The Funny, Crazy, and Cruel Absurdism of Fernando Arrabal

written by Laolu Ogundele

Picture this: it’s Friday evening, and you’ve walked into a random street play featuring an unknown artist. You sit in one of the front rows as you prepare to enjoy a little light-hearted escapism after a busy week. But a few scenes into the play, you’re profoundly disturbed as you’re confronted with weird displays of torture, necrophilia, sadism, murder, and cruelty. It’s immediately clear to you that you’re by no means watching an ordinary show. You’re watching the creation of an avant-garde genius – something bordering on the obscene and forbidden. 

Do you sit up straight in your chair, rub your eyes in disbelief,
and storm out of the theatre as you rue the loss of your ticket fee?
Or do you stay to the end of the play,
fascinated by the unsettling performance? 

If you do the former, its fairly understandable; you could grab a milkshake on your way home – something sweet to help lighten the mood after the horrors you’ve just witnessed. But if you do the latter and stay to satiate your morbid curiosity, then congrats, you just might be a budding Fernando Arrabal fan. 

The scenes I described earlier are the bread and butter of Mr. Arrabal, the prolific Spanish playwright and screenwriter. He burst onto the stage in the early ‘60s and would later co-found the iconic Panic Theatre movement. 

In many ways, Panic Theatre was the peak of Fernando Arrabal’s screenwriting career, seeing as it’s what brought him the most limelight. It proved to be Mr. Arrabal’s work in its most mature form, with help from fellow screenwriters Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor. The Panic Theatre movement featured violent, hypersexual theatrical scenes that explored deep themes concerning the human condition. According to members of the movement, the world is full of disgust, injustice, cruelty, and inconsistencies. Why hide it? However, as one might expect, many viewers had their sensibilities attacked by the unsettling scenes on display. Professional critics and regular audiences voiced their dissatisfaction, but as with most niche artistic work, the movement had its loyal disciples. 

 As they grew in notoriety, so did their confidence as a creative group, and by the mid-‘60s, there were full-fledged performances, popularly called Panic Happenings or Ephemerals. In one such version, titled Sacramental Melodrama, Alejandro Jodorowsky, one of the co-creators, starred. In the play, he comes onto the stage, clad in motorcycle leather, and in one scene is seen slitting the throats of two geese. If you thought that was the extent of the macabre performance, I have surprising news for you: while he’s slicing away, topless women, who are themselves covered in honey, proceed to cut off Jodorowsky’s outfit and attach two snakes onto his chest. The scene ends with him stripping off his clothes and volunteering himself to be whipped, all to the sound of constant live rock music. Oh, dear! 

 The Panic Movement lasted about a decade and was about as bizarre as they come. After all, who could deny that a scene showing a chicken crucified to a giant phallus, or another – showing a large plastic vagina expelling live turtles, was not the typical weekend family flick? 

If it is not erotic, it is not interesting.

 So, how did the name “Panic Movement” come about? Though you might imagine that it originated from a desire to cause panic to the audience, the truth is a bit more nuanced. The name derives linguistically from “Pan,” the name of the ancient Greek god of shepherds and hunters, who was best known for his association with sexuality and prowess. Though he loved nothing more than fun, mindless mischief and sex, he often had angry shouting fits, particularly when he had woken abruptly from his nap – a fit that was known to scare passersby to their bones. This dichotomy in Pan’s character is one that the members of the Panic Movement seemed desirous to explore, hence their adoption of the name. The movement thus became synonymous with stark contrasts. For example, actors often engaged in master-slave relationships, switching roles between executioner and victim. Themes were severe yet jocular, playful, and at the same time, unsettling; sacred, yet profane; disturbing, yet captivating. The shows were as wild, brutal, and unpredictable as they come, with characters demonstrating childlike innocence while committing the most vicious acts of torture and cruelty. In the world of Fernando Arrabal, it wasn’t unreasonable to have a casual dinner one minute, then maim and kill someone the next. 

White sculpture of Pan, the Greek god with a flute in his hand 

  Having learned a bit about Fernando Arrabal and his crew, aren’t you wondering why they chose that path instead of becoming secretaries, nurses, teachers, and tax advisors like the rest of us? Maybe we’ll find some clues in his life and upbringing. Born in 1932 in Melilla, Spain, to military parents, his early life seemed normal enough. At age four, Arrabal, his mother, and the rest of his siblings moved to a different city, and there, he started his first formal education. Unfortunately, things took a terrible turn for his family when the Spanish Civil War began: his father was arrested and imprisoned for several decades – he died in 1941. It’s difficult to determine how much of an impact this had on a young Fernando Arrabal, but when he was in university and started writing plays, his stories were a metaphor for life itself. His early plays often depicted childlike characters that were innocent yet cruel – possibly illustrating the purity that was ripped out of him as a result of his father’s ordeal. He continued experimenting with the absurd, borrowing ideas from previous surrealist creators, but his big break wouldn’t come until the early ‘60s when the Panic Movement was birthed. 

 It’s not an overstatement to say that Fernando Arrabal has had an accomplished career. He has written 14 novels, directed seven films, and published over 100 plays in various languages. He has also created close to a thousand works of poetry and several essays. The world of screenwriting is grateful that he braved the odds and followed his muse, criticism notwithstanding. Experience has shown that genius is often found when you think outside the box. Some, like Fernando Arrabal, do not seem to notice the box at all… 

Next post – The Story of Harmless Bullet. Day 30 

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