The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria Analysis

Fernando Arrabal

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1320 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 470 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.