One of the founders of the so-called Panic theater movement and one of the most important playwrights to emerge in the 1960’s was the Spaniard Fernando Arrabal (ah-rah-BAHL). He was born to a military family in Melilla, Spanish Morocco. At the age of four, Arrabal moved with his mother and siblings to Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain, where he received his first schooling under the supervision of Catholic priests. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, his father, who had remained loyal to the Republic, was arrested and condemned to death by the Franco insurgents; the sentence was later commuted to thirty years of imprisonment. Despite his unusually small stature, Arrabal was sent to a preparatory school for the military academy, but when it became clear that he was not meant for a military career, he began instead to study law.
While going to the university he started writing plays. Picnic on the Battlefield, written in 1952, when Arrabal was only twenty, is a one-act antiwar piece; although it is sketchy, it is effective and amusing. A feature of Arrabal’s early plays is the presence of childlike characters, both innocent and cruel. In The Tricycle, a clown-comedy that evokes Samuel Beckett, the play’s four characters center their lives on a park bench and a tricycle that they use to give children rides. They talk, sleep, and play games of pride, sexuality, and death. For money, they murder a stranger, yet they are not evil; indeed, they are not even really aware of what it is they have done. They are pre-social, moral idiots, monsters of the Freudian id. The play, like many of Arrabal’s early plays, is perhaps best understood if seen as a metaphor for life itself: people living in a world where morality and decency are unaffordable and unattainable luxuries.
Arrabal moved to Paris in 1955 but had trouble gaining recognition. Not until 1958 did he get a play published, when the journal Les Lettres nouvelles (the new literature) agreed to publish Picnic on the Battlefield. Not long afterward, another publisher put out the first volume of Arrabal’s plays, and about the same time Picnic on the Battlefield was produced.
By this time, his plays were being produced in Paris by small companies, but they were still too sterile and formalistic and did not create much...
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