Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425

The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria is considered by many critics to be Arrabal’s finest play and his fullest demonstration of the dramatic possibilities of his “Panic” theater. “Panic” describes a view of the world as a place governed by chance, chaos, humor, confusion, and euphoria. More an antimovement than a movement, it parodies attempts at organized literary movements and theories. Arrabal asserts that, because the past was once the future and because the future acts in response to confusion or chance, the essential nature of life is chance and memory. The more that the artist shuns sterile perfection and lets his work be governed by chaos and the unexpected, the more vital it will be, reflecting the true nature of life and the human experience.

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Panic theater unites opposites on the stage in order to achieve chaos and confusion. Serious situations are turned into games; the poetic is juxtaposed with the vulgar, the sacred with the profane. Contradiction is important, as is the grotesque—the union of the horrifying and the comic. Arrabal frequently depicts metamorphoses and cycles to underscore his Panic themes.

Arrabal’s first Panic play was La Communion solennelle (pr. 1958; Solemn Communion, 1967), which presents a ritualized version of a little girl’s first communion. While she is being dressed for the sacrament by her grandmother (who lectures her on the virtues of keeping a clean home) a necrophiliac attempts to make love to a cadaver in a coffin. The juxtaposition is meant to point out both the sensuality present in religion and the ritualistic elements of sexuality.

Le Grand Cérémonial (pr. 1964; The Grand Ceremonial, 1970) explores the relationship between a guilt-provoking, sensuous woman and her crippled son as he attempts to establish relationships with other women. Because he cannot separate from his mother, he sees all women as dolls and love as a combination of eroticism and destructiveness. The play unfolds in a dreamlike atmosphere in which psychic anguish acquires grotesque physical manifestations.

Other Panic plays by Arrabal include Le Lai de Barabbas (pb. 1969; The Song of Barabbas, 1969; originally published in 1964 under the title Le Couronnement), Striptease de la jalousie (pr. 1965; Strip Tease of Jealousy, 1968), and Le Jardin des délices (pr., pb. 1969; The Garden of Delights, 1974). After 1967, when Arrabal was released from his political imprisonment in Spain, he gradually shifted away from Panic themes toward those that were more politically committed. His late twentieth century plays included La travesée de l’empire (pb. 1987), Comme un lis entre les épines (pb. 1996), and Carta de amor (pr. 1999, pb. 2001).

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