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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.)
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[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 from on high, from some higher Terror, which they acknowledge, but which, in a certain sense, is not their concern. The tragedy is that they inevitably become the victims of it.
The childish fear of the police—which requires the simultaneous presence of child and policeman, two complementary yet incompatible figures—is, after all, a perfectly clear, valid, and dramatic symbol of the situation of man in any more or less police state, under any regime in which the guilt imposed from the outside, from on high (either politically or religiously), does not coincide with freely chosen responsibility. And of course, by definition, they never can coincide. On another level, how can one be both innocent and guilty? Behind Arrabal's fantasies, which directly call to mind social and political injustice, hovers the intolerable injustice of God's judgment. Arrabal makes no secret of it when he invokes Kafka and throws his hero into the hands of Justin, the Father, and of a judge who is a slave to the father (Le Labyrinthe), any more than he does in a kind of juvenile delinquency drama like Le Tricycle.
The ambiguity of the metaphor of childhood sometimes comes off rather well. The "automobile graveyard," in the play of that name, successfully and synthetically represents both the junkyards in which children play and the projection of such games in the universe of adult sexuality. In other plays, anger—childish to begin with—smoothly leads to its necessary conclusion: the adult gesture of murder. Because of the characters' childish oscillation, innocence and goodness are like the dead evoked by Ulysses: we see them clearly, but when we want to grasp them they disappear. A lost paradise? Rather, a missing paradise.
But conscious childishness can become downright silly. And perverse evangelism in an atmosphere of torture can become as sticky as sanctimonious evangelism among the sheep. Too much complacency with regard to the incoherency of the soul's simplicity and the comic possibilities therein leads to a kind of drivel in which all real tension disappears. Of course, over all the babble, such as that between Climando and Mita in Le Tricycle …, the humor of which becomes rather tiresome, hangs the face of death (we know that Climando, in this instance, will be sentenced to die)—but there is an obvious lack of proportion. Children often delight us by the alternation of their innocent remarks and their perversity, but they can manage to wear us out by talking too much, and when—along with us—they are in danger of death, we rather feel like doing something else. All things considered, innocents aux mains brisées are in many cases hardly more satisfying than innocents aux mains pleines. With Arrabal we often lose sight of the man-child symbol, submerged as we are in the drivel of plainly backward individuals. It takes a Beckett to create, in a convincingly symbolic and human way, the vagabond who is at once childish, feminine, and lethargic, such as Estragon in Godot.
Arrabal is perhaps more a visionary than a dramatist. He has the merit of being faithful to what he sees: his anonymous language—correct but without style, very similar to Adamov's—makes it impossible for him to cheat. He has seen the automobile graveyard, its characters, their gestures and their shapes; but when he bludgeons us with the Emanou-Christ symbolism, the effect is destroyed. In almost all his plays the curtain goes up on a valid universe, with a familiar object in an unfamiliar situation (sheets hung out to dry, a piano, a carrier-tricycle arriving on stage, a john, etc.) and then the play itself gets lost in a lot of avant-garde chatter or in a nightmare that is repeated to exhaustion, adding nothing to the initial shock. Apart from Les Deux Bourreaux [The Two Executioners], in which the predominant and formidable mother image is the inexorable instrument of the hero's tragic submission, with a rigor that recalls Dürrenmatt, we are left with no more than tableaux: a family picnicking on a battlefield, for example, or corpses being transported across the stage.
And indeed that is perhaps the direction Arrabal should take: the creation of a series of ever-moving tableaux. Beckett's static quality is clearly not for him. Once the image is given and immediately exhausted, there must be another. Arrabal is an extraordinary witness, an extraordinary voyeur, if not a voyant, but he does not move on fast enough his novels, particularly L'Enterrement de la sardine [The Burial of the Sardine], show that he has an essentially kaleidoscopic imagination—which does not exclude recurrent images; on the contrary. But by going around in circles, the fascinating child—innocent and condemned—is in danger of becoming a mechanical doll who concerns us no longer. (pp. 117-19)
Jacques Guicharnaud, "Forbidden Games: Arrabal," in Yale French Studies (copyright © Yale French Studies 1962), No. 29, 1962, pp. 116-20.
Janet Winecoff DíAz
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JANET WINECOFF DÍAZ
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 of justice, showing authority as inherently cruel, insensitive, inhuman, sadistic and nearly blind—capable only of seeing that which condemns, never the evidence to the contrary. As occurs in the work of Kafka (and later in "El laberinto"), the very innocence of the accused or those defending him—their righteous indignation and protest—contributes to condemn…. The title has a double application, to the literal executioners who take the father's life, and figuratively to the mother and elder son, who kill the integrity, innocence and youth of the younger boy. Strong Freudian elements in addition to the mother syndrome include repression and aggression.
Elements typical of the theater of the absurd are more numerous in "Fando y Lis," which recalls particularly "Waiting for Godot." Its situation is absurd in that it cannot be resolved—all characters are on the road to Tar, an impossible goal, or at least, one which no one yet has managed to reach. As in "El laberinto," no matter how far the characters travel, they always arrive at the same point. (pp. 148-49)
As usual in Arrabal, psychology and speech are childlike, and the protagonists display an unrealistic, ingenuous optimism. Their relationship is a complex mixture of love and cruelty, with possessiveness carried to the extreme of chaining and torturing the beloved, which contrasts with an almost simultaneous generosity, kindness and willingness to "share"—to the extent that Fando invites strangers to admire Lis, to touch and embrace her, and forces her to spend the night naked on the road so that others may enjoy her beauty. The work is thoroughly existentialist in its expression of the need for the Other, the absurdity of life and human activity, and the radical solitude and incommunication of the individual. (p. 149)
The conclusion of "Fando y Lis" mentions plot material from other Arrabal works, and the "story-telling" motif is used also in "Guernica" or "Ciugrena," in which one character offers to amuse another by telling a story wherein the central situation is identical to their own. Arrabal's characters are never aware that the supposedly fictitious situation has any relation to their own existence. There is a related use by Arrabal of the situations from other of his works, in which occasionally a "story" is told which is recognizable as the germ of a previous or future Arrabal writing. However, he does not seem to be creating his own interrelated literary world as did Balzac or Galdós, nor are his characters aware as with Cervantes or Unamuno, of their existence as "entes de ficción."
One of the most complex of Arrabal's early works is "El cementerio de automóviles." Its original situation, with various characters living in an automobile graveyard as though in a luxury hotel, is absurd, but could conceivably be seen as an ironic commentary on the critical housing shortage existing in Spain when it was written. As in most of Arrabal's works, attitudes toward sex are unconventional, and related ironically to morality in general. The female lead is defined as good because she will let anybody sleep with her. In other works, characters may be murderers who have broken nearly every rule, but these tend to be puritanically virginal and intolerant of those who are not, because "eso es malo."
A particularly important aspect of "El cementerio de automóviles" is its evident parody of the Crucifixion in modern times—a crucifixion perhaps by society, or more concretely, by the mechanisms of authority, represented by the police, or perhaps by machines—the theme of loss of individuality in the technological state…. The context of crucifixion is inevitably suggested by elements such as the name of Manu, his sense of mission, his relation to his "disciples," and the "Magdalena"; even his ultimate betrayal by one of his followers.
"Pic-nic en campaña" deals with the absurdity of war; "enemies" distinguish each other only by the color of their uniforms. Individual soldiers have no idea of the reasons underlying the conflict, bear each other individually no animosity, and want only to return home. Bored, between bombings, one makes paper flowers in the trenches, while his enemy knits (symbolic of the innately gentle, constructive nature of both). Emphasis is placed on their similarities; even their names are nearly identical…. In this powerful, pacifistic miniature, Arrabal implies that wars are forced on peace-loving men by their governments. (pp. 150-51)
In "El laberinto" guilt is … the central motif, recalling Kafka even in the quotation at the beginning, as well as in the underlying sentiment of a pursuing, persecuting "justice" which inevitably condemns and kills. There is a pervading feeling of the incomprehensibility, inescapability, absurdity and mystery of bureaucratic mechanisms…. The labyrinth is a trap—all its exits are false. There may be religious symbolism in the myth of the "father" who has constructed this private world, who disposes all, knows all, judges and punishes.
"Ciugrena" seems to suggest the absurdity of all touched by war, not merely caricaturing the aggressors, or those who profit by the conflict (represented by the journalist who expects fame from "immortalizing" the heroic inhabitants of the massacred village), but also the victims themselves. (pp. 151-52)
Guilt once more forms the central motif in "La bicicleta del condenado." As in "El cementerio de automóviles," the use of the bicycle is related to torture and death. Again, the victim is something of a musician, possibly recalling the Orpheus myth. Even the construction suggests a musical composition, with repetition of themes and a counterpoint technique. Pantomime acquires a new prominence, a tendency accelerated in Arrabal's more recent works. The atmosphere of "La bicicleta …" is Kafkaesque, inquisitorial—the protagonist is an unwilling participant in a mysterious game of life and death. In contrast to the awareness of his counterpart in "El laberinto," however, Viloro is unaware that he is the one condemned and being taken to execution. Again, Arrabal uses two executioners. As in "Laberinto," he employs the child's train (or playing train), a motif which seems to associate the inquisitorial or judicial process with children's games. This would also seem to be the implication of the happy infantile laughter heard at the end of "La bicicleta …" when Viloro is taken off to execution. Children do, in fact, play at death and execution, and—as with Arrabal characters—their actions may also be unconsciously, innocently erotic. This use of the childlike personality is also closely associated with moral ambivalence, and the general incomprehension of all forms of authority characteristic of Arrabal works, but it never seems to add up to constructive implications or suggestions. (pp. 152-53)
Arrabal appears to believe that human existence is absurd because we are born without asking to be born, and die without seeking death, we live between birth and death trapped within our bodies and the limits of our reason, in a complex of self-defeating paradoxes, a check and balance of power and impotence, knowledge and ignorance, attunement and alienation. Like modern absurdists, also, Arrabal resists the traditional separation of farce and tragedy, and in his teatro pánico goes beyond this to reject the most fundamental traditional concepts of the theater…. Many absurdists have discarded psychology as a control of action; Arrabal perhaps has not discarded it, but it is largely abnormal or irrational psychology which interests him. (p. 153)
Arrabal plays often appear to be utterly illogical until one realizes that the logic is not directly expressed, but symbolically embodied in the action. The use of symbolism and allegory is more frequent in the theater of the absurd than perhaps at any time since the Baroque era, and Arrabal is no exception to this. The absurdist playwright in general tends to distrust language, which is linked to the existentialist distrust of reason and negation of communication. Their concern with the gulf of misunderstanding existing, for example, between our expression of self and its apprehension by others, is a frequent absurdist theme, which some express by forcing language to nonsense, of which there are examples in Arrabal. A prime concern with the theater of the absurd is the depiction of monotony, a symbolic representation of absurdity, an assessment of the value of all action as transitory, illusory, imperfect, absurd. This implies a monotony of value, or moral ambivalence—frequent in Arrabal—and monotony is conveyed by the repetition of speeches, scenes, personalities, names, and even plots.
The underlying message of the absurdist is negative or nihilistic, insofar as in most cases it is limited to a statement of the existence of absurdity, with perhaps some sadistic pleasure in portraying man's agonizing struggle. Seldom do they portray man's coming to grips with the problem of absurdity, or his successful existential action with respect to it. Arrabal's later narratives suggest that he is searching for some way out of this personal labyrinth. (pp. 153-54)
Janet Winecoff Díaz, "Theater and Theories of Fernando Arrabal," in Kentucky Romance Quarterly (© University Press of Kentucky; reprinted by permission of Kentucky Romance Quarterly), Vol. XVI, No. 2, 1969, pp. 143-54.
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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, into which others occasionally intrude. Devoid of conventional morality, whose clichés they may voice mechanically, the couples resort to games and rituals. Like the paranoid victims of Adamov's early plays, the not-so-innocent children of Arrabal are crushed, whatever they do.
Though these plays syncopate disparate incidents in a dream-like way, Arrabal has denied that they are surrealistic…. (pp. 29-30)
Particularly in his longer plays, The Coronation (1964), The Great Ceremony (1964), and The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria (1967) it is evident that Arrabal creates … confusion through careful manipulation and articulation of theatrical techniques. Not only are characters and ideas interchangeable, but all human action is repetitive, so that, as in more recognizably Absurdist drama, the play ends where it began. In the interim, however, the few characters have played many roles, providing scope for the actors. In The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, the two characters are designated by the title; yet each one plays half a dozen roles, and the implication is that each could have played the roles of the other. At the end of the play, the Architect, having eaten the Emperor, becomes the Emperor; then the Architect arrives, speaking the Emperor's opening lines.
But though the play ends as it began, its beginning plunges us immediately into a theatrical world. (pp. 30-1)
[The] plays of Fernando Arrabal are often built on cruel duologues. In sharp contrast to the sophisticates of Pinter's later plays, however, Arrabal's characters act like children in an adult world. Tenderly, they torture and murder. Their crimes arise from no rational motive, and they give sadistic pleasure…. Each Arrabal play pivots on at least one cruelty, characterized by its own distinctive details.
In Arrabal's longer plays of the 1960's, the cruelties are dramatized more minutely and repetitively, taking on a ritual quality as indicated by the very titles The Coronation and The Great Ceremony. In the first play, Giafar, in love with Sylda, knocks at the door of her room, enters it, and finds her lying dead on her bed. Resurrecting her with a kiss, he is chained to the room, where he is subject to the verbal cruelties of Sylda herself, of a male couple, of Sylda's parents, and of a woman named Arlys, who proves to be Sylda in disguise. But the cruelties are interspersed with, and sometimes indistinguishable from games, and all the incidents tremble on the brink of dreams. (pp. 81-2)
In The Great Ceremony there is at once more cruelty and more tenderness. The hunch-backed protagonist, Cavanosa, is an anagram of Casanova; conscious of his deformation, Cavanosa cruelly repulses the beautiful Sil when she accosts him on a park bench, but agrees to signal her from his room. In his room, Cavanosa and his mother exchange cruelties interlaced with tenderness and concern. When his mother leaves, he signals Sil to come up, and he woos her with sadism…. His "great ceremony" is to woo a woman through cruelty so that she becomes a slave to his mother, who then murders her. The police remove the corpse, and the ceremony begins again.
More spare, more intense, and much more theatrical than these two plays, Arrabal's The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria introduces cruelty within a dazzling spectrum of varied activities. Alone on a desert island, the Architect and the Emperor engage in a swift and imaginative series of games during which they fling insults at each other as adroitly and indiscriminately as endearments. Each is more cruel alone than in the company of the other…. Though The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria is far more fantastic than Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, there is an important resemblance in the manipulation of death: George kills his perhaps imaginary parents and his surely imaginary son in precisely the same kind of automobile accident; the Emperor confesses to having killed his mother and orders the Architect to kill him with precisely the same hammer-blow on the head. The Emperor also orders that the Architect devour him after death, and the Architect's soliloquy during this extraordinary meal is cruelly grotesque—perhaps the most cruelly grotesque ever heard on the stage. (pp. 82-3)
Ruby Cohn, in her Currents in Contemporary Drama (copyright © 1969 by Indiana University Press), Indiana University Press, 1969, 276 p.∗
Gloria Feman Orenstein
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[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 acting that are summed up in confusion, that is to say, on the one hand the present and the future … on the other hand, memory."
In combination with Artaud's Theater of Cruelty, we find, then, that it is either an act of personal or of metaphysical cruelty that serves as the catalytic agent which awakens in the initiate the desire to depart from a somnolent state of death-in-life inertia, and to evolve to a more impassioned experience of existence. The protagonist is initiated into the Panic world of confusion in order to attain enlightenment and ecstasy so that he may permanently live in the marvelous.
Before 1962, the dichotomy between an intimation of a surrealist vision of liberation and the reality of a nightmare world of imprisonment is prevalent in Arrabal's theater. (p. 241)
In Le Tricycle, contrasting strongly with the adult world of law and order, is the naïve, innocent world of childhood, which blossoms in the form of a surrealistic rendering of le merveilleux quotidien that ordinary reality denies man. Climando describes how Sato fell in love with a butterfly and creates images in which unusual elements are juxtaposed to create new poetic visions…. The counterpart to this magical existence in a reality transfused with marvelous transmutations and metamorphoses is the cruel nightmare world of fantastic specters from the unconscious, which terrorize the characters in their innocence.
As Arrabal's theater progressed to La Communion Solonelle [The Solemn Communion] of 1963, the nightmare world became less symbolic and more hallucinatingly real…. This play marks an important turning point in Arrabal's theater, for the inner world of hallucinated vision has finally encroached upon the outer world of objective vision, so that the Communiante actually perceives the two types of vision as equally real—her real preparation for her communion, and her hallucination of a necrophiliac making love to a dead girl in a coffin.
The play Une Chèvre sur un Nuage [A Goat on a Cloud] rapidly progresses toward a redefinition of the relationship between the two types of vision in symbolic terms. Here, for the first time, we encounter the famous sphere from Bosch's painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, as a concrete stage image. The character named L. is in the sphere. F. tries to bring L. down to earth. (pp. 241-43)
The world of the egg, or le merveilleux, proves to be more potent than reality, for when F. tries to pull L. out of the sphere, F. inadvertently slips into it. A young girl, who had been playing nearby stabs them both with a dagger and kills them. The commentary upon the separation between the values of those who experience the "Garden of Earthly Delights" and those who, uncomprehending, are unable to perceive hallucinated, intense beauty, coincides with Bosch's own theme in his painting, as is explained by Mario Bussagli in the introduction to his book, Bosch, where he notes the cruelty and inhumanity of those who are outside of this sphere. This is clearly the meaning of the young girl's act of cruelty in the play. (p. 243)
The dream images in L'Architecte et L'Empereur d'Assyrie are very close to prose descriptions of surrealist paintings. Rather than using the surrealists' new poetic idiom, they simply describe, in analytical prose, visions which could be transposed into surrealist paintings. (p. 245)
[The] eternal games of travesty, metamorphoses, improvisations, parody, and role-playing that are engaged in by the Architect and the Emperor are inspired by the surrealist game "The One in the Other" that Arrabal used to play with Breton and the surrealists. (p. 246)
It is in Le Lai de Barabbas … that the idea of confusion is, for the first time, aesthetically woven into the structural tapestry of one of Arrabal's plays. In this play Dali's idea of the "systematic confusion of reality," which is part of his theory of paranoiac-critical activity, is used to organize and to structure a ritual of systematic dérèglement de tous les sens. Here, the guide to the ceremony of initiation is a woman, as Breton had advocated in Arcane 17. (p. 247)
Following Artaud's recommendation that the author of the theater piece become "a sort of magical director, a master of sacred ceremonies," Arrabal reconciled this role with Breton's directive that woman be the guide and he created Arlys/Sylda as the feminine enchantress or high priestess who presides over the sacred ceremonies of magical initiation into the Panic universe.
The dual personality of the feminine guide reflects, alternately the element of cruelty coming from Artaud in the character of Sylda, and the element of the marvelous from Breton, in her alter ego, Arlys. The reconciliation of these two poles in one and the same person is the union of opposites. When, at the end of the play, Arlys metamorphoses into Sylda, the fusion of all contradictory elements is accomplished. The two names are almost anagrams of Alice, for the world into which Giafar is initiated is, in many ways, a wonderland. (pp. 247-48)
Through a series of Artaudian events in which cruelty is used to awaken the slumbering sensibilities of man, a world of the marvelous is brought forth in scenes that invoke the techniques of total spectacle; the personage of Arlys appears in a dream within the dream of a dream. Reminiscences of Lewis Carroll (when Arlys passes through to the other side of the mirror) remind us that this other facet of reality is equally possible and available for anyone who masters, as Giafar must, "the theoreums of confusion." Arlys suggests that the existence of Sylda is only a dream, and the total confusion between dream and reality is treated as a positive aesthetic value rather than a negative one. (p. 248)
The frontiers between reality and the dream [are] completely demolished, as the dream mutated into the real, and the real was shown to be merely a dream. Through this cyclical ceremony of the derealization of reality and initiation to the norms of confusion—and later to expanded vision and integration—we realize that we are really the ones who have undergone a total aesthetic reorientation into an acceptance of the Panic universe. This is a world in which dream and reality, cruelty and the marvelous—in sum, all contradictions—can coexist in a new, expanded surreal dimension of experience. (p. 249)
In Arrabal's play Le Jardin des Délices [The Garden of Delights], Bosch's painting acquires its full symbolic significance within the stage spectacle. The world that the "Garden of Earthly Delights" refers to is also symbolized by the egg in Arrabal's theater. The egg represents the alchemist's oven in which base metals are transmuted into gold. The world of the marvelous is, by analogy, a world reborn from the egg, one in which humanity has been alchemically transformed or spiritually enlightened so that ecstasy can be experienced.
The earliest prefiguration of the symbol of Le Jardin des Délices is found in one of Arrabal's earlier plays, Fando et Lis. The mythical city of Tar, the alchemical citadel toward which the protagonists voyage in their spiritual pilgrimage, reminds us of Níneve in Elena Garro's play La Señora en Su Balcón. In Fando et Lis the city of Tar is used symbolically by Arrabal to designate the goal of their quest. (p. 250)
Arrabal progresses from the use of the symbol of the city of Tar in Fando et Lis to the creation of the experience of Tar on stage, forcing the spectator to inhabit it momentarily, by initiating him into this Panic universe and obliging him to live in it for several hours during the duration of the play. In making the symbol into a reality, in transmuting the dream into an event, Arrabal has attempted, as he tells us, "to realize the synthesis between the conscious and the unconscious." (p. 258)
In Le Jardin des Délices, the egg, or sphere from the painting by Bosch, is used as the symbol of le merveilleux and the alchemist's oven, which transmutes brute matter into gold. In this play, the egg is used symbolically on the level of the word, concretely on the level of the stage object, and thematically throughout the work to indicate a realm in which opposites are reconciled and contradiction coexist. (pp. 258-59)
This play combines the literary or verbal imagery of surrealism with the hallucinated imagery of the slide projections to connote a time-continuum where dream and reality intermingle. This interpenetration of two levels of experience is then objectified in the three-dimensional stage imagery of the event, and is symbolized by the egg. (p. 262)
The theme of the imaginary becoming real has been expressed in poetry of three dimension—verbal, visual, and concrete—creating a total theatrical synthesis deriving from Breton, Artaud, and Dali.
Arrabal's play Ars Amandi uses the ideas of Breton, Artaud, and Dali in the musical motifs of a polyphonic opéra panique. In this musical spectacle, the themes and images studied in the earlier works are combined contrapuntally in a fugal treatment, in which the mathematically precise composition serves as the framework for the expression in stage imagery of the total Panic confusion of all levels of art and experience. The apparent frenzy and paroxysmal intensity of the pulse of the spectacle suggests that in this play Arrabal has reversed his treatment of these familiar themes from a more serious approach to the material to a more lighthearted and gay musical rendering of the same themes. One imagines that the opera, depending on the interpretation of the metteur-en-scéne, could be done in either a pompous style or as a parody. We have already noted that alchemy is a musical art. It is thus fitting that Arrabal should turn to a musical form for his own alchemical allegory. (pp. 263-64)
The familiar egg of Bosch recurs as a stage habitat, and mannequins of mythical personages such as Dracula, Frankenstein, Christ, Superman, Othello, and Don Quixote come to life from time to time to incarnate multiple meta-morphoses of opposite and simultaneous existences for Fridigan. These characters are archetypal entities that remind us of the myriad possibilities and potentialities of mankind. They show the extremes of human nature, and serve to awaken the sensibility of the initiate to pre-existing, stereotyped and lifeless identities. The true initiate must create his own, original identity, a surrealist or visionary version of the self. (pp. 264-65)
The Panic universe is present from the outset, where the mirror image creates the primary confusion, within which variations and modifications of more subtle confusion completely revolutionize the spectator's experience of reality…. The climax is achieved by the chanting of "Allelulia" and the clapping of hands from a Negro spiritual. It is a veritable spiritual transformation, in which our consciousness has been expanded, so that the original image of the play, when seen at the end, has a new, hallucinated meaning for the spectator. This is Arrabal's visual yardstick to measure the transformation of humanity's vision.
One final comment upon the nature of the work. It is subtitled Opéra Panique. Indeed, Arrabal wanted every line to be sung except the rare dialogues which are printed in italics. The thematic relevance of the singing is a direct reference to Artaud. (p. 265)
For Arrabal, as for Artaud, man has not yet learned to express himself in a magical language. It is only when the events have revealed the marvelous to him after his transformation, that he will be able to express himself in this new language. Here it is through the music of speech, rather than through its meaning, that the surrealist dimension of language can be envisioned. When they sing, they are able to express themselves in poetry….
The heads of Bana and Ang are, in themselves, a fascinating study in stage imagery….
[Following] the progression of the play's initiation into the marvelous, these heads begin with a frigid base, or mechanical stark reality (teeth, arms, typewriter), signifying death-in-life (death heads), and pass through an initiation to enlightenment. (p. 266)
At this point the images become more fantastic and hallucinatory (elephant heads, Picasso forms) until the two servants wear as a headpiece, a chandelier: "The stage is only lit by the chandelier that Bana wears on his head." This signifies that henceforth it is an internal or mental hallucinated vision, an illumination that overpowers the role of the objective vision of reality. Now Ang has "the head of a great terrifying bird," with a "sceptre-trompette" that evokes memories of a Max Ernst painting. The two evolve into heads of old men (a vision of the future) and of a bull whose eyes have been gouged out, which reads Erasme-Marx. Blinded, their vision is internal and they can perceive the world transformed, the world to which the symbolic name Erasme-Marx refers. They finally become winged fish. The fish, a familiar symbol of the Redeemer, has the wings of total liberation. Thus, the two are transmuted into another world—that of Marc Chagall's painting Anywhere Out of This World, where they represent the arrival at the city of Tar. Their ultimate transfiguration, however, is into the flies or bees that are swarming on Lys's body, which, we are told by Arrabal, represents all humanity. In Orphic symbolism, bees represent souls. We may interpret this to mean that a kind of spiritual transformation has taken place. (p. 267)
The regeneration of humanity, body and soul, is the surrealist theme of the transformation of man. It is symbolized by Erasme-Marx, Fridigan's friend. Erasme, of course, refers to the humanist scholar of the Renaissance who rebelled against fanaticism in religion and passionately sought personal freedom in a humanistic vision. Marx, too, opposed fanatical authoritarianism, and stood for a revolutionary humanism. Fridigan was in search of this friend when he came upon Lys by chance (objective chance), and, as his initiation progresses, he comes closer and closer to finding him. It is not, however, until his final Artaudian surgical operation, in which his body is literally transformed on stage, that he enters the "Garden of Earthly Delights" to be reunited with Erasme-Marx….
Erasme-Marx clearly represents the salvation from abject dehumanization and death-in-life inertia. He is the symbol of convulsive beauty and enlightenment in other scenes. The bull's head with the gouged-out eyes also bears the name Erasme-Marx, indicating a new inner vision to come. Finally, Fridigan comes upon numerous costumes bearing the inscription "Costumes d'Erasme-Marx." These costumes … indicate that Erasme-Marx inhabits a realm of metamorphosis. (p. 268)
The dislocation of reality is further enhanced by a procedure of relativity; the main scenic action is mimicked in a miniature marionette theater on the side of the stage that bears a sign reading "Auteur Dramatique." Thus, the spectator perceives that what he takes for real may only be the miniature version of a greater reality and that it may also be only a dream image of a miniature version of a hallucination or any other permutation or combination in such a series.
In a similar vein, there is the repetition of the scene in which the mannequins come to life for Fridigan, whose former self is crucified. When the scene is repeated, however, each character enacts the role of the other's life ("the one in the other"), and a whole world of multiple metamorphoses of being is revealed. By means of these chance encounters of disparate individualities coming together in random sequences, the equivalent of the surrealist image is created on stage. The possibility of transcending one's own identity as each acts out the life of another prefigures Fridigan's self-transcendence, whereby he will leave his former "frigid" self and enter a more passionate life. Fridigan submits to the operation and is transformed and enlightened. He has essentially experienced life as it would be in the realm we have referred to as Tar.
During the course of this spectacle, various objects fall from the ceiling. This, of course, is another reference to Artaud's warning that the sky may fall on our heads; the Theater of Cruelty means to make us aware of just that. As Breton, Dali, and Artaud have been evoked and set to music, Arrabal has actually expanded these original thematic statements into his own stylized rendering of surrealism in symphonic form. Panic chaos is strictly relegated to the overriding principle of discipline and structure that presides over the ceremony of initiation. This mathematical rigor of the processes sets the alchemical formula according to which these series of frenetic images from different media cross, interrelate, transfuse the one into the other, and mutate, so that one constantly sees the image becoming the event and the event creating the new image. (pp. 269-70)
[In] Arrabal's Panic Theater, the dream becomes reality as the verbal image mutates into the corporeal image; and reality itself serves to rekindle the dream, as the intensity of the event reawakens the participant to a more imaginative form of existence. (p. 270)
Gloria Feman Orenstein, "A Surrealist Theatrical Tractate: Fernando Arrabal," in her The Theater of the Marvelous: Surrealism and the Contemporary Stage (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1975 by New York University), New York University Press, 1975, pp. 239-73.
John J. Michalczyk
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525
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 imagination, anti-rationalistic optic, and episodic development, Arrabal's cinematic thesis is reinforced with scenes of the bizarre (snakes), strange juxtapositions (a skeleton among the bourgeois at a bullfight), dream sequences (a homosexual scene with a priest at Mass in a ludicrous helmet), and humour noir (capers of perverted dwarfs). Interspersed with actual footage from the Civil War are found four fundamental subjects precious to Aragon, Breton, Eluard and other surrealists of the twenties and thirties—an anti-religious spirit, sexual fantasies, and Leftist politics, ultimately culminating in a quest for absolute liberty.
Where Buñuel and Fellini jokingly toy with religion, Arrabal definitely turns it into black humor and blasphemy. The frolicking dwarfs commit sexual acts with religious statues, distribute Communion clad only in a diaper, and are eventually crucified. Arrabal, a master of ritual, employs religious chant to elevate these scenes to the level of the sublime, as he does with a Hosanna accompanying young girls in white, skipping in slow motion and carrying large anarchist and Communist banners….
In terms of sexuality, Sade and Freud, so profoundly appreciated by the surrealists, are well represented here. In a ritually staged scene a dwarf has intercourse with a tall, beautiful woman. A Republican is tortured sexually by his Nationalist captors. The bourgeois celebrate the end of the war with a fiesta and bullfight wherein the bull-dwarf is ceremoniously slain by a sword in the groin.
Following the political leanings of his surrealists masters, Arrabal flirts with Communism and anarchy, using slogans, demonstrations, music, and dialogue to transform the world. Neo-surrealism becomes a weapon in the "service of the revolution." "Fascists assassinate culture" is the theme of the Guernica rally. In general, the authorities are caricatured throughout the film—a cowardly, bourgeois count, perverse fascist politicians, and a homosexual priest. The anti-establishment perspective of the surrealists is further symbolized by the children's dance around the exhumed coffins marked "Fascists," "Exploiters," and "Capitalists."
Liberty expressed in authentic love offers the only answer to the meaning of human existence. Arrabal thus underlines the need for freedom uninhibited by any law of the state, church, or society. Given the surrealist tendencies proffered by Arrabal without aesthetic, technical, or societal restraints, the viewer is repulsed yet mesmerized by a flow of humorous and ingenious images. The surrealist spirit developed here, morbid as it may be, is far from moribund. (p. 762)
John J. Michalczyk, "Film: 'L'Arbre de Guernica'," in The French Review (copyright 1980 by the American Association of Teachers of French), Vol. LIII, No. 5, April, 1980, pp. 761-62.