Jack Woodruff Memorial Notes on International Drama
From Chapter 2, “The Domain of Sombre Comedy,” Comedy in a New Mood, pp. 19-21.
[Eugène] Ionesco’s career from The Bald Soprano (1948) to Rhinoceros (1960) parallels Beckett’s. In the earlier play, a strong statement is made about the nature of man and his society, a statement reinforced by a definite sombre comic pattern which leaves the despairing sense that man is caught in a metaphysically untenable situation which he is incapable of altering. In the later play, Ionesco turned more agnostic (if not less despairing) and formed a play which was ambiguous and essentially beyond the sombre comic pattern. A rare disease, Rhinoceritis, breaks out, turning men into rhinoceri. At first Bérenger, a while collar worker, Daisy, his fiancée, and the whole town are alarmed by the presence of such brutes, but are unworried about the disease spreading. Gradually, however, more and more people change and evidence mounts, though it is never even close to conclusive, that the disease only makes headway among people who have some desire to become rhinoceri. Finally, only Daisy and Bérenger are left. Up until now, both have felt superior to the rhinoceri, but isolated in a pachydermic world, Daisy’s superiority cracks, and she begins to see the rhinoceri as truly beautiful and humanity as ungainly and ugly. She, of course, quickly becomes another pachyderm.
Daisy’s desertion brings on a crisis for Bérenger, now left utterly alone. Trying to reassert his values, attempting to strike a noble pose in adversity, he works himself into an hysterical mood. But then comes the deus ex machina stage direction: “Suddenly he snaps out of it.” From there his soliloquy continues,
Oh well, too bad! I’ll take on the whole lot of them! . . . . I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating![i]
and with that “pseudo-triumphant cry of defiance,” (as Vos calls it)[ii] the play ends.
In determining whether Rhinoceros is or is not a sombre comedy, several questions must be asked, again questions about what is to happen after the play ends or about the quality of existence after the play ends. These questions must be answered in terms of some pattern within the play. Does Bérenger turn into a rhinoceros? We really can’t say. Certainly he has not yielded yet, though he has had one unexplained, light attack of rhinoceritis. And the play never asserts without equivocation that one must yield to the illness. And besides, isn’t Bérenger’s renunciation of the rhinoceri so arbitrary as to be easily reconsidered? Isn’t he likely to crack as Daisy has cracked, only later on? If he so arbitrarily “snaps out of” his hysteria, isn’t he quite likely to snap out of his resistance as well?
Ionesco answers none of these questions, all of which would have to be answered before we could call Rhinoceros a sombre comedy, demonstrating man’s success or survival at a continuing price. Even if we assume for the moment that Bérenger’s renunciation is final and that he will remain a man among the pachyderms—an assumption unbacked by any consistent pattern within the play—we are left asking, “Is Bérenger really successful, is his renunciation really worth anything?” Are the rhinoceri really inferior to humanity? And even if they are, is it better to live isolated rather than to join them (especially vis-à-vis Daisy’s sense of the ugliness of isolated humanity)?
These questions are not meant to be quibbling nor are they meant to denigrate Ionesco’s play. They are simply meant to prove that Ionesco’s play falls outside even sombre comedy, that it asks rather than answers questions and that it fails to speak from any faith, even a pessimistic faith, about the survival of man. Again as in Endgame, we find behind Rhinoceros a writer who has journeyed far enough into skepticism to have lost all certainties, to be left only with an agnostic questioning of the universe. Comedy, including sombre comedy, has not been the genre for eternal questioning, and both Beckett and Ionesco have turned out of the comic form altogether, though they maintain comedy’s reliance on the virtual future to enforce their later agnostic messages. On the optimistic extreme, sombre comedy seems barred from presenting a totally acceptable universe. On the pessimistic extreme, sombre comedy seems to demand some definite faith, thus barring agnostic pessimism as well as unmitigated optimism from the genre. Playwrights with a skeptical or agnostic view of the value of man and the meaning of his universe have moved beyond sombre comedy, though such writers frequently borrow sombre comic techniques like extensive and harsh irony and an emphasized virtual future for their plays.
 Trans. Derek Prouse, rpt. Plays by Eugene Ionesco, Vol. 4 (London: John Calder, 1960), p. 107.
 Nelvin Vos, The Drama of Comedy: Victim and Victor, (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1966,) p. 65.