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In Berenger's office, the co-workers argue with Botard, a crusty skeptic who doesn't believe the news about yesterday's rhinoceroses and who thinks the journalists are sensationalizing the story to sell papers. He believes only in things that are scientifically precise. Berenger arrives late, but Daisy sneaks him the time-sheet to sign. The employees ask Berenger if he saw the rhino, but Botard bullies and insults his opinions. Botard claims the illusory appearance of the rhino is an example of "collective psychosis." They return to work, proof-reading law proposals.
The employees wonder about the unexplained absence of Mr. Boeuf, an older worker. Mrs. Boeuf rushes in, breathless, and says her husband has sent her a telegram from his family visit: he is sick and will be back in a few days. She tells them that she was just chased by a rhino, which is now downstairs. The rhino tries to ascend the stairs up to the office, and in the process crushes the staircase, stranding the workers. Botard begrudgingly concedes the rhino's existence. Mrs. Boeuf suddenly recognizes the rhino as her husband. Daisy telephones the fire station to rescue them. The men give Mrs. Boeuf advice for dealing with this setback. They recommend that she collect insurance and file for divorce, but she is too devoted to her rhino-husband and vows to stay with him. She jumps down to the ground floor and (off-stage) rides off on his back.
Papillon, the department head, considers Boeuf's metamorphosis a business expense. More rhinos are reported in the town. Botard claims he never denied the existence of the rhinos and, in trying to explain their presence, charges that a conspiracy with traitors is taking place. The firemen arrive to help them out the window, and Papillon makes alternative business plans for tomorrow, as the office is inaccessible. Botard vows he'll solve the rhino-riddle. Berenger passes on an offer to drink with Dudard so he can visit Jean. Berenger and Dudard make conspicuously polite gestures as to who shall climb out the window first. They finally leave together.
Berenger's previous comments in Act 1 about his dreary office life come to fruition in this scene. Ionesco condemns the workplace with its insignificant busywork and gossip. Berenger and Dudard have a petty rivalry for Daisy's affections and Botard and Dudard compete for Papillon's good graces. Ionesco also denounces the privileging of work over people, such as Papillon's view of Boeuf's metamorphosis as a mere labor shortage. Ironically, "papillon" means "butterfly" in French, contrasting sharply with Papillon's indelicate nature. The alienating influences of the workplace help explain why Berenger shows up late, and why his stale bourgeois existence is wracked with ennui. However, he refuses a drink and decides to take advantage of the free afternoon to visit Jean, a sign that he is starting to lead a more committed, responsible life.
Rhinoceros is generally viewed as an indictment of man's intrinsic savagery, his latent capacity for evil. Ionesco highlights this here by actually humanizing the metamorphosis of Mr. Boeuf. His is the first transformation that is not anonymous and shows the rhino's (Mr. Boeuf's) "tender" trumpeting to his wife. "Boeuf" means "beef" in French, and Daisy calls the rhinoceros an "ugly animal," but here it seems as though transforming into a rhino does not totally banish his humanity. In fact, the more savage personalities belong to the men who crassly dispense pragmatic advice to the shocked Mrs. Boeuf, or to Botard, who jealously tries to assign responsibility for the rhino's existence to Dudard.
Botard hints at one of the play's major themes when he labels the appearance of rhinos as a "collective psychosis." His hyperbolic accusation of a conspiracy is not to be dismissed: those who join the herd now are considered traitors, while later those who don't are the renegades. As Ionesco gauges it in the play, morality shifts to accommodate any political movement; the majority of progress is always the good side, and the minority of resistance is always the bad side. At this point in the play, those who turn into rhinos are resisting humanity and are therefore, in Botard's eyes, bad. Yet Ionesco foreshadows Botard's future hypocritical transformation. Like Jean, Botard rationalizes his inconsistent behavior after the fact when he first denies the rhinos and then denies his previous denial.
Ionesco refrains still from showing the rhinoceros, drumming up excitement for a possible glimpse (and curiosity as to how the production will present the creatures on-stage). Other effects abound, however, as they did in the previous act, including the collapse of the staircase. As plays from the often-static Theatre of the Absurd go (see Beckett's Waiting for Godot), Rhinoceros exhibits a wealth of action and dynamic stagecraft.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Rhinoceros!