The plot goes as follows: the Announcer excitedly reports the actions of The Leader’s to the Young Lover, the Girl-Friend and the two Admirers. The Leader is off stage, only the Announcer can see him. The four anticipate The Leader’s entrance, listening to every word of the Announcer. The Announcer broadcasts each thing The Leader does, like shaking hands with people, eating his soup and petting a hedgehog. Finally, The Leader comes on stage, passing through where the five are waiting, who then discover that The Leader does not have a head. This does not matter to them because “he’s got genius” (116). At one point, the two Lovers chase each other across the stage, meeting the two Admirers in centre stage in confusion. The two couples exchange partners for a moment, embracing the other. The play ends with each character asking the others what their name is.
The Leader highlights some absurdist and existential themes. Depersonalization and loss of identity are most apparent. At the beginning of the play, the Girl-Friend tells the Young Lover “I’m afraid I don’t happen to know you!” (110). The two never exchange names, though they do proclaim their love for each other. In fact, no character is given a name at all, only titles. The Leader is only The Leader, the two lovers are called the Young Lover and the Girl-Friend and the two Admirers are called the Admirer and the Girl Admirer. The end is significant in that the characters still do not know each other: “[The Young Lover to the Girl Admirer, the Girl Admirer to the Announcer, the Announcer to the Girl-Friend, the Girl-Friend to the Young Lover:] ‘What’s yours? What’s yours? What’s yours?’ [Then, all together, one to the other:] ‘What’s your name?’ ” The play ends here, with no questions answered. What are their names? What are they doing there? Why does The Leader not have a head?
Marilyn R. Schuster brings out this depersonalization in her article Absurd Apotheoses. She states:
At the end of the play…the male Admirer embraces the Girl Friend, as the Female Admirer embraces the Young Lover. The fact that the play ends with interchangeable couples and a five-way chorus of “What’s your name?” makes as forceful a statement about depersonalization as the headless leader.
The Leader symbolizes mindless rhetoric used by one in power to sway others. The Leader has no personality. He goes through the motions of any other politician, kissing babies’ heads and shaking hands. The politics that he represents leads to the depersonalization of everyone, symbolized by the Announcer, the two Lovers and the two Admirers.
It is ironic that The Leader is so highly respected, given the status of a God. The Announcer states that The Leader “ ‘embraces the little girl…calls her ‘my child’ ” (112). The Leader also “ ‘Suffers the little children to come unto him.’ ” (113). The Leader, then, is compared to Jesus. This is of course ironic because The Leader doesn’t have a head.
The absurdists emphasized depersonalization and loss of identity because the world is absurd. The world is absurd to human beings because we are not capable of knowing ourselves, despite our will to know. We want to know where we came from and our purpose, but we cannot know these things. This is what makes the world absurd, and this is why we do not know ourselves. The absurdists, highlighted in Ionesco’s play, warn readers not to allow "leaders" to decide for them what the truth is. No one person is able to know such truths more so than another, and allowing another to decide for us is dangerous.
Schuster, Marilyn R. "Chapter 7: Absurd Apotheoses." Eugène Ionesco Revisited. Deborah B. Gaensbauer. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996. Twayne's World Authors Series 863.
Literature Resource Center. Web. 15 Mar. 2010.
Smith, Peter, ed. Rhinoceros and Other Plays. New York: John Calder Publishers, 1960.