Frank Galati about Rhinoceros


Frank Galati won a Tony Award for Best Play and for Best Director for his Broadway production of The Grapes of Wrath and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing for his co-adaptation of the novel, The Accidental Tourist. His distinguished career as a director, writer, actor and educator is well known from the Broadway stage to Hollywood, from the Steppenwolf and Goodman Theatres and Northwestern University in Chicago to the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota. Always thoughtful and generous with his insights about the theatre, art and life, Stay Thirsty Magazine was privileged to visit with him at his winter home in Sarasota for this Conversation about his latest project, an adaptation of Eugène Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros.

STAY THIRSTY: What was it about Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros that attracted you to spend time adapting and directing it for an Asolo Repertory Theatre production?

FRANK GALATI: The theatre is a social institution. It is the place where social vows are renewed and taboos are affirmed. Some of the pleasure of dramatic literature for the spectator is derived from discerning a play's rhetorical strategy and bearing witness to its point of view. As spectators we become involved in the moral problem at the center of the action and the ethical credentials of the protagonist. Naturally since theatre art is “of the moment” theatre artists are drawn to works of dramatic literature that reflect and may resonate with contemporary events and trends. I am drawn to Ionesco's Rhinoceros because, like the sudden silence of a canary in a mineshaft, it is a warning. It sounds an alarm. It signals that the atmosphere has become lethal.

Frank Galati 

STAY THIRSTY: How do you think the play’s satire and themes about mass culture, conformity and integrity will play to a contemporary audience? Will the original European World War II implications communicate well in today’s culture or have you adapted them to resonate in 21st century America?

FRANK GALATI: Great art is timeless. In an early one-act from 1955 Ionesco says “ . . . The creative artist himself is the only reliable witness of his times. He discovers them in himself, it is he alone, mysteriously and in perfect freedom, who can express his day and age . . . For me, the theatre is the projection onto the stage of the world within: it is my dreams, my anguish, my dark desires, my inner contradictions that I reserve the right to find the stuff of my plays.” Discovering our “times” within ourselves is the open invitation of all theatre art. I have changed the structure of Rhinoceros some (playing it in two acts instead of three) but I have chosen to set the comedy in the 1930s because that was the period of the author's coming of age. Ionesco remembers: University professors, students, intellectuals were turning Nazi, becoming Iron Guards, one after the other. At the beginning, certainly they were not Nazis. . . one of our friends said: “I don't agree with them, to be sure, but on certain points, nevertheless, I must admit, for example, the Jews . . .” etc. And this was a symptom. 
Three weeks later, this person would become a Nazi. He was caught in the
mechanism, he accepted everything, he became a rhinoceros. Toward the end, only three or four of us were still resisting.

In his recently published collection of essays ON TYRANNY, Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, sees a parallel between the outrageous world Ionesco posits and today's almost unthinkable reality. In his central essay “Believe in Truth,” Dr. Snyder writes:

“. . . Ionesco's aim was to help us see just how bizarre propaganda 
actually is, but how normal it seems to those who yield to it. By using the absurd image of the rhinoceros, Ionesco was trying to shock people into noticing the strangeness of what was actually happening.

The rhinoceri are roaming through our neurological savannahs. We now find ourselves very much concerned with something we call ‘post truth,’ and we tend to think that it's scorn of everyday facts and it's construction of alternate realities is something new or postmodern. Yet there is little here that George Orwell did not capture seven decades ago in his notion of ‘doublethink.’ In its philosophy, post-truth restores precisely the fascist attitude to truth – and that is why nothing in our world would startle Eugene Ionesco.

Fascism despised the small truth of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths to history or journalism. They used new media, which at the time was radio, to create a drumbeat of propaganda that aroused feelings before people had time to ascertain facts. And now, as then, many people confused faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we share. Post-truth is pre-fascism.”

I have no doubt that contemporary audiences will hear the arguments in this profoundly strange play as if Ionesco's characters themselves were appearing with Wolf Blitzer in the Situation Room.

STAY THIRSTY: Does the term “rhinoceroization” have meaning today?

FRANK GALATI: I suppose “rhinocerization” would be a process whereby a human animal is gradually transformed (cell by cell) into a rhinoceros (one of the herd, a lumbering, mud-colored pachyderm.) In our English translation by Derek Prouse the transformation is not so much a process which produces change as it is a contagion which spreads among individuals and finally engulfs all but one of the entire living population. Prouse calls the disease RHINOCERITUS, a moral malignancy, fed by propaganda. The best medicine is truth and the serum is in short supply.

STAY THIRSTY: Rhinoceros has an extraordinary history as a play favored to be adapted by other distinguished directors that included Orson Welles, Joseph Anthony and Tom O’Horgan. How and why does your version differ from your predecessors’? How has your cast responded to the idea of this production?

Cast of Rhinoceros

FRANK GALATI: We have a marvelous cast lined up for Rhinoceros. Our actors are drawn from a pool of extraordinarily talented theatre artists based in the Midwest, New York and California. Matt DeCaro and David Breitbarth play the two friends at the center of the comedy. Laura Rook plays the radiant Daisy, two featured office workers are played by Brandon Dahlquist and Matt Mueller and Chicago's beloved Peggy Rhoeder takes one special Rhino for a bumpy ride. The production is set in a charming small nineteenth-century European opera house. Bob Perdziola is designing sets and costumes in the manner of a French Boulevard Comedy of the 1930's. This evokes a nostalgia not only for the idle of the pre-war years (when Hitler's shadow was growing longer across Europe) but also for the quaint theatrical world of light well-made popular entertainment. Ionesco was the designated leader of the new “theatre of the absurd” and the stale irrelevant comedies he saw as a boy became targets of his wrath and passion to dismantle. As one of his characters says in his first play, The Bald Soprano, “. . . Such cascades of kaka. Such cascades of kaka.”

Our acting ensemble is charged and ready. The vulnerability of arts organizations in this current toxic environment motivates young theatre artists to work on projects that denounce egoism and human cruelty, re-affirm the highest of human hopes and put compassion, wisdom and skill at the service of social critique. 

STAY THIRSTY: Does the drama of this play portend coming social, political and economic changes in America? How do you think Ionesco would see it if he were alive today?

FRANK GALATI: In 1919 the poet William Butler Yates wrote “ . . . twenty centuries of stony sleep/ Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,/ And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” In Ionesco's surreal comedy, the star of Bethlehem flickers out, the age of anxiety dawns and that rough beast is a rhinoceros. The play signals change and calls for change in the social order. I think Ionesco would feel that his rhetoric hits the mark as much today as it did nearly fifty years ago. As theatre artists, what we have before us in essence is language, ideas and the imperative to play. Of course it's Hamlet himself who reminds us of “. . . The purpose of playing, whose end, both at the/ first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the/ mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature,/ scorn her own image, and the very age and body of/ the time his form and pressure.”

The mirror Ionesco holds up is a fun-house mirror. The distorted frightened face we see in the glass before us is our own.

(Audio, header graphic and photographs courtesy of Asolo Repertory Theatre)


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.