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February 12, 2015 11:54 am

The Return of Rhinoceros

avatar by Abe Novick

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Zero Mostel (1915-1977) starred in the original American production of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play Rhinoceros at the Longacre Theatre in 1961. Photo: The City of New York.

Given the violent slaying of 12 people at the offices of the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo in Paris last month, shortly followed by an antisemitic attack that killed four Jews at a kosher market there, events taking place in France and throughout Europe over the last several years have now reached a terrifying crescendo.

If history, and literature, have taught us – whether 1789 or the 1930s and 40s – what happens in Paris doesn’t always stay in Paris.

Indeed, it was in an allegorical interpretation representing France during World War II, that the playwright Eugene Ionesco conceived of a beast that personified the ugly and fearsome qualities of Nazis and those who joined their menacing pack.

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While Vichy France, like much of Europe, succumbed to and collaborated with the Nazis, conforming to their laws, ideology and culture of hate, Ionesco responded in a style that combined broad comedy with horror, creating the now modern classic representation of Theatre of the Absurd — Rhinoceros.

In the play’s very first scene, which takes place in a small provincial European town and where two men (Jean and Berenger) meet, suddenly, out of nowhere, a rhinoceros tramples through the town.

By Act II, Jean turns and becomes one. Slowly, eventually everyone in the town, except for Berenger, transforms into a beastly horned rhinoceros.

This grey dusty relic from 1959 (with a campy stylized film adaptation starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) is nevertheless thematically apropos to the times.

In 2012 in an attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old French citizen claiming ties to al Qaeda, killed four people — including three children, ages 3, 6, and 8. In 2014, a young French jihadist murdered three people in a Jewish museum in nearby Brussels. And just this week, three French soldiers who were conducting a patrol outside a Jewish center in the southern city of Nice, as part of the country’s recently upgraded counter-terrorism campaign, were attacked by a man wielding a knife.

Moreover and of future concern, no other European country has more recruits signing up with the Islamic State terrorist group than France, estimated to be around 1,000.

The brutality that’s taking place in France, is indicative of and only a sampling of what appears in the daily news from London to Brussels and, as if on a constant loop, throughout the Middle East.

More importantly, the ideology of Fascism didn’t sweep Europe overnight. It slowly crept and evolved. It spread from one country to another, like a plague, with Nazis soon after physically rampaging, overtaking and destroying governments, cultural institutions, synagogues and much of humanity in its path.

Ionesco inverted the mirror on French society, in order to portray people through this zoomorphically, warped prism and depict our human societal characteristics from cultural conformity to mass movements.

While for some at first, what’s happening in Europe may have seemed like isolated incidents. But such violent extremism has now shown itself to spread virally on a scale that, if not stopped, will quickly become an epidemic.

The question is, will history judge those who look away and ignore the facts the same as those who looked away then? To those I’d say, if it looks like a rhinoceros, walks and talks like a rhinoceros, it just might be a rhinoceros.

Abe Novick is a writer and communications consultant and can be reached at abe@abenovick.com. This article was originally published by The Jerusalem Post.

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