Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9494
Arrabal, Fernando 1932–
A Moroccan-born French playwright, Arrabal writes in the Theatre of the Absurd tradition. Arrabal attacks in his plays political, theological, linguistic, and psychological restrictions on freedom. A recipient of the Grand Prix du Théâtre, Arrabal is best known for L'Architecte et l'Empereur d'Assyrie. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[Arrabal's first novel, Baal Babylone,] serves as a good introduction to [his] later work, for it is a semi-autobiographical narrative that gives many insights into the dramatist's not too secret traumas. Writing in a deceptively simple, childlike language, Arrabal sets forth the portrait of a Spanish child at a period perhaps immediately after the Civil War. The child's father is gone, but his presence remains vivid for the boy. The child must cling to his father's memory as a means to escape from his odious, oppressive surroundings. It seems that the boy's mother, a domineering woman possessed with her own martyrdom, has denounced the father to the police "for his own good." The mother is thus the prototype for the gallery of sadistic figures who, in Arrabal's theater, cruelly but joyously destroy what they profess to love. In Baal Babylone the child refuses to surrender to his mother and her voracious demands. The father's memory thus becomes a symbol of deliverance in the smothering atmosphere where a devouring maternal love is sanctified by the duties the state church would impose upon the child. The boy's silent revolt is made manifest when he exposes himself and urinates before a convent grill. Arrabal's theater, in which exhibitionism, chamber pots, and urinations are frequent images, continues this scatological form of revolt, though in a less symbolic manner. For in his theater, Arrabal's revolt becomes a ritual of assault that attacks with unmediated directness.
Guilt, oppression, sadism, childish revolt, erotic fantasies, matricide, all of these fit together to form a surprisingly coherent dramatic world, whatever may be the excesses that Arrabal gives into at times. And since Arrabal published his first play some ten years ago, his work has undergone an evolution that points to a greater understanding of the theater. He began with short plays, such as Orison, Fando et Lis, and Guernica, in which the influences of such writers as Ionesco and Adamov is quite evident. His work has evolved toward more complex spectacles in which ritual and ceremony are used to give more stylized expression to his obsessions. Plays such as Le Grand Cérémonial and Concert dans un oeuf should be viewed as erotic ballets or celebrations into which the spectator should enter for purposes of communion and exorcism. Arrabal has also experimented with "pure" spectacles where a kinetic mise en scène, using motifs from Klee, Mondrian, and Delaunay, becomes an abstract drama. In both his ritual and his abstract works, Arrabal again calls to mind Artaud and his call for a total spectacle…. In 1967, this search for a freer theater culminated in L'Architecte et l'Empereur d'Assyrie. In this play Arrabal attained a synthesis between abstract mime and poetical fantasy, a synthesis which marks his mastery of the stage and perhaps of his personal anxieties. (pp. 174-76)
Baal Babylone's mother-child relation, which might be likened to an inverted Oedipal relationship, is savagely exploited in one of Arrabal's earliest plays, Les Deux Bourreaux (translated as The Executioners). In this work of patent sadism, the mother-martyr not only turns the father over to the police, but she happily watches as he is tortured by two anonymous executioners. To demonstrate her beneficent affection for him, she rubs salt and vinegar into his wounds, which completes this intentional murder of Laius. In Les Deux Bourreaux the mother has two sons, one of whom is a model of filial loyalty toward her. His example points up the rebellion of the ungrateful son who resists his mother's carnivorous affection. Yet the mother is too powerful and convinces the rebel to beg her forgiveness for the unnatural act of turning against maternal love. The father thus disposed of, the mother can retire to enjoy her son's exclusive love.
It would thus appear that an ambivalent Oedipal relationship, although directly portrayed in a relatively limited number of plays, is central to an understanding of Arrabal's fantasies. Two of his later, more developed plays cast more light on the mother-son relation and are worth examining in this respect. The first play, Le Grand Cérémonial, is a bizarre "ceremonial" in which a hunchbacked lover, appropriately named Cavanosa, plays the rôle of the doting yet rebellious son. Cavanosa, a seemingly emasculated lover, first claims to have murdered his mother and then claims to have murdered each night a girl whom he has loved. In fact, it seems that he has been reduced to making love to a collection of life-sized dolls that he beats and fondles with equal relish. Yet if Cavanosa is capable of transferring the erotic relationship he has with his mother, his only gesture of love can be to kill the woman he has taken to bed—the bed being the altar on which he sacrifices to the demands of maternal love. The suggested pattern of homicidal coitus is broken by Sil, a lover who, against her will, escapes death. She is offered to the mother as a slave to be tortured at the mother's pleasure. Such is the price of love in Arrabal's theater, where no amorous affair can be complete without whips and chains, or at least the confining prison of a baby carriage. And a more striking portrayal of a repressed Oedipal development, displaced as it may be, can hardly be imagined. (p. 176)
For Arrabal, then, love, as derived from the mother-son symbiosis, is either a form of bondage of a homicidal activity. Slavery and murder form the two poles of love's dialectic. So it is hardly surprising that sadism, a mediator that reconciles both bondage and destruction, is love's principal manifestation in this theater of violent fantasy…. Arrabal's theater of sadism seems to be a direct reply to Artaud's cry for "a new idea of eroticism and cruelty" in the theater…. The metaphysics of cruelty is at the heart of Arrabal's theater. Metaphysics, as Artaud used the term in its original sense, means a world beyond the world that naturalistic and even lyrical theater had tried to incorporate as stage reality. Theatrical metaphysics is, to recall the language of Arrabal's manifesto, the sublimation of the theater, the "raising up" and the creation of new fantasies that can be celebrated only on the autonomous stage. Thus the theater, seen in this light, seems to be the most natural outlet for Arrabal's obsessions with eroticism and cruelty, obsessions that have led him to the creation of ritual forms that present, in Artuad's sense, a metaphysics of sadism. (pp. 177-78)
A more traditional portrayal of sadism is to be found in Fando et Lis. These two infantile lovers are hopelessly traveling to Tar, an enigmatic land possessing the same degree of reality as Kafka's castle. Lis, a paralytic, rides in a baby carriage pushed by Fando. Fando feels a continual compulsion to put chains on his captive inamorata, and when she complains, he finally beats her to death in a fit of childish rage. He is immediately and uncomprehendingly repentant for his act, but his repentance is quite as meaningless as the murder itself. The dramatic force of Fando et Lis is not in its neo-Kafka statement of absurdity nor in its assault upon the banalities of language and pseudo-logic. Beckett and Ionesco are certainly more convincing than Arrabal in conveying a drama of existential anguish or in conjuring the destructive powers of words. Rather it is in the creation of a closed world of childish sadism and erotic bondage that Arrabal is an original and forceful playwright. The infantile mentality of most of Arrabal's non-heroes allows him to exploit his themes of sadism and violence with a comic sense that would be denied to a theater of more mature protagonists. His retarded characters play at "forbidden games" which mix horror and tenderness in dreamlike proportions. Yet his characters, ideal partners for the Oedipal relationship in this respect, are endowed with very adult sexual powers and lusts.
In spite of their homicidal fury, most of Arrabal's protagonists, as children, retain their innocence, or at least the innocence that non compos mentis confers…. Arrabal's characters often play at being criminals, but, their childish innocence notwithstanding, they are subject to bloody reprisals they cannot hope to grasp.
The obsessive quest for goodness that Arrabal's infantile heroes undertake serves as a counter-motif to their sadism and lusty criminality. Arrabal's retarded lovers feel remotely the need to be good, to stop killing or fornicating, although their search for goodness is usually as senseless a whim as their casual murders. (pp. 178-79)
The desire for goodness in Arrabal's plays is a negative motif that, by its comic futility, points up the blatant cruelty that his characters decidedly prefer. One can also see that the manic quest for goodness in its most puerile form is a part of the obsession with childishness and, hence, a part of the child-parent fantasy that pervades Arrabal's theater. Goodness as a negation is largely equated with repressing erotic desires, which, in turn, must be viewed in light of the infantile fear of sexuality that runs throughout the plays.
For another aspect of Arrabal's dialectic of goodness and sadism is his obsessive fear of the sexual act…. [The] mother-son relation carries with it a fear of defilement that counterbalances his sexual fantasies. Defilement must lead to destruction, as in Le Couronnement (The Coronation), where loss of virginity causes death…. Sadism in Arrabal can quickly become a form of anti-eroticism, however enthusiastically his characters may fornicate in chains. This anti-eroticism is undoubtedly infantile, as are his characters' sadistic antics; it is nonetheless a strong motif as Arrabal's creation of a dramatic tension founded on lustful bondage and sterile destruction. An anti-eroticism grounded in fear establishes one limit to Arrabal's fantasy world.
Just as in Baal Babylone the child's father was an absent presence that weighed upon the child, in Arrabal's theater it is God the Father whose absence is felt everywhere. In Baal Babylone the father represented a source of deliverance. In the theater an inversion occurs, perhaps illustrating another aspect of the ambivalent mother-son relation and, more especially, showing that God the Father, being identified with the mother, becomes the figure against whom it is necessary to revolt. For in the theater God is a stifling force that must be exorcized by various forms of blasphemy. Arrabal's blasphemy is peculiarly Catholic and Spanish…. Arrabal's characters often have a personal hatred of God; yet, their anger with Him is often a result of His refusal to exist. It is difficult to revolt against the absent Father.
While considering the religious motif, special commentary should be given to La Cimetière des voitures. This play has received the most criticism and has been dismissed, on the one hand, for its contrived cleverness and, on the other hand, for the degrading image it presents…. The play does set forth an image of total degradation, but it should also be seen as a mock passion play—one with sociological overtones perhaps. This passion play is another aspect of Arrabal's rebellious parody of religion, but it also seems to be an attempt to portray a religious vision for our time. La Cimetière des voitures is ambiguous, since it is both blasphemous buffoonery and a celebration honoring the dead Father's vestigial presence in the presence of his crucified son.
A final important motif in Arrabal's theater is that of the police state and its arbitrary powers of oppression and torture. Arrabal's experience during the Spanish Civil War is sufficient to explain his obsession with this nightmarish fantasy. In Les Deux Bourreaux, as shown previously, the mother is associated with the executioners in this theater where pointless cruelty receives the sanction of a nameless, omnipotent state. Indeed, for Arrabal the state is defined through its capacity to inflict torture. La Bicyclette du condamné (The Condemned Prisoner's Bicycle) gives a variation on this theme when the lascivious lover Tasia allows another nameless pair of executioners to kill her beloved, her final, characteristic act being to nail him in his coffin. Another play, Le Labyrinthe, shows that Kafka's influence is as much at the heart of Arrabal's vision of universal guilt and condemnation as is Franco's Spain. Resembling a dramatized version of The Trial, Le Labyrinthe is set in a forest of blankets from which a traveler, Etienne, cannot escape. The forest's owner, a father figure possessing absolute power over his domain, chains Etienne to a urinal. In breaking his chains Etienne is brutal to a fellow prisoner who, though nearly paralyzed, hangs himself. Etienne is tried for murder and commits a series of errors that inexorably bring about his condemnation. The play is remarkable for its creation of an atmosphere where innocence, or near innocence, is forced to impeach itself by the relentless logic of arbitrary power. In a comparable fashion, Guernica, a play inspired by Picasso's painting, also depicts a universe founded upon guilt. A nameless officer's stare and the sight of his handcuffs are enough to implicate in guilt those who are helplessly caught in the war's anonymous destruction. Authority, whatever form it may take in Arrabal, is synonymous with gratuitous persecution. The absent father, the possessive mother, and the anonymous state all share this feature.
Arrabal's obsessive fantasies have given rise to a body of work that is among the most promising of the New Theater. With the modernity of a happening and the courage to face the delirium of our times, it may well come to be among the most significant in this second half of the twentieth century. (pp. 180-83)
Allen Thiher, in Modern Drama (copyright © 1970, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), May, 1970.
The latest volume of Arrabal's theatre [Théâtre 8] contains what the dramatist calls "Deux opéras paniques," Ars amandi and Dieu tenté par les mathématiques. The juxtaposition of the two appears to be an exercise in antithetical relations.
Ars Amandi belongs to the tradition of haut baroque favored by this most Spanish of self-exiled artists. Since no composer has yet been found for this work, the game of matching a group of musicians, dead and living, to the play proves revealing….
Fridigan, the Parsifal of this mock-ceremony, at once sacred and profane, is embarked on a search for a missing friend, Erasme Marx—the perfect amalgam in name of Renaissance and modern humanism. On his way, the hero encounters the giantess Lys, a Venus in whose garden flower a wide variety of sado-masochistic delights. Two angel-demons, Bana and Ang (could they be body and soul?) attend on this creature who shifts from implacable mistress to victim and martyr. In a gallery of Lys' medieval castle, life-size mannequins briefly enact the myths they represent: the state of childhood (Le Petit Poucet, Pinocchio), nightmarish fears (Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong), eternal love (Romeo), jealous passion (Othello), primitive nature (Tarzan), thirst for knowledge (Faust), self-sacrificing agape (Christ, Don Quixote). The pantomime plays within the play are forms of initiation. Only by observing the mannequins' interpretation of their own lives or of one another's can Fridigan learn something about the human race, and thus about himself.
When this knight errant first espies Lys she is a gigantic figure covered with swarms of insects (flies? bees?). From the start we feel that Fridigan is torn between fascination and horror at the sight of this Géante turned Charogne. Baudelaire comes to mind, for Fridigan might wish to "Parcourir à loisir ses formes magnifiques," were he not repulsed by the buzzing of batallions of flies. Yet we must keep in mind that Baudelaire's Charogne is strangely sensual as she lies "Les jambes en l'air, comme une femme lubrique," and even alive in the very process of decay.
When Lys is shown next, she is normal-size and engaged in painting a single word from a model. The model says OUI whereas Lys is sketching a large NON on the canvas. Clearly, Fridigan is about to enter an antiworld.
In this universe speech is replaced by singing, but Arrabal makes it eminently clear that this is not a nobler mode of expression. Bana and Ang sing because they stutter when they attempt to speak. Out of politeness, Fridigan imitates them, as Lys does out of charity…. Also, as in Pirandello, appearances are constantly shifting, relations changing. (p. 949)
Could Lys be Spain, or the Spanish people?… If the Spanish motif is emphasized by the projections of Goya's paintings …, other elements indicate that the nationalist aspect is only a minor theme of this opera. It is in fact a poetic recreation of the history of humanity of which man's inhumanity to man is an essential part. This is the significance of the tableaux muets played out by the mannequins whose surrealist groupings mockingly reveal the diversity of man's imaginings. Even in this play within a play the characters do not always play themselves. A Christ-like Fridigan, holding an olive branch, watches this bit of Theatre of the Ridiculous. He is deeply moved, and we are made aware that this moment parallels Parsifal's first introduction to the Fisher-King's court. Like Parsifal, Fridigan is still a fool at this time, and his pity is sentimental self-indulgence.
In the course of the play, the hero will have to come to terms with pain and degradation. A Circe-like Lys will bring him down into the mud where they wallow together. She orders Fridigan to prove his love by accepting vilification…. Erotic bliss is followed by images of death. The scene is set for an operation. Fridigan accepts to receive from Lys a mysterious injection. "Je sais que vous voulez me tuer comme vous avez tué mon ami. Mais j'accepte tout."… Indeed, right after the injection, Fridigan sees his friend Erasme Marx. They are standing against a soft, pink wall. "Where is Lys?" wonders Fridigan, and Erasme answers: "She's with us." Lys is once again the giantess of the opening scene, and the two friends are part of her body.
Now we know that Lys was the All, the cosmos. The insects swarming on her form were human beings. Having traveled through the world and the antiworld, Fridigan, the hero, has learned to give up the rational. Only then can he rejoin the dead humanist, Erasme Marx. Arrabal's Baroque cathedral has turned into a Khmer temple.
Dieu tenté par les mathématiques is an abstract stage-setting written to illustrate the abstract composition of Jean-Yves Bosseur. Bosseur's "musical battle field" is shared by seventeen musicians who are not told what musical instrument each must play. The score indicates only temporal relations loosely connecting visual and sonorous effects. This is a French equivalent of a John Cage-Merce Cunningham happening.
To match the calculated freedom of Bosseur's composition, Arrabal has invented a series of planes, surfaces, spinning objects, skipping rubber balls together with live actors as impersonal as—or perhaps more so than—the acting objects. The result is a fascinating "orchestration théâtrale," as spare as the panic opera is lush. It bears perhaps more novelty for a potential European audience than for Americans who have been exposed to many such manifestations. The same could also be said of the Opera which has little to add to the innovations of the Theatre of the Ridiculous. Arrabal is at his best when his theatricality is less gratuitous, when he deals with a theme which enlists his passions, such as his play about prisoners in one of Franco's jails … Et ils passèrent des menottes aux fleurs. (p. 950)
Rosette C. Lamont, in French Review, April, 1971.
Fernando Arrabal, in describing his more recent theater as a ceremonie "panique" provides a valuable clue for understanding his earlier works. For this young Spanish playwright, who is better known in France than in his own country, theater is a rigorously ordered ceremony wherein it is indispensable that, beneath an apparent disorder, the presentation be a model of precision, in order that the chaotic confusion of life may be reflected with mathematical clarity. Such concern for precision, though achieving its purest expression in the "Théâtre panique," is manifestly evident in a 1958 work, not included in the "panique" and largely ignored by critics, La Bicyclette du Condamné. In this one-act piece, the playwright achieves order within chaos by virtue of a circular structure which encompasses even the stage properties and goes far beyond the paradoxical juxtaposition of love-cruelty, goodness-evil, child-man usually mentioned as basic characteristics of Arrabal's work. (p. 205)
As dramatic structure, the circle is eminently appropriate to contemporary theater, for it aptly parallels modern man's effort to extricate himself from the chaos left by the dissolution of traditional values—a chaos no less terrifying than that confronted by primitive man. The inevitable result of such circular structure, however, is to leave the spectator in a quandary as to those elements which are missing from the circle itself—beginning, middle, end. Therefore, the staged action seems to be devoid of reason for being, of action itself, and of resolution. Thus, in … La Bicyclette du Condamné, the audience is hard put to know: Who is the condemned man? What is his crime? Who has condemned him? What will be the ultimate result of his punishment? Even were the play's elements to be reduced to pure interaction, without recourse to dialogue (as is actually the case in many of this writer's later "panique" works), a distinct circularity would be pervasive, not only as evidenced by the almost countless entrances and exits of personages, but also by all of the stage properties which have such an important function throughout Arrabal's work.
Critics are quick to point out several curious juxtapositions which typify the work of this playwright, among them the childlike mentality of sexually mature individuals, the sadistic cruelty of morally innocent creatures, the castigating actions of the victim. More than merely paradoxical juxta-positions, however, these dichotomies constitute the by-products of a circular structure whose significance lies in the playwright's announced intention to portray with clarity the chaos of man's existence. At times, this structure will define the confused configurations of organized justice and religion, at other times the violent bestiality of love, and at others the inane impersonality of war. Here, in La Bicyclette du Condamné, the structure conveys the inchoate identification between freedom and condemnation. It is by means of a systematic analysis of the circular structure in Arrabal's work that meaning will become clear in this and other pieces which at first glance may appear to be meaningless games. It is also by virtue of understanding this dramatic structure that the critic can avoid the contention that Arrabal is "more a visionary than a dramatist" who should move in the direction of "the creation of a series of ever-moving tableaux," since the static quality does not suit his work. Neither tableaux nor the static are Arrabal's technique, and in his circularity lies one of his claims to originality.
Briefly, in La Bicyclette du Condamné, the action takes place around the piano of Viloro, whose principal goal seems to be to play the C-scale perfectly, despite an unexplained prohibition against his playing by Paso and Two Men. Viloro's efforts, sometimes successful but more often fruitless, are constantly interrupted by the alternating appearances of his beloved Tasla on her bicycle dragging a caged Paso to his torturers and executioners, and of an inexplicably free Paso in the company of Two Men, who subject Viloro to progressively more confining punishments for his transgression of their prohibition against piano-playing. (Never is it suggested that there exists any logical reason for the prohibition nor for Paso's imprisonment and Tasla's inescapable duty to transport condemned men.) Interspersed among these interruptions are erotic episodes where-in Tasla engages in pursuits of and escapes from Paso and the Two Men. The play ends in the death, not of Paso, but of Viloro at the hands of Paso, followed by echoes of the same mocking laughter and piano scales with which the curtain opened (figuratively speaking, since Arrabal's plays seldom open with a curtain). Throughout the action, the spectator has been confronted by first a free Viloro and an apparently imprisoned Paso, then by a free Paso and a confined Viloro, then again by the imprisoned Paso and free Viloro, alternating appearances which recur ad infinitum. Since the play's final scene reproduces in acoustical and symbolic form one of the play's recurrent episodes, the action comes full circle back to what may be termed a beginning in linear structure but is merely one of the cyclic phases in this play's circular structure.
Thus, the essential blocks of action are seen to follow a circular arrangement, since they offer a repetitive rhythm involving apparently condemned individuals…. [The] repetitive pattern is not truly terminated, but rather is brought back to the beginning, where the same question confronts the spectator: Who has been condemned to what? Paso, apparently doomed in the beginning and at significant intervals throughout the play, emerges free of his imprisonment in the end. Viloro, apparently free at the outset and at regular points throughout the play, ultimately replaces the caged man. The implication of the basic problem of the condemned man's identification, then, extends to include the question of freedom, and the circular structure of the work leaves the spectator with the somewhat inconclusive awareness that the burden of freedom is essentially the same kind of punishment as that of condemnation.
Furthermore, within … blocks of action …, equally precise circularity is evident, and it is here that objects and sounds are used to great effect in support of the play's basic structure. As the play opens, Viloro, alone on stage, futilely attempts to pick out a C-scale on his piano, but his efforts evoke only laughter from Two Men behind a wall and then from Paso. This motif of the musical scale, then, with its repetitive return to the beginning, provides the acoustical counterpart of the structure which configures the entire play. In addition, the rhythmic abc pattern of this first sub-block of action (Viloro alone playing scales—appearance of Two Men—appearance of Paso) is repeated after each of Tasla's trips with the caged Paso. Just as Viloro always returns to his piano scales, the action of the play always returns to the isolated Viloro subjected to his tormentors.
This acoustical pattern shows a significant refinement in its relationship to those larger blocks of action wherein Viloro is subjected to progressively more restrictive punishments…. [The] acoustical phase of the play's circular structure echoes the fundamental identification of freedom with condemnation, for it is precisely during his periods of greatest confinement and restriction that Viloro demonstrates his greatest freedom to play the piano as he wishes with the success he strives for, unencumbered by timidity and ridicule.
Objects also carry out the cyclical pattern of the work. In addition to repeated appearances of the bicycle and wheeled cage, whose very construction exhibits circularity and which travel on a circuitous path, Tasla and Viloro exchange the same gifts over and over again—a balloon, a chamber pot, and an infantile song composed first by Viloro and then Tasla. They day-dream in circles, longing for the day when Tasla will be free of carting condemned men around and Viloro will be left in peace to play the piano as much as he likes. Ironically, though, their dreams also include a repetition of their present activities, for Tasla promises to tow Viloro in her cage, and he promises to relieve her on the bicycle occasionally while she sits in the cage. Here again, the inextricable link between Viloro and Paso, freedom and condemnation, is maintained, as it also is suggested in the promise Viloro extracts from Tasla to send him a kiss for every lash applied to Paso in the torture chamber.
Even the bicycle exhibits this same relationship to the freedom-condemnation conundrum, for Tasla somehow is condemned to carry condemned men by means of her bicycle. Yet, as she yearns for the day when she will be free, she dreams in terms of that same bicycle. Similar confusion exists in regard to the cage itself, which in the action of the play is a prison but in Viloro's dream is equated with freedom. Thus, the use of these wheeled conveyances to remove his body following his final punishment is in some way, not only a comdemnation, but a deliverance into the freedom he and Tasla had dreamed of.
The play, then, reflects the human chaos as it pertains to the dilemma of freedom and condemnation, yet that reflection is constructed upon an intricately precise labyrinth of concentric circles extending from purely physical appearances and objects, through acoustical realms, until finally it comprises the very human condition itself. Conspicuously, the dialogue provides little clarification of the play's apparent disorder, and in this regard, Arrabal's insistence upon the precision of the mise en scène becomes more significant, for the result of that negation of dialogue as the tool by which chaos is rigorously ordered into ceremonial clarity is to demand of both audience and critic a strict attention to the non-linguistic structure of this play and all of Arrabal's work. (pp. 205-09)
Beverly J. Delong-Tonelli, in Modern Drama (copyright © 1971, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), September, 1971.
"My theatre is not surrealist and is not only realist," declares Fernando Arrabal; "it is realist including the nightmare." Le théâtre panique is the term he prefers for it—the theater of panic—playfully suggesting that Pan is the real muse or deity of the theater and seriously reiterating the Artaudian concept that panic should be one of the primary emotions evoked in an audience.
No one would deny that there are elements of realism, perhaps even of naturalism, in Arrabal's plays. In fact, it is these very elements, and the recognition they elicit, that give to his work that Kafkaesque or nightmarish quality for which it is partly known. In Guernica, for example, his play inspired by the Picasso canvas of the same title, such realistic touches as the old woman's being caught in the water closet, the rubble continuing to cascade about the characters, and the simple, earthy dialogue abut urination and erection contribute immeasurably to the audience's unconscious realisation that Fanchou and Lira are real people who suffer privately and personally from the larger, public gestures of war and oppression.
But that Arrabal's theater is not surrealistic is another matter, and one which bears some looking into.
Surrealism is of course a frame of mind, a way of seeing, and cannot be easily caught in a formula. It has its historical aspects, notably in the Manifestoes of André Breton and in the theories and practice of a number of Breton's friends and associates. But it is also ahistorical, existing, to various degrees, sans definition, in such various places as Alice in Wonderland, The Cherry Orchard, and Mother Courage. The question is not one of Arrabal's claiming to be or not to be a surrealist, but of whether there are significant surrealistic tendencies in his works.
It may hardly be accounted insignificant that two of Arrabal's admitted literary masters, Dostoevsky and Kafka, exhibited certain surrealist characteristics, such as the yoking of the normal and the grotesque; experimentation with moral deviation and its consequences or lack of consequences; fascination with "innocent" characters; derailing straightforward, narrative action in favor of affective studies; and conflation of the dreaming and waking worlds, resulting in a kind of continual nightmarishness. It hardly requires verification to say that these are precisely the points at which Arrabal follows his mentors most devotedly…. [What] he has studied in them are the dissonances and atonalities, the delirium and the wildness, the breaking loose of hell and the subconscious, and the surrealistic bedlam that is a result of these things.
Nor can it be overlooked that the principal theoretician of the kind of theater Arrabal has been interested in, Antonin Artaud, considered himself a surrealist and was, until renounced by Breton, a member of the "official" surrealist group. Artaud wanted a theater where the audience would be disoriented from its world of traditional values and ways of looking at things, where it would be threatened, harassed, and upended until it saw beyond what it commonly called reality to the openness and possibilities of sur-reality. He advocated using words as missiles instead of as symbols, and turning the theater into a den of nonsense and cacophony, so that speech and idea would be no refuge from the swollen realm of dreams and disorder. Lights would be used in a similar fashion, not to create illusion but to shatter it, to leave the audience no place to hide. The audience must be assaulted: else the theater has not been true to its primitive, more traumatic origins. (pp. 210-11)
There is, in addition, a kind of visual quality about Arrabal's scenes that has been characteristic of most surrealist drama since Apollinaire. It is as if many of them, and not in Guernica alone, were fashioned with the Picasso-eye. Few playwrights, outside the movement which included Albert-Birot, Tzara, Cocteau, and Artaud, have made settings so integrally important to the theatrical emotion or experience aimed at in the play. The shambles of Guernica, the blanket-maze, of The Labyrinth, and the broken automobile hulks of The Car Cemetery create images which are surrealist at the same time that they serve important functions. In fact, their being surrealist serves an important function by pitching everything at a level of direct and immediate apprehension, which is a level beyond that normally required by the theater, of mere logic and the manipulation of symbols. Arrabal's scenes do something to the mind through the eye. They achieve the effect of paintings or visual spectacles, and thus appear almost multi-media, though of course they are not.
These indications are sufficient in themselves, it would seem, to dispel Arrabal's protestations that he is not a surrealist. It only remains to be seen how programmatically he follows the concerns of those who formally called themselves surrealists. For that, a more careful demonstration is in order.
(1) The primary emphasis of all the surrealists was on the recovery of man's wholeness through a denial of all traditional systems and methods of logic, and on rejoining the separated spheres of his dreaming and waking states. (pp. 211-12)
By Arrabal's own definition ("realist including the nightmare"), there is something dreamlike or nightmarish about his plays. They respect few rules of logic. Two soldiers from opposing lines meet and dine together with the parents of one of them (Picnic on the Battlefield); a girl's lash-wounds appear and disappear miraculously (The Labyrinth); a man devours the flesh of another man and is suddenly transformed into the other man (The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria); two men need some money to rent a tricycle, cold-bloodedly kill a man to get it, and then don't understand why they are apprehended by the police (The Tricycle). Causality and morality are abrogated. Le rêve éveillé is the order of the day.
(2) Because the sense of definition is not yet so pronounced in childhood, the surrealists tended to glorify the child's stage of life. Like the Dadaists before them, they delighted in playing games, actual children's games, and at behaving with the zaniness of youngsters even in the most public places. (pp. 212-13)
Critics refer repeatedly to Arrabal's childlike stance, as though his characters were innocents in some violated paradise, unable to comprehend their mishaps or destinies. He has spoken of his fealty to Lewis Carroll, and demonstrates certain affinities for that English fantasist. But the childlike perspective from which most of his works are written is primarily a matter of his own personal experience. If there is something infantile about the characters in Orison, The Tricycle, The Condemned Man's Bicycle, and all of his other plays, it is because Arrabal himself refuses to look at the world through the eyes of an adult. It is a matter of rebellion. He does not accept the world as seen and fashioned by adults….
Most of Arrabal's characters have childish, unsophisticated minds. Although the world they inhabit is an adult's world, their reaction to everything is spontaneous and unpredictable. Emanou, the strangely incompetent Christ-figure of The Car Cemetery, performs a child's acts—stealing roasted almonds, memorizing nonsensical aphorisms, and playing his trumpet—and is totally incapable of comprehending why the police are after him. (p. 213)
Games are important too. The Coronation, with a character named Arlys who is an obvious reincarnation of Alice from the looking-glass stories, is full of various kinds of games and tricks, especially card games….
Implicit in this is a significance which Gershman did not attribute to games, namely that they provide occasions for subverting and circumventing the barriers of the conscious mind, so that the hidden self erupts into view…. It is probable that the surrealists intuitively turned to games for a similar purpose—to eliminate the false boundaries between the divided spheres of human reality.
(3) One game invented by children, according to the surrealist, is language. It presumably began with nonsense syllables and random syntax, as most children go through periods when they simply "bubble" language for the fun of it. Then phrases and sentences were made and assigned arbitrary significance. But the adults who sprang from the children became more and more serious about linguistic patterns, and so ultimately wound up in slavery to what had begun in play and freedom. The surrealists deplored this outcome, and wished to break language loose again from its designated meanings, to free it once more for joyous and nonsensical expression. (p. 214)
Breton and the surrealists continued this interest in abstract language, for they believed it to be more closely related to the subconscious than ordinary language. (p. 215)
[Arrabal's] dialogue is sometimes merely simple and unstudied, like that of children. At other times it is clearly nonsensical….
Or again, Arrabal's characters frequently speak with mere silliness or repetitiousness. In Picnic on the Battlefield, for instance, the two soldiers seem to mimic each other, using identical lines again and again. In Fando and Lis, whole passages are repeated in the play, with the effect of destroying the time continuum, or turning it back on itself….
(4) The surrealists also had a childlike respect for superstitions, psychic phenomena, reincarnation, alchemy, and magic—for anything purporting to abrogate nature or natural law. (p. 216)
Since The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, with its trick at the end where the Architect, who is eating the Emperor's body, stoops under the table to retrieve a bone and reappears as the Emperor, Arrabal has demonstrated an increasing fondness for theatrical japes, legerdemain, and mystification. In Solemn Communion a necrophile with a serpent between his legs gets in a coffin with a girl's nude body in it; then the girl who has just been prepared for communion stabs the necrophile, getting blood on her white dress, and laughs while red balloons rise from the coffin to the ceiling. Striptease of Jealousy shows a statue of a nude girl coming to life and being beaten to death and put back on her pedestal. The Impossible Loves is a fantasy about a princess with two beaux, one with the head of a dog and one with the head of a bull, and a father with the head of an elephant. The Coronation is a long play which constantly features mystifying rites, necromancy, and double identities.
In one of the clearest statements he has made about what he attempts to do in the theater, Arrabal says: "I dream of a theatre where humor and poetry, panic and love would be fused. Poetry is born from the nightmare and its mechanism, excess. The theatrical rite—the panic ceremony—must be looked upon by the spectator as a kind of sacrifice. This infinitely free type of theatre which I envisage has nothing to do with anti-theatre or with the Theatre of the Absurd. It's a vast domain, shrouded in ambiguities, and patrolled very carefully by the mad hound which stalks the night."
(5) Closely related to the surrealist desire for a spontaneous universe is the surrealist disregard for religion, especially formal, dogmatic religion. Baudelaire and Lautréamont and Rimbaud had already established a French tradition for necrophilia and admiration of evil. The surrealists were generally freer from the "protest" impulse, and more given to hijinks and hilarity, but Artaud, in his famous play Jet of Blood, announced the death of God, and, in his journals, wrote scathing denunciations of the papacy. It was inevitable that any theater tracing history from Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, with its spoofing of authority, its bumptious tomfoolery, and its scatological language, should continue with an air of insouciance, irreverence, and even, on occasion, downright blasphemy.
Arrabal seems to derive from both Artaud and Jarry in such matters. His novel The Burial of the Sardine … is really a dream account of a Spanish passion parade filled with blaspheming priests, naked, urinating women, phallic symbols, peacocks' heads, and an old man wanting to die and screaming for a poisonous host. There is also a description of God as a king on a throne drawn by four Cadillacs and surrounded by eighty old men clad in white and adorned by phallic symbols. In The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria the distaste for Spanish religion is combined with Jarryesque language: the Emperor calls God a "son of a bitch," and entones operatically, "Shit on God. Shit on his divine image. Shit on his omnipresence." The Labyrinth is an elaborate allegory impugning the justice and goodness of the Creator, who is pictured as a despotic maze-maker arbitrarily persecuting people who stumble into his maze. The Car Cemetery is a parody of the Crucifixon, with a naive trumpet-player being flogged to death and finally borne out, cruciform-wise, on the handlebars of his bicycle.
Like Genet, on the other hand, Arrabal tends to think of theater in terms of ritual…. By pushing ideas to the extreme, to excess, the artist evokes something rare and exciting. It can hardly be called the transcendent or the numinous, for it often rises out of blasphemy and sacrilege. But it is the nearest thing to religious ecstasy outside of religion itself, a kind of secular transport which depends in part on a special quality in the dangerous act of defying the holy authority. It is very near to what participants in the Black Mass experience, only without the dedication to evil. And, in Arrabal, it frequently requires for its climax an actual immolation, as in Guernica, The Car Cemetery, and The Coronation. "The putting to death," as Arrabal calls it, is somehow related to the ultimate "exaltation of life."
(6) Because the surrealists emphasized the continuity between the physical and psychical aspects of experience, the conscious and the unconscious, they were able, at least in appearance, to minimize the importance of death as a boundary to human existence. (pp. 217-19)
Arrabal is Spanish, of course, and should be expected to exhibit an Iberian sensitivity to death as both a finality and a focus for religious feeling. The one play where both touches appear to be present is the brief piece called Orison, in which a man and woman, seated by a child's coffin draped in black, talk of leading a good life, a life ordered according to the Bible. The deaths of the father in The Two Executioners, Lis in Fando and Lis, Zapo and Zopo in Picnic on the Battlefield, and Emanou in The Car Cemetery have a kind of finality about them, although the last case is mitigated somewhat by the birth of a child at the time of Emanou's "crucifixion," suggesting the myth of return or cyclicality. But if we consider that Orison, for all its funereal air, may be only ironic (it is possible that the dead child is only imaginary, one whose existence was blocked by contraception), or even some kind of deadpan joke, and that in the other plays death occurs in the midst of highly fanciful situations, we can only wonder whether Arrabal is typically serious about the act of dying at all. (p. 219)
Indeed, part of the strange, almost inebriating quality of Arrabal's theater may lie in the way he actually combines the Spanish sense of tragedy with the light-hearted, finally imperturbable mood of the surrealists. He is much gayer and more soufflant in the end than Ionesco, who, for all his japes and jests, is basically sad and depressed about existence.
(7) The mention of gaiety suggests another area of relationship between Arrabal and surrealism: humor. The unity of contradictions, which the surrealists continually preached, is in a sense the primary basis of humor. That is, comedy proceeds from the resolving of conflicting states, the humiliating of the proud, the elevating of the just. It is no wonder, then, that there was a certain zaniness, a persistent air of fun and humor, about most of the surrealists, at least in their more public aspects…. Humor was the one answer to disaster and chaos.
The humorous approach to life permeates almost everything Arrabal has written. It is not a matter of Byron's "If I laugh at any mortal thing, 'tis that I may not weep," but of something much more positive. Life is a wonder, it is full of le Merveilleux, and even the suffering is part of a spectacle. One never assumes, therefore, that tragedy is tragic. He never learns that the stove will burn him a second time merely because it has done so the first time. The world is a child's world, a garden of paradise with snakes and monsters. Because there are snakes and monsters, there are nightmares, interruptions of bliss. But nightmares are never crystallized into worldviews, the way they are with most of us, so that they repress us and impose tyrannical patterns on our existence. They are merely there, and we can still laugh and enjoy ourselves.
So there are jokes all the way through a serious piece like Guernica, and silliness in an earnest play like Picnic on the Battlefield, and burlesque among the profound themes of The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria. If life is dark, it is also light. If oppressed, free. If sober, giddy. And the surrealist mind, from Jarry to Dali to Arrabal, cannot help seeing the fun. Arrabal does tend to deal with more serious themes than the average surrealist, and to appreciate the weight of suffering in the world; but his response to these is basically that of one whose vision has been formed or altered by surrealist masters.
(8) There is one significant way in which Arrabal does differ from many of the surrealists, or at least from "official" surrealist theory, and that is in the treatment of the females in his plays.
Wallace Fowlie, in writing about Picasso's relations to surrealism, has spoken of a prominent combination of "eroticism and violence" in surrealistic art. On this ground alone, Arrabal would not appear to diverge from the surrealist position. The women in his plays … are erotic, even the mothers and older women. And they do, perhaps in part because of this erotic character, induce a sense of violence and unrest. They oppose the men, even when they love them, and constitute a polarity for both resistance and persecution. The so-called "war of the sexes" is a very real part of human existence, and Arrabal guarantees its being waged constantly and fiercely.
But another aspect of the surrealists' opinion about women was much closer than this one to the views of the medieval troubadours and poets of courtly love…. As Nadeau points out, the surrealists may have given the impression of extreme libertinism in sexual matters, but they actually celebrated the character of true love, which is as constant as it is erotic. (pp. 220-21)
Arrabal obviously does not regard the female of the species so adoringly. He is frank to admit that the interfering mother is a psychological fixture with him, and the uncomplimentary portraits of the mother in Baal Babylon and The Two Executioners are doubtless related to that hangup. By extension, the other women in his plays tend to be domineering, combative, quarrelsome, and unfaithful. Solemn Communion depicts what he apparently takes to be the process of transference or initiation by which older women pass on to younger ones their methods for manipulating men. The grandmother's rehearsal of her own manner of housekeeping and intimidating a husband is almost revolting, and, when the granddaughter at the end of the play returns to the stage and stabs the necrophile who has entered the coffin with the nude body of a girl, it may be that she is really mutilating her future husband, who will be in love with the innocent girl that may be presumed to have "died" when the grandmother began the ritual of instruction.
For the surrealists proper, love was the final gratuitous act—the unmotivated plunging of the self into new worlds of feeling and experience where the exits and escapes are not known in advance. Arrabal seems unable to make this kind of commitment…. For the most part, Arrabal's women are like Tasla in The Condemned Man's Bicycle, who is perpetually unfaithful to Viloro, or the sweet and lovable Dila in The Car Cemetery, who professes her love for Emanou but is always at the disposal of men in the motel of wrecked cars.
All in all, however, this is a small difference by which to separate Arrabal from the surrealists, to whom he is otherwise so obviously related. It is perfectly natural that he should prefer not to be known as "the last of the surrealists," but to insist, as he does. "I reject all paternity," and to regard himself as the instigator of a new movement known as théâtre panique. But Arrabal as we know him would be unthinkable without Jarry, Artaud, Picasso, Breton, Pansaers, and Tzara as his predecessors and mentors.
Perhaps a better term for his work than théâtre panique would be the one André Masson coined in 1929, "surrealist naturalism," to distinguish the kind of surrealism which developed about that time (in Dali, Buñuel, and others) from the more delirious, irresponsible surrealism of the earlier period. Certainly there is a kind of naturalism of detail in Guernica, Picnic on the Battlefield, The Labyrinth, and many others of Arrabal's plays; and there is, at the same time, the surrealist mood which transposes naturalism from its dreary, ordinary key into an air that is frolicking and joyous. Moreover, the term would really be more accurately descriptive of Arrabal's work than his own phrase "realist including the nightmare," for nightmare signifies primarily dreams with horror, and Arrabal, like the surrealists, depends also on dreams which do not horrify, but delight and amaze.
At any rate, Arrabal conceives of the work of art essentially as Breton and Artaud and all the surrealists did—not as something apart from life, but as a "double" of existence, between existence and which there is no real and ultimate demarcation, so that one is merely an extension of the other. Fantasies are thus just as actual and credible as the world of traditional beliefs and systems, which for all men's agreement upon their reality, may yet be fantastical and chimerical. And Arrabal has succeeded, as well as any playwright to date, in bringing to the stage the kind of psychedelic and controvertive theatrical experience which Artaud laid the plans for in The Theatre and Its Double. He is correct, in answering his own question about whether he puts "phantasms" on the stage, to reply that what he puts there are the "climaxes" to his experiences—they are the extensions of things very real to him. And that is precisely a surrealist accomplishment: the union of spheres of consciousness, spheres of existence, apparently contradictory and incompatible. It is the final realization of Hugo Ball's wish for "a theater which experiments beyond the realm of day-to-day preoccupations" and of Breton's call in the first Manifesto for a combination of the waking and dreaming worlds into a world of surreality. (pp. 222-23)
John Killinger, "Arrabal and Surrealism," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1971, University of Toronto Graduate Center for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), September, 1971, pp. 210-23.
Fernando Arrabal's The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria is a "big" play…. I do not refer to its length … but to its sweep. It is a vast "send up" of modern civilization—"Christian capitalism"—a play of gargantuan blasphemy.
It is not to be readily categorized…. [Arrabel] saves himself and us from its brutal blows by a sort of hideous humor; his total disgust is spewed out in raucously derisive laughter. It may be called a sado-masochistic farce. But no conventional epithet quite fits it. It is surely an original play, even if for pigeonhole purposes we invoke the names of Ghelderode, Genet, Goya and Buñuel….
The Architect and the Emperor was not an easy play for me to grasp when I [first] saw it. Nor is it now wholly transparent—one may ask oneself why the "Architect," why "Assyria," etc.?—but its mood, its sentiment, its special eloquence and its basic thrust make it unmistakably powerful. Like it or not, it is one of the signal plays of our time. (p. 762)
The writing is sometimes cast in the mode of surrealist "automatic" composition, wildly incoherent and yet astonishingly lyrical, with a sort of madly orgiastic afflatus and hurricane giddiness in which everything from Coca-Cola to world literature revolve in a giddily grotesque dance…. Everything is desecrated in an appalling circus.
Yet one cannot say the play's ferocity voices an all-consuming nihilism—no work of art ever does—for even the Emperor says to the Martian of his imagination, "I want to stay on earth."…
The play, is at once a howl of anguish, a hysterical prayer, and a protest. (p. 763)
Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), June 19, 1976.
[The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria,] set on a desert island, has two characters, a native and a new arrival who is the sole survivor of a plane crash. This Crusoe-Friday relation is used for two long acts of symbolic sequences, including impersonations, maskings, transvestism, and eventual reversal of roles. It ends with the opening scene, only the actor who played the native now plays the new arrival and vice versa….
The Architect is certainly concerned with the way it exists, but it exists for a reason. It's one more symbolic play that tries to encapsulate the history of man and/or a conspectus of the contemporary human condition, like Frisch's The Chinese Wall, Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, Barry's Here Come the Clowns, and Stoppard's Jumpers. The ambition to write such a play helps in itself to define its author….
Of course one doesn't look for external consistencies in a work propelled by flights of fancy, but one does hope for some central vision, at least some compelling hunger for a vision. If a lot of intricate symbolic equipment is rolled out onto the runway, it had better take off. Not here. What is approximately central here is the stalest of disgusts; what is really central is the author's smugness, a conviction that the true test of your spirit will be your appreciation of his poetic play, that to ask any questions of its theme or its symbols is to betray your dullness. This is one of the con games of the avant-garde hack—not of the genuine avant-garde artist—and Arrabal lolls in the middle of it.
As if to certify his avant-garde status, he soars and he dares. His soaring consists of ecstatic passages … that occasionally reach the Creative Writing 401 level of purpled rhapsody. His daring is even more puerile—small-boy bravery with a wooden sword and a paper cocked hat. (p. 20)
[Arrabal's] themes have been political, clerical, and sexual, usually combined: he is against fascism, particularly Spanish; he is against churchly imposition; he is against puritanism. He seems to think that these stands in themselves make him extraordinarily adventurous. The work of his that I know shows him to be a baby Buñuel, a vapid Valle-In-clán…. One need only think of Genet—The Maids as against The Architect, The Screens as against Guernica—to see the difference between a genius of the Other Side and a frittering little symbolist-absurdist fop. (p. 21)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Two on an Island," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 26, 1976, pp. 20-1.
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