Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 958
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 of a stir. In the early 1960’s, however, Arrabal joined the Mexican director Alexandro Jodorowsky and others to found the Panic movement, named for the Greek god Pan. The idea was to create something real, a theater at once sacred and profane, poetic and vulgar, jeering and serious. Arrabal was influenced both by the surrealists and by Antonin Artaud, who advocated a ritualized theater in which the boundary between actors and audience disappears.
The Panic theater period was fruitful for Arrabal. He wrote prolifically and with increased purpose and artistic maturity. Two works generally considered among his best, The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria and The Garden of Delights, date from this period. The former, especially, is exemplary of Panic theater. Like all Arrabal characters, the two in this play are not so much psychologically drawn profiles as they are prototypes. When the emperor survives an airplane disaster and finds himself on a small island with only one inhabitant, the architect, the two play a Robinson Crusoe/Friday game that pits civilized against uncivilized, culture against nature. Constantly switching roles, they enact a trial where the crimes of the emperor, who may or may not have been the president of the United States, are judged by the architect. The verdict is death, and the judge has to consume—literally eat—the corpse after the execution. By those means, the two change roles: The architect becomes the emperor by absorbing his body and brain. The audience witnesses a rite of transition, or a series of rites, the progression from life to death, from a primitive condition to a civilized condition, from one evolutionary stage to the next. The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria was the first of Arrabal’s plays to be received with almost unanimous applause.
Then came 1968, student revolts, and “guerrilla” theater—street theater with uncompromising political messages. Arrabal was part of the student movement and wrote a number of plays that can be characterized as guerrilla theater. Many consider the best of these to be And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers, a rousing, moving, disgusting denouncement of political oppression in Spain. The play, which is set in a prison and details the dreams and ugly realities of five political prisoners, could have been written about Argentina, the Soviet Union, or South Africa—anywhere where political opponents of repressive regimes are jailed and tortured with impunity. In the 1970’s, Arrabal seemed to lose some of his belligerence and began to write comedies that the bourgeoisie could appreciate.
In his novel Baal Babylon, Arrabal evokes his childhood in Fascist Spain; in 1970, he adapted the novel for the screenplay ¡Viva la muerte! (Spanish fascist slogan Long Live Death!) and directed its filming in Tunisia.
Arrabal’s theater is at its worst infantile, vulgar, and pointless, but at its best, as in The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria and And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers, it has an almost folkloric directness: Arrabal accesses his own unconscious and projects his dreams and fantasies onto characters and plots that enact universal rituals. His plays have the texture of life, of history. Individuals lose their individuality by multiplication, constantly changing places, constantly transgressing boundaries. Yet they are always locked in the same pattern of absurdity and cruelty, with brief moments of pleasure and, perhaps, love thrown in to give, if not meaning, the semblance of a purpose to life.
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