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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state. http://jd.fo/h4wK0
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.