It was about 18 years ago that I attended a family function in Ithaca, New York, home to Cornell University. A young man named Jacob joined the Rabbi on the podium, who proceeded to give him a sermon on the dangers of conformity. The Rabbi deftly interwove this theme from Eugene Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros.
From where I sat Jacob wasn’t at risk of conformity, but I didn’t know him well enough to make that judgment call.
What I did know was that the message of Ionesco’s play was among the more powerful ones I had ever heard. I rushed to buy a copy and was captivated by the plot. The first production was in Paris in January, 1960 and in April of that year, the London production by Orson Welles at the Royal Court Theatre featured Laurence Olivier in the starring role. Not too shabby.
The upshot of the play was that one by one, the townspeople began to metamorphose into rhinoceroses. There were subtle signs at first such as skin turning a shade of green and gradually thickening, a small bump on the forehead, and changes in appetites. Olivier’s character is the voice of reason, calling attention to the changes, while he progressively shrinks into the minority who retain their human-like features and qualities. Townspeople are in denial, disputing the evident as the absurd, as one by one they morph into rhinos, joining the nightly stampede. At the end he is the last man standing, fiercely clinging to his humanity, ultimately refusing to capitulate.
I was reminded of Rhinoceros when a former patient nodded to me in Starbucks this morning: “You’re Dr. Press, aren’t you?” This led to a conversation about how she “couldn’t come back to my office” because I don’t take her insurance any more. Years ago I had written a parody of Rhinoceros called “ManagedCare-Ceros”, in which health care providers morphed into providers for managed care plans. Their skins thickened as they took lumps on their forehead, one by one joining the stampede toward the privilege of running with the herd, in denial about what they were sacrificing, rationalizing the commoditization of care.
“You know I went to X-Vision and really wasn’t happy, so I may have to bite the bullet and come back to you”, my former patient shared. I told her that it was gratifying to hear her arrive at the conclusion that some services were worth paying for out of pocket, but that my practice had evolved more toward specialty care. As we do with all vision care plan alumni in our office, we would refer her to capable optometric colleagues who provide primary care, enabling us to concentrate on our specialty of developmental vision.
And with that, I pulled Ionesco off the shelf before leaving the office this afternoon, celebrating another day of non-conformity.