Blackmail. It’s such a dirty word. All Short Man wants is a friend. Someone to go for a drink with, someone who’s always there to listen. All Tall Man wants is his identity as an illegal immigrant kept secret, and so he agrees to become Short Man’s friend. But Tall Man is about to find out just what a high price he has paid to buy his blackmailer’s silence.
Short Man and Short Woman live in the apartment above Tall Man and Tall Woman. The men initially do not know each other, until Short Man bumps into his neighbour in a local café. Before this, they had never exchanged more than a few words, passing only on the stairs as Tall Man left for his night job and Short Man returned from his day job. In the café, Short Man invites Tall Man to join him for a drink. He has something to celebrate – the immigration law. Tall Man is understandably confused. Why would Short Man be celebrating a mere law? Soon, however, the sinister reason behind Short Man’s celebration becomes clear: he has discovered that Tall Man is an illegal immigrant. This knowledge gives Short Man power over Tall Man, who, in return for his silence, is forced to become his neighbour’s ‘friend’. If Short Man wants a dinner companion, Tall Man will have to be there. If he wants someone to talk to, Tall Man will have to be there. Nothing dubious, Short Man insists, nothing degrading.
After returning from the café, Tall Man says nothing to his wife about the threatening nature of his encounter with Short Man. Tall Woman is simply happy that her husband has, as far as she knows, finally found a friend in their adopted country. She has also made a new acquaintance – a mysterious man in a hat who spoke to her during her walk. Short Man, too, says nothing to his wife about the blackmail when he returns home. Short Woman has difficulties of her own. She cannot sleep and spends her nights watching a phone-in talk show for insomniacs, much to her husband’s disdain.
While the couples’ everyday conversations play out on stage, Short Man’s blackmail of Tall Man simmers in the background. At first, it consists of relatively innocuous demands. Short Man enlists his neighbour’s help to construct a little electric train set. He asks Tall Man to accompany him on trips to relatives and to the nocturnal enclosure at a zoo. However, soon Short Man becomes a more oppressive presence in Tall Man’s life. In scene 6 he visits his neighbour’s small apartment. Tall Man is at work, leaving Tall Woman to answer the door. She is visibly uncomfortable, as Short Man enters the marital bedroom and touches her bed sheets, all under the pretext of investigating a wiring fault. After Short Man leaves, Tall Woman pays her husband a visit at work. As an illegal immigrant, the only employment Tall Man can find is as a lowly night orderly in a nursing home, administering pills and cleaning up urine. Confronted by his wife’s disgust at Short Man’s visit, Tall Man admits he is being blackmailed. He insists the deal with Short Man is mainly harmless, consisting of drinks or daytrips. His wife, however, sees it differently. She is shocked at her husband’s subservience, and threatens to leave him if he refuses to stand up to his blackmailer. That will never happen, insists Tall Man resignedly, convinced that he will never be free of Short Man’s control.
As the play moves towards its conclusion, Short Man’s birthday approaches. Tall Man meets Short Woman on a park bench and their conversation turns to Short Man. She worries aloud to Tall Man that her husband seems increasingly distracted and distant, showing no interest in his forthcoming birthday. In contrast, Tall Man reveals that Short Man has, to him, been very communicative about his birthday and what gift he wants from him. This arouses Short Woman’s suspicions, and she too visits her husband at work. Short Woman mentions Tall Man’s vulnerable status as an illegal immigrant and insinuates that she knows about the blackmail. She threatens to leave her husband, unable to compete with a slave for his affections. Her threats are empty, however, and – unlike the Tall Woman, who leaves on a train accompanied by the mysterious man in the hat – Short Woman stays. At the end of the play, Tall Man attends Short Man’s birthday party. He gives his neighbour his present. It is an empty diary, ready to be filled with Short Man’s experiences – as written down by Tall Man. Tall Man will no longer have his own voice, condemned to spend his time recording Short Man’s days. Short Woman arrives home. She wants to dance. On instructions from Short Man, Tall Man silently acquiesces. There will no escape for him; his illegal status is still secret, but he has lost both his wife and his dignity.
The Fox and the Hedgehog
Tall Woman is a translator of stories and poetry. One of the poetry books she is translating contains the epigraph ‘The fox knows many things. The hedgehog, only one, but it is an important thing’. This maxim is attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus and is used by Isaiah Berlin in his book The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, c.1953) to divide writers into two categories. According to Berlin, hedgehogs are those who have a singular view of the world while foxes are those who draw on different experiences or sources to formulate a multifaceted picture of life. In the play, Tall Man, as a well-read intellectual, is the fox. Short Man is the hedgehog, possessing the most important piece of knowledge, namely the fact of Tall Man’s illegality.
One Thousand and One Nights
In scene 7 Tall Man compares himself to Scheherazade from the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights. She marries a Persian king who murdered each of his former brides after their wedding night. In order to avoid this fate, Scheherazade makes herself invaluable to the king by telling him fascinating stories. Tall Man tells his wife that he is like Scheherazade, making himself invaluable to Short Man as a similar form of self-preservation.
Productions of the play have, in general, been well received. Many critics point out the similarities between Animales nocturnos (Nocturnal Creatures) and the films of Alfred Hitchcock, or the plays of Harold Pinter, in that the play is a mixture of the everyday and the sinister.
Although the dramatic focus is mainly on the relationship between the two men, the critic Marcos Ordóñez was also interested in the women in the play. In his review of the 2005 Barcelona production (notably entitled ‘Cómo la Mujer Baja recuperó el sueño perdido’ [‘How the Short Woman Recovered Her Lost Sleep’]) he sums up the ‘corrosive’ effect of the blackmail on the men’s marriages: ‘The Short Woman cannot compete with a slave; The Tall Woman cannot live with a slave’ (Ordóñez 2005).
Ordóñez, Marcos. 2005. ‘De cómo la Mujer Baja recuperó el sueño perdido’. Review of Animales Nocturnos directed by Magda Pujo. El País, 13 August, http://www.elpais.es/articulo/elpbabart/20050813elpbabart_10/Tes/De%20c%F3mo%20la%20Mujer%20Baja%20recuper%F3%20el%20sue%F1o%20perdido [accessed October 2010] (Online Publication) (in Spanish)
The play is an expanded version of a 10-minute drama entitled El buen vecino (The Good Neighbour). This short piece was written in 2001 for the Royal Court Theatre, London, about the Spanish immigration law, the Ley de Extranjería. For Mayorga, this law ‘is, morally speaking, the most serious of laws, because it divides the population into two categories: citizens and non-citizens’ (Mayorga 2004) .
The text of the first scene of the play in Spanish, along with videos featuring Juan Mayorga and scenes from a production of Animales nocturnos can be found by clicking on the Spanish Ministry of Education website.
 As quoted on the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid website, 2 December 2004, https://couperin.uc3m.es/prueba/GCII/archives/000078.html [last accessed 13 February 2006: page no longer available]
Mayorga, Juan. 2003. Animales nocturnos; El sueño de Ginebra; El traductor de Blumemberg. Madrid, La Avispa
Mayorga, Juan. 2005. ‘Animales nocturnos’. In El teatro de papel, 1: ‘La Caverna’ por Rodolf Sirera; ‘Animales nocturnos’ por Juan Mayorga; ‘Como si fuera esta noche’ por Gracia Morales, pp. 175-251. Madrid, Primer Acto
Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 18 November 2010.