The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria

Trap Door Theatre

Midway through Fernando Arrabal’s profane clown show The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, a nearly naked man who’s proclaimed himself Emperor squats over a tin can on a desert island. The only other inhabitant is a creature the Emperor has dubbed “the Architect” and “civilized” through elaborate rituals of humiliation. Unfortunately the Architect has fled in a handmade canoe–not because he wants to escape the Emperor’s abuse but because the Emperor refuses to continue the mistreatment. Remorseful and desperate to win back the affections of his playmate, the Emperor tries to squeeze out a love token. After much straining he admits defeat. “Impossible,” he says. “I’m constipated.”

It’s a scene that captures the giddy complexity of Arrabal’s genius. Perhaps the greatest avant-garde playwright Spain has ever produced, Arrabal has spent the last half century creating fractious, hallucinogenic festivals of the subconscious, where the most tender, childlike impulses blend imperceptibly into the most repugnant perversions. In this universe, where sacrilege can purify and cruelty can comfort, a hammer through the skull is a token of affection, cannibalism is akin to making love, and a turd is a valentine. It’s as though Arrabal had tossed Ionesco, Jarry, Artaud, and Genet into a blender and thickened the concoction with a generous helping of Larry Flynt.

Although he’s achieved only limited recognition in America, Arrabal is a major figure in France, where he’s lived in self-imposed exile since the 1950s (though he was for a time officially prohibited from entering Spain). His complete plays have been published in 19 volumes in France, and his works have been staged in Europe almost continually since 1959, when his first play–The Tricycle, a surrealist fable about a childlike murder–was produced in Paris. Since then he’s written 12 novels, six collections of poetry, and some 70 plays and made numerous sculptures, paintings, and collages. He’s even managed to direct seven full-length films, including the 1981 Odyssey of the Pacific, starring Mickey Rooney, of all people. Arrabal must be busy, but he still manages to send an elaborate, hand-decorated Christmas card each year to Beata Pilch, artistic director of Chicago’s tiny Trap Door Theatre, whom he knows only by reputation.

Given Trap Door’s fascination with the European avant-garde–since their debut in 1994 they’ve staged works by Genet, Fassbinder, and Witkiewicz–it’s only natural that Pilch and her adventurous cohorts would gravitate toward Arrabal. But they felt they hadn’t developed the requisite skills to tackle his work, Pilch says, until last year, when they produced The Automobile Graveyard. And with the 1967 The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, Pilch has chosen perhaps the most difficult of Arrabal’s many fevered scripts.

The play takes the form of a bizarre, multivalent ritual, as the two castaways go through a rapid series of self-described farces. While the plot supposedly concerns the Emperor’s ongoing attempts to teach the Architect philosophy, Arrabal continually interrupts the “narrative” with depraved routines in which the two luckless clowns adopt ever shifting roles: torturer/victim, general/soldier,priest/confessor, master/slave, trainer/beast, judge/accused, mother/child. As in Genet’s masterpiece The Balcony, these ritualized enactments of power relations create an intractable erotic bond between the participants. It’s as if these men, and by extension the rest of us, could find room for tenderness only amid an avalanche of cruelty and debasement.

While many of Arrabal’s plays have the succinct structure of a fairy tale, The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria runs amok: each farcical ritual transforms into the next–and sometimes back again–without any obvious logic or progression. Both characters break into long, poetic monologues at the drop of a hat. And the play’s premise is nonsensical: the Architect can clap his hands and make the sun set or mountains move, so surely he could have brought a passing ship to their beach years ago. But Arrabal’s aim, aping Beckett in Waiting for Godot, is clearly a grotesque vaudeville rather than a fictive reality.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Pilch’s production is its playful, maddening indeterminacy. David Moquay sets the tone with his ingenious set design: a tacky faux-tropical eyesore–think tiki on Rush Street–framed by taut white sails stretched into graceful organic shapes. This is a world at odds with itself, where the crass and the lyrical comfortably commingle. And the two actors–Wesley Walker as the Emperor and Tom Bateman as the Architect–never settle into anything like recognizable characters or distinguish between the rituals they enact and their “genuine” interactions. Everything is a pose, a charade, a flight of fancy.

The audience witnesses the play’s events without identifying with the action, as if this were a carnival pageant. It’s a difficult position, especially since we’ve been trained in this country to applaud theater only insofar as it “moves” or “reflects” us. But to experience the totality of Arrabal’s play, the action must seem a nightmarish exhibition and the logic of the waking world must vanish. Cause and effect don’t hold, and human behavior becomes a cavalcade of mysterious, often contradictory impulses. Rather than being led through a story or even a coherent world, the audience is cajoled, provoked, teased, and insulted.

It takes Pilch’s cast a while to light the play’s many fuses: the first half hour is oddly staid. Walker seems so intent on portraying the Emperor’s haughtiness that he turns in an uncharacteristic one-note performance. And since the Architect spends most of the first half hour reacting to the Emperor, Bateman doesn’t have much room to maneuver. Given their care and deliberation–too much sanity, if you will–it seems the production is wading into the shallow end of Arrabal’s pool when what it needs is to dive in.

But something comes over Walker when he’s finally alone onstage, stripped to a loincloth and squatting over that tin can. Faced with a monologue of monumental proportions (17 pages in the published script), he finally lets a bit of madness propel him. Even though a good third of the monologue has been cut, the effect is still mesmerizing, as Walker transforms himself a dozen times–eventually into his own mother to give birth to himself–in a bizarre attempt to win back the Architect’s love.

From this point forward Walker and Bateman surrender to Arrabal’s deranged fantasy, cutting the ties to lucidity that seem to have held them back during the first section. The result is intoxicating, bewildering, and revelatory. With thrilling abandon they take us deeper and deeper into Arrabal’s moral confusion, until they’ve erased any distinctions between abuser and abused, love and contempt, sacred and profane. Through it all Arrabal’s dense poetry shines, a lone testament to everything that’s admirable in humanity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Beata Pilch.