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Rhinoceros (1974)

Rhinoceros is a play by Eug�ne Ionesco, written in 1959. The play belongs to the
school of drama known as the Theatre of the Absurd. Over the course of three acts,
the inhabitants of a small, provincial French town turn into rhinoceroses;
ultimately the only human who does not succumb to this mass metamorphosis is the
central character, B�renger, a flustered everyman figure who is often criticized
throughout the play for his drinking and tardiness. The play is often read as a
response and criticism to the sudden upsurge of Communism, Fascism and Nazism
during the events preceding World War II, and explores the themes of conformity,
culture, mass movements, philosophy and morality.

Rhinoceros is a 1974 comedy film based on the play by Eugene Ionesco. The film was
produced and released as part of the American Film Theatre, which adapted
theatrical works for a subscription-driven cinema series.

Zero Mostel ... John

Gene Wilder ... Stanley
Karen Black ... Daisy
Joe Silver ... Norman
Robert Weil ... Carl
Marilyn Chris ... Mrs. Bingham
Percy Rodrigues ... Mr. Nicholson
Robert Fields ... Young Man, Logician
Melody Santangello ... Young Woman (as Melody Santangelo)
Don Calfa ... Waiter
Lou Cutell ... Cashier
Howard Morton ... Doctor
Manuel Aviles ... Busboy
Anne Ramsey ... Woman with Cat
Lorna Thayer ... Restaurant Owner

The residents of a large town are inexplicably turning into rhinoceroses. Stanley
(Gene Wilder), a mild-mannered office clerk, watches the bizarre transformations
from a bemused distance. But soon the strange occurrences invade his personal
space, as his neighbor and best friend John (Zero Mostel) and his girlfriend Daisy
(Karen Black) become part of the human-into-rhinoceros metamorphosis that is taking
place. Eventually, Stanley realizes that he may be the only human left amidst the
new rhinoceros majority.

In adapting Ionesco�s play, several changes were made to the original text. The
setting was switched from France to a then-contemporary U.S., complete with a
photograph of President Richard Nixon that was comically venerated, and the lead
characters Berringer and Jean were renamed with Anglicized names Stanley and John.
A new music score by Galt MacDermot was created for the film and a dream sequence
was added to the story.

Eugene Ionesco�s Theatre of the Absurd play, translates superbly to the big screen
in its American Film Theatre adaptation � an effort to preserve and present
important drama to a wider public. It hasn�t given in to the need to be over-
literal or more naturalistic for a cinema audience and there are no real rhino�s
running through the film. The use of real rhinos was considered, but the eventual
use of only shadows and dynamic POV shots are highly effective and appropriately
surreal. By today�s standards however, the play is not as absurd as it may once
have been considered, it now resembling not so much Kafka as early Woody Allen.
Indeed, the film wouldn�t be out of place (except thematically) as one of the skits
in Allen�s Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask). This
impression is reinforced by Gene Wilder�s typically eccentric performance in what
would normally be considered the central role of B�ranger, re-named as Stanley for
the AFT film. He is however upstaged by Zero Mostel as his neighbour John. Mostel,
reprising his Broadway stage role is simply magnificent, relishing every little
gesture and intonation. His transformation into a rhinoceros, done without the aid
of make-up or special effects, is one of the great moments of the AFT programme of

Behind the antics and the humour, the play�s meaning is not that absurd either. The
theme of the play is about keeping one�s individuality, refusing to conform and,
quite literally, join the herd. From the playwright�s point of view it�s about
fascism, and collective anti-rationalist hysteria, however the play could be
adapted to any period and apply to blind conformism to any institution � political,
religious or social � where the individual feels their individuality threatened by
the need to conform to social conventions, political expedience, marital
domesticity or the current moral climate. For the director Tom O�Horgan the play is
closely related to his own time, relating to the disillusionment of the sixties
generation growing up, giving up on their ideals and becoming just like their
parents. There are hints in the AFT production towards this political theme with
one character wearing a button badge saying �Remember Pearl Harbour� and a picture
of Richard Nixon is venerated, but this is not over-emphasised, perhaps to its
fault. Rhinocerous plays up the absurdity and it can often be very funny, but it
leaves its message a little vague, unspecified and abstract.

Tom O'Horgan, a theater director best known for his staging of the original
production of the musical Hair, directed Rhinoceros. Zero Mostel, who starred in
the 1961 Broadway production of the play, recreated his role as the man who turns
into a Rhinoceros. Mostel created a minor brouhaha during the production when he
refused to smash any props during the rehearsal of his transformation scene � the
actor claimed he had an aversion to destroying property.

Although O'Horgan considered using a live animal to dramatize the transformation,

no rhinoceros is ever seen on camera during the film � shadows and POV camera
angles are used to suggest the presence of the animals.