Horns of the Dilemma

ionesco & williams between the human & the animal — curious theatre branch, rhinoceros @ curious theatre branch, 27 february 2016 & the hypocrites, the glass menagerie @ den theater, 5 march 2016.

rhinoceros2The cast of Curious Theatre Branch in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.

Roughly contemporaries, Tennessee Williams and Eugène Ionesco do not typically get associated with one another. Many characterize Williams as, generally speaking, a practitioner of realism, if in a slightly exaggerated Southern Gothic vein. Ionesco, by contrast, was one of the instigators of the Theater of the Absurd. He was a deeply surreal playwright whose plays are often ridiculously farcical save for the strong undertone of mournful sadness lurking within them.

Yet two recent Chicago productions of their respective classic plays—Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, in a quietly somber version by The Hypocrites, and Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, in a zany take by Curious Theatre Branch—illuminated common concerns: both plays investigate the desire to flee from the constraints of human sociality for an imagined and idealized, if somewhat feared, animalistic freedom.

Both plays use the figure of the horned animal in particular to set up this theme. The infamous broken glass unicorn figurine owned by Laura Wingfield until clumsily broken by her “gentleman caller” Jim O’Connor from Williams’s Glass Menagerie becomes an emblem of dashed hopes, the final shattering of a family’s social world as it uneasily existed. The humans-into-rhinos transformations of Ionesco’s strange play mark the disintegration of norms into an underlying stampede of disorienting impulses.


Joanne Dubach and Zach Wegner in The Hypocrites’s version of The Glass Menagerie.

Freedom in each play becomes murky, even illusory, increasingly distorted, and certainly confused. Is some kind of pure freedom from human sociality itself what defines the animal as other, as utterly different, from the human? Or does this fantasy somehow emanate from within the human as an animal? And what kind of animal are we talking about: a wild thing? A magical creature? An everyday domesticated beast of burden? A being of the pack? Or one of solitary pursuits?

These two plays, so different in tone and style, reveal characters caught on the horns of a shared dilemma: in their searches for freedom, to choose the human or animalistic, neither, or somehow both? No alternative offers total emancipation. Perhaps the realization that a pure fantasy of freedom will always be tinged by the constraints of memory, of ambivalence, of loss, of broken elements is precisely what makes the human animal distinct as a creature—one for whom totemic symbols and shape-shifting forms become key to self-making.

Most of all, when faced with choices between the urge to become totally unencumbered and the option to continue within enormous limitations, we humans cannot even quite tell where we stand most of the time. So across quite different imaginings of theater and what it can stage, we turn to the animal as miniaturized glass reflection in hand, as thicker-skinned giant twin roaming the savannah, to try to glimpse our own species nature.

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