Free Thing of the Week: Rhinoceros

Continuing our week of Free Things to celebrate the Harvest Moon, we bring you an absurd animated version of an absurd theatrical play.

He’s long out of fashion among the oh-so-hip theater people of the 21st Century, but Eugène Ionesco was once so renowned as to be considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Born in Romania to a Romanian father and a French mother, Ionesco lived his youth in France then moved back to Romania in 1925. He saw the rise of Fascism in his native country and after returning once more to Romania at the start of World War II, he moved back to Marseille in 1942 as he watched German fascists decimate both his nations. Thinking the end of the war would be the end of the dictatorships of Hitler in France and Ion Antonescu in Romania, Ionesco watched Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej’s communist government continue the cycle.

It’s no surprise he became a playwright immediately afterward, and used his theater to launch devastatingly funny attacks against totalitarian conformism, whether led by communists, fascists, or so-called liberals.

His play Rhinoceros is probably the starkest of these. It’s often read as a parable of French society meekly allowing Hitler to strangle their country and while that’s certainly valid, it’s also a warning that the blank conformism of Communism is no better.

Having left Communist Poland to work in Paris, radical cartoonist and designer Jan Lenica certainly felt a kinship with the material. His animated version of Rhinoceros, picks up the theme and amplifies it so that there is almost only a tangential connection to the original play, but a total thematic sympathy.

Critic Aleksander Jackiewicz noted that Rhinoceros is “A very funny film, and although made of mere lines and spots, of a purely graphic matter – a dangerous one.” We agree.

Download Rhinoceros from the Internet Archive here.
Watch Rhinoceros on Vimeo here.

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