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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The scene Z is most remembered for in this play is the one in which he transformed into a rhinoceros. Ionesco had envisioned the transformation happening behind a curtain, and the actor bursting through with a rhino mask. But Z could perform the most astonishing physical feats — whether reducing Johnny Carson to hysterics by placing a proffered cigarette on his brow and somehow getting it to roll all around his face until it fell into his mouth like a pinball machine, or doing a Dada-like imitation of a coffee percolator. And he wanted to make the frightening transformation with his face and body in full view of the audience.

Z knew rhinoceroses from personal experience. His 1961 appearance in “Rhinoceros” was his first time back on Broadway after enduring the blacklist. Virtually every book about the McCarthy “Red Scare” period includes some or all of Z’s testimony in Congress. It reads well today, but it took amazing courage to pull off that “performance.” Both laugh-out-loud hilarious and seriously grounded in Jewish ethics and the American constitution, Z’s words made a mockery of the proceedings. Unlike many of his colleagues, he refused to name names. As a result, however, he went from being one of the highest paid performers to scrambling for gigs. And he had to endure the complete unraveling and suicide of his good friend Philip Loeb, who at the time had been crashing on the sofa in the apartment Z rented from Irving Berlin. Loeb had been fired from his starring role in “The Goldbergs,” the highest-rated TV show of the time, and was unable to find other work.

Zero brought the full tragic weight of his McCarthy experiences to the play, which shocked even the playwright. In the play, the lunatic assaults on reason and humanity by the ever-growing stampede of rhinoceroses take on a frightening immediacy — which will remind the audience of any number of current events by asking the enduring question: How can the individual maintain his humanity when everyone seems to be conspiring to make doing so seem wrong?

Raphael Mostel is a New York City–based composer, writer and lecturer. He frequently writes on the arts for the Forward.


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