Fernando Arrabal Arrabal, Fernando (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Arrabal, Fernando 1932–

A French playwright born in Morocco, Arrabal writes in the Theatre of the Absurd tradition. In his plays, Arrabal attacks 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, Vols. 2, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Jacques Guicharnaud

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Arrabal's] modernism is strongly colored by the most nightmarish aspects of a certain brand of surrealism. The whole thing is deeply rooted in the history of our times, by the very fact of the writer's personal life (see his novel Baal Babylone), strongly marked by the Franco regime in Spain and a formidable mother image. (p. 116)

[Like Charlie Chaplin's "tramp," Arrabal's heroes] are gentle and innocent; they do their best within their poverty and their clumsy love affairs. Proud of their meager successes, they soon lose any benefit they might have derived from them. They love and betray what they love with the same innocence. They are often cowards, but have spurts of dignity. They are always bewildered by the world, sometimes manage to cheat it, but instead of happily or doubtfully going off into the sunset, they end by being crushed in some frightful way.

Yet Arrabal's works are not merely a reflection of influences or a reminder of illustrious predecessors. First of all, most of his gentle heroes are murderers or accomplices in murder and physical torture. (pp. 116-17)

Crime in Arrabal, whether committed by the heroes or inflicted upon them, is spectacular. But the spectacle is horrifying or sordid…. In a world, whether Franco's Spain or any other, in which torture has been re-established in the name of order, Arrabal's fantasies permit him to escape from the lie of clean and dignified execution, and to bring out the reality. (p. 117)

[The] combination of that horror with Chaplinesque tenderness and an element only suggested in Adamov's dreamlike world, a basic childishness of the characters, gives Arrabal his originality. His world of clownery and blood is seen with the eye of a child, and embodied in men-children and in the scenic presentation of their phantasms.

The characters are all adolescents or adults: they prove it by their sexual capacities. But they have the mentality of children. When they try to make conversation and proudly show off their intelligence, they talk in platitudes or meaningless phrases, either going into raptures over what the other says or rejecting it with the innocent bad faith of a child who makes no distinction between reality and play. They live in a world in which urinating is extraordinarily interesting—at any rate, of prime importance, as well as the places and privileged objects such an obsession implies. Basically, they are exhibitionists or voyeurs, often both; at the same time, they can be unexpectedly prudish. Although murderers who, once they commit a crime, lose all interest in it, or who from the depths of their innocence judge that it is good, they can show great consideration and spontaneous tenderness for others, and forget it just as quickly.

Above all, and because of the innocence with which they judge themselves, they act like guilty children—that is, when someone in authority appears or when they are caught. At such times, they would willingly have someone else die for them or would die in the place of someone else. They kill as children secretly smoke in the john—and the image of the policeman who lies in wait for them is not far from that of the headmaster. For them torture and punishment—even when they hand it out—come...

(The entire section is 1356 words.)

Janet Winecoff DíAz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Unnoticed heretofore is the considerable philosophical substratum of Arrabal's work, wherein much importance is given to epistemology, the inquiry into the nature of knowledge, wrestling with the unknown, the absurd, the limits of human understanding, and a special emphasis on memory. There is, as in the theater of the absurd in general, a predominance of existentialist themes, while other preoccupations of Arrabal are particularly suggestive of Bergson, either directly or through his Spanish disciple, Antonio Machado. Intuition, the problem of time, duration in relation to human consciousness, the issue of mechanism versus life (automatic behavior, clichés, convention), the distrust of reason—all occur insistently in these three writers, while the symbolic use of labyrinths and mirrors, related to philosophical and epistemological implications is frequent in both Machado and Arrabal. The threat posed to the individual by the technological state is a persistent theme which Arrabal shares with Machado and Ortega (The Revolt of the Masses). At the risk of misleading the reader, however, it should be noted that the philosophical in its overt manifestations is often overshadowed in Arrabal's work by other considerations, and tends to appear more in his narratives than in his theatrical works. (pp. 144-45)

Certain aspects of Arrabal's life help to clarify his works. His having grown up under a military dictatorship, witnessing the abrogation of individual liberties, Church repression, police terrorism, corruption in high places, boredom, monotony, poverty and the "farce" of the Generalísimo, all constitute possible sources for the Kafkaesque atmosphere of "Los dos verdugos," "El laberinto," "La bicicleta del condenado," and several episodes in the narrative volume, Arrabal celebrando la ceremonia de la confusión [Arrabal Celebrating the Ceremony of Confusion]. Baal Babylon, his first novel (with a typically high autobiographic content), shows the boy as half crushed beneath family and social prohibitions, bigotry, inhibition, restriction, and repressed hates, over-protected and simultaneously exploited by his protectors. This cluster of emotions goes a long way to explaining Arrabal's obsession with the hyper-possessive, domineering, pseudo-martyr, self-justifying mother figure, as well as the ambivalence of many of his characters toward their mothers—a combination of explosive, contained hate with latent or active incest, often coupled with the absence of the father. Deviation is also an obsession with Arrabal, who has treated a wide range of its forms, including sadism, masochism, whipping, chaining, various tortures, lesbianism, male homosexuality, necrophilia, sex murders, and other various and assorted psychic and sexual abnormalities. Critical invocations of Sade are obviously amply justified.

This author's works have been seen as a reaction against crushing family and social restriction, a self-defense with laughter as the weapon. (p. 146)

In order of publication, Arrabal's books observe a strict alternation between theatrical and narrative…. This is probably no accident, since Arrabal also uses an alternating pattern in El entierro de la sardina [The Burial of the Sardine], telling one narrative (present tense) in odd-numbered chapters, and another, separate but related (past tense), in the even-numbered. Likewise, there is a mathematical basis to the constructive of his next narrative collection, Arrabal celebrando la ceremonia de la confusión. The first two chapters each have nine "laberintos," followed by an intermission third chapter; then there follow two more chapters subdivided in nine, with the sixth corresponding to the third.

The theatrical works, too, show careful and deliberate construction, not so obviously mathematical, but with frequent repetitions, either identical or with slight variations, and at least one case of a work which ends exactly with the situation with which it began. The cyclical pattern, with slight modification, is used with increasing frequency in Arrabal's more recent works. The attention to "architecture" may clarify Arrabal's assertion that Benavente was one of his masters, for the latter was an expert in structure and composition. The use of characters also reflects the mathematical or "theme and variations" principles of construction: there are frequent uses of pairs, opposites, role reversal, metamorphosis, and even an incident in which one character becomes the other, not only assuming his behavioral and physical characteristics, but devouring and thereby incorporating the body of the other. (p. 147)

In "Oración," a man and woman appear seated on a coffin, later revealed to contain the body of their child, whom they have killed, not from hate or malice but as a result of a childlike delight in torture, curiosity and boredom. The work is one of considerable moral ambivalence, for these characters at the same time express a sincere, ingenuous desire to be conventionally good, to go through the motions expected of them, even while anticipating that this, too, will be boring. They discuss moral and religious themes, unaware of what is good and evil, repeating things they have heard but not assimilated, uncomprehending and utterly spontaneous. As with most Arrabal characters, their language and mentality are infantile, their ages indefinite, their ideas over-simplified.

"Los dos verdugos" incorporates the typical Kafka atmosphere of trial and condemnation for a mysterious, unknown, possibly non-existent offense, with subsequent torture, suffering and death. The author presents a travesty...

(The entire section is 2339 words.)

Ruby Cohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Common to many of [Arrabal's] plays is a naïve, childish dialogue that reveals cruelty and tenderness as twin aspects of each character. (p. 29)

Arrabal's works contain the high color, flamboyant sensuality, erotic cruelty, and grotesque humor of the countrymen he admires—Calderón, Goya, Valle-Inclán, and Lorca…. Arrabal has written anti-war satires—Picnic on the Battlefield, Guernica. More of his plays focus on couples as he explores the horrors of the love relationship, in an idiom quite different from that of Strindberg—Orison, Fando and Lys, Bicycle of the Condemned, The Coronation, The Great Ceremony. Child-couples with invented nicknames exist in their private worlds,...

(The entire section is 815 words.)

Gloria Feman Orenstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Arrabal] reworked the ideas of Salvador Dali's Theory of Confusion into a synthesis with Artaud's Theater of Cruelty and Breton's quest for le merveilleux quotidien, and this resulted in the creation of the Panic ceremony in the theater. (p. 240)

Yet the concept of panic in the Panic Theater owes more to the influence of Dali than to that of Breton. Dali, in La Femme Visible, said that the moment was propitious for him to "systematize confusion and thus discredit completely the world of reality." It is Dali's idea of confusion that Arrabal systematizes in order to create the concept of the Panic ceremony in this theater: "I arrive at this conclusion: in life two great forces are...

(The entire section is 2969 words.)

John J. Michalczyk

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Luis Buñuel, the father of the surrealist film …, has figuratively engendered two sons who continue to shock, revolt, and entertain in the same surrealist vein. Alexandro Jodorowsky … and Fernando Arrabal … on one hand have returned to the roots of this movement and on the other hand have driven Buñuel's technique, perspective, and content to the outermost limits of aesthetic tolerance.

The action of [Arrabal's] L'Arbre de Guernica—a satirical allegory set in the Spanish Civil War—alternates between Villa Ramiro, a stronghold of fascist and bourgeois ideals, and the town of Guernica, bombed by the Nazis on 26 April 1937. (p. 761)

Besides the cult of the...

(The entire section is 525 words.)