Thursday, August 5, 2010

Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco

The following question is an edited version of emails I got from the director of a high school production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.
The Alvina Krause critique has been slightly edited as well.

I'm finding Berenger difficult to explain to students. Why is it that the one person who has the will power to resist the "epidemic" is the one who in the first act consistently says he doesn't feel comfortable in his own skin, that he just "can't get used to life" and turns to alcohol daily? I feel I've discovered that one of his strengths is that he is not very concerned with what others think of him (wrinkled clothes, mussed hair, always late)--and he's not particularly observant (he doesn't even take notice of the first rhino that runs through), which seems to justify why he isn't swept away by mob mentality---but what is the significance of his drinking? Why does Ionesco make the "strong" one, the one who finds the transformation of people into rhinos "unnatural", distinctly an alcoholic?   Is it the "unlikely" hero element?[so many of those who turned into rhinos are of "superior" character--and tell him so (Jean, Papillon, Botard, etc)] I'm afraid I'm missing something….what I can put together now is this idea of the fallibility/weakness of the human condition is what makes us truly human. The other characters who strive for "superiority" and perfection, who rationalize everything have lost their "humanity".  The modern/anti hero is he who retains his humanity, and his strength stems from what may be taken for weakness (what makes us special/individual makes us strong) and life is meant to be difficult--a struggle vs. utopia.

There are 2 difficulties in communicating this to both my teenage cast and to an audience:
1) Berenger is not happy with himself or his life...he feels awkward and unhappy/uncomfortable in every situation except when he's drinking. So, the mesage here is not a clean and inspiring "Be yourself! March to your own drummer--don't worry about what others think, be happy with who you are!"  There's something more...and the "switch" must be strong and apparent. (Its no longer about me and my happiness...its about all of us/humanity)
2) There's such a difference (I believe) in the way teenagers now view alcoholism than in the 40s or 50s. I'm afraid it not just a humanizing "weakness", but seen as a very specific and taboo choice. It has a stigma. And although I have made some cuts to the script and tried to pare down the alcoholic/drinking references, it certainly can't be eliminated. This is a very specific but important challenge.

Finally... my greatest challenge is to take a very intellectual idea/theme (Berenger  as anti-hero) and put it into sensory terms for my students. I've been reminded by looking at your archived notes of a way to start the questioning/search:   "If I were.... struggling in school/work and with my family/friends (a very teenage experience!) much so that I can only take refuge in meaningless, detrimental and temporary behavior (drinking/ video games/internet relationships) If I were.... at a point where I knew I wanted to attempt to make a change to feel better....If, at the same time, I saw everyone around me being seduced by something I KNOW is wrong.......If they wouldn't listen to me and became unrecognizable..............etc.  Would the urgency of this emergency--one that is so deep that it hits me in the core of my being--stir in me an absolute knowledge of who I am and what I know is right--so much so that I could fight as if my life depended on it---and suddenly CARED to preserve it?

The great Twentieth-Century British actor John Gielgud said, “Style is knowing what play you’re in”. How deceptively simple, especially when you consider what “knowing” truly suggests about what actors must do in their behavior-based creative process. 
The word “style” refers to the process of how artists create and how art communicates. It emerges powerfully in the final stage of creating a work of art when the artist eliminates every unnecessary detail (unnecessary to what?); but it is present in the initial selecting of the elements the artist will create with.
For the actor those elements are human behavior.
This beginning selection process is when asking the right questions of a play is vital to the final production.
It seems to me you’re asking great questions, but ones that have no answers in Rhinoceros because the play doesn’t concern itself with them.
Rhinoceros is not a character drama. The play isn’t “about” complex motivations  and Berenger’s interior life. A critic—I can’t remember who just now—said that Berenger isn’t Everyman,  he’s Any Man. And I would add that not only is he not a hero but that he's not an anti-hero either. He drinks for the same reasons that a lot of people drink—and I’ll bet your students know lots of adults who do just that. The play neither applauds nor condemns Berenger's drinking even if Jean does.
He’s just an ordinary guy with no special traits that account for his being the last human being in the play. Why Berenger is the last man standing is not what the play has been building to. 
And there’s meaning in that.
Rather than go into more detail just now, I am attaching the critique of the production of Rhinoceros that Alvina Krause produced at The Theatre in Eagles Mere with her student company in the 1963 summer season.  Perhaps it can address some of your concerns and help you to clarify the whole attack you will take in helping young actors to create and to communicate this play.
Read it, let its implications play upon your own creative mind, and then by all means write back to me if you continue to have questions or discover other concerns about the production that the critique doesn’t fully address for you.

Critique of Rhinoceros:
French drama is drama of speech, of words, of composition of words and phrases, of expressive musical nuances. Of dissonance, of cacophonies, of sounds in conflict that play against each other epitomizing ideas in conflict. Even if a blackout occurred and the audience could not see the actors, or could only see shadows of actors, the sound of the dialogue, the language itself, should keep them rooted in their seats responding, laughing, thinking, stimulated by words, language, speech. Action, gesture, facial expression only supplement and heighten this drama of words. The language of wit, of the intellect, the language of form, of explicit meanings, of connotations aimed at the mind, not the senses. Even clowning is aimed at the head through laughter. Pantomime must have the same sharp clarity that the French language has: funny, ironic, but with sharp, clean, clear aim. Think of the word “brilliance” — what does it mean? -- sharp clear light, revealing vividly sharp, clear outlines, vivid highlights. This is what French drama must have: brilliance — even when it is dramatizing the meaninglessness of speech today.

Focus. Focus. Focus. It is the central element of style. Without it: no style, no meaning. The French are superb masters of drama that aims at the head, drama of ideas, of intellect, of controversy. When you perform or direct French drama, shed your love of playing emotional involvements; discard your probings into psychological roots of character, and in heaven’s name, alter your concept of sincerity. Three abstract lines arranged in meaningful pattern produce an impact as sincere and as truthful as sobs from the bottom of your souls – perhaps even more because all that is extraneous has been stripped away and the single, penetrating idea is starkly before us. Is a branch of a tree, stripped of leaves, of bark, not more meaningful in its nakedness than it is covered with leaves, dust, bugs? Have you ever seen bare roots, dry, clean, stark? Are they not more meaningful in their emphasis on sheer form, in their pure emphasis on the essence of the function of roots, than all the twistings and clinging soil and bug bitten markings? When it comes to the meaning, the stark reality of roots, are they not “sincere”, “truthful” revelations? And so with emotions, with responses, with character traits. And emotion revealed in one single act which receives focus will say more and say it more truthfully than the whole realistic combination of muscle reactions which are life responses. One slight turn of the body can say more of human despair than all the writhings and sobbings which we believe mean “feeling so deeply”. Study statues: frozen despair, thought, etc., frozen character traits. Yes, revise your concepts of sincerity and truth, for your realistic acting interfered with projection of Ionesco’s concept. Yes, all style is rooted in realism – just as the bare branch and bare roots are “real”.

Now: in acting, this requires first the mental ability to penetrate to the essence of the author’s meaning; in this case: before we can meet man’s dilemma, find answers, we must face his complete emptiness expressed in clichés of thought, of words, of behavior. You knew this with your heads. I am not sure that you had let the horror of this realization become a total experience, whether the thought had become a “depth” experience. For J it had and this lent distinction to his work (not always thrown into sharp enough focus by production and direction elements). It was behind M’s work, and this led to the most brilliant Ionesco of the production the Friday night Daisy/Berenger dance episode which was brilliantly executed and which heightened the frozen horror back of it all. These were moments to remember. These two performers here captured Ionesco style, to project Ionesco’s meaning in his theatrical terms of entertainment through vaudeville, through clowning, through pantomime, anything you will, and behind it a dramatist’s concern about man’s dilemma. We needed more such moments. R and M caught it for a moment in Act I when Berenger started reading the report rhythmically and M picked it up. For a moment: a group response to the Logician which fell into a quick, rhythmic response – if only you had heightened the vocal pattern to match it! F was on the verge many times of bringing it off, but was still a bit afraid of heightening and directorially sufficient focus was not put on him at such moments.

You no doubt see by now that this kind of performance requires the greatest vocal and physical skills of expression. It requires voices and speech production skills of great flexibility and the ears of musicians with good senses of pitch. You all tend still to play the same tone, the same note, the same intensity, the same pitch instead of playing opposites and variations. The very sound of the drama, even though it were spoken in a foreign language, should have meanings, implications, as music has meaning as each cadence, each phrase, each rest, trill, etc., touches off vibrations in the listener. So this spoken drama should do. It may be necessary to work for these effects technically, but the end result is the essence of reality: in this case the reality of emptiness. And physically you are inexpressive or only partially expressive with no sense, no true sense, of the body and its parts as an expressive instrument. R has learned to use his body effectively, pleasantly, fluidly, expressively. G has some sense of expressional movement. When he develops it he may be a great comedian: all elements are there. M has a good beginning. G is stiff in the spine. F began to see what was demanded. As a basis for further work, remember the day we discovered oppositions in body positions, in postures and movement; remember the effect of “move --- freeze” catching you in an opposition movement. Work on it: everyone. You may not need it in such heightened form as in this drama, but it will affect all of your acting, making it more vital, vibrant, meaningful. Your body, your voice; these are your instruments. Train them to be the best. I remind you again: no pianist who is a great pianist will play on an inferior instrument.

I suggest that you study carefully the pictures of the production. They are extraordinarily good, and they are most revealing. They are frozen action: they are heightened intensity achieved through strong focus. They have what we should have achieved throughout. They show how close we came to excellence. The one of Daisy and Berenger speaks volumes: bodies say futility expressed in meaningless action, the eyes say horror and incapability of action. Study these pictures. In the Act I full shot note: if we had turned R’s body just a bit more to right stage keeping his beard and hands as they are, we would have thrown focus much strongly on Berenger, and thereby emphasized his attitude as a contrast to all the clichés of petty emotions. The tilt of S’s head could have emphasized more by line the focus on Berenger. So throughout the play we needed this careful attention to seemingly small details and frozen moments that point meanings. Ionesco does not lecture nor preach, but the theatrical impact can make you think if you want to. It is to be regretted that we have no vocal record of the show to study for it might have pointed up for you the moments that came closest to brilliance and the ones that failed or were inadequate.

L’s work was very fine throughout, yet we could not quite bring off the last act dialogue because we had not quite found the balance of tones we needed, the contrast and especially what we needed was to find the quality that would most forcefully express and comment on the banality and emptiness of clichés of speech and thought throughout. This is the most difficult scene in the play and we needed more experimentation with devices that would have produced the dry as dust emptiness in the lawyer that we achieved in the logician, in the chief (which needed heightening in the Old Gentleman). M came closest to getting it in his ex-school teacher the last night when he worked less hard. For F it crystallized when we tried the answering service device. He did not quite hit it with L so that the audience suddenly through laughter would wake to the horror of hearing their own banality.

The horror, theatrical and otherwise, needed intensifying. G has a wonderful sense of the value of words: he relishes them, tastes them, uses them. This sense was a wonderful reinforcement for his excellent physical clowning. But the horror of the act needed to intensify and build and build. Man turning into beast should have been more horrifying that we made it. This needed careful moment by moment building through careful selection of detail, through maybe cinematic techniques and a culmination in production elements. We settled too easily for no production. Because a technical problem is difficult to solve does not mean it must go unsolved. Jumping over the ground row was no substitute for a wall demolished. The end of that act must be theatrically shattering. All “effects” should have been more carefully planned and executed. The exit of Madame Boeuf did not come to its climax because a hand was visible giving R the skirt and so “all that was lift of the woman was a skirt” did not come off. Ends of acts generally needed more careful timing and implication. The office scene went dead toward the end, needed production detail. What should Berenger do after “capitulate” – Jump into bed? Rush on out? Eat a carrot? We stopped short of some frightening implications about one little man alone in a world of rhinoceroses. What should the last scene of the play say? Or do? Or imply?

Instead of discussing each person’s work individually in this, I have tried to clarify an overall approach to Ionesco in the hope you would apply it specially. Because I have discussed flaws means only that we still have much to learn; but you are well on to achieving style. The objective of this discussion is to sharpen your awareness of what is involved in style and to encourage you to work toward it.

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