Out of the Wings

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El cementerio de automóviles (1957), Fernando Arrabal

English title: Car Cementery
Date written: 1957
First publication date: 1958
Keywords: love, love > friendship, love > lust, violence, violence > social, violence > torture, power, power > inter-personal/game play
Genre and type: magic realism, absurdist

Car Cemetery is a reimagining of the crucifixion story, set in a car cemetery populated by a cast of weird and wonderful characters. Hotel guests are squashed into cars. Runners sprint across the stage. Couples make love among the ruins. And then there are the jazz musicians: Foder, Topé and their Christ-like leader Emanu, who is soon to suffer a strange crucifixion, betrayed by his disciples and ignored by an indifferent world.


El cementerio de automóviles (Car Cemetery) is set amongst a bunch of rusty old cars that serve as hotel rooms. The hotel guests never leave their respective cars, although we are always conscious of their presence as they snicker and make comments about the action on stage. Milos and his beautiful young companion Dila run the hotel. Theirs is a strange relationship, as they alternately punish and forgive each other for failing in various concierge duties, such as kissing the guests good night.

Other characters use the car graveyard for their own purposes. For the young Tiosdio, it is his sports ground where he is pushed to the limit by Lasca, his elderly personal trainer and lover. Then there is Emanu, the Christ-like trumpet player. He is accompanied by the mute saxophonist Foder and the fearful clarinetist Topé. On the night the play begins, the musicians are preparing to play at a dance. They do this every evening, despite the risk. The authorities have outlawed Emanu’s trumpet playing, and even he admits that it is only a matter of time before he is arrested.

Offstage, an excited and demanding crowd has amassed. Topé and Foder leave to start playing for them, while Emanu remains in the car cemetery. He goes to meet Dila. Every night, Emanu tells Dila he is a virgin, only to confess his lie after the two of them have made love behind a car. Their evening encounters amuse Milos and the hotel guests, who titter behind their curtains as they spy on the couple.

Despite his nightly lie to Dila, Emanu always aspires to do good. He tells of his humble beginnings as the son of a carpenter who learnt to play the trumpet and left his village to go and spread his music far and wide. Emanu wants the poor to hear his trumpet playing, and so is prepared to risk arrest every evening at the dance. Rather nonchalantly, Dila tells Emanu that he will probably be arrested that very night. And indeed, offstage the noise of sirens and police whistles alert Emanu to danger. Soon, he and his fellow musicians are running to and fro trying to evade capture. Meanwhile, the athletes Tiosido and Lasca reappear. Tiosido has been pushed to the limit and falls down exhausted. Lasca revives him, and the odd couple book a night together in one of the cars, unperturbed by the racket going on around them. The police whistles get closer. Arrest seems imminent, as Emanu, Foder and Topé shelter among the cars in fear. But at the last moment Dila saves them. From offstage she calls out seductively and the police officers go off to enjoy whatever delights she has to offer.

When Dila returns, she tells the musicians that the police only want to arrest Emanu. In fact, there is an award offered to anyone prepared to divulge his whereabouts. Topé gives in to this temptation, and approaches two police officers – who turn out to be Tiosido and Lasca – now dressed in uniform after their night of passion. Topé gives them Emanu’s whereabouts, telling them he will identify the fugitive with a kiss.

The officers sprint off in pursuit of their prey as night falls on the car cemetery once again and the hotel guests prepare for bed. Emanu and Foder hide among the cars, confused as to where Topé has gone. When Topé does reappear, he identifies Emanu with a kiss. Emanu is led off to be tortured. Foder is also in danger, as Tiosido and Lasca demand to know if he is a friend of Emanu. They ask him three times, and three times Foder denies it, thus saving himself. The sound of Emanu’s torture can be heard offstage, interspersed by the cries of a newborn baby. This is the latest addition to the car cemetery, its proud parents two of the hotel guests. In fact, apart from Dila, the entire hotel is more interested in the crying child than in the tortured screams of Emanu offstage. When Emanu enters again, he is stretched out over a bicycle, his arms outstretched. Dila wipes the blood and sweat from his brow. As daylight returns, his dying and battered body is wheeled away. The hotel guests start up their infuriating laughter once more. In the distance, the sad sound of Foder’s saxophone is heard, while Tiosido and Lasca reappear, exhausted, but ready to continue training. Dila rings a bell, to tell everyone that another day has begun.


Christ’s crucifixion

Emanu is a Christ-like figure whose family background and death at the hands of the authorities have resonances with Christ’s life and death. His friends Topé and Foder are in a sense his disciples. Topé betrays Emanu, just as Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus. Foder denies knowing Emanu three times, just as Peter denies knowing Jesus.

Dila performs a Mary Magdalene role in the play, while at the end, Milos is forced to help push the bicycle carrying Emanu. This has echoes of Christ’s path to the cross, during which an onlooker named Simon of Cyrene was forced to help Jesus.

The Marx Brothers/Charlie Chaplin

The antics of the three musicians running to and fro to escape the police is reminiscent of a Chaplin farce. The trio of musicians are reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, not least because Foder, like Harpo Marx, never speaks.

Critical response

El cementerio de automóviles (Car Cemetery) is one of Arrabal’s most well-known plays internationally. The renowned Argentine director Víctor García was responsible for several elaborate and notable productions that featured actual-sized cars on stage and bombarded the audience with screams and sirens.

Academically, the play has been considered from a number of perspectives. Most notably, it is seen as a dystopian yet ludic exploration of human lust and social and religious indifference. Thomas Donahue notes:

With this play Arrabal has created a rich and imaginative metaphor for the decay of our technological civilization and collapse of all systems of morality. He has given us an impotent Christ figure who is more akin to a Chaplinesque tramp than to a savior and a cast of characters who tenderly murder and brutally love. (1980: 17)

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

Further information

A French film version of the play was released in 1983, adapted by Arrabal.

  • Arrabal, Fernando. 1979. Teatro completo, vol. I, introduction by Angel Berenguer. Madrid, Cupsa Editorial

  • Arrabal, Fernando. 2004. El cementerio de automóviles; El arquitecto y el emperador de Asiria, ed. Diana Taylor. Madrid, Cátedra

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Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 15 March 2011.

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