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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3440

Throughout his career as a playwright, Fernando Arrabal’s finest works have been characterized by his unique ability to project memories, dreams, and obsessions onto the stage in a manner at once engaging and disturbing. The paradoxes and dualities of his own personality have formed the basis for a dialectic in his work, manifested by the clash between innocence and perversity, between Surrealist humor and lyricism and the grotesque. Despite such constants in his theater, however, a definite evolution in his technique can be identified, and it is expedient to divide his dramatic production into three periods or stages.

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Early Plays

Arrabal’s early plays are characterized by childlike characters who occupy a restricted area of theater space and whose innocence and naïveté clash with their own acts of amoral cruelty and with the incomprehensible, threatening macrocosmos that eventually crushes them. In some of these works, the playwright seems to be seeking the resolution of his own childhood fears and obsessions while at the same time presenting a universal vision of the oppressive nature of contemporary life. Ceremony, often deriving from Christian rituals, Surrealism, Beckettian absurdities, and humor based on the incongruous all appear regularly in these works. A circularity of structure, echoed in Arrabal’s symbolic use of the wheel and the balloon, and in his predilection for the labyrinth, constitutes another important element of his early theater. Works such as The Two Executioners and Fando and Lis are obliquely autobiographical, revealing the dramatist’s psychological obsessions. Dreams and nightmares are re-created onstage, most notably in The Labyrinth, Arrabal’s Kafkaesque vision of his country’s sociopolitical malaise. The basis for his mature theater, with its Artaudian conception of stage space, emphasis on the mutability of reality, and profound exploration of the realm of memory and the surreal, can be identified in some of these early endeavors, most notably The Car Cemetery.

The Car Cemetery

The Car Cemetery, like several earlier plays, explores the nature of good and evil in the context of an oppressive, irrational world. The setting of the drama is an automobile graveyard, a microcosm of society, run by Milos and Dila. The services they provide the residents of the establishment include Dila’s sexual favors, “rooms” in the remains of cars, and a urinal for those in need of one. Emanou and his fellow jazz musicians, Fodere and Topé, entertain the poor nightly. Emanou is in love with Dila, who warns him whenever the police are seeking him. Topé betrays him to the authorities, and Lasca and Tiossido, trainer and athlete, respectively, turn into police who flagellate Emanou and crucify him on a bicycle. As the play concludes, several inhabitants of the graveyard murder a newborn infant, and Tiossido and Lasca reverse their original roles and resume their campaign to set a new world record.

Much of the structure of The Car Cemetery is provided by the role reversals involving several pairs of characters. Milos generally dominates Dila; on several occasions he punishes her, once for not proffering sexual favors and, irrationally, another time for doing exactly that. Dila, however, aggressively threatens a cowering Milos with chastisement at another moment in the play. The drama’s circular structure derives from the physical movement of Lasca and Tiossido. Those two characters begin and conclude the work by seeking a new world record, but in reverse roles. Their relationship reflects both the indomitable will of the ambitious mother and the male’s need to assert himself physically in response to the feelings of inferiority he experiences when he compares himself to the female. Lasca and Tiossido also represent the oppressive nature of the state. At the play’s conclusion, the absurdity of their confining, suffocating route is affirmed, and their potential to metamorphose into police serving the system remains unchanged.

Emanou and his concept of morality constitute an essential component of the drama’s thematic fiber. Like Arrabal’s childlike characters in earlier plays, Emanou commits murder and performs other socially unacceptable acts. He is convinced that he will be pardoned, however, because he has memorized the meaning of goodness: “Well, when we’re good, we experience a great inner joy born of peace of spirit that is revealed to us when we see that we resemble the ideal man.” Emanou’s resemblance to the “ideal man,” which is reinforced by the miracles he performs, is all too apparent, but only seems to condemn him in the anti-Christian world in which he lives. He plays for the poor because it is impossible to put them out of their misery by killing them all, and he praises Dila for her goodness, which he equates with her willingness to accommodate all men sexually. When he does kill, Emanou always makes a point of bringing flowers to the grave of his victim. The love shared by Dila and Emanou seems to set off the social mechanism that leads to Emanou’s passion and death. If Christ can be thought of as love, then both he and that emotion are abrogated by the mechanized, dehumanized world of the automobile graveyard.

The graveyard itself constitutes a central, visual symbol of the wreckage of civilization, of the moral destructiveness of modern technological society. The possibilities for staging the play evince the growth in Arrabal’s conception of theater space and of the interplay between the audience and the mise en scène. A political note also derives from the metaphoric concept of the graveyard. Milos plays the dual role of humble servant and tyrannical oppressor to the inhabitants of Arrabal’s dramatic microcosm. As José Ortega suggests, The Car Cemetery is a play in which Milos incarnates authoritative paternalism, aggression, and the collective neurosis of a people who, under Franco’s repressive regime, have lost the ability to overcome the conflict between themselves and the “other.” The murder of the infant, the crucifixion of Emanou, and the obsessive and meaningless quest of Tiossido and Lasca all contribute to the play’s depiction of the repressive nature of the Fascist state in Spain.

The Car Cemetery—with its emphasis on games, its grotesque parody of religious ceremony, and its role reversals—evinces an enriched artistic vocabulary incorporating earlier motifs and anticipates the baroque aesthetic of the Panic ceremonies of the 1960’s. The play’s highly visual nature lends itself to a total theater approach in the Artaudian tradition (the most noteworthy example being Victor García’s staging of the piece in Dijon, France, in 1966); this sort of staging came to characterize the production of Arrabal’s plays throughout the 1960’s. The Car Cemetery stands out as one of the most ambitious and noteworthy accomplishments of Arrabal’s early period.

Panic Period

During the years 1959-1962, Arrabal ceased to write for the theater. In addition to writing his first novel, Baal Babylone (1959; Baal Babylon, 1961), he founded the Panic movementin conjunction with Roland Topor and Alexandro Jodorowsky. A mock-serious attempt at defining his art that burlesques the very concept of an artistic movement, Panic focuses on chance and memory as the essential components of art and life. Arrabal’s work in formulating the tenets of Panic, his subsequent contact with André Breton and the Surrealists, and his collaboration with the avant-garde Argentine directors Jorge Lavelli, Victor García, and Jérôme Savary were instrumental in the evolution of his dramatic art and the enrichment of his artistic vocabulary. The plays of his Panic period were longer, more complex, and more ritualistic than his earlier endeavors. Panic ceremony, an intensified oneiricism, alchemy, the evocation of the plastic arts, and the expansion of theater space characterize his theater of the 1960’s. In the two outstanding plays of this period, The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria and The Garden of Delights, Arrabal fused personal memories and concerns with archetypal psychological forces and sociopolitical elements into a complex quest for artistic and metaphysical liberation. The latter work, completed after Arrabal’s release from prison in Spain, marks the transition to the final phase of his dramatic production.

While in jail in 1967, Arrabal came into contact with a number of political prisoners, immured for years for nonviolent crimes against the state. That experience caused him to identify anew with his father and to accord a greater emphasis to external reality in his theater. This shift in emphasis in his work was reinforced by his experiences as a participant in the May, 1968, rebellion in Paris. The immediate product of those traumatic events was his guerrilla theater, most notably the play And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers. Subsequent endeavors varied in quality; overt pamphleteering in such political sketches and reviews as La Grande Revue de XXe siècle and Bella Ciao, la guerre de mille ans produced works of questionable merit. When Arrabal sought inspiration in his feelings about his self-imposed exile and his personal dreamlike vision of his country’s past and present ills, however, the results were far more significant, as evidenced by Sur le fil: Ou, La Ballade du train fantôme and La Tour de Babel.

The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria

The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, generally considered to be Arrabal’s finest play, develops fully such features of The Car Cemetery as the emphasis on games, the parody of religious ceremony, the metamorphosis of characters, and the circularity of structure. The result is a complex projection of archetypal psychological forces that combines frequent allusions to sociopolitical issues to produce a unique and original myth of contemporary humankind’s quest for identity and psychic wholeness.

The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria begins with a loud explosion and flash of light, suggestive of the act of giving birth, which heralds the arrival of the Emperor, the sole survivor of a plane crash. He encounters the Architect, a primitive man of nature, who grunts in fear and hides his head in the sand. After a blackout, the action resumes several years later. The Emperor has taught the Architect to speak almost perfectly and has educated him in the ways of the Western world. The two characters, who can be viewed as different components of man’s psyche, proceed to engage in a series of games. These involve domination and submission in a variety of contexts. Underlying all of the sadomasochistic play is the figure of the mother, whose anima, in the Jungian sense, is strongly reflected by the Emperor. He drives the Architect to abandon him toward the end of the first act. Left alone onstage, he creates a scarecrow Emperor to whom he can play the Architect and continue the games. These reach a climax when the Emperor plays pinball to prove the existence of God; he also delivers a child while portraying a pregnant nun during the course of the pinball game. This grotesque act is followed by the return of the Architect, who affirms that he is hundreds of years old.

In the relatively brief second act, the Emperor is tried by the Architect for the crime of matricide. He confesses his guilt after portraying a series of witnesses derived from Arrabal’s own life and then demands that he be killed and eaten by the Architect. That grotesque parody of the sacrament of Communion causes the Architect to metamorphose into the Emperor, losing all of his magic powers over the forces of nature. Just as the Architect-Emperor (now played by the actor who initially portrayed the Emperor) is exulting in his psychic self-sufficiency, the plane crash that initiated the drama is repeated. The Architect lands on the island and the Emperor babbles in fear and hides his head in the sand. The cycle has both begun and ended, just as in a chess match, in which the opponents exchange colors after each game so that the psychic struggle can be resumed.

In The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, Arrabal’s exploration of the interior world of his characters and his examination of the psychological and sociopolitical forces to which they are subject is elevated to the level of myth. One theme of the drama is the modern world as a corrupting force; that aspect of the work alludes to the Robinson Crusoe story. The real fascination of the play, however, results from its exploration of the human condition, of humankind’s innermost fears, anxieties, and needs. Despite the humor, which is quite coarse and vulgar at times, the characters’ need for one another—or metaphorically, for psychic wholeness—proves to be compelling in the theater. The grotesque and the romantic—love, blasphemy, and horror—all coalesce in the climactic scene in which the Architect devours the Emperor and assimilates his essence.

The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria is a complex work that can be approached from a number of critical perspectives. The importance of the mother figure encourages a Jungian approach; the scene in which the Emperor describes the act of matricide, where a lizard, with the son’s face on it, emerges from her skull, suggests the archetype of the Mother-dragon, the devourer of her children. Grotesqueries abound: the Emperor’s vision of his mother in tournedos and fillets constitutes one quintessential example of the union of the horrifying and the comic in a single image. The drama masterfully balances archetypes and universal feelings with Arrabal’s personal vision and concerns. The work’s rich language, Surrealist imagery, and structural rhythms all contribute to its lyric quality. The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria affirms the nobility of the human spirit; it does so, paradoxically, by presenting humankind’s basest pretenses, needs, and drives. It is a highly poetic work that celebrates, ritualistically, the renewal of man’s quest for self-understanding in today’s perplexing world.

And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers

Inspired directly by the author’s incarceration in Spain, And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers contains a number of features already associated with Arrabal’s theater, but also introduced several new techniques and a heightened concern with political reality that came to characterize his work after 1968. Autobiographical events, especially the dramatist’s nightmarish vision of his mother’s active role in the arrest and torture of her husband, are interspersed throughout the work. Certain specific motifs and historical events contained in previous plays also recur. The demand for active participation by the audience was new, however, and the structure of the play is a great deal more complex than that of any of Arrabal’s earlier works.

The stage directions at the beginning of the drama call for the audience to be accosted by the cast as they enter the theater, separated from friends and companions, and to be stripped of all sense of security in the dark foyer outside the main theater space. In that manner, the spectators should experience more immediately the pain and isolation that accompany imprisonment. A number of incidents, motifs, and dramatic techniques are then interwoven throughout the drama to provide its structure. Allusions to the first moon landing recur periodically, clashing ironically with the horrors perpetrated in the subterranean depths of Spanish prisons. This motif also functions to question the merits of space exploration while such terrible injustices and cruelties continue on earth. As in earlier works, dream sequences occur throughout, obliterating the distinction between waking reality and the oneiric. Many of these dreams are highly erotic in nature; Arrabal’s penchant for what some critics consider the pornographic has never been more strongly expressed, and this element was responsible for much of the criticism that greeted the work.

The play’s direct consideration of political realities is evidenced by a number of references to historical events. The prisons themselves are described in detail, and specific incidents (such as the condemnation of the man who saved his village priest during the civil war, because anyone who could do so must have had influence with the “Reds”) are interspersed throughout. The title of the play is taken from a poem by Federico García Lorca, whose execution during the war is also described. The principal historical event that structures the play, however, is the trial and execution of a fictional character, Tosan, twenty-five years after his alleged crimes against the state. Based on the actual case of Julián Grimau, Tosan’s story proceeds with tragic inevitability. The time that remains to him is indicated by a clock; props are of great importance in the play. The fragmentary nature of the scenes is successfully offset by the central incident of Tosan’s case and by the unifying focus of the play on the total experience of incarceration in post-civil war Spain.

Arrabal utilizes a number of interesting devices in And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers. Having the same actors play the roles of prisoners and jailers adds to the impact of the work. Props such as the bloodstained flag that serves to indict the military, the Church, and the wealthy oligarchy for the execution of Tosan acquire a tremendous symbolic authority. Certain images also stand out—the most telling of these being the equation of the prison cell with the womb, through which Arrabal seems to be heralding his own rebirth into political awareness and his heightened understanding of his father’s fate and its significance.

At the conclusion of the play, Tosan is garroted. He urinates out of fear before he dies, and the urine miraculously changes into blood. Arrabal had difficulty deciding on an appropriate ending for the play; in some versions, the miracle at the end is emphasized in a manner that leaves the audience with a strong feeling of hope. In at least one production directed by the author himself, however, that element of hope was deleted from the work. And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers, as much as any of Arrabal’s works, outraged a number of important theater critics. Its excesses, including fellatio performed on Christ, are certainly extreme and, in some cases, gratuitous, but the efficacy of the work as a total theater experience, viscerally underscoring the playwright’s outrage at his country’s perversity, more than compensates for its liabilities.

Sur le fil

Arrabal’s chance discovery of a ghost town in New Mexico named Madrid provided the inspiration for Sur le fil: Ou, La Ballade du train fantôme, a dramatization of the theme of exile. The plot is quite simple. Tharsis has kidnapped the Duke of Gaza and taken him to Madrid, New Mexico. There they encounter Wichita, the only remaining inhabitant of the town. A former tightrope walker, he has lost his own ability to perform, but passes his art on to Tharsis. After Wichita’s suicide, Tharsis returns to Madrid, Spain, to cross the Puerta del Sol on a wire in an act designed to serve as a call for freedom for the Spanish people.

Dualities abound throughout Sur le fil. Arrabal cleverly juxtaposes the two Madrids, suggesting parallels between the two “dead” cities. The two titles of the work underscore the dual vision of the playwright; on the wire, a literal translation of the title, suggests transcendence, while the phantom train, which descends into the depths of the deserted mines to deliver corpses that will be used to manufacture dog food, emerges as a metaphor for the exploitation of man.

Arrabal identifies with Tharsis; through that protagonist he makes a number of references to his own situation in Spain and to his feelings about having left his native country. Tharsis’s talent on the wire becomes a metaphor for Arrabal’s own art. Wichita, like the Architect in The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, controls the forces of nature, especially the birds. The latter protect Tharsis from government planes, allowing him to complete triumphantly his walk across the Puerta del Sol. Wichita’s transference of his skill to Tharsis evinces the purity and naturalness of true art. The lung disease that afflicted the miners in New Mexico parallels Arrabal’s own bouts with tuberculosis and underscores the idea that he could no longer breathe, both figuratively and literally, in Spain’s oppressive atmosphere. Tharsis’s final triumph is accompanied by an opening up of theater space in a joyful affirmation of hope. The note of verticality is reminiscent of similar images encountered at the conclusion of Arrabal’s film ¡Viva la muerte! (1971) and subsequently reiterated at the end of the film L’Arbre de Guernica (1975). By returning to intensely personal feelings in Sur le fil and translating them into highly visual dramatic images, Arrabal managed to make an overt political statement without sacrificing the allure of his early theater.

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Arrabal, Fernando (Vol. 18)