Zero Mostel's Long Shadow on 'Rhino'

After Sensation, Ionesco's Absurdist Classic Is Rarely Shown

‘Rhino’s Back: Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic is back. Apparently, few wanted to produce it after Zero Mostel’s performance a half-century ago.
‘Rhino’s Back: Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic is back. Apparently, few wanted to produce it after Zero Mostel’s performance a half-century ago.

By Raphael Mostel

Published September 27, 2012, issue of October 05, 2012.
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As part of its 30th Next Wave Festival, the Brooklyn Academy of Music will be showcasing Eugène Ionesco’s classic absurdist play “Rhinoceros.” The critically acclaimed production, performed in the original French by Paris’s Théâtre de la Ville under the direction of Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, represents an all too rare occasion to see a this ebullient and shocking parable in which a French town’s residents slowly transform into rampaging rhinoceroses until only one human being, a drunkard named Béranger, remains.

Zero Mostel
getty images
Zero Mostel

Apparently, one reason this play is produced so seldom is because of my uncle, Zero Mostel, who introduced it on Broadway more than 50 years ago — the first time anything by Ionesco had been presented in America. The production caused such a sensation that few actors have dared step into his shoes. In Newsweek, critic Jack Kroll wrote, “Something unbelievable happened. A fat comedian named Zero Mostel gave a performance that was even more astonishing than [Laurence] Olivier’s.” (Olivier had appeared in the London premiere one year earlier.) The other main actor, who played Béranger to Z’s rhino, was no slouch either — Eli Wallach. The fact that this play has been performed so infrequently in the United States is a great shame, because it is a timely exploration of delusional mass conformity, inspired by Europe’s repugnant embrace of fascism.

The subject of Ionesco’s Jewish background has been the matter of some debate. In a 1984 interview with The Paris Review, Ionesco, who was born in Romania, near Bucharest, said that in his youth he was often mistaken for a Jew and bullied because of it. And he reportedly said that his mother was a Jew from Craiova. Ionesco’s daughter Marie-France, however, has disputed this claim, stating that, although her father had positive feelings about Jews and Israel, it was more likely that one of his great-grandparents had been Jewish. When Ionesco arrived for the 1961 Broadway production of ‘Rhinoceros,’ Zero (known to friends and family as “Z”) translated his comments for the rest of the cast. They actually spoke Yiddish together, even though Z was also fluent in French.

Few people knew that, one year before Z appeared in “Rhinoceros,” a bus skidded on the ice and pinned him to a car, shattering one of his legs. He refused his doctors’ advice to allow them to amputate to avoid gangrene. Instead he underwent long experimental treatments, including the then-new idea of skin grafting. It worked. Although offstage he needed a cane for support — which he pulled off as an affectation — and for the rest of his life he needed medication for pain, no one ever perceived him as physically compromised onstage.


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