The Play

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1320

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The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria opens with the roar of a falling airplane. The Architect enters and runs wildly about the stage, looking for a place to hide. He falls to the ground with his fingers in his ears as the plane explodes and the glow of flames lights the stage. A few moments later, the elegantly dressed Emperor of Assyria enters. He taps the Architect on the shoulder with his walking stick, explains that he is the only survivor of the crash, and asks the Architect to telephone for help. The Architect runs from the stage, horrified.

The next scene takes place two years later. The Emperor explains that he wants to teach the Architect, a native of the island, about the wonders of civilization. This leads the Emperor into a reverie in which he begins to act out his memories, and the Architect soon joins the game. The Emperor pretends to be a horse, and the Architect sits astride him. The Architect pretends to be the Emperor, while the Emperor takes on the role of his own fiancé. The Emperor searches for his mother, and the Architect becomes her. Then they play soldiers of opposing armies, surrendering to each other instantly upon confrontation. The Emperor takes on the role of the Architect’s father confessor, his psychoanalyst, and finally his mother, from whom the Architect begs for a whipping. When the Emperor obliges him with only one gentle tap, the Architect becomes furious, beats himself, and exits the stage. The Emperor tries to enact the Crucifixion by himself, but finds that he cannot nail his own hands. He weeps, calling for the Architect to return.

The Architect comes back and offers to switch off the light. He speaks some magic words; night falls instantly. When the Emperor protests, the Architect speaks again and the daylight returns. It seems that the Architect, being a “noble savage,” has power over nature, which the civilized Emperor lacks. In response, the Emperor begins the games again. He pretends that he is dying and asks the Architect to bury him disguised as a chocolate ice cream bar. The Architect obligingly puts him in a coffin and proceeds to dig a grave. The Emperor angrily insults the Architect, who, in response, moves a mountain and threatens to leave the island in a canoe.

Amid their role-playing games, the Architect asks the Emperor to teach him about architecture, philosophy, and happiness—in short, the secrets of civilization. The Emperor does not answer; instead, he begins new games. He plays a sacred pink elephant, then transforms himself into the president of the United States, talking on the “red phone” with the homosexual leader of an enemy country. The opposing head of state has unleashed a hydrogen bomb, from which the Emperor tries to protect himself and the Architect with an umbrella. It does not work: They die, then come back to life as a pair of monkeys.

In a tender moment, the Architect confesses that he loves the Emperor, but the Emperor breaks the mood with a lecture on the benefits of civilization. The Architect then reads the Emperor’s mind and asks him about a murder he committed. To avoid answering, the Emperor locks himself inside a cabin to become a religious hermit. The Architect, unable to bear the withdrawal of the Emperor, tries futilely to make him come out of the cabin. The Architect finally gets so angry that he leaves, announcing that he is going to sail to another island.

When the Architect is gone, the Emperor emerges from his cabin. He tries to concentrate on his religious duties but is distracted by his longing for the Architect. In order to assuage his loneliness, the Emperor builds an effigy of himself and speaks to it. He first takes on the role of the Architect and pretends that the statue is the Emperor, but he soon drops this role and appears to speak as himself. He describes how his wife deceived him, how he worked long hours at a boring office job, and how he desired a mistress but could not win her. These surprisingly normal revelations seem genuine, and, if they are, then the role of the Emperor of Assyria is yet another game that this man is playing.

The Emperor drops his sincere tone and reverts to game playing; dressing in women’s underwear, he portrays a young man who played pinball to prove the existence of God, and lost. He then plays the dual roles of a pregnant nun and her cruel confessor. He proceeds to give birth, playing also the role of the doctor; he becomes the happy mother of a baby girl. Finally, the Emperor breaks down and calls for the Architect. He lapses into reminiscences about his old companion and, in the course of these, tries to figure the Architect’s age; he realizes with fright that the Architect is much older than he had thought.

The Architect returns, shouting for the Emperor. As they face each other across the stage, the Emperor asks the Architect how old he is. The Architect answers, “I don’t know. Fifteen hundred . . . Two thousand years. I don’t know exactly.” With that revelation, the first act ends.

In the second act, the characters’ transformations are occasioned by the trial of the Emperor for murdering his mother. When the curtain rises on the first scene, the Architect mimes eating an enormous animal at a table in the center of the stage. Then, putting on a mask and a judge’s wig, he begins to interrogate the Emperor. The Emperor takes on the role of his own wife, his brother, his friend Mr. Sampson, and his mother’s friend, Mrs. Olympia von Kant, all of whom testify against him. The Architect plays the Emperor’s mother and his dog. The Emperor finally confesses that he killed his mother by hitting her on the head with a hammer while she was asleep; he then let his dog eat her body, so no one ever discovered the crime. The Architect, in his role as judge, condemns the Emperor to death. The Emperor, agreeing, asks the Architect to kill him with a hammer and to eat his body, saying, “I want you to be you and me as well.”

As scene 2 begins, the naked body of the Emperor is laid out on the table. The Architect, a napkin tied around his neck, is attempting to cut off the Emperor’s foot with a butter knife. When that does not work, he asks the moles in the brushwood to bring him an ax, with which he succeeds in hacking off the Emperor’s foot; he tickles it, but it is he who laughs. The Architect gradually assumes the voice, features, and expressions of the Emperor as he eats his body and finally sucks his brains out with a straw. By the end of scene 2, the Architect has become the Emperor, and he has lost his power over nature.

Only the Emperor’s bones are left on the table in scene 3. The Architect ducks under the table; when he reappears, it is the Emperor who comes out, dressed as the Architect. He pushes the table offstage. For a moment, he is complete and happy, all alone on the island. He dances with joy. Suddenly the Emperor hears the roar of a falling airplane. He runs wildly about the stage, looking for a place to hide. He falls to the ground with his fingers in his ears as the plane explodes and the glow of flames lights the stage. A few moments later, the elegantly dressed Architect enters. He taps the Emperor on the shoulder with his walking stick, explains that he is the only survivor of the crash, and asks the Emperor to telephone for help. The Emperor runs from the stage, horrified. The curtain falls.

Dramatic Devices

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The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria employs the devices of game playing and ritual to convey its themes. The transformations of the two characters reveal their fantasies and obsessions as they entertain each other with the invention of a second reality. They play as if they are an Emperor, a nun, a judge, and so on, all while wearing costumes and masks. The masks lend the air of theatricality required for the characters to disguise their conventional personalities and liberate their true selves. However, there is no need for the Architect and the Emperor to convince each other that they actually are the roles that they are playing; they usually agree to abide by the conventions of their game. When one of the characters comes to believe that his role or mask is real, in fact, the game ends. For example, when the Emperor takes his role as a religious hermit too seriously, locks himself in his cabin, and refuses to answer the entreaties of the Architect, he is soon left alone. Realizing that it takes two to play any game, he sets up a figure of himself on his own throne to give himself a companion.

The action of the play consists of the transformations of the Architect and the Emperor. Theirs is an inherently theatrical situation: Not only do they play diverse roles, but they also wear costumes and masks as they do so. This type of theater is naturally comic—that is, there is often a difference between what is expected and what actually happens. Arrabal employs the comedy of the incongruous situation: Despite the fact that he possesses amazing powers over the natural world, a man on a deserted island becomes a slave and student of another who calls himself the Emperor of Assyria. Not only is this a comic idea, but it also recalls other similar situations in literature, notably the story of Robinson Crusoe.

Arrabal uses ritual and ceremony to recall both the liturgical aspects of the theater and the theatrical aspects of the liturgy. During the transformations of the first act, the Emperor insists that the Architect play his parts in a specific manner, as if he were acting out a scripted ritual. This recalls the Roman Catholic mass, in which the priest and the congregation address and answer each other according to a formal text. When the Architect eats the body of the Emperor, he performs an act analogous to the Roman Catholic sacrament of Holy Communion, in which the communicant eats the flesh and blood of Christ. Through this dramatic device, Arrabal both demonstrates the role of the sacred in the theater and comments on the cannibalistic aspects of the religious sacrament. Without the sacred in the theater, there could be no sacrilege, with all of its powerful dramatic possibilities.


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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 106

Sources for Further Study

Arata, L. O. “The Festive Play of Fernando Arrabal.” Studies in Romance Languages 25 (1982).

Boring, Phyllis. “Arrabal’s Mother Image.” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 15 (1968): 285-292.

Donahue, Francis. “Arrabal: Organic Playwright.” Midwest Quarterly 25 (Winter, 1984): 187-200.

Donahue, Thomas John. The Theater of Fernando Arrabal: A Garden of Earthly Delights. New York: New York University Press, 1980.

Killinger, John. “Arrabal and Surrealism.” Modern Drama 14 (September, 1971): 210-223.

Lyons, Charles. “The Psychological Base of Arrabal’s L’Architecte et l’Empereur d’Assyrie.” French Review 45, no. 4 (1972): 123-126.

Norrish, Peter. “Farce and Ritual: Arrabal’s Contribution to Modern Tragic Farce.” Modern Drama 26 (September, 1983): 320-330.

Podol, Peter L. Fernando Arrabal. Boston: Twayne, 1978.


Critical Essays