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Fernando Arrabal

Personal information
Surname: Arrabal
First name: Fernando
Born: 11 August 1932, Melilla, Spain

Fernando Arrabal is one of Spain’s more unconventional literary figures. He is a Spaniard whose work is better known in France and who has spent most of his life living outside Spain. As well as a notable playwright, Arrabal is also a well-known novelist, director, poet and publisher of books about chess.

In 1954 Arrabal hitchhiked to Paris to see a production of Mother Courage by Bertolt Brecht. This experience sparked off his life-long love of France and of French culture, as well as his interest in experimental European theatre. In 1955 Arrabal won a scholarship to spend three months in Paris. Here, he became gravely ill with tuberculosis. This was a turn of events that Arrabal called his ‘unfortunate stroke of luck’, convincing him to settle in France for good with his wife, Luce Moreau, who translates his plays from Spanish into French. By the late 1950s and early 1960s Arrabal had built up a considerable reputation in France and in the United States as an experimental playwright. In the climate of Franco’s oppressive and repressive Spain, however, his work went largely ignored. Indeed, his irreverent and sometimes shocking productions often caused a public outcry, even in 1960s and 1970s France. Nevertheless, Arrabal’s theatre attracted the interest of many prestigious directors and artists, including Arthur Miller, Laurence Olivier, Salvador Dalí and John Lennon. In 1967 Arrabal was arrested during a brief visit to Spain for writing what was considered to be a blasphemous dedication on a copy of one of his books. His arrest provoked a huge reaction within the international artistic community, with individuals such as Samuel Beckett writing letters of protest to the Spanish government. Arrabal was released after a few days, but was prohibited from returning to Spain, although this ban was lifted after Franco’s death. Arrabal currently lives in Paris, and information about his current projects can be found on his informative and entertaining website, at www.arrabal.org [accessed March 2011].


In 1962 Arrabal was one of the founding members of the Panic Movement (Mouvement Panique). This artistic collective, inspired by the Greek god Pan and by experimental artists like Luis Buñuel, specialises in creating chaotic and surreal performances designed to shock. Arrabal himself describes his vision of panic theatre:

I dream of a theater in which humor and poetry, panic and love are untied. The theatrical rite would then be transformed into an ‘opera mundi’. It would be just like the fantasies of Don Quixote, the nightmare of Alice, the delirium of K, indeed the humanoid dreams that haunt the nights of an IBM machine. (Arrabal 1967: 8, translation from Donahue 1980: 29)

As the above suggests, Arrabal’s plays explore the darker side of human behaviour in ways that have often shocked critics and audiences. His characters engage in master-slave relationships, exchanging the role of executioner and victim in what one scholar describes as a ‘savagely moving chess game’ (Donahue 1980: 14). Writing in 1975, Arrabal defended his use of shocking themes and techniques:

Today [1975], when a writer creates an erotic or pornographic work, he may do it for a variety of reasons. In my case, I hoped to liberate my body and soul, to purge myself, to free my spirit, to break the chains of fascism and Catholicism. (Arrabal and Kronik 1975: 57)

Although Arrabal has claimed not to write deliberately political theatre, often his plays force audiences to confront the reality of torture and political oppression. Of one of his particularly shocking plays, And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers, for example, he explains:

We cannot hide our heads in the sand; we must look reality in the face, as witness to it. That may shock you. I would like it to shock you more deeply yet, to the point of getting you to cry out against this horror and keep it from happening again. (Arrabal and Kronik 1975: 54)

  • Arrabal, Fernando and Kronik, Eva. 1975. ‘Interview: Arrabal’, Diacritics, 5.2, 54-60

  • Arrabal, Fernando. 1967. Théâtre panique. Paris, Christian Bourgeois (in French)

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


Arrabal’s theatre is at once playful and unsettling. He populates his plays with characters who behave like children yet who also commit terrible acts of brutality. These ambiguous ‘adult children’ are a combination of innocence and irrational cruelty, childishly bickering together one minute then plotting murder or a committing a sexual act the next (Donahue 1980: 8; Guicharnaud 1962: 117). Arrabal’s texts contain a large number of stage directions, leading some to suggest they are more effective when read than when seen. David Bradby puts the success of a number of Arrabal’s plays in performance down to the skill of their directors:

[His plays] may be read with pleasure but the essentially public and social element of theatre performance is not fundamental to them. Where they have proved successful in performance, this has been because a gifted director, such as Barrault, Maréchal or García, has used them as a springboard for their own scenographic imagination. (1984: 190)

  • Bradby, David. 1984. Modern French Drama: 1940-1980. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

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

  • Guicharnaud, Jacques. 1962. ‘Forbidden Games: Arrabal’, Yale French Studies, 29, 116-19

Plays in the database
Useful reading and websites
  • Arata, Luis Oscar. 1982. The Festive Play of Fernando Arrabal. Lexington, The University Press of Kentucky

  • Arrabal, Fernando and Kronik, Eva. 1975. ‘Interview: Arrabal’, Diacritics, 5.2, 54-60

  • Fernando Arrabal's website is located at www.arrabal.org (Online Publication)

  • Guicharnaud, Jacques. 1962. ‘Forbidden Games: Arrabal’, Yale French Studies, 29, 116-19

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

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