In the opening scene of Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros, an impeccably dressed Frenchman named Jean chastises his companion Bérenger for being slovenly, overly fond of drink, and worst of all, late for their rendezvous.
The two men live in a little town in southern France. It’s a tranquil Sunday morning; the bells of the town church have just tolled.
In the midst of Jean’s harangue, out of nowhere, a rhinoceros barrels past.
How this massive creature could appear on the streets of a sleepy French town is a mystery that Jean can’t solve and that doesn’t especially interest Bérenger.
But its arrival presages a change in the townspeople: at first one by one, and later in whole groups, they begin to transform, discovering an appetite for grass, growing horns, acquiring thick, green skin. The fastidious Jean is one of the first to change.
By the end of the play, the only human being left is Bérenger.
He isn’t sure he was wise to cling as fiercely to humanity as he did. The rhinos have come to seem beautiful to him, their bellowing and trumpeting more and more like music. To be human now is to be lonely and self-loathing.
With its absurd, perissodactyl apocalypse, with its portrait of a community suddenly and inexplicably growing unrecognizable to itself, with its depiction of the various rationalizations that the metamorphosing townspeople offer for their growing disposition to rhinocerism, Ionesco’s play seems like an apt allegory for our new abnormal.
That’s why I organized a public reading at the Cox and Palmer Second Space at the LSPU Hall in St. John’s on Feb. 11. Rhinoceros was the inaugural play in 48 Months of Finasteride, a series counting down the Trump presidency.
Every month for the next four years, I’ll join local actors and members of the Memorial community in a public reading of a political play.
We won’t polish our reading to a bright sheen: we’ll read each play only once before we perform it for an audience. We’ll make up for their roughness by making them free to the public.
Our approach will allow us to choose plays that fit whatever scandals to decency are unfolding in a given month.
In response to the Muslim ban, sop to the nativists and Islamophobes in Trump’s base, we might read Arthur Miller’s tragedy of undocumented immigration, A View from the Bridge.
In light of the draft executive order threatening to revive the Bush Administration’s notorious black sites, we might read Gillian Slovo and Victoria Brittain’s verbatim-play Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom or Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s nightmarishly fanciful Lidless.
In view of the flood of editorials and thought-pieces likening America in 2017 to Germany in 1933, we will read Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day, a Brechtian pastiche that sees parallels between Reagan and Hitler.
Given Trump’s pugilistic temper and Steve Bannon’s alleged fantasy of American regeneration through war with China, we might read Caryl Churchill’s hallucinatory Far Away, which culminates in a war of all against all, even rivers and mosquitoes having taken up arms.
We’ll be sure to read Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, about an American fascist winning a presidential election.
“We’ll be sure to read Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, about an American fascist winning a presidential election.”
Staged across America in 1936 as part of the Federal Theatre Project, the play envisions an American fascist winning a presidential election. We’ll read It Can’t Happen Here in the hope that it hasn’t already.
We’ve launched this series partly out of sheer love of political theatre – for its variety, its wit, its seriousness. We’ve launched it partly because we believe that theatre is well-suited for lessons in social anatomy.
Above all, we’ve launched it to respond, in however modest a way, to this moment of cultural crisis.
Ethnic nationalism is on the rise. The Doomsday Clock has moved closer to midnight. People are turning into rhinoceroses. The alternative to action is hopelessness.
We choose to act.