The big idea in Arrabal’s Picnic on the Battlefield is the stupidity of war. * Originally Pique-nique en campagne, the title was changed for American readers. The play is Aligned with the Absurdists, such as Beckett and Ionesco. Arrabal was a founder (among others) of the fringe theatrical collective Grupo Pánico, named after the god Pan, the inciter of panic and chaos.
Picnic on the Battlefield is intentionally silly, short-duration, and direct like a spear in the heart. The picnic is normal, but the setting is extraordinary.
The action begins when Monsieur and Madame Tépan expect to entertain their son Zapo and intend to picnic on an active battlefield. When they arrive, Zapo is crawling on his stomach. Surprised, he tells them that they cannot come to the war unless they are soldiers. Mme. Tépan blathers, “I’ve always liked battles. As a child, I always said that when I grew up, I wanted to be a colonel of dragoons. But my mother wouldn’t hear of it, you know how she will stick to her principles at all costs.” M. Tépan quickly tries to soften the moment by telling Zapo his mother is “just a half-wit.” This gets a laugh but does not improve the situation.
Zapo: I’m sorry, but you really must go. You can’t come into a war unless you’re a soldier.
Mons. T: I don’t give a damn; we came here to have a picnic with you in the country and to enjoy our Sunday.
Mme. T. And I’ve prepared an excellent meal, too. Sausage, hard-boiled eggs – you know how you like them! – ham sandwiches, red wine, salad, and cakes.
Zapo: All right, let’s have it your way. But if the Captain comes, he’ll be absolutely furious. Because he isn’t at all keen on us having visits when we’re at the front. He never stops telling us: ‘Discipline and hand-grenades are what’s wanted in a war, not visits.’
Characteristically obtuse, Mama and Pappa Tépan unpack and spread a proper picnic on a cloth– sausage, hard-boiled eggs, ham sandwiches, salad, cakes, and red wine.
Zapo reminds his parents that it’s “discipline and hand-grenades are what’s wanted in a war, not visits.” But they are parents and do not listen.
When Zépo, an enemy, appears, he’s invited to the picnic. Carefree for a very brief moment, the four go on picnicking and dancing to a paso doble play on the phonograph. The dancing is short-lived. Abruptly, all four are shot dead by machinegun fire.
The music continues. The play ends ss the bodies are removed from the stage,
*Günter Grass acknowledged that the play was an inspiration for the dwarfs’ picnic in Normandy in The Tine Drum. Also, entry for Cold Comfort Picnic on the Battlefield, June 1919
Featured Image: Arrabal (center with smoking a pipe) and the Grupo Pánico in 1962.
See Fernando Arrabal. Picnic on the Battlefield. In Guernica and Other Plays. Translated by Barbara Wright. New York: Evergreen 1961; Fernando Arrabal. Pic-Nic. With illustrations by Sidney Chafetz. London, 1967