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.
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.
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,...
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