Fernando Arrabal, the Spanish playwright, poet, and film director, is one of the wackiest and zaniest people I’ve ever met. Best known for co-founding the Panic Movement—a group of surreal and chaotic performance artists inspired by the god Pan who were pushing the envelope where surrealists had left off by shocking audiences with their bold and outrageous acts—Arrabal had given weirdness a new meaning. If you thought Salvador Dalí was crazy, Arrabal cranked it up several more notches. One only needs to see some of Arrabal’s plays or films like Viva La Muerte (1971) and I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (1973) to know what I mean. An incredibly prolific writer, Arrabal has produced over 100 plays, 14 novels, and 800 poetry collections, among numerous other essays. He is a writing machine.
I first met Arrabal in Chicago in the early 2000s. At the time, I was dating a Southern girl from Louisville, Kentucky named Virginia Worley, who was a terrific actress, but like most actors, was supplementing herself by working in the restaurant industry as a server. I had met her briefly at socialite Amy Sacco’s club Lot 61 in Chelsea one late evening. She was serving my party cocktails, but she didn’t come into focus for me until much later when I met her again at Chef Jean Georges’ Upper East Side restaurant, Jo Jo, where I had been hired to manage. On my first day there, I was being given an orientation by Lois Freedman, who was then the director of operations, when I saw this stunning curly blonde-haired woman with beautiful blue eyes coming down the stairs of the upper dining room floor. It was that same waitress who had served me at Lot 61. But this time, our eyes locked, and we had a frozen moment that would later lead to a love affair.
Around 2004, Virginia had gotten a lead role in one of Arrabal’s plays called The Garden of Delights on one of Chicago’s experimental theater stages called The Trap Door. She had invited me to come out to see her as it was a very important role for her, and Arrabal would be making a special trip from Europe just to see it. So I flew out, combining the trip with some other business to spend a few days with Virginia.
It was a beautiful windy October when I arrived, and I had some time to visit some friends who had worked at an offshoot of the famed Jilly’s here in New York. A guy named Stanley Wozniak was running the club and had several iterations of Jilly’s on the Chicago Loop with a piano bar, steak house, and lounge. I also had time to do some sightseeing with Virginia and scaled the Sears Tower on one of our afternoons together. It was a great time to be in Chicago. After a few days together, soaking in Chicago’s sights, it was time to see Virginia’s show.
When I got to the theater, Virginia introduced me to her friend, Beata Pilch, who was not only the artistic director of the theater but would also direct Arrabal’s play that evening. Pilch founded her theater in 1990 and had been producing dozens of European avant-garde plays that few would dare touch. She had a natural gift and a deep understanding of complicated texts that she could translate to a stage like no other, with such finesse. So on this evening, I witnessed a tour de force performance by Virginia that was not only breathtakingly arresting but one that had also deepened my appreciation and admiration for her. She was spectacular. She even impressed Arrabal, who afterward told her she was the best actress he had ever seen in that role.
After a few more days in Chicago, I headed back to New York while Virginia remained to play out the run of her show‘s performances. When I got back, an artist friend had invited me to his art gallery opening in Chelsea. As I was roaming the space, looking at his wonderfully vivid paintings, I spotted Arrabal among a small eddy of people. It surprised me to see him again so soon after his show‘s opening in Chicago, and even more coincidentally at this art show of all places in New York City. So I approached him and asked him in Spanish—he spoke little English—what he was doing in New York. He said he was visiting a few cities while in the US, as he rarely visited this part of the world.
Arrabal was born in Melilla, Spain, but settled in France in 1955. He was fluent in both languages and also wrote in both. Along with Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, Fernando Arrabal was—and still is—a major exponent of the Theater of the Absurd. Beckett, in fact, was a big fan of his and helped the younger writer when he was charged, arrested, and placed in solitary confinement for blasphemy in Spain. Many renowned writers came to Arrabal‘s defense in a display of support and solidarity, including Beckett himself, who wrote a letter to the court beseeching the judges to show him mercy.
In 2017, I reached out to Arrabal via email after many years as I was releasing a book on Beckett by Katherine Weiss. I wanted not only to get a blurb for the book, but also to interview him on his experiences with Beckett for my Simply Charly site. I received an instant, though cryptic, reply:
¿prepara un segundo
aún no he leído
por desgracia nunca he enseñado;
es mi mujer (no yo)
la que fue (hasta su jubilación)
profesora en la Sorbonne;
¿debo comprender lo que desea de mí?
¿sabe qué microscópica actividad ejerzo completamente?
aunque es encantador
el tohubohu se impone
con el rigor matemático de la precisión;
cuando nada lo resuelve todo
en clave de fa
I didn’t know what to make of his reply, so I simply forwarded the set of 10 questions on Beckett that I was hoping he’d answer. Instead, he sent me a poem:
Qué armonía en un despiste
qué inmerecidos dos días
qué locura en una noche
qué tarde de corrida en Arco
qué dos días de jofainas
qué cinco encendidos fieles
qué mágica derivó la charla
qué irrebatible sin nadie
qué cinco amigos tan fieles
qué cinco oyentes tan solos
qué felicidad tan única
qué amor la precedente noche
qué tres labios de rendija
qué escribir como al dictado
qué dibujos y que sábanas
qué café para aviadoras
qué polvo del propio azúcar
qué corazón de saliva
qué crueldad del amor loco
qué boca en la camiseta
qué saltos en puro techo
qué balalaicas de espasmos
qué irrepetible gran noche.
I then asked him what this was for, and then he sent me a bunch of weird images of himself.
Finally, I despaired of asking him to offer anything on Beckett as he was totally off his rockers. I ignored his subsequent barrage of non sequitur emails and closed the chapter by exiting the wonderfully wacky—and on this occasion—jarring world of Fernando Arrabal.
Former restauranteur, musician, concert promoter, producer, publisher, manager, and impresario, Charles Carlini has synthesized these roles to become a dynamic force in the music industry–noted for his ability to bring diverse talent together to create innovative concerts and recordings that reach and move music-lovers everywhere.