. More and more of them are so transformed and the others debate whether or not to join what is rapidly becoming the majority, a positive crash of rhinos. Some think they should hold back, others that they might as well go along with the herd. Can a brave if alcohol-impaired man like Bėrenger resist and remain human?

Some say it is all a metaphor for France in 1939-44, when some stampeded into Vichy and collaboration and others into Communism, first in support of Stalin's ally Hitler and then as Western back-up to the Red Army, two forms of mindless unreason that seemed compelling to their adherents.

Back in Romania Ionesco's father went from being a fervent Guardist to being a Communist because he liked firm authority of any kind. Yet what we see on stage is a more general ludicrous manifestation of the herd. Those who let go and bend and snort and charge are wonderfully foolish; they are also tragic but this is not as manifest as their absurdity. It is best regarded as humour because it is as humour that it succeeds.

Perhaps for this reason it is the supporting actors who get the best lines and are the most successful. Graham Turner as the Old Gentleman and also as Monsieur Papillon, the Chef de Service at Jean's office, Paul Chahidi as both the common, almost Heathian, little grocer and the over-elegant law graduate Dudard are perfectly mechanised caricatures. Lloyd Hutchinson is equally funny as the beret-wearing, Marxist-nonsense-bellowing office know-all, Botard, whom he plays with a strong Ulster accent and yet remains utterly French. The others are good but they are asked to display a human flexibility that is very unFrench and which Ionesco is unable to portray.

Absurdity is funny. That is what absurd means. It is not a source of existential profundity. If you think long and hard about the meaninglessness of life you will merely conclude that life is meaningless and what is the point of it and that. Suppose you were walking through the smoke and drizzle and general gloom of Manchester and a man with a Rhenish accent came up to you and complained of the alienating quality of that city, what would you reply? You would turn on him coldly and say, "yet there is a great deal of money made here. Good morning, sir," and then walk away.

Absurdity is not meaningless; rather it is a very large set of false meanings to be explored with laughter. Let us leave Ionesco at that. As the Cockney said "the word rhinoceros is from the Latin, rhino meaning money and sore arse meaning piles so it is worth piles of money". Rabelais would have loved that fake etymology and he is the father of French absurdity.

Christie Davies is the author of Dewi the Dragon, the story of a monster whose terrible arrival upsets the little British provincial town of Pentrediwaith. He acted in the absurd annual Footlights Review, My Girl Herbert.

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