In the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time: Roberto Arlt’s El fabricante de fantasmas as Minoritarian Cultural Production in 1930s America

Claire Solomon
Oberlin College

Volume 6, 2014

Roberto Arlt holds a paradoxical role in Argentine national literature. He is regarded as one of the great authors of the twentieth century, yet criticism clucks over his spelling mistakes and questionable grammar. He is beloved, worshipped and pitied all at the same time. Though in the last decade of his life Arlt dedicated himself almost completely to the theater, his theatrical works have received comparatively little critical attention.[1] Meanwhile the spectacular failure of Arlt’s first commercial venture, El fabricante de fantasmas [The Manufacturer of Ghosts] (1936), has been evaluated principally as a result of the audience’s failure to understand its modernist and avant-garde influences, or through a disgruntled response to the play’s meta-theatrical critique of its audience from the commercial stage.[2] In either interpretation, the critic explicates what the audience failed to appreciate.

I propose reading El fabricante de fantasmas as a minoritarian work: as a play that destabilized received categories of the independent/commercial, avant-garde/popular and European/Argentine dichotomies, and thus created confusion in the so-called “independent” theater scene just at the moment in which it was being consolidated, symbolically and materially, under the Teatro del Pueblo [People’s Theater]. Further, its reception speaks to the deceptively complex world of 1930s theater in Buenos Aires. Everything was political, but the categories governing its alliances and enmities are inadequate to explain what happened with El fabricante de fantasmas, which was both too popular and too avant-garde, too Argentine and too European—and definitely too iconoclastic—to sit well with any “side”.

Such a reading thus allows us to situate El fabricante and its failure as an aporia in the narrative of both 1930s Argentine theater and Arlt’s “contradictory” role in Argentine literary history as the semiliterate idiot-savant of national letters who was miraculously recognized by the establishment, and promoted to the poster child for national working-class literary aspirations. We see that at the very peak of his fame, Arlt premiered what he meant to be his first great commercial play and it failed catastrophically—but not because it was too rough or working class (in accordance with the author’s image) nor because it was too highbrow and European (and thus too far afield of the author’s image). On the contrary, El fabricante de fantasmas criticizes so-called “independent” leftist popular theater of the time from the left, and on the commercial stage. Similarly, the play’s illegibility as “popular theater” can thus testify to the extent to which so-called independent theater had in fact been formalized politically and aesthetically under Teatro del Pueblo and identified with a particular type of didacticism (mensajismo).

Such a reading thus questions existing narratives of “popular theater”, which tend to hew closely to the Teatro del Pueblo’s own narrative as both the foundation of popular theater and a vehicle for its putative continuity from the 1930s to the present.[3] I seek to complicate this narrative by reintroducing the examples of Yiddish theater and anarchist theater into the context of early “independent” theater in which Teatro del Pueblo emerged. Both Yiddish theater and anarchist theater have been excluded historically from a view of national popular theater because of language, ethnicity or politics, yet they overlapped thematically, formally, and materially. Thus, we can resituate the Teatro del Pueblo in an internationalist orientation that both predates its founding and denaturalizes its role as first the origin of and then arbiter of popular Argentine theater.

In this way, the failure of what Arlt regarded as his greatest play reflects back a 1930s cultural milieu right on the cusp of sectarian political narratives that have endured—and in some sense triumphed—on both right and left, and which have separated contemporary theater movements on the basis of ideological divisions of the time. Yet, by rejecting such divisions as a priori categories, we can view the failure of El fabricante de fantasmas as, more accurately, the failure of popular theater to embrace heterogeneity, ambiguity and complexity under growing political pressure during the 1930s.

To this end, I first revisit Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of the minor and the minoritarian and explain what I mean by both a minoritarian work and a minoritarian reading. I offer a broader view of the theatrical context in which El fabricante de fantasmas premiered, and then resituate Arlt’s work in the Teatro del Pueblo. Finally, I reread the play as a minoritarian work, which opens up relations both to its own historical specificity and to other movements and times, thereby problematizing the role of its author in national literary history.

Minoritarian Literature and Minoritarian Readings

Deleuze and Guattari explored ideas around the minor and the minoritarian throughout their collaborative career, but primarily in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature and in sections of A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. While Deleuze and Guattari only occasionally used the term “minoritarian” as a seemingly unintentional substitute for “minor”, I prefer “minoritarian” in this essay because of its slightly more mobile connotations of an orientation or approach in contrast to the more static-sounding “minor”. The concepts have been put to such wide-ranging uses in criticism that it is necessary to define my own use of the term and then explain it in relation to some of those applications.

I define the minoritarian in relation to the idea of “minor literature” as Deleuze and Guattari set it out in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, which in turn is taken from Kafka’s diaries. The basic meaning of “minor literature” is deceptively simple, because of its circularity: it is a literature “constructed by a minority within the major language” (Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka 16).[4] Furthermore, “only the possibility of setting up a minor practice of major language from within allows one to define popular literature […] Only in this way can literature really become a collective machine of expression” (Kafka 18). Yet this tautology means that the definition of “becoming-minor” rests upon the very category (“minority”) in which the minor is always perilously close to being interpreted, and thus imprisoned, simply by “relating [the minor] to a single transcendent law” and “assum[ing] a major function in language” in an “official, referential genre” (Bensmaïa in Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka xxi; Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka 27).

The distinction that Deleuze and Guattari make between a static, imprisoned/imprisoning “minority” and the fluid becoming-minor or becoming-minoritarian relies on Kafka’s The Castle as a metaphor for the deceptiveness of categories: the castle initially appears to be one thing, but gradually “gives way to segmentation”: “The street he was in did not lead up to the castle hill; it only made toward it and then, as if deliberately, turned aside, and though it did not lead away from the castle, it led no nearer to it either” (Kafka 8). Desire evidently passes through these positions and states or, rather, through all these lines. Desire is not form, but a procedure, a process (Kafka 8).

A minor literature is thus the very procedure of desire, the process by which a minority expresses its becoming. Rather than a representation of minority, minor literature expresses and simultaneously constitutes the becoming-minor.

Yet Deleuze and Guattari’s invention of the becoming-minor is interweaved with citations from Kafka’s diaries that complicate the matter. Kafka’s own take on what he calls kleiner Litteraturen flows seamlessly from advantage to disadvantage, satire to enthusiasm, and combines the static with the fluid, the imprisoning with the freeing, in an endless ambivalence:

A literature not penetrated by a great talent has no gap through which the irrelevant might force its way. Its claim to attention thereby becomes more compelling. The independence of the individual writer, naturally only within the national boundaries, is better preserved. The lack of irresistible national models keeps the completely untalented away from literature. […] The creative and beneficent force exerted by a literature poor in its component parts proves especially effective when it begins to create a literary history out of the records of its dead writers. These writers’ undeniable influence, past and present, becomes so matter-of-fact that it can take the place of their writings. One speaks of the latter and sees only the former.

(Kafka, Diaries 192-3)

Whereas there are many advantages to minor literature—one to which Kafka returns repeatedly is its lack of allure for bad writers—this simultaneously brings the disadvantage of the disproportionate influence any writer has on the minor literature. This influence itself comes to stand in for the writing, and the identity of the author for his or her works.

It must be reckoned with that Deleuze and Guattari were somewhat guilty of this in their own treatment of Kafka. They rescued a notion of the “minor” from Kafka’s diaries that emphasized its potential and minimized its pitfalls: a version of “minor” literature of which Kafka’s writing provided the examples, rather than the theory. For this reason, in choosing to use the term “minoritarian”, I also acknowledge the discrepancy between Kafka’s notion of minor literature and Deleuze and Guattari’s. Further, writers who clear a space in the major language are not only formal innovators but always write things that are “historical, political and social”, entailing a “micropolitics of desire that questions all situations” and constituting a collective enunciation (Kafka 18; 42). “Literature”, Deleuze and Guattari quote Kafka’s diary, “is the people’s concern” (Kafka 18). Yet I do not think that any writer who happens to belong to a minority is a minoritarian writer. The relationship between minority and minoritarian is never one of essential identity, but rather of positionality and process.

Perhaps it is inevitable, due to the inherent contradictions in the notion of the “minor” and “minoritarian”, that I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with nearly every Latin Americanist critical application of either term. Even as the powerful conceptual tool of the “minor” illuminates the potential to break with hegemonic regimes of representation, signification, and political order, its inevitable relationship to the “minority”—to the constituted, material realities of poverty, racism, discrimination, state-sponsored violence of all kinds—threatens to reterritorialize and thus reinscribe its meanings in the very type of hegemonic “interpretation” that Deleuze and Guattari scorned as “humankind’s fundamental neurosis” in A Thousand Plateaus (114).

Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel outlines the problematic relationship of the minor to Latin American Colonial Literature in her book, From Lack to Excess: “Minor” Readings of Latin American Colonial Discourse (2008):

[I]t is important to stress here that what defines a minor literature is not the presence of deterritorialization, a political dimension, and a collective enunciation, but the conjunction of those three elements with the “revolutionary condition” of this discourse. […] I understand “minority writing” and minor texts as sites of intervention within the hegemonic discursive matrix that can still be effectively elucidated by the particular exercise of reading proposed here.


In this context, it is the difficult task of the “minor” reading to elucidate the meaning of texts that subvert the hegemonic regime of signification. In other words, only that which is simultaneously major and minor—that which is recognizable as minor only in the measure that it intervenes within the major—can be “read” with the tools of cultural criticism.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that “minor” literature tends to appear in criticism insofar as it is engaged in defining itself as a “minority”. Doris Sommer’s book, Proceed with Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas, advocates “a rhetoric of particularism” as a marker of minority literature, the task of mediating which Martínez-San Miguel takes up in her own later work, crediting Sommer with “developing ‘that system to include tropes of multicultural communication that block sharing’” (Sommer in Martínez-San Miguel 38). In other words, both the task of the critic and the range of the “minor” text become circumscribed by the shared task of elucidating difference from the major in a moment of emerging legibly as a minority identity.

As vital as such work remains, there are other uses for the minoritarian when it is not named by its own self-definition in opposition to the major. There is an aspect to the minoritarian, as I understand it, that is quite illegible from the threshold of the major and alien to readings that seek to add into master narratives a representation of that which has been excluded historically. In fact, the aspect of the minoritarian that interests me aims not to elucidate a particular group identity but rather to abolish it, and to define the minor in its own terms as universal cultural movements of resistance occurring within national ideological blind spots in a minority condition and positionality. In this way, the minor is irreducible to what is conventionally called “minority” literature, which relies ultimately on an identification of all things that fall under a particular rubric—the transhistorical “Jewish-Argentine”, or the historical “Boedo”—thus flattening the minor into identitary narratives that remember “it” retrospectively, putting it back together and restoring it to national and transnational narratives of identity wherever it can be located on a narrative arc linking present to past, much as Kafka complained that literary history remembered an author’s influence thinking it spoke of his works.

However, when freed from its identitary particulars—language, dialect, style, genre, themes—the minoritarian, as a way of reading, can actively question subjectivity and interrogate the very possibility of such identities. It is, therefore, simultaneously a perspective, an orientation, and an occupation of discourse that makes evident something that was, until that moment, hidden under a label of itself; it is both a way of looking and that which is seen from its perspective; it is art that in the past critiqued ideology and critique that takes older art out of a box and puts it to work today. Yet, in order to be fully operational, the minoritarian must be decoupled from the representation of the minority with which it has become identified. This is not meant, in any way, to decontextualize “literature” from reality, but rather on the contrary, to recontextualize it historically and shake it free from transhistorical narratives of cultural identity.

To unlink the minoritarian-minority pairing that seems obvious when working within one national or regional context, I work comparatively on an artificial field: the theater scene in New York and Buenos Aires in the 1930s. Thus, the minoritarian—in a double context—is able to seemingly decontextualize itself and recontextualize itself, to exist in movement in between rather than in a particular location, following the telescoping gaze of the minoritarian reading which travels in between places, its historical scope necessarily defined by what Homi Bhabha called the time-lag—the difference between temporalities that “circulates at the point of the sign’s seizure/caesura of symbolic synchronicity” (277).

I should add that this essay in some sense rests on a contradiction of its own: while I critique the division of minoritarian cultural production into static representations of “minorities”, my research relies on histories of minority groups that articulate identity in the terms of the majoritarian order: the struggle, in other words, to “make a place” in history. In this sense, the type of cultural meta-analysis I propose remains dependent on historical research on the “minorities” it posits as conceptually inadequate.

A Minoritarian Reading of Context: Anarchists, Communists and Jews

In both Buenos Aires and New York, theater groups in the early 20th century experimented radically with what was possible onstage, and most of this experimentation did not survive in the annals of U.S. or Argentine national theater history. In some sense, theater always exists in a tension with both the national and the literary; its primary “text” is the performance, bound in time, inherently local and not mass-producible. The absence of minoritarian theater from literary history can be read as consonant with other forms of discrimination at the time, yet such suppression followed inconsistent trajectories from which minoritarian cultural production sometimes escaped and flourished. In this way, the non-recognition of minoritarian theater as national was not only the result of discriminatory practices and consciously-held views, but also reveals the measure in which the minoritarian can take place entirely within ideological blind spots of the national. Thus, it is not that the national always erases the minoritarian; sometimes it fails to see it.[5]

While there are many works—admirably studied—which perform explicitly or allegorically the “minority” role in American master narratives of assimilation and difference, unity and diversity, minoritarian theater is a collective enunciation that is not devoted primarily to reifying “minority” status in the terms of the majority. On the contrary, minoritarian theater stakes out a common ground among poor, first-generation, black, Jewish, second-generation, (anachronistically) queer—but also anarchist, feminist, communist—writers, all of whom sought to express the fullness and complexity of the self as mutually constitutive with a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the collective. In minoritarian writing for theater the self is both expressed iconoclastically and covered up, asserted and defended. It realizes itself through a multiplicity that allows it to escape constraint.[6]

Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis of Kafka’s story “The Burrow” can illustrate this minoritarian positionality in 1930s theater, particularly as the “burrow” functions both within the plot and also as a metafictional commentary on the story’s structure:

The whole description of the burrow functions to trick the enemy. We will enter, then, by any point whatsoever; none matters more than another, and no entrance is more privileged even if it seems an impasse, a tight passage, a siphon. We will be trying only to discover what other points our entrance connects to, what crossroads and galleries one passes through to link two points […] Only the principle of multiple entrances prevents the introduction of the enemy, the Signifier and those attempts to interpret a work that is actually only open to experimentation.

(Kafka 3)

“The Burrow” illustrates the way in which minoritarian writing can be understood, primarily, as a positionality rather than a content. In creating a metafictional structure, minoritarian theater provides a mode of self-expression within the major language that both reveals and conceals, creating a zone of differentiated penetrability.

While national theater histories can contextualize any dramaturge among the noteworthy authors of the period, the idea of both 1930s theater and audiences should not be limited to what appears in anthologies today. As ethnic, political and racial minorities were prevented—often violently—from putting down roots in cultural spaces, they became highly competent at engaging in cultural exchange and navigating among different cultural, political and social spheres. Thus, traveling theater companies circulated actors and plays between the two cities as the consecutive American capitals of Yiddish theater; actors collaborated across national and linguistic lines; Spanish-language newspapers published anarchist theater and reviewed Yiddish theater; and newspapers of every European language were sent overseas, fomenting a “verdadera intertextualidad anarco-feminista entre las Américas [true anarcho-feminist intertextuality between the Americas]” (Guzzo, “Luisa Capetillo” 166).[7] As diverse as it was in intentions, contents, politics, method, and style, minoritarian theater maps a shared experience of enforced movement—a continuity in discontinuity: evictions, bans, money trouble, linguistic shifts—displacement and mobility that paradoxically shaped common pathways.

Viewed stereoscopically as the constructed object Buenos Aires-New York, the 1930s show an increase in such forms of cultural exchange and theatrical “in-betweenness” even as in each city there is a slowdown of nationally-recognizable forms of theater, linked primarily to economic downturn in the United States during the Great Depression and to both economic problems and, more urgently, growing political persecution in Argentina. Buenos Aires received regular visits from luminaries of New York Theater—generally Jewish—who starred in local productions even as they suffered restrictions in New York that made it impossible for them to cross over into the mainstream, even as New York Yiddish theater audiences declined precipitously. Thus, Buenos Aires experienced a golden age of Yiddish theater after it was pronounced dead in New York. However, Yiddish theater itself was never a unified proposition. The history of almost any Yiddish theater in either city can testify to the frequent dispersals and coexistence with other groups and forms.[8]

While anarchist theater in both cities was intended to help “revolutionize the people”, and claimed to be driven by ideals instead of profits, the most famous anarchist playwrights in the Spanish language eventually premiered their works on the commercial stage. Further, even in its earliest and arguably purest forms, anarchist theater was a hybrid form, competing for space in veladas (vigils) with heavy-handed performances that underscored the power disparities between oppressors and oppressed in stark terms, where audiences also “participated in a militant function in which songs were sung and lectures delivered” (Suriano 107, 111).

In an important way, a commercial “anarchist play” was really a contradiction in terms: an anarchist thematic divorced from practice. As Golluscio de Montoya writes,

La función dramática ofrecida por los centros libertarios tuvo rara vez una existencia autónoma; siempre integrada dentro de un programa extenso—himnos, conferencias, intervenciones sindicales, debates, piezas teatrales, recitados, baile, tómbola, música—la representación teatral constituía un eslabón dentro de un conjunto más vasto, el del acto militante.

(“Elementos” 86)

[The dramatic functioned offered by the libertarian centers was rarely autonomous: it was always integrated into an extensive program—hymns, conferences, union interventions, debates, theatrical works, recitations, dance, lottery, music—the theatrical function was a link in a bigger ensemble, that of the militant act.]

Golluscio’s taxonomy of the formal characteristics, audience, and self-reflective critique of anarchist theater stresses—like any taxonomy—that which defines teatro anarquista in distinction to “Socialist” or “Yiddish” (or “Jewish”) theater. It necessarily has the effect of identifying—if you’ll bear with a cacophonous sentence—“anarchist theater” with that with which anarchists identify. In other words, it privileges the message defined by anarchists as “most anarchist” and by definition “anarchist theater” becomes identified with “la obra dramática proselitista” [the proselytizing dramatic work] in contrast to other aspects of anarchist theater as a phenomenon (Golluscio, “Pactos de representación” 107).

Yet even as I rely on Golluscio’s fundamental work on anarchist theater, I also want to question the notion that, in the realm of cultural production, what is “anarchist” is that which remains identified with the anarchist label (ipse dixit) for the longest time. While the contradiction in terms of an “authoritative” anarchism—given anarchism’s programmatic rejection of the category of authority—is more obvious than that of other popular forms, in order to recover the minoritarian movement from its static minority identities, we have to denaturalize how collective expressions of alienation transform into representational regimes that self-police. The paralysis inherent in any such “authorization” of a popular form is made clear in the measure in which writers fail spectacularly when they try to continue experimenting radically after the moment in which their collective has become aesthetically and politically consolidated as a “minority”.

Before I read the play Roberto Arlt had horribly miscalculated as his most likely commercial success, I want to clarify that this passage from minoritarian to minority, as it arises in cultural movements, occurs in response to the perceived need to self-define and represent a collective “self”. Yet any collective “self” is necessarily contingent and historical (even though part of its self-image may be that its difference is predestined and transhistorical). And so I am interested in how, specifically and materially, a minority politics establishes a fixed identity for the collective to which a minoritarian movement “belongs”, and how in fixing its own identity it forces the subservience of art to politics—art “in the service of” politics, which has the effect of taking away art’s freedom—not because it is forced to be political, because it was always political; but because it is forced to be a servant obeying a chain of command rather than an autonomous creator.

My hunch is that the very processes by which art programmatically engages in a prescriptive identification of the group disable the movement of the minoritarian. A minoritarian cultural phenomenon becomes something else at the moment it “succeeds” as the essential self-creation of a minority identity legible within the majoritarian order. In the case of Buenos Aires Yiddish theater, we could argue that this happened when theater companies post-World War II, already struggling to find original Yiddish works, tried “on-topic” Zionist message plays that bored audiences. These plays attempted to render explicit the identitary passage from minoritarian to constituted minority in its maximal realization as the incipient Jewish State, yet critical and public response was lackluster.[9] Similarly, Buenos Aires anarchist theater can be seen to end officially with the coup of 1930, but had probably already exhausted itself in the rigidity of thesis dramas that were meant to bear both a particular didactic message and the principles of anarchism generally.

In both cases, a shared symbolic world of audience, performers, and text was rendered explicit—forced to perform “itself”—and its contestatory energies were exhausted. Yet, also, in both cases, political repression and state (or multi-state) violence are inextricable from an internal clamp-down in an attempt to self-police and self-regulate in response to control “the message”; and all of it is inseparable from the desires and demands of a public always in flux. In both cases, self-regulation is also tied to a belief in the possibility of truthful representation and the dangers of misinterpretation. Because of the very scale of external repression, such internal repression can seem trivial; yet I still believe that it is key to understanding how minoritarian movements end.

A Minoritarian Re-Reading of El fabricante de fantasmas in the Context of the Teatro del Pueblo

Critical readings of El fabricante de fantasmas have, until recently, focused on analyzing the modernist European influence of Pirandello, Lenormand, and Artaud—all of which went over the heads of the commercial audience. Juárez and Miranda, by contrast, consider the play part of an Arltian political-aesthetic theatrical project within the framework of “independent” (non-commercial) theater. Thus the play should be understood in the context of the independent Teatro del Pueblo—where, beginning in 1932, all of Arlt’s plays except El fabricante premiered—as a critique of commercial theater. These studies rely on the consistency of Arlt’s brief set of aguafuertes teatrales for El Mundo (April-June 1933), in which he briefly was allowed to ridicule commercial theater in the pages of a commercial newspaper while at the same time inscribing his own works within the independent theater movement, defined in the terms of Teatro del Pueblo (Saítta 119-20; Juárez 30, n47). From this perspective, Juárez is able to read El fabricante as a “provocación al teatro comercial en el seno mismo del teatro comercial” [provocation to commercial theater in the very heart of commercial theater] (Juárez 31).[10]

To read El fabricante as a critique of commercial theater carried out (and failing) within a commercial theater venue is an interesting proposal. The metatheatrical discussion of theater audiences between the protagonist-author and his hallucinated literary characters eviscerates the theatrical conventions with which heavy-handed moral messages are conveyed cynically by writers who believe their audiences are dense, such as when the hallucinated character Prostituta [Prostitute] turns to her author and complains:

…para que el maldito golpe de efecto final tuviera éxito, me transformaste en una basura de la calle. Lloraba el público en el teatro. (Dirigiéndose a los fantasmas) ¿Y saben lo que hacía él? …restregándose las manos exclamaba: “Qué estúpido es el público, qué estúpido!”

(Arlt in Juárez 31)

[…so that the damn final dramatic effect would work, you transformed me into trash from the streets. The public cried in the theater. (Turning to the ghosts) And you know what he did? … rubbing his hands he exclaimed: “The public is so stupid, so stupid!”]

Juárez reads the metatheater of El fabricante as alienating its own commercial audience through a critique not only of the “vulgarized expressive codes” of commercial theater but finally also by impugning its “retórica modernista y melodramática […] y sus personajes tipo―el galán y la primera actriz―como formas posibles de identificación del espectador” [modernist and melodramatic rhetoric […] and its types—the leading man and the leading lady—as possible forms of identification for the spectator] (Juárez 31, my translation).

While I agree with much of Juárez’s analysis, I propose that El fabricante also ridiculed the aesthetic dictates of Leónidas Barletta as director of the Teatro del Pueblo, and that it can therefore be read as a critique of popular theater from the left. Whereas in 1933 Arlt had aligned himself squarely with Barletta’s way of articulating the goals of independent theater, he had, as Juárez points out, never agreed with the idea that theater should be fundamentally didactic and sought to distance himself from Barletta’s programmatic demands (Juárez 53). Pellettieri suggests that Arlt’s decision to put on El fabricante at a commercial theater was because Barletta had pushed him too far in demanding changes to his work. The last straw, according to Pellettieri, had been the production immediately before El fabricanteSaverio el cruel (1936), when it was “almost certainly Barletta” who forced Arlt to change the setting of the first act from an insane asylum to an upper-class home, “para que finalmente se pudiera imponer la tesis real social en el desarrollo del drama [so that finally the social realist thesis could be imposed on the development of the drama]” (Pellettieri, El teatro 44).

After the critical and commercial failure of El fabricante, Arlt returned to the Teatro del Pueblo, where he continued to stage his works until his sudden death in 1942. Although he tried to get Barletta to let him restage El fabricante at the Teatro del Pueblo, Barletta refused. Within a narrative of Arlt as the prototypical leftist, working-class Argentine writer, it is tempting to see the events of 1936 as an exception within a relatively stable and productive collaboration at the heart of a tradition of independent theater that extends to the present day.[11] In 2011, the Teatro del Pueblo put on El fabricante de fantasmas for the first time since 1936, to enough critical and popular acclaim to remain onstage for 13 months. Their cheerful summary of the play’s history was copied in reviews and announcements for the play:

El 8 de octubre de 1936, Roberto Arlt estrenaba fuera del Teatro del Pueblo por primera vez. Nacía ‘El fabricante de fantasmas’. Comercialmente falló y Roberto Arlt quiso reestrenarla en el Teatro del Pueblo. No pudo ser. Otros proyectos y su temprana muerte, [sic] lo impidieron. La obra no volvió a subir a escena, salvo un par de proyectos aficionados. Hoy 75 años después, con una mirada actual pero sin perder su esencia la obra regresa al escenario, nada más ni nada menos que al Teatro del Pueblo. El anhelo de Arlt se cumple.

(Teatro del Pueblo, “El fabricante de fantasmas”)

[On October 8, 1936, Roberto Arlt premiered for the first time outside of the Teatro del Pueblo. El fabricante de fantasmas was born. Commercially it failed and Roberto Arlt tried to restage it at the Teatro del Pueblo. It wasn’t to be. Other projects and his early death prevented it. The work didn’t return to the stage, other than a few amateur projects. Today 75 years later, with a modern take but without losing its essence the work returns to the stage, to the very same Teatro del Pueblo. Arlt’s wish has come true.]

The putative continuity of Arlt’s relationship with the Teatro del Pueblo is not simply a matter of marketing an identity for a particular Buenos Aires theater or reclaiming a national icon (although certainly both play a role). Rather, reclaiming Arlt as belonging to the Teatro del Pueblo today is inextricable from the conflictive foundations of independent theater in the 1930s. If independent theater needed Arlt to be, as Ordaz would write in 1957, “the author of the independent movement” in Argentine national theater (Ordaz in Miranda 122), then it was, as Ogás Puga asserts, in order to attest to the movement’s own “canonicity” (“Pilares” 28). Yet this put Arlt in the bizarre position of authenticating directives with which he explicitly disagreed.

The growth and consolidation of “independent” theater under the Teatro del Pueblo from 1931 to 1936 must also be understood in the context of both heightened state repression after the coup of 1930 and the growth and consolidation of the Argentine Communist Party (PCA). Arlt and Barletta’s conflict was thus politically and aesthetically inseparable from major political events of the 1930s. In order to see how El fabricante critiques the politics of popular theater from the left, we must recover the multiplicity of ideas about political theater before Third Internationalist communism came to dominate the discourse of the Argentine left in the 1930s.

Although it might seem surprising that the PCA became dominant under a right-wing military dictatorship, while the PCA was banned along with anarchist groups and all dissenting publications after the 1930 coup, Uriburu ordered a mass deportation of Spanish and Italian immigrants with anarchist affiliations in 1930. Anarchism, already weakened, was effectively taken out of the labor movement (Alba 44). The Communist Party was then able to rise to control the labor movement and to gradually transform it, from the relatively “apolitical” syndicalism of the 1920s into a movement following a Third Internationalist agenda by the mid 1930s, subjugating questions of local or national history to a meta-analysis of conflicts as inherently between “democratic” and “fascist” sectors (Munck 111-2).[12]

Furthermore, the way censorship worked under Uriburu was ambiguous. Severe sanctions were threatened for anyone who spread propaganda against the regime, yet lightweight political satire in the form of revistas [reviews] and sainetes [farces] using Uriburu, Alvear, and ex-President Yrigoyen as stock comic characters flourished during the 1931 dramatic season (Castro 47). At the same time, the magazine Crítica was shut down and its director, Natalio Botana, and his wife, the anarcho-feminist playwright Salvadora Medina Onrubia, were arrested and imprisoned. Others were arrested or detained and shot without due process, creating an environment of uncertainty and fear. While, in terms of explicit thematic offerings and direct censorship, Castro maintains that Uriburu impacted three seasons of theater in Buenos Aires (44), the combination of direct censorship, violent repression, and self-censorship had repercussions on popular theater throughout the 1930s—particularly because the police practices of torturing political dissidents, instituted under Uriburu, remained widespread throughout the Justo regime and beyond (Kalmanowiecki 38).[13] While anarchist theater had been reappropriating and performing its own relationship to the state, under different types of regimes, for decades—even resorting to stereotypes as stock characters, such as the “bomb-throwing Catalan or Andalusian” (Moya 371)—in 1930, it finally stalled out.

While the Teatro del Pueblo strove to educate “the people” with a higher caliber of theater than what was offered by sainetes and revistas, in arrogating to itself the role as the voice of popular theater it also participated in the discursive erasure of earlier leftist ideas in order to institutionalize an explicitly didactic agenda based on Third Internationalist ideas about art. Just as the Russian Revolution had, in Beatriz Sarlo’s words, become “un leitmotiv de discursos y prácticas artísticos [a leitmotif of artistic practices and discourses]” in the 1920s, in the early 1930s many experimental tactics that had previously been embraced across a spectrum of the left were now transformed into signs of ideological confusion that weakened the “message” of a work (123). In terms of earlier theater, Teatro del Pueblo identified only with that of the “Boedo” group in the 1920s (Marial in Pellettieri, Teatro del Pueblo 160); yet they attributed to the group a unity it never had, emphasizing its “commitment” to social realism in Third Internationalist terms far beyond any it had in the 1920s.[14]

While the Teatro’s founding statute (estatuto) proclaims the educational purpose of theater in broad terms, in practice Barletta had very specific, objectivist ideas about art and the proper way to represent it, so that “its message” was understood by the audience.[15] These ideas, while intolerant of ambiguity and inflexibly enforced, did not alienate less radical leftists. In fact, Victoria Ocampo helped finance the Teatro del Pueblo (Gramuglio cited in Verzero 4). Perhaps it is because, as Sarlo wrote:

Barletta y el Teatro del Pueblo […] tienen como programa la integración de un público pequeño-burgués y popular en el marco de una cultura humanista y universalista sin fuertes marcas de ruptura.

[The goal of Barletta and the Teatro del Pueblo […] was the integration of the petty-bourgeois and popular audience in the framework of a humanistic and universalistic culture without strong signs of rupture.]


The Teatro del Pueblo thus functioned essentially as a mediating interpretive regime, coextensive with the newspapers in which disputes and polemics helped define the Teatro’s political and aesthetic brand, a “catalizador artístico de lucha frente a las formas aristocráticas de circulación del arte y sobre todo frente al factor comercial” [an artistic catalyst for fights against the aristocratic forms of artistic circulation and especially against the commercial factor] (Ogás Puga 33).

As a mediating interpretive regime, the Teatro del Pueblo functioned both onstage and backstage as a mixture of radical cooperativism and authoritarianism. All scenery, lighting, cleaning and costuming was to be done by everybody. In the Teatro del Pueblo “no hay servidumbre” [there is no servitude]; actors were to be “actor-activists”, and to be responsible for transmitting “the message” of the works to the audience (Fischer and Ogás Puga 168). However, as the director, Barletta maintained absolute control over which works were performed as well as every aspect of how they were staged, and thus “impuso la figura del director de escena como centro de la actividad teatral y orientador estético e ideológico del grupo” [imposed the figure of the director as the center of theatrical activity and the aesthetic and ideological leader of the group] (Fischer and Ogás Puga 166). Similarly, Barletta’s way of staging works emphasized social realism and borrowed from the Romain Rolland’s Théatre du Peuple in its approach to “denuncia social, pero ésta se refería solamente a temas universales” [social critique, but this referred only to universal themes] (Pellettieri, Roberto Arlt 44). Works of Shakespeare and Lope de Vega thus alternated with contemporary plays by “national” dramaturges, but Barletta sought to resolve all of their inherent complexities in favor of clear political messages that spoke precisely to the universality of current political issues.

While the tendency to see art in the service of a greater political good is not particularly unique, as it manifested at the Teatro del Pueblo in 1930s Buenos Aires, the case of El fabricante and, by extension, the case of its author merit special attention because of how Arlt has been narrated in Argentine national literary history as a leftist, working class, Boedo writer whose limited theatrical success was due to—alternately—upper-class snobbery or nationalist state and cultural forces coupled under the military dictatorship. In fact, while Arlt briefly joined the Anti-Imperialist League and wrote for the Communist newspaper, Bandera Roja, it wasn’t long before he was fighting with the director of the PCA, Rodolfo Ghioldi, in the pages of the newspaper from which he would shortly be banned, after what would become known as the “Arlt case” or the “Arlt question”.[16] And while Arlt’s theater career is inseparable from Teatro del Pueblo—in the prologue to his play, Trescientos millones, Arlt wrote that without Barletta it would have been impossible (Ogás Puga 33)—his trouble with both Barletta and the PCA came from the pressure to create work that was politically transparent, and which could be staged to convey a truth.

Ironically, this was also Arlt’s own desire, although his truth was different. In David Viñas’s words:

[Su estrategia] sólo era la materialización de su proyecto fundamental. Y éste, la posibilidad imaginaria, claro está, de esbozar un hombre total fragmentado por una cultura mutilada.

[His strategy was only the materialization of his fundamental project. And this of course was the imaginary possibility of sketching a total man fragmented by a mutilated culture]

(Viñas cited in Pellettieri, Roberto Arlt, 72.)

Arlt’s fundamental project of integrating imaginatively what was impossible in practice—the total man fragmented by a mutilated culture—was politically unpalatable. Its theatrical reality was mutilated precisely where the Teatro del Pueblo, as mediating interpretive regime, sought clarity: in transparent communication, in political propaganda, and in the didacticism of art. At the same time, we must understand the pragmatism behind Arlt’s compromises. The Teatro del Pueblo needed Arlt for its own “canonicity” and Arlt needed to be successful as a dramaturg in order to realize his fundamental project. The way he intended to achieve his independence was commercial: he meant to build his own theater, financed by the sale of his invention that manufactured elasticated ladies’ stockings, reinforced with rubber (Mirta Arlt in Pellettieri, Roberto Arlt 20).

El fabricante de fantasmas as Minoritarian Theater

El fabricante de fantasmas is a privileged site from which to understand Arlt’s fundamental project, since it is the one example of Arlt’s theater on the commercial stage, outside the constraints that the Teatro del Pueblo imposed upon it (though certainly bound by others). The failure of El fabricante de fantasmas allows us not only to question the success of a putatively experimental independent theater which ruled out most of the experiments proposed by its foremost dramaturge; but it also lets us imagine what such a radical theater might have looked like—in another time, in another place—if Arlt’s invention had sold and he had been able to realize his own theater as the impossible best of both worlds: an experimental “laboratory” like El Teatro del Pueblo which was also a “fábrica de plata” [money factory] like commercial theater (Arlt in Scroggins 271).

We know from accounts of the play’s premiere and short run that the audience had trouble understanding Arlt’s “theatrical reality”. The audience laughed, throughout the play, “en los momentos más inoportunos” [at the most inopportune moments], which afterwards made Arlt reconsider his whole way of writing theater, rewriting existing works to make them more explicitly comedic, despite how this pained him (Mirta Arlt in Pellettieri, Roberto Arlt 19). Five years later, in 1941, Arlt would write, “Cuando más fielmente trata un autor independiente de expresar su realidad teatral, más lejos se sitúa del teatro comercial” [the harder an independent author tries to express his theatrical reality, the farther he gets from commercial theater] (Ordaz 234).

Newspaper critics at the time primarily concerned themselves with revealing the way the play copied its theme or plot from different European sources. Each newspaper named its own: alternatively Dostoievsky, Unamuno, Soya, Guibourg or Linares Rivas (Castagnino in Pellettieri, Roberto Arlt 168). None of the critics accepted Arlt’s own ideas about his European influences—Flaubert, Anatole France, and the paintings of Goya, Durero and Brueghel—all of which he had announced in El Mundo the day before the premiere, grimly predicting that critics would misunderstand them (Arlt, “Habla Roberto Arlt”). This crushing reception was what drove Arlt back to the Teatro del Pueblo (Pellettieri, Roberto Arlt 168; Ogás Puga, “Pilares” 38; Mavridis 335).[17]

Some of the audience’s confusion might indeed have been alleviated had Barletta stripped away ambiguity and contradiction from Arlt’s particular blend of precision and vagueness in the script. For example, the stage directions for Act One, Scene One call for an “Escritorio poligonal, separado de un comedor rectangular por un pasillo. Ambas habitaciones, con dos ventanales abiertos, permiten distinguir chimineas y azoteas de la ciudad” [Polygonal study, separated from a rectangular dining room by a hallway. Both rooms, with two large, open windows, allow views of chimneys and rooftops of the city] (Arlt, El fabricante 335).[18] What polygon he had in mind for the study’s shape—a hexagon, a star—is not clear. In Arlt’s writing such polygons are the building blocks of everything, echoing with each other and linking together events in associative metonymies. The open windows with cityscape scenery sound easy enough—until a bit later in the first act, when two characters will enter through them; the penultimate scene, when the windows now open out into a cavern; and the two times when characters will fall out of them “into the void”.

Through relentless metafiction and Socratic dialogue, the audience realizes that the main character, Pedro, himself a dramatist, is seeing the ghosts of his own imagination materialize, which correspond to characters in both El fabricante de fantasmas and different works by Arlt. Pedro languishes unhappily—“por momentos, reservado; en otros, explosivo” [at times, reserved; at others, explosive]—as his wife Eloísa and her friend, Martina, chatter mindlessly. Martina informs Eloísa that a fortune-teller has told her that she will marry a murderer. In the next scene, Eloísa and Pedro bicker: they are about to be evicted and Eloisa refuses him sex until he finds a job. Once Pedro is left alone to his writing, Martina reappears as a fantasma, “llamado por sus pensamientos” [summoned by his thoughts], “quiméricamente envuelto en una vestidura blanca con alas de luz violácea [chimerically wrapped in a white garment with wings of violet light]”; then another phantasm known only as “Substitute” appears, wearing a tuxedo and black face mask. Later on, the stage directions will specify the helpful addition of an invisible plane on which these characters will walk through the air so that the audience will realize they are metatheatrical ghosts (Arlt, El fabricante 340; 366).

Clearly, the special effects stipulated would have been inconceivable at the Teatro del Pueblo. As Mirta Arlt wrote, Arlt had always planned spectacular special effects and situations that “impacted and hypnotized the spectator” for all of his plays; yet Barletta refused to produce them for both financial reasons and the ideological commitment to simplicity and realism (Mirta Arlt in Pellettieri, Roberto Arlt 20). Nowhere can I find an account of how the special effects themselves were done for “El fabricante de fantasmas”. While several scholarly studies have proposed that the multiple fluid realities are characteristic of an Arltian metatheater, based on the interplay of more than one level of reality (Russi 65; Castagnino in Russi 65; Roster 124); none of these readings addresses the question of the literal invisible planes on which the ghosts were to walk or of how such a thing was staged.

I propose that Arlt’s metatheater is thus intrinsically bound up with its own writing, attached as though in perpetual gestation to the script: the stage directions cannot be simply executed, but their complex visions must first be imagined and then invented; the “sets” themselves require interrupting the flow of the stage directions in which new objects and spaces appear only when needed for the action. In addition to problematizing the realist illusion of theater, El fabricante seems to make the failure to transmit the plot clearly to the audience an inherent condition of the theatrical reality: it not only breaks the fourth wall, by emphasizing the artificiality of the spectacle and refusing the realist illusion, but also breaks down the “wall” between text and performance, the illusion that the text is finished and that in performance it is realized in a complete way. While, at one level, the play appears to be analyzable—Pedro is set up as an avatar of the play’s author; the audience is witnessing the production of the spectacle it observes and thus in some sense witnessing its own conception writer-avatar protagonist—El fabricante remits to no social message, nor is there even an outside to the spiraling metafictions. The dramatic present—the reality within the play—is unreal.

In this way, El fabricante de fantasmas is the point where Arlt both gets closest to the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht in the use of certain techniques and farthest from it in his resolute anti-didacticism and anti-mensajismo. Pedro is a main character for whom the audience doesn’t feel a strong emotional connection but rather is constituted by his actions. Interruptions paralyze the audience’s empathy and break the illusion of continuity. There is an almost plotless narrative—and thus there is the possibility for the audience to analyze the contradictions and zigzags of Pedro’s actions dialectically (Brecht 17). However, at the same time there is a chaotic proliferation of objects, spaces, and ghosts onstage in sharp contrast to the austerity of either Brecht’s or Barletta’s didactic theater. Whereas for didactic theater the “quotable gesture” was, in Benjamin’s words, one of its “essential achievements”, and the more interruptions of the main action there are, “the more gestures we obtain”, in El fabricante the repeated gestures of the protagonist and his proliferating ghosts serve to undermine any moral center or social reference point (Benjamin 20). Its message turns back on itself and remits to the process of writing as a self-referential immanence without a transcendent meaning. The ghosts of the title are not, thus, imaginary beings in contrast to real ones, but rather constitute the spirit or essence of the work—its geist—without which there is no narrative, and to which there is no “real” outside. There is thus no plot separate from the artistic process, no theater that can be distilled from the metatheatrical. There is no didacticism, but rather an anti-didacticism provoking an unlearning of referentiality. This could be seen as a mad negative dialectics whereby the audience understands that its own analytic skills can only be used to contribute to the proliferation of further planes of unreality, and not to resolve or interpret them.

To clarify this idea, let’s return to the script. As Pedro pontificates to his ghosts about the stupidity of theater audiences—the very scene that, as we have seen, has been read as satirizing popular theater, commercial theater—he then rushes to transcribe the sexually charged scene his ghosts enact before his eyes. When the Substitute impetuously kisses one of Martina’s feet, she yelps, “And your wife?” Pedro stops writing and yells, “Deja tranquila a mi mujer” [Leave my wife alone]. It thus becomes clear to the reader—though God help the audience—that Pedro is writing a play about a love affair between himself (played by Substitute) and his wife’s friend, Martina. In order to understand what is happening, the theatrical reality of the narrative present must pass through a metatheatrical reality twice removed—that of Pedro’s own creative process of writing his play, but before he has actually written the play. Pedro’s writing of the affair between the Substitute and Martina is inseparable from the affair itself. There is no realistic dramatic reality separate from Pedro’s metatheatrical writing about it. We do not “see” the affair unfold but rather hear about it in interrupted actions that become gestures that remit to their own dubious, minimal existence in the play “outside” Pedro’s writing, just as his own existence outside of writing is repeatedly interrupted by his own fictions.

Furthermore, as Pedro writes onstage, rooms improbably materialize as needed, without having been specified in any stage directions, and Rube Goldberg-like coincidences unfold. In the climax of Act One, Pedro goes into the “bathroom” of a set that moments ago had only a dining room and study, and the phone—only now specified—rings. As Eloísa answers it, a fringe from the curtain gets caught in a button of her sleeve, ripping the bar out of the wall, leaving it suspended in midair. As she fixes it, Pedro demands to know whether she is still stubbornly refusing him sex until he finds a job. Irritated, she answers, “¿Volvemos a la misma historia?” [Are we really going back to that again?]. “Pedro vuelve lentísimamente la cabeza. Espía bruscamente. Empuja a la mujer hacia el vacío. La mujer cae arrastrando la cortina” [Pedro turns his head extremely slowly. He spies brusquely. He pushes the woman toward the void. She falls dragging the curtain] (345).

Pedro impulsively kills his wife. He is constituted by this action at the apex of Act One, but there is no effort to explain it or to reconcile it with his character. The audience sees that as a result of the murder Pedro lives out the fiction he has been writing, thus substituting for his own character, the Substitute. The potentially didactic gesture of the crime is thus doubly deconstructed: first, the inscrutable, seemingly unconscious motives of Pedro—who seems to pounce like an animal on his chance to kill his wife without passing through any thoughts or emotions—are belied by the fact that he has already written her out of his own fiction, in which Martina is his wife; yet, at the level of the script, Arlt seems (impossibly) not to know that the crime is coming, since the stage directions haven’t prepared any of the necessary rooms or props with which it is to be carried out. They only materialize as Pedro is acting with them. The meta-playwright, Pedro, thus seems to have a kind of paradoxical, latchkey autonomy within the main play, whereby what he writes in the meta-play comes true but he seems to will the necessary props into existence. The crime is thus neither deliberate nor unconscious, Pedro’s (and Arlt’s) motives are inscrutable; and so the possible social meaning of it is the fragmentation of social meaning.

The dramatic action continues in hard-to-parse slapstick: Pedro is sent to jail awaiting trial, and argues with his Conscience, played by “an ashy man in a gray leotard” who insists at length that Pedro must free him from the hunchbacks Pedro’s imagination has given him—humps that aren’t real, according to the Conscience, nor are they part of the Conscience’s costume in the stage directions—but with which Pedro “deforms” him in dialogue because of the Conscience’s unrepentant attitude. The Conscience with no conscience is thus another paradoxical, anti-didactic figure. It is not that Pedro “has no conscience”. Rather, he argues, he has a personified conscience divided from himself, which is less conscientious than he is. He punishes his own Conscience with an imaginary hunchback which, his Conscience argues, “is not real”; yet at other times the Conscience is more concerned than he is, such as when Pedro lapses into the metatheatrical reality of his own play in progress, discussing what his Conscience’s role will be in the work:

CONCIENCIA. ¿Estás loco? ¿Cómo puedes hablar de tu obra, si lo más probable es que termines los días de tu vida en un presidio? [Are you crazy? How can you talk about your work, if the most likely thing is that you’ll live out your life in a penitentiary?]

PEDRO. Saldré absuelto, no te preocupes. [I’ll be acquitted, don’t worry.]


Thus the mechanism of the divided conscience, rather than either revealing something about Pedro as a dramatic character or about society in general, loops back on itself. Pedro deauthorizes his own conscience by returning to authorship over his own work and asserting its primacy—that of the metatheater over the theater—and thus in some sense asserting his own omniscience as author over that of his author’s, even as he is sitting in a jail cell, thus breaking the realism of the jail cell and the theatrical reality through the metatheatrical, in an anti-didactic chiasmus. In this way, the reader—though perhaps not the viewer, unless the script’s stage directions were read aloud, like Brechtian titles—might favor a negative dialectical reading of the primacy of the audience over what is happening onstage, inverting what Brecht had critiqued in conventional theater as showing “the structure of society (represented on the stage) as incapable of being influenced by society (in the auditorium)” (Brecht 7).

Act Two begins as Pedro is congratulated by (real) Martina on the success of his play—a “true” account of the death of his wife and his time in prison until a judge acquitted him. The real judge then shows up, having seen the play, and is determined to interrogate Pedro, not because he thinks he is guilty, but because he has the irresistible compulsion to prove that Pedro is, in fact, innocent—and that his verdict was correct—and, therefore, that his play is “unrealistic”. This throws Pedro into a crisis. He shakily accuses the judge of “plagiarizing the judge from Crime and Punishment” and retreats to a luxury hotel alone, only to be confronted en masse by the characters from his other works—his ghosts (360). The motley crew clamor boisterously for Pedro’s attention, whining that he is their father and it is his fault they are monsters, because he created them. Eventually, they drive him to reenact his crime, with himself in the position of his wife and he finally jumps into the void, killing himself.

El fabricante applies some of the tactics of didactic theater so zealously that it rather quickly arrives at their reductio ad absurdum: it reveals that without a hidden didactic mechanism, didactic theater not only cannot transmit a political message but cannot even sustain the illusion of a theatrical reality. In contrast to the endless, looping non-reality of El fabricante—in which the only relatively stable illusion is that of the metareality—we can deduce that Arlt’s successful theater works in Teatro del Pueblo relied on an invisible coercive matrix of interpretation, assisted by Barletta, by which the popular audience was guided to the universal/political truth of the work. Whereas Brecht had insisted on emphasizing the constructed nature of this didacticism, the “double object” of the events on stage plus the transparently artificial nature of their production as the way the audience learned, Barletta’s commitment to realism and simplicity had the effect of covering over the armature of didacticism with the realist illusion that the audience was simply seeing things as they were (Benjamin 21).

Clearly, the desire to teach a unified truth—whether of the PCA or the tacit capitalist programmatic by which the audience is always right—does not easily coexist with recursion, chiasmus, and breaking the fourth wall. From double object to double consciousness, the transformation of minoritarian art into a vehicle by which a minority represents its truth favors a didacticism that must hide itself; its success is predicated on the invisible mechanism by which it asserts interpretation as truth. To give up the “natural” feel this has for the audience is to let go of some control to the audience over the political message. In this way, El fabricante de fantasmas lets the audience in on its skepticism about both representation and interpretation, giving up its right to assert even its own theatrical reality, and doing so in a commercial venue where not only its meaning but its very existence—the duration of its run—would be determined exclusively by its ability to sell tickets.

In this way, I see the gestus of El fabricante de fantasmas—its political intervention as a whole—as deconstructing the relationship of so-called popular independent theater to the people, to money, and to realism. As an anti-didactic avatar of Arlt, Pedro in his play within the play portrayed the real Judge who had freed him as a bureaucratic idiot; the Judge saw the play and chuckled in self-recognition, yet did not believe that Pedro was guilty of the crime he had confessed in the fiction. While up until then Pedro had lived fearlessly with his crime, it was precisely when the Judge declared that his work was demonstrably unrealistic that Pedro broke down, and was driven to suicide by the torments of his own imagination. The real Judge who could see a true story as unrealistic was not dissimilar from Barletta as the paternalistic guide who pushed Arlt toward realism and away from the extreme marginality which, for Arlt, was “real”. Similarly, the audience at the Teatro Argentino—critics and regular people alike—drove the play off the stage in about a week, but Arlt’s fundamental project had been unleashed.

Roberto Arlt the writer had the bad fortune of being famous in circles that had closed ranks and were no longer in a radically experimental mode, and were now performing not only a particular play, but also the idea of “Popular Theater” itself, for a public that was now, critically, “The People”. As Cortázar had written, Arlt “se siente obviamente aludido por cada tango, involucrado en su marginalidad fundamental” [he feels that every tango is obviously about him, as he is immersed in his fundamental marginality] (9); yet this extreme marginality had already been worked through and exhausted in popular theater from which 1930s social realism was determined to break. While other playwrights at Teatro del Pueblo interpolated avant-garde elements through code switching and allegory, for Arlt there was only his theatrical reality. While he made compromises in order to adapt to the demands of Teatro del Pueblo in the wake of his commercial failure, his realidad teatral did not correspond affirmatively or negatively to contemporary political tropes and was therefore indecipherable as a message about them.

At the same time, we should thus not be too quick to evaluate the metafictional component to El fabricante as inadvertently alienating the popular—or commercial—audience; rather, we should understand such metatheater as a critique of a particular construction of “the popular” by deliberately alienating the audience from identifying with this rejected construct. Yet, far from the exclusive province of European modernism and avant-gardes, this type of metatheater should be understood as also part of both a local and an international anarchist and Yiddish theater history in which the fourth wall was routinely broken in a context in which such interactivity was not primarily high-concept but rather a necessity in order to mediate the relationship between performers and primarily first-generation, often multi-lingual, theater audiences.

Arlt’s metatheatrical reality thus has its own politics. The Judge’s literary critique of a true story as “unrealistic” functions as a metacritique of the move from the minoritarian to the minority, and of Arlt’s own critics. The play’s most radical potential lies thus not only in critiquing commercial theater or even in deconstructing the hidden interpretive matrix of Teatro del Pueblo, but also in simultaneously releasing the audience’s imagination of its own power. In this way, the play’s minoritarianism can be seen in the way that its gestures, its Brechtian gestus, are not the equivalent of still images taken from a moving film or actions interrupted, resulting in a tableau with social meaning, but rather the opposite; there is no “still” anywhere in the play that corresponds to an external reality, but rather on the contrary every still contradicts what we know about that reality. In this way, the play as a whole resonates with the famously “surreal” beginning of Kafka’s Amerika:

Karl Rossman, a seventeen-year-old youth who had been sent to America by his poor parents because a servant girl had seduced him and borne a child by him, saw the Statue of Liberty, which he had been observing for some time, as if in a sudden burst of sunlight. The arm with the sword now reached aloft, and about her figure blew the free winds.

(Kafka, Amerika 3)

The sword brandished by Lady Liberty in the wild winds of freedom—“seen” by Karl Rossman but rejecting a transparent correspondence with the thing it names in New York Harbor—is the minoritarian par excellence; it is, inevitably, a gesture both universal and political, yet its potential remains in the measure that it is incommensurate with what bears its name in the present moment and, in that sense, irreducible to a clear lesson. From this point of view, its critical and commercial failure, its very insolubility, leaves El fabricante de fantasmas paradoxically intact, ready to be taken up by anyone in any other time.


01. In comparison to his novels, short stories, and journalistic production, Arlt’s theatrical work has been comparatively neglected in criticism until recently. Pellettieri’s 2000 edited volume, Roberto Arlt. Dramaturgia y Teatro Independiente, was only the second book dedicated specifically to Arlt’s theater; the first was prolific critic Raul Hector Castagnino’s slim El teatro de Roberto Arlt (1970). Three dissertations, Mary Jo Brown’s “Tradition and Innovation in Roberto Arlt’s Theater” (1985), Olive Johnson’s “Roberto Arlt As Innovator: His plays in the Context of Platense Theatre 1900-1943” (1984) and Hildegard Thomas’s “Die Problematik der Frauengestalten im Theater des Argentiniers Roberto Arlt” (1980) complete the monographs dedicated to Arlt’s theater until Spyridon Mavridis’s 2011 dissertation, “Roberto Arlt y el teatro de la crueldad: convergencias en la dramaturgia rioplatense”. Miranda’s 2013 book and Juárez’s 2008 dissertation, both of which reappraise Arlt’s theater in the context of broader cultural movements, may signal a critical revalorization of Arlt’s theater. 

02. See studies of the respective influence of Pirandello, Lenormand, and Artaud: Troiano; Ogás Puga, “Migraciones estéticas”; and Mavridis. Miranda, Rereading and Juárez both discuss the critique of commercial theater.

03. The contemporary Teatro del Pueblo posits itself as continuous with the original organization; however, the theater group folded in 1976 and didn’t reopen until 1996 (Teatro del Pueblo, “History”).

04. This discussion also relies implicitly on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the major (alternately “majoritarian”) as, not only the statistically larger share as defined in relation to a standard, but also, circularly, the standard of measure itself. The “major” language is thus not necessarily that spoken by more people but that which measures greatness and power (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus 105-106). Thus, Kafka wrote in the “major language” of German, though German was not the language of the majority in the place where he wrote (Prague). Paradoxically, minorities are “defined as a non-denumerable set, however many elements it may have”, such that even though it may be greater in number than the majority, it is expressed as infinite minorities rather than ever attaining majority: “‘fuzzy,’ nondenumerable, nonaxiomizable sets, in short, ‘masses,’ multiplicities of escape and flux” (A Thousand Plateaus 470). In this sense, minoritarian literature goes still further into this contradiction: an accounting of and by the uncountable.

05. To take the minoritarian out of demographically complex Buenos Aires and New York of the early 20th century to connect it with present-day categories of literary history and identity requires a messy triage, particularly considering the continued resistance within Latin American Studies to adequately problematize categories of identity such that works in languages other than Spanish or Portuguese can be included. For example, the transition of Yiddish-language theater from a phenomenon which was only visible when misapprehended—so-called teatro israelitateatro hebraico– to become, in the late 20th century, “Argentine-Jewish” theater fulfills a wish for belonging, but is misleading. In fact, national Latin American literary histories have considered anything involving Yiddish to belong to a third malapropistic category opposed to the categories of “foreign” and “national” as “israelita”. See Foppa 906 and Seibel 488-9; 533; 592. 

06. Unlike Kafka’s “minor writers”, included in literary history as circularly indistinguishable from either their texts or their own influence—since their meaning is only that of articulating “minority” in the terms of the “majority”—the minoritarian theater enunciates a self from the margins that is not necessarily intent on, nor willing to, stay in the margins. From the point of view of national literary histories, the minoritarian is at times identified with various identitary categories of difference: the subaltern, the lumpen, the marginal; yet, for the definition of the minoritarian that I propose, on being recognized as such in the terms of the national the minoritarian enters a different stage (a fixed “minority status” within the majoritarian order) which exhausts the cultural movement of the minoritarian as such. 

07. All translations are mine.

08. For example, the Thalia Theater on the Bowery in New York can illustrate the moving quality of the Yiddish theater as well as that theater run by other ethnic minorities: in 1894, thousands of anarchists gathered at the Thalia to greet Emma Goldman upon her release from prison. At the time, it was predominantly a Yiddish theater, yet previously it had been an Irish and then a German theater; later it was Italian vaudeville and finally Chinese vaudeville. 

09. See, e.g., Boris’s account of the commercial failure of the 1947 Zionist message play “Voice of Israel” in Buenos Aires and then in New York (Boris). 

10. Similarly, Russi reads the scene as a satire of an Argentine popular theater stressing criollo [creole] and folkloric elements and character types which had become stagnant and repetitive (Russi 74).

11. Today’s “Teatro del Pueblo”, reinaugurated as such in 1996, characterizes itself as carrying on the tradition begun by Barletta in 1930 and which had from 1943 to 1976 gone through what they euphemistically describe as “un largo período crítico [a long critical period]” in which the theater functioned from a rented basement at Diagonal Norte 943, after which it was dissolved entirely for twenty years (Teatro del Pueblo – SOMI, “Historia”). 1943 marked the military takeover in the aftermath of which the Teatro del Pueblo was violently evicted from the theater building on Corrientes which Teatro del Pueblo had occupied since 1937. Today’s Teatro del Pueblo affirms that they are dedicated “al autor argentino [to the Argentine author]”, an orientation which was absent from the original Teatro del Pueblo which always showed a mixture of national and foreign works. (See Verzero in Pellettieri, Teatro del Pueblo 12-20 for a list of works performed during the 1930s.) 

12. See Munck, Falcón, and Galitelli 106-121 for an analysis of the Communist Party’s rise to power in the Argentine labor movement.

13. Kalmanowiecki argues that it was during this period and in this political milieu when the modern future of the Argentine police force was determined, and the groundwork laid for surveillance of “subversive” groups during the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional. See Kalmanowiecki.

14. Given the historical complexity of the multiple artistic and political relationships that cut across the simple trope of Boedo vs. Florida, Barletta’s relative intolerance of such nuances stands out. For example, in the early 1920s “estuvo buscando a Nicolás Olivari y a Lorenzo Stanchina para romperles la cara” [he was looking for Nicolás Olivari and Lorenzo Stanchina to beat them up] for having praised the writer Manuel Gálvez, whom Barletta deemed insufficiently radical (Sarlo 189-190). Barletta’s own polemical tract, Boedo y Florida. Una versión distinta, does not hesitate to tell the history of the rivalry as a partisan participant within it. Florida, according to Barletta, has no respect for ‘the people’: “Lo que separa a Florida de Boedo es el menosprecio de Florida por ‘la impermeabilidad hipopotámica del honorable público’, de ‘los cretinos’ como apodara Lugones al vulgo municipal y espeso. Los de Boedo creíamos en el pueblo y nos habíamos juramentado que lo serviríamios para enaltecerlo y elevar su nivel de cultura artística y política” (Barletta, Boedo y Florida 46); [What separates Florida and Boedo is Florida’s disdain for the ‘hippopotamus-like impermeability of the honorable public,’ for ‘the cretins,’ as Lugones would nickname the thick municipal masses.]

15. The founding statute is appealing enough that parts of it are circulated by the new Teatro del Pueblo and other companies as still highly relevant to contemporary Argentine independent theater. The theater company Equipo Bertucci, for example, quotes the statute on its Facebook page (“Equipo Bertucci”). By contrast, other public statements by Barletta emphasized the need for draconian regulation of the theater, such as his 1943 essay in Conducta magazine on the need for severe regulations (Barletta, “Recapitulemos”). 

16. For accounts of the polemic between Arlt and Rodolfo Ghioldi, leader of the Partido Comunista Argentino and director of its newspaper, Bandera Roja, see Aricó, Lucena, and Saítta 124-130. To further complicate matters, while the essay that started the polemic, “El bacilo de Carlos Marx” [The Bacillus of Karl Marx] was deemed heterodox and “erroneous” by Ghioldi, it has since been recovered seamlessly by the contemporary Partido Comunista de los Trabajadores de Argentina [Argentine Communist Workers Party], without reference to the original conflict, and is displayed on their website. See Arlt, “El bacilo de Carlos Marx”. 

17. The reception was probably all the more devastating because Arlt’s previous play, Saverio el cruel, which had premiered at the Teatro del Pueblo only months before with the extreme changes Barletta had ordered, had been praised, even in the newspapers that usually criticized him (Pellettieri, Roberto Arlt 168).

18. Arlt, “El fabricante de fantasmas”. All citations refer to this edition; all translations are mine. 

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