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Rhinos and Culture

Tonight I went to see Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco in the Brian Friel Theatre (Queen’s Film Theatre) because I knew one of the people involved. I had never heard of the work or even the writer but I’m glad I went. The basic outline of the piece is, to quote the QFT website, ‘When a rhinoceros charges across a town square and tramples down an innocent pussy one quiet Sunday afternoon, Berenger is unconcerned. However rhinoceroses start popping up everywhere, putting Berenger’s world, as he knows it, under threat. What will it take for Berenger to stand up to the increasing threat of rhinoceritis?.’
The idea of people turning into rhinos is absolutely absurd but also, as is intended, very symbolic (just change the word rhinoceros into sheep). First one character turns into a rhino then his boss before being followed by his workforce, apart from Berenger, who feel a duty towards the boss and follow his every whim. Eventually rhinoceritis takes hold to such a degree that Berenger picks up his telephone to be confronted by the grunting of a rhino, I didn’t ask how it dialled the number, and turns on the radio to hear the same sound.
The most effective part of the work, for me, was not this scene, but the first scene. The first scene consisted of Berenger sitting in a bar with a friend talking about him, essentially, not conforming to the norm. At some point through the scene a rhino stampedes past with all the characters running in to exclaim ‘look a rhino!’, or something to that effect, with Berenger sitting uninterested at the table. Berenger’s friend, Jean, after the rhino has passed says three or four times ‘well what do you make of that?’ to Berenger before Berenger takes the topic away from the subject of the rhino. The rhino or a different rhino, a subject of a little debate within the play, then returns and tramples on a cat. The owner runs into the bar screaming, mourning her cat, everyone clusters round talks and Jean says, yet again, ‘well what do you make of that?’
The reason I see this section of the play as the most effective and thought provoking part is that, to me, it sums up modern popular culture. You have the outside event (the rhino), people wanting to comment on an essentially unimportant event (‘well what do you make of that?’) and an outside event becoming the topic of conversation for a whole bar, and in the next scene an office, full of people (rhino trampling cat, woman coming into bar mourning and whaling). Scale this event from an absurd play into a real life situation. An outside event, say a cat stuck up the tree, becomes front-page news people talk about it because it is front-page news. Another situation, big brother, x-factor etc reality tv series, when they are on are all people talk about, they even somehow manage to get decent sized articles in respectable newspapers. So far these are two very banal examples but how about changing the example to a murder in a town 100 miles away or even in the same town? People still seem to react in the same way even though it does not directly affect them, though all sympathies go to any family that has been involved in such an event.
The problem is there seems to be no sliding scale of reaction; it’s either all out bitching, indignation or not caring. This is the reason I do not follow popular culture and news bulletins religiously, though I admit I look at a news site once a day to get an idea of what’s happening. I feel you are as likely to find out that the UK is at war as X celebrity has married Y. People seem inclined to follow the crowd, to become a rhino, in order to talk. But what is the point in conversing if what you are conversing about is ultimately pointless? Why not have a debate about which philosophy is better to live your life by, why string theory doesn’t work or which composer or writer is the greatest to have ever lived? These are ultimately as pointless as the banal subjects mentioned earlier but they require more knowledge than a 5 min read in a crappy 99p celeb magazine and they might in fact lead to a great idea or actually learning something new and interesting.
To me popular culture can be summed up as an oversaturation of utterly pointless information. I need to know and learn enough stuff without filling my mind up with useless things about someone who I have never met and who has probably done nothing of real worth or something that doesn’t and will probably never affect me. I sometimes feel like Berenger lost on a sea of rhinos but unlike him at the end of the play I have never debated becoming a rhino, I have always and hopefully will always just be me. Popular culture doesn’t interest me and do you know what? I don’t care.

As for the play and acting it was very good. If you read this, are about Belfast and are free either tomorrow or Friday head to it. Its only £6 and I think it would be worth it.

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