Arrabal, Fernando (Writer)

(1937- ) playwright,novelist

Fernando Arrabal was born in Melilla, Spanish Morocco. His childhood was extremely traumatic. In the Spanish civil war his father was an officer in the liberal republican army, and his mother was a fascist sympathizer. At the end of the war, she betrayed his father to the authorities, and he was condemned to death. The violent loss of his father, combined with Arrabal’s knowledge of his mother’s betrayal, permanently scarred him.

When Arrabal was four years old, his family moved to Spain, where he attended school. As a young boy, he would entertain himself by constructing puppet theaters and putting on plays. These experiences play an important role in some of his later works. Arrabal was also fascinated by Charlie Chaplin movies; later in life, he used slapstick and the stylized acting techniques of Chaplin in the context of his Panic Theater movement.

Unable to find attractive career opportunities in Franco’s Spain, Arrabal moved to Paris to pursue his career as a playwright. Ironically, around the same time he arrived in Paris, he discovered he had tuberculosis. Nevertheless, he persisted in working arduously at his writing and, in 1958, his efforts paid off when a Paris publisher gave him a lifetime contract.

The Labyrinth (1956), one of Arrabal’s early plays, reflects the depressing and daunting quality of his early life. It resembles to some degree the dark fantasies of Franz kafka. A nightmarish play, it portrays the horrors of the modern world as a sort of absurd hell. As Arrabal developed as a writer, he persisted in his use of absurdity. In his later plays, however, the effect was more often black humor rather than terror or angst.

In the 1960s, Arrabal emerged as one of the central writers of the theatre of the absurd, a movement pioneered by such writers as Antonin artaud and Samuel beckett. The movement had many subcategories of playwrights who shared a common use of absurd elements as a method to revitalize the stolid conventions of traditional Western theater.

Arrabal’s particular subcategory was a style of theater he called Panic Theater. The Greek god of surprise and confusion, Pan, for whom the movement was named, brings both pleasure and terror when he appears. It is important to remember that the scope of Panic Theater extends beyond the simple definition of fear that we normally associate with panic.

Critical Analysis

Arrabal’s play The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria (1965) is an example of the height of Panic Theater. The play begins when the emperor of Assyria’s plane crashes on a desert island and he is the only one who survives. He finds on this island an architect who is not quite human. He is a supernatural creature who is able to control night and day and the seasons. The emperor nevertheless is unimpressed and begins to try to educate the architect in the manners of bourgeois society. The two men fall into a sadomasochistic relationship that involves acting out plays in which they assume opposite roles, such as a pair of fiances, mother and son, a nun and her confessor, and a doctor and his patient. As the play progresses, the two actors switch roles, behave like each other, and act out scenes by themselves playing two people. It becomes obvious that they are each other’s double and part of the same mind.

The use of games and ritualized behavior to structure the action of the play in lieu of a plot is one of Arrabal’s major innovations. In addition, the absurd sequence of events creates confusion and incomprehensibility that embodies one of the main aspects of Panic Theater. Arrabal believed that to be accurate to life, art must be confusing and filled with chance or absurdity. The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria can be seen as a psychological drama that, perhaps, takes place within a single mind, a kind of dream projected onto the stage.

In the late 1960s, after being censored and arrested in Spain, Arrabal began to become more political in his drama. He wrote a series of plays that he called Guerrilla Theater, many of which were meant to be performed impromptu on the street. And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers (1969), the culmination of this period in Arrabal’s work, is performed in a theater; however, the actors sit with the audience, and the staging is highly unconventional. Arrabal continues to use many of the methods of Panic Theater, but now his purpose was to convey a public, political message.

Arrabal is primarily a dramatist, but he has also had success in a number of other genres. His novel The Tower Struck by Lightning (1988) is a semiau-tobiographical work structured entirely around the game of chess, at which Arrabal is an expert. He has made several films, including a film for children, Pacific Fantasy (1981), starring Mickey Rooney. He has also exhibited his dreamlike paintings. Although under the Franco regime his plays were banned in Spain, in 1986 King Juan Carlos of Spain awarded him the Medalla d’Oro de las Bellas Artes. His other awards include France’s Prix du Centre National du Livre. Arrabal lives and works in Paris. In a review of the La Mama (New York) production of The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, Clive Barnes wrote: “Mr. Arrabal, with his perceptions, absurdities, loves and understanding, is a playwright to be honored, treasured and understood. In this play he is saying something about the isolation, the solitariness and the need of 20th-century man that, so far, as I can see, no other playwright has quite gotten on stage before.”

Other Works by Fernando Arrabal

Baal Babylon. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Grove, 1961.

Selected Plays: Guernica; The Labyrinth; The Tricycle; Picnic on the Battlefield; And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers; The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria; Garden of Delights. New York: Grove Press, 1986.

A Work about Fernando Arrabal

Donahue, Thomas John. The Theater of Fernando Arrabal: A Garden ofEarthly Delights. New York: New York University Press, 1980.

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